Seraphic Fire’s Christmas program gracefully traverses the centuries

By David Fleshler

"Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence." Caravaggio,  1609.

“Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence.” Caravaggio,

For many South Florida concertgoers, Seraphic Fire’s Christmas programs have become a welcome break from the nation’s major retail holiday.

“Contrary to popular belief, Christmas doesn’t start the day after Thanksgiving,” the choir’s artistic director, Patrick Dupré Quigley, told an audience Wednesday in the gold-trimmed, icon-filled interior of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Miami. “Rather it began at the stroke of midnight on December 25th.”

From the back of the church came the solemn tones of Poulenc’s O Magnum Mysterium, beginning with starkly simple notes and then glinting with more elaborate 20th-century harmonies. The concert proceeded through several centuries of carols and devotional music, with an overarching tone of quiet religious joy in contrast to the more brassy holiday sounds blaring in the region’s malls.

The concert, lit by candles, proceeded with a sense of choreography as the choir members arranged themselves around the church for a stereophonic performance of the ecstatic harmonies of Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree and split into two choruses, one in front and one in back for Lo, How a Rose, by Michael Praetorius, as arranged by Jan Sandström.

The singing was even purer and more refined than is typical of the choir’s high standards. But although there wasn’t a weak performance throughout the evening, the programming seemed tamer than previous Christmas concerts, with fewer Medieval and Renaissance works – as opposed to modern arrangements of them – and a selection of contemporary works, such as those by John Rutter, that used a pretty conservative musical vocabulary.

The performances of the traditional carols provided a different perspective on well-known works, connecting them with both past and present. It gives a fresh perspective to hear the first verse of O Come, All Ye Faithful sung in Latin from deep male voices, or Silent Night first in German or The First Nowell begun simply and then spun off into ever more elaborate contemporary harmonies with a faint tang of dissonance.

A novelty of this season’s Christmas concerts is the use of a harp, played by Jacqueline Kerrod, to accompany the singers. She didn’t perform in every work, which prevented the instrument from becoming a tired device, but when she did play, her contributions added a welcome element of textural variety.

The concert included several works by Benjamin Britten, whose 100th anniversary is being observed this year. His Ceremony of Carols included four songs that offered a contrast to the concert’s prevailing tone of quiet joy. “Deo Gracias” called on the choir members to sing in a quick, nimble manner, while “Balulalow” used a combination of old and modern harmonies to produce a sense of timelessness. “This Little Babe” was a dramatic, quick-moving episode, as voices cascaded upon each other over a restless harp accompaniment.

Another contrast to the prevailing tone of meditation and peace came from a set of French songs, two arranged by John Rutter and one by Kirke Mechem. These quick-moving works, which narrate episodes from the story of Christmas in Bethlehem, conjured up a crisp spirit of winter in their brittle, minor-key harmonies.

Seraphic Fire’s Christmas program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton; 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Saturday at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach, and 7 p.m. Tuesday at Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.; 305-285-9060.

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Thu Dec 12, 2013
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