in: Reviews

January 30, 2017

Camerata Revisits Daniel

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Copley Square demonstration (David Schulenberg photo)

As a second weekend of protests against the Trump regime filled Copley Square, the Boston Camerata returned on Sunday afternoon to Trinity Church to “revisit” the medieval liturgical drama known as The Play of Daniel. Henry Hobson Richardson’s neo-Romanesque church was, as the program booklet suggested, a fitting site for this deliberately modern version of the early-thirteenth-century Latin work. It was also fitting, as director Anne Azéma noted in brief opening remarks, that the performance should have been taking place as a crowd (of mostly younger people) protested outside, their shouts and chants occasionally audible within. For the play, in her view, offers a warning to rulers of the “limits of their power,” connecting the people of Beauvais circa 1200 with those of Boston in 2017, who are “still looking for” just and lawful government.

The program booklet for Sunday afternoon’s performance announced the event as “Daniel: A Medieval Masterpiece Revisited.” Whether “revisitation” referred to the Camerata’s revival of this production, first performed in fall 2014, or to the play itself, was unclear. But because this performance appears to have largely replicated the original one, including much the same cast and staging, I will forebear from offering a lengthy review. I did not see the original performance, but Brian Schuth’s review (read it here) seems to convey its character very well. Besides sharing his admiration for tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts as Daniel and bass Joel Frederiksen as Darius, I would add praise for tenor Jason McStoots’s expressive singing and acting as the doomed Belshazzar. The Camerata proper was assisted by the Boston City Singers, students and alumni of the Longy School of Music of Bard College, and the Trinity Choristers, some of them making up a very well trained and vivacious children’s chorus.

Whether the original really was “a youthful celebration in music,” as Azéma suggested, including dancing and playing of instruments, seems to me unknowable. This production, although incorporating some exuberant shouting and singing, even some unexpectedly sensual dance, pays more than lip service to the religious character of the original, framing the play itself within a “liturgy from Beauvais,” that is, a prelude and postlude made up largely of several types of chants. (These, incidentally, did not include the Te Deum that the original play calls for at the end.)

This Daniel does more with less, jettisoning the fancifully costumed lion dancers and small orchestras of semi-medieval instruments that can be seen in other productions. Instead we have simple costumes and Peter Torpey’s beautifully spare lighting. There is no stage; the action, such as it is, is ingeniously matched to the architecture of the church (and thus will need to be carefully worked out when the production travels next year). Among the many striking features of this production is its effective use of the splendid acoustic of Trinity. This allowed Camila Parias to be heard clearly and radiantly at the end, as an angel singing from the rear balcony (she was also an exquisite Queen to Belshazzar in the first half).

The cast enters silently, filing into the choir of the church, and throughout the “prelude” the music, most of it originally unharmonized chant, remains austere. But the selections grow increasingly elaborate, concluding with a brief bit of two-part Notre Dame organum (a type of harmonized chant). All this was beautifully sung; I was especially impressed by the soloists in the Gregorian alleluia Justus ut palma and the Parisian Benedicamus Domino, which were both given in a free but lively manner, without the dragging that can make this celebratory music sound like a dirge.

Azéma’s version of the play itself relies heavily on the addition of instrumental music, which modern performers find indispensible in this repertory (you can read some discussion of that here). This element is limited, however, to a single string player (Shira Kammen, on vielle and harp) and one percussionist (Karim Nagi). Both employ the orientalizing approach that has long been in vogue among modern performers of medieval music, mixing with what now and then sounds almost like bluegrass inflections in some of the string playing. More often, however, the effect reminds me of neoclassic Stravinsky, as the improvised accompaniment adds a pandiatonic sheen of sound, with complicated cross-rhythms, to the original modal melodies. This was especially true, it seemed, during the elegant South-Asian- or Middle-Eastern-inspired dance of Indrany Datta-Barua, which unfortunately was not clearly visible from my vantage point (not every presenter reserves good seats for reviewers).

However anachronistic the dancing and instruments may be, the added music in this production was more disciplined, more unified in conception, than in others that I have heard. Not everything is accompanied by instruments, and an exquisite moment occurs when, for instance, Belshazzar or Daniel is left to sing a lament all alone. A particularly striking effect is created by having the men of the chorus hold out notes as a sort of drone to accompany Daniel’s translation of the famous “writing on the wall” in florid plainsong. These inventions reveal real sonic creativity on the part of the director and performers, more meaningful to these ears than improvisations which tend to echo things heard elsewhere and sometimes distract attention away from the original melodies.

