To Speak Truth To Power: Why Boston Camerata Is Staging An 800-Year-Old Musical Theater Piece

Anne Azéma's earlier production of "Play of Daniel." (Courtesy Joel Cohen/WBUR)

WBUR — January 24, 2017
By Keith Powers

Feel like your world has been turned upside down? There’s music for that.

It’s a long way from the current topsy-turvy politics, to 12th-century clerics reminding the church establishment about the abuse of authority, but the intent remains the same: Speak truth to power.

The Boston Camerata, under the direction of Anne Azéma, has never been shy about its political views, and its upcoming presentation of the "Play of Daniel" at Boston’s Trinity Church offers an artistic and elegant way of continuing that practice.

The "Play of Daniel," an 800-year-old piece of musical theater, not only fits snugly into medieval performance history, but into modern musical history as well. Its revival in the 1950s by Noah Greenberg and his New York Pro Musica is generally considered the beginning of the historical performance movement in America.

The "Play of Daniel" has subsequently had many re-stagings, including two by the Camerata — a 1985 version directed by the group’s founder, Joel Cohen, and this staging, first presented in 2014 under the direction of Azéma, who succeeded Cohen as Camerata's artistic director a decade ago.

She went back to the manuscript, a beautiful document housed at the British Library, to re-think her own staging, which will be presented in Concord, New Hampshire, on Jan. 26, at Boston’s Trinity Church on Jan. 29, and will travel to St. Louis on Jan. 31.

Azéma herself narrates, and soloists include Jordan Weatherston Pitts (Daniel), Joel Frederiksen (Darius), Camila Parias (Queen) and Jason McStoots (Belshazzar). Michael Barrett, Dan Hershey, Donald Wilkinson and others fill secondary roles. Instrumentalists include Shira Kammen (vielle, harp) and Karim Nagi (percussion). Indrany Datta-Barua dances, and the Trinity Choristers, Boston City Singers and students from Longy School of Music also participate.

The first performances of "Daniel" took place in Beauvais, France, in the 13th century, during the year-end revels. These revels allowed the lowest ranks of church-goers to flip roles with the highest ranking church officials — a back-row chorister might be bishop for a day — and take a turn preaching.

The story poetically follows the narrative of Daniel in the Babylonian court of Belshazzar. Mysterious writing appears on the walls of Belshazzar’s palace; Daniel is brought forth to interpret, and foretells the fall of Babylon.

The story resonates strongly for those without power, who tell truth fearlessly. "That comes right out of the page," Azéma says, "it’s not me superimposing anything. It’s not the first time in human history where the mighty have fallen, and it won’t be the last."

Although "Daniel" stands as one of the earliest musical theater works ever staged, and the Camerata knows a thing or two about historically informed performance (the group did celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2014), Azéma was not looking to immerse audiences in medieval history.

"It’s not useful to pretend to be doing something medieval," she says of her staging. "Pointy hats and curly shoes don’t cut it for me. We make enlightened choices about the music, and more importantly we face the fact that we are men and women in 2017."

Most of the notated music in "Daniel" is monophonic — a single melodic line, without harmony or chords. In fact, the entire manuscript offers very few instructions to the performers.

"The music is simple — nothing grand about it. We even have some pieces where the public can sing along with us. The manuscript has some mentions of what one should do theatrically: where Belshazzar makes his entrance, how his nobles sing, how the king is very moved — moved to tears — at one point. But there are so many ways to look at these sources.

"We are also including our own prelude and postlude to the play,” she says. Most of that music, and the ideas about characters and staging, come from the same Beauvais source as the play itself.

Azéma's visual approach mirrors her ideas about the score and staging.

"There are practically no costumes," she says. "There are symbolic touches. Gestures are minimal, and when they do happen they come from the bank of medieval gestures that you will be able to see on the windows around you."

She refers here to Trinity Church, whose stained glass by John La Farge will be on display, and whose acoustics Azéma says "made it an obvious choice."

"We visited a lot of places in Boston, many of which we had been to before, just to refresh our memory,” she says. “The sound here is ideal. Speech and song have a clarity all over the audience area.

