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Patrick Dupré Quigley hates to shave, but that’s not the only reason he grew a beard.
As a classical music conductor, the 36-year-old founder of the Miami choir Seraphic Fire holds one of the few jobs left in which youth is not an asset. A crop of neatly trimmed facial hair, he thought, might be just the thing to give him an air of authority.
“I found that it actually made me more believable to a lot of people,” he said. “It gave me more cred. The truth is that conducting is one of the few professions where you are more and more valued as you get older.”
Looking a bit too young for his job is a problem that has accompanied the hyper-energetic, volubly enthusiastic Quigley through his career. He started directing a church choir at 13, serving as organist and choirmaster for a congregation in eastern New Orleans. Then came Notre Dame, where his plans to become a chemical engineer fizzled in a particularly painful calculus class, and Yale for a master’s in choral conducting. A quick drive down Interstate 95 took him to the Church of the Epiphany in Miami, where he founded Seraphic Fire in 2002.
Seraphic Fire, now an independent ensemble, is in the middle of Christmas season. At this time of year, Quigley and his singers are as busy as the most harried Walmart checkout clerk, trouping to eight churches from Key Largo to Boca Raton to perform their highly popular mix of carols, motets, contemporary music and Medieval chant, in a candlelit atmosphere far removed from the holiday grind of shopping, drinking and eating.
The Christmas concerts may be grueling, but they mark the end of what has been a very good year for Quigley and his ensemble. The former church choir has been signed by Columbia Artists Management Inc., the prestigious firm that represents James Levine, Anne-Sophie Mutter, the Boston Symphony and many other A-list performers. Quigley conducted his first performance with the New World Symphony. The choir’s performances keep seizing high spots on the iTune charts. Seraphic Fire, nominated last year for two Grammy awards, sounds as good as it ever has, and along with New World is one of two South Florida classical-music ensembles to really achieve a national reputation.
“I’m so admiring of the kind of music making he’s doing in Florida,” said Scott Allen Jarrett, director of music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, a national center for choral music. “He’s really created something remarkable and astounding in a market that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have a whole lot of constituency for what he’s trying to do. There’s been an exponential increase in small, chamber-sized, fully professional choruses where singers fly in from all points and give top-shelf performances. Seraphic Fire is the model for almost all of those.”
The year 2013 has turned out to be a good one for Quigley on a personal level as well. In March he married his partner of three years, Rob Peccola, a lawyer with the Miami office of a national law firm, traveling to New York City to tie the knot since Florida does not recognize-sex marriage. “It was never really available to us down here, but fortunately history seems to be going in the right direction. We were very excited at the news of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] being struck down, and we will be filing a joint tax return for the first time this year,” Quigley said. “Living in Florida you realize the inherent inequality that is still very much a part of this state’s inner workings.”
They met on an online fitness forum, connecting first through their mutual interest in hiking. At the time, Peccola was clerking for a federal judge in Los Angeles. “We just started writing long emails back and forth to each other, which turned into long phone calls and we decided we wanted to meet very soon,” Quigley said. “Our first date was in Sequoia National Park. We hit it off and just started seeing each other every 12 days. He was in LA and I was in Miami, and we made it work.”
The two bought a house together, a 1910 plantation house in El Portal, with a huge porch on which they laid a long table for more than a dozen Thanksgiving guests. A former high-end boarding house, the structure comes with its own musical lore, with the story being that it hosted Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and other black entertainers at a time when they could perform in Miami Beach but not rent a hotel room there.
At home, Quigley spends a lot of time in the kitchen, cooking New Orleans specialties like jambalaya, gumbo and red beans and rice, as well as various dishes on the grill. “I’m a very passionate cook,” he said. “I eat three meals a day at home. I don’t eat out unless I’m working or eating with friends.” He reads bestselling thrillers by authors like Ken Follett, Clive Cussler, David Baldacci and Dan Brown (“If it has the word Templar in it, I’ve probably read it,” he said.).
Standing before the choir, Quigley treats the singers as colleagues, not underlings. “Whenever I stand up in front of my ensemble, I’m looking out at two or three hundred years of music education,” he said. “When I get into that first rehearsal, I have a concept of what I’m shooting for, but I’m flexible enough that if the ensemble produces something that is organically really wonderful but not exactly what I had originally conceived, I can say fine, let’s go with it.”
The choir’s near-perfect intonation, flawless blending of voices and ensemble precision are not simply the result of finding excellent singers. According to the soprano Molly Quinn, who is in her third season with the group, Quigley takes enormous pains to create the ensemble’s blend of voices, while leaving the singers the musical space to sound like they’re singing, not marching in step.
