Last month Patrick Dupre Quigley and Seraphic Fire opened their seventh season with a creative Latin program breezily segueing from the Cuban Baroque composer Esteban Salas to modern works by two young Miami-area composers.
The chamber choir’s concerts are characteristically eclectic in 2008-09, taking in a program of populist New Orleans music later this month, Russian Orthodox works and another exploration of Christian and Jewish liturgical music.
Yet it is not the critically acclaimed choir, but Quigley’s new enterprise that most people will be keeping a close watch on this season. On Thursday night, Quigley will launch the Firebird Chamber Orchestra, which will perform four programs at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in its inaugural season. The program will be repeated Friday and Sunday.
Backed by a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, a home at the Arsht Center, and Quigley’s ability to draw audiences with smart, discerning repertoire presented in an approachable, user-friendly way, it would seem that his new project would be a surefire (sorry) success.
But will it succeed in the face of a devastating economy of historic scale and a circumscribed classical audience base in Miami? Even with the stellar artistic reputation that Quigley and Seraphic Fire have forged over six seasons, establishing a unique identity for a new chamber orchestra may prove difficult in a regional landscape that has not been fertile ground for new ensembles since the failure of the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Boca Raton Symphonia has managed to carve out an audience base in southern Palm Beach County. But in Miami-Dade and Broward counties consistent success has been hard to come by: the Miami Chamber Symphony went bust and, after some initial success a few years back, the Renaissance Chamber Orchestra folded due to overambitious expansion and mismanagement. Other groups like Orchestra Miami, which has yet to announce a 2008-2009 season, have found it difficult to present more than a few concerts a season. And, even the charismatic Quigley could not draw audiences to a solo vocal recital series that Seraphic Fire launched in fall of 2006 and had to withdraw due to lack of attendance.
The 30-year-old conductor is characteristically confident, however, about the success of the Firebird Chamber Orchestra. Indeed, he sees little in the way of competition for what in his authentically minded view will be a slenderized chamber “orchestra” of Baroque dimensions with fewer than two-dozen players. “We actually don’t have any real chamber orchestras that are chamber size,” Quigley says. “Once you get five violins in there, it’s no longer a chamber orchestra—not in terms of what Bach and Mozart had. At that point, you’re a Romantic medium-size orchestra.”
“My personal feeling is that chamber music should be able to fit into a salon. Less people, better players.”
Towards that end, he has gone about recruiting the best musicians, maintaining a small core and cherry-picking other local and national players as needed, based on repertoire. For instance, in this week’s premiere program for strings, the co-concertmasters will swap places, with Baroque specialist Michael Albert as leader for the Vivaldi and Telemann works and Adda Kridler, a member of the Charleston Symphony, in the first chair for the Barber and Diamond. “We’re trying to make it as authentic as possible for both styles when we mix it up,” says Quigley. “It’s sort of the same thing we do with Seraphic Fire with certain Romantic voices for Romantic stuff and more Baroque voices for Baroque stuff. I like thinkers in my ensemble and they’re all very good thinkers as well as good players.”
One way, Quigley sees the Firebird Chamber Orchestra establishing an identity, is, like Seraphic Fire, by offering more offbeat and adventurous repertoire than anyone else. “If there is a chamber orchestra in town I guarantee you that in the past 36 months they’ve played the Tchaik Serenade, probably the Siegfried Idyll and gone through the standard string orchestra rep. We try to stay outside the standard rep—certainly outside the rep for Florida.”
This week’s opener, spanning three centuries of music, is typical of what Quigley hopes to offer, featuring a Vivaldi concerto, Barber’s String Quartet, the central movement of which comprises the celebrated Adagio for Strings, and two rarities in Telemann’s Don Quixotte and David Diamond’s Rounds for String Orchestra. Doing the complete Barber String Quartet, Quigley says, exemplifies the ensemble’s mission to present works from varied musical eras that give the music context and provide a frame of reference for audiences. “When was the last time the full Barber String Quartet was played in town? We’ve certainly heard the Adagio but we haven’t heard it in context.”
”I don’t think programming a Tchaik symphony has any merit in terms of its relation to programming. Great, you’re doing the status quo. But how does that relate to the rest of the program? An overture, a concerto and a symphony—who cares?! We’re trying to take people to a different part of the chamber orchestra rep.”
Towards that end the Firebird will perform arrangements of works for string quartet such as the Barber this week and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet in November on a thematic program on loss and last things, which also includes Bach’s cantata Ich habe genug “The fact is that string quartets, sadly, don’t really pull in this town. However chamber orchestras do. If we can introduce them to different and interesting parts of the rep, I think that’s important.”
Another way the Firebird will offer a difference is by featuring more vocal music on their programs, like the Bach cantata, in a region where classical vocal music is largely limited to mainstage opera productions. “I think doing Ich habe genug
three nights in a row is something this town need to hear. For me it’s one of the top three pieces of music of all time. And having the Schubert Death and the Maiden
next to it provides context. The Schubert of course doesn’t use any words, but it all comes back to the universal theme of death through music.”
Unlike Seraphic Fire, which performs in area churches, this week’s debut concerts will move from the sacred to the semi-profane. The original idea was to perform all concerts at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall in its yet-to-be-utilized chamber configuration. Instead, this week’s concerts have been shifted to the Peacock Rehearsal Hall in the Ziff Ballet Opera Houses, which will be converted into a nightclub setting with tables, full bar and drinks being served during the performance.
It seems an unorthodox setting for the debut of a new classical chamber orchestra but one that Quigley welcomes and says is in line with Seraphic Fire’s quest for nontraditional concerts in nontraditional spaces. “I don’t mind sounds of glasses or wine bottles being dropped,” he says. “It’s part of the live experience. We have hearing aids go off and other disturbances when we play in churches. We don’t need absolute silence.”
For the popular conductor, the addition of a chamber orchestra fulfills his original vision of Seraphic Fire as a holistic European-style ensemble composed of voices and instrumentalists, and drawing musicians as needed for repertory, much like France’s Les Arts Florissants or Les Mus
iciens du Louvre.
“We started out that way but over three years ago when we went to just being the choir we had to cut back on the orchestra,” due to economics, Quigely says. “It’s getting back to what we have always wanted to be, which is like the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir. In the end, it’s about the music and about hearing the music.”
Patrick Quigley will conduct the Firebird Chamber Orchestra 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 7 p.m. Sunday at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts’ Ziff Ballet Opera House in the Peacock Studio, Miami. Tickets are $40. Call the Arsht Center at 305-949-6722 or go to www.arshtcenter.org.
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