Seraphic Fire closes season with music of the English cathedral
Following traversals of American, Canadian and Latin choral rarities, ceremonial Handel, and requiem settings by Mozart and Brahms, Seraphic Fire returned to its roots as an a capella chamber choir with a program of music from the English Cathedral for its season finale. Concentrating on the works of William Byrd, Wednesday night’s concert seemed ideally suited to the visual and acoustical splendor of Miami’s St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Byrd’s career spanned the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I from the 16th to 17th centuries. Although a Roman Catholic, Byrd managed to navigate the clash between Catholicism and Protestantism that dominated his era. He composed works in both religious traditions and managed to steer a path through the changing political, musical and theological preferences of the monarchs he served as organist and composer for the Chapel Royal.
Byrd was a composer of striking originality who expanded the harmonic and polyphonic structure of British choral music. Building on the legacy of his friend and teacher Thomas Tallis, his best works are remarkably forward-looking.
Still, artistic director Patrick Quigley may have miscalculated in presenting an entire concert of music by Byrd and his contemporaries. The formal stylization of British sacred music in the Renaissance era can turn monotonous. The wide difference between Byrd’s greatest scores and the pieces he wrote more dutifully was all the more manifest when displayed in profusion.
The concert opened with the Gregorian chant of Ave Maria. Singing from pews on opposite sides of the main platform, the purity of tone from the female voices contrasted with the firmness and resonance of the men. With the remainder of the 13 voice choir taking the platform, Tallis’ Ave rosa, sine spinis was richly sonorous. In two contrasting Tallis pieces, Quigley’s blending of timbres was less smooth than usual, but refreshingly so, allowing the individual voices to stand out.
The vigorous anthem Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles marked Byrd’s first work on the program. Quigley brought out the layered lines, the exquisitely textured vocal waves resounding throughout the sanctuary. The solemn, overtly formal Lord, in thy rage was a fine platform for the spare vibrato and exceptional control of the choir’s male contingent.
Mary I’s Catholic restoration found Byrd in prime form, creating joyous yet reverent liturgical scores. The festive Beata viscara, a vibrant hymn to the Virgin Mary, concludes with a particularly beautiful Alleluia. With the ascension to the throne of Elizabeth I, Byrd attempted to fuse sacred music with the English ballad tradition. That era produced some of his best music. The inspired melody of Justorum animae and the rousing Sing joyfully displayed the choir’s disciplined articulation.
Thomas Morley’s I am the resurrection and the life and Byrd’s Venite comedite were more austere, lacking the inspiration of Byrd’s best writing.
Two excerpts from Mass for Four Voices, one of Byrd’s greatest works, were the evening’s finest offerings. The elongated lines in the Kyrie and the soaring melodic strands of the Agnus Dei brought the singers to their peak. The sheer vocal beauty and fervor of the ensemble singing and Quigley’s attentiveness to minute dynamic contrasts served this glorious score in splendid fashion. Seraphic Fire should perform this masterwork in its entirety on a future program.
The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at St. Philips Episcopal 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
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Thu May 12, 2016
at 11:42 am