Boston group offers wealth of U.S. songs

Music: Anthems to marches will be featured in the "Liberty Tree" anthology at Smith Theatre this weekend.

March 01, 2001|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If there's a central theme linking the remarkably diverse musical interests of singer, guitarist and conductor Joel Cohen, it is that music reveals the spirit of a people and a time more vividly than anything else.

On the Erato recording label, Cohen and his 11-member consort of singers and players called the Boston Camerata have explored such fascinating topics as the liturgical intimacy shared by Christians and Jews of the Middle Ages ("The Sacred Bridge," 1990); the spiritual aspirations of the 18th-century American Psalter ("The American Vocalist," 1992), and the core values of Shakerism ("Simple Gifts," 1995).

But perhaps the most rousing Camerata offering is "Liberty Tree," released by Erato in 1999. It is that inspiring anthology of American part songs, anthems, ballads, marches and jigs dating from the Revolutionary period to the eve of the Civil War that Maestro Cohen will conduct at 8 p.m. Saturday, when his Boston Camerata takes the Smith Theatre stage under the aegis of Candlelight Concerts of Columbia.

Cohen has culled the "Liberty Tree" program from a variety of early American prints and songbooks, and the result is a musical profile of a young country rushing headlong into the process of political and aesthetic self-discovery.

Some of the songs to be sung on Saturday's program will be familiar ones. The authentic "Yankee Doodle" is on the bill (one would hope, with its naughty fourth and fifth verses intact); and you'll also recognize rough-hewn American takes on such European ditties as "Auld Lang Syne" and "Greensleeves."

The nationalistic light of American patriotism burned brightly in snappy odes such as "The Liberty Tree," with a text by Thomas Paine rallying his countrymen in the cause of freedom.

Social justice was another early American theme. The feminist cause was no stranger to our 18th-century ancestors, as we hear in the "The Rights of Women," an anthem sung to the tune of "God Save the King." Cohen has unearthed some early songs of the abolitionist movement as well.

One of the most fascinating ditties is "Ode to Science," an upbeat anthem that offers quite a commentary on America's glowingly optimistic vision of itself on the cusp of the 19th century.

What has made "Liberty Tree" and the other Boston Camerata recordings so remarkable is that the conductor's acumen as a historian is more than matched by the superb musicianship of the singers. Technical matters are handled with the greatest dispatch, and the bright enthusiasm of the voices just keeps on coming.

In their programs so chock-full of music and historical scholarship, Joel Cohen and his Boston Camerata offer the highest standards of both.

Candlelight Concerts presents the vocal and instrumental group the Boston Camerata in a performance of "Liberty Tree" at 8 p.m. Saturday at Smith Theatre on the campus of Howard Community College in Columbia. A free pre-concert lecture will be offered at 6:30 p.m. General admission is $24. Senior citizens pay $18, and students $9. Information: 410-715-0034 or 301-596-6203.

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