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Camerata Vividly Evokes American Vocal Traditions


When, in 1992, the Boston Camerata and its then-director Joel Cohen undertook a program called “The American Vocalist,” (subsequently recorded on the French label Erato), some may have felt that an evening of psalm and hymn tunes from various American religious traditions—the Puritans, Shakers, gospel songs of the circuit-riding evangelists, and so on—from the 17th century to late in the 19th constituted a considerable departure from the ensemble’s focus on Medieval and Renaissance music from Europe.

I did not hear the live performance at that time, but I later realized from the CD that resulted how wrong-headed such a view was. The program was cannily arranged to show the very old roots of this music, and so much had flowed back and forth between sacred and secular genres during that time. “The American Vocalist,” as the CD was entitled, showed how, for example, the repeating bass pattern known as the passamezzo antico might appear as the expected harmonization of a Robert Burns song (“John Anderson my jo”) when it is provided with sacred words (“Go when the morning shineth”), which in turn works perfectly with the old ground bass.

Effective music catches the ear and sticks, even through centuries of change that sometimes brought theological or political contention, changes of religious style, the breaking off of a group of colonies from the mother country, and the arrival of immigrants from many countries, speaking different languages, and both bringing their own tunes with them and picking up the ones that were already here, available for re-use.

Once the Camerata started in this direction, they continued with other programs and CDs built on researches linking musical traditions found in the Americas with traditions from the Old Country. Indeed, as Anne Azéma commented in her description of the concert’s production history, “This project changed the life of our ensemble like no other program before it.” A whole series of concerts and recordings investigated the intellectual and musical development of the worshippers of many different traditions, including “Nueva España: Close Encounters in the New World, 1590-1690” and “New Britain: The Roots of American Folksong.”

On Sunday, Camerata happily revisited the program that started it all, with some of the earlier selections intact, and others expanded in different directions. Under Anne Azéma, in the recently refurbished Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Paul, on the Boston Common, the event, in effect, re-dedicated the building in its new state.

A fair number of the songs included in the original CD re-appeared Sunday, though it was by no means a simple repetition. All of the songs were grouped into “chapters” by theme. Three of these chapters were drawn from the original CD program: “The Warning,” “The Gospel Feast,” and “At the River.” An invocation of four songs and included an extensive chapter entitled “The Young Convert,” provided the opening.

The selection included music by New England singing school masters like Jacob Smith and Daniel Read; Andrew Law’s Bunker Hill, calling the colonists out to resist British tyranny had a sacred afterlife in “The Warning,” urging believers to consider the Last Judgment. Martin Luther is reputed to have responded to criticism that some of his hymns drew on secular, even risqué, songs, “Why should the Devil have all the good music?” One of the most delightful surprises of this sort was a temperance hymn, “O Come, Come Away,” which comes from a rowdy 19th-century German student drinking song extolling the magical powers of a potent beverage called “Krambambuli.” Other songs came from the period of frontier evangelism or from the very musical Shaker tradition

Azema at St. Paul
Azéma at St. Paul (Ohkyeong Kwon, for The Boston Camerata)

With the wildly varied sources of the music, the range of styles and even moods felt broad and stimulating, especially as performed by the excellent singers (Camila Parias, soprano; Anne Azéma, mezzo-soprano; Deborah Rentz Moore, alto; Dan Hershey and Michael Barrett, tenors; and Taylor Ward, bass-baritone) and the fine instrumental ensemble, deployed with taste and variety to spell the singers and to accompany them (Jesse Lepkoff, flute and guitar; Chris Belluscio, cornet; Steven Lundahl, baritone horn and trombone; and Brian Kay, trombone.

All the performers of the fine Boston Camerata soloists come highly experienced in this repertory, but since most of the music heard in this concert was intended for church congregations made up largely of non-professional singers, it was entirely appropriate, and lent a suitable sonority as well, that six choirs from Episcopal churches in different towns in the Boston diocese also took part, surrounding the audience and providing warm and fervent singing of the many refrains. And for four of the selections, all among the best-known of tunes in the American vocal tradition, the entire audience was provided with scores and encouraged to sing along. These tunes included “Old 100th” from the Genevan Psalter of the French Huguenots, “Amazing Grace,” “Shall we gather at the river,” and “Burst, ye emerald gates.”

This delightful combination of formal concert and implied church service was just what one might hope for in hearing again these historical songs that once resounded widely across the land.

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 1997.

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