Seraphic Fire closes season with exhilarating program of spirituals

By Lawrence Budmen

"The Banjo Lesson" by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1893.

“The Banjo Lesson” by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893.

After a season that explored Baroque and Renaissance choral music, masterworks of Bach and Monteverdi and an alternative edition of Mozart’s Requiem, Seraphic Fire turned to down-home Americana Wednesday night.

Patrick Dupré Quigley and his versatile chamber choir are closing their season with “Steal Away,” an exhilarating program of African-American spirituals. Quigley and his singers brought the same artistic integrity and splendid musicianship to these classic American vignettes that they have so often exhibited in classical repertory.

Wednesday night’s program in the ornate sanctuary of Miami’s St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral opened with You Must Have That True Religion. Quigley immediately drew a swinging rhythm and variety of dynamics from his singers, with Kathryn Mueller’s high, pure soprano a standout in Roland Carter’s freshly harmonized arrangement.

Quigley called the spiritual “America’s first true concert music” as compared to the liturgical basis of gospel songs. The pioneering John Work’s measured version of This Little Light of Mine spotlighted the high female voices’ ethereal tones while an up-tempo Little Black Train ended with a choral train whistle sound.

William L. Dawson developed the Tuskegee Institute Choir into a renowned organization and composed a large body of concert music. His graceful, flowing arrangement of There is a Balm in Gilead was very different from more familiar liturgical versions. Meredith Ruduski’s radiant soprano solo took special honors. The famous Dawson transcription of Every Time I Hear the Spirit had a gospel-like urgency and Quigley’s skillful vocal blending produced thrilling climaxes.

Harry T. Burleigh was a student of Dvorak in New York during the 1890′s. His unusually fine melodic setting of My Lord, What a Mornin’ blended female and male voices in serene harmonies. Steven Soph’s tenor and James K.  Bass’ sturdy bass-baritone captured the unexpected rhythmic beat and adventurous harmonic palette in Undine S. Moore’s setting of Daniel, Daniel.

The singers deftly handled Jester Hairston’s rapid-fire writing in the folk-infused Poor Man Lazrus, while the jazz-tinged Hold Out had the choir bending phrases in pop music style. Charles Wesley Evans’ vociferous baritone solo propelled the contemporary sensibility of Moses Hogan’s classic My God is So High. The depth and variety of colors in Mela Dailey’s mezzo sparked Hogan’s Great Day.

Eighteen children from the Miami Choral Academy, Seraphic Fire’s educational wing under the direction of the Master Chorale’s Brett Karlin, joined the choir for Quigley’s own arrangements of three spirituals. With Quigley at the piano and Reginald Mobley and Evans providing subtle vocalism in solo sections, the children’s choir did not miss a beat. A rousing version of Steal Away concluded Seraphic Fire’s season on a joyful note.

The program will be repeated 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 All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach. seraphicfire.org; 305-285-9060.

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Thu May 8, 2014
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