in: Reviews

December 21, 2014

“An American Christmas”: the Beauty of Simplicity

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The Boston Camerata under Artistic Director and soprano Anne Azéma sang and played pre-20th-century-American sacred music related to Christmas on Friday in Hancock Church, Lexington. The program, which repeated Saturday in Cambridge, was based on one created in the 1990s by Camerata’s Director Emeritus Joel Cohen, one of our most perceptive and intelligently accessible writers on music. Opening his program notes, he writes, “…the yearly, omnipresent onslaught of ‘standard’ carols—their banality, the vacuity of their glitzy arrangements—has nearly succeeded in turning many otherwise kind and generous people into Scrooge forever.” This seemed in many ways the programmatic raison: to remind us that it need not be so and to show us what we are missing.

That the Boston Camerata is uniquely gifted at telling musical stories is a given at this juncture in its 60-year history, and this outing was no exception. What really stood out here as the holiday surprise was the emotive impact of uncomplicated textures. The first three songs were entirely monophonic: a soulful rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger” from period trumpeter Chris Belluscio in the balcony of the church set the concert’s tone of powerful simplicity. This was followed by Azéma’s happy delivery of a 10th-century Spanish setting of Judiccii signum, a song whose melodic themes are found in the 19th-century African American spiritual “Sinner Man” performed immediately afterwards by contralto Deborah Rentz-Moore (whose luxurious voice in and of itself is an entire world of rich sonorities). The program was peppered throughout with single-voice renditions of various songs that brought out the bare beauty of the tunes. Sometimes they were accompanied by acoustic guitar, such as tenor Dan Hershey’s plaintive performance of “I Wonder as I Wander” with guitarist Jesse Lepkoff, or Joel Frederikson’s darkly moving singing and self-accompanying of “Hush My Babe.” Most of the half-dozen Shaker tunes on the program were single melodies performed by multiple voices in unison; yet the most moving selection from those simple gifts was soprano Camila Parias’s intimately crystalline, shiver-inducing solo performance of “Angel of Light.”

The rest of the program consisted primarily of 3- and 4-part songs taken from various American hymnals, though not the ones usually found in the pews of the average church. A few of them had composers’ names attached to the works, such as William Billing’s “Boston” (1778) and Jeremiah Ingalls’s lovely re-setting of the Coventry Carol’s text “Lullay Thou Tiny Little Child” (1805). Most of the works, however, simply had their sources listed: The Sacred Harp (1860), The Southern Harmony (1874), The American Vocalist (1849), and The Philharmonia (1875), among others; bountiful collections of sacred songs whose absence from the average caroler’s binders borders on the criminal. The textures found in some of these works are truly stunning, and suggest an almost Whovian sense of musical time travel: harmonies born of Montpellier snapped into Reformation homorhythm that somehow flew over the next 200 years and the Atlantic, landing in 19th-century Appalachia. The ensemble performed these works in various combinations: women’s trio, men’s trio, combined chorus, sometimes adding the oddly small-town flavor of period flute, trumpet, and trombones. No matter what the combination, the spectrum of sound-colors was nearly blinding, made so by the near-perfect blending of the singers into a single sonic entity. These works demonstrate that, much like the moral of the Christmas story itself, there is great power in the small, and less can truly be more.

Camerata in Lexington (Joel Cohen photo)

Camerata in Lexington (Joel Cohen photo)

Boston Camerata makes high art out of folk art without losing the essence of what makes it good art. Professional performances of music intended primarily for amateurs in participatory worship can evoke a certain cognitive dissonance. On the other hand, those amateurs—we the people—have all but completely lost this music to the overproduced, ear-drowning “onslaught.” So we need pros to bring it back and reintroduce it to us. We also sometimes need the pros to show us how much this genre offers. Those bright, vivid sonic lights embedded in the straightforward polyphony today constitute more of a challenge for amateurs to turn on, even though they were the originators. A high art of the people, a folksy art raised high; the categorical confusion that arises while listening to these skilled professionals perform this communal material may be disorienting, but it is a beautiful confusion, mostly because the performances are themselves so simply beautiful. Azéma and company are deeply dedicated to this music and, more importantly, seemingly enjoy performing it, removing the mask of conservatory Ernst and replacing it with the honest face of delight.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

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