The Boston Camerata ended its 59th season on Friday with a dose of that old-time religion. “Lovely Vine,” at the city’s Old West Church, offered a rare glimpse at the songs of Jeremiah Ingalls, the Vermont-based farmer, tavern keeper, choirmaster, and composer whose 1805 songbook “The Christian Harmony” is a critically important artifact of early-American religious music. One of the few extant copies is owned by the Harvard Musical Association, which commissioned the Camerata’s wonderful program.
As Joel Cohen, the Camerata’s music director emeritus, pointed out, “The Christian Harmony” is unique in being an enormous feat of repurposing. Ingalls took tavern songs, ballads, instrumental music, almost anything he heard, and converted them into religious songs. Friday’s sold-out concert gave an all-too-brief glimpse into this distinctive musical universe. One section placed side-by-side Ingalls’s songs with English ballads on which they were based; you could hear how the coy “The Devil’s Nine Questions” became, in Ingalls’s hands, the far more serious “Innocent Sounds.” Another portion explored the cross-relations between Ingalls’s hymns and those of the Shakers. And there was “Jefferson and Liberty,” which, Cohen noted, was probably the earliest political campaign song in American history.
In a way this music is simple, at least in its harmonies. But the atmosphere of the music — rugged and iconoclastic — is unique, and achieving that down-home feel is not an easy matter. At the beginning the Camerata’s singers seemed a little stiff, the sound occasionally too refined, although they loosened up as the concert went on, especially in the Shaker tunes “A March” and “Pretty Home.” One person who never needs loosening up is Cohen, who donned an eye patch to sing “The Dying Words of Capt. Robert Kidd, a noted pirate who was hanged at execution dock, in England,” a gleefully nihilistic shanty which Ingalls transformed into the poignant “Sinful Youth.”
The Camerata also had help from two superb local ensembles: The Middlesex County Volunteers Fife and Drums, and Jeremiah’s Golden Harpers, a singing group led by Ingalls scholar Thomas Malone, which sounded wonderfully idiomatic in this material. They all joined together, as did the audience, in the closing “Honor to the hills.” Its final lines — “While hills and valleys ring; echoes fly through the sky/ And heaven hears the sound all around” — encapsulated the whole evening.
The concert was dedicated to the late Pete Seeger, and opened with a recording of him singing “Sinner Man.” That seemed spot on as well.