Seraphic Fire opens with Cuban Baroque

By Greg Stepanich

The world’s popular songbooks of the 20th and 21st centuries have been notably enriched by the music of Spanish America, but that’s far less true for its orchestral and sacred music libraries, in particular with pieces from earlier centuries.

Seraphic Fire, the Miami-based chamber choir, opened its seventh season this week with a small but enlightening taste of what we’ve been missing. The 13-person singing group, backed by a three-piece continuo ensemble, returned to Palm Beach County Thursday afternoon after a two-year absence with a program of music primarily from the Latin American Baroque.

The house was modest — no more than 50 people at the Harriet Himmel Theater in West Palm Beach’s CityPlace — but it was an appreciative house that listened intently and appeared to enjoy the concert. The group’s next appearance at the Himmel in late October will feature the music of New Orleans, and likely will bring a larger crowd.

Artistic Director Patrick Dupre Quigley is one of the most interesting programmers in the area ‘s classical music community, and this concert was no exception. Titled El Fuego Serafico, the program featured five sacred works by the Cuban composer and priest Esteban Salas (1725-1803). Salas’s music is much more Baroque in style than his dates would indicate, and one wonders whether his relative isolation in the far-off islands of the Spanish Empire had something to do with that.

Salas also was only a modest talent, a writer of attractive melodic lines and pleasing contrapuntal textures, as the first two pieces, O admirable sacramento and Ecce panis angelorum, indicated. The third piece, Pange lingua, was more complex, but still basically sunny music of praise.

Quigley’s focus here was on smooth sound, and he got plenty of it from his ensemble. Entrances for the first bars of several of these pieces tended to be ragged, perhaps because the pacing of one piece to the next was so swift, as is this director’s habit.

The opening set of Salas works — meant to recreate “a scene from Corpus Christi Sunday at the Havana cathedral in the year 1785” — was contrasted with a mini-Requiem mass of four pieces from two Mass of the Dead settings, one by Salas and the other by the Spanish Renaissance master Tomas Luis de Victoria. The Victoria works (Taedet animam meam and the Offertorium) were far darker and more vivid than the two Salas pieces (an Introit and Kyrie) they framed, but putting them all together did present very different ways of looking at the fact of death: Trembling before judgment, and solace in the face of loss.

Here again, because Quigley conceived the four pieces as part of a Requiem set, the joins between movements were meant to be seamless, though instead they were a little hasty. It would have been easier for the audience to digest the music given just a bit more time to prepare their ears for the contrast between the late 18th century of Salas and the early 17th century of Victoria. The singing was quite good overall, and the choir made inventive use of the Himmel’s space, sending three of the men to a high stage above the floor to sing the chant for the Te decet hymnus section of the Salas Introit.

Four other 17th- and 18th-century composers from New Spain were represented by madrigral-style song settings full of rhythm and lively melody. Perhaps the most charming was the Christmas-themed Los coflades de la estleya of the Peruvian composer Juan de Araujo (1646-1712), with its vigorous call-and-response and its contagious feeling of headlong joy. The Seraphic Fire singers clearly had a good time singing this, and brought it off with gusto.

There was also some strong solo singing by soprano Gabrielle Tinto at the opening of the Marian song A la fuente de vienes, by the Colombian composer Juan de Herrera (1670-1730).

Today’s concert also was notable for its inclusion of two contemporary pieces, one an encore performance of an Ave Maria by Homestead’s Miguel Nieves, who wrote it several years ago while recuperating from head injuries suffered at Fort Sill. It’s a very slight, short piece, and was sung with the appropriate respectful simplicity.

The other new work is literally fresh out of the workshop, and got its world premiere Wednesday night. Mi amado para mi, a setting by Seraphic Fire guitarist Alvaro Bermudez of words by St. Teresa of Avila, is a fine piece of contemporary choral music, tonal but not bland, and well-suited to its obsessive text and conversant with the language of jazz. Bermudez knows how to structure a piece for good narrative line: The opening motif, a murmur of a rising, then falling, half-step, at first broods over a static chord, but in the middle turns into a pulse, then returns at the very end to close down the argument.

The work also has a fugue, of all things, with a spiky subject, as the saint sings of being wounded with an arrow. Quigley said in remarks to the audience that this one of several pieces he’s asked Bermudez to write for the choir, and I for one am looking forward to hearing more work from this young composer.

Seraphic Fire closed the concert with two pieces by the legendary Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernandez: Cachita and El Cumbanchero. These were a lot of fun, though the dryness of the Himmel was something of a drawback; the fat-chord arrangements the choir was using could have used a little resonance to make a richer impact.The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. Sunday at Miami Beach Community Church.

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Fri Sep 26, 2008
at 12:17 am
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