Sampling aural artifacts

Review: The Boston Camerata tours America's musical past.

March 05, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It's not easy making a history lesson palatable to a traditional classical music audience. Lots of folks resent being "educated" at concerts, one reason so many musical organizations stick to basic, hit-parade stuff. On the other hand, lots of musicians lack the imagination and communicative skills to devise engaging ways of broadening a listener's horizons.

So it was doubly satisfying to catch a winning combination of history and entertainment in the Candlelight Concerts in Columbia. Saturday's concert was by the Boston Camerata, a superb ensemble of singers and instrumentalists who never seem to tire of digging into the musical past.

Over the years, the group, directed by Joel Cohen, has explored plenty of European material. But Cohen and the camerata have also made an uncanny connection to the secular and sacred repertoire of early America, from Shaker hymns to political ditties.

It's not just a matter of pulling out old sheet music or hymn books. It's more a matter of entering the psyche of the times, approaching the music not as gawking tourists, but soul-mates. Unlike a museum filled with marvelous furniture that you're not allowed to touch, a Boston Camerata program suggests a historic, early American home (or church) where you can sit down and get comfortable, right up close to the aural artifacts. Saturday's audience even got to sing along at times (and did so with increasing enthusiasm).

Americans often feel a little sheepish about their musical past. The argument goes that nothing really original happened musically until ragtime and then jazz sprang up; everything else was just rehashed European stuff. Not so.

As Cohen demonstrated so ably in a program that covered roughly the period between the Revolutionary and the Civil wars, there is something at once old and new in our first musical legacy. Roots in traditional folk music from overseas are readily apparent, especially the British Isles, but there's often a twist - an extra bite to the spare harmony, an extra dollop of sentiment or humor. There really is no mistaking this music as anything but American.

The concert relished all of these distinctions. Religious items were delivered with a disarming naturalness and a sense of how easily matters of faith fit into early American life. Patriotic songs about Washington and Jefferson came across as genuine, never corny.

And, in a neat twist, Cohen tossed in a dose of everything-old-is-new-again - including a 1793 song called "Rights of Woman," set to the tune of "My Country 'Tis of Thee," and an 1823 charmer called "Friendly Union," advocating a tolerance of different religions and viewpoints that has still not been realized. Cohen sang that last one himself, charmingly.

The rest of the program featured the warm-hearted singing of sopranos Anne Azema and Margaret Frazier, mezzo Deborah Leath Rentz, tenor Timothy Leigh Evans, baritone Donald Wilkinson and bass Joel Frederiksen. Among the colorful, sensitive instrumentalists, Robert Mealy's fiddle playing was particularly winsome.

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