Boston Camerata has, over its half century-plus, seemingly divided its presentations between ones focusing on a single large work, a tight chronology, or a narrow region, and those elucidating parallels among differing periods and cultures. “WE’LL BE THERE! American Spirituals Black and White 1800–1900,” an example of the latter format, followed the historic development of vernacular worship music from the 12th-century Spanish monody (“Judicii signum”) to its near 20th-century counterparts—across many cultural divides and through much cross fertilization.
Consisting almost entirely unfamiliar examples of spirituals, revival hymns and so forth, the show left but one lacuna or Ivesian unanswered (and unasked) question, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” Yes, the show’s plum-pudding inclusivity reminded us of Charles Ives, who amalgamated spirituals and hymns into his singular ironic-nostalgic works. He once said:
I’m not trying to say that many of the spirituals, jubilees, etc. aren’t in their own way natural, spontaneous, beautiful, and artistic—but some white Congregationalists or Methodists (drunk or sober) already had somepin’ also natural, spontaneous, beautiful, and artistic—and that somepin’ was to start the negro spirituals.
Artistic Director Anne Azéma fielded an ensemble at Longy on Saturday afternoon greatly enriched by noted exponents of gospel and spiritual style, but also including one Camerata regular, Jordan Weatherson Pitts, at home in both learned early-music practices and the Black worship-music genres. Three Longy Bard students also shared the stage with six familiar Camerades to span the chronological divide of age and experience, but more importantly, Azéma invited mezzo soprano Mildred Walker, a Black Nativity and Boston Pops Gospel Night regular who could shout and sing melismatic Amens with the best and bass-baritone (and retired judge) Milton Wright, who had the tone and gravitas to secure ironclad convictions.
The non-didactic, hour-long concert-worship-lesson-celebration-kumbaya embrace placed 28 songs from a dozen or so sources into five thematic sections, each of which mixed solos with call-and-response settings and alternated harmony with monody. Various combinations of reed organ, church bass, fiddle, and guitar enriched at times.
The arc of the excitement rose steadily over the proceedings, and by the end had gathered all present (by the river) in singing, fingersnapping, stomping participation; a few well-placed “Amens” felt completely right.
Perhaps Part IV “Signs of Judgement” can be looked at as emblematic of the schema. Camerata’s singers intoned the plainchant “Judicii signum” with the incense-fragrant mystery of antiquity. Tenor Pitts then called out “See the Signs of Judgement” with prophetic force (and maybe a bit of Elmer Gantry persuasion), to which the chorus “Amened.” Joel Cohen’s guitar introduced the next vocal descendant, “Sinner Man.” Pitts found a different groove for this example: theatrical and direct, pious and heartfelt. That’s a lot to ask from a simple ditty…but he delivered it. Julie McKenzie fiddled authoritatively in “Joe Cooley” before a final reprise of “Sinner Man” rang out in an exuberant tutti that mixed Irish, Black, Revivalist, and medieval with a soupçon of Pete Seeger. Double bassist Ian Saunders pondered deeply but could also jive.
The closing section, “Bound for Canaan’s Land,” commenced with Mildred Walker’s plaintive, personal, and engaging call to “Be with Me.” She made converts of many lost sheep, I would surmise. Alternating quiet, unison verses with grander harmonized ones in “Deal Gently with Thy Servants,” the full chorus raised expectations for “Shall We Gather at the River.” To these ears, the familiar spiritual lacked grandeur at first. It sounded piping, fast, and cutesy, though it gathered some force as the crowd bellowed the refrains.
Fiddle and guitar duetting set up Wright’s intense, wayfaring journey in “I’m Just a-Going Over Home.” Had the director darkened the hall and placed Wright under a pinspot, all would have been wright with the world. The boffo closer “Weeping Pilgrim” strummed the sacred harp in glorious open fifths with seemingly mixing meters and quick tempo changes.
As a multicultural gathering of the sheaves, the show certainly worked. The audience and the participants were collectively onto something. We enjoyed witnessing Camerata’s latest expansion of its purview while continuing to advocate musically for mutual understanding.
Which is not to deny that the concert could have perked up in places. Last time I heard Camerata impersonate “Captain Kidd,” Joel Cohen strode the canting deck of Old West Church while hurling piratical aarghs. This time the infamous captain earned a PC rating. Yet other moments stood out dramatically, such as tenor Corey Dalton Hart’s commanding invocation to “Let Cheer Ring Out.”
Perhaps this secular Jew needs to add that Saturday’s Christian shape-note singing wanted grit. In that 2014 concert “Lovely Vine,” which I had co-produced at Old West Church, Camerata invited Jeremiah’s Golden Harpers, a lusty volunteer contingent of 30; their enthusiasm placed us within a genuine congregation.
The learned and respectful approach from the regular ensemble in the first couple of sets rarely rose to the total conviction evinced by the guests. In the second set’s “Mixture of Joy,” Mildred Walker duetted with Deborah Rentz Moore, the former teaching the latter something about authenticity, but the latter learning fast. Camila Parias used her lustrous soprano wisely and well in “Sometimes,” but it struck me as being more about vocal production than truth-telling. For good reason Langston Hughes warned in the Chicago Defender (1956):
Singers shouldn’t only learn the spirituals on their concert program; rather, they should learn many of the greatest spirituals, and choose which ones having meaning for them. White singers “may unintentionally make of their singing of these songs ‘stereotypes,’ not by design, but simply through immaturity or lack of understanding…When they are sung purely for entertainment…then a little minor crime is committed.
By contrast, the thoroughly immersed Walker, Pitts, and Wright put across the spirituals with transcendent authority and believer’s grace. The White Protestant hymns could have benefited from more sawdust and tinsel of the revival tent variety, or good, old-fashioned white clapboard brimstone imprecations. Who could have been deputized to convey these? Sinclair Lewis? Mormon Tabernacle Choir?
The thoughtful Azéma-Cohen handout essay makes another great case for Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The closing paragraph opines:
The roots of some “American” songs are very ancient indeed. The text to the apocalyptic “Judicii signum” is attributed to Saint Augustine, bishop of Numidian North Africa in the fifth century. The tune for it that we sing for you was omnipresent in Spain and Provence in the twelfth century. Astonishingly, the DNA of those poetic images, and of that melody, persist in many American spirituals about the Judgement Day, most extraordinarily perhaps in “Sinner Man,” in which the melodic cell a-f-d is recombined and varied over the harmonic pattern of a Renaissance ground bass, the passamezzo antico. Who are the parents of this beautiful, multiracial child? Insofar as we claim citizenship in the family of man, the infant is ours. Like so much of what we perform for you today, such a song is the fruit of our common awareness of mortality, and of our common, precious, fragile humanity.
To be available online soon.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer