Meet the Music Makers - Boston Camerata

In conversation with Anne Azéma, artistic director of the Boston Camerata:

UChicago Presents: What drew you to early music?

Anne Azéma: The first thing that really drew me in were the texts—the literary aspect of these early narratives. The second aspect was, as a singer, I got very interested in the whole scale of what was happening. I came of age and started studying at a period in Europe when early instruments were beginning to make a major difference on the scene, and I was struck by the new rhetorical gestures that they brought—a period cello playing a line from Bach and suddenly you were thinking, “Oh my God, why can’t singers sing the same way? It makes so much sense!” Then I recovered more and more of the early repertoire, and I never left it, in a way. Those two elements were really important for me.

UCP: You mentioned studying in Europe. Having been involved with both American and European early music groups over the years, do you feel as though there’s a significant difference in approach?

AA: Yes, there is, and actually I wrote an article in Early Music America which [speaks to] that. There are many differences. The beauty of the Boston Camerata is that we function on both scenes and we are prominent in both. We leave in a couple weeks for Switzerland, where we open the Festtage [early music festival] in Basel, where I have given masterclasses, then we’re going to go to the Rijksmuseum in Holland. We’ve been in Germany recently, in France, where we’re invited regularly, and have taped a new CD a couple of weeks ago… There is something very fluid about our work across several continents.

Even though we’re an American ensemble, I’m a European musician. This being said, there are indeed differences on many levels: research, programming, the teaching and formation of musicians; the general concertizing world, the building of series by presenters, and the various ways that presenters reach out to different publics in Europe who are still educated differently than the American public. But we are so happy to be able to function quite well in both scenes. Most of the Camerata’s early CDs were done for European companies. We’re about to make a new CD at the end of this month for an American company, but in France. So, as you can see, there’s a lot of back-and-forth.

UCP: U of C and the Camerata share a connection in late musicologist Howard Mayer Brown: Brown was a longtime professor at the U of C—our early music series is of course named after him—and he was an early director of the Camerata.

AA: He was, absolutely! The Camerata was founded by Narcissa Williams at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Howard Mayer Brown was one of the first directors, indeed. That’s a very powerful link we have. We have a connection with all his writings and research. Our former director Joel Cohen knew him; I unfortunately never had the pleasure of meeting him.

UCP: It’s a big question, but how do you feel like his work has been influential to you as a performer and scholar?

AA: Well, of course his work has been influential for all of us, but the question remains to be asked perhaps differently: I would [emphasize] the fluidity between the world of academia and the work of a performer. I remember calling Anne Robertson, who is also at U of Chicago, a few years ago, when we were commissioned by the Reims Festival to commemorate the 800th anniversary of their cathedral, and I was working on the Machaut Mass… Those conversations were very important to me. Of course Howard Mayer Brown’s work is important to all of us and we need it, but it’s also a general reach-out to that us performers enjoy and need. Those bridges with academia and research are most important to us, and so we cultivate them, then and now.

UCP: I wanted to ask about the Camerata’s Play of Daniel, which you edited, directed, and staged. The play is significant in the context of the HIP movement in America: New York Pro Musica brought it to national attention in 1958, and Joel Cohen (Boston Camerata Music Director Emeritus) also directed a version in 1983. When you first staged your version in 2014, why did it seem ripe for revival?

AA: The first reason, I think, you exposed: this piece is part of the American early music repertoire because of Noah Greenberg. Funnily enough, in Europe, it has a much less extensive place in the repertoire, to go back to earlier in the conversation. But for an American audience, there’s an emblematic aspect to the Play of Daniel. Also, as you said, Joel Cohen did a version in 1983. For our 60th anniversary season in 2014 it seemed a good way to recognize what we owed to the generations before, including Howard Mayer Brown and Joel. And the third part is that my own work as a singer is very deeply connected with earlier medieval repertoire. I find that the Play of Daniel is a cross-section of many worlds: of course the church world, but also the secular world, in a way, because there’re macaronic texts with some French. The symbolism of this story of Daniel seems to me a very good step towards sharing early music with an American audience in 2018 in a very potent, obvious way. That story’s [combination of] clear monody and theater is such a good way to enter into medieval music.

UCP: You just alluded to this, but many have commented that your recent Daniel offers timely political themes. So did the Camerata’s recent program, “City of Fools,” performed during election season last fall. I'm guessing those weren’t coincidental.

AA: No, of course not. We live in 2018. Our role as musicians is not to shelter ourselves in beauty and in a job well done—in other words, in making sure that everybody approves. We know how to do our métier; we know how to sing, we know how to play. A large part of our work is actually to look at the world around us and notice these things—these fears, these disappointments, these hopes, these joys. All of that is part of the human psyche. By looking at the past and making it alive—by sharing it with passion—you reveal a part of your own soul and being in 2018. I couldn’t pass [up] the opportunity.

You mentioned “City of Fools.” This is a very powerful program of political dissent which dates back to the 12th century, and yet, it’s as if it had been written yesterday. You cannot help but ask yourself, “What is the world made of, and how can I find my place best?”

UCP: Recently, medieval studies has made headlines recently as academics in the field are pushing back against the trope of an idealized, Eurocentric medieval past—a trope which has been coopted by white supremacist groups. I wanted to hear your thoughts on this as a performer whose work is so often informed by scholarship—it’s not every day medieval studies make headlines.

AA: If you think of Karl Orff using the Carmina burana, or Richard Wagner using the Gottfried von Strassburg story for Tristan, it’s not a new idea to use older things for patrimonial or far-right purposes. It’s happened in Europe as well.

Honestly, I think it’s very difficult to recuperate the entire medieval corpus, a lot of which is very dissident, at best. The sexual love songs of the troubadours, for example, were looked upon by the church with disapproval, to say it mildly. There are many texts against the power and abuses of Rome. The story of Daniel definitely is a story of speaking truth to power, a prisoner of war that told the tyrant in place that he cannot go on that way.

There’s several questions in your question. There’s Eurocentrism—this repertoire was born in Europe, so it’s hard not to make a connection there. On the other hand, we are an American group, and it’s part of our past, too, and that past has messages for everyone today. I think when our Daniel rises and tells Balthasar that his abuse of power will be followed by his fall, it carries a lot of dissatisfaction around us… Anyone who sits through our Daniel will understand immediately what I’m trying to say.

UCP: What’s your favorite thing you’ve heard from audiences after staging The Play of Daniel? What do you hope audiences take away?

AA: I think our staging is there to clarify and bring everything together. We’ve had wonderful comments from people saying they were touched and moved to tears. I think what was moving to me is that we felt every single time that the barrier of time had disappeared. The fact that the piece came from the 12th century did not matter. The center of the subject was received and well-read by the audience. Actually, we played [while] there were demonstrations against the first travel ban outside [Trinity Church] in Boston. There were [thousands of] people outside screaming, and inside the church, the Play of Daniel, a piece from Medieval times, speaking truth to power. A compelling experience for all of us!