Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Boston Camerata in Paris

Philharmonie de Paris. W. Beaucardet photograph

Philharmonie de Paris. W. Beaucardet photograph

Ten years is a long time. Sixty-four years, much longer. 

It’s been a decade since Anne Azéma became artistic director of the Boston Camerata—and more than six decades since the Camerata began performing. Both are a measure for the group’s profound impact on early music, and part of the reason why the Camerata will participate in a particularly memorable series of events—“Boston Weekend” in Paris, hosted by the Philharmonie de Paris—this September.

The weekend also features the touring Boston Symphony Orchestra, and includes two performances by each group, lecture presentations and collaborative rehearsals.

“The Camerata’s love affair with Paris began more than a generation ago,” Azéma says, “but among our many concert appearance in that town, this current invitation is the most exciting of all.”

Born in France, now a longtime resident of the United States, the accomplished Azéma created two programs for the weekend: The City on the Hill, spotlighting the earliest religious music of the colonies, and Liberty Tree, a pastiche of revolutionary music from the young republic.

Emmanuel Hondré, director of programs for the Philharmonie de Paris, helped conceive the two presentations. “Since it opened the Philharmonie de Paris has organized thematic weekends like mini-festivals,” Hondré says. “It was in that spirit that we conceived two programs in which utopian ideas, and the group conscience, would be brought to life in music.

“I chose to create a portrait of Boston when the Boston Symphony Orchestra was able to be here, and give two concerts. The invitation to Anne stands as counterpoint to that, something that delves into the European cultural sources of the city.”

The Philharmonie de Paris occupies a vast performing arts facility—the Cité de la Musique—that boasts concert halls, rehearsal studios, exhibition areas, and other public places. Opened in 2015, the largest of the spaces is the innovative Grande Salle Pierre Boulez, which has 2,400 seats—the furthest away being only 32 meters from the stage. The complex has multiple performance halls; the Camerata will perform in Le Studio.

The Boston Camerata has deep roots in France, where Azéma also leads the ensemble Aziman, and in the rest of the world, for that matter. The group’s regular Boston-area subscription season has always been augmented by tours: frequently to Europe; in 2016 to Brazil; and almost annual tours of North America. The ensemble played in Paris at the Palais de Chaillot with the Finnish dance company of Tero Saarinen in 2014, the Camerata’s 60th anniversary season, and at the Théâtre de Ville the following season.

The City on the Hill program will be a new curation; Liberty Tree is an older Camerata program that Azéma says “has be revised by about one quarter.” Profoundly researched and well thought out—a given with the ensemble—both programs reflect the Camerata’s longtime concerns: musical scholarship, and performance practice. 

Not to mention current politics, which are rarely absent from a Camerata program. As an example, here’s the description of this fall’s upcoming “Roman de Fauvel” program: “Hear the the orange animal Fauvel as he travels to NowhereLand.” Touché.

Liberty Tree, to be performed at Le Studio on Sept. 15, recalls the American revolution. “With this commission, Emmanuel said, ‘Do your magic.’ ” Azéma says. “The music dates from about 1630 to about the Civil War. But it looks back in a different way than the original program.

“The original program dates back 20 years,” Azéma says, “and things have changed. Much of the music is different, but we have also changed our ideas about liberty and tyranny now.”

Settings from William Billings and Jeremiah Ingalls might ring a bell with some readers, but for the most part the music come from “citizen-composers,” as Azéma calls them. The tunes, written for musical amateurs, are sometimes “maladroit, elementary, full of ‘faults,’ ” she says.

“This music is about the soul of the American founding generation,” she says. “It’s rough-hewn. This kind of program is inherently in our style.”

City on the Hill offers early hymns and spirituals, many with musical origins brought to America by the 17th century Europeans. It has been designed as a participatory concert, and includes audience preparation sessions in advance of the performance. “Not only will audience participation be encouraged, but a pre-concert session to rehearse willing audience members comes with the price of a ticket,” Azéma says. 

“We try to get them out of the concert hall experience. This has been important for me, in my tenth anniversary,” Azéma says. “This past year I’ve tried to see how we place ourselves on the stage, what it means to be in a concert situation. This program idea came directly from the Philharmonie.”

“We wanted to work with a surrounding hall,” Hondré says, “to bring to life the schema of the religious spaces of the period. This will allow intimate contact between the musicians and the audience.”

When it’s pointed out that the phrase “City on the Hill” may resonate as a Reagan-Era slogan—it was co-opted by that administration for his vision of America—Azéma is quick to respond. “I’m definitely not a Reaganite,” she points out. “I took my cue from John Winthrop. It’s an idea that Winthrop and others had, that everyone would be looking at this new land, and that we would be like a City on the Hill.

