The winter holidays and old music go together like hot chocolate and marshmallows. Every December, the crooners of yesteryear appear on the Billboard charts, and if today’s latest it-kid pop star wants to record a Christmas record, they’re more likely to fish a roasted chestnut from the open fire than put out something new.
The Boston Camerata reaches considerably further into the past than “White Christmas” for its annual early music holiday programs. The sentiment, however, is the same.
“I think Christmas is a very hard moment,” said Anne Azéma, Camerata artistic director and mezzo-soprano. “The season is not helpful. It’s dark, and we are supposed to have this obligatory joy, which is undermined by capitalism and the necessity to buy.”
This, combined with the elements of waiting and longing in the Advent season and Christmas story, can create a state of disruption, Azéma said. “When you’re disrupted, you look backwards for comfort, for equilibrium and balance.”
Now 65 years old, Boston Camerata has devised many ways to look backward at Christmas, and this year a new Christmas program makes its debut here at home. “La Estrella: A Hispanic Christmas” will celebrate the season with music from Renaissance Spain and the early Hispanic settlements of the Americas.
The program includes festive dances, solemn hymns, and songs in the indigenous languages Quechua and Nahuatl, in addition to the Spanish and Latin one might expect. The rhythms blend Spanish and Portuguese influences with those of the Caribbean islands. While “La Estrella” recycles Spanish and Hispanic material from older programs — “we can’t reinvent the wheel every single time,” Azéma said — it incorporates “new elements, and new light on different aspects.”
One of these new elements is singers from the Hispanic Children’s Choir at Immaculate Conception in Everett, directed by Oscar Olmos. The two ensembles connected shortly after Camerata announced its 2019-20 season, when Olmos reached out to get tickets for his young singers; Azéma said she went to hear the choir sing, and was tremendously impressed. “I’ve been looking for something like this for years!” she exclaimed.
Two more guest ensembles will join the Camerata singers and instrumentalists: one choir from Longy School of Music, where Azéma teaches, and the Hyde Park Haitian church-based women’s choir Les Fleurs des Caraîbes, which has been collaborating with Camerata since the 1990s.
Director Reynette Estelien, who joined the choir at age 19, is a member of the second generation of Fleurs. “Even if you don’t understand the words, when you come to the concert ... it’s so peaceful. You can feel that these are Christmas songs,” she said on the phone. “We don’t have any modern instruments ... you don’t need electricity, or to plug anything in. It’s all by hand.”
Azéma is adamant that there is space in early music for singers with musical experiences that don’t include the conservatory or English church choir traditions. “We tend to think of early music as a sound … but that’s not possible,” she said. That sound is often “mired in Victoriana,” she explained, heavily tilted toward the high church: “very clean … almost non-involved.”
This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t strive for a unified sound, and leadership by native speakers is helpful, she said: Camerata soprano Camila Parias, a native of Colombia, will help the ensemble “get into the breath” of singing in Latin American Spanish. But different vocal colors can uniquely illuminate different kinds of music, Azéma said: “when you hear the music, you realize that there were singers other than just chapel-trained singers.”
Who these “other singers” might have been when the music was newly written is another thorny issue. “Music had a very prominent place in the 'education,’ quote unquote, of the native population once [the Spanish] arrived in the southern continent,” Azéma said. “We could be here until next month discussing this complicated issue of colonialism and the tragedy that ensued, with the actions of white men. This being said, within the music, we have … so many varied, powerful voices.” Despite the horrors inherent in the so-called Age of Exploration, which brought the Catholic Church and its meticulous record-keeping to the New World, this music gives today’s listeners a glimpse into the cultures that had flourished in the Americas before the arrival of Spanish settlers.
Whether concerning the notes on the page or the historical context of those pages, Azéma strives to include more inclusive human narratives in early music. “I’m fishing around for elements that early music tends to forget,” she said. “We are often mired in an idea of re-tracing the past as a sort of beautiful tableau, but life is not that way.” More important than any ostensible authenticity, “art ... is about process, and sharing in the most generous way what you can offer.”
LA ESTRELLA: A HISPANIC CHRISTMAS
Presented by Boston Camerata. Dec. 20, All Saints Church, Dorchester; Dec. 21, First Parish Church of Newbury, Newbury; Dec. 22, First Parish Church, Cambridge. 617-262-2092, www.bostoncamerata.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.