Camerata makes up for cancellation with fine early-music program on love

The Boston Camerata, one of the world’s premier early music ensembles, performed a makeup concert at
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The Boston Camerata, one of the world’s premier early music ensembles, performed a makeup concert at Union College on Sunday afternoon.

Directed by Joel Cohen, the group was supposed to perform its annual holiday concert at Union’s Memorial Chapel in December but that concert, titled “A Renaissance Christmas,” had a snow day.

Every school kid knows some snow days must be made up, and the Camerata returned with a different theme — courtly love Middle Ages style.

Titled “Abbey of Love: Songs of the Troubadours and Trouvères (1200-1400),” the concert featured Cohen (lutes and vocals), soprano Anne Azema and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Lepkoff (flutes and recorder). The concert, part of the International Festival of Chamber Music, also included works by Guillaume de Machaut and excerpts from the Camerata’s Grand Prix du Disque “Tristan and Iseult” recording.

Lusty music of the Troubadours and Trouvères (wandering poets and musicians of the time) was heard on the first half.

Long and lovely

One of the loveliest offerings of the two sets was also the longest, a “weaving song” titled “Bele Doette” by an anonymous composer. Cohen explained that such songs tended to be lengthy because they were spun by weavers who added verse after verse as their work went on.

The song began with a lovely flute introduction and Lepkoff continued with a tastefully spun countermelody that partnered beautifully with the vocal line.

Azema’s voice has a unique, darkly rich quality that makes it perfect for early music. And it can hold an audience’s attention nicely on its own. She demonstrated that by using it effectively without accompaniment in a solo song by Thibault de Champagne titled “Pout conforter ma pesance.”

The first half included a mix of moods — the reflective “Alt a Undas,” a lament about a lost lover somewhere across the sea; the mischievous “Can I’ herba fresq,” about stealing a kiss from a sleeping lover; the humorous “Era’m Cosselhatz senhor,” about a lad whose lover also loves another (”It is better to have half of her than lose her,” he sings); and “A L’entrada del temps clar,” a toe tapper about a queen who likes to dance.

The trio opened the second half with just snippets from the Camerata’s full concert-length “Tristan and Iseult.” With a mix of song, poetry and spoken verse, the musicians condensed the old story of lovers and a love potion that gets into the wrong hands into a segment that was all of dramatic, poignant and haunting.

The concert ended with a set of five love songs penned by Machaut.

Cohen told of a priest from an old village parish near Nice who was reluctant to have the songs sung in his church during a workshop Cohen was conducting. When told Machaut was himself a priest, the parish priest replied, “Satan appears in many forms.” He finally did give permission.

Cohen fills Camerata concerts with little anecdotes like that, which is one reason performances by the ensemble are so popular. He is a walking, talking, singing encyclopedia of the music, customs and poetry from the Middle Ages and other early periods, but he is never stuffy about it. On the contrary, he has a way of introducing his music that makes it seem relevant to modern times.

After the trio performed two short encores (Eastern-sounding pieces from Morroco and Istanbul), he announced to the audience that this was his last concert as director of the Boston Camerata. Next season Anne Azema, his wife, will be at the helm.

But Cohen will be back.

“See you next Christmas,” the outgoing director said.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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