The honor was great indeed, as the Reims Festival invited an American ensemble (us) to celebrate the 800th anniversary of its mind-boggling cathedral with a series of five different musical programs.
And the awe and humility we felt was intense as we filed into the cathedral choir, five singers, two sackbuts, and director Anne Azéma, to sing the monumental Messe de Notre Dame, written circa 1365 for the cathedral by that greatest of geniuses, Guillaume de Machaut.
The solstice evening light shone through the rose windows behind us as the iconic Kyrie Eleison began to sound. The music rose up towards the great, high vaulted ceiling and reverberated around, but never lost clarity and transparency. Intense! Gregorian chants from a local chorale placed Machaut’s extraordinary polyphony into a liturgical context. By the time the Sanctus came around, one enraptured audience member claimed he was levitating about six inches above the church pavement.
The newspapers, too, rose up in respect to the Camerata’s work. “A feast!” ran the headline in L’Union, the main paper of Reims. The reviewer continued: “An exceptional event…ravishing…Suave timbres, luminous interplay of voices, perfect balances, supple melismas, pure diction.” The capacity audience greeted the music with equal enthusiasm.
Our stay in Reims continues, with four more programs currently in intense preparation. We enjoy this town, with its pleasant pedestrian spaces, good food and drink, and interesting architecture of many periods (Art Deco fans, you need to come here). People are warm and welcoming. But best of all, we’re channeling some of the most fantastic music ever written, in the place it all came to be. An important chapter is being written in the history of Camerata, inscribed in the musical trajectory of every participant.
Our photo: Anne and the Camerata musicians rehearse in the Reims cathedral.