Seraphic Fire provides seasonal warmth with candlelight Christmas program

By Lawrence Budmen

Seraphic Fire’s annual Christmas concerts have become a South Florida tradition, drawing sellout houses for programs that mix familiar carols with contemporary choral works.

This year’s edition opened Wednesday night at St. Sophia Cathedral in Miami with Patrick Quigley and his thirteen-voice choir offering astutely chosen repertoire, superb performances and a warm and friendly ambience—the model of what makes a great Christmas concert.

With the ornate, domed cathedral bedecked with a Christmas tree and holiday lights, the concert opened with the male voices intoning austere plainchant versions of Pater Noster and Ave Maria from the rear of the church. An hour and a quarter later, the choir sang a lovely and admirably restrained Silent Night, exiting the now dark sanctuary by candlelight. Between these two moving processionals, Quigley presented an eclectic and diverse series of carols.

Few composers wrote more idiomatically for chorus than Maurice Duruflé and the French composer’s Tota pulchra es Maria for treble voices was both exhilarating and harmonically complex. The female voices’ purity of sound and intonation adorned Sir David Wilcocks’ arrangement of Adeste Fidelis, the male voices singing the familiar melody in almost chanted fashion.  Switching to the English version (O Come All Ye Faithful), the choir was joined by forty-six children from the group’s Miami Choral Academy. The young singers’ intonation was strikingly clean and Quigley coordinated the two groups splendidly.

Quigley’s taut, flowing reading of the medieval There is No Rose of Such Virtue found the women soaring freely in the upper register. The folk-like Once as I Remember was assayed with directness and simplicity, the vocal timbres wonderfully balanced. Quigley described Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day as “a metaphorical jaunt through reincarnation,” and the rousing paean highlighted Steven Soph’s strong lyric tenor.

Ding Dong Merrily on High and Carol of the Bells  illustrated the choir’s ability to bring a fresh spin to even the most familiar holiday perennials, the rhythmic definition crisp and detailed. The smooth, mellow version of The First Nowell was even more characterful, the singers’ warmth and precision making the oft sung carol sound new.

John Tavener’s The Lamb opens by looking back to the Renaissance before taking flight with a poignantly English choral melody. This masterful score could well have been written for Seraphic Fire, so perfect was the mellifluous sonority and balancing. Jake Runestad’s Sleep Little Baby, Sleep was written for the choir, opening with irregular rhythmic patterns and turning into a subtle lullaby that tests the singers’ dexterity in the highest reaches. In Frank Ticheli’s There Will Be Rest, a beautiful melody emerges out of initial dissonance like light out of darkness.

Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium has become a signature Seraphic Fire piece. The score’s overlapping textures could scarcely be better sung, the aura of serenity beautifully served. Candlelight Carol was vintage John Rutter, the melodic patterns conservative and accessible yet imbued with sincerity.

Perhaps the concert’s most striking moment came with the antiphonal, surround-sound version of Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, the carol’s tender melody sung with classical purity by sopranos Jessica Petrus and Margo Rood with their fellow singers responding in the church’s vast space.

Seraphic Fire repeats “Carols by Candlelight” 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday at St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church in Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Saturday at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach; and 7 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Ft. Lauderdale. All concerts are sold out except for the Thursday and Tuesday performances.; 305-285-9060.

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Thu Dec 11, 2014
at 12:08 pm
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