Seraphic Fire explores Spanish treasures in wide-ranging program

By Lawrence Budmen

“Spanish Musicians” by Carl Spitzweg.

Seraphic Fire celebrated five hundred years  of Spain in Florida Wednesday night with a unique overview of music from the Golden Age of Spain. Artistic director Patrick Quigley has done considerable research into Spanish vocal music of the 14th through 16th centuries, unearthing scores that have rarely been performed by contemporary choral ensembles.

In his opening remarks, Quigley pointed out that many of these works were intended for worship, processional, and informal functions at the Spanish court. Some pieces existed in abbreviated one-page scores, requiring considerable elaboration and reconstruction. The musicological journey resulted in a joyous evening, the juxtaposition of reverent and rousing musical fare proving delightful.

An ensemble of lute, recorder and percussion added Latin color and atmosphere throughout the concert. Anne Timberlake was the brilliant recorder player, her agility and verve bringing zest to this arresting program.

To the springy rhythms of an instrumental prelude, the choir entered the sanctuary of Miami’s St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church. The opening group of short religious pieces was sung from the rear of the platform rather than the singers’ usual formation close to the audience, the distance adding to the sense of deep spirituality and mystery evoked by the spare harmonies of the Kyrie from Francisco de Penalosa’s Misa El Ojo and the solemn lamentation of Juan de Antxieta’s Domine Jesu Christe. In the surging melodic lines of Penalosa’s Agnus Dei, the twelve voices, superbly balanced by Quigley, sounded as one.

Sara Guttenberg’s clear, exquisite soprano voice was heard to fine effect in Dios te salve, Cruz preciosa (Hail precious cross). Penalosa’s rousing Alleluya offered a striking contrast, a vigorous ensemble proclamation.

Moving forward to their usual position at the front of the stone-walled church, the voices had greater presence and impact. Rex Benincasa’s energetic percussion added ping to the incisive singing of Stella Splendens in A star shined, with Quigley drawing subtle gradations of dynamics and vocal coloring. A series of anonymous pieces sung on the pilgrimage from France to Spain extolling the Virgin Mary ranged from stately formality to vibrant choral volleys. The ethereal beauty of the high voices in Mariam Matrem was especially striking.

Two secular works by famed Franco-Flemish composer Josquin Desprez were a study in contrasts. The soaring chanson Mille regretz (A thousand regrets) was a lament for lost love while sparkling verbal rhythms and energetic articulation underscored the wit of El Grillo (The Cricket).

Beautifully accompanied by John Lenti’s lute, Vincent Davies’ refined lyric tenor voiced a Moor’s shock at the devastation war has wrought in Luys de Milan’s Romance de Moriana. Brad Diamond’s light tenor was artfully deployed in the conversation between a knight and his lover that forms Milan’s Durandarte. The penetrating strength and fervent declamation of Lexa Ferrill’s mezzo was deeply moving in an anonymous setting of Dido’s final speech before flinging herself on the pyre from Virgil’s Aeneid.

The program concluded with highlights from The Songbook of the Palace, a vocal divertissements from the era of Ferdinand and Isabella. James Bass’ rich bass, Thomas McCargar’s exquisitely shaded tenor and John Buffet’s firm baritone took solo honors in a narrative of the war between the Moors and Spanish Catholics. Reginald Mobley’s pristine countertenor shone impressively through the winding melodic curves of Juan de Encina’s Senora de hermosura (Lady of beauty) and Ferrill’s radiant vocalism propelled an ode to fame and glory.

Curios included a satirical Anne Nicole Smith like-tale and the crisply paced Dindirin, a charming finale.

Seraphic Fire repeats “The Golden Age of Spain” 7:30 p.m. Thursday at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton; 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Ft. Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. Sunday at Miami Beach Community Church. 305-285-9060


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Thu Apr 11, 2013
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