Unorthodox Seraphic Fire soars in Orthodox music

By Lawrence A. Johnson

As enjoyable as Seraphic Fire’s crossover ventures into gospel and American folk have been, Patrick Dupre Quigley and his singers are most impressive in European sacred music, where the choir’s blend of tonal refinement, expressive poise and lightly worn scholarship appear especially at home.  

 “Ikon” is in Seraphic Fire’s finest tradition, offering a program of Orthodox choral music from ancient modes, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff to Arvo Part and Sir John Tavener, beautifully sung and evocatively presented Friday night at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables.

 Orthodox church music is most often thought of as Russian in origin, but, as Quigley made clear, it also encompasses the Ukrainian as well as Greek Orthodox traditions, the latter reflected by the contemporary convert Tavener. Further, as Seraphic member and Ukrainian church cantor James Bass pointed out, for much of its history this was music that was proscribed, with worshippers having to meet in secret, and that mystic, clandestine element is reflected in the hypnotic music as much as the church rituals.

 Seraphic Fire’s stage management made a worthy attempt to convey the Orthodox service’s rites and atmosphere with dark lighting, entrance and exit processionals, iconography, bells, and lighting of votive candles  Rather than presenting the selections in sets, as is the choir’s custom, the program was performed uninterrupted with applause saved for the end, which aided the meditative ambiance.

 As Quigley notes, there were concessions made to practicality and this was not an exact replica of Orthodox style, since women would not have been allowed in traditional Orthodox choirs. Even so, the spirit and musical essentials were captured unerringly, and even with some new faces, Seraphic Fire’s vocalism was terrific in these radiant, consummately blended, and sensitively directed performances.

 Bass’s firmly focused bass-baritone made an authoritative celebrant in the processional chants, and, as the lowest voice in the choir, he managed the extended pedal points as well as the sonorous subterranean notes called for in many selections.

 John Tavener’s quirky mix of monastic introspection and joyous exuberance were deftly captured in his Village Wedding and Funeral Ikos. But it was the older traditional music that resounded in the memory with glowing and spacious performances of the Rejoice, O Virgin (Bogoroditse Djevo) section of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers as well as Part’s more recent setting of the same text.

Quigley and the singers were stellar Friday, singing the long lines with remarkable control, a striking array of dynamics, and nearly seamless intonation. Aleksandr Arkhangelsky’s Blessed is he who considers the poor and needy (Blazhen razumevayay na nishcha i uboga) made an apt climax, the powerful setting put across with great intensity and ecstatic fervor.

NOTE: Friday’s concert also served as the official introduction of Seraphic Fire’s new president and CEO, Lorenzo Lebrija.  Lebrija is the outgoing Miami program director of the Knight Foundation.

 The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale and 4 p.m. Sunday at Miami Beach Community Church. $30. 305-476-0260;



Posted in Performances

One Response to “Unorthodox Seraphic Fire soars in Orthodox music”

  1. Posted Feb 15, 2009 at 10:08 am by South Ocean

    While I agree with you that the performance was ‘stellar,’ I think it would have been somewhat more accessible if the audience had some idea what was going on during Seraphic Fire’s “stage management” activities.

    I, probably like the majority of concert attendees, know little of the the music, and even less of the changing of shrouds, candle processions, and votive lightings. With no background, it becomes somewhat of an annoyance for the choir members to be wandering around to little or no benefit to the performance. If the music is to be enjoyed, “beautifully sung and evocatively presented,” with eyes closed, then the choirmember wanderings wouldn’t matter. But the fact that Quigley programmed them to do so means he wanted the audience to take meaning from them.

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