"For me, this is an echo of an echo. This is Boston looking at medieval architecture, and creating its own medieval American place. It forced me artistically to look at the core of everything that 'Daniel' is about."

Seen & Heard

Nano Interview with Jane Money of Boston City Singers
Massachusetts Cultural Council

Name: Jane Money
Organization: Boston City Singers
Title: Founding Artistic Director
Years in the Field: 30

What do you do at Boston City Singers?
I do pretty much everything! I conduct several of our choirs, including the most advanced, Tour Choir. I enjoy meeting with our donors, creating new arrangements of music with our outstanding staff (often based on folk songs or spirituals). I work on our grantwriting team, and conduct 5 of our 15 programs. And recommendations! Last year I wrote over 100 for our graduating seniors. We were delighted that they earned over $300,000 in scholarships.

Jane Money

Why do you do what you do?
At Boston City Singers we believe in supporting the upward trajectory of each of our singers.  There is nothing more rewarding than supporting the growth of a young person all the way through to college and beyond.

What comes easiest to you in this work?
I am passionate about excellent repertoire which speaks to the diversity of our singers and audiences.

What challenges you in this work?
As our work has continued to grow, we have been challenged to find rehearsal and performance space that is both safe and accessible in the communities we serve.

What does it mean to your community that you do this work?
We have always been based in Dorchester, MA. In our earliest years, potential partners, funders, and Board members would be turned off by that. Few would visit, and it was not always easy to be taken seriously. More than once we heard “You are from Dorchester? You can’t be any good…” Over time,  Dorchester has changed and continues to evolve into something far more positive. We like to think that we have been a part of that process.

How do you blow off steam?
Once a year, I go back home to New Zealand for a couple of weeks, where I walk the length of one local beach each day and cook for my brother and his family.

What do you create in your free time?
I am an avid knitter, home cook, and co-restorer of our Victorian home.

Whose work in the CYD field do you admire and why?
We have had a long relationship with the Corrymeela Centre in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. We led a choir project in Ireland in 2005 aimed at bringing children from both sides of the border together in song. One of the highlights was a residency at the Centre where I experienced first hand the power of creative youth development. We have worked closely with one of their volunteers ever since crafting leadership and youth development  programs across the organization.

What music do you like listen to (if even a little too loudly)?
The Brazilian singers Marisa Monte, anything Ella Fitzgerald and the Canadian choir Elektra.

Do you live with any animals?
I am a foster parent for New England Brittany Rescue. We adopted our first dog, Brady, three years ago. He is 12 now, but very active and an awesome host dog to our fosters.

The unauthorized biography of your life is titled:
Let’s find a way to make this happen!

What’s next?
My husband and I are visiting Cuba in February, meeting with local choirs, musicians and teachers, then off to South Africa with 40 members of the Tour Choir in the summer.

Cambridge Community Foundation announces fall grants

Cambridge Chronicle & TABDecember 13, 2016 — Grants addressing a wide range of issues touching the lives of local residents and the Cambridge community as a whole were announced by Cambridge Community Foundation's board of overseers at its Dec. 7 meeting.

One late addition to the list is a $10,000 grant to establish a fund in response to the fire that erupted in a neighborhood on Berkshire Street in the center of the city on Dec. 3. Called the Rebuilding Fund, it is designed to augment the city's efforts to help the more than 104 residents, 48 families, including 29 students at local schools who lost their homes. As the name suggests, the fund is provided to help those who were burned out rebuild their lives.

In addition to the Rebuilding Fund, the foundation's initiative grants including several new investments, including a three-year commitment to the BioBuilder Educational Foundation. This expands the foundation's commitment to creating pathways into the innovation economy for local youth, and to begin working with local partners, such as Biogen and Novartis. Students will be offered introductory experiences in their community labs, which will be extended through BioBuilder Learning Lab at LabCentral. A second initiative grant will support important work planned by new Cambridge School Superintendent Kenneth Salim, as he explores existing achievement gaps among Cambridge students….

Cambridge Children's Chorus: $3,500 to support programming for children from ages 4 through middle school, and collaboration with organizations throughout the metro area.

