Like many of us, I’ve been trying to put politics out of my head for some weeks now, but nevertheless I went to the Boston Camerata’s first concert of the season with an open mind. “City of Fools: Medieval Songs of Rule and Misrule” served up a mixed catalog of vocal works, all of which had to do with politics or politicians—the music coming from the Middle Ages, that meant mostly kings and their fans or enemies. To be sure, had we not been provided with texts (a hefty ten pages of them for a 75-minute concert), the theme of the evening would have not been at all clear: there was nothing particularly political or even polemical about the music, and in the main it was executed with such grace and good taste that the often angry and insulting words were aesthetically soothing rather than inciting.
But that grace and good taste were deeply pleasing on their own. Artistic Director Anne Azéma’s voice rings clear. While her dramatic gamut is not wide, she deploys many subtle shades expertly. She was especially affecting in her serious turns, especially in the extended allegory by Peire Cardenal (1180-1278) that opened the evening. A long song of 14 stanzas, it describes a town of the insane, the “City of Fools” filled with the covetous and wicked; in Azéma’s hands it became almost heartbreaking, as the one sane man is fallen upon and attacked. Equally impressive was Jordan Weatherston Pitts, who was astonishingly otherworldly in the Camerata’s 2014 Play of Daniel. He possesses a smooth, pearly tenor with surprises; his first phrases were a bit too strong for the First Church, but he quickly reined himself in and filled the room effortlessly from then on. Like Azéma, he was most effective in slow music, where his thoughtful musicianship could be on full display, with carefully shaped phrases and delicate inflections of tone. However, neither soloist seemed quite prepared to bring to life the raunchier texts. To recognize that lines like “Tu es conme li gous mestif/Ki vers le lyon prend estrif” (“you are like a mutt/looking to pick a fight with a lion”) or “Das mesteswin gelîche ich zü éime richen wöcherëre” (“that pig is the equal of a usurer”) were being sung, one had to be paying close attention to the program. Director Emeritus Joel Cohen took it upon himself to be sure a couple of the rougher songs came across: gifted more at this point with charisma and suggestive gesture than with rich vocal tone, he made quite visible the accusations of a Marquis’ impotence (“your tool isn’t worth a fig. It looks like the spoke of a chariot wheel, and you don’t wear it sticking out”). Cohen also provided a fair amount of “narration” of the evening, summarizing the content of many of the songs before they were sung, and reinforcing the “City of Fools in Nowhereland” concept more than was perhaps necessary.
A group of eight students and alumni from the Longy School of Music of Bard College added some choral weight when needed, abetted by Shira Kammen on vielle and harp, and Christa Patton on harp and winds. These players brought much needed vim: Kammen’s vielle playing evoked fiddling: at times a refined and aestheticized fiddling, to be sure, but at other times pleasantly rough and rhythmically vital. Her restless eyes and swinging physicality provided welcome leavening. Less physically demonstrative, Patton nevertheless produced excellent loud bagpipings and the occasionally raw and lusty work on shawm (I think?) to brighten things up. The show was pleasant, well performed and well programmed, even if the message of the texts was, as the gentleman ahead of me said, “it was the same then, it’s the same now, get over it.”
One complaint needs registering: the choice of the final tune came by ballot: one could vote either for an upbeat or a melancholy closer. Unsurprisingly, the party of the upbeats won overwhelmingly, and secured us a rollicking drinking song led with admirable gusto by Pitts. My complaint? Of all the songs in the evening, this last one had a refrain that would have been eminently singable by the entire audience, and indeed, we were invited to join them. But its text was not printed (to keep the outcome of the vote in suspense?), and most of the audience, myself included, were not able to pick up the Latin phrases without assistance—a lamentable missed opportunity. O, Tempora! O, Mores!