Boston Camerata serves up a charming Christmas program en français

December 20, 2013 at 1:58 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

The Boston Camerata presented a French Christmas program Thursday night at First Church in Cambridge.

Every holiday season is filled with familiar songs and beloved works, but one can only hear Handel’s Messiah so many times. Fortunately, there are the sweeping and versatile programs of the Boston Camerata.

Under the direction of Anne Azéma, BC’s intimate ensemble of singers and instrumentalists offered a charming program of little-heard Christmas music that spanned four hundred years of French musical history at the First Church in Cambridge Thursday night.

This showcase of nearly thirty chants, motets, and chansons—drawn from former director Joel Cohen’s groundbreaking premiere and recording of this material—hasn’t been heard in Boston for more than twenty years. Its mix of learned “high” with more sing-song “low” styles not only sparks academic curiosity—it makes for a delightful holiday affair. Each piece sparkled from the mesmerizing blend of the BC singers and musicians.

The largest work of the evening, Guillaume Dufay’s Magnificat, was staged as a vocal concerto, where the singers, arranged in two small choirs, traded the music’s ornamental lines to fill the First Church’s spacious sanctuary with bright, resonant sound. Overlapping phrases and rich textures graced another jewel of the concert, Pierre Certon’s Dona nobis pacem, from his parody mass built upon the chanson Sur le Pont d’Avignon. Here, though, the Camerata didn’t always achieve a uniform blend.

But those moments were rare. Some of the finest singing came in the bite-sized works, particularly in the chants that peppered the program. Azéma joined soprano Camila Parias and contralto Deborah Rentz-Moore for a shimmering Kyrie Le jour de Noel, each, with easy flow, intoning the French text sandwiched between phrases of “Kyrie eleison.” The chant Virgo gemma virginum featured Azéma’s smooth, milky soprano. Her singing complemented Parias’ more delicate and supple voice in the sixteenth-century French-text setting of Conditor. Moore brought a rich, honeyed tone to Ecce ancilla Domini, and her voice melded with Donald Wilkinson’s baritone and Daniel Hershey’s tenor in the colorful dynamic shadings of Arnold de Lantins’ In tua memoria, a short remembrance to the Virgin Mary.

Among the divertissements, Joel Frederiksen, accompanying himself on the lute, offered Pierre Moulu’s Pecheurs, souffrez. His bass voice, in a mix of robust and wafting phrases, made palpable the text’s plea for listeners to pray for forgiveness. Nicholas Grenon’s Nova vobis gaudia, sung by Moore and countertenor Michael Collver to sackbut accompaniment, danced in its playful lines and percolating rhythm. Antoine Busnois’ Noël, noël glowed in the full ensemble.

Dance music by Claude Gervaise and Adrien le Roy, joyfully played by Boston Camerata’s band of sackbuts and cornetto, brought spice and resonant warmth. The hero of this ensemble was Collver, whose cornetto tone remained plump even in the most technical passages. The culminating riffs in the final piece, Nicolas Martin’s Venez ouyr la trompette, brought the musicians a well deserved ovation.

For an encore, Azéma invited the audience to join in the singing of the popular French hymn Il est né le divin enfant.

The Boston Camerata will repeat the program 8 p.m. Friday at the Hancock United Church of Christ, Lexington, 8 p.m. Saturday at the First Parish Church, Newbury, and 3 p.m. Sunday as part of the Union College concert series in Schenectady, New York.

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