Boston City Singer Wins Med School Scholarship

Dorchester Reporter, December 1, 2016

Dorchester native and Boston City Singers alumna Gillian Chase has been awarded a Joseph Collins Foundation Scholarship to further her studies at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The scholarship is awarded to medical students based on academic achievement, financial need and a demonstrated interest in the arts. Gillian sang with Boston City Singers from age eight through high school, performing with tours that took her to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and across the United States.

A 2012 graduate of Harvard University, where she helped organize student arts events and activities, Gillian credits much of her academic and personal success to her involvement with Boston City Singers.

“My experience with Boston City Singers gave me many of the tools that I needed to succeed, from interviewing to presentation to time management skills that have been crucial to my success,” said Gillian.

A second-year medical student, Gillian says she is interested in pursuing a career in pediatrics, internal medicine or addiction medicine. She recently completed a summer internship in addiction medicine at the Betty Ford Institute. The Joseph Collins Foundation selects one new award recipient annually from each of the 40 medical schools located east of the Mississippi River.

Boston City Singers is a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding the horizons of children through music education and performance. Based in Dorchester, the organization provides intensive music training to children aged 4 to 18, regardless of financial need, to help foster self-confidence, self-discipline, respect for others and cultural awareness. The organization operates 16 music programs serving over 500 children in the Greater Boston area. For more information, please visit

Lexington pianist wins Young Artist Competition

Lexington Minuteman, November 29, 2016

Pianist Khoi Le, 13, of Lexington, under the direction of Richard Pittman, won the New England Philharmonic’s 22nd Young Artist Competition.

As the winner, Le will perform the first movement of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Piano Concerto No. 2” in G minor at NEP’s annual Family Concert, to be held at 3 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave., Boston.

Le became interested in music at age 5 when his parents introduced him to the piano. He took first prize at the San Francisco Chopin Competition for Young Pianists, and he is a recipient of the Nafisa Taghioff Award in the Fremont Symphony Young Artist Concerto Competition. Le performed in the Berkeley Junior Bach Festival in California as well as with the Fremont Symphony Orchestra.

While the piano is his main instrument, Le also plays the violin, cello, bassoon and percussion and currently serves as the percussionist at the William Diamond Middle School band and orchestra, Tufts Youth Philharmonic and the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra. He also enjoys composing music and is taking music theory and composition seminars at the New England Conservatory of Music.

NEP’s Family Concert will also feature William Schuman’s “Newsreel in 5 Shots,” the world premiere of Bernard Hoffer’s “Nocturne: The Timber Wolf,” Andy Vores’ “Big Bad Wolf” and Paul Patterson’s “Little Red Riding Hood Song Book,” with the Boston City Singers, Joshua DeWitte, director, and narrated by WBZ-TV meteorologist, Eric Fisher.

Men and Fellas Tour the British Isles

Resaissance Men
Renaissance Men

The Boston Musical Intelligencer
October 10, 2016

In this most Celtic of American cities, a program of music from the British Isles makes a logical offering from one of its plethora of choral ensembles. Laden with diverse styles and dialects from a wide range of composers as well as a world premiere, Renaissance Men stepped ably in on Friday at Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge, with an assist from the Boston City Singers’ male ensemble, the Fellas.

RenMen graciously offered the opener to the Fellas, conducted by Daniel Ryan, and Thomas Dawkins was pianist, lending support and color for both ensembles. The nattily garbed young men achieved a pleasing blend in their group of three Irish songs and one Scottish. Though they began somewhat nervously, at times anticipating Daniel Ryan’s clear beat, this improved as the set progressed, and the conductor joined the singing in “Molly Malone.” “Fields of Athenry” showcased the notable talents of (unnamed) baritones Patrick Creedon and Wyatt Staton-Todaro.

The RenMen commenced as tenor, Francesco Logozzo, sang a quintessentially Irish ditty a cappella. In “The Last Rose of Summer,” he displayed the beauty and ardor that mark both Italian and Irish tenors. It was curious to go without pause from this old favorite into Dúlamán, a savory but thoroughly contemporary choral setting of a traditional Gaelic folk song by Irish composer Michael McGlynn (b. 1964). This fascinating work about traditional customs for channeled wrack (“dúlamán”), a type of edible seaweed, was marked by quiet rustling rising occasionally to climaxes, mostly triadic harmonies, ever-shifting rhythms, and a very abrupt ending. Les filles des parreisses (Parish Girls) evoked the Channel Islands in French dialect by tenor Eric Christopher Perry (RenMen’s artistic director). Given the unreconstructed sexism of the song’s text, Perry’s enigmatic, quasi-mystical delivery might not have been my choice, but it intrigued.

