In the summer of 1979, at a festival in the south of France, a young musicology student went to hear the Boston Camerata sing a program called “Puer natus est.” “There was magic in the air that night,” she says now. “The magic that these American performers brought to this medieval music. It was obvious that there was a deep knowledge behind the performance, but that was not what it was about.
“It wasn’t scholarly—like, ‘This is the way medieval music sounds.’ It was the essence of communicating. It was a little like seeing Gene Kelly dance—you think, ‘That’s the way it’s supposed to be.’ ”
That was the first time Anne Azéma heard the Boston Camerata. Almost four decades later, as the group’s artistic director, she leads the Camerata in a performance of the same program—this Sunday afternoon, at First Unitarian Church in Providence, part of Museum Concerts of Rhode Island.
Much has happened since then, both to Azéma and to the ensemble—founded by Joel Cohen more than six decades ago, and which Azéma has directed since 2008. But the beauty of the program, which includes vocal settings from all over Europe celebrating the Christmas season, remains true—even though Azéma has made alterations to it over the years.
“This program is made of contained, intense pieces, and some that are a little more like storytelling,” she says. “But they are all immediate, virtuosic and powerful.
“They are geographically quite varied,” she says. “Some from France, from Spain and Italy, a few from Germany. It’s a Christian program mostly, but it begins with a Jewish prophecy.
“I included this Hebrew cantillation”—a setting from Isaiah, “Kee yeled yolad lanu”—“for two reasons,” she says. “First, it’s a monody—a single line. That makes it so much different than Renaissance polyphony, but it’s a continuation of a long tradition, a human way of making music that is still going on in many cultures. And also because of its prophecy: the coming of the Christ child.”
Azéma will sing and direct, and perform on various instruments. She will be joined by soprano Camila Parias, and alto Deborah Rentz-Moore—both frequent Camerata collaborators.
“Camila is a very high soprano, with a deep background in Romance languages—very helpful for a program like this,” Azéma says. “And Deborah has a surprisingly low range—even though she can sing as high as we do. And the colors, and warmth that she has. Me—I’m somewhere stuck in the middle.”
Performances of this program can vary in scope. The Camerata has sung it on a large scale—with choruses, additional instruments and more soloists. “But for this program, it’s only three women,” she says. “We blend together so well—really, I can’t remember ever blending together so well with other singers. We’re very focused—we’ve been traveling and performing a lot together.”
Azéma is always quick to point out that while it takes tremendous scholarship even to have some idea what this music sounded like in medieval times, much is still left to the performers—and the moment.
“Aside from knowledgable choices,” she says, “and the performance practices of the period, singing this music is largely an educated guess. That’s the challenge of it, and the essence of the beauty as well.”
Museum Concerts of Rhode Island presents the Boston Camerata singing “Puer natus est—A Medieval Christmas” on Sunday, Nov. 25 at 3:30 p.m. at First Unitarian Church, 1 Benevolent St., Providence. Tickets are $8–$25. Visit museumconcerts.org.