Seraphic Fire presents sacred, refreshingly retro Christmas program

By David Fleshler

Painting by Hans Baldung Grien, 1520.

The atmosphere was medieval, dark and lit only by candles. From the back of the church, male voices began a solemn plainchant, singing Pater noster, qui es in caelis in the stark, monophonic tones of the early middle ages.

Seraphic Fire opened its series of Christmas concerts Thursday, with a sold-out performance at St. Christopher’s-by-the-Sea in Key Biscayne that spanned a millennium of sacred choral music, from the unadorned chants of the early Church to contemporary works by living composers.

The choir’s 13 singers — all rigorously selected and arriving from all over the United States — performed with their usual pure tones, sensitive phrasing and perfect harmonic balances, and did so in seven languages – English, Old English, German, Italian, Ukrainian, Latin and Old Church Slavonic.

The choir, led by artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley, will repeat the performance tonight through Sunday at churches in Coral Gables, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

Like many Seraphic Fire performances, this one was choreographed as much as sung, with candlelit processions and one work, Jesus Christ the Apple Tree by the late contemporary composer Elizabeth Poston, in which the singers took places in the front, back and sides to the church to surround the audience with gorgeous sound.

The program was enormously varied. They sang classics from the Choir of King’s College Cambridge’s famous Nine Lessons and Carols. They sang O Come All Ye Faithful in Latin. They sang Eastern Orthodox works, including a radiant performance of Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo.

Among the most effective performances were those of contemporary works, such as the otherworldly harmonies of the living composer John Tavener’s The Lamb, a setting of the William Blake poem, and the comforting, swelling, ethereal lines of Los Angeles composer Frank Ticheli’s There will be Rest, a 1999 work that has become popular with choral groups.

There was a pleasant lack of seasonal political correctness to the evening: This was emphatically a Christmas concert, not a “holiday” program, and one that unaplogetically focused on sacred Christmas music, not gift-wrapping, trees and lights.

A Seraphic Fire Christmas repeats tonight at 7:30 p.m. at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables, Saturday at 8 p.m. at Miami Beach Community Church and Sunday at 4 p.m. at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale. Call 888-544-3473 or go to

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Fri Dec 11, 2009
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