Seraphic Fire’s intimate take on “Messiah” well suited to All Saints

By Alan Becker

Seraphic Fire’s Messiah has quickly become a Christmas tradition in South Florida. With so many different performing versions of this masterpiece to choose from, what was heard Sunday afternoon at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale could best be described as Messiah highlights.

At around 75 minutes total duration, any possibility of flagging attention was eliminated, as director Patrick Dupre Quigley stuck to his philosophy of leaving his audience satisfied but not overstuffed. The previous night’s performance at Miami’s Arsht Center was a sellout, and this repeat had motorists desperately searching for parking spaces.

The All Saints venue is a more acoustically intimate location than the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall. Given the reduced forces, including the small Firebird Chamber Orchestra, Quigley’s take on Handel’s oratorio becomes the antithesis of the kind of bloat that had become performance tradition prior to the “historically informed” movement of the 1950’s. Most of the well-known sections were here, including all of Part One. Part Two was jettisoned except for its closing Hallelujah. The brief Part Three was shortened even further by leaving out several arias and a few choruses.

Patrick Quigley

Within the above constraints, the performance was brilliantly successful. The chorus’s ten solo members delivered their important parts with expression, glorious tone, and freedom to embellish their vocal lines. This they did with security and agility, without ever seeming to impart any unidiomatic showiness to the music.

Among the vocal highlights were the commanding tone of bass James K. Bass in his outstanding recitative Thus Saith the Lord, and the aria But Who May Abide. Countertenor Reginald Mobley was quite moving in Behold a Virgin Shall Conceive and O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings to Zion. Soprano Carolina Castells’ I Know That My Redeemer Liveth might have benefited by being taken down a few volume notches to fit the acoustics of the church.

If Quigley’s tempos seemed a mite rushed at times, this too is within the parameters of today’s Baroque performance. Less easily assimilated are the Firebird strings playing without any vibrato in the “historically informed” manner, yet one’s ears eventually adjusted to the style.

There is room for a variety of Messiah performances—those with large, re-orchestrated bands and hundreds in the chorus, as well as smaler-scale Messiahs with reduced forces and selected parts–such is the resilience of Handel’s masterpiece. Seraphic Fire’s audience left the church perhaps a little more culturally and spiritually elevated than they were before entering.

Posted in Performances

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Mon Dec 21, 2009
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