A Mass of Hit Tunes

Thrilling moments came aplenty in Thursday night’s “Carols at Midnight” by the much-loved and highly respected Boston Camerata.  Since the pandemic, I have gone to precious few concert—the past year only two others. To be back in First Church Cambridge after three years rekindled memories of Reviewing Past.  So, in witnessing the Camerata’s show, I felt a re-entry into a magic world of live, beautifully performed music.  It was an occasion of thankfulness and grace, for not only me, but also for the packed audience.

The idea of mixing the “high” and “low” forms of musical expression that the French have done over the centuries formed the basis of the concert.  It turns out that many of the carol texts were meant to be sung to secular, popular songs of the day that everybody knew.  Anne Azema writes:

The popularizing Christmas poems were often published in text-only anthologies, without music, for an urban, middle-class clientele. A rubric at the poem’s head would give the intended melody – typesetting music cost extra money, and these were frugal editions. Besides, everybody knew the tunes! “Pecheurs souffrez,” for example, is a reworking of a secular love song, “Amy souffrez.” The Provençal carol,“Adam et sa coumpagno,” like its French language counterpart, “Or dites-nous Marie,” and the ravishing “Avant que rien ne fut au monde” derives from a hit tune in an opera by Lully. And so on…

The Camerata has a long history with the evening’s centerpiece, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s (1634?-1704) Messe de Minuit sur les airs de Noël, A midnight mass based on French carols.  The ensemble first performed this in 1977 in a program, “A French Christmas” (along, like this evening, with chants and popular carols). They recorded it in 1978 (the first recording one period instruments), and they have repeated this program and also rerecorded it for Nonesuch in 1992 as “A Baroque Christmas.” At this point it’s in their DNA and their performance of what Azema calls  “this little masterpiece” was simply superb.

Various numbers of singers and instrumentalists took turns, presenting refreshing changes of texture and mood. The big discovery for me was the bass-baritone John Taylor Ward, who opened the evening, singing beguilingly from the balcony.  The instrumentalists were all good, especially violinist Sarah Darling, whose enthusiasm and musicality seems to make everyone in her many ensembles play a little bit better.  The harpist, Christa Patton, doubled on the chiaramella*, which was such a delight to hear.  Unfortunately although she also busied herself at a triple harp, the sound never traveled even as far as the 5th row, where I sat; it was pretty much inaudible.  Apparently miking and early music are not a kosher combo. The two flutes, Na’ama Lion and Héloïse Degrugilier, played with poise and a lovely sound. (High compliment coming from a reviewer not fond of flutes).

Three vocalists stood out: soprano Camille Patrias, whose singing was just breathtaking, tenor Corey Dalton Hart, and the extraordinary Anne Azéma, who put all of this together, and whose masterful conducting, and gorgeous singing brought emotional holiday pleasure.  The Longy students who sang in some of the tuttis in the Mass added to the festivities.

A quibble, aside from not being at all able to hear the harp:  The printed handout, a reviewer’s bible, was rather disorganized, making it a challenge to identify specific pieces. With so many short examples, we needed a clearer roadmap.

The complete forces (Dan Busler photo)

“All of this music,” Joel Cohen writes, “tends to the same goal, the celebration, in joy, of the Nativity.”  The standing ovation at the end, after seven seconds of reverent silence, made it clear how the Camerata had imparted joy to all who there.

Boston Camerata’s next concert: Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, live, on Saturday March 18th at Pickman Concert Hall, Longy, Cambridge, MA Anne Azéma leads Tahanee Aluwihare as Dido, Luke Scott as Aeneas, Camila Parias as Dido’s sister Belinda, and Jordan Weatherston Pitts as the Sorcerer, with Peter Torpey’s evocative lighting and media elements.

*like a shawn

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.




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