“Patrick has a way of assembling voices together so that it feels like he’s casting us in a role, so we all are really valued for what we bring,” she said. “When you’re an ensemble singer, so much is about how you’re going to pronounce the words. There’s definitely Seraphic Fire English and Seraphic Fire Latin, and [we’re] figuring out what Patrick Quigley wants for those language choices and how to create a really specific sound.”
There’s also nothing accidental in where the singers stand and which tenor sings to the left of which tenor. “He’s always thinking about how to optimize the room, how to optimize the voices he has and the players he has in the space,” she said. “That’s just part of the details that his brain goes to. In Patrick’s world, in Patrick’s view of performance, it really makes a huge difference in terms of the blend that he’s getting from piece to piece, from program to program and from venue to venue, so there can be a great shaping of the music just by playing around with who’s standing next to who.”
Anyone who has attended many of Quigley’s performances knows he likes quick tempos, an approach that can give monumental choral works an energy and vigor that’s absent from more reverential interpretations. Teresa Wakim, a soprano who has sung with the group from 2006 to 2011, recalls a performance of the Stabat Mater by the early 18th century composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi that really zipped along.
“I’ve done that piece many times, but it was so fiery when we did it,” she said. “It was as quick as we could manage while still keeping a good control of the text and accurate coloratura. And in slow tempos, he gave us room to really lean into those dissonances that make the work so famous, giving us a lot of space. He brings a lot of life into pieces. He makes it exciting for both the audience and the choir.”
One of Seraphic Fire’s greatest strengths its programming, which includes cornerstone works of the choral repertoire such as Bach’s Mass in B Minor and St. John’s Passion, commissions of new music, Baroque opera, African American spirituals and obscure works from the past 700 years or so of choral music. Quigley assembles themed concerts, such as the music of the Sistine Chapel or the music of the court at Versailles, bringing together a mix of the well-known and the obscure to evoke the musical atmosphere and sensibility of another time and place.
He used to find forgotten works by digging through library archives, setting aside three days in the summer for research at the Yale Library. But the digitization of music manuscripts changed things over the past four or five years, and while going online for music lacks the romantic appeal of poring over old manuscripts, it’s certainly quicker.
Among Quigley’s major musical influences are John Eliot Gardiner’s recordings of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte and William Christie’s recording of Handel’s Messiah. Particularly significant to how he performs music have been the work of continental European musicians such as the French conductor Marc Minkowski, the Spanish viol player and conductor Jordi Savall, the Belgian countertenor and conductor René Jacobs and the Italian violinist and conductor Fabio Biondi.
“They just had undue influence on me just because they had such rhythmic vitality and energy and clarity,” he said. “The continental European stuff, particularly the French and German, and the Dutch, it’s just phenomenal. It has all the accuracy of the English recordings but has so much more soul, in a lot of ways. That music can have the same effect on a listener that a Romantic symphony could, as opposed to being, you know, typewriter music, was really, really important in my musical formation.”
While the past few decades have seen the flourishing of the period-performance movement, in which performers tried to use authentic instruments, techniques and styles in music of the Baroque and Classical eras, Quigley said he was concerned that this has led mainstream symphony orchestras to drop this music from their repertoire, impoverishing themselves and their audiences.
He has done what he could to counter this, founding Seraphic Fire’s companion ensemble, the Firebird Chamber Orchestra as a modern-instrument ensemble. And among the concert programs he proposes on his professional web page as a guest conductor is Leopold Stokowski’s bombastic, full-orchestra arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the ultimate in the sort of thing the period-performance purists couldn’t stand.
“I think one of the great tragedies of the historically informed performance movement is that Mozart and Bach were really taken out of the standard symphonic repertoire,” he said. “How often does a major orchestra play Vivaldi anymore? Bringing that music back into the major concert halls with the large ensembles is something that’s very important to me.”
Seraphic Fire’s Christmas concerts will be performed 7:30 Wednesday at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Miami; 7:30 p.m. Thursday at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton; 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Saturday at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach, and 7 p.m. Tuesday at Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.
Seraphic Fire and the Firebird Chamber Orchestra will also perform Handel’s Messiah 7:30 p.m. September 20 at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, Boca Raton; 8 p.m. December 21 at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables; and 4 p.m. December 22 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale. SeraphicFire.org; 305-285-9060.
A Candlelight Christmas
7:30 p.m. St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral…
Seraphic Fire has received a grant from the Knight Foundation that …