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Out Of The Glass Case: A Conversation With Anne Azéma

Anne Azema, artistic director of the Boston Camerata.

AM: I’m talking with Anne Azéma, director of the Boston Camerata. Welcome to Harmonia!

AA: Thanks for having me.

AM: I’d love to talk about the history of the Boston Camerata which is one of the longest lived and most successful early music ensembles in the world. In fact, you know being from Massachusettes myself, I can remember the Camerata’s concerts being a major inspiration for me as a young person wanting to pursue early music, I wonder if you could say a little bit about the history.

AA: I think the Camerata's been an inspiration for many of us, here in America and even abroad. The Camerata was started interestingly enough as a “reach out” educational venture at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston in 1954. It was founded by Narcissa Williamson, a woman who was working in the education department at the MFA, 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 a n 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 MFA; his name was Joel Cohen and the rest is history. And then a few years after that an European singer living in America was offered the directorship, and then I came in.

AM: The BC had an incredible busy year in 2011. Do I understand you did 5 tours?

AA: We did. We did, indeed. It was one of the busiest seasons, and I must stay there is something extraordinary in being able to travel so much with our productions and also continue within our mission, of course, to share so many different repertoires because I think what makes us unique in a way, aside from the longevity of the group, is the fact that we are presenting so many different repertoires that we’ve reached out in many directions, and so in a tour that we did this year, we started in February with an Americana tour performing a commission by the Cité de la Musique in Paris with a program based on patriots and American heroes on the foundation of the young Republic. Then we followed with a tour in…again with Americana and more specifically with Shaker songs, (in collaboration with the Tero Saarinen Company all over Europe from Finland to Holland via Germany and France) of the ballet that Tero Saarinen conceived on Shaker songs that we’ve been performing. We will reprise this performance next July 2012 at a return at Jacobs’s Pillow festival in western Massachusetts. And we have other projects for 2013 of that same production, which has now toured four continents, and I think we’ve performed it over 60 times now.

And then we continue with more Americana, believe it or not, return to France with another repertoire having to do with secular and non-liturgical spiritual American music, then we did some medieval music because medieval music is also a great part of our repertoire. It’s always been part of the Camerata repertoire, but you may know that I look upon this repertoire with a very keen eye; this is where I developed my performing life as a singer. It’s a repertoire that’s dear to my heart. Then we returned again with another Americana tour, again with Borrowed Light with Tero Saarinen Dance Company, and on and on—and I must say 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.

AM: I was very interested in that when I was reading about these programs. I’m interested to know how an American early music group is received by a European audience in Europe especially in terms of some of these programs, for example you mention the one about patriots and American heroes. What were your observations about how it was received?

AA: I may want to share two things on this question, which is a very relevant one and a good one. The first one is that a lot of the early music world was developed in Europe thanks to American luminaries. Tom Binkley is one, but there are others after him. So there have always been vivid bridges between America, American academia, and American performers and the early music world in Europe.

The second thing I wanted to share is that the very first time that the Boston Camerata sung American music, it was when we were invited by the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris and the director of the Théâtre de la Ville had given kind of a carte blanche to Joel Cohen the director of the time, saying, “Hey we know you! Just come and do us a concert!” And Joel was in the middle of really taping, very intensively, American music at that time; it was in the late 90’s… And I remember that we came in the hall which was filled up to the brim, and there was a bit of a tension in the hall, actually. And you could feel that people were like, “Well, what is that American music!?” There were a bit of worry in a way, and we started singing, and within 3 minutes it was as if the hall as a giant muscle had completely relaxed and let go and said, “Oh! That’s what it is! We love it, we like it, we can understand it!” And when we did Patriots and Heroes, (Saw ye me my hero), the program the Cité de la Musique commissioned for us in February, I told the director of the hall, right away, “You know, let’s do what we’ve done last November in Boston, which is this art being participatory in its essence. The public will need to at some point be with us. Make music with us, and dance! At the end, dance with us!” And the director of the hall said, “Well, honey, that’s good for Americans, but you’re in Paris.” I said, “Let us try!” We tried and we did it! They danced with us at the end, and they got a fuller picture of what music and music making and a cultural event in the late 18th century and early 19th century America might have been like.

AM: It’s so wonderful when you can get an audience involved that directly. And they have such a personal experience of it with the dancing and so on. It’s just wonderful.

AA: I think this is the landmark for the Boston Camerata. For these concerts we push the envelope a little bit, if you will. But in general, like Narcissa Williamson in way in the 50’s, for us, music is not something to be admired in glass case, you know, with a very careful and very precious way of taking care of it. We need to get out of the glass case, and we live in an era which when it’s absolutely crucial that we share this music as a living thing as it was then, 1250, or 1790, and that the public has a part in it. And that’s where the Camerata's work, I think, is fascinating to me, and the challenge is, but also the vision for the seasons to come, is that the concert arena where you have artists on stage far, far away sharing with you the most beautiful and precious thing is not enough. It’s necessary, perhaps, up to a point, but then sharing and asking the public to take part and to reflect with us, be moved with us, sing with us sometimes in some of our programs, move with us in other programs or be witnesses is very important part of our work, and I believe deep down that that’s where we’ll bridge with new eras of music making.

AM: That’s so wonderful, and it leads me right to the next thing I wanted to ask you about which is the medieval music because you mentioned that was especially dear to you, and I know that in addition to your work with the Camerata, you’ve done a number of recordings collaboration with instrumentalists such as Shira Kammen and so on, on medieval music, and that whole idea of presenting it as kind of living art is something that I think you do so well, and I wonder if you would talk about medieval music and making that music alive to your audience as well.

