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Brotherhood of the Star

Joel Cohen
The Boston Camerata returned for the December concerts at Dumbarton Oaks this weekend. The group, founded by Joel Cohen, was actually named "America's foremost early music ensemble" by Le Monde, as opposed to one local group that apparently gave itself a similar title. The Camerata's specialty has been medieval music, although they also perform Renaissance and Baroque music. Since the early years of the historically informed performance (HIP) movement, professional groups have taken over from academic ensembles in Baroque music and, to a lesser degree, in Renaissance music. The Middle Ages, however, remains the orphan child, and with a few exceptions, the ensembles that specialize in medieval music preserve the feel of the old days, a standard of performance by devoted professors and their graduate students.

That being said, Joel Cohen has always assembled engaging programs, and his new Christmas concert, Brotherhood of the Star: A Hispanic Christmas is no different, bringing together Gregorian chant, other medieval monophony by Alfonso el Sabio, sacred polyphony from Spain and the New World, and Jewish folksong. Gospel readings from the Nativity narrative, in both Spanish and English, attempted to link together these disparate elements, but the connections among the more distant bodies of music were often tenuous at best. It worked just fine as a program appreciated only for its unusual choices, without much thinking about how it fit together (or did not) as a homogenous whole.

For a program ostensibly about the visit of the Magi, the group spent a lot of time on music dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which made a very pleasant end to my day on the feast of the Immaculate Conception as I heard the concert on Monday evening. At the opening of this part of the concert, three singers sang an anonymous polyphonic work, Reina muy esclarecida, while lined up in front of two art works in the renovated and lavishly decorated Music Room ("It sure beats high school auditoriums," as Cohen wryly noted): Tilman Riemenschneider's sculpted Virgin and Child (1521-22) and the painted Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels, an altarpiece by Bernardo Daddi (1337).

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Boston Camerata (Washington Post, December 9)
The best of the voices were the clear soprano of Anne Azéma, the newly appointed artistic director of the Boston Camerata (and also the wife of Joel Cohen), and the throatier Salomé Sandoval, who also accompanied herself on the guitar. Most of the vocal monophony was left unaccompanied, especially the Gregorian chants, which were usually sung by one voice alone. Cohen's editions of some of the other monophonic music favored a more metrical rendition, sometimes with instruments doubling the voices or adding drones or heterophonic accompaniment. Notable instrumental contributions include the shofar blasts added to the opening of the program, not even the least bizarre choice in a concert that also featured castanets, sleighbells, maracas, claves, and a hilarious mariachi-style solo on the cornetto. Even the sing-along, an adaptation in English of a Catalan folk song, was eclectic, helping to give the impression of a program that was long on fun, if somewhat short of the mark in terms of musical quality.

Boston Camerata will present Brotherhood of the Star at various sites in Massachusetts and Rhode Island this month (December 12 to 20). The next concerts on the Friends of Music series at Dumbarton Oaks will feature the U.S. recital debut of Danish pianist Jens Elvekjaer (January 11 and 12).

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