Vivid tribute to two Marys in song, word

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / March 8, 2010

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The Boston Camerata’s Friday concert was emblematic of what the group does best: take a seemingly dry idea and transform it into a vibrant artistic experience.

The program, “The Maria Monologues,’’ was what artistic director Anne Azéma, speaking from the stage, called, “a search for the psyche of Mary in medieval times.’’ That may sound like a dissertation topic, and no doubt it has been. But instead the concert was full of songs from throughout Europe that painted vivid portraits of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. As Azéma pointed out in her excellent notes, the two were among the most important female icons in the church, and hence carried a somewhat different emotional aura than some of their male counterparts.

The authorship of much of the music on Friday’s program has been lost to history. There were songs both aristocratic and popular, as well as excerpts from passion plays and other church-related works. Most of the music was built from the most basic elements: a simple, recurrent melody, galloping dance rhythms, the occasional line of chant.

But it formed the perfect backdrop to the direct and powerful words to which the music was wedded. Those texts painted dramatic portraits of the Marys: The joyous virgin mother (“You are the messenger of the King. . . . I give myself to him/I, the Virgin Mary’’); the sorrowful Mary at the crucifixion (“Inwardly she is being nailed to the cross/Inwardly the mother is being slain’’); and the Magdalene journeying from sin to redemption (“You entered with fear/Wept with great pain;/You kissed his feet with great love/For the grace you found.’’)

All this was performed with just the right balance of solemnity and drama by Azéma and Lydia Brotherton, both sopranos, and mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore. As important as the beauty of their voices was the clarity of their diction. They sang individually and together; when the music switched from unison melody to harmony during the ensemble songs, the effect was exquisite. Spare yet expert instrumental accompaniment was provided by Robert Mealy on harps and vielle (a medieval violin).

Music has grown vastly more complex since these works were created. Yet, listening to Azéma sing a stark 13th century German song about Mary at the cross - “His spilled blood distresses me/His death kills me’’ - one could wonder whether anything more emotionally potent has been written in the intervening centuries.

BOSTON CAMERATA At: First Lutheran Church of Boston, Friday