Seraphic Fire wraps season with Kile Smith’s ethereal “Vespers”

By David Fleshler

Patrick Quigley conducted Seraphic Fire in music of Bach and Mahler Friday night in Fort Lauderdale.

Patrick Quigley conducted Seraphic Fire in Kile Smith’s “Vespers” Wednesday night in Miami.

The average concertgoer—or even the above-average one—probably couldn’t name the instruments on the small stage Wednesday evening at St. Sophia Cathedral in Miami.

Ancient predecessors of trombones, bassoons and oboes, obscure plucked instruments, various types of recorders—some carried names such as sackbut and quartbass, bass dulcian and alto shawm. They were played with exceptional skill and sensitivity by the Renaissance wind ensemble Piffaro, and helped achieve the unique tone of the Vespers by American composer Kile Smith.

Smith’s setting of the evening service was performed by Piffaro and the Miami choir Seraphic Fire led by Patrick Quigley, in the first of four concerts running through Sunday in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. The work, performed with the composer seated in the third pew, sounds like no other music—a serious, ethereal and searching setting of German and Latin texts for a Lutheran version of the service.

Like classical music and the Lutheran faith, the work spans centuries. In style and cadence, it has much in common with 16th-century choral music. Harmonically, with its soaring polyphony and gentle dissonances, it could be from any time in the past 80 years or so. The predominant tone is reverent and serene. There’s never a sense of the composer trying to awe the listener into spiritual submission through sheer choral grandiosity. The words, contained in full texts in the program, inform every note.

In the setting of Psalm 27, with the speaker facing the terrors of war and enemies who “come upon me to eat up my flesh,” the tone is one of untroubled and confident faith. Women’s voices ascend over chords in the men’s voices, expressing the speaker’s faith in God no matter how grim the situation becomes on earth. In the Magnificat, in which the young Mary expresses her joy at learning from an angel what her role will be, two intertwining female voices create soaring expressions of elation.

The composer used the contrasts between instruments and voices with great skill, creating unusual and effective tones and textures. In the Lord’s Prayer, two small trombones called sackbuts provided the only accompaniment to the female singers, creating a texture of great depth and resonance.

The seven members of Piffaro, based in Philadelphia, each played multiple instruments, putting them down and picking up as the occasion required. The ancestors of our modern trombones, oboes and bassoons had darker, more rounded tones, and they were played with perfect intonation and rich, warm expression by the musicians, without a trace of the brittleness and dryness that often accompanies period-instrument performances.

Under Quigley’s skillful conducting, Seraphic Fire’s perfect intonation, ensemble unity and purity of tone have long been a wonder of South Florida’s music scene, but the singers outdid themselves in this performances, singing with a pristine serenity and expressiveness that perfect suited the music.

Seraphic Fire and Piffaro will perform Kile Smith’s Vespers 7:30 p.m. Friday at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. Sunday at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach.; 305-285-9060.

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Thu May 7, 2015
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