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Although Handel’s Messiah was originally created for Easter performances, the oratorio has become synonymous with the Christmas season. On Friday night, the Broward Center’s Classical Series presented Miami’s acclaimed chamber choir Seraphic Fire in an abridged version that was historically informed, musically scrupulous and deeply satisfying.
As in previous incarnations, the performance comprised much of the first part of Handel’s score (the nativity section) plus highlights from second and third sections. While one hopes that, eventually, Seraphic Fire will present the work in its entirety as Handel conceived it, this potted version makes a good primer for those just discovering the score.
While there were still many empty seats, the Fort Lauderdale series seems to be drawing a more diverse and multicultural audience. Much of that audience seemed to be hearing the choir and Handel’s music for the first time. Their enthusiasm was contagious but the constant applause after every vocal solo and chorus proved distracting.
In artistic director Patrick Quigley’s absence, the group’s chorus master James K. Bass conducted and he offered a freshly conceived traversal that was strikingly different from Quigley’s previous readings. Whereas Quigley tends to favor brisk tempos, Bass opted for more moderate speeds that never dragged. Indeed the big choral numbers had a flow and lilt that was both joyous and charming. His careful attention to dynamics and balancing of timbres paid musical dividends.
The expanded choir sounded wonderful in the Au-Rene Theater, a venue considerably larger than the churches where Seraphic Fire usually performs.Vocal lines were transparent and the corporate sound smooth and never harsh.
The Sebastians, the New York-based period instrument ensemble that is the group’s new artistic partner, made a strong showing. After some initial raw playing in the overture, the orchestra’s timbres were bright, the ensemble tight and observant of stylistic niceties. Bass had the two oboes and two trumpets stand for their obbligato solos, giving the wind parts greater clarity. Harpsichordist Jeffrey Grossman offered strongly alert continuo, particularly in the recitatives.
The recitatives and arias were sung by members of the choir and they all rose to the occasion impressively. Soprano Megan Chartrand proved a true heroine. In addition to singing a rapt “How beautiful are the feet,” she replaced tenor Patrick Muehleise for “But thou shall not leave his soul,” transposing the aria to the soprano range. Her tone was warm and voluminous, traversing a wide range from strong low notes to a top that was free of strain or pressure.
The brief recitative “Thus sayeth the Lord” displayed Charles Evans’ firm, agile baritone, his trills solid and precise. Virginia Warnken’s deep alto and expressive intensity illuminated “But who may abide” while Lexa Ferrill’s lighter mezzo and clear diction strongly conveyed “O thou that tellest good tidings,” aided by Bass’s robust, swaying rhythm.
Jessica Petrus has been a standout at recent Seraphic Fire performances and her light soprano, free of vibrato, alighted the coloratura in “Rejoice greatly.” The purity of Margot Rood’s sound and radiant timbre brought depth of feeling to “I know that my redeemer liveth.”
Steven Soph assayed “Comfort ye” and “Every valley” with heroic declamation, breezing through the ornaments freely, even in the tenor’s upper range. Daniel Moore’s firm bass had the bottom tones for “The trumpet shall sound” but the accompanying trumpet solo was effortful and the player wisely did not attempt the high ornaments.
In the concluding chorus, vocal and instrumental strands came together organically, the final Amen ringing out in festive fashion.
Seraphic Fire will repeat Handel’s Messiah 8 p.m. Saturday at Trinity Cathedral in Miami and 4 p.m. Sunday at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Center. seraphicfire.org; 305-285-9060.
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