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Putting the joy back in the season: Boston Camerata’s Joel Cohen.

Welcome Yule
By B.A. Nilsson

Boston Camerata
Union College Memorial Chapel, Dec. 17

How long ago Christmas now seems! Part of my strategy for surviving the commercialized crush of the holiday is a seat at the annual Boston Camerata concert at Union College—a centerpiece of the excellent concert series.

Antique instruments and gorgeous voices are the raw materials for Boston Camerata director Joel Cohen’s musical explorations, which range way beyond holiday music—but what he and his group do for Christmas is so tasteful, so well-chosen and performed, that it strips away all the many thick layers of entertainment goo that clog our ears.

Christmas is a sacred event; it’s a secular event. With the wide-ranging theme, a Renaissance Christmas, we visited the worshipers and merrymakers of 16th- and 17th-century Europe.

Sometimes the two intersected, as in the Magnificat quinti toni by the 16th-century Leipzig-based Johannes Galliculus. Following an old German tradition, the text of the Magnificat sports interpolated Christmas carols, switching from Latin to German for the slightly more raucous pop stuff.

While most of the program was presented in a fairly staid stand-and-sing manner, the group cut loose in Tura lura lura, lo gau canta, a Provençal carol from the 17th century. Still sung in Provence, it’s the plaint of a peasant en route to Bethlehem. Cohen took the role of the peasant, adding a goofy hat to signify simplemindedness, and the piece was lightly staged, using proscenium and center aisle. It couldn’t have been more engaging.

Cohen and company always make good use of the Memorial Chapel’s splendid acoustics, and the concert opening—Tomas Luis de Victoria’s enchanting O Magnum Mysterium—began with unseen voices in the back of the balcony.

Soprano Anne Azéma has a lovely huskiness to her bell-like voice, and in a solo like the anonymous Joseph est bien marié, sung to a drone, she is a riveting performer (here we heard the antecedent to the carol “Ding Dong Merrily on High.”)

The men’s voices also were distinctive in solos and nicely blended. Countertenor Michael Collver, tenor Dan Hershey, baritone Donald Wilkinson and bass Nicholas Isherwood filled out the sound with a good range of color.

And we heard a wide range of instrumental color. As always, Cohen provided a backbone with the difficult-to-master lute, along with Carol Lewis’ continuo on treble and bass viol. Karen Walthinsen switched between violin and the more nasal-sounding vielle throughout the concert, which is hard enough to do just from concert to concert.

With Mack Ramsey on sackbut (or recorder) and Collver picking up the mute cornet (and a range of percussion among the other singers), the group jammed on “Greensleeves,” proving that the antecedents of jazz go back further than we often reckon.

Later in the program, the audience sang “Greensleeves”—holiday-usurped, of course, as “What Child Is This,” another tradition with Boston Camerata, and one that always finds the crowd in vigorous voice.

From the raucous hand-clap accompanied song of the wolf (the Spanish Riu riu chiu) to the lovely Praetorius settings, the concert couldn’t have been more friendly or accomplished. It wiped away three weeks’ worth of those horrible mall-imposed bouts of “It’s a Marshmallow World” and strengthened us for the worst of it, that final shopping week. It’s a holiday essential.

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