Seraphic Fire tees up the next 20 years with an anniversary concert to remember

By Lawrence Budmen

Patrick Dupré Quigley is leading Seraphic Fire in a weekend of concerts celebrating the choir’s 20th anniversary season. Photo: Dario Acosta.

With its majestic ambience and superb acoustics, the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables proved to be an ideal setting on Friday night for a major choral milestone: the concluding weekend of Seraphic Fire’s 20th concert season.

Founded in 2002 by artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley, the acclaimed professional chamber choir has presented innovative and rewarding musical fare year in and year out, here in its home base of Miami and elsewhere; garnered Grammy nominations for its recordings; and maintained a consistently high standard of performance and artistry throughout.

Dubbed “First/Last,” Friday’s festive anniversary program looked back to pivotal moments in the ensemble’s history, but also confidently forward, breaking new ground with four world premieres. Capping the evening was a massive Renaissance choral masterpiece that presented listeners with a one-of-a-kind aural experience.

The first of three weekend Seraphic Fire concerts around South Florida opened with colonial-era composer William Billings’ “Invocation.” It is the very first work ever performed by Seraphic Fire, in the group’s debut two decades ago, and the lyrical inspiration for the ensemble’s name, with the opening lines, “Majestic God our music inspire/And fill us with seraphic fire.”

Quigley led a stirring performance of the Billings hymn on Friday, and the rousing sound of the full chorus provided an irresistible thrill — 40 voices made up of the current ensemble, plus charter members of Seraphic Fire returning for this occasion, and singers from the choir’s training programs at the University of Miami and the University of California, Los Angeles.

The world premiere on Friday of Douce Espérance by Oregon, Portland-based Sydney Guillaume continued a relationship between Seraphic Fire and the Haitian-American composer, who turns 41 in July, dating to his undergraduate days at UM’s Frost School of Music. Set to Guillaume’s own text in Creole French, the ten-minute opus is sweetly lyrical and seemingly tailored to the vocal ensemble’s silvery blend of timbres. In the concluding chant, soprano Gitanjali Mathur articulated her solo lines with the intimacy and idiomatic flair of a folk singer.

The group’s very first commissioned work, from 2005, was the centerpiece of Friday’s concert, with Seraphic Fire performing a 25-minute compilation of highlights from The Road from