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A Conversation with Anne Azéma


azemawwThe neo-Gothic chapel of the Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, will resound on March 30th at 8:00 pm for Boston Camerata’s performance of the celebrated Messe de Notre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377). Assisted by Convivium Musicum the six Camerata vocal soloists will be Eric Mentzel, Dan Hershey, Timothy Leigh Evans and Michael Barrett, tenors; Joel Nesvabda, baritone; and Paul Guttry, bass. Camerata’s a capella production will present Machaut’s four-part polyphonic settings of the Ordinary in the context of a complete Marial liturgy, with Gregorian chants drawn from 14th-century manuscripts of northern France. We asked Artistic Director Anne Azéma, recently returned from a European recital tour, some questions about her vision of medieval music in general, and about this production in particular.

BMInt: Anne, from your press kit we’ve noted that a music festival in Cologne billed you a couple of weeks ago as “The First Lady of Medieval Music.” Is this a crown you wear with comfort?

Anne Azéma: Sometimes! But yes, I do enjoy making medieval music, with a passion. What makes you passionate about a repertoire that is so distant from us in time? It’s the overall balance, the way this music has of holding so many dimensions equilibrium. It’s a conversation on a human scale; you have these beautiful texts, and such subtle vocal writing, and the possibility in our own time of creating links, creating bonds, with the forces that surround us and shape us, and among each other. It’s a very human, and humane, kind of art.

Tell us a little about your journey to Ladyness.

My strongest impressions when I was very young came from the theater. My parents were great aficionados, and there were giants abroad in France in those days. Jean Vilar directed and acted in Paris and in Avignon; Germaine Montero acted and sang, inimitably. From the major figures of that generation I got a feeling for the expressive force of language and declamation. In music – and my musical awakening came later—there have been quite a few. Joel Cohen, of course, but also the late Andrea von Ramm, the legendary mezzo of the Munich Early Music Quartet. She more or less invented medieval music singing, back in the 60s and 70s. She’s the one who first asked, and attempted to answer, the essential questions we all need to deal with in this field: What are the relations among voice, vocal color, old instruments, regional singing styles, language and dialects? In another way, my meeting with Emma Kirkby was also essential. We had many conversations in London, and she opened up to me the idea of immediacy and directness in vocal production and musical declamation: simple, honest, on a human scale. There is such beauty in that approach.

Machaut at left receives three allegorical muses (from manuscript page)
Machaut at left receives three allegorical muses (from manuscript page)

How did you evolve from a vocal soloist into an ensemble director?

I’m convinced that if you sing medieval music with some kind of real engagement, you are also of necessity involved in the problems of musical direction. Let’s say you are preparing a Schubert recital. Of course, as a soloist you have enormous responsibility, but SO much is already written out, SO much has already been decided for you. In contrast, when you prepare medieval song for performance, almost everything needs to be thought through or reinvented. We in the field have no continuous tradition of performance practice, no scratchy old 78s or Edison cylinders, and the notation is quite laconic. So everyone in an ensemble needs to think and reflect hard, there has to be something of a music director within each individual participant.

So what brought you and the Boston Camerata to Guillaume de Machaut?

It was an important anniversary, and an opportunity. In 2011 the city of Reims, France, was celebrating the 800th anniversary of its magnificent cathedral, the place where for centuries the kings of France had to go in order to be crowned. The director of the music festival there asked us for a commemorative concert, and we submitted five program ideas, including one around the great Messe de Notre Dame by Machaut, who was a canon of the cathedral in the 14th-century. And that Mass is the first polyphonic cycle in music history to spring from one man’s heart and mind. Well, the festival commissioned not one but all five of the program proposals, two Machaut evenings included. We burned the midnight oil to get them all ready in time, we travelled to France, and we opened the series with the Machaut Mass. We performed it in the awesome Reims cathedral, in a different part of the church, the choir,  than the now-vanished Lady Chapel where Machaut himself very likely  heard it performed.  But we tried,  by using the choir, to recreate that more intimate kind of space.

That must have been powerful.

For us, certainly, an all-time high point in the Camerata’s history. One member of the audience, a strong supporter, also told us that he began to levitate about midway through the Sanctus.

Machaut’s Mass is well known to enthusiasts and frequently performed, at least in Europe. What’s different about the Boston Camerata’s approach?

