Slimmed-down Seraphic Fire a bit too chaste in mixing the sensual and spiritual

By Joe Banno

"Salmacis and Hermaphroditus" by Francois-Joseph Navez, 1829.

Patrick Dupre Quigley certainly has a lot to say.  This gifted and prodigiously well-informed conductor of the vocal ensemble Seraphic Fire gave spoken introductions to all the pieces on the group’s program, “Kisses of His Mouth”, Friday evening at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his words took up as much time at this 75-minute concert as the music itself.  Yet so informative and giddily enthused were his mini-lectures in musicological theory, they added a certain performance component of their own to the evening.

What all the chat had to do with was the concert’s premise –– the increasingly blurred line, over the last 400 years of Western music, between depictions of religious ecstasy and erotic longing.  But so chaste and rarified was the character of the singing all evening, both lustful panting and pious self-flagellation tended to get short shrift.  Admirable as were the pure tone and seamless choral blend Quigley achieved, they probably contributed to the dampening-of-ardor factor.

This was a program focusing exclusively on sopranos and mezzos (and a single countertenor) from Seraphic Fire –– seven singers in total –– and what repeatedly registered in ensemble work and solos was the clean line and bell-like clarity of individual voices and the sweetness of their collective blend.  It’s hard to suggest the heady rush in a program titled “Kisses of His Mouth” when everyone sounds fresh from the convent.

These were ideal voices, though, for the (often a capella) early music that constituted the lion’s share of the program –– though that repertoire skewed the mood even further toward the ethereal.  The words of Hildegard von Bingen’s O Ignee Spiritus may speak of men taking fire from God, but her supple plainchant suggests something decidedly cooler. The ecstasy connected with the Resurrection in the texts of a vaulting Palestrina Crucifixus and a Monteverdi Surgens Jesu translate less as emotive than as angelic in their scores.  And for all its playful insinuation, the pertness in Pierre Passereau’s good-husband check-list, Il est bel et bon, stays distinctly above the waist.

Quigley’s point that Couperin treated the sacred subject of his Troisieme Lecon de Tenebres to full-scale operatic treatment was well taken, but it doesn’t change how elegantly and demurely the music expresses itself.  Even when a work on the program was more overtly sensual –– Monteverdi’s Pur ti miro or Dowland’s Come Again, Sweet Love –– the choral expansion of what was originally music for solo voices robbed the pieces of their intimacy and smoothed away the eroticism.

Composer-classical guitarist Alvaro Andres Bermudez’ new work, Kisses of His Mouth (based on the Song of Solomon)  received its world premiere on the program. with Bermudez accompanying the piece on guitar, the feel-good lyricism proved attractive in its pastiche of Renaissance polyphony, 20th-century English choral tradition and conservative jazz.  But even in this cannily written, choir-friendly work, the hungry sensuality of the original text was leagues away from Bermudez’s well-behaved adaptation.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale and 4 p.m. Sunday at Miami Beach Community Church.; 305-285-9060.

Joe Banno is an award-winning director in theatre, opera and film, based in the Washington, DC area. He has been a classical music critic for over twenty years, serving as a contributing reviewer to the Washington Post since 1993 and as opera critic for Washington City Paper from 1989 through 2007.

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Sat Jan 30, 2010
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