Seraphic Fire offers sacred and scary takes on motherhood

By Lawrence A. Johnson

One reason Seraphic Fire’s performances have remained fresh and stimulating for seven seasons is because Patrick Dupre Quigley’s programs have consistently defied expectations and challenged audiences.

The concert presented Friday night at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables was a perfect example, offering Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, a cornerstone of the sacred vocal repertoire, paired with the world premiere of a new work by Paul Crabtree  that takes a decidedly ironic and irreligious view of the same maternal theme.

Crabtree (above) is a composer who combines informed scholarship with eclectic musical inspiration and stinging irony, as was made manifest with his Religion, Sex & Politics, performed by Seraphic Fire in 2007.

In Sedebat Mater (“The mother sits”), Crabtree has set a sardonic companion piece to Pergolesi’s work, a kind of anti-Stabat Mater.  Scored for the same forces, the music takes square aim at the devotional Mary theme, with as Crabtree puts it, “little scenes of unhappy and unhealthy motherhood.”

The sections present five texts of less-than-sacred maternal figures, opening with a section setting the lyrics from Paul Simon’s Mrs. Robinson in Latin, and segueing through Shakespeare’s text of Coriolanus’ monstrous mother, to Goliath’s parent bewailing how her poor boy was misunderstood. There’s also an irreverent take on what the baby in the parable of Solomon’s two mothers might think about that event as an adult, and a final setting, Conception, in which a mother gives birth to her own death.

The composer’s straight-faced introduction was worthy of a stand-up comedian, and there is undeniable skill in Sedebat Mater, even if Crabtree’s subversive humor and musical in-jokes (from Baroque to Elvis) seem a bit too self-conscious at times.

Still, the music is artfully woven and deftly varied, with moments of genuine beauty beyond the musicological nudge-nudge, wink-wink, as with the mock-sacred retooling of Mrs. Robinson, and the gnarly dissonance of the Coriolanus setting. The mix of astringent string writing and lyrical passages in the Goliath section, as well asthe overlapping of the two solo lines are quite impressive, and Crabtree even puts aside the acerbity (I think) for a radiant soaring, major-key coda.

Seraphic Fire’s choir consists of just two singers for this program, backed by string quartet and organ and under Quigley’s spirited and flexible conducting, the small forces gave Crabtree’s new work a worthy sendoff.  Countertenor Reginald Mobley was especially inspired, deploying his crystalline diction and pure, evenly produced tone and bringing an apt bluesy swagger to the jazz-inflected Solomon section. Teresa Wakim’s refined soprano showed power in reserve with her stratospheric top notes in the third and fifth sections.

Unlike many sacred vocal works, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, has never fallen out of favor since its immediate success in the 18th-century—though in our increasingly secular era, performances don’t seem nearly as common as two decades ago.

For all its familiarity, Pergolesi’s setting of the traditional text of the grieving Mary at the cross, remains a striking masterpiece, with thirteen sections offering an extraordinarily rich vein of melody and varied vocal music, the drama and meditative elements twined with the greatest skill.

Wakim’s treble-like soprano is eminently well-suited to this repertoire and formed a nice contrast with Mobley’s glowing countertenor. Perhaps Mobley was a bit more expressive in his response to the text, as with his suffused, understated feeling he brough to the Quae moerebat.  Yet both singers were at their finest in the central Sancta mater and rose to the challenge of the final sections with cumulative eloquence and expressive intensity. 

Quigley directed a well-paced, buoyant yet spacious performance, drawing alert playing from the ensemble who did an admirable job keeping their gut strings in tune.

The concert led off with a pair of shorter settings for each soloist, which set the stage for the main two works. Wakim’s bell-like tone fit the lilting lines of Vivaldi’s Nulla in mundo pax sincera like a glove.  Georg Melchior Hoffman’s Schlage doch, gewunschte Stunde—long erroneously attributed to Bach as his Cantata No. 53—proved a worthy vehicle for Reggie Mobley’s poised singing and crystal-clear diction.

The program wil be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale and 4 p.m. Sunday at Miami Beach Community Church. 305-285-9060;


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Sat Apr 18, 2009
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