Seraphic Fire opens a season of renewal with Pergolesi masterwork

By David Fleshler

Patrick Dupré Quigley will conduct Seraphic Fire in performances of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater beginning Thursday night in Miami.

As he approached death at the age of 26, the Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi wrote a work that to this day gives listeners chills.

His Stabat Mater is a setting of a 13th century hymn on the suffering of the Virgin Mary as she witnessed Christ’s death on the cross. The hymn would inspire composers of every era, including Palestrina, Vivaldi, Haydn, Rossini, Schubert, Verdi, Penderecki and Pärt.

Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which will open Seraphic Fire’s season this week at four South Florida churches, stands out in a crowded field. An experienced composer of opera despite his youth, Pergolesi knew how to give his setting of the Stabat Mater dramatic punch, something that would put off more puritanical listeners.

“I’ve performed it many times in my life and there’s no piece for these forces that has a greater impact on the audience,” said Patrick Dupré Quigley, Seraphic Fire’s founder and artistic director. “Those 40 minutes of counterpoint and harmonic invention are, without the words, just a sublime, sublime journey.”

The Stabat Mater performances will mark the beginning of a relatively normal season for Seraphic Fire, with programs of live music that will feel something like luxury after the online concerts that have prevailed across the classical music world.

Seraphic Fire will perform a new staging of Hildegard von Bingen’s music drama Ordo virtutum in collaboration with the opera and Broadway stage director Francesca Zambello. 

The choir will perform a new version of its Enlightenment Festival, with concerts that will feature the love songs of Henry Purcell and a Bach program that will include the rarely heard Mass in G Minor as well as the Cantata 147, with its famous chorus “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Also on tap is Seraphic’s first complete performance of Handel’s Messiah since 2004, a concert of music for men’s chorus .and the popular Christmas concerts.

Part of this order of programs comes from the choir’s medical advisors, who counseled beginning with the relatively slender forces required for the Pergolesi work and building up from there as the pandemic continues to recede.

“They said by November things will probably be OK and you can probably fit seven singers on stage,” he said. “It actually gets bigger and bigger and bigger as the season goes on, leading up to Messiah.”

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi died at age 26 in 1736.

Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater was commissioned in 1736 by a Neapolitan religious society called the Confraternita dei Cavalieri di San Luigi di Palazzo for use in Good Friday services honoring the Virgin Mary. He completed the work despite being confined to bed with a fever, as he battled the tuberculosis that would finally kill him. A tradition later emerged that the Virgin Mary guided the dying composer’s hand.

The resulting composition, with its searing emotion and dramatic fire, achieved swift popularity. So compelling was Pergolesi’s setting that the work’s renown extended into northern Europe, where Protestants, most notably Johann Sebastian Bach, overcame their distaste for the Catholic “idolatry” of Mary to appreciate the work’s craftsmanship and emotional force.

The concert will also include works from the many composers influenced by Pergolesi’s masterpiece, including Bach, Gluck and the Cuban late Baroque composer Esteban Salas.

Dominated by arias and duets, the Stabat Mater requires a pair of first-class soprano and alto soloists. 

Seraphic Fire’s two soloists will be the rising young soprano Lauren Snouffer and countertenor Reginald Mobley, a singer whose pure tones are familiar by virtue of his many years as a regular Seraphic Fire member.

“For people experiencing the piece for the first time, it’s a really accessible piece,” Snouffer said in a telephone interview from Dallas, where she was singing arias of Handel and Mozart for a Dallas Opera concert. “The famous opening movement is expertly crafted—the tension and the release of all of the dissonances. It’s really fulfilling and so beautifully written. In the rest of the piece there are so many exquisite moments.”

Of all these moments, she said, her favorite comes at the opening of the “Sancta mater” section. “It comes just after this really intense fugue movement,” she said, “and suddenly it’s like the clouds clear and you get this amazing E-flat-major simplicity, and it’s really incredible.”

The work uses sound to illustrate tears, sighs, the scourging of Christ and the sound of his last breaths leaving his body. None of this feel gimmicky, and it’s done in a way that wouldn’t even be noticeable to those unaware of the words. But for listeners with some idea of the text, which doesn’t take much effort since it’s so short, the music is that much more powerful.

“They will hear things that sound like tears, hear things that sound like flagellation, piercing,” Quigley said. “There’s an illustration of Christ’s death, literally his breath running out of his lungs as it runs out of the lungs of the singer. It’s an incredible illustrative piece that sets the bar for expression.”

The most famous movement is the first, when the two singers sing the opening words, “Stabat mater dolorosa” (the sorrowful mother was standing) in ascending suspensions, or dissonances, that resolve and ascend again.

“The first movement is one of the most sublime duets of all time,” Quigley said. “It’s been copied, it’s been arranged, it’s been stolen. The open motif is a particular illustration of the welling of tears, which drop non-synchronously from one eye and the next. You feel the tension building in the back of your neck the entire time this goes. 

“It’s a breathtaking, breathtaking moment that opens up this entire sound world.”

Seraphic Fire will perform Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater 7:30 p.m. Thursday at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Miami; 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 St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton.

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Mon Nov 1, 2021
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