Joel Cohen became a missionary for the cause of early music nearly 40 years ago. With his ensemble, the Boston Camerata, Cohen worked to build an audience for music from the 15th and 16th centuries, as performed on the lute, viola da gamba, sackbut (a kind of Renaissance trombone), and other period instruments, and sung by singers who eschewed operatic grandeur in favor of a more intimate, often haunting sound.
As with missionary work of the religious kind, the magic and pageantry of Christmas was an enticement that lured listeners to Cohen’s cause. In 1971, the Boston Camerata first performed “A Renaissance Christmas,” and in the ensuing years that breakthrough concert of sacred music and Gospel readings has been repeated many times around the world, and twice recorded. Cohen followed it up with “A Baroque Christmas” and “A Medieval Christmas,” introducing listeners to the music of the periods before and after the Renaissance.
Today, early music is no longer on the fringes of the classical music world, but has become an influential scholarly movement as well as a form of entertainment and discovery for audiences. Capital Region concertgoers caught on to early music early on, thanks to the Boston Camerata’s annual holiday concert at Union College, now in its 20th year. This year’s performance will be a departure from the past, however. Cohen will not be in attendance, and gives over conducting duties to his wife and artistic collaborator, Anne Azéma. (Azéma, born in France, has long contributed her ethereal soprano to Camerata performances.) Next season, Cohen goes into semiretirement from the Boston Camerata, to start an education and research institute to explore connections among Christian, Jewish, and Muslim musical arts.
The Boston Camerata will appear at Memorial Chapel on the campus of Union College in Schenectady on December 16. Tickets for the 3pm concert are $25. (518) 388-6131; www.union.edu.
Joseph Dalton: Do you ever get tired of Christmas music, even from the Renaissance or Baroque?
Joel Cohen: The dilemma for musicians is always to please stop singing those silly songs at Christmas. But people have been singing silly songs for centuries. “A Renaissance Christmas” is based on a lot of magnificent music from the 16th century. There are different styles, some Catholic and Protestant church music and some in the folk or popular tradition. It’s a panorama of how people celebrate. The program is never the same, but some of the pieces have been part of the core program since 1971. And this time there’s a guest director, Anne, who’s very well known to our audiences.
Anne Azéma: Joel is going to be in Europe working on a new project, but there’s very little we’ll be changing in the program. For the cast, we’ll be bringing six old members and three new members, and I’m proud to say one new member is still a student.
So will the concert be a fair representation of what Renaissance people heard and sang?
Cohen: There’s a point of hubris from early music—that we’ll show you exactly how it sounded in the 16th century. That’s an overstatement; you can’t reconstruct the past. But by making an effort with a stylistic approach, playing and singing in a certain way, it is able to bring something about. It’s like a painting that’s been covered in dirt and varnish and we’re cleaning it off.
Is there a signature Boston Camerata sound?
Cohen: I don’t know if I can answer that, but people say there is when they hear us on the radio.
Azéma: Joel is too modest to see it. There is a Camerata sound. He’s been encouraging singing with proper tuning and language awareness. That’s one of the hallmarks of the Camerata that he’s given us, even though he’s not a singer but a lute player. When we have these period instruments, the scale has to come down to a human size. You cannot come from opera or pop music and expect to have a conversation with these instruments and make it work.
Though you’re calling it semiretirement, Joel, how does it feel to soon be moving on?
Cohen: As I look back, I’ve been able to concretize a lot of my ideas about musical repertoire and I’ve not been thwarted about getting it out. The group has a following and we’ve been able to bring many things into people’s lives.