Music of Bach provides a timely sense of peace with Seraphic Fire

By Lawrence Budmen

Seraphic Fire performed music of Bach Friday night at First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables

Few composers’ music can bring such serenity and uplift as that of Johann Sebastian Bach, especially in troubled times. 

Such was proven the case again on Friday night when Seraphic Fire concluded its second Enlightenment Festival with “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” an all-Bach program spotlighting two of the Baroque master’s greatest cantatas and a rarely heard mass setting. 

The spacious sanctuary of First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables was an appropriate setting for the twenty-two voice choir and fifteen-member period instrument orchestra fielded by artistic director Patrick Quigley. Eight singers from the group’s Ensemble Artist Program at UCLA (spearheaded by bass and associate conductor James Bass) joined the vocal contingent. The result was an evening of inspired music-making.

The opening chorus of Cantata No. 62 “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” (Now come, Savior of the heathens) demonstrated Quigley’s skilled balancing of the chorus with the instrumental ensemble. Crisp articulation and precision marked the orchestral playing, with the two oboists particularly distinguished. Throughout the program, none of the intonation problems and lack of unity that can beset original instrument bands was evident. Like the singers, these players were from the top tier of their musical niche.

In solo arias, tenor Steven Soph’s high range shown impressively and bass John Buffett’s rolling coloratura and trills were delivered with spot-on accuracy. The high timbres of Nola Richardson and Douglas Dodson melded to florid effect before Quigley’s reverent, eloquently shaped version of the final chorale.

Bach utilized music from several previous cantatas for the Mass in G minor, completed only two years before his death. This rarely performed, 26-minute score offers some of Bach’s most complex vocal writing and made a deeply moving impact. 

Quigley’s leisurely tempo for the initial Kyrie aided delineating the inner voices. This fervent cry for mercy was assayed with emotion and depth of expression, as with the commanding bass and deep sonority of Jonathan Woody in “Gratias agimus tibi propter” (We give great thanks). An oboe solo of unusual beauty by Geoffrey Burgess nicely supported the sweetness of James Reese’s tenor. The contrapuntal writing of the final chorus emerged with clarity and exactness, the voices seeming to reach some higher musical realm.

Cantata No. 147 “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben “(Heart and mouth and deed and life) is one of Bach’s most famous creations. The chorale “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” appears twice in the course of the piece’s ten sections. 

Quigley led his singers and musicians in an inspired performance. Sheer joy pervaded the opening chorus, with the high female voices soaring. Soph’s distinctive projection of the text in recitative highlighted some stellar solo work. It was a pleasure to hear James Bass’s warm, well focused bass and finely pointed declamation again. Rebecca Myers’ secure light soprano and flexible technique in the aria “Berete dir Jesu” (Prepare, Jesus) was underscored by the superb violin obbligato of concertmaster Katie Hyun, a mini concerto played with brilliance and polished Baroque style.

Luthien Brackett’s alto, which sounded somewhat unwieldy and only fitfully audible in the G minor Mass, came across with greater strength and more firmly centered vocalism. The usually reliable tenor Steven Bradshaw seemed below form but brought incisiveness to his aria, against a lilting backdrop of cello, bass and organ. Leon Schelhase’s keyboard mastery was fully evident in the cantata’s crucial organ part. The famous chorale was vibrantly sung, totally bereft of heaviness, and the final iteration at the cantata’s conclusion proved rich in texture.

Quigley was repeatedly recalled by an unusually enthusiastic, nearly full house. There are two remaining performances of this wonderful program of music by one of the giants of Western art.

Seraphic Fire repeats the program 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.

Posted in Performances

Comments are closed.

Sat Feb 26, 2022
at 11:58 am
Comments Off on Music of Bach provides a timely sense of peace with Seraphic Fire