Boston Camerata’s ‘Liberty Tree’: Early Americana In Paris

Themed mini-festivals are a fixture of programming at the Philharmonie de Paris. The long-established early music ensemble Boston Camerata adapted one of its Revolutionary War era programs, “Liberty Tree,” for a weekend focused on Boston.

PARIS – For its mid-September Boston Weekend, the Philharmonie de Paris invited two entirely different Boston-based ensembles, the intimate Boston Camerata and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to present a total of five concerts, one lecture, and one children’s educational activity. Although many of the concerts involved collaborations with French forces, I attended the concert presented solely by Americans, the Boston Camerata’s Liberty Tree, on Sept. 15.

Anne Azéma, center, checks out Le Studio with Camila Parias, Deborah Rentz-Moore.

The concert was held in Le Studio, the extremely resonant smallest hall of the complex, the design of which places artists on a wooden floor that is flanked on three sides by attendees. The largest group of audience members sits in tiered rows of seats facing stage front, while the remainder sits in the smaller side sections’ rows, all situated on floor level. Given the concert’s open seating arrangement, I checked with an usher before doors opened and learned that the best sound was either in the first three rows of the center section or in the two side sections. My husband and I snared seats in the first row, just slightly off-center, which offered clear, open, and color-filled acoustics whose abundant resonance suggested that the sound may grow unfocused in seats higher above floor level.

Although I admit to some trepidation at the thought of attending a concert of “Music and hopes of the young American Republic (1770-1870)” during the reign of Trump, the feeling between the audience of perhaps 150-175 people and the ensemble of 11 was one of warmth and appreciation. That the ensemble’s director, French-born Anne Azéma, introduced each section of the program in French undoubtedly contributed to the sense of embrace that figuratively transformed the high-ceilinged space into an oversized salon.

Some of the music was first recorded by the ensemble in 1997.

The program,  which is substantially based on the ensemble’s 1997 recording of the same name, began and ended with marches – the Shaker “Trumpet of Peace,” during which singers and a fife-and-drum corps of six marched into the room from behind the audience – and “Ode to Science.” Azéma and director emeritus Joel Cohen divided the afternoon of part-songs, marches, anthems, jigs, and ballads into five sections: Rally and Rebellion, The Battles and Their Prize, The African-American Experience and Repentance, Rich and Poor, and Arise Columbia! Given that melody and lyrics of virtually every selection were rather simple and, in the case of the five Shaker selections, charmingly plain, Azéma created variety by interspersing a cappella and accompanied vocals with different instrumental combinations.

She achieved further variety by alternating solos, duos, and full ensembles, and switching between the three women (soprano Camila Parias, mezzo-sopranos Azéma and Deborah Rentz-Moore) and three men (tenor Timothy Leigh Evans, baritone John Taylor Ward, and bass/guitarist Joel Frederiksen). Nonetheless, it was abundantly clear that the rousing “Rise, Columbia!,” after a tune by Thomas Arne, was more sophisticated than many of the simple, strophic, and straightforward Christian and patriotic numbers. 

Camerata members Joel Frederiksen and Timothy Leigh Evans. (Facebook)

Azéma also threw in some welcome surprises. Chief among these were several songs that were sympathetic to the plight of “Negroes.” These included Russian-born Daniel Reed’s “Thirst for Gold,” which contains a line lamenting the sale of “a helpless Negro boy,” and “Friendly Union,” which called for unity among people of different national origins, including Americans and Turks. Given the racism rampant in America and Europe at this critical time in history – some Parisians refer to one part of the city as “Africa” – these selections were especially heartwarming. The ensemble’s guest percussionist was Andrea Wirth.

To these ears, the most gratifying part of the concert, aside from the warmth, was Azéma’s choice of perfectly tuned, rock-steady vocalists. Given that her own markedly strong, vibrato-less instrument has a rather plain, homely quality at its core, she appears to have carefully recruited soprano and alto complements with the same single-hued vocal quality in their midrange.

The timbre of Colombian-born Parias, for example, does not alter appreciably as she climbs the scale (she is not a pure-toned earlymusic soprano of the Carolyn Sampson or Emma Kirkby variety), and Rentz-Moore’s voice stands out only at the bottom of her range, which is gratifyingly warm, round, and resonant. This is not to suggest that any woman’s voice and artistry was less than outstanding, but rather that they sounded as one. For this music, that sound was ideal.

Camerata’s Taylor Ward had remarkable resonance in the lower range. (Facebook)

More variety of a sort was allowed the men. Ward, tall and slim, possesses remarkable resonance lower in the range. Frederiksen, through most of his range, is a joy to hear.

Musical analysis of individual songs would not only be beside the point; it would miss the essentially naïve quality of early American patriotic and religious melodies. The determination to “make America great,” as it were, and to create a safe haven for thinkers, lies at the core of most of these songs and melodies. Their purpose was unity, security, and strength of purpose rather than multi-leveled intellectual inquiry. In bringing that spirit home with unsullied directness and ample beauty, the Boston Camerata showed itself a true exponent of the spirit that built the United States of America.

To read a review of a Boston Symphony Orchestra program performed during the Philarmonie’s Boston Weekend, see here.

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera NowListen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.