A SLAVISH BOW TO TRADITION would have required the Boston Camerata to enter with a donkey for the anonymous “Orientis Partibus” that brought the ensemble down the aisle of the Union College Memorial Chapel Sunday afternoon. The 13th-century French song describes the movement of an ass and, as Camerata director Joel Cohen explained, such a beast was used when this was performed “during that strange week between Christmas and New Year's when everything goes topsy turvy.”
The performers are all expert at what they do, and Cohen ties the whole thing together with a brilliant sense of programming and pacing. From the opening set of three a cappella songs describing “Midnight in Bethlehem” through a second-half “Renaissance bouquet of carols and dances,” a magical mood was struck and maintained.
Lutenist Cohen leads a flock of singers and instrumentalists who often are found in one another's territory: tenor John Fleagle is likely to pick up a hurdy-gurdy; counter-tenor Michael Collver plays drum and pipe. And Cohen will like as not sing and play percussion when he's not coaxing gorgeous music from his lute. (He took only one lute solo: Adrien le Roy's “Bransle de Bourgogne,” but it was masterful.)
Of the two sopranos, Anne Azema has a voice shaded a touch darker than that of Ellen Hargis. The difference is made very effective in the single-voiced carol “Conditor en francais,” a solo which was tossed from voice to voice before the two finished in unison.
The same was true of baritones Herman Hildebrand and Richard Morrison when given the solo “Quem vidista pastores.”
In the ensemble were Carol Lewis and Alice Robbins playing the miniature cello-like
vielles and violas da gamba. Dan Stillman scurried among sacbut, krumhorn and a variety of recorders, and Jesse Lepkoff proved his recorder virtuosity with the stunning “Bransle de Champagne” that concluded the concert.
Cohen explained that for this tour many Renaissance French carols had been newly associated with their old melodies, resulting in the first performances of some of them in over 400 years. The old tradition was to set sacred carols to pop tunes (a process amusingly reversed by the beginning-of-this-century union organizers, who put new, rabble-rousing words to old hymns).
With an encore of the 18th-century “Patapan,” the Boston Camerata trooped throughout the hall and, finally, off the stage. And gave us an invigoratingly sincere spirit of Christmas that just might see us through the final barrage of holiday madness.
– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 12 December 1988