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Pure Harmony
Medieval Christmas with the Boston Camerata and the Milwaukee Choral Artists.

Early music luminaries, the Boston Camerata

Is it the magic of a microtone?

Does Early Music—the term for music composed before Bach and the baroque—get some of its power and unearthly beauty from its “purer” harmonies?

A little music history and science might be in order to describe the rapturous sounds heard Saturday evening at Early Music Now’s concert featuring the Boston Camerata and the Milwaukee Choral Artists.

Way back when, musical notes had a kind of scientific purity to them—basically, the notes of the scale were defined mathematically. Start with a vibrating string of a certain length for one note, divide the string exactly in half and you get a note one octave above the original. Divide it again to get a fifth higher. And so on.

The problem was these precise divisions only worked when you stayed in a single key. When Bach and the other Baroque composers wanted write music that moved from one key to another, they had to tweak things—approximate the tones so they sounded “about right” no matter what key you played in. It was called the “tempered scale” and it’s been the foundation of Western music ever since.

But there was nothing “tempered” about the “Lux Refulgent,” a piece from 12-century Aquitane sung by Anne Azema, Anne Harley and Deborah Rentz-Moore early in the program. The trio walked to the back altar of St. Joseph’s Chapel, and the sound poured out. Just three voices, but the purity of the singing and the spaciousness of the chapel made the harmonies soar.

It was one of many beautiful moments from the concert, built from music from the 11th-15th centuries that hopped and skipped around Europe as it told the Christmas story. Accompanied only by the vielle (a Medieval violin played by Michelle Levy) and assorted wind instruments and the zither-like psaltery (Tom Zajac), the music from simple plainchant to songs (like the English “Sancta Maria Graciae”) with intricately filigreed melodies.

Throughout, it was striking how the voices—whether a soloist or the rich but perfectly blended voices of the Choral Artists—resonated in the chapel space. This was powerful, spirited, and exquisitely controlled singing. Singing solo on the Spanish “Por nos virgin madre,” Rentz-Moore brought the volume down to a whisper, but the tones still filled the room gloriously.

The season and narrative certainly added to the event, but this pure singing that swept you up in spite of its antique languages and particular message. The stirring, rising notes of the French “Ave Maria” exerted a power beyond the words, lifting your heart along with the notes. Which after all, is what the story behind the music is all about.

(photo provided by Boston Camerata)

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