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Catching Up With The Boston Camerata, Part 1

Boston Camerata's artistic director Anne Azema and Joel Cohen, music director emeritus.

Time capsule for this episode: 1715, Music Publications

A Listener's Guide to the Renaissance Consort: Shawm

A consort combines different sized instruments of the same family or mixes instruments from different families. On this edition of Harmonia, as part of an ongoing exploration of the renaissance consort, we're focusing on the shawm.

The shawm is a woodwind instrument known to have been constructed in Europe from the twelfth through seventeenth centuries. It was first encountered by Christian pilgrims during the Crusades as they faced their Muslim opponents who used shawms and small drums called "nakers" as tools of intimidation. The resulting sound was effective – so much so, that returning Crusaders later adopted the shawm for their own processional and military music.

Shawms were also a staple of outdoor dance bands. In the fifteenth century, it was common for one or more high-pitched shawms to improvise countermelodies against popular tunes provided by the slide trumpet or sackbut. This practice helped give rise to the polyphonic basse danse.

During the 16th century, instrument makers experimented with the construction of different-sized shawms. Full families of many popular instruments had been designed and produced with success; however, the shawm proved more difficult. The size of the bass and great-bass shawms made them unwieldy; some could be ten feet long! They were played with their bells resting on the floor, and in procession, they had to be supported by a second person, (likely a young boy). Fortunately, a solution was devised: the bore (or inner chamber) could be folded back to create a shorter instrument.

Let's hear French rennaissance wind music performed by the ensemble Piffaro using soprano, alto, tenor and bass shawms paired with 2 tenor sackbuts.

Catching Up with The Boston Camerata, Part 1

The Boston Camerata is one of the longest lived early music ensembles in the world, and a major source of inspiration for audiences and early music performers alike, both in the United States and abroad. Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with Boston Camerata's current director, Anne Azéma. In 2008, Anne took over the directorship of the Boston Camerata from Joel Cohen who had overseen the ensemble's activities since 1968!

The Boston Camerata started as an educational outreach program at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1954. Anne Azéma explains:

 AA: "It was founded by Narcissa Williamson, a woman, who was working in the education department at BMFA, and I think her wish was that those beautiful early instruments that were behind glass cases in a museum would somehow get a life and start sounding, and that the collection would have an arena to be able to be played and shared with the public. That was in '54 and then by 1974, a young American composer was introduced to the Camerata as a lute player and when he came back from studying with Nadia Boulanger, he was offered the direction of the Boston Camerata (who then came out of the BMFA). His name was Joel Cohen and the rest is history!"Â

The Camerata's extensive discography, concerts, and tours convey the wonderful, long, and vibrant presence of the Boston Camerata on the early music scene, and they stay busy presenting incredibly diverse programming. Recently, performances have spanned the gamut from a music-and-dance collaboration conceived on Shaker tunes, to a musical narrative built around the archetypal figure of Alexander the Great, to a Sacred Bridges program tracing Jewish and Christian music through pre-Enlightenment times, and much, much more. Again, here's Anne Azéma:

 AA: "I must say that I'm very proud of the way that we are out there in the world. There's nothing more, more challenging and more demanding than to share all these repertoire with very different public from Turku in Finland to the south of France or to Maine in America. Very different people, with very different backgrounds and the same music. It's very interesting to see how it goes!"

During our conversation, Anne mentioned that medieval music was especially dear to her – It was in this particular repertoire where she developed her performing life as a singer. When approaching medieval music, Anne first strives to place the music in its historical, musical, and cultural context, and also to understand the language and poetic structure of the piece. But once that ground work has been laid, her primary aim is to present the music as living art.

AA: "What it boils down to is that as women and men of 2012, the thrill is that we are only but a part of a long chain of human experiences, and those poems and this music speaks to us as vividly, as passionate woman and men as it did to people of 1250 or 1310. What's interesting is that you can share with people today via this music, the same passions, the same pains the same joys, the same need to transcend your own limitation as a human being, and for me this repertoire carries it in a very powerful way in its shape, in its form, and in its music, in its energy. So that's the thrill for me. It's to discover that we haven't changed that much, and we can enjoy texts and music which were developed then and were conceived then and were performed then and it speaks to our heart and our soul in such a powerful manner."   Â

AM: "Thank you. So beautifully said."

Click here for the extended interview with Anne Azéma.

Featured recording: Vivaldi's La Cetra

Of the more than 500 concertos Antonio Vivaldi composed during his lifetime, the op. 9 violin concertos, assembled under the title La Cetra, are just a drop in the bucket. And on our featured recording, all twelve concertos from the set have been recorded by Rachel Podger and the Holland Baroque Society.

Two of these concertos include the special effect of scordatura, a musical term which literally means mis-tuning. Normally, the strings on a violin are tuned G-D-A-E, but various alternate tunings can make otherwise awkward combinations of notes possible and produce different tones and timbers from the instrument as well.

The use of scordatura was very popular among Austrian composers like Schmelzer and Biber, and since the dedicatee for Vivaldi's op. 9 was the Austrian-Habsburg emperor Charles VI, it could explain why Vivaldi chose to include the musical device in his La Cetra.

Out of all of the concertos on this recording, Podger referred to Vivaldi's scordatura-tuned B minor concerto as one of her favorites, describing it as both strong and powerful, but fragile at the same time.

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