Back to the future with Seraphic Fire’s evocative program of chant

By David Fleshler

"Titus van Rijn in a Monk’s Habit" by Rembrandt van Rijn. 1660.

Titus van Rijn in a Monk’s Habit by Rembrandt van Rijn. 1660.

The audience in a Key Biscayne church was transported to an 11th-century monastery as the male voices of the choir Seraphic Fire performed a program of Latin liturgical chants.

The candlelit concert Thursday at St. Christopher’s-by-the-Sea was simply entitled “Chant.” It focused on the austere, monophonic compositions that dominated western European church music in the early and high middle ages, the Gregorian chants that arose under Charlemagne and the Ambrosian chants, less frequently heard, largely responsorial works associated with the city of Milan.

Although the popular image of these works is as grim devotionals, intoned by monks in dark monasteries or submissive congregations under a bishop’s stern gaze, the chants performed Thursday came off as musically varied, richly expressive compositions, evocative of a remote time and religious sensibility, but clearly forming an important part of our musical heritage.

Accustomed as we are to complex harmonies and orchestrations, we can lose sight of how much musical meaning can be packed into a single, monophonic melody. In plainchants such as Expectans expectavi and Maria Mater gratieae, phrasing, pronunciation and almost imperceptible gradations of intensity provided the interpretative and musical variety.

Still, a whole concert of that could become monotonous, and artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley was wise to also program works from more recent times. The concert began with Bruckner’s Inveni David, a call-and-response work in which the repetitive structure of words and music was leavened by the varying intensity of the singing and pronunciation. And toward the end they sang Mendelssohn’s Beati Mortui (Blessed are the Dead), whose harmonies and modulations seemed practically lascivious after the solemn monophony of the earlier selections.

As this was a concert for male voices only, half of Seraphic Fire wasn’t there. The nine singers plus Quigley – who added his baritone as choir member and soloist – performed with their usual technical precision and historically informed sensitivity, although a couple of the solo voices thinned out toward the upper range and there were a few small intonation problems in solos.

The works were performed with no intermission and without applause between works. While it’s bracing to hear these works, particularly when sung so well, the concert lasted barely an hour, and that seemed about right.

Seraphic Fire repeats the program 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 Miami Beach Community Church. Call 305-285-9060 or go to

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Fri Apr 23, 2010
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