The Boston Camerata: A Brief History

The Boston Camerata was associated until 1974 with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was founded at that institution by Narcissa Williamson, and was directed in its early seasons by Anne Gombosi, Howard Mayer Brown, Daniel Pinkham, and Victor Mattfeld. Camerata incorporated as a nonprofit entity, and began self-producing its own local concert series, in 1974. From 1968 to 2008, Joel Cohen directed the ensemble’s activities, which grew exponentially under his leadership. He is is now Music Director Emeritus.

In the United States, Camerata has participated in early music festivals at Berkeley and San Antonio, as well as in many of the biennial Boston Early Music Festivals. The ensemble has maintained an extensive touring schedule across the entire United States. Camerata’s second, third and fourth invitations to the renowned Tanglewood Festival came in 1992, 1994 and 1995, respectively. A widely praised national tour of Cantigas in 2000 marked Camerata’s first collaboration with the Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble; the two groups performed together again in Paris in 2007. Other important Camerata appearances in the United States include music making at Lincoln Center, New York, The Cloisters, New York, The Smithsonian Institute, The National Cathedral (Washington), The Library of Congress, and The Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Under the initial auspices of Radio France, Camerata began touring overseas in 1974, and has maintained an international presence ever since. In recent seasons, Camerata has been heard in Canada, England, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Israel. Camerata undertook its first Japanese tour in 1995; it gave its first Scandinavian performances in 1996. Other distinguished overseas venues that have hosted Camerata include: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Stationers’ Hall, London, the Cité de la Musique, Paris, the Royal Opera of Versailles, the Arsenal of Metz, the Popes’ Palace, Avignon, the Palau de la Musicá, Barcelona, the Opera Real, Madrid, and the Pitti Palace, Florence.

Presented in collaboration with the Tero Saarinen Company, Borrowed Light, a dance production integrating live performances of Shaker songs, has toured extensively in Europe, America, (France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, United Kingdom, USA) since 2004, with a south Asian tour recently completed in 2008, to critical acclaim. The Boston Camerata, by now one of the world’s oldest continually functioning professional early music ensembles, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2005 with festive productions in Boston (Boston Early Music Festival) and Paris (Théatre de la Ville). At the latter appearance, longtime director Joel Cohen was decorated by the French government.

Additional Camerata tours are scheduled for 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 in the U.S . Germany, France, Colombia.
Media appearances by the Boston Camerata have included a nationally syndicated radio series in the U.S. and numerous broadcasts on French, English, Canadian, Dutch, Spanish, Swiss, Norwegian, Swedish, Israeli, Australian and New Zealand radio. The ensemble has made several appearances on French television; in the spring of 1992 its video production of the Roman de Fauvel was telecast nationwide in France. In the United States, Camerata provided the music for Guardian of Memory, a 1993 TV project for the Library of Congress. Camerata’s video of Shall We Gather at the River received numerous “plays” on American cable television during the winter of 1992-93. Simple Gifts (1995), and The Golden Harvest, (2007) the group’s Shaker music projects, have been the subject of extensive coverage on national television, on American public radio and the BBC.



Over 30 CDs and videos have been released under The Boston Camerata’s name, on the Erato, Harmonia Mundi, Nonesuch Telefunken, Glissando and Warner Classics labels, and have received worldwide distribution. In 1989, Joel Cohen and the Camerata were awarded the coveted Grand Prix du Disque for their recording, based on original sources, of the medieval Tristan and Iseult legend. This now-historic recording was re-released in the spring of 2008.
Camerata’s recorded performance of Jean Gilles’ Requiem became a bestseller in Europe during the spring of 1993. The CD recording of the ensemble’s 1992 Tanglewood Festival program, Nueva España: Close Encounters in the New World, was released in autumn, 1993 to critical acclaim in both Europe and America. Simple Gifts, a recording of Shaker spirituals and chants was the number one bestseller on the national Billboard magazine classical chart during later 1995 and early 1996. Three new releases in 1996, Dowland–Farewell, Unkind: Songs and Dances; Trav’ling Home: American Spirituals 1770-1870; and Carmina Burana each won critical acclaim in the European musical press; the Dowland recording was nominated in January, 1997 for the French Grand Prix des Discophiles. The Boston Camerata’s most recent new recording, A Mediterranean Christmas, (Warner Classics) became an international bestseller during late 2005. A Boston Camerata Christmas, a three-CD compilation of earlier recorded repertoire, appeared on Warner Classics in late 2008, and a co-ordinated series of Americana re-releases by Camerata also appeared on Warner Classics in early 2009.



The Boston Camerata is frequently invited by institutions in the U.S. and abroad to participate in educational projects: masterclasses, lectures, residencies and colloquia. A highly regarded, annual summer workshop in Medieval Song was produced by Camerata in Coaraze, France, from 1996 to 2005. During the autumn of 2007, Camerata was in residency at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This semester-long residency, under the auspices of the university’s Marco Institute of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, was the group’s most extensive and ambitious educational project to date. The Boston Camerata will participate in the first international colloquium of Camerata Mediterranean at Saint Guilhem le Désert, France, in 2009. 2009-2010 will see Camerata’s first ongoing collaboration with New England Conservatory, Boston.