Seraphic Fire’s seasonal program brings out the true meaning of Christmas

By David Fleshler

"Madonna of the Rose Bower" by Stefan Lochner c.1490.

Imagine it is midnight at a cathedral in 15th-century England, with the Christmas service about to begin. Worshippers file in and the choir prepares for music that will celebrate Christmas as a solemn spiritual event, in tones of religious awe and quiet thanksgiving.

It’s actually 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church in downtown Miami, with car horns blasting audibly from Brickell Avenue. Yet the choir Seraphic Fire did an admirable job of recreating the spirit of Christmas as a time of religious worship rather than a secular celebration of shopping.

The choir’s annual series of Christmas concerts opened Wednesday, with a revamped program and the deserved swagger that comes with the news last week of three Grammy nominations, including one for A Seraphic Fire Christmas. The sold-out concert was the first of ten before the arrival of the holiday, as the choir takes its highly popular Christmas concert on a two-week South Florida road trip to Boca Raton, Coral Gables, Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Marathon, Palm Beach, Bal Harbor and back to Miami.

“For over a thousand years, Christmas did not begin the day after Thanksgiving,” Patrick Dupré Quigley, choir’s founder and artistic director, told the audience. “Rather, it began in darkness, as Dec. 24 turned into Dec. 25.”

This was a Christmas, in other words, to which Santa was not invited. But while the spirit of the evening was medieval, the music spanned a huge range, from the 13th-century chant Veni, Veni Emanuel to the contemporary work Niño de Rosas by Steven Sametz, just given its world premiere in March. The choir sang with its usual precision and vocal luster, given an added glow by the church’s warm acoustics.

The concert began in candlelit darkness, with the choir singing in the back of the church. The singers then advanced slowly toward the front, singing William Smith’s 17th-century work The Responses, in which a single male voice would sing a phrase such as “Give us peace in our time, O Lord,” and the choir would respond in rich, organ-like tones.

The contemporary works blended smoothly with the ancient and medieval selections. Craig Hella Johnson’s Gitanjali Chants, in which male and female voices took turns holding sustained tones as the other voices ascended in melody, was an effective and appealing work. Niño de Rosas featured an emotional and dramatic solo by the mezzo-soprano Lexa Ferrill, whose passionate singing was a welcome contrast to the grave and restrained tones from the choir.

Several familiar traditional works were on the program, including O Come, All Ye Faithful, The First Nowell, Silent Night and Carol of the Bells. And while the program was basically a new one, the choir sang one of its most popular Christmas works, Jesus Christ the Apple Tree by the 20th-century English composer Elizabeth Poston, in which the members of the choir deployed themselves all around the audience for a surround-sound tour-de-force.

Seraphic Fire’s Christmas concerts continue through Dec. 20 at venues throughout South Florida., 305-285-9060.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Thu Dec 8, 2011
at 12:59 pm
No Comments