Seraphic Fire women shine in an evening of virtuosic Vivaldi

By David Fleshler

Patrick Quigley conducted Seraphic Fire in an all-Vivaldi program Wednesday night at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton.

Antonio Vivaldi’s work at a Venetian girls’ orphanage is sometimes treated as the story of a great composer bestowing his gifts on a group of destitute children.

But there’s another way to look at the Baroque master’s involvement with the Ospedale della Pietà, Patrick Dupré Quigley, artistic director of the choir Seraphic Fire, told an audience in Boca Raton Wednesday night. Already renowned for the musical skill of its students, the Pietà provided Vivaldi with the virtuoso performers he needed to develop his own gifts and produce the works for which he would become famous.

The collaboration between Vivaldi and the girls and women of the Pietà was the subject of Seraphic Fire’s latest program of concerts, which opened at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church. Appropriately for the subject, the musicians on stage, from singers to violinists to organist, were all female, except for Quigley (someone had to play Vivaldi).

With all respect to the work of tenors, baritones and basses, the men weren’t missed. An all-female choir can produced a particularly light, transparent, sun-splashed tone for works of religious joy and devotion. And even in passages of darkness and solemnity, in texts that described the crucifixion or the mercy of Christ, there was no feeling of the absence of voices at the lower end of the vocal range.

Judging from the works presented, Vivaldi’s religious muse was more up-tempo and ornate, and less stern and lugubrious, than those of Bach or Handel. There was a lot of drama, and there were demands for considerable virtuosity on the part of both singers and instrumentalists, indicating the high musical standards that must have prevailed at the Pietà.

In Nisi Dominus, alto Margaret Lias delivered crisp coloratura, with effortless ornaments and a tone of urgency in her voice. The long Amen was a sustained display of vocal fire.

The chorus’ perfect intonation and pure tones in the Credo made the most of the unearthly descending harmonies of the crucifixion verse. Quigley’s conducting brought out the theatrical side of the music throughout the evening, with swelling crescendos, abrupt pianissimos and lots of rhythmic drive in the last verse, which tells of Christ’s resurrection.

Cessate, omai cessate was the program’s only secular work (very secular, with words like “savage memories of a potent love”). Alto Clara Osowski sang it, aptly, like an operatic scena, with her rich voice taking on a dramatic edge. In the second verse, which deals with the pains of love, her smooth legato took on a tragic tone that matched the words of suffering and heartbreak.

The singers were accompanied by a lean chamber orchestra of two violins, viola, cello, bass, theorbo (a sort of giant lute) and organ. But despite the small numbers, the orchestra made its presence felt effectively throughout, with accurate, incisive and spirited playing with Baroque bows and gut strings (requiring, as Quigley explained, more frequent tuning between works)

In Nulla in Mundo, the soprano Margot Rood effortlessly negotiated wide leaps and vocal ornaments, while singing throughout with feeling and a pure, rounded tone. Alto Amanda Crider gave a virtuoso performance of Jubilate omeni chori, singing long chains of dozens of notes on a single word, and doing it with verve and even tone throughout.

The largest work on this program of short pieces was Vivaldi’s Magnificat. Amid the fast and fiery violin playing, the women’s perfect intonation and clarity of singing made the most of the surprising harmonic turns. In the verse that speaks of God’s mercy, dark harmonic sequences descended over a repeated low notes in the orchestra in a grave expression of religious faith.

“Vivaldi and the Pietà” will be repeated 7 p.m. Thursday at Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church in Naples; 7:30 p.m. Friday at the First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables; and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale.

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Thu Feb 14, 2019
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