Free America!

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

The title gets your attention. And its relevance–to particular periods, moments, and events in American history–likely depends on how you choose to interpret the word “free”: either as adjective or imperative. Either way, its connection to the musical program–“Early songs of Resistance and Rebellion”–is clear. Slave songs, Shaker songs, patriotic songs, ballads, and hymns from various song collections of the 18th and 19th centuries–many of them by anonymous composers, others by both the relatively well-known and nearly unknown likes of, say William Billings, Jeremiah Ingalls, Daniel Read, Thomas Arne, Andrew Law, and Shaker Sister Patsy Williamson–these comprise the contents of the program, but it’s not just the songs that make it work, that make it speak so pointedly. It’s an attitude for sure–confident, a little cocky, a bit defiant, yet full of optimism and a sense of the joy of free expression.

There are songs you’ve never heard and several you thought you knew, but these performers, who know exactly what they’re doing, in every sense, may–will–surprise you. For instance, you’ll hear an appropriately jaunty, rhythmically catchy Yankee Doodle, accompanied by fife, flute, fiddle, cello, drum, but with a chorus somewhat different from the one you may have learned in school; and you’ll hear the music of “Rule Britannia” and “The British Grenadier” in revised form as, respectively, “Rise Columbia!” (music by Thomas Arne, text by Robert Treat Paine) and “Free Americay!”. Although there’s probably never been a recording or concert of early American music that did not include William Billings’ Chester, you may not have heard one like this, which gets the full treatment, instruments and all.

While there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in the skillful vocal and instrumental arrangements, and in the character and diversity of the songs themselves, my enjoyment was centered in the voices, all of which are excellent but are used in a way that neither imposes an inappropriate sophistication nor a false-sounding “amateur” style on the music (the latter an all-too-common practice with groups performing this and similar repertoire). Yet, they absolutely keep it simple, the voices directly projecting, not warming or smoothing or refining too much to distract from the words and their story, or message. The songs may not be musically complex, but they have something important to say, and director Anne Azéma and her first-rate cast let us hear it.

I heard a version of this recording performed in concert last December (2019) in Portland, Maine, and to my surprise, with a somewhat different lineup of performers–again, all of whom were excellent, some of the finest singers I’ve heard for a while. In addition to the several alternate soloists, The Boston Camerata was joined by a local early music specialist group, the 14-member St Mary Schola, directed by Bruce Fithian (who was a former member of the Camerata), and an equally extraordinary four-person instrumental group, The Middlesex County Volunteers Fifes and Drums. This was also a slightly expanded program from the one on the recording, and laid out in different order, impressive not only for the performances but also for the very well-orchestrated flow of music and staging, from instruments to soloists to groups, both small and larger. Azéma’s long experience and expertise with these things made everything work, and elevated what in other hands would have been just a collection of historical song material to a level of excitement and meaningful continuity and memorability.

In the concert soprano Camila Parias stood out for her pure, unadorned voice and sincere expressive manner, and she does so on the recording as well; and how far and wide would you have to travel to hear a more captivating singer than alto Deborah Rentz-Moore, whose range and array of color and seeming ease of technical control will keep you in your seat, breathless? You experienced much more of this in the concert than you do on the recording, but her rendition of the Shaker song “Repentance” gives you an idea. As for Azéma, listed as a mezzo, her voice is still full of character and expressive strength, but more pleasing to listen to than I remember from past years, where her upper (soprano) register became edgy and harsh, a complaint I used to voice in reviews from time to time (at least going back to my attendance at the Camerata’s recording sessions of Shaker hymns at Sabbathday Lake, Maine in 1994).

I mention this because, when the three above-mentioned singers–three very different voice types and qualities–sing together, as they do, unaccompanied, on four tracks (Johnny has Gone for a Soldier; Pretty Home; The Rich Man; March), there’s an uncanny convergence, the proverbial “sum greater than its parts”, a blending, especially in the amazing unison passages, that is the essence of “from many, one” that’s remarkable and moving and uniquely powerful. I also have to mention that the concert, to the great disappointment of more than one audience member I know, did not include long-time Camerata singer Joel Frederiksen, who has what must be the world’s most purely, naturally unpretentious, richly beautiful bass voice. But don’t worry, everyone: he’s here on the recording, with more than a couple of solos.

That said, having experienced much of this music and what the performers bring to it in a live setting, I’m not sure that a recording can possibly convey much more than a faithful rendition of the musical selections, many of which by themselves are very affecting and beautiful, but aren’t so compelling as concert material. This program–and it must be taken as a complete program–is really a powerful piece of theatre in which the immediacy of human contact, the body language, the communication of singer and instrumentalist interacting with the audience are essential to make the connections and convey the ideas, the spirit, the inspired moments of passion and conviction beyond the songs’ simple melodies and harmonies that brought this repertoire into being and motivated its popularity. The recording is indeed a fine record of this music, and the performances are excellent. But it definitely works better in its intended concert setting. Experience it if you can.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Album Title: Free America!

Works by Jeremiah Ingalls, William Billings, Daniel Read, Sister Patsy Williamson, Otis Sawyer, Thomas Arne, & many others, including Anonymous

    The Boston Camerata, Anne Azéma

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