Arts Festival Review: The Boston Camerata
Arts Festival Review: The Boston CamerataReview by Nick Tipping
St Mary of the Angels
The Boston Camerata is acknowledged to be the USA’s foremost Early Music ensemble. With a pedigree stretching back 53 years (39 of those under their celebrated director Joel Cohen), they have amassed an extensive discography and earned much critical acclaim for their performance and interpretation of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music. In recent years they have turned their attention to the music of the Shaker culture of the early US, and the folk hymns of the American Northeast. This repertoire presents a challenge to musical directors and performers: to modern ears it is very simple, consisting of a lot of monody (single lines), rounds, and basic pentatonic scales, and so keeping the attention of a 21st-century audience is not easy.
Cohen and the Camerata are in some ways the ideal group to bring this music back to life. Accustomed as they are to presenting programmes of medieval and other early styles of music, they have developed the knack of getting ‘inside’ the music and making it interesting to new listeners. In their concert on Sunday night at St Mary of the Angels, they certainly gave it their all, in a performance full of smiles, nods, and the occasional audience singalong. Cohen exchanged his trademark lute for an acoustic guitar, and the singers, particularly the lively baritone Donald Wilkinson, engaged the audience and gave beautifully extroverted performances. Both as soloists and an ensemble, the Camerata members were polished, energetic and sympathetic to the feeling behind the music.
The repertoire of this concert was chosen from three Boston Camerata albums. The bulk of the hymns were rediscovered by Cohen in two hymn books - The American Vocalist and The American Revivalist - and the remainder were Shaker melodies. The four brackets of these songs allowed the singers, in different configurations, to demonstrate the wonderful ensemble sound for which they are famous. Of particular note was tenor Timothy Leigh Evans, whose solo ‘Learned of Angel’ was moving and of wonderful contrast to the spirited renditions surrounding it.
The presentation of the music did feel a little out of context. The polish and finesse of the group seemed a little at odds with the “rugged, folk-derived” (to quote the programme notes) music they were presenting, as the accomplished singers of the Camerata were pitch-perfect in their lines and harmonies. Transitions between the short hymns were seamless, and there was scant time for the audience to breathe between tunes. However these are small quibbles. It is a great thing that such a big-name group is putting its weight behind the revival of a rich but neglected folk repertoire. They treated the music with obvious respect, and their support will ensure the continued revival of the songs of the Northeastern folk traditions.