Seraphic Fire looks to the past for a pandemic season

By David Fleshler

Seraphic Fire opens its online 2020-21 season November 8.

The composers of Medieval and Renaissance Europe knew something about epidemics, with all their attendant fear, loss of loved ones and social isolation.

As Seraphic Fire prepares to embark on its 2020-21 season—a retooled online concert series—the Miami choir will embrace the circumstances that have brought our age disconcertingly close to the era of bubonic plague (though, mercifully, without quite that amount of deadliness).

“What we’re feeling inside, the pain, the disconnectedness, the numbness—this is not unique to us,” said Patrick Dupré Quigley, the choir’s founder and artistic director. “This is something that has been going on for as long as we have written history and certainly since we have had the ability to write down music.”

“Those people went through the same things we did. What we as artists would like to give to our audiences is a sense that this has happened before, you’re allowed to feel this way, and there is hope that this will not be forever.”

While the opening season concert this week will draw parallels between our present pandemic crisis and those of the past, the rest of the Seraphic season—mostly still to be announced—will not wallow in Covid-19.

The choir will perform its traditional Christmas concert, given the irony-rich title “Home for the Holidays,” on December 20, in a performance led by associate conductor James K. Bass. Although they’re still finalizing the program, it will include the usual mix of modern and ancient works, including traditional carols such as “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The pandemic, however, will haunt the choir’s first concert. Given the title “Still. Here. Music of Love and Plague,” the concert will be shown online Sunday, November 8. The program will be available to ticket holders on the Vimeo streaming site and can be viewed for up to 72 hours after it begins. 

The concert will mark the start of a shortened six-concert season, with the rest of the programs still being developed.

During the years that produced the glories of the Renaissance, Europe endured waves of plague, tuberculosis, influenza and many other diseases. Plague, in particular, led to the sort of social isolation that has become familiar today, giving a contemporary resonance to the works of the period’s composers.

“What we find in the secular music of the time is that people express many of the same feelings that we are going through now,” Quigley said. “The feeling of longing for human connection, the desire for love that has been taken away, the desire for comfort and the benefits of having people around you.”

The first work on the program, Stella cheli extirpavit, comes from about 1400 and addresses the plague experiences with an almost primal fear.

“Heaven’s Star,” the text begins, “Nurturer of the Prime god, Uproot this death plague Planted by our first parents. Star goddess, deign to Restrain the fates, Whose wars give us Furious death ulcers.”

The program will be divided into three periods. 

Act 1 will focus on early Tudor England, particularly Henry VIII. During his rule, Quigley said, there was a time when fear of plague led the king to send away his entire court, aside from his doctors and organist. Among the compositions will be a work attributed to Henry himself, “Pastime with good company.”

Act 2 will focus on the works of Palestrina and Monteverdi, who lived through plague outbreaks in Rome and Venice. Among the works will be Lamento Della Ninfa by Monteverdi, whose works were performed to celebrate the end of a wave of plague in 1631 in Venice.

The piece follows the program’s emphasis on yearning and loss, as a young woman pines for her lover “Love, she said to the sky With her foot, she stomped Where, O Where is the faithfulness that the traitor swore to give me?” Act 3 will concentrate on music of the late Tudor dynasty, particularly its last monarch, Elizabeth I. Among the works will be John Dowland’s “Come again, sweet love.”

Particularly inspiring, Quigley said, was the determination of these composers to produce and perform music despite the waves of illness washing over their communities

“These artists didn’t stop in the course of plague, and so we’re not going to either,” he said. “It’s our responsibility as professional artists to figure out a way to make art within the circumstances and the deadlines that are put in front of us because that’s the way art is made.”

And so, like Monteverdi, Palestrina and the others, the members of Seraphic Fire kept at their jobs. Unlike their predecessors, they’re doing so with an array of electronic aids that allow them to assemble a choir from singers around the United States and across the Atlantic Ocean.

The 13 singers and instrumentalists did not record the works as a group. Instead, each prepared individual recordings of his or her part, submitting three tracks of each part. Quigley assembled them to produce the completed performance.

Quigley prefers to call himself the “producer” rather than the conductor, since he did not in fact stand in front of the musicians and wave his arms to lead them as an ensemble. 

The 13 singers and three instrumentalists recorded their parts separately from their homes in Seattle, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, the United Kingdom and several other places.

The recording process took about a month. To achieve the best sound quality, Quigley found himself instructing singers to make some unusual modifications to their performance spaces—to lay a comforter along the ceiling, for example, or perform inside a pillow fort in their closet.

One singer became obsessively aware of the precise schedule for trash pickups because that’s when a cascade of crashing bottles and cans would ruin an otherwise pristine take.

“We have put four times the amount of work than we normally would,” Quigley said. “Yet everyone has done so willingly and enthusiastically.”

Seraphic Fire’s season-opening program “Still. Here. Music of Love and Plague,” will be launched on Vimeo at 4 p.m. November 8, with the concert available online for 72 hours. Ticket holders will receive an email with instructions and program information. SeraphicFire.org.

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