Patrick Quigley looks to the past and future as Seraphic Fire opens 15th season
Seraphic Fire has been making music together for fifteen years. TheMiami choir is offering a special season of performances to mark this milestone, opening October 19 at Miami’s St. Sophia Cathedral. Founder and artistic director, Patrick Dupré Quigley, sat down last month in Washington D.C., to take a look back at the last fifteen years, talk about the anniversary season and discuss the future for Seraphic Fire
Born in Louisiana, Quigley moved to Florida to take over the choral program at a large Catholic church in South Miami, where he led six choirs in a traditional chant liturgy. Church leadership asked him what he wanted to do. “This was 23-year-old me,” he recalls, “and I said, I want to start a professional choir, something like Les Arts Florissants. And they said, Well, what would that cost? And I named a number that I thought was absolutely outrageous, being a poor grad student, and they said, OK, fine, what else?”
“Seraphic Fire started as a project of friends,” Quigley added. “And it’s still true.”
He quickly began to make musical friends who were all singing around town. In those first couple months in Miami, some of these excellent singers, who were students in Jo-Michael Scheibe’s choral conducting program at the University of Miami, became friends. With a total of eight singers, including himself on bass lines, the group gave its first concert. “I look back at that first program,” he says, “and it was very much an outline of what we would make our specialty: music pre-Beethoven and music composed within the last ten years.”
The group gave three concerts that year as a way to get its legs. “After three years we started to perform with the New World Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas,” he recounts. “We recorded with Shakira. I was spending about five percent of my time working on Seraphic Fire, and ninety-five percent of my time working on church music. And this is a very Irish thing to say, but I figured that if I am spending five percent of my time on this and it’s going this well, what if I put one-hundred percent of my time in?”
Quigley had some money saved in the bank, and he figured that he could survive twelve months without a salary and give it a go. “This was the fourth year, and all of the original people who were in this organization moved away,” he says. “I really didn’t want to have to start over from scratch every time. It’s a strange thing to say, but we had built this way of breathing together, where ‘T’s’ went, and the way certain vowels were pronounced, the way ends of phrases were done. I wanted that culture to continue.”
Quigley and his colleagues decided that instead of rehearsing one day a week for eight weeks, the way a resident local group would do, they could have all of the rehearsals in four days before their concerts. “We could fly anyone in,” he explains. “We began to build what you might call the American Airlines chorus. It’s a chorus of all-stars, my very favorite choral mercenaries, people who are ‘singers of fortune’.”
When asked about some of the high points of the last fifteen years, Quigley immediately remembers the group’s first performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. He had an ensemble of sixteen singers and a group of young instrumentalists, at that point all first- or second-year members of the New World Symphony. “For some of them it was their first time playing Bach,” he recalls. “It was my first time conducting the B Minor Mass. We were discovering this piece together. We weren’t ready for the emotional impact it would have on us. I remember at the end of it, at the Dona Nobis Pacem, where the basses play that pedal tone A and the three trumpets are at the peak of their range.”
He is clearly moved just by the memory. “I looked over and the principal flutist was crying. The continuo player was crying. One of the altos was in tears, and I was losing the feeling in the tips of my fingers. What we were doing meant something beyond just good music. That was the big bang moment, where energy started going outward instead of inward.”
The first concert of the 15th anniversary season next week will feature music from Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, something not generally associated with Quigley or Seraphic Fire. “We just performed Steve Reich’s Desert Music in April,” Quigley explains, “and we have done a lot of Reich’s music over the years, in collaboration with New World Symphony.” Einstein on the Beach, he says, is too extravagant for an opera company to stage easily. “But there are these five movements that Glass called the ‘Knee Plays’, for vocal ensemble, violinist, and left hand on a keyboard, composed for the long set changes. There is so little minimalist choral music, and these pieces are a hypnotic, mesmerizing musical meditation. The singers are so excited to get to perform them.”
Matt Albert, the original violinist for the contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird, joins Seraphic Fire for the program. “His teacher was the original Einstein, the violinist in Einstein on the Beach,” Quigley adds. At a previous concert, they had performed the second Knee Play from the opera, with Quigley on the speaking part. “I said we needed to do all of these pieces,” he says, “and that is how this program took shape.”
To celebrate its 15th anniversary, Seraphic Fire has commissioned eight composers to create new works especially for them. Quigley says that he wanted the pieces to be, as much as possible, something that choirs other than Seraphic Fire could also perform, not something so specialized that only they could perform it. Christopher Theofanidis has written one of the pieces on the first concert, a work Quigley describes as being about music and about the violin, for Albert to perform with Seraphic Fire.
Quigley says that he used to compose more than he has done in recent years. One of the new works on the first concert is his own set of three pieces, Music When Soft Voices Die, a title drawn from a poem by Percy Shelley. “One piece uses part of Bach’s E Major Partita for violin,” he says, “one is a setting of the Regina Caeli, and the last sets a poem by Sara Teasdale, “There Will Be Rest.” My music in general has a lot of ostinati. Since we are doing Einstein on the Beach, I wrote three ostinato pieces.”
How hard was it to get back into the composing groove? “This has been intensely rewarding,” he says, “but it’s the hardest thing I have done in ten years, to get ten minutes of music on the page. It gives me such respect for all the composers we commissioned this year. For me to write these pieces, it gets me back to why I love new music. Composers do so much intense and magical work putting pen to paper. We have to have so much respect for that, how much of their souls they put on that page.”
When asked about Seraphic Fire’s plans for the future, Quigley is more circumspect. “The 16th season is going to feature some program-length touchstones of modern music,” he says, “as well as the only major Bach work we haven’t done yet.” With a laugh, he adds, “People who know us well will be able to figure that one out.” Seraphic Fire will take its November program on the road for a single performance in Washington, D.C., where he now lives and where the choir has previously performed on two occasions.
There are some big plans somewhere on the horizon, too. “A West Coast tour is definitely in the medium future,” he adds. “And there is likely a European or Asian tour farther down the road.”
Seraphic Fire will perform music of Glass, Quigley and Theofanidis in the first program of its 15th anniversary season. Performances are 7:30 p.m. October 19 at St. Sophia Cathedral, Miami; 7:30 p.m. October 21 at St. Philip’s Cathedral, Coral Gables; 7:30 p.m. October 22 at All Saints Episcopal Church, Fort Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. October 23 at All Souls Episcopal Church, Miami Beach. seraphicfire.org; 305-285-9060.
Charles T. Downey is Associate Editor of the new site Washington Classical Review. He also reviews concerts and recordings for the Washington Post and is a long-time observer of classical music and the arts in the nation’s capital at his pioneering blog ionarts.org, established in 2003.
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