The Boston Camerata’s Friday night return to Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the International Festival of Chamber Music is usually seen as a great way to get into the season’s mood. But Joel Cohen, the group’s founder, told the large crowd that after the day’s horrific shootings at an elementary school in Connecticut, he wanted to dedicate the concert to children everywhere and that they live in peace.
Consequently, the first few songs of the program, which was to celebrate a Hispanic Christmas, had a special haunting quality to them. These included a 20th-century Turkish Jewish a cappella chant that tenor Daniel Hershey intoned with exquisite care from the stage. This invited five members of the group, who were at the back of the hall, to slowly make their way down the aisle singing and playing “Madre de Deus” by the 13th-century King of Castille, Alfonso el Sabio. They were sopranos Anne Azéma and Salomé Sandoval, gambist Carol Lewis, guitarist Olav Chris Henriksen and Cohen.
Michael Collver added some calls on his cornetto from the balcony and bass Donald Wilkinson joined in with the Gregorian chant “O oriens” from the other balcony.
Most of the songs were strophic and often in unison. Renaissance-era songs were melismatic and modal. Many, because of the Spanish connection, had catchy rhythms and multi-meters. The group was polished and balanced. The singers were in excellent voice with clear tones and wide ranges; and the instrumentalists, who played everything from early guitars and lutes to recorders and a hurdy gurdy, were very adept.
The program moved right along, interspersed with spoken verse about the Christmas story, instrumentals, a cappella numbers and songs with everyone. The material covered several centuries.
Everything sounded good, but some seemed to touch the crowd more. These included Alfonso el Sabio’s upbeat “Pois que dos...”; the vibrant 19th-century Catalonian “La verge s’està...”; an anonymous 16th-century “Yo me soy la morenica,” which popped with Spanish flavor and showed off Sandoval’s exotic flair (she’s from Venezuela); and the equally flavorful “Riu riu chiu” that everyone performed.
After intermission, there were several songs from Mexico and Peru and more instrumentals, like Sebastián de Murcia’s hot “Cumba” (1700) and Diego Ortiz’s more dolorous “Recercada” that featured Lewis. But Juan Guiterrez de Padilla’s “Gallego: Si al…” was pretty; Antonio de Salazar’s “Tarara, tarara” bounced along; and Juan de Arauo’s “Los coflades …” was rollicking. The audience even had a chance in “Què li darem?” which had an English refrain.