A Medieval Christmas re-imagined
Early Music Now puts the Boston Camerata in an ideal venue, St. Joseph's Center chapel, for its Christmas program.
The Boston Camerata draws upon the talents of 30 plus singers and musicians. Five of the best, led by Camerata director Anne Azéma, presented an Early Music Now Christmas concert Saturday evening at Saint Joseph’s Center Chapel. The Milwaukee Choral Artists joined them in a supporting role.
The program drew upon a wide range of sources from the 10th to 14th centuries to demonstrate early Christmas traditions across medieval Europe. The variety was not a smörgåsbord, but a coherent whole, from the prophecy through the celebrations of the Annunciation and Advent – and concluding with the more familiar elements of the Christmas story in 43 works uninterrupted save for intermission.
The Camerata immersed the audience in the experience. The Saint Joseph’s Center Chapel is a Milwaukee treasure, with a unique acoustical personality. The Camerata sometimes sang from the rear, the aisles and the balcony. The narrow aisle, high ceiling and hard surfaces added body to a small number of voices. The pure form of the featured music and the precise tones of the singers worked perfectly in this setting. The venue added a rich flavor to the solo voice, especially.
The imprecise pitch of early wooden horns, flutes, bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy echoed more discordantly through the hall. When instruments were sparingly incorporated, they cheerfully contributed to celebratory selections. Tom Zajac played most of the array of instruments.
The three singers were well balanced. Anne Azéma’s soprano penetrated the room, whether in the clarion call of prophecy (Kee yeled yolad Ianu – Isaiah’s Prophecy) or as the leading voice in works for the entire ensemble. Mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore sang with a rich full voice to represent Christ’s reply to the “foolish virgins” in “Amen dico.” Her voice remained strong and pitch perfect in a very low register in “Por nos virgen madre”, even as the volume dropped to a low hush.
Anne Harley sang the roles that called for high soprano lines clearly and accurately. Several songs featured “florid organum,” which sent Harley soaring in high decorative lines above a sustained lines by Azema and Rentz-Moore. For “Lux refulgent” (“The Light is shining on this day”), the singers faced each other and the voices blended as pure overtones resounded through the hall. In a Catalan song, “Verbum patris hodie,” verses with no words allowed optimum blend and resonance. For “Nolite timere” (“Be not afraid”), Harley sang from the balcony, some 40 feet from the others standing near the altar, but with the same resonating effect.
The Camerata surveyed a range of medieval styles. Simple lines of early chants, multi-voice polyphony and early variations on harmony were introduced in precise fashion, with respect for the restrictions of proscribed chords and exact intervals between the voices. The first half closed with a 13th century English work, bringing us to more familiar ground of the full chordal palette of the English carol.
Early Christmas music was designed to be accessible to the congregation, with words in the vernacular. The program selected from sources across Europe – French, Dutch, German, Catalan, Hebrew, Saxon and early English. Actually, occasional Latin verses were easier to comprehend than the Saxon or early English ones. Gregorian chant, an appropriate vehicle for narrative, represented the basic Christmas story.
The concert closed with “Gregis pastor,” a resoundingly celebratory 12th century work bolstered by hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes and vielle. The Camerata reprised this work as an encore in response to enthusiastic applause.
The mixed ensemble enabled a variety of treatments of the music. Individual works often mixed a capella solo turns with shared verses, instrumental breaks and supporting voices from the Milwaukee Choral Artists, comprising Sharon Hansen (director), Alexa Doebele, Leslie Fitzwater, Jill Freese, Andrea Goetzinger, Charmaine LaBelle, Mary McDonald and Cynthia Matchette. In a supporting role, they added weight to the ensemble without disturbing the tonal balance in the acoustically bright hall.
The Milwaukee Choral Artists are celebrating their fifteenth and final season. Their penultimate concert is scheduled for March 1, 2013 at the Milwaukee Women’s Club. See the Milwaukee Choral Artists’ website for information. Coming next to Early Music Now: Masques, a Montreal ensemble, in a Baroque program.