Spanning centuries and traditions, The Boston Camerata with Les Fleurs des Caraïbes offered a celebration of cross-cultural musical exchange structured around the Christmas narrative to an appreciative audience gathered in First Church, Boston on Friday.
The concert takes its name, “The Brotherhood of the Star: A Hispanic Christmas 1300-1700”, from the musical settings of the visit of the Magi, giving central place to Día de los Reyes. Joel Cohen (who directed and performed) created the New World portion this program in 1992 as a response to the quincentennial of Columbus “discovering” the Americas. The music mixes the traditions of Spain and Nueva España from the 13th– 20th– centuries, combining Gregorian chant, villancicos, even a guaracha, in a mixture of languages. (The program book gave English translations, but not the original Spanish, Catalan, Latin, or Ladino texts.) The opening section, “Judgment Day,” began with an early twentieth-century Sephardic/Turkish “Adonay oi y me estremeci” sung by Daniel Hershey, followed by King of Castille Alfonso el Sabio’s (1221 – 1284), “Madre de Deus” sung by Anne Azéma and Les Fleurs des Caraïbes. This pairing of contrasts gives a sense of the entire concert. Subsequent sections included “The Brotherhood of the Star” (three parts), “To the Honored Lady,” and “At the Manger.” The authorship of many pieces remains anonymous; among the named composers represented were Francesco Guerrero (1528–1599), Diego Ortiz (c. 1510-1570), Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c. 1590-1664), Juan de Araujo (1646-1712), Juan Garcia de Zéspiedes (c. 1650) and Juan Pérez Bocanegra (a song from 1631). The Spanish composer Guerrero is the only one whose works I had heard previously. The Gregorian chants sounded like variants drawn from a Spanish tradition, or was this a trick of the ear and the memory as a result of the musical pairings? Joel Cohen artfully arranged these disparate musical pieces and brought a wealth of obscure or neglected music to new audiences.
The performances were all spirited and accomplished. Mr. Hershey, Donald Wilkinson, and Anne Azéma all gave wonderful performances in their solo and small ensemble turns as singers. Michael Collver sang and played trumpet and cornetto, while Salomé Sandoval sang and played a variety of lutes and guitars (as did Joel Cohen). Olav Chris Henriksen played other plucked-string instruments (lutes, guitars, theorbo), while Carol Lewis played bowed-string instruments (viella and viola da gamba). After intermission, Joel Cohen introduced the range of instruments used in this program. Les Fleurs des Caraïbes joined in as chorus on some numbers; I wish they had played a greater part in this program and brought more of their singing to this concert. The performers also made use of the atypical sanctuary space in First Church, with the trumpet sounding from the balcony and singers processing down the aisle. The musical selections were interspersed with narratives of the Christmas story —perhaps a nod to the audience’s not being versed in all the languages being sung. What most stood out for me was hearing Anne Azéma’s beautifully clear voice and effortless yet always artful singing.
This program traced cross-cultural musical influences and the interactions between the traditions of “folk” and “art” music (for lack of better terms). More than that, it was a fun evening of music that delighted the audience. The concert repeats Wednesday the 19th (First Church, Cambridge), Friday the 21st (Hancock United Church of Christ, Lexington), and Saturday the 22nd (First Parish Church, Newbury), all at 8pm.