Seraphic Fire soars in a jubilant celebration of Bach

By Lawrence Budmen

Seraphic Fire is closing out its annual Enlightenment Festival with weekend performances of “Beginning/End,” a program of two joyful Bach oratorios. Photo courtesy of Seraphic Fire

Seraphic Fire has given many fine concerts over the past two decades, but on Friday night in the closing installment of the chamber choir’s third annual Enlightenment Festival, the group and artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley reached a new peak. 

After last week’s program on the darkly introspective side of Johann Sebastian Bach, the choir turned to the Baroque master’s joyous cantatas. Titled “Beginning/End,” this program’s music celebrated the birth and ascension of Christ — making the majestic, domed sanctuary of the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables an ideal venue for a concert that drew an unusually large audience. South Florida audiences fortunately have two more opportunities to see and hear “Beginning/End” performed in local churches, tonight in Fort Lauderdale and Sunday in Boca Raton.

The bright, cascading sounds of a superb 21-member period ensemble opened Part I of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in high-spirited fashion on Friday. With Quigley setting a vigorous pace, the contingent of three trumpets, two oboes, two flutes, organ, timpani and strings played with unanimity and precise intonation — never an easy feat with modern recreations of Baroque-era valveless instruments. 

In the opening chorus “Jauchzet, frohlocket,” the twenty-one voices — including eight singers from the Seraphic Fire UCLA Ensemble Artist Program — emerged astutely blended and well-balanced. 

As the Evangelist, Brad Diamond delivered recitative with crisp and incisive articulation with his finely honed lyric tenor. In the aria “Bereite dich, Zion,” Amanda Crider shaped the arching vocal lines in exquisite mezzo tones, her ornamentation accurate and polished, and enhanced by Geoffrey Burgess’s plangent oboe. 

Baritone John Buffett’s vigorous attack and bold declamation embellished his dramatic recitative and aria in richly molten bass tones. The noble Part I chorale finale, “Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein!” resounded splendidly with the church’s resonant acoustic, given space and breadth by Quigley’s unhurried pacing. 

Jumping to the fifth of the six Christmas Oratorio cantatas, the section covering the three kings’ journey to Bethlehem, Quigley and the ensemble delivered clean and transparent contrapuntal lines in the vibrant opening chorus, “Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen.” The male voices were particularly strong and agile in the fiendishly difficult vocal writing in the high register, and Quigley’s brisk tempo made the music dance.

Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte’s sturdy alto and baritone Steven Eddy’s skillfully deployed light bass excelled in solo arias. Accompanied by fierce string chords, countertenor Doug Dodson brought poignancy and fearsome agility to voicing the news of Herod’s fear of the child’s birth. Accompanied by Edison Scheid’s stylish violin obbligato, the trio of Dodson, tenor Nickolas Karageorgiou and especially soprano Elisse Albian melded to soaring effect in trio — trio voicings being a rarity in Bach’s vocal works. The cantata’s two chorales were uplifting, their corporate sonority beautiful and even. 

Bach’s Ascension Oratorio is too rarely performed. It is a real gem of the composer’s liturgical output, radiating joy and exuberance from its very first bars, and Quigley drew robust vocalism and stellar playing from his forces in the extended, invigorating opening choral declaration.

Tenor Jacob Perry was a firm-voiced Evangelist, while Duarte brought plaintive emotional projection to the aria “Ach, bleibe, doch, mein liebstes Leben,” which played to her impressive and well-schooled alto’s strengths. Male soprano Elijah McCormack’s fresh timbre and unforced top range were a total delight in the work’s penultimate movement, accompanied by a prominent mellifluous combination of Margaret Owens’ oboe and Joseph Monticello and Jennifer Grim’s flutes. 

With trumpets blazing, the concluding chorale was festive, indeed, Quigley unleashing his artists at full force. The entire concert marked a new level of artistry and impeccable ensemble performance for Miami’s unique and versatile choir. 

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

One Response to “Seraphic Fire soars in a jubilant celebration of Bach”

  1. Posted Feb 27, 2023 at 7:28 am by Emily S Rosenthal

    Part of what made this concert so memorable was Patrick’s conducting. He has reached a new level of arrtistic mastery. Always a joy to watch, he has achieved an enormous artistic authority with an economy of motion, both expressive and free of flourish. It has been a great journey to watch him evolve over these many years to reach these artistic heights!

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