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Computing the Past at MIT


Soprano Anne Harley (file photo)
Soprano Anne Harley (file photo)

In his introductory remarks before Boston Camerata’s Saturday evening program at the MIT Chapel, Professor Evan Ziporyn noted how unusual it was for an early music ensemble to be in residence at MIT. Renowned for its forays into electronic music, including the monumental collaboration with the Media Labs that resulted in Todd Machover’s futuristic Death and the Powers, the Institute may seem to have little to say to early music vocal aficionados, but Boston Camerata’s residence at MIT is, in fact, part of the MIT Sounding series, curated by Ziporyn, a larger collaboration with Professor Michael Cuthbert at MIT. In addition to working with students and undergraduate classes, Boston Camerata’s is, with Cuthbert, essaying a reconstruction of Middle Age and Renaissance music from a large collection of extant fragments by applying a computational approach which intends to gain insight into which melodic lines from the disparate manuscripts belong together.

These reconstructed pieces will be performed at the culmination of Boston Camerata’s residency at MIT; the concert introduced the significant talents and focus of the Boston Camerata in music of the Middle Ages. In “Porte dou Ciel: Sacred Songs of Medieval France,” the ensemble offered sacred works from 12th– and 13th-century France showcased by soprano Anne Azéma, Jennifer Ellis Kampani and Anne Harley both a capella and together with instrumentalists Susanne Ansorg and Shira Kammen.

Five sections of trouvère songs, dance music, and sacred texts came with brief notes from Azéma, the Camerata’s director since 2008. Salve Virgo, the first, was perhaps the most free-form—a ballade-like hymn to the Mary and a duet on the text of Salve virgo virginum. This was followed by an introduction to the works of Gauthier de Coincy, the prior of Vic-sur-Aisne, de Coincy who was also a prolific poet and musician. A short drama composed by the abbot based on the theft and return came in the second portion of the concert (De sainte Léochade) and a tender love song in the third (Les maus d’amer). De Coincy’s work reveals a wide emotional palette and squeezes much from the minimal sound-world largely comprising solo voices. Small ensemble pieces accompanied by a solo instrumental accompaniment with bells, harp, or vielle provided occasional variety. Camerata lovingly couched de Coincy’s music between Azéma’s recitations of his deftly constructed rhyming couplets, illuminating the progress of the dramas with sweet tinges of comedy.

More trouvère songs and religious works came in the final two sections, Porte dou ciel et sourse de miel, and Rose tres bele. The pieces here came largely from anonymous sources, and demonstrated the stark contrast between the “lower register” of ballads and dance-melodies predominantly found in folk music and the “high register” of through-composed melodies written for aristocracy. The concluding pieces betrayed an increasing preoccupation with counterpoint, culminating in a radiant setting of the Benedicamus Domino text.

MIT Chapel interior
MIT Chapel interior

I was initially surprised by the choice of venue. The bare brick walls and spare altar of Eero Saarinen’s small chapel create a certain beauty, but it is nothing like the vast sacred spaces I envisioned for this music. Yet that modest interior worked ideally. It provided not only a full resonance for vocalist and instrumentalist alike, but also heightened intimacy, enhanced engagement, and supported a well-blended vocal sound that was sensitively balanced to the instrumental accompaniment. When overdone, the straight-tone aesthetic of early music performances can be numbing, but Anne Azéma’s rich soprano and Jennifer Kampani’s robust middle range were ravishing; Anne Harley’s dark timbre warmed with the slightest vibrato was a true highlight. As a trio, the three balanced in effortlessly.

Boston Camerata will present the result of their collaboration with professor Cuthbert on Friday March 6th at Walker Memorial Hall on MIT’s campus in “Of All the Flowers: Song of the Middle Ages.”

Among his professional singing experiences, Sudeep Agarwala has performed with many local choruses.

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