In Multifaceted Concert, The Timeless Narrative Of Yuletide Shines Anew

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The members of The Boston Camerata moved around the raised central portion of the cathedral to face different quadrants of the audience at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral. (Photos by Scott Kovacs)

SEATTLE — For its novel retelling of the Christmas story, Early Music Seattle united the Boston Camerata and the Medieval Women’s Choir for a sold-out, intermission-less program Dec. 3 in Seattle’s massive St. James Cathedral. The supreme beauty of the presentation, which included readings by the choir’s rehearsal director, Marion Seibert, prevailed over the challenges of four-direction seating and an initially awkward, ultimately well-navigated 20-minute pause during a medical emergency.

The program augmented and rearranged much of the music on the Camerata’s 2021 CD, Hodie Christus Natus Est. That recording, in turn, had its roots in the Camerata’s reputation-defining program and Nonesuch LP, A Medieval Christmas, recorded in 1975.

Since the 2021 CD, the Camerata’s superb performers have happily remained the same: Anne Azéma (director), voice, hurdy-gurdy, and bells; Camila Parias, soprano; Deborah Rentz-Moore, mezzo-soprano; Shira Kammen, vielle and voice; and Christa Patton, harp and winds (including medieval bagpipe). Some selections were sung monophonically by the 33-year old Medieval Women’s Choir, “the only non-auditioned medieval choir for all who identify as women.” Occasionally, the Camerata and the choir engaged in dialogue, with the narrator advancing the story between sung selections.

Only once did the choir launch into three-part harmony, and only once did it require some of its members to stretch their voices beyond their middle-range comfort zone. The ensemble may be non-auditioned, but the commitment of its members under the leadership of Eric Mentzel produced pitch-perfect singing of impressive beauty.

The evening was divided into six parts. It began with two “Prophecies,” one a Hebrew cantillation of the prophecy of Isaiah, the other a 10th-century Spanish prophecy of the Sybill. Then it proceeded into “Sponsus,” “Lux!”, “Pleine de Duçur,” and “The Story.” The concert ended with a “Benedicamus Domino.” The oldest music was 10th-century Spanish, and the most recent from 14th-century England, Spain, Italy, and Aquitania. Three pieces were based on a Cantiga attributed to King Alfonso X “el Sabio” (1221-1284), and others were from France and Normandy.

Seattle’s massive St. James Cathedral welcomed The Boston Camerata and The Medieval Women’s Choir.

The ingenuity and choreographic skill that underlay the presentation cannot be overstated. As diverse as the musical sources may have been, they flowed together seamlessly. Save for changes of language, anyone without a printed program or knowledge of early-music history might have thought the music all came from the same source. The contrast between the energy of this program and the Boston Camerata’s very different “Free America,” which I saw in a theater-style recital hall in Philharmonie de Paris in 2018, provided further evidence of their musical mastery.

While the choir remained in one place, Azéma and her colleagues moved around the raised central portion of the cathedral to face different quadrants of the audience. Azéma had clearly scoped out the vast layout of the cathedral beforehand and arrived at shifting positions intended to include the entire audience, as divided as it was. The ease with which everyone moved between instruments and positions enabled the audience’s focus to remain on the music. I was close enough to watch Azéma’s eyes as she witnessed the medical emergency unfolding, felt the pulse of the audience, and wisely decided to pause so that the ailing audience member could receive all the attention she needed.

Beauty abounded. Azéma’s rock-solid, distinctive, mildly smokey mezzo-soprano, with its incisive but never grating edge, found its ideal counterparts in Parias’ higher and pure sound and Rentz-Moore’s magnificent lower-reachng mezzo-soprano. Everyone was capable of holding the stage and entrancing the audience during their solos. Of the three, Rentz-Moore was the only singer who could change her sound to match the emotional component of the words. She was also the only singer able to round her tone to project and blend without edge. The profundity of her contributions and strength of her convictions touched the heart.

When Kamen and Azéma both faced me, the timbral interface of the vielle’s high range with the one-note drone of hurdy-gurdy was tantalizingly delicious. Other felicitous moments arrived when Azéma’s voice blended with bagpipe and when bells sounded clearly as the choir performed the triplum, “Campanis cum cymbalis” (with bells and cymbals). Throughout the evening, musical perfection and spiritual conviction blended to create something greater than its estimable parts.