Anne Azéma led the musicians of the Boston Camerata in the lively and moving “Free America!” at Faneuil Hall on Friday. Subtitled “Early Songs of Resistance and Rebellion,” the show drew from the Revolutionary period to the middle of the 19th century. Its five sections, each expressed a particular theme—many of them still relevant.
The Faneuil Hall location proved especially appropriate, since many public events have taken place there from the Revolutionary period onward, and quite possibly some of the songs heard there on Friday echoed the early stages of the nation. In this case the hall was made available at the invitation of Mayor Walsh, since the event echoed an earlier performance of this program in Strasbourg, Boston’s Sister City; the two cities were thus linked 60 years ago through the good offices of Charles Munch, a Strasbourg native, who was living in Boston at the time as Music Director of the Boston Symphony.
Varied and colorful vocal and instrumental music prevailed in mostly short pieces: hymns, folksongs, dances, fuging tunes, and marches. A number of the songs involved new words (with obvious political connotations), set to long-familiar tunes, usually of British origin—an unsurprising connection, since the vast majority of the populace had English ancestry and had brought the tunes with them when they or their forebears crossed the water. In a period with no electronic sources of news and political commentary, the familiar tunes provided the medium on which the witty, sarcastic, mournful, or scurrilous words could sail. In many cases, the lyrics sung here offered only one of many possible sets of words that were printed broadsides (one-sided sheets with verse after verse of printed lyrics and an indication of the tune that fit the usually anonymous words) that could be posted in public places, sold for a penny in print shops and passed from hand to hand, similar to, but much more slowly, than the forwarding of political commentary on the internet.
Other songs came from religious organizations like the Shakers or African American congregations, expressing political ideas related to the revolutionary sentiments that had grown to a bursting point, or attacks on issues that damaged one or another group of people in the American population.
Anne Azéma gathered these numbers into five chapters, each with its own theme, and spoke to the audience briefly before each group to describe the thrust of each section and the way the individual numbers fit. “Boston Is a Yankee Town” evoked the rising spirit of liberty. “Gone for a Soldier” contained martial tunes and William Billings’s effective response to the Psalmist with “By the rivers of Watertown we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Boston.” “Repentance,’ just before intermission, brought songs related to religious revival and growing opposition to America’s original sin of slavery. The second half began with a chapter emphasizing the opposing reactions of the wealthy few and the masses of the poor. Finally, “Rise Columbia!” brought back the essential patriotic theme of the entire evening, ironically with two extremely famous British songs—“The British Grenadier” and Thomas Arne’s “Rule, Britannia!”—set with thoroughly Americanized lyrics.
The basic ensemble consisted of six splendid singers, all of whom have firm, beautiful voices and clear enunciation that carry well in solos: soprano Camila Parias in “False are the men of high degree”; Anne Azéma in the opening Shaker hymn “Trumpet of Peace”; alto Deborath Rentz-Moore in the Shaker song “Repentance” that movingly ended the first half; tenor Michael Barrett in “O Zion Rise”; tenor Daniel Hershey in “Didn’t my Lord deliver Danield”; and bass-baritone Luke Scott in “My body rock long fever.” At the same time, the voices blend exceptionally well in every possible combination of duets and trios, whether of men, women, or mixed genders.
Fiddler Eric Martin, cellist Reinmar Seidler, and flutist/guitarist Jesse Lepkoff accompanying with various colors. In addition, four members of the Middlesex County Fifes and Drum Corps (Sarah MacConduibh, Dave Cabral, Heather Taskovic, and Andrea Wirth) struck up the marches and dances designed to get the blood stirring and the feet tapping.
And since many of the songs had inspired the American colonists and (later) citizens into public expressions of important sentiments, it was entirely suitable to invite the audience to join in the refrains of the customarily English song “The British Grenadier” with a thoroughly Americanized version:
Then guard your rights, Americans!
Nor stoop to lawless sway,
Oppose, oppose, oppose, oppose,
For free Americay!
Similarly the final formal number, recognizable as “Rule, Britannia!” became a sassy American response: “Rise, Columbia!” after which the performers marched out to that sassiest of all American songs, “Yankee Doodle,” with another unfamiliar refrain sung by the assembled audience:
Yankee Doodle, Ha, Ha, Ha,
Yankee Doodle Dancy,
Freedom’s voice is in the song
Of Yankee Doodle Dandy!
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance 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.