Arts/Literature

Christmas music (13)–Best Boston Camerata Christmas album

This is hard. There are so many to choose from. We started going to their concerts in the 1970s when we were living in Providence, and have been going for decades, actually, including their occasional forays to London. A couple of years ago we timed our trip to Boston so we could hear their Christmas concert, as well as go to the Revels for the first time in a couple of years. The Camerata is responsible for the best bunch of Christmas music ever to have been recorded by a single American group, so I’ll just mention the highlights–A Medieval Christmas, A Renaissance Christmas, Noel (medieval French), Sing We Noel (early American and English), An Early American Christmas, A Mediterranean Christmas. They’re all great. Blue light special for bargain shoppers–you can get a threesome set (Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque) cheap at this time of year. I guess if I had a favorite, it would be Sing We Noel. But that old Medieval Christmas has held up well for well over thirty years now, and it’s still one of the best Christmas albums out there.

Why is Boston so musical? I have no idea, but it is. It probably has more singing groups per capita than anywhere else in the US, and perhaps else, period. The group I sang with, Musica Sacra, was really good–but just one of about a dozen really good groups in the immediate Boston area (in the case of Musica Sacra, Cambridge, actually). They’re still going strong without me, thankfully, and you just missed their Christmas concert (but tyou can the good old city Chamber Choir right here in London next Tuesday). It’s a New England thing, I think–most New England areas have lots of singing groups, and then there are the music schools in Boston, along with Tanglewood and everything else. And in New England’s case, we’re talking about a couple of hundred years of musical tradition. It’s one of the things that makes some of us think that Boston is the best American city. Singers galore! If you’re a singer in the US, it’s as good a reason as any to move to Boston. At the moment, the unemployment situation isn’t any worse in Boston than anywhere else in the US anyway—you might as well live in a place where you can do what you want to do really, which is sing.

Camerata performances have changed over the years, and I’m a bit ambivalent about that. Back in the 1970s these were large, occasionally boisterous affairs, with up to a couple of dozen singers up on the stage, depending on the program. Over time the quality has improved some, no doubt—that’s what musical groups are supposed to do—but this has also been accompanied by a decrease in the number of singers. Maybe this is because it just becomes harder to sustain the costs of a larger group—heaven knows how symphony orchestras manage to pull this off. But I suspect part of it may be the increased emphasis on authenticity that has emerged in early music performance over the past few decades as well. I’m sure the academic justification for this approach is apparent, and I would understand it completely if someone were to explain it to me. Still, there are times when we miss the chaotic cheerfulness of some of those early performances.

Joel Cohen, who founded the Camerata back in the early 1970s, recently retired as Musical Director, turning things over to the capable hands of his partner, Anne Azéma. So we have every expectation that the Camerata will continue to thrive. They do show up in London from time to time, but erratically, although they spend part of every summer in France. The last time we saw them here they were accompanying the Tero Saarinen Dance Company dance troupe in Borrowed Light, a series of dances inspired by Shaker Music, which the Camerata now have several CDs of. And for those of you in the Boston area, the Christmas concerts start this coming weekend. It’s a Mediterranean Christmas this year, one of their best themes.

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