Seraphic Fire ranges widely in delightful Christmas program

By Lawrence Budmen

James Bass conducted Seraphic Fire in the opening performance of its annual Christmas concerts Wednesday night at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Miami.

James K. Bass conducted Seraphic Fire in the opening concert of its annual Christmas program Wednesday night at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Miami.

If this is December, then it is time for Seraphic Fire’s annual Christmas concert. While this year’s program looked less ambitious on paper than previous editions, the 80-minute performance proved an unalloyed delight Wednesday night at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Miami. 

With James K. Bass providing strong leadership, the 13-member choir was in top form in an appealing mix of holiday favorites, Renaissance classics and new and recent works. While not all the music was directly related to Christmas, Bass noted that the selections each suggested, in different ways,  the ideals of “love, gift, acceptance and mercy.” With the sanctuary adorned with a Christmas tree and holiday lights, the intimate atmosphere was perfect for the varied musical menu.

Hodie Christus Natus Est by Healey Willan, the program opener, demonstrated the group’s corporate flexibility with a play of huge harmonic and dynamic contrasts. The original chant version of Adeste Fideles found the male voices singing in focused tones devoid of vibrato. This was followed by “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the most familiar variant of this ancient melody. Here the choir’s simplicity of utterance made this timeless favorite sound new again.

From the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, selections by Hildegard von Bingen, Tomas Luis de Victoria and William Byrd offered a rich choral tapestry. Bass called Victoria “our resident composer” since the Renaissance master’s works have been staples in the choir’s repertoire. His famous setting of O Magnum Mysterium radiates beauty in a long, expansive arc of seemingly endless melody. The purity of the female voices and strength and impeccable intonation of the male contingent coalesced to beautiful effect. Victoria’s florid Regina Caeli, laetare was no less memorable. Bass masterfully blended the voices with the final uplifting cries of “Alleluia” ringing the sanctuary.

The thousand-year-old Caritas Abundat by Hildegard von Bingen, a Benedictine nun, sounded remarkably modern with its trancelike aura. Byrd’s motet Lullaby My Sweet Little Baby begins with Mary singing a lullaby to the infant Jesus before turning darker with a description of Herod’s slaughter of innocent children. The measured phrases of the austere lullaby were beautifully voiced and there was tragic weight appropriate to the text in the sections describing the atrocities. 

“Gaudete” from Piae Cantiones by that most famous of composers, Anonymous, offered a festival of joyous rhythms. Sara Guttenberg’s high soprano, Angela Smucker’s deep alto, Brad Diamond’s pliant tenor and Kyle Ferrill’s firm bass formed the felicitous vocal quartet.

Maurice Duruflé’s Ubi Caritas is a favorite of church choirs but few choral ensembles can surpass Seraphic Fire’s velvety rendition of this beautiful melody. The exquisite soprano voices of Brenna Wells and Molly Quinn adorned the haunting Balulalow by Matthew Culloton, a contemporary Minneapolis composer. The female voices held long notes while the males sang a spare recitative line in choral director Craig Hella Johnson’s Gitanjali Chants. The vocal roles are then reversed in this wonderful conflation of ancient and modernist musical elements.

Two recent works were especially rewarding. The catchy tune of Spotless Rose by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo was matched by a varied dynamic palette, displaying Gjeilo’s affinity for choral textures.  Jason Burke’s new setting of O Magnum Mysterium brimmed with entrancing melodic material in a manner both contemporary and accessible. A bright and lively final section capped this fine addition to the holiday choral literature.

Among more familiar offerings, the Seraphic Fire standard “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” by Elizabeth Poston was given a surround sound rendition with Sarah Moyer and Guttenberg’s unadorned soprano solos enhanced by the choral singers on each side of the sanctuary. William Dawson was a master of the contemporary spiritual and two of his works were well contrasted. Guttenberg’s gorgeous timbre took wing in “Mary Had a Baby” and the high-spirited, toe-tapping “Ain’t that good news” really rocked.

A sprightly “Joy to the World” was followed by Stephen Paulus’ imaginative reinvention of the “Wassail Song” in which the choir’s superb articulation of Paulus’ spiced up harmonics riveted attention. The Hugh Martin-Ralph Blane classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sounded freshly minted in Peter Gritton’s arrangement. Bass told the audience there was no money for an orchestra so the chorus sang the instrumental parts in Jeff Funk’s witty and ingenious version of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” with the singers bobbing up and down.

Seraphic Fire artistic director Patrick Quigley’s arrangement of “Silent Night” began softly in German; then switched to a full voiced English version before returning to softness as the choir exited the sanctuary carrying candles. For an encore Bass led a lilting “Carol of the Bells,” the dynamic range going from extreme quiet to vociferous abandon.

There is no better musical presentation of the sounds of the season than A Seraphic Fire Christmas. Eight remaining performances will take place throughout South Florida.

A Seraphic Fire Christmas will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday at St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church in Coral Gables; 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach; 7 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. December 12 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale; 7 p.m. December 14 at Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church in Naples; 7;30 p.m. December 15 at St Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton; and 4 p.m. December 17 at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Center in Cutler Bay.

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Thu Dec 7, 2017
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