Bass leads Seraphic Fire in a glowing and memorable Christmas program

By Lawrence Budmen

James Bass led “A Seraphic Fire Christmas” Saturday night at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach.

Amid the annual holiday bustle of shopping and traffic, “A Seraphic Fire Christmas” has offered a perennial balm for the spirit and the senses. Saturday night’s performance at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach was that and more. Under associate conductor James Bass, the choir exceeded its previous holiday offerings in sheer beauty of singing and depth of expression.

“I Saw Three Ships” by Edwin Fissinger immediately established the smoothness and velvety blend that Bass drew from his 13-voice forces. His leisurely tempo and wonderfully varied and nuanced dynamics made even this familiar carol sound new and fresh. Bass’s program astutely mixed Christmas favorites with recent and less familiar fare and different versions of holiday standards.

“Adeste Fideles” began with the men’s voices singing the original spare Gregorian chant before the full choir joined them for “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the English version that has come to be familiar across decades and centuries. There was a freshness to the beautifully harmonized choir’s singing that blew away the dust of less artful traversals.

Three arrangements by Seraphic Fire artistic director Patrick Quigley were inventively varied and intelligently conceived. The burnished vibrance of John Buffet’s mellow bass embellished the Appalachian carol “Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head” with the group’s signature choral sonority coming to the fore. 

The straightforward, intimate expression of Tivoli Treloar’s rendering of John Jacob Niles’ “I Wonder as I Wonder” carried its own eloquence. “Jesus en Pesebre” by William Kirkpatrick appended “Away in a Manger” to rapt effect, Alexandra Colazzi’s alto sailing over the chorus. Bass’s own arrangement of Michael Praetorius’ “In Dulci Jubilo” divided the singers into two groups, providing a joyous antiphonal effect superbly controlled by Bass.

Two versions of “Adam Lay y Bounden” were strikingly contrasted. The text tells of Adam’s release from four thousand years of bondage for his sin of biting the apple, his freedom due to the joyful celebration of Jesus’s birth. The setting by John Ireland (Benjamin Britten’s teacher) is a lovely, easy listening edition that was sung with an almost pop choral sensibility. The version by British composer and choral director Matthew Martin commences with an almost Renaissance sound, becoming ever more complex in lines and harmony. The challenges of Martin’s composition posed no problem for the Seraphic Fire singers, their intonation and sonority resounding superbly in the high-ceilinged, darkened sanctuary.

An exquisite arrangement by Timothy C. Takach of the Huron carol ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime was followed by Susan LaBarr’s invigorating adaptation of the Basque carol “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came.”  “All Beautiful the March of Days” by Chicago-based composer James Kallenbach, a Seraphic Fire commission, sings forth with a gorgeous melody, rendered in sumptuous tones. This lovely creation could become a holiday standard.

One can hardly imagine a Seraphic Fire Christmas concert without Elizabeth Poston’s “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” Led by the purity of Chelsea Helm’s high soprano with the choir members surrounding the audience, the vignette remains irresistible. 

Gottfried Wolters’ “Maria Durch Ein Dornwald Ging,” popular in German-speaking countries, was deeply moving in its warm depiction of Mary walking through a garden with the baby Jesus. A different setting of “Away in a Manger” by Norwegian minimalist Ola Gjielo was imbued by soprano Elise Albian with emotional force as the choir hummed wordless lines, (Bass left the podium, leaving the rostrum to the singers for this fine contemporary take on a classic text.)

Two spirituals by William Dawson (1899-1990) caressed jaded ears. Rebecca Myers’ silvery soprano captured the uniquely American melodic path of “Mary Had a Baby.” There was a snappy beat in the down-home call and response iteration of “Ain’-a that Good News.”

Quigley’s arrangement of “Silent Night” opened with the female voices softly singing the melody before the full vocal component joins with a finely variegated take on this Christmas classic. The choir exited down the isles with lit candles as they finished singing the carol, an apt conclusion to a gloriously conceived and performed concert in the true spirit of the holidays.

Seraphic Fire repeats the program 7 p.m. Sunday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale; 7 p.m. Tuesday at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Miami; 8 p.m. Friday at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables; and 4 p.m. Sunday at the Moss Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Sun Dec 11, 2022
at 12:41 pm
No Comments