The Boston Camerata is one of the oldest early music ensembles in the U.S., and one of the oldest in the world to have attempted thematic programs that draw on various repertories.
Directed for nearly 40 years by Joel Cohen, the ensemble developed a characteristic and consistent sound.
The Boston Camerata was founded in 1954. In its first years, it was connected to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as an ensemble that presented then-rare concerts of music from the eras of the museum's famous paintings and performed on the institution's collection of instruments. In 1969, Cohen became director of the Camerata. Cohen, a Harvard graduate, was a lutenist, conductor, and musicologist who had studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. He took the Camerata in new directions, and the ensemble severed its ties to the museum. It began a busy schedule of international touring that has continued unabated, making trips to Europe, Singapore, Mexico, and other locations. At home, in addition to an annual subscription series in Boston, the Camerata has appeared at the Tanglewood Festival, the Kalamazoo Medieval Institute, and, every two years, the Boston Early Music Festival. Especially notable was a 2011 residency in Reims, France, celebrating the 800th anniversary of Reims Cathedral. In 2008, Cohen was replaced by soprano and scholar Anne Azéma; Cohen became musical director emeritus and has remained active with the group.
A notable feature of the group's repertory both in performance and on recordings has been the presence of early American choral and vocal music, as on the 2000 release The Golden Harvest: More Shaker Chants and Spirituals. That was one of two albums devoted to the music of the Shakers and made in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, home to the sole remaining Shaker community. The recording career of the Boston Camerata goes back to 1968 and features several releases on the major pop label Elektra. Many of its albums have appeared on Erato. After Azéma's appointment, there was a hiatus in the Camerata's recording career, but the group returned in 2019 with Treasures of Devotion: European Spiritual Song ca. 1500, on Music & Arts.
Cohen and Azéma have both received the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the government of France.