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With season opener, Seraphic Fire hears America singing

Sun Oct 19, 2014 at 11:56 am

By Lawrence Budmen

"The Girl I Left Behind Me" canvas by Eastman Johnson, c.1873.

“The Girl I Left Behind Me” canvas by Eastman Johnson, c.1873.

Patrick Quigley can usually be counted on to take the route less traveled in choral programming. For the opening of Seraphic Fire’s 13th season, the choir’s director has conceived a concert of rarely heard American choral music. Quigley’s own arrangement of the traditional hymn How Can I Keep from Singing? provided both the program’s opening and its title.

Mezzo-soprano Luthien Brackett entered the sanctuary of All Saints Episcopal Church in Ft. Lauderdale on Saturday night, singing a solo version of the hymn with unaffected directness and simplicity. She was joined by soprano Lexa Ferrill in what eventually became a contrapuntal version for the entire 13-voice ensemble.

Two large works dominated this survey of native composers. Samuel Barber’s cycle Reincarnations dates from the composer’s years as the director of the chorus at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. “Mary Hynes” is a lively, proto-Appalachian ditty that displayed the ensemble’s fine balancing of male and female voices and clear articulation of text. The minor-key dirge “Anthony O’Daly” finds Barber at the height of his lyrical powers. In “The Coolin” the choir’s sound never turned harsh despite the high tessitura of Barber’s vocal writing.

Morten Lauridsen is arguably America’s greatest living choral composer.  Mid-Winter Songs, an early setting of five poems by Robert Graves, opens with “Lament for Pasiphaë,” a bold proclamation that emerged trumpet-like in visceral ensemble sound. “Like Snow” channels Copland-esque Americana, and pianist Anna Fateeva superbly encompassed the complex rhythms of the accompanying keyboard line. A touch of jazz vocal and keyboard styles dominated “Mid Winter Walking” while “She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep” was vintage Lauridsen with its winding phrases and mellow harmonies. Slow moving and building to a full-throttle outcry, “Intercession in October” is a stunning climactic exclamation. The entire score is the work of a young composer gradually finding his own voice.

Nico Muhly is one of the nation’s most prominent composers of the younger generation.  I Can Not Attain Unto It is inspired by his early electronic music with overlapping lines, layered harmonics and bitonal canons. A uniquely serene dissonance dominates the score to hypnotic effect. The singers’ clarity and spot-on precision were vividly on display in this technically challenging piece. Miami-based composer Shawn Crouch’s Light of Common Day breaks into a postmodern chorale, underpinned by rippling piano figures.

Among a series of short pieces, Dan Forrest’s setting of Mark Twain’s Good Night, Dear Heart was straightforwardly sentimental and melodic. The purity of Jessica Petrus’ high, vibrato-less soprano took solo honors in Dominick DiOrio’s I Am, a masterful weaving of repetitive fragments into larger motifs.

Jake Runestad’s Fear Not, Dear Friend was more notable for nuanced variety of dynamics than melodic or harmonic invention, yet given distinction by Megan Chartrand’s soprano solos. Colin Britt’s As there are Flowers (after Edna St. Vincent Millay) was undistinguished but Frank Ticheli’s dark Earth Song found the gifted composer of orchestral and wind ensemble works equally at home in the vocal realm.

Quigley led Lauridsen’s recent Sure on This Shining Night as an encore. Samuel Barber also set this poem by James Agee and it is remarkable how similar the two versions are. Lauridsen’s endless flow of melody was matched by the group’s lustrous timbral blend.

Seraphic Fire repeats the program 4 p.m. Sunday at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach.  The choir presents Vivaldi’s Gloria with the period-instrument orchestra The Sebastians November 7-9 in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale.; 305-285-9060.

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