Seraphic Fire soars with Handel’s “Israel in Egypt”

By David Fleshler

Moses by Michelangelo, 1516.

Frogs, locusts, and hail came to a small church on Key Biscayne Thursday, as the chamber choir Seraphic Fire unleashed a dramatic performance of Israel in Egypt.

Handel’s 1738 setting of the Old Testament story of plagues, Moses and the flight to Canaan has the driving power of opera, and the choir gave an energetic, technically excellent performance that will be repeated in Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach. Although they performed the shorter chamber version, there was no lack of grandeur as a double chorus and orchestra filled the church with Handel’s music.

Patrick Dupre Quigley

Patrick Dupre Quigley

Founded in 2002 by artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley, then a young conducting graduate of the Yale School of Music, Seraphic Fire has earned a reputation for adventurous programming of contemporary works as well as historically respectful but artistically vigorous performances of Bach, Handel, Palestrina and other Baroque and Renaissance composers. Quigley recruits singers nationally, and most of the performers have to fly in for rehearsals and concerts. This year, the choir takes its first tour outside the United States, with a visit to Mexico to perform Monteverdi’s Vespers, marking the work’s 400th anniversary year.

Thursday night the two choirs were arranged on each side at the front of St. Christopher’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, with the orchestra in the center toward the back. Quigley, normally a talkative concert presence, this time entered and without a word struck up the first notes.

Technically there’s nothing new to say about Seraphic Fire. As usual, intonation was rock solid and tones pure. The oratorio is in English—normally no guarantee of comprehension in a choral setting—but the singers worked hard and successfully to bring out the text. As the different voices sang He smote all the first-born of Egypt, they snapped off the word smote,” so that despite all of Handel’s complex counterpoint, the meaning came through verbally as well as musically. The same was true of other contrapuntal sections such as He rebuked the Red Sea.

The chorus He gave them hailstones for rain soared, with surprising exultation over a meteorological phenomenon, as the different voices cascaded over each other. One of the most impressive sections came in the minor-key chorus The people shall hear and be afraid, where the orchestra opened with a dotted-rhythm figure that grew in power as the two choirs entered, building in intensity before fading into darkness and mystery.

The Firebird Chamber Orchestra, the choir’s house instrumental ensemble, provided solid support to the choir. Although violin intonation problems continue, the strings blazed through the swift  passages and blended well with the choruses.

Seraphic Fire performs Handel’s Israel in Egypt 7:30 Friday p.m. 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

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Seraphic Fire soars with Handel’s “Israel in Egypt””

  1. Posted Mar 26, 2010 at 12:29 pm by Wolfgang731

    I love Seraphic Fire and have been an ardent supporter of theirs from the very beginning; however, I can’t say that I’m at all pleased to learn through this review that they are performing the short chamber version of Israel in Egypt rather than the standard one. Their website certainly gives no indication to that fact. I never ever gripe about this sort of thing but I honestly feel that in these trying economic times where I (and I’m sure most everyone) have to give thoughtful consideration as to which cultural event I want or can afford to attend, $50.00 is an exorbitant price for 1-1/2 hours worth of scaled down music making. This has nothing to do with quality of the performance, as we all know what this is a first rate ensemble, but it has a great deal to do with being forthcoming with your loyal public. Had I known, I wouldn’t have bothered. I would have attended the Cleveland, the New World or the Joffrey instead.

  2. Posted Mar 26, 2010 at 4:43 pm by George

    Well, I am no music critic, but as a very pleased listening amateur at last night’s concert I can only say that I had no idea that pestilence, plagues, mayhem, death and destruction could be so much fun. As usual, my word for Seraphic Fire is AWESOME!

  3. Posted Apr 03, 2010 at 6:30 pm by Lisa Talon

    It was pretty good overall, but I too was disappointed that there were so many cuts. Similar to the Messiah, I feel like the sheer power and magnitude from these works comes from their length. Handel’s music was surely written in a time of different attention span, but the journey into that concentrated sound world is worth the effort. It is cheated if it is reduced. And yes, those violins were out of tune!

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Fri Mar 26, 2010
at 11:56 am