“They are all religious works,” she says, referring to the Shaker, Universalist and Puritan hymns she has adapted for the program. “They are joined together by the idea of American exceptionalism. And also because the spirit of dissent is Calvinistic, in a way that is intimately linked with Boston.

“Politics and music are one context,” she says, “that’s the lovely part of being an early music performer. Several pieces are really amateur recycling of pre-existing tunes, some originally used for liturgy. In ‘City on the Hill,’ we sing the ‘Yankee Doodle’ tune with new lyrics. That’s how it worked for political slogans—people knew the tune, and heard it in a new context, a political context.”

The arrangement of the hall, and the relationship between performer and listener, are at the heart not only of this performance, but a touchstone for Azéma as she reflects on her decade of directorship. 

“We are in a different cultural context now,” she says, talking about the audience/performer dynamic. “The public and the younger generation remind us that lots of music-making has been lazy.

“I spend most of my life performing music that was never destined for a concert hall. Most of this repertoire does not come from the premise that the performer and the audience are facing each other. That has to be re-examined. If you think about it in that context, it gives you wings. And the first question to address is moving the seating arrangement.”

The interest in what performing—or participating in music—was like, gets balanced by the impact of revisiting history. “The reason I’m interested in early music is its intrinsic beauty,” she says. “But there is strong momentum in looking backward, and being able to invent forward.

“As is the case of many of our programs,” she says, “there is a powerful narrative in the music-making. I find that reassuring. Our limited, short span of time here is made better by grasping what happened before us.

“If you can do that in music, whilst forgetting your everyday worries, you can put yourself back in context. You can transcend your limitations. And at the same time ease off your worries and pain, not just by distracting you, but by answering some of the questions.”

It seems an indication that ideas about period performance have matured for Azéma—not necessarily simply gained additional scholarship and authority, although that may be true. But shifted from factually recreating past performances, to a notion of what performing actually can be.

“When I talk about historically informed performance, I prefer to call it ‘informed performance,’ ” she says. “I often tell people that I make music of earlier styles and of later styles. The concept has grown. I know it was important two generations ago to acquire the appropriate instruments, and the technical tools, to make the music sound with its own weight and colors. We spent lots of energy trying to prove things right or wrong.

“And when Joel (Cohen, the Camerata’s artistic director for more than 40 years) introduced American music to our repertoire, we thought ‘What’s that?’ But it changed our ability to relate to music. We were able to relate to its own vernacular. Sometimes in early music that connection is missing.

“Il faut faire feu de tout bois,” she says, shifting into her native language for precision. “Make use of everything. All styles serve each other, and are necessary. The barriers that are sometimes put there have to fall.

“The wheel seems to reinvent itself every day,” Azéma says, referring of course to fortune’s wheel, which figures in many other Camerata programs. “Art has a way of transcending. Tyranny hasn’t invented itself in 2017, or ’16. People have struggled and won before.”

Hondré concurs, and had this notion in mind when formulating ideas about the Boston in Paris weekend. “These are fundamental ideas that merit regular reminders,” he says. “Especially at a time when America, and the European countries, have a tendency toward isolationism.”

“I’m a migrant, half French, so I look at those things with an admiring eye,” Azéma says, referring to the hearty dissent, and the rallying cries, of early American musics. “I come from a society that is much different than America. I really have always looked at this young republic with admiration.

“I wasn’t thinking of a French audience when I did City on the Hill, but I did want to make sure that they would see that American discourse is not necessarily unified. Dissent is important. My strength as an artist is knowing where I come from.”

And where she is going—or at least, how long she will be going in that direction. Azéma by no means feels like her time as Camerata director is coming to an end, but she has thought about it. 

“Today could be the last day,” she says. “It’s a philosophy of life you get, when you pass certain landmarks.

“In the past ten years I’ve created 16 new programs, and gone back to repertoire and made it live. I’ve played with magnificent old-timers, and many new faces. We’ve toured in Brazil, in the U.S., in France, all over Europe and Canada. And now for the next ten years we need to continue exploring—that’s why we do early music, creating a context, and exploring it in performance. There’s nothing like live performance.

“It’s been a long process, and I’ve been mentored by may people, as a singer and as a director. My job is to foster that notion in someone, one of the new faces who will be the next Camerata director.”

The Boston Camerata performs Sept. 15 and 16 at the Philharmonie de Paris as part of the Boston in Paris weekend. The weekend include two performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and collaborations with le Choeur de Femmes de Radio France, and Maîtrise de Radio France. Performances will also include chamber collaborations with Ensemble intercontemporain. For complete information on those performances visit philharmoniedeparis.fr/en/programming/thematic-weekends/boston-weekend. 

The Boston Camerata’s first American performances this fall will be Oct. 28 at First Church in Boston. Visit www.bostoncamerata.org.

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