One problem which I don’t think this production has solved is that of the text. (This issue received some attention when I reviewed another production; see the comments here). I noticed members of the audience trying to follow the synopsis in the program booklet. But no complete text and translation was provided. It’s a shame for the soloists to sing so clearly and expressively when most of the Latin is untranslated. Perhaps this is one reason instrumental accompaniments seem necessary; no one is

Copley Square demonstration (Daavid Schulenberg photo)

following the words, and after one or two stanzas (the music tends to consist of short songs with multiple verses) most listeners need something else to sustain their interest. The main outline of the story is clear enough in this production, and supertitles would probably ruin the lighting design—nor is there any obvious place to project them within Trinity. But could it be that the absence of intelligible words is an essential element in this type of production, for all its originality and effectiveness? Would actually knowing what the characters are saying eliminate some of the mystery which for many listeners seems part of the appeal of medieval music?

David Schulenberg’s The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was published in 2014 by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at the Juilliard School in New York City. His website is here.

2 Comments

  1. Mr. Shulenberg has some very specific ideas about how the Play of Daniel might have looked and sounded when it was new. In his 2013 review, in these columns, of a performance in Rockport, Ma. he states that

    “like later examples of Gregorian chant, which it resembles, the music may well have been sung slowly, with little inflection or nuance.”

    And he is also dubious about the possibility of movement and staging at the original time and place:

    “In all likelihood there were no instruments at all, except perhaps as props. But whether there was in fact any staging—costumes, props, or movement other than ritual processions—is unknown.”

    He believes that

    “The original performers were ….doubtless all men”

    Well, I imagine that Anne Azéma’s realization of the Daniel play, including movement, some instrumental music, rhythmic performances of the processionals, and performers of different ages would contradict many of these hypotheses. And so Mr. Schulenberg write in his recent review of last Sunday’s performance that

    “whether the original really was ‘a youthful celebration in music,’ as Azéma suggested, including dancing and playing of instruments, seems to me unknowable.”

    Now Mr. Schulenberg is a distinguished scholar, for whom I have great respect, but I will venture to take issue with him on the general ethos of Daniel, and on a certain number of Azéma’s performance decisions that indeed seem to me to have an entirely plausible, and even a likely, basis in the historical record.

    Most essentially, it’s that this musical play was intended for the year-end festivities in which pre-Christian elements of pagan revelry were, albeit cautiously, allowed into the life of the Church. The elements of pageantry, game-playing, and transgression that Azéma has incorporated as a foil to the genuine profundity and spirituality of the work are not things that have been dragged in by their hair, as it were. The in-your-face aspects of Daniel are baked into the piece itself. Daniel is a celebratory play, even if we have to surmise nowadays about how best to bring out the various aspects of this multidimensional work. Rather wading further into the weeds on this crucial point, I refer interested readers to an earlier discussion of the matter (also cited by Mr. Schulenberg in his recent review), at https://www.classical-scene.com/2013/06/27/revisiting-daniel/.

    As to the question of who performed Daniel in Beauvais way back then: They were indeed all churched, and of the same (male) gender, but I very much doubt that they were all men. I’m pretty convinced that it was, in whole or part, a piece for children and/or adolescents, who could so easily relate to a youthful, beardless hero’s standing up to a powerful figure of authority; the inversion of power was whole point of Saturnalia to begin with. Daniel reflects the church’s effort to corral and channel the transgressive spirit, abroad among the young, of New Year’s revelry. The above-cited article goes into this issue in more depth.

    Next, as regarding the endless, snake-chasing-its-own-tale discussion of instruments, their presence or non-presence, and the content of their contributions: Schulenberg describes the contributions of string player Shira Kammen and percussionist Karim Nagi as “orientalizing.”

    Hmm. Unless Kammen and Nagi have changed their approach quite considerably from the 2014 show (I did not hear the Sunday performance), I’d have to say that this characterization is simply not accurate. I recall from two years ago a couple of specifically “oriental” moments. One was a passage in Kammen’s playing for the profanation scene, the most transgressive moment of the play, during which she briefly left medieval/Gregorian modality to suggest something more alien and perhaps menacing. Mr. Schulenberg appropriately mentions this moment in his current review.

    The other, in 2014, was the Nagi-inspired use of percussive sticks for the procession of the Persian king Darius. The rest of what I heard on pitched instruments, while newly conceived, as it has of necessity to be, hewed to the matrices of medieval modes and medieval monody. Unless you are prepared to characterize any monodic instrumental music in one of the old church modes as “oriental,” that label does not really apply, and we need to refine our ears and our nomenclature for future discussions.

    Finally, I am quite sure that the current production’s intent regarding intelligibility of the story was to remove or scrape away the pseudo-mystical mystification of so much medieval music performance; that opaque layer of medievalism gives both Mr. Schulenberg and me (and certainly Anne Azéma as well) the pimples. Whether this Daniel succeeded or not in that aim is for the audience to judge!

    From Paris, 1/31/2017

    Comment by Joel Cohen — January 31, 2017 at 1:22 pm

  2. I am among those who believe that providing the text is a good idea. (Let’s not overdo the mystery aspect!) I was glad to see the photo. We need to keep in mind the context in which musical performance is taking place these days.

    Comment by Beverly Woodward — January 31, 2017 at 3:55 pm

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