Seraphic Fire’s polished precision misses the heart of spirituals program
Spiritual programming has become familiar repertoire for Seraphic Fire over the years, and the choir’s program “The American Spiritual,” presented Tuesday night at the Bienes Center in Fort Lauderdale, was scheduled to coincide with the release of its first CD in the genre, “Steal Away.” Seraphic Fire’s vocal polish and ease with the music were apparent from the outset of this assured, professional survey of American spiritual concert music from Appalachia to the Deep South.
But polish and precision are not always sufficient for music of this nature. Although the program was sub-titled, “An Expression of Pure Joy,” the pleasures were more esthetic than spiritual with singing that was beautiful but rarely glorious and occasionally a bit cold and distant.
That might have been partly due to the dry acoustic at the Bienes Center, which seemed to enclose the Seraphic sound in an invisible cocoon separating singers from the audience. (Unfortunately, that cocoon didn’t prevent several cell phone bursts from invading the performance, much to the annoyance of conductor Patrick Dupre Quigley, who reminded the audience that cell phones have OFF buttons.)
Also, the African-American spirituals on the program were not those of 19th-century slaves but rather of song writers who had been liberated from the fields or born afterwards. As Quigley pointed out, American concert spirituals were meant to be sung in concert halls, not churches. Yet, as well-crafted as they are, these are songs of deep faith and hope, and Seraphic’s rendering of them was too earthbound Tuesday night.
Fortunately, Quigley was an engaging guide in the selections, all of which he announced from the stage–there was no written program–and the Seraphic sound is such an entrancing, near-perfect blend of voices, that one can listen to it all night without paying much attention to the words being sung. The rewards were still significant with gorgeous harmonizing and vocal layering, especially in John Work’s “This Little Light of Mine” and “Little Black Train.”
Yet, Seraphic Fire’s attempts at finding the heart of the music fell consistently short. This was most apparent in the Appalachian spirituals, particularly “Keep On The Sunny Side,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in which Quigley’s rocking, improvisational piano accompaniment contrasted with the rather square vocals.
Still, the soloists showed off the ensemble’s range and versatility. Of all the voices, James Bass’ dark, imposing voice was best-suited for the material. In William Dawson’s “There is a Balm in Gilead,” he mined the depths of the bass register in ominous passages. “Gilead” also gave Meredith Ruduski a chance to show off her ringing soprano.
Four female voices, led by soprano Kathryn Mueller, opened the concert with a nicely choreographed rendition of the gospel tune “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” entering one by one and displaying bright, high tones. Sara Guttenberg graced Sanford Bennett’s “In The Sweet By and By” with her sweet, clarion soprano. Mela Dailey soprano’s was rich and jazzy, expanding impressively in Moses Hogan’s “Great Day.”
Reginald Mobley and his startling countertenor, a high male voice with the weight of a gifted tenor, stepped forward in numerous solos. His voice doesn’t sound effortless, but it’s clear and has a wide range that he showed off particularly well in Quigley’s arrangement of “Over My Head” and again on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Wednesday at St. Sophia Cathedral in Miami, 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Moorings Presbyterian Church in Naples; 7:30 p.m. Friday at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. Sunday at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach. Friday’s concert is sold out. seraphicfire.org.
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Wed Jan 13, 2016
at 12:34 pm