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Camerata’s Americana at Harvard


In the thirty-plus years that I have attended performances by the Boston Camerata, I cannot remember a time in which I was not impressed by the imaginative art of program building as revealed first by long-time director Joel Cohen and now by his successor Anne Azéma. Of course any musical organization needs to be concerned about what music it puts before an audience, and how the pieces balance and contrast.

The problem is not usually especially acute in a standard chamber music program with perhaps three string quartets or piano trios. But it can be an issue especially with early music groups, whose repertory may consist of many short pieces no more than two or three minutes in length. Unless skillfully arrayed, the effect of a program of such short pieces can come so thick and fast, and pass by so quickly, that it becomes hard for any piece to make an individual effect.

At  Harvard’s Memorial Church on October 28th The Boston Camerata  offered what was, on the face of it, such a program, “The Harvest: Early American Songs of Thanks & Praise,” consisting about evenly of songs from the shape-note tune books of the late Colonial and early Federal eras, and half of Shaker tunes (many transcribed from the original manuscripts for this program). The pieces boast a direct tunefulness that is full of vigor, sometimes a certain amateur roughness (compared to the highly polished technique of contemporaries like Mozart and Beethoven), yet they made a connection to their original audiences without question.

I confess being surprised some years ago when the Camerata began to essay this repertory after many years of concentrating on the “high culture” works of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. But the experience is stimulating because they were often able to link traditions across centuries and across oceans.  Most of the program on this occasion was strictly American, but an excerpt of John Dowland’s Lachrimae was by no means out of place.

And to present this lovely bouquet of short, tuneful, engaging works, the program included six singers—all first rate, with a wonderful blend  and clear diction—identified as the Boston Camerata (Anne Azéma, Anne Harley, Deborah Rentz-Moore, Daniel Hershey, Michael Barrett, and Don Wilkinson), to whom were added the Choral Fellows of Harvard University (Edward E. Jones, Director) and the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra (Phoebe Carrai, Director)—and also, I have to add, the members of the audience, who were invited to join in the singing of the opening and closing works on the program, hymns by William Billings and Jeremiah Ingalls.

This list of performers makes possible a varied range of sonorities, from a solo voice to a combination of a few solo voices, the chorus, all of the foregoing with orwithout instruments, and finally the entire ensemble plus audience. By adroitly mixing and matching these performers and grouping the thirty-four titles included into the program into “suites” linked by subject matter (“The Swiftness of Time” – “Ocean” – “Verdant Valley” – “The Harvest”), the program moves smoothly, without delay, between numbers and links one song with another related in theme but sounding quite different.

“The Harvest” was the perfect program for the arrival of fall, not only because of the chilly wet weather on the day, but the anticipation of the harvest and Thanksgiving. Audiences love doing a little of the singing themselves, and it leaves them in a happy mood, but here it was spiked to a much higher level of pleasure from the glorious singing and playing, raising these near folk-creations to expressive art.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1999.

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