Seraphic Fire offers a program of love songs for Valentine’s Day

By Lawrence Budmen

James Bass hosted Seraphic Fire’s “Serenade” stream on Sunday.

Seraphic Fire celebrated Valentine’s Day with “Serenade,” a webcast compilation of songs inspired by love in both the personal and broader sense. Set to sweeping views of sky, mountains and streams, the video presentation offered a fine overview of the choir’s wide-ranging repertoire over recent seasons. Associate conductor James Bass served as host and guide to the hour-long presentation.

Seraphic Fire has regularly commissioned new works from both regional and international composers. The program opened with “One December Night” from Four Levertov Settings by Christopher Theofanidis, a 2016 commission that the composer dedicated to the American conductor Robert Spano. In the text by the British-American poet Denise Levertov, a woman envisions a bird flying over and into her kitchen where she offers it a drink of Schvitz. Set against the plucked strings of a violin, Levertov’s fantasy is matched by strange harmonies in a true sensory experience. Sarah Moyer’s pure soprano rose above the choral lines in speech-like patterns. Artistic director Patrick Quigley was on top of Theofanidis’ quirky turns and changes of meter.

Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil is one of the greatest choral evocations of Russian Orthodox liturgy. Far removed from the lush romanticism of the composer’s most famous instrumental works, the spare patterns of “Blessed is the Man” soar to ethereal heights. Elena Sharkova conducted a performance of authentic fervor, the distinctive Seraphic Fire blend and sonority strongly evident.

Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford’s “The Blue Bird” is a warmly melodic confection. Bass drew richness of corporate vocalism to match Stanford’s inspired burst of song. From a concert that celebrated the life of Martin Luther King, Richard Carter’s arrangement of “Bright Mansions Above” resounded in full, deeply resonant ensemble tones, directed with supple dynamic gradations by Anthony Tracek-King. In the great African-American spiritual tradition, the voices rose to a stirring climax before concluding on a soft, contemplative note.

Seraphic Fire has worked with the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music in a program that places a composition student in residence with the ensemble each season, culminating in the creation of a new choral work. From that collaboration, “It is Not Too Late to Love” by Carlitos Fernando Lopez is a soothing, idyllic dream of hope for love and peace in the composer’s native Colombia. Lopez, who has gone on to win Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards, displays a real gift for choral writing in this lovely work and Bass led a performance that gave full rein to its lyrical thread with particularly beautiful singing by the female voices.

From a 2018 program devoted to vocal settings of Shakespeare, Nils Lindberg’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” was a coolly Scandinavian view of the Bard with a pop sensibility. The mellifluous harmonics were masterfully contoured by Bass. 

Maurice Duruflé was one of the twentieth century’s great choral composers. His Requiem is a staple of the sacred literature and “Ubi Caritas” has been sung by amateur and professional choruses far and wide. The musicality and flowing pulse of Seraphic Fire’s singing under Quigley felt like hearing a highly familiar work for the first time.

Between choral selections, pianist Anna Fateeva (long a collaborative artist with the group) offered newly recorded traversals of excerpts from Book I of Debussy’s Images. Her fleet, deft touch conjured up the ripples of “Reflections in the Water.” “Tribute to Rameau” mixed austere textures and discreet tonal coloration. Fateeva cut loose in the Gallic fireworks of “Movement” with rapid bursts of fragmentary thematic cells abounding.

The entire program made a fine introduction to South Florida’s premier chamber choir for the uninitiated as well as bringing back many pleasant memories for longtime concertgoers.

“Serenade” will be available for replay online until 4 p.m. Wednesday.

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Mon Feb 15, 2021
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