Rather more in the choral mainstream stood the part song “Music, when soft voices die,” a setting by Edward Bairstow (1874-1946) of a Percy Bysshe Shelley text. If its compositional language sounds undeniably retrograde for 1929, it remains an inspired setting of a splendid poem, full of rich harmonies and delectable textures. The RenMen did themselves proud here with exquisitely balanced chords and unanimity of crescendi and diminuendi. Though many composers took inspiration from folk songs of the British Isles, Ralph Vaughan Williams stands out as the one who did the most song arrangements: for solo voice, unison and mixed voice ensembles, and orchestra. The ensemble gave a noble reading of Ca’ the yowes, his setting of a Robert Burns poem, featuring alternation of the full chorus with baritone solo (Will Prapestis) accompanied by the others humming. The lovely performance made it frustrating to be left adrift without translation of the many words of Burns’s Scots that modern English speakers kenna comprehend.

Tenor Kilian Mooney and pianist Thomas Dawkins enchanted in Benjamin Britten’s famous arrangement of “The Salley Gardens,” as Mooney fervently pressed his music to his chest and intoned ethereally in a quasi-falsetto while Dawkins created a dreamy sonic environment. Britten’s “The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” is considerably more complex, both musically and textually. With an extended text from multiple sources, some dating back to the 16th century, it is a highly accomplished work for male chorus depicting Lady Barnard’s infidelity with Little Musgrave and the dire consequences thereof. Among numerous performance highlights, I select just three: the sudden 180-degree turn of both music and vocal affect when Lady Barnard’s page decides his primary loyalty lies with Lord Barnard and scampers off to spill the beans; the subtle humor when Lord Barnard, having caught the lovers in flagrante delicto, orders Little Musgrave to put his clothes on, for “It shall ne’er be said in my country/I’ve killed a naked man;” and finally, the irony mixed with grief when Lord Barnard blames his own men for not preventing him from also killing “the fairest ladye/That ever did woman’s deed.” Unfortunately, consonants too often became obscure, forcing me to refer with some regularity to the text

Scattered in various parts of the sanctuary, the men sang “Elgin,” a brief bit of traditional Gaelic psalmody (Psalm 79:11) in English translation. Their putative word-painting at the end was bewitching, then the singers gradually converged into their group formation while singing the words “Preserve those in thy mighty pow’r that are designed to die.” This led very naturally into “I saw Eternity” with music by Welsh composer Paul Mealor (b. 1975) and poem by Henry Vaughan. Wind chimes lent the quieter sections an aura of mystery, but in others, Will Prapestis’s soprano saxophone regrettably overbalanced the chorus often, even when placed at the opposite end of the sanctuary from the singers. With better attention to balances, though, the piece could be a draw for this ensemble. A second Welsh-born composer, Hilary Tann (b. 1947), was present for the premiere of her 7-part male choir arrangement of “Paradise” (originally SAATBB), on a text of George Herbert. The work had a beguiling complexity without becoming daunting, and the musicians were on their mettle, performing with precision and passion. The poem’s defining feature is its “successively ‘pruned’ end-rhymes” (e.g., GROW-ROW-OW and FREND-REND-END) which Tann ingeniously incorporated into her music.

We returned to Ireland for “The Rare Auld Mountain Dew,” a delightful Irish folk song speaking of a beverage much stronger than our soft drink of that name. Baritone Peter Schilling was the jaunty soloist, and the fun increased when the Fellas joined the RenMen for the second and third verses. Again, it was a natural progression from the “mountain dew” to the final number (also an Irish folk song), “The Parting Glass”, with the Fellas again adding their numbers to the ensemble. As befit the piece, the rendition was low-key but heart-warming. With ingenious programming and fruitful collaborations, the Renaissance Men are maintaining a high standard that bodes well for the remaining three programs of their season.

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