Seraphic Fire winningly mixes past and present with Christmas program

By David Fleshler

Dozens of candles flickered in the darkness. From the back of the church came the deep sound of unaccompanied male voices in the medieval tones of the chant Pater Noster.

The Miami choir Seraphic Fire opened its series of Christmas concerts Saturday evening at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palm Beach Gardens, with an absorbing performance of classic carols, ancient chants, contemporary works and three world premieres. The choir will repeat the concert eight times, distributing holiday cheer on a grueling schedule that will take the singers to venues in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Patrick Dupré Quigley, the choir’s founder and artistic director, invited the audience to set aside the contemporary Christmas culture in which the holiday began “the day after Thanksgiving,” and return to the time, through most of Western civilization, in which it was a solemn occasion of religious devotion. In this consciously countercultural event, intended to banish for 75 minutes or so the Christmas of Black Friday, wrapping paper and garish light displays, the 13 singers sang with the choir’s trademark tonal purity and dead-on intonation, with soft, rounded tones that fit these works of religious devotion.

They did perform some familiar carols. The First Nowell, Silent Night and O Come All Ye Faithful were made to sound both ancient and fresh through a few unfamiliar turns of phrase and unexpected harmonies. And there were moments of great aural power, such as the expressive singing in the slow-moving harmonies of Stephen Paulus’ Hymn to the Eternal Flame.

Although the concert was firmly rooted in the past, with lots of old carols and classics, the choir performed several contemporary works that maintained the tone of religious devotion. Despite some harmonies that might have sounded jarring to listeners 200 years ago, the contemporary works’ phrasing and tone connected them firmly with the choral works of past centuries, allowing them to fit easily into a concert intended to evoke a past sense of the Christmas holiday. Of these, John Taverner’s 1982 setting of William Blake’s poem The Lamb was one of the highlights, with aching harmonies that were movingly sung by the chorus.

The choir gave the world premieres of three works it commissioned specifically for its Christmas programs by the young American composer Jake Runestad. Sleep, Little Baby, Sleep was a lullaby with a classic American folk-song quality. Fear Not, Dear Friend was a quietly stirring and uplifting overcoming of fear, and Nada Te Turbe was a work that blended the contrapuntal style of older choral works with contemporary harmonies and turns of phrase, all tying together the present with the past.

The showiest work on the program was Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, a choreographed, surround-sound spectacular that starts with a single voice and builds to dazzling 13-part polyphony as the singers deploy themselves around the church to ring the audience in choral singing.

Seraphic Fire will perform its Christmas program Dec. 9-18 at various locations in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.; 305-285-9060

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Sun Dec 9, 2012
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