AA: Again, there are perhaps a couple of ideas to share... I think that early music became part of our music picture in general in America and in Europe when some generations past were looking for an another way to share their music making, other way than the mainstream music making – symphony music, or chamber music quartets, quintets and so for and so on, or choral music. And discovery of older repertoire and the ability to be able to present this older repertoire in concert was a thrill for them. It was incredible! And it’s—their work is essential for what we can do today, and what we’ll do tomorrow.

For medieval music, I think again all the work that you need to do to approach this repertoire, like you would an instrument in the glass case (we’re back to the same image) is needed. In other terms, you do need to know what’s the facture, how it’s made, the structure the poetic structure, the language approach the historical context, the music context, the cultural context, and so forth and so on. But, once that work is done, and once that is place and you’ve made your choices, editorial choices and so forth and so on…What is 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.

AM: Thank you. So beautifully said.

Perhaps we should talk a moment to talk about some of the sound files—some of the musical excerpts that you’ve brought.

AA: Sure. I missed something when I talked about the 5 tours. I missed the Reims residency, where we were invited to feast the 800th anniversary of the cathedral, and the festival in Reims and the town of Reims commissioned us for five new programs to honor the cathedral. We did the Machaut mass there and a couple of other secular programs...Machaut and Gauthier d’Espinal, as well for secular music, Thibault de Champagne, and we have some music already in our discography to illustrate some of that, for example, Dou tres douz nom, … from Thibault de Champagne. I think it’s pretty amazing as an American ensemble to be invited to feast this jewel of French architecture and this center of French music that Reims was in the 12th and 13th century.

AM: Yes, it’s a great honor.

AA: It’s a great honor, and I’m very proud that we were able to do that.

AM: Well, I’m thinking what we should do now is play the music.

AA: Good! This is the piece called the “Harvest Hymn” by Jeremiah Ingalls. Jeremiah Ingalls is the, was published in Exeter, New Hampshire, so he’s a northeast composer. And it’s excerpted from “The Christian Harmony.” The harvest of souls at the last judgment is a very frequently used theme in early American sacred song, and it’s probably, this tune is probably derived from an English type tune, but the treatment is absolutely American.

AM: Isn’t it interesting all of these wonderful octaves and fifths.

AA: Ah, that’s where you see, you see that where for me as a European, when I first heard that, it’s like if a house had fallen on me because it’s in a way so reminiscent of earlier polyphonies—at the same time, clearly atavistic, I mean, clearly American, that I never came back from that shock. So you were asking me earlier about how an American ensemble is received in Europe. I’m definitely a European, I was brought up in Europe, I now live in America, but it’s clear that you do have these bridges inerrant in the music as well, and one feeds the other. I find that fascinating in many of these American pieces that you have those bridges with the Old World. And what’s also interesting is that the work of the Camerata started on those bridges very early on. Because if I recall correctly, Joel Cohen, developed New Britain , probably in the late 70’s where already he was looking for these roads, in between and above the puddle, and successfully so, actually. I remember when the early music movement was sort of looking for itself and in a way was interested in developing only parts of the repertoire very well, and it’s good to do that, but I do keep very deep joy in having your looks set on several repertoires at the same time, and one feeds the other if you want. And what you learn on one repertoire may very well help another, and sometimes do more than help, you know.

AM: Yes!

AA: And so it’s an ongoing conversation with us that to keep an eye and an ear on all these different repertoire is probably what’s fed all of it so well.

AM: What you’re saying about the shock of recognition happens the other way around to, because as Americans, some of us who grew up you know singing hymns in churches and so on and so forth, and then the first time we hear this Medieval music, we think, “Wait a minute, there’s something in there, it’s definitely different but at the same time there’s something in there that I identify with, there’s something in there that feels familiar to me…” and that interesting exchange works both ways.

AA: I have to illustrate this point, I have from “Traveling home”, number 25, “Ontario”, which is based on a theme that’s very dear to me, which is the theme of travels and journeys that we’ve developed several programs around that. Distant Haven, Alexander is also developed around travels and voyages. Ontario is piece which is an American piece, but you will recognized another piece presented before, even though it’s printed in America that form, and it comes from the Mennonite hymnody repertoire and I believe it comes actually from Elkhart, Indiana.

AM: Yeah, that would make sense, that Mennonite…yeah.

AA: Yes, Elkhart Indiana, from the Philharmonia published from 1875. Perhaps we could listen to Ontario.

AM: Yes, please!

AM: It’s so interesting when how when we contrast that with the previous one with this one you get that beautiful chorale texture.

AA: Absolutely, but I have another example if you want, of Scottish connection which is a less square and less you know much more American.

AM: Is that second piece from the Scottish tradition or is that… it sounds…

AA: No, that’s an American piece!

AM: I was just going to say that sounds like an American shape note hymn to me.

AA: So we heard “Scots Wha Ha’e,” which is form Scotland, 18th century, sung by William Hite, which is the Scottish piece that is fairly well known, and then we heard “Bruce’s Address” from the New Harp of Columbia in Nashville, 1867, an America piece, with those beautiful crossing of the tenor and the open, and those very square ways of creating polyphony, which indeed comes from England where we had the trio, the favorite trio in England, tenor-tenor-bass, and then once in America that got developed tenor-tenor-bass added with women, of course, because this is America! And then an alto voice developed as they went along.

AM: Its’ so interesting that particular styles of early American hymnody, and also the shape note singing. It’s interesting how it’s associated in some cases with southern America and yet with the shape note singing, you have this flourishing practice of that up in New England, but now you have groups that take part in singing this all over the country. There’s a group apparently down here in west Texas that meets regularly to sing these things. So it’s become a real America phenomenon as well.

AA: I think it’s wonderful/ I think this is this countries Repertoire and it should be as you know part of the regular music making and if we’ve taken part in trying to raise attention and bring it back, I’m very proud of that.

AM: And you have. It’s wonderful.

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