Seraphic Fire kicks off season with enjoyable and intimate American program

By Dorothy Hindman

Patrick Quigley led Seraphic Fire in an American program Wednesday night to open the choir’s 11th season,

Seraphic Fire delivered an eminently enjoyable program of Shaker-inspired American tunes for their 11th season opener.  The neo-gothic St. Jude Melkite Church in downtown Miami provided a richly resonant backdrop for the full choral blend, though the venue proved slightly warm due to the packed house.

The idea for the “Simple Gifts” program came to conductor/artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley after much repeated listening to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Normally an aficionado of Renaissance and Baroque music, Quigley has curated a cozy evening of some of the most beloved choral pieces by American contemporary masters.

Inspired by the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts, Quigley opened with a grouping of traditional Shaker arrangements.  Followers of the Lamb, arranged by Philip R. Dieterrich, featured strong male and female unison exchanges, displaying Seraphic Fire’s brighter edges. Cleanly performed, with judicious use of portamento, the work set a buoyant, pure-toned standard that persisted through the 80-minute concert.

Typical Dancing, arranged by Roger Hall, was a joyous ode to the Shaker’s unfortunately self-defeating celibacy policy, featuring soaring unison melodies breaking into simple two-part settings. Give Good Gifts featured a quartet of soprano Elizabeth Hungerford, mezzo-soprano Misty Leah Bermudez, tenor Brad Diamond and bass-baritone James Bass “lining out” the hymn, followed by a Golden-rule exhortation in full chorus.

Each member of Seraphic Fire possesses a distinctive voice, allowing Quigley great timbral versatility when putting works together.  The “Simple Gifts” program features the full ensemble from start to finish, and the striking breadth of Seraphic Fire’s colors were highlighted. Impeccable English diction and the immediate simplicity of the music left nothing to question.

Naturally, Quigley programmed Copland’s Old American Songs, beginning with the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.”   Opening with women’s voices, the vivid sound had a luminous quality, supported but never overshadowed as the men joined on the second verse, capturing Seraphic Fire’s signature blend of warmth and exquisite balance.

The standout moment in “The Little Horses” featured the men’s rich tone on verse two, with a soft descant for the women gently adding dimension.  The light touch of Anna Fateeva’s piano accompaniment was perfectly balanced in the reverberant space.  ”Zion’s Walls” emphasized Seraphic Fire’s full-throated singing for an exhilarating effect, while the gradual build of “At the River” was more intimate yet no less present, with Quigley’s deft handling of melody and countermelody ensuring clear texts.  ”Ching-a-ring Chaw” provided a big finish, rounding off a nearly perfect rendition of the set.

Samuel Barber’s Reincarnations revealed additional depths of timbral color, as Quigley’s fine sculpting of canonic entrances exposed Seraphic Fire’s velvety middle and lower registers. Barber’s polyphonic lines and clear emotional states emerged in the ecstatic “Mary Hynes,” the somber, mildly dissonant “Anthony O’Daly,” and the tender “The Coolin.”  This last, with unusually demanding key changes, featured the a cappella ensemble at their most lyrical, perfectly in tune and simply touching.

Frank Ticheli and Morten Lauridsen’s immensely popular works rank them among the best American choral composers today.  Of the remaining works on the program, Ticheli’s Earth Song and Lauridsen’s set of three Nocturnes channeled the humble beauty of the “Simple Gifts” spirit best.  No doubt the singers have performed these works previously, but Seraphic Fire’s uniquely heady blend took the favorites to another level.  

Works by younger composers Shawn Crouch, Paul Crabtree, and Colin Britt showed promise, but lacked the sure pacing and confident simplicity that make the Ticheli and Lauridsen so compelling.  The opening suspensions of the Ticheli were perfection, making the demanding, exposed a cappella work seem effortless.  The gradually descending registers of the work revealed Seraphic Fire’s smooth, unified sound from top to bottom.

Lauridsen’s Sa Nuit d’ Été, and Soneto de la Noche, on texts by Rilke and Neruda respectively, were the only non-English texts, showcasing Seraphic Fire’s command of French and Spanish diction.  In Soneto, Charles Wesley Evans delivered the only solo of the evening, his bright baritone wafting over the ensemble. The simple homophony of the settings allowed each text to come to the fore, but it was Sure on this Shining Night that brought goosebumps.  A piece that singers love, the work had a maturity to the lines, and Quigley let the singers open up completely on their highest notes for a thrilling finish to the program.

Seraphic Fire will repeat “Simple Gifts” 7:30 p.m. tonight at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton; 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church, Coral Gables; 8 p.m. at All Saints Episcopal Church, Ft. Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. Sunday at Miami Beach Community Church. Seraphicfire.org

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Thu Oct 18, 2012
at 1:11 pm
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