The Boston Camerata is one of the oldest early music ensembles in the United States. It is known for the innovative programming of its director, Joel Cohen, and for taking on various eras and styles of music in an effort to discover links among them.
The Boston Camerata was founded in 1954 as an organization associated with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It began a new direction after the appointment of Joel Cohen as its director in 1968, the same year it made its first commercial recording. Cohen was a graduate of Harvard University in composition and had been a student of Nadia Boulanger in Paris; he was known as a conductor, lute player, and researcher into early music. Cohen's musicianship and research into Medieval and Renaissance sources were highly praised in the 1970s when he made a number of recordings and appearances with the great French tenor Hughes Cuénod.
In 1974, the Boston Camerata ended its association with the Museum and began the international touring that has made it a major name in the worldwide original instruments movement. It has performed in Canada, England, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Singapore, Israel, and Mexico. It made its first Japanese tour in 1995 and its first trip to Scandinavia in 1996.
In 1981, the Boston Camerata began a series of appearances at the biennial Boston Early Music Festivals that lasted through the 1993 festival. It also has appeared at Tanglewood, festivals in Berkeley and San Antonio, and at the Kalamazoo Medieval Institute.
Boston Camerata has recorded for the labels Erato, Harmonia Mundi, Nonesuch, Telefunken, and Glissando. In 1989, Cohen and the Camerata won the Grand Prix du Disque award of the Academie Charles Cros, Paris, for its compact disc The Legend of Tristan et Iseult, which used original musical and poetic sources of the Medieval age to recount the Arthurian legend of the two lovers, and tracing threads and development of the legend over the years and in different places. At the same time they developed a concert production of the same project, which is still often requested by major European festivals. A similar project was based on another great Medieval legend, the Roman de Fauvel, which was recorded and broadcast on the French national television network. In 1993 the Camerata provided the music track for The Guardian of Memory, a TV project for the Library of Congress. Boston Camerata has also participated in television productions for British, German, Swiss, Norwegian, Swedish, and Canadian radio, and produced a U.S. nationally syndicated radio series.
The compact disc An American Christmas traced Christmas music found in North American folk music to sources in the British Isles and western Europe, and its 1993 recording of Jean Gilles' Requiem was a best seller on the European classical charts.
In 1996, the Camerata traveled to Sabbathday Lake in Maine, the site of the only remaining functioning community of the religious sect known as the Shakers, and lived there while recording several of their hymns and songs for the disc Simple Gifts. The ensemble went on to explore the history of American spiritual song from the famous Federal Songbook and the shaped-note hymnbooks of the American South. Another notable recorded production is Cantigas, music of King Alfonso X el Sabio. Since the music was written at a time when Moorish influence was strong in Spain, the Camerata traveled to Fez, Morocco, to make the recording, which they did with the participation of a leading Arabic music ensemble of that country directed by Mohammed Briouel. This disc won the prestigious Holland Edison Prize.