Boston Camerata goes back to the future with Spanish holiday program

December 21, 2019 at 12:24 pm

By Andrew J. Sammut

Anne Azéma led the Boston Camerata in “La Estrella: A Hispanic Christmas” Friday night at the Parish of All Saints in Dorchester.

Spanish-language Christmas concerts offer unique holiday repertoire in a language many people hear and speak every day. That mix of the novel and the familiar may help explain their popularity. This season alone, The Classical Review has a multitude of seasonal Spanish offerings from Boston Cecilia’s “El Espíritu Navideño,” to Houston Grand Opera’s premiere of the Christmas-themed “mariachi opera” El Milagro del Recuerdo and Newberry Consort’s “A Mexican Christmas” in Chicago.

The Boston Camerata and its director Anne Azéma are known for digging deep into history. So, it’s no surprise that their turn at this format explored the roots of the music now playing across the country. 

In addition to sounds from Renaissance Spain and the New World’s Spanish-speaking colonies, “La Estrella: A Hispanic Christmas” presented works in native American languages and the Gregorian chants heard on both sides of the Atlantic as well as contemporary settings of traditional songs.

The Parish of All Saints, Ashmont in Dorchester Center was bursting on Friday for this culturally and spiritually packed program. Performing alongside the Camerata  was the 20-member Hispanic Children’s Choir from Everett’s Immaculate Conception Parish led by Oscar Olmos and six singers from the Haitian female choir Les Fleurs des Caraîbe. 

A third choir from Longy School of Music of Bard College under the direction of Camerata keyboardist Libor Dudas also joined the altar. Five Camerata instrumentalists provided accompaniment as well as interludes throughout the night. With 30 different chants, carols, folksongs and motet excerpts on the busy program, there was no time for well-deserved applause between works.

It might have also shattered the peaceful atmosphere. Azéma’s direction—through conducting gestures and her strong mezzo—favored medium tempos and understatement with few overtly dramatic moments or ponderous reflections. The air was relaxed in its solemnity. 

When things did open up, for example in Juan de Araujo’s “Los coflades de la estleya,” a Bolivian Baroque extravaganza about the eager wise men traveling to Jesus, it was utterly joyful and still marked by Boston Camerata’s musical personality. The twentieth-century setting of the Sephardic song “Morena me llaman,” a celebration of skin color, also let Azéma cut loose in booming voice with plenty of rhythm and saucy inflections.

Azéma’s four Boston Camerata colleagues impressed throughout the evening. Soprano Camila Parias distinguished herself in many high-flying yet firm lines above the choruses. Alto Deborah Rentz-Moore’s finely articulated flamenco-style melismas and soft vocalise in the eighteenth-century Andalusian folk lullaby “Duermete, niño, duérme” offered another highlight. 

Bass-baritone Luke Scott showed off rapid coloratura in a brawny tone for the Spanish vilancico turned Christmas carol “Ríu ríu chíu.” Gregorian chants showcased the beauty and control of each vocalist a cappella, including Daniel Hershey’s pliant, reedy tenor—which also supplied a solid center for his higher- and lower-voiced partners in ensembles. 

Those ensembles demonstrated the confidence and comfort these collaborators have in one another. The clean differentiation of voices in Franceso Guerrero’s “Los reyes siguen la estrella” allowed Parias’s solos to emerge from and fade naturally back into the mix. The fugal lines of Juan de Esquivel Barahona’s “Ave Maria” came through with unearthly transparency to evoke the holy side of the virgin mother. 

Several combinations of voices further showcased the group and added textural variety. Hershey and Scott’s locked harmonies on Antonio de Salazar’s vilancico “Tarará tarará” created a wholly new timbre. Parias and Rentz-Moore’s dialog flowed and pattered in Portuguese early Baroque composer Gaspar Fernandez’s “Dame albriçias, ‘mano Anton” while both displayed assured upper registers.

The guest choruses were mostly used to juxtapose a large group against the Camerata. Mexican Baroque composer’s Fabián Ximeno’s “Ay Ay Galeguiños” alternated pastoral asides over strumming guitar with bright outbursts celebrating Jesus’s birth from the three guest choruses. The Camerata’s voices growing softer with each refrain against the choruses’ sustained volume created a heartwarming effect. 

The children’s chorus—by the looks of it comprised of singers no older than 13 and as young as five years old—came to the fore in the undulating cradle song “Xicochi, Xicochi.” Composed by the sixteenth-century Portuguese-Mexican composer Gaspar Fernandez in the Nahuatl tongue of indigenous Mexicans, the blend of the light children’s voices with the unique consonants of this language gave the song a uniquely vulnerable feel.

The five instrumentalists onstage—including music director emeritus Joel Cohen playing various percussion—doubled several instruments both as accompanists and soloists. Carol Lewis played a dark, noble gamba in the instrumental recercada by Diego Ortiz, while her treble viol was a sensitive foil to the lively Azéma in “Morena me llaman.” In addition to continuo harp throughout the night, Christa Patton backed the massed choruses on bagpipes from different countries and eras. She also unveiled a smooth restrained shawm behind the ensembles in Peruvian composer’s Juan Pérez Bocanegra’s “Hanacpachap cussicuinin,” an ode to Mary in the Quechua language of native Peruvians.

In Bocanegra’s other setting of this hymn, Nathaniel Cox’s mellow cornett was spiced with fast-fingered runs. His guitar melodies alternated with upbeat cross-accented refrains in the instrumental jotta by Santiago de Murcia. Azéma and the Boston Camerata’s polyrhythmic clapping created another whooping aside in this otherwise calm evening. 

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at First Parish Church of Newbury and 4 p.m. Sunday at First Parish in Cambridge. bostoncamerata.org617-262-2092.

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