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The Boston Camerata presented "An American Christmas" in the acoustically fine sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church on Saturday evening. This program will be repeated next weekend four times – three times in Massachusetts and once in Schenectady, NY – but Western North Carolina had the privilege of hearing its first performance. The program of Colonial and 19th-century American music was designed by previous director Joel Cohen some thirty years ago, and had been modified this season by its current artistic director, Anne Azéma.
Celebrating its 60th anniversary, the Boston Camerata is most noted as a premier interpreter of medieval and Renaissance vocal music, and its performance style (with little or no vibrato and impeccable tonal accuracy) carries over well to early Americana. It is a small ensemble whose core consists of the six vocalists: soprano Camila Parias, mezzo-soprano Anne Azéma, contralto Deborah Rentz-Moore, tenor Dan Hershey, baritone John Taylor Ward, and bass Joel Frederiksen. For this program, Jesse Lepkoff played the cross-blown wooden flute and guitar and vocalist Frederiksen doubled on guitar on some selections.
The concert was structured into three sections. "The Ancients' Song of Mourning" and "The Heavenly Courtier" came before intermission and "The Christmas Story" came after intermission.
The first section included some effective choreography. Flutist Lepkoff, alone on stage, played "Wayfaring Stranger." Then Azéma, singing from the balcony at the rear of the sanctuary, began the Shaker hymn "Repentance." She was joined by Rentz-Moore, who rose from a pew in the center of the church. The three men then entered the stage and sang the Shaker hymn, "The Ancients' Song of Mourning." The three women then moved from the rear of the sanctuary down the aisle, singing "The great day." This was musical drama; I almost said musical theater but it was not that – the music dominated and the drama simply underscored the music.
Towards the end of the second section came the African-American spiritual "Didn't my Lord Deliver Daniel?," followed by the immensely popular American hymn "Amazing Grace." (While the words of this hymn are by the Englishman John Newton, a former slaver captain, it was only after the American William Walker in the 19th century wrote the tune "New Britain" that it was embraced not only by evangelical white America but also by African-Americans, who added one more verse, appropriate to their suffering, to the poetry of Newton.)
After intermission, "The Christmas Story" included well over a dozen American carols and four more that originated in Great Britain but in versions published in New England. The vocal ensembles varied from a tenor solo in "I wonder as I wander" to six-part harmony, with some of the most effective being the three female voices in the Shaker hymn "Learned of angel," followed by the three male voices in "Fulfilment." Throughout, this was impeccable vocal work.
This program was elegant, refined, carefully researched, and musically exact. My only criticism was that the sources were almost completely from the Northeast. Seven Shaker hymns, fourteen from New England publishers and five more from New York and Pennsylvania, provided the majority of the thirty-odd songs. This geographical emphasis is understandable for a group based in New England with access to the archives of the Harvard Musical Association. However this reviewer, who has spent twenty years in the south, did hanker after more African-American and Appalachian music. Perhaps future Boston Camerata programs can include added representation from south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
*For a letter to the editor concerning this review, click here.