Seraphic Fire to open season with Rachmaninoff rarity

By David Fleshler

Although Sergei Rachmaninoff is best known for his piano and orchestral compositions, he also wrote one of the greatest works of the Orthodox Christian choral tradition.

Rachmaninoff’s Vespers will open the 2010-2011 season of the Miami choir, Seraphic Fire. For these performances, the ensemble will be expanded to more than two-dozen singers and equipped with a corps of basses capable of reaching its impossibly low notes.

In this setting of texts drawn primarily from the Book of Psalms and the New Testament, listeners won’t hear the lush melodies or grand gestures of the composer’s piano concertos. Instead they will hear traditional Orthodox hymns – and Rachmaninoff’s attempts to invent melodies that sound like the old ones — given elaborate harmonic and polyphonic settings, as the composer seeks to meld his Romantic musical sensibility with the monastic Russian heritage.

“We see Rachmaninoff not as superstar pianist but Rachmaninoff as a Russian composer,” said Patrick Dupré Quigley, Seraphic Fire’s founder and artistic director. “This is really a nostalgic work in many ways. It looks back at the melodies he would have known in his youth. If you do choral music, it’s one of those great pieces – the Rachmaninoff Vespers, the B Minor Mass, the Mozart Requiem. It’s the pinnacle of a capella choral singing. It’s so satisfying in its harmonic language.”

Sergei Rachmaninoff

The Vespers requires larger forces than usually heard at Seraphic Fire performances. While Quigley uses 17 singers for Handel’s Messiah, for the Vespers he will deploy 25. The bulked-up choir will allow all parts to be doubled, as harmonies become so rich that 12 separate parts are heard at once. Beyond that, Quigley said, Rachmaninoff’s vocal lines are so long that he needs a lot of people on stage to allow singers to take breaths without breaking the flow of the music.

Another unusual requirement: the most profundo of basso profundo voices. The Vespers calls on basses to hit a B-flat a whole step below the lowest note of the cello. Even in Rachmaninoff’s time, hitting such a note was considered a feat, although in those pre-health club days, Quigley says, voices cured by vodka and cigars tended to be more comfortable in the subterranean vocal netherworld. Among his regulars, Quigley had one who could hit the note. He recruited three others, so there will be four singers on stage, he said, with “freakishly low voices.”

The Vespers premiered in Moscow on March 10, 1915, at a point in World War I when Russia’s position was difficult but not yet disastrous. It is sung in Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and other Slavic Orthodox countries. “It’s very dark, sung far back in the throat, with vowels strung together,” Quigley said. “You really have to get it right because that’s what gives the work its flavor.”

Seraphic Fire performs Rachmaninoff’s Vespers Sept. 30 at St. Christopher’s by the Sea, Key Biscayne; Oct. 1 at First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables; Oct. 2 at All Saints Episcopal Church, Fort Lauderdale; and Oct. 3 at Miami Beach Community Church. Call 305-285-9060 or go to

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Sun Sep 19, 2010
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