Well for one thing, we are performing it with a small group of professional, male virtuosi. Even nowadays, one hears it done by choral societies, with many voices on each part. We’re convinced that we are more faithful to the composer’s intent with our approach. Also, we are singing it at a lower pitch level than the one generally employed nowadays. On the page, you see modal centers on D and F. But of course, back then, there is no necessary correlation between the D on a staff and a D on an organ or piano. Singing the Mass at notated pitch, with A at 440, obliges you to uses higher voices, countertenors or even (though it never happened back then) women. That creates a kind of tension and brilliance. Instead, we are using lower voices—tenors, baritone, bass—and the music fits like a glove in the lower, darker register. It has a more natural, speaking quality. There is a burnished richness of sound and timbre, especially with the terrific cast of soloists we have lined up.

Why is this an a capella evening?

This gets back to the question of laconicism in medieval notation. Not everything is set out clearly; things like tempi and dynamics are not explicit. As regards instruments versus a capella:  Some scholars think that, because of certain un-texted rhythmic motifs in the lower voices, that Machaut intended to have instruments as part of the ensemble. We’ve in fact performed the mass that way, on other occasions. Others believe that, like the bulk of medieval church music, the Messe de Notre Dame is meant for voices only. We have opted for the latter solution in this performance space.

Is there a celebrant?

As part of our mission we do at times participate in “real” liturgies, Christian and others, most recently last December in Minneapolis. This upcoming performance won’t be an actual mass, with communion, intended for committed believers. Rather we are attempting to create an aesthetic and musical context for Machaut’s masterpiece. And no one should feel excluded on theological grounds!

Camerata at Reims Cathedral (Joel Cohen photo)
Camerata at Reims Cathedral (Joel Cohen photo)

Is the Machaut Mass heavenly in length?

I think it takes on its true heft, both temporal and spiritual, when it is heard in context. So we have engaged Michael Barrett’s Convivium Musicum to perform the Gregorian propers for a Marial feast day, surrounding Machaut’s astounding polyphony with all these beautiful monodic chants. It’s something like setting a series of precious jewels into a tiara. The overall musical and liturgical arch, Gregorian chants plus Machaut, is totally impressive and engaging.

Do you imagine that your performance will be close to what Machaut heard?

Of course we hope it will be close, but, inevitably, 600-odd years down the road, some paths may have diverged. Making a photocopy of the Middle Ages is an impossible task. The discussion we’ve just had about musical instruments versus a capella is a case in point. We are constantly considering and weighing different hypotheses, different approaches. What we are doing is something akin to what American philanthropy did for the Reims cathedral after 1918. The building had been so heavily damaged by wartime bombing that many people wanted it torn down. Thank goodness that an enormous effort of restoration was made. When you come up close, you can see where much of the rebuilding was done. But what would our contemporary civilization be without the Reims cathedral? I mean, just walk through the Back Bay and count up the neo-Gothic churches… And what would we as people be without this music? Our work with Machaut and other medieval composers is a lot more modest in scale than the restoration of a great cathedral, but it has a similar goal. These works of the past still have a lot to say to us. I want us to draw strength from them.

And what’s in Camerata’s future? Is it going to be medieval, 24/7?

Oh, of course not. There are so many repertoires we enjoy doing. Two days after the Machaut concert, we finish the soundtrack for a documentary on Shaker belief and art, for a Canadian production company. Next season in town will include a largely Renaissance program at Christmas, and a new production of Americana based on some of the rare musical documents at the Harvard Musical Association. And there will be tours, with different kinds of repertoires, including another European run of Borrowed Light in Finland and Paris. But medieval music in all its dimensions continues as something essential to me, and to Camerata, and I Expect to see on the sacred side another of the Reims projects premièred in Boston next season. On the less-than-holy side of the ledger, we’re looking forward to doing some riotous student music from the medieval Sorbonne. We’ve also started working on a big music theater production for 2014-2015, and hopefully we’ll have more to announce along those lines by June!

Thanks for your time, Anne, and good luck.

French born vocalist Anne Azéma is the Artistic Director of The Boston Camerata. She also directs the Europe-based Ensemble Aziman. She has been acclaimed by critics on five continents for her original, passionate, and vivid approach to songs and texts of the Middle Ages. De Volkskrant, an Amsterdam publication, noted that “Azéma is, in her genre, as great as Callas or Fischer Dieskau.” Anne Azéma has also been widely praised in many other repertoires, from Renaissance lute songs to Baroque sacred music to 20th-century music theater.

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