Boston Camerata

at the North Shore Unitarian Church, April 3

It’s said that people have an innate tendency to look for differences in each other, and from this springs the ability to identify members of one’s own tribe–and also the unfortunate tendency to exclude those who are not members. It might be better for us if we looked for similarities instead. The Boston Camerata accomplished something along these lines in a concert appropriately presented just before Passover and Easter and held in a Unitarian church. This program, “The Sacred Bridge,” went a long way toward showing the common musical roots of the Jewish and Christian cultures.

Joel Cohen, director of the Camerata, is well-known not only for his musical scholarship but for his refreshing approach to programming. The concert (whose title is derived from the late Eric Werner’s pioneering study of Jewish and Christian liturgical music) was not only an intriguing showcase of rarely heard music but an engaging exploration of boundaries–those between cultures, and those between performers and their audiences.

Another boundary explored was that of time, since music separated from us by 2,000 years can be very nearly inaccessible. Certainly the music that was never written down–that passed from one person to another through oral tradition–can be considered lost forever. With other pieces, texts are the only remaining evidence that they ever existed. Even music that comes down to us in notated form and is ostensibly performable can present challenges, for if it’s old enough there will be no one left who knows how to read it. Short of inventing a time machine that allows us to go back and hear an actual medieval performance in progress, such music often remains an enigma.

Yet curiously our understanding of certain kinds of early music has been enhanced as we get farther and farther from the time when it was written. Relentless scholarship has unearthed music long thought lost, or that we never knew existed. Through much of history the idea of preserving music predating one’s own time was foreign to musicians. Even the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was discarded as “old-fashioned” within a decade of his death, and it was not until the 19th century that he came to be considered one of Western music’s greatest composers.

Performing the music of the Middle Ages and before has its challenges. Those who make the attempt must take a melodic line (often written in a barely decipherable notation) and extrapolate–from contemporary accounts of similar performances and from modern-day equivalents–how the music might be meant to sound. The Camerata, which performs medieval and premedieval music, takes the same approach as most ensembles working in this repertoire. First, the group recognizes that much of the music is derived from Eastern music, particularly Arabic music, whose instruments and musicians influenced the evolution of Western art music. Second, they assume that the improvisational practices of today’s players of traditional Arabic music are a more or less accurate model for performing the music of earlier times.

Re-creating this music therefore takes several leaps of faith, and the line can be fine indeed between make-believe and what might be considered accurate reproduction. Cohen and his Camerata recognize that one is forced to make some compromises to bring this music to life, for to settle for nothing less than complete authenticity in this repertoire means settling for nothing at all. Better an informed guess than no performance to hear or argue about.

The Camerata achieves the fine balance of scholarship and informed conjecture required in a convincing performance of medieval music. The touring ensemble consists of only five performers–soprano Anne Azema, baritone Daniel McCabe, Jesse Lepkoff on recorder and flutes, Carol Lewis on vielle, and Cohen singing and playing oriental lute. Yet with these spare forces the Camerata is able to cover a period stretching from the time of Jesus (two identical psalm tunes, one in Latin and one in Hebrew) to the 18th century (a catchy circumcision song by Carpentras).

Nearly all these pieces involved solo voice or elaborations of a single melody line. In addition to psalm tunes and chant from the 12th century and earlier, the Camerata sang music by Jewish minstrels of the 13th century–individuals who, like people of the present day, sought to leave the ghetto and improve their lives by developing a marketable talent. The second half of the concert focused on music from the court of Alfonso el Sabio, the 13th-century king of Castille who contributed to the mixing of musical cultures by employing Christian, Jewish, and Muslim musicians.

The Camerata performed at the North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield, a very modern but acoustically friendly space. Sponsored by the David Adler Cultural Center (whose own space is too small to accommodate such concerts), this performance was the first in a fledgling series at the church. The intimacy of the space and the free-form architecture of the interior provided a suitable atmosphere for the performance.

The concert began with Azema’s otherworldly offstage singing of a Sephardic lament. Azema performed effectively onstage as well; her singing was very clean and straight yet rich. Cohen evidently favors rich vocal color, as evidenced by the singing of McCabe (a former Chicagoan). McCabe’s vibrant baritone was an effective counterbalance in the several pieces he sang with Cohen, who has a rather unprepossessing baritone.

The spoken word played a significant part in the concert. Cohen took several opportunities to speak to the audience and explain at length the origins and texts of the works. Such verbal contact, a recent trend, in some cases can be intrusive: it violates the traditional boundary between performers and audiences. But in this case the narrative was welcome, partly because Cohen’s delivery was quite engaging and partly because the program had room only for abbreviated translations of the original Hebrew, Latin, French, Spanish, and Provencal texts. Music audiences are also not used to hearing items that are entirely spoken, yet Cohen included a 13th-century poem by Issac Gorni translated from the original Hebrew. Cohen’s spirited recitation of the mostly humorous “A poet’s life” was a concert highlight.

It was such attention to words, combined with intelligently improvised accompaniments, that really brought this ancient music to life. Instrumentalists Lepkoff and Lewis, along with Cohen, created a credible version of the sound world one might have experienced two millennia ago. The careful attention Azema and McCabe gave to their expression of the texts helped communicate the spirit of the music.

If fault can be found with this program, it lies in its very theme. To find the roots of sacred music, in the Camerata’s view, is to find the similarities in Jewish and Christian cultures. Yet the danger is that, by focusing on what the cultures hold in common, the music will sound all alike. The Camerata’s polished and committed renditions save it from this fate, but an uninitiated or less than fully engaged listener may find the music a bit monotonous.

The concert ended with the performers standing up and walking around and through the audience, then out, singing and playing all the while, a bit of showmanship that bordered on the excessive–but it did create a symmetry with the offstage beginning. And in a program that relied as much on the concept as on the material, the power of theatrical effect was not to be ignored.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jacques Sarrat.