Seraphic Fire offers a festive and vibrant “Messiah”

By Lawrence Budmen

Georg Friderich Handel

Seraphic Fire has had a remarkable year. In 2012 the Miami based chamber choir celebrated its tenth anniversary, was a classical Grammy nominee for two albums, signed a recording distribution deal with the innovative classical label Naxos, gave acclaimed performances of Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor and presented a wide-ranging exploration of psalm settings. To conclude this landmark annum, the choir offered highlights from Handel’s Messiah, the group’s first performance of this Christmas perennial in two seasons.

Most previous Seraphic Fire performances of Messiah in Miami have taken place at the Arsht Center. The sheer size of the Knight Concert Hall tended to overwhelm the intimate forces of Patrick Quigley’s historically informed performances. On Saturday night the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables proved more acoustically friendly, with the singers and instrumentalists gaining an immediacy and impact not possible in larger venues.

Leading an eighteen-voice choir and the nineteen-member Firebird Chamber Orchestra, Quigley’s performance emphasized transparent textures, precise articulation and idiomatic Baroque gestures. Instrumental and vocal vibrato was spare, clarity and rhythmic urgency paramount. Unlike some starchy, mannered versions of Handel’s masterwork, Quigley’s traversal was not lacking in drama or emotional force. The story of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus was imbued with an almost operatic passion, particularly in the vocal solos.

There were numerous revelatory interpretive touches, as with Quigley’s gigue-like tempo and phrasing of the soprano aria Rejoice greatly; the briskly paced choral finale of O thou that tellest; and a vivacious ride through Lift up your heads exuded a freshly considered approach, combining scholarship and vibrant musicality. The wonderfully terraced dynamics and emphatic contrapuntal lines of the extended choral sections were a joy to hear.

Steven Soph’s nimbly spun Ev’ry valley revealed a lyric tenor of depth and strength. Misty Bermudez’s deep mezzo was firm to the lowest register for But who may abide. Angela Smucker’s attractive timbre alighted O thou that tellest although some of her ornamentation was excessive, the melodic line almost disappearing.

Margot Rood’s light, high soprano was exquisitely projected, recalling Kathleen Battle in her prime. The directness and communicative power of her traversal of I know that my Redeemer liveth was deeply moving. Amanda Crider’s intense declamation and mellow timbre made He shall feed His flock one of the evening’s high points. The luminous soprano and bell-like high notes of Clara Rottsolk radiated the joy of Rejoice greatly.   Byron Grohman’s dramatic tenor and vivid word play brought visceral force to Thou shalt break them.

The lower male voices have always been one of Seraphic Fire’s greatest assets. James K. Bass’ dark, stalwart bass made Thus saith the Lord commanding indeed. The warmth and agility of John Buffet’s baritone propelled The trumpet shall sound, his lower register splendidly encompassing the coloratura roulades, backed by Jeffrey Kaye’s clarion trumpet obbligato.

With blazing trumpets and  timpani, the final Amen chorus concluded the performance on a festive note. Hopefully this ninety-minute version of Handel’s masterwork is a prelude to an eventual complete performance by Quigley and his superb choir.

Seraphic Fire repeats Handel’s Messiah 4 p.m. Sunday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale. 305-285-9060;

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Sun Dec 23, 2012
at 2:33 pm
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