Seraphic Fire in its element with Handel’s “Israel in Egypt”

By David Fleshler

"The Flight out of Egypt" (1850) by Richard Dadd

By performing Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt this week, Seraphic Fire will be working squarely in its element.

While the Miami choir has an enormous range — from Gregorian chant to American gospel — the core of its repertoire and training is in the great choral works of the Western canon, such as Handel’s setting of the Old Testament story of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt. The choir will be accompanied by its house instrumental ensemble, the Firebird Chamber Orchestra.

Patrick Dupré Quigley

Patrick Dupré Quigley, the choir’s founder and artistic director, said the work appealed to him on several levels — first, of course, as a tremendous piece of music. “It’s arguably his greatest oratorio,” Quigley said. “The plague choruses are particularly fantastic — water to blood, flies and locusts, hailstones for rain. They come in this action-adventure novel succession, with various recitatives in between. It’s just fantastic stuff.”

And second, the oratorio is unusual in that it is dominated by choruses, not soloists. This lack of starring roles contributed to its initial cool reception by the London public on its premier in 1739. But to Quigley, this made it a superb vehicle for a choir that has no stars because all the singers are considered stars. The oratorio calls for two choruses and orchestra, and for Seraphic Fire that means choruses with eight and nine members each in which each singer’s voice is exposed.

“You can’t really drop notes,” he said. “Doing it with Handel-sized forces requires that everyone in the choruses and orchestra play their hearts out at all times.”

Although the oratorio is in English, the words can be hard to understand in the grand but muddy performances of large choruses. With smaller forces and an emphasis on precise pronunciation, Quigley said the words in the Seraphic Fire performances should be understandable, with the exception of the fugal passages, in which various voices go their own way. “Handel,” he said, “was a pretty talented setter of texts.”

Seraphic Fire performs Handel’s Israel in Egypt 7:30 p.m. Thursday at St. Christopher’s by-the-Sea, Key Biscayne; 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church, Coral Gables;  8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church, Fort Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. Sunday at Temple Emanu-El, Miami Beach. Call 305-285-9060 or go to

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Tue Mar 23, 2010
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