Ferdinand, Seraphic Fire a perfect pair in folk, spiritual songs

By Inesa Gegprifti

First-time guest conductor Jason Max Ferdinand is leading Seraphic Fire this weekend in a varied program of new and old folk and spiritual songs. Photo courtesy of Jason Max Ferdinand

In their 20th season, the Miami vocal ensemble Seraphic Fire continues to inspire and elevate with insightful programming and great performances. Friday evening at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables brought another gem, with a first-time guest conductor, Jason Max Ferdinand, leading the Grammy-nominated group in a program called “Old | New.”

A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Ferdinand is currently the director of Choral Activities at the University of Maryland. Seraphic Fire’s artistic director, Patrick Dupré Quigley, has hailed Ferdinand’s music-making as “electric” and praised him for drawing out “a towering performance quality that not a lot of people can get.”

Working with an acclaimed ensemble is a dream for a choral conductor, and in the second of four scheduled performances this week and weekend, Ferdinand showed his enthusiasm for the assignment in each gesture and phrase coaxed from the singers. The talent hailed by Quigley was also in evidence: Every selection of “Old | New” was executed with a perfect balance of vocals to tease the ear and let the listener trace every vocal line through the polyphony. In the tutti forte sections, a joyous blend and resonant tone arose, reverberating deep into the recesses of the chapel.

The “Old I New” program is one of (re)discovered spirituals and traditional songs in diverse musical expressions. The opener, Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs cycle, set the stage for an evening-long interplay of light and shadow, humor and heartfelt emotion. 

Copland’s arrangements underscored wholesome folksy tunes and narratives with jazzy, atonal, even impressionistic harmonizations. Standout moments on Friday included the melding of tones in “Long Time Ago,” a whimsical and somewhat eerie rendition of “The Little Horses,” and “At the River” — where luscious lower voices swam under the lilting soprano melodies. “The Golden Willow Tree,” with jarring dissonances in the piano part punctuating the choral textures, was one of the most adventurous refashionings of these old tunes.

A set of spirituals followed, some shifting the focus from Copland’s exuberant Americana to more inward expressions of faith. In Psalm 57, set by Betty Jackson King, an inventive, exploratory emphasis on the song’s first line — “Oh God, be merciful onto me” — seemed to span the entire range and every available combination of Seraphic Fire voices.

James Mulholland’s Keramos delivered a resounding statement of unity. The title is a Greek word referring to anything made of clay. The music oscillated between peaceful chorales and expansive lines accompanied by a richly textured piano. The final verses could have been the subtitle of the “Old I New” program: “All that inhabit this great earth/ Are kindred and allied by birth.” 

Gorgeous sonorities and carefully paced dynamics came through with ease in “When David Heard” by Welsh-born Renaissance composer Thomas Tomkins. “Hold Fast to Dreams,” based on poems by Langston Hughes and the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a thought-provoking tonal work by Joel Thompson.

Thompson, 35, emerged in 2015 with a choral and orchestral contemplation of black men killed in encounters with law enforcement, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. The young Jamaican-American composer recently became Houston Grand Opera’s first full-time composer in residence. He is not afraid to go deep and word-paint to find the essence of a moment. In “Hold Fast to Dreams,” he takes us into a vertiginous tone world with the verses, “Free at last, free at last? / What happens to a dream deferred?” 

What unfurled on Friday was a gripping, fragmented text of short, accentuated phrases. A buoyant and encouraging statement — “Hold fast to dreams/ For if dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird/ That cannot fly” — brought the singers and piano together into virtuosic sync. The tone turned more cautious in a fadeout carried by the words, “Hold fast to dreams / For when dreams go/ Life is a barren field/ Frozen with snow.”

The program’s first half closed with two pieces that formed a compelling study in vocal contrasts. With “Steal Away,” arranged by Diedre Robinson, Seraphic Fire produced some of the softest and most ethereal tones of the evening. In William Dawson’s “Zion’s Walls,” they showed off technical prowess in a highly contrapuntal setting.

The second half featured a newly composed work by Stacy V. Gibbs and Shawn Kirchner, “No Color,” an evocative declaration that “no color can come between us.” The song addresses issues of race and discrimination, combining elements of jazz with traditional choral techniques, and moments of arresting introspection, as in, “Stop – did we forget to mention that we are more alike than we are different?”

The choral music mainstays Hall Johnson and Moses Hogan were represented on Friday with “I Cannot Stay Here by Myself” and “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” Both works showed Seraphic Fire’s versatility, the first requiring an expert blend of voices in sprawling textures, the latter eliciting an energetic groove and pronounced phrases.

Another standout was Alma Androzzo’s “If I Can Help Somebody,” whose beautiful harmonies surrounded an improvised and melismatic melody sung by soprano Chelsea Helm. Ferdinand and the ensemble closed the evening with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a jubilant anthem of hope by Florida-born composer J. Rosamond Johnson. They returned, to the delight of a nearly full house, with an encore that probably no one saw coming: a fun, bracing arrangement of the very secular Mexican folk ditty, “La Cucaracha.”

“Old | New” repeats 7:30 p.m. Saturday, January 21 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale and 4 p.m Sunday, January 22 at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach. seraphicfire.org

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Sat Jan 21, 2023
at 12:04 pm
No Comments