Bach’s music shines magnificently in Seraphic Fire program

By David Fleshler

Bach's "Magnificat" and Cantata No. 147 were performed by Seraphic Fire Friday night in Fort Lauderdale.

Bach’s “Magnificat” and Cantata No. 147 were performed by Seraphic Fire Friday night in Fort Lauderdale.

Seraphic Fire’s Bach performances are always highlights of the season, as the Baroque master’s music draws on the choir’s virtues of precision, musical intelligence and vocal splendor.

The choir, joined by the Firebird Chamber Orchestra, performed an all-Bach concert Friday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale. After a quick and energetic Gloria from the Mass in B Minor, the choir went on to the first major work of the evening.

Bach’s Magnificat sets words from the Book of Luke that constitute one of the oldest Christian hymns, Mary’s song of praise upon being congratulated on her holy pregnancy by her cousin Elizabeth. Bach’s version uses the Latin, but English speakers may be more familiar with settings based on the King James Bible, known by the title, “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord.”

Patrick Dupré Quigley, Seraphic Fire’s artistic director, took one of his trademark brisk tempos in the joyous opening, with the orchestra going full tilt and singers’ voices ascending one on top of the other. Although this may have seemed initially too fast to do the work justice, the performance was so sturdy and weighted, with shining tones in trumpets and vocal phrases shaped with such style by the choir, that it turned out to be a highly effective evocation of Mary’s jubilation.

In the aria “Quia respexit humilitatem,” the soprano Estelí Gomez brought a deeply expressive, wonderfully clear, and rich, centered voice to the words in which Mary praises God for exalting someone as humble as herself. The chorus “Omnes generations” broke up the mood of quiet contemplation, with the choir singing in a crisp, hard-driving manner that contrasted effectively with what came before.

One of the great high points was “Et misericordia,” a hymn to God’s mercy. Featuring the luminous flute playing of Jo Brand and Ebonee Thomas, the orchestra expressed in glowing tones Bach’s strange, harmonic progressions, which still sound advanced nearly three centuries after he composed them. Mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken and tenor Brian Giebler brought gleaming tones to their parts, blending well with the flutes and the rest of the orchestra.

While the tones from the full choir were rich and well-balanced throughout the performance, the singers sang with a bit less of the clarity and precision usually heard from Seraphic Fire, possibly because their numbers had been augmented from the usual dozen or so to 17.

Bach receives more attention for his mastery of counterpoint, his harmonic imagination and the cumulative power of his music than his actual themes. But he was also one of the great composers of melody, and  has written many memorable ones, a couple of which could be heard in the Magnificat.

One of Bach’s most celebrated melodies appears in the Cantata No. 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life). Best known by the English title Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, the melody appeared in two choral movements. The melody was performed faster than typically heard in popular arrangements, but that may have been more in keeping with Bach’s intentions. The orchestra phrased the quick running tune with flair, over resonant chords in the chorus.

Among soloists, baritone David McFerrin provided the highlights. He brought about as much operatic drama to the work as it could take, snapping off the German consonants with relish as he delivered a stirring performance of the aria “Ich will von Jesu Wundern singen” (I will sing of the wonders of Jesus).

Seraphic Fire will repeat the program 8 p.m. Saturday at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables and 3:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton.; 305-285-9060.

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Sat Feb 15, 2014
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