Do your New Year’s resolutions include a promise to slow down and open your mind? We’re here to help. America’s renowned early music ensemble The Boston Camerata lands at the AGO this weekend with a unique performance of devotional music from the 16th century, inspired by our very own exhibition Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures. The group, under the direction of Anne Azéma, will perform in Walker Court on Jan. 14 at 8 pm and Jan. 15 at 7 pm. Tickets for the performances, which include access to the exhibition, are on sale now.
Performing a range of 16th century prayers, songs, and chants of devotion from across Northern Europe, the ensemble features four singers, accompanied by period-specific instruments including lutes, violas da gamba, vielle, harp and a hurdy-gurdy. We caught up with artistic director Anne Azéma (herself a celebrated French-born vocalist) to find out what wonder sounds like.
AGO: Anne, we are so excited to be welcoming The Boston Camerata to the AGO. What can audiences expect from these performances?
AA: The Camerata is an early music ensemble; we take music from the past, both secular and spiritual, and give it new life. For this program, we’ve selected music to match the gorgeous artifacts presented in Small Wonders, featuring music of personal devotion from the early Renaissance that reflects the spirituality of homes, family circles and small chapels, in an age of intense religious renewal. Each performance is over an hour and the length of each piece varies, but all are between two and six minutes. We will sing in Latin, Dutch, German, Italian and French, but don’t worry, translations will be provided.
AGO: What are the sources for this music?
AA: Some of the pieces from the late 15th century come from manuscripts; others from prints. By the 16th century, a growing number of these pieces were being distributed by publishers, in a much more democratized fashion. The Souterliedekens for example, were Dutch rhyming psalms printed with movable type, bought and performed at home by wealthy residents across Northern Europe.
AGO: Many of the instruments you use aren’t familiar to today’s audiences. For example, what is a hurdy-gurdy?
AA: A hurdy-gurdy is an acoustic string instrument that produces sound by a crank-turned, rosined wheel rubbing against strings. The wheel functions much like a violin bow, and single notes played on the instrument sound similar to those of a folk violin. Used initially in the Middle Ages as a teaching instrument, by the early Renaissance it became associated with dance, representing the music of ‘outdoors’ (as opposed to more refined music, played inside). We are going to use it to evoke the shepherds visiting the baby Jesus at the stable. We will also use traditional aristocratic instruments: the vielle (the ancestor of the viola); violas da gamba (these bowed instruments are cousins to the lute); lutes; and a harp.
AGO: Your ensemble has performed all over the world. What does the word camerata mean?
AA: In Italian, camerata translates as ‘a little room’. This term was chosen by our founders when they formed our ensemble 62 years ago as a performing group to display and play instruments coming from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They were referring to the Florence Camerata, a group of artists that gathered together in late Renaissance Florence to experiment with poetry, music and arts. We aim to share their visionary enthusiasm and discovery.
AGO: What is the biggest difference between devotional music from the Renaissance and today?
AA: These Renaissance Flemish pieces are very different from today’s music, as they were written for personal meditation, private chapels and rooms, family houses and assemblies; they weren’t intended for grand cathedrals or public ceremony. Like the boxwood miniatures themselves, their craftsmanship is precise, superb; rich in subtle details, they lead us to contemplation.
A commission of the Art Gallery of Ontario, this program is presented in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Boston Camerata; and with the participation of Boston University.
For tickets, click here now before they’re sold out! Be sure to catch Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures, a groundbreaking exhibition of more than 60 boxwood miniatures, organized in partnership with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum, before it closes on Jan. 22.
AGO Members receive a discount on tickets. Join today!
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.