Boston Camerata

My parents arrived yesterday afternoon from North Carolina, and last night we took them into Harvard Square to see the Boston Camerata. I’ve written about the Camerata before, and based on the fact that their recording of medieval and early American Christmas carols is one of our all time favorites, you can imagine the excitement. My mom, in fact, leaned over before the show started and said, “Who could have guessed twenty years ago when I bought that record that I’d be seeing the Boston Camerata in Cambridge?” (Of course, it was more like 25 years ago, but hey.)

The group turned out, at least for this performance, to be a much smaller ensemble than I had ever imagined: two sopranos, contralto, tenor, baritone, bass, flute/recorder, violin, viola da gama, and on bass and lute the music director Joel Cohen. But even with only ten people on stage their sound filled the church. All the women in the choir had tremendous clear voices, led by the example of the glorious Anne Azéma, and the men’s voices were resonant and powerful if somewhat less absolutely distinguished. Joel Cohen only sang on a few all-group numbers and one or two comic solos, where he used his dramatic bass to good comic effect.

The program was New Britain and New France, based on the New Britain recording that the group made almost twenty years ago, and consisted of pairings of twentieth century folk tunes and hymns with earlier antecedents, some as old as the twelfth century. There were some wonderfully salacious French tunes in the first half of the program, but the part that got my blood racing was the third part, which featured ballads and “wandering songs” as they were adapted over the centuries. The story of the eternal ballad is familiar to anyone who’s dipped more than a toe into the waters of folk music—or even bothered to see whose songs Led Zeppelin was covering on its first few albums—but the Camerata took things one step further by tracing melodies, texts, and thematic ideas. So they linked together a set of songs about gypsies—the original “outsiders”—and closed it with a 1925 Ohio tune called “Gipsy Davy,” which to my surprise and delight I recognized as a cousin of the tune “Black Jack Davey,” which has been performed both by the Carter Family and by the White Stripes. (Yes, I’m a music geek.)

The fourth and last part of the program delved into shape note singing, which was fantastic, and which prompted my dad to say afterwards that it reminded him of growing up in the mountains.

I’m now hooked on the Camerata all over again, and couldn’t be happier to hear that they’ll be doing their “American Christmas” program next year (since I missed them at Christmas this year). A note in their program also tipped me off to the Boston Early Music Festival, which looks like it will be another amazing time.