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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot like Christmas

CHRISTMAS IN MY HOUSE would seem fairly austere to you. We decorate for the holiday, but with what I consider admirable restraint. We do not allow the occasion to persuade us to watch badly animated nonsense on TV. My must-watch list includes only Alastair Sim as you-know-who and the cartoon version of “The Snowman,” because it’s brilliantly animated and only 27 minutes long, and I can plug my ears when the strident boy soprano belts forth.

Boston Camerata's Joel Frederiksen,
Dan Hershey, and John Taylor Ward.
Photo by Marc Schultz
It’s the holiday music that’s most likely to drive me crazy. No other occasion occasions so many horrible sounds, but by the time the day itself arrives, I have sated myself with what’s always my high point of the season: the annual Boston Camerata performance at Schenectady’s Union College. They’ve been bringing one of their several Christmas programs to the acoustically splendid Memorial Chapel for 25 years, and I have yet to weary of any of them.

Yesterday they concluded this year’s tour with “An American Christmas,” a program devised by group founder Joel Cohen 20 years ago, rooted in the 19th century, and yet more contemporary and holiday-appropriate than anything on the airwaves.

What keeps a performance like this fresh? It’s so well-routined that I’m sure the group could walk through it. There will be a brass call from the balcony; something will be sung early on as a processional along the aisle; the Biblical Christmas story will be recited (in one language or another) to link the tunes.

Yet the brass call – in this case, the melody of “Wayfaring Stranger” intoned by a vintage trombone – was calmly thrilling, if you can join me in imagining such a thing. The segue into the lean vocal line of  “Judicii signum,” from 10th-century Spain, was as charming as it was seemingly abrupt, but not so fast – there are melodic links, and they persisted into the 19th-century spiritual “Sinner Man.” And all this before we’d even caught sight of the performers!

Joel Frederiksen, who plays guitar (and lute, when appropriate) and sings bass, anchored the three-part a cappella anthem “The Great Day,” from the hymnal The Sacred Harp, sung with tenor Dan Hershey and baritone John Taylor Ward from atop a low plinth at the back of the chapel’s stage. Frederiksen’s voice seems to find its way into the molecular structure of the wood that surrounds us in that hall: there’s not a piece of the place that doesn’t seem to resonate, and the effect is gorgeous and majestic.

But there was even more magic in the combination of those voices. The trio shaped the song with keen interpretive effects – a subtle scoop here, a dynamic shift there, all in service to the sound and sense of it. This again was evident in a baptismal anthem, also from The Sacred Harp, in which the men were joined by soprano Camila Prias and contralto Deborah Rentz-Moore.

The full ensemble comprised seven singers, with the addition of the distinctive, reassuring voice of mezzo-soprano (and artistic director) Anne Azema and both Frederiksen and Jesse Lepkoff doing instrumental as well as vocal duty.

Lepkoff has been performing with this group for as long as I’ve been seeing their concerts, which may go back the full 25 years for me and, I’m suspecting, further for him, as Boston Camerata is celebrating its 60th season. He is also a virtuoso on whatever flute you care to hand him – in this case, a throaty wooden model – and his guitar work ranged from an austere accompaniment to Hershey’s “I Wonder as I Wander” to an unexpected, highly appropriate country feel for the spiritual “Still Water,” in a four-voice arrangement.

Still water, indeed. Rentz-Moore solo-sang the verses of the lively Shaker hymn “Pretty Home,” its refrains an a cappella combo of the three women, but, possibly inspired by the foot-taps that spread from stage to audience, she gave those verses a sensual flavor, suggesting that there’s more of the suggestive about those Shakers than ... but I can’t picture it, and neither should you.

Much from the Shakers informed this program, much from the shape-note tradition, the sound of which palls quickly on these insensitive ears. But the ensemble seems to know that, and mines an impressive variety of texture, greatly helped by the festive addition of brass.

“Bangor,” as a “Joy to the World” variant from The American Harmony is named, brought the first half to a brass-rich close; when the carol returned in its more usual guise to finish the second half, that sound seemed even richer, proving whoever wrote these charts knows horns as well as the best jazz-band arrangers.

There were other music lessons. Frederiksen demonstrated the art of putting across a strophic song with The American Vocalist’s “Hush My Babe,” to his own guitar accompaniment. The nuance of his interpretation came from his ability to play with the tension between the melodic setting and the rhythm of the words themselves, while respecting the story being told.

Why the Scottish tune “Bonnie Doon,” played by flutist Lepkoff with Chris Belluscio on trumpet and Steven Lundahl on trombone? Because the melody became “The Star of Bethlehem” when The American Vocalist got hold of it.

We – the very full house – were asked to sing along from time to time, and did so with our usual sotto-voce alacrity. We’re such fans of this kind of cultural uplift that we leap to our feet at its conclusion (or, having just joined that last “Joy to the World,” remain standing), yet we’re still Schenectady, and began hauling on our overcoats crept back onstage in the hope of offering an encore.

And we’ve been doing this long enough to hit those choruses of “Jesus, the Light of the World” without lyrics in hand. Historic American songs like these are a comparatively recent addition to the Camerata’s repertory, but once they started singing them, as Azema explained, “something happened to the way we returned to the European repertory, and something happened to the way we sing.” Thanks to all of which, something special happened to the rest of my Christmas week, and if I return to the notion that it’s usually fairly austere, you can appreciate that even Shaker-like austerity has its depth and complexity. And joy.

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