It’s odd to think that a Boston Camerata program called “Free America!” would have originated in France — specifically as a commission from the Philharmonie de Paris. Then again, France did give us the Marquis de Lafayette and the Statue of Liberty. “Free America!” premiered last month at the Palais de la Musique et des Congrès in Strasbourg, in celebration of the 60th anniversary of Boston and Strasbourg as sister cities.
On Friday, this outstanding program made its American debut at Faneuil Hall — which, though it began life in 1743 as a marketplace, would have been the site of a mass meeting protesting the 1773 Tea Act if public interest hadn’t necessitated a shift to the larger Old South Meeting House. The venue was appropriate for an evening in which the audience was invited to sing along on “Then guard your rights, Americans!/ Nor stoop to lawless sway,/ Oppose, oppose, oppose, oppose,/ For free Americay.”
The material of the program is essentially identical to what’s on the Camerata’s new “Free America!” CD from Harmonia Mundi, though the layout is a little different. There are five sections: “Boston Is a Yankee Town” to “Gone for a Soldier,” “Repentance,” “Rich and Poor,” and “Rise, Columbia!” The themes are manifest: Yankee pride, valor in victory and defeat, religious freedom and religious humility, social harmony and social justice, liberty for all. The music encompasses Shaker hymns, African-American spirituals, ballads from the Old World, marching songs, patriotic rousers. Harmonizations by amateur musicians like tanner William Billings and tavern keeper Jeremiah Ingalls are, by academic standards, raw and rule-breaking. It’s music for the common man.
The common man, we discover, is happy to recycle. “Free Americay!” borrows the tune of “The British Grenadiers,” and “Rise, Columbia!” that of “Rule, Britannia.” “Yankee Doodle,” which comes early on, began life as a British ditty denigrating American country bumpkins, with verses like “First we’ll take a pinch of snuff,/ And then a drink of water,/ And then we’ll say ‘How do you do,’/ And that’s a Yanky’s supper.” The Yankees had the last word, however; as British officer Thomas Aubrey wrote in 1777, after the Battle of Saratoga, “It was not a little mortifying to hear them play this tune, when their army marched down to our surrender.”
The Faneuil Hall presentation began with Camerata artistic director Anne Azéma up in the back balcony and soaring through “Trumpet of Peace,” in which a guardian angel guides Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee and her followers from the mother country to the Promised Land of America. The Middlesex County Fife and Drum Corps then processed down the center aisle, leading the Camerata instrumentalists and singers in “Yankee Doodle.”
The evening offered instrumental marches as well as a cappella singing and choral harmony. The cheerful marches — performed on flute, guitar, violin, and cello plus the Middlesex fifes and drum — were so lilting, you wondered whether they weren’t repurposed dance tunes. The singers — mezzo Azéma, soprano Camila Parias, alto Deborah Rentz-Moore, tenors Daniel Hershey and Michael Barrett, and bass-baritone Luke Scott — were exemplary in every way, from purity and expressiveness of voice to blending in duets and trios to diction to making eye contact with the audience. Only in some choral numbers did the words not emerge clearly; the program didn’t include the song texts but the CD does.
The most compelling section was “Repentance.” Rentz-Moore’s toe-tapping Shaker/African-American “Pretty Home” was followed by the men’s “Thirst for Gold,” with its fuguing tune and remorseful “Forgive the wretch that for a toy/ Could sell a guiltless Negro boy.” Then Scott in “My Body Rock ’Long Fever” and Hershey in “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” both heartfelt as well as powerful. The choral “Hebrew Children” provided a severe contrast with its pentatonic melody, and finally Rentz-Moore seemed absolved as she sang “Flow repentance, flow, roll on,/ Roll on, thou blessed power.”
The “Rise, Columbia!” section made for an upbeat finale, with the Middlesex contingent in full flight. Barrett sang the Shaker hymn “O Zion Arise,” which embraces “all kindreds, all colors.” The capper was a reprise of “Yankee Doodle,” with the audience singing along on “Yankee Doodle, ha, ha, ha,/ Yankee Doodle Dandy,/ Freedom’s voice is in the song/ Of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’ ”
FREE AMERICA!: EARLY SONGS OF RESISTANCE AND REBELLION
Performed by the Boston Camerata. At Faneuil Hall, Nov. 8.