Seraphic Fire’s New Orleans trip an uneasy mix of populist music and personal narrative

By Lawrence A. Johnson

       Over its six seasons, Seraphic Fire has earned a well-deserved reputation for technical excellence and lively, innovative programming that makes the boundaries between musical genres seem irrelevant.

For the choir’s second event of the season, artistic director Patrick Dupre Quigley served up his most personal program to date: an affectionate tribute to his hometown of New Orleans that was part musical reminiscence, part post-Katrina social history, with the blues and gospel of a typical New Orleans jazz funeral as framing device.

 Increasingly, Quigley has made populist events, like that presented Friday night at First United Methodist Church, a more prominent part of the choir’s seasons. For most chamber choirs versed in Handel, Victoria, and Palestrina, performing blues and gospel would seem like awkward slumming, but not here. Quigley’s own clear love for this music and his experience and feel for its idiomatic style and spiritual joy is just as convincing as in Renaissance polyphony, as shown by the tireless musician’s triple-threat  duty as conductor, soloist and jazz pianist.  Seraphic Fire’s versatile singers entered fully into the spirit of the proceedings.

 Friday night’s performance still seemed to be finding its footing. The choir’s Coral Gables home base is the most visually striking of its church venues, but the least acoustically pleasing, with a cloudy, distant quality to the voices, and words were not always clear.  There were some raucous moments, with even Quigley’s baritone sounding a bit flat in the opening minutes of Randy Newman’s Louisiana, 1927 and other solos.

 Still the singers surely communicated the fervor and uninhibited freedom of this music with fine solo work by several members, notably the trio of sopranos at the start of Softly and Tenderly, and countertenor Reginald Mobley in the Mahalia Jackson standard, Didn’t it Rain?

The uptempo numbers were suitably rousing, including a breakneck jazz revamp of You Are My Sunshine with Quigley showing impressive keyboard chops. Yet the choir was best showcased in the more interior works, including the lovely Cajun lullaby J’ai Passe Devant ta Porte and a gorgeous rendering of the hymn Sweet House of Prayer, with the glowing tone and seamlessly blended voices that are Seraphic Fire at its finest.

 Half of the program was taken up by the final section in which musical excerpts were interspersed with reflections by the conductor’s father, Bill Quigley — a noted civil rights attorney and law professor — speaking of his own experiences and those of others affected by the devastation wrought on The Big Easy by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

 Quigley peres, one of the defense counsels in the Dead Man Walking case, had a key vantage point of the carnage from a city hospital, witnessing the dead and dying within and without. Quigley’s tales of Katrina’s tragic victims were heart-wrenching, including the deaths of some of the city’s youngest family members and an 83-year-old man who drowned rather than leave his dog.

 There’s no denying the searing horror and tragedy of Katrina for the 1,577 that perished as well as the survivors in a disaster that depleted much of the population and still affects the city today.  Yet with the daily headlines of the past year and the desperate economic privation currently being inflicted on an even greater multitude of people losing their homes, jobs and insurance, fairly or not, Katrina’s tragedies seem a bit like distant old news.

 Befitting his legal experience,  Bill Quigley was a well-spoken narrator, though his story-telling didn’t always cohere with the music surrounding it. Fascinating and deeply felt as they were, the extended narratives made the second part of the evening feel a bit didactic and had the effect of letting the air out of the energy built up by the choir’s performances.

 The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Miami Beach Community Church, 1620 Drexel Avenue (on Lincoln Road); and 4 p.m. Sunday at All Saints Episcopal Church, 333 Tarpon Drive, Fort Lauderdale. $30. 305-476-0260;


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Sat Nov 1, 2008
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