Boston Camerata presents a rich American Christmas program

December 19, 2014 at 12:40 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

“Christmas Eve along the Hudson” by Samuel Carr.

For the past several decades, the Boston Camerata has traversed the country with programs that have brought fresh attention to a wide variety of early music. Thursday night at the First Parish Church in Newbury, the Camerata turned their attention towards American sources. Billed as “An American Christmas,” Thursday’s heart-warming concert consisted of hymns and carols drawn from eighteenth and nineteenth-century tune books.

The repertoire was at one time standard fare in communities and churches that dotted the eastern American landscape. Songs travelled to different regions of the country through books like The Sacred Harp, The Southern Harmony, and The Philharmonia, while other songs remained in manuscript sources that originated in places like Newburyport, Massachusetts; Canterbury, New Hampshire; and Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Former Boston Camerata director Joel Cohen made much of this music familiar through a mid-1990s program and recordings. Thursday night’s concert, led by Anne Azéma, presented many of those same songs and hymns in a new light.

Some of the richest singing of the evening came in the pieces from The Sacred Harp. The spacious harmonies of “The Midnight Cry” and “Baptismal Anthem” rang in tune due to the fine, exacting singing from the Camerata singers. “Sherburne,” a fugal tune composed by Daniel Read in the late 1700s, featured the singers in the lively tonic sol-fa that normally serves as the introduction to Sacred Harp tunes. They sang the music’s overlapping lines with clarity and pulsing energy.

The Shaker tunes, which often involve simple, unaccompanied melodies, offered some of the best musical rewards of the evening. “Clamanda,” a march-like song, featured a trickling melody traded between flute, expertly played by Jesse Lepkoff, and a trio of singers, soprano Anne Azéma, soprano Camila Parias, and mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore. The line of “Angel of Light” beamed due to Parias’ clear, bell-toned singing. The phrases of “Learned of Angel,” a three-part Shaker tune sung by the trio, seemed to wind around each other for colorful, ear-tingling dissonances.

Other pieces heard Thursday evening had more of a gospel feel. “Pretty home,” another unison Shaker song rendered by the female singers, moved with toe-tapping energy. But the most poignant song of the evening was “Still water,” a hymn that had the down-home feel of a church revival meeting. The singers and guitarists, Jesse Lepkoff and Joel Frederiksen, mined the swinging gospel style to good effect.

The Boston Camerata has a solid cast of singers in every range of its vocal ensemble. Together, they sang with supple blend while giving sensitive treatment to the phrasing of the four-part hymns through colorful dynamic shading.

The singers were equally fine as soloists. With her honeyed voice, Azéma delivering a soft but penetrating “Wachet auf” and “Judicii signum,” a tenth-century Spanish chant. Deborah Rentz-Moore sang with a tone of dark crimson that brought a soulful feel to the spiritual, “Sinner Man.” Joel Frederiksen has a bass that is keenly felt whether he sings alone or in an ensemble setting. His finest moment came in the Jeremiah Ingalls song “The Heavenly Courtier,” which tells of Christ coming for his bridegroom, the church. Like a preacher, Frederiksen delivered his lines with conviction while Jesse Lepkoff supplied a gently rocking accompaniment on the guitar.

Equally affecting was the singing of baritone John Taylor Ward. His smooth, milky voice well suited his soul-filled rendition of the spiritual “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel.” Tenor Dan Hershey brought a soft delicacy to the beloved tune “I wonder as I wander.”

A brass ensemble, consisting of Chris Belluscio (cornet), Brian Kay (trombone), Liza Malamut (trombone), and Steven Lundahl (baritone horn), accompanied the singers on some selections. The warm, enveloping tone of the small band’s nineteenth-century instruments was especially palpable in William Billings’ “Boston.

Keeping with Boston Camerata tradition, the audience was invited to sing along on a few songs, and thankfully, listeners were given sheet music in full score to make the parts of hymns like “Watchman of Zion” and “Joy to the World” easy to follow. Warm applause brought the Camerata back for an encore, a stirring rendition of “Jesus, the Light of the World.”

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday at Hancock United Church of Christ in Lexington, 8 p.m. Saturday at First Church in Cambridge, and 3 p.m. Sunday at Union College in Schenectady, NY.

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