Seraphic Fire closes season with a program of solace and reflection

By Lawrence Budmen

James K. Bass conducted Seraphic Fire Wednesday night in Miami.

James K. Bass conducted Seraphic Fire Wednesday night in Miami.

Francis Poulenc’s Mass in G was the fulcrum of Seraphic Fire’s final program of the season on Wednesday night. “Harmony and Peace Through Music,” in both the spiritual and earthly sense, was the evening’s broader contextual theme. The ringing of bells for the singers’ pitches (rather than the traditional pitch pipe) in the sanctuary of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral brought an aura of reflective solace, enhancing the concert’s bill of fare.

Conductor James K. Bass elected to break up the five movements of Poulenc’s a cappella score, pairing each section with another work reflecting the same atmosphere and textual meaning. While dividing the sections of the mass seemed questionable on paper, the selections were so well chosen that they extended the contemplative mood of Poulenc’s opus. Bass asked the audience to withhold applause until the conclusion of the concert which helped sustain the music’s peaceful reverence.

Fielding a larger than usual choir of 21 voices (including eight singers from Seraphic Fire’s Ensemble Artist Program at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music), Bass favored a fuller choral sonority and wider dynamic spectrum than artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley. Leading with spare gestures, Bass unobtrusively summoned full-voiced, resonant corporate sound and subtle vocal nuances.

Poulenc’s Mass in G was written in 1937 as the drums of war and fascist dictatorships were engulfing Europe.  A prayer for peace and hope, the score gleams with melodies of striking beauty, at times dressed in harmonic ambiguity.

The first tones of the high sopranos in the “Kyrie” were thrilling. More robust thematic threads encompass the “Gloria” which has much in common with Poulenc’s later choral-orchestral setting of the text. Rebecca Myers’ soprano soared over the ensemble in a brief interlude.

Bass unerringly blended the silvery texture of the women’s voices with the darker, deeper timbres of the male contingent. The female singers soared in the “Benedictus”  which is almost like a Gallic chanson. In the final prayer of the “Agnus Dei,” Sarah Moyer’s beautiful, vibratoless soprano seemed to come from a more ethereal realm. Clara Osowski’s mezzo lines were firmly projected. Bass summoned imposing strength in the final pages with the softness of the conclusion both stirring and deeply moving.

Michael Hawes’ warm baritone highlighted Sydney Guillaume’s haunting Dominus Vobiscum, a refugee’s declaration of faith tinged with catchy folk inflections. The austere calm of Lullaby by Shawn Crouch masks the tale of a Muslim father trying to console his child during raging gunfire in the Iraq war. He tells his son that the glare of the bullets are reflections of stars moving from one darker place to another in varying choral gradations of softness.

Presented in its world premiere in this program, “It is Not Too Late” by Carlos Fernando Lopez Lopez is a ruminative declaration of love infused with heartfelt sincerity. The prolific songwriter, who has collaborated with pop stars such as Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez, certainly can write a good tune but he is clearly a composer of talent in the classical as well as commercial musical realm. Myers’ pure soprano carried his flights of harmonic fancy.

Written during the first Iraq war in 1990, Frank Ticheli’s Earth Song speaks in restrained musical strokes, as if from some inner earthly thread, of survival through song. Like Ticheli’s other vocal and wind ensemble scores, this vignette is splendidly crafted. The shining choral textures culminate in a hushed cry of “peace.” “Almighty Father,” is one of the quieter moments from Leonard Bernstein’s confrontational Mass, sung with reverential gleam.

Bass opened and closed the program with William Albright’s “Agnus Dei,” from his Chichester Mass. Like pillars of luminous, peaceful contemplation, the ringing of bells at the concert’s conclusion offered a final coda to an evening of superb choral singing and distinctive and beautiful repertoire.

Seraphic Fire repeats the program 7:30 p.m. Friday at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Coral Gables; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. Sunday at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach. 



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Thu May 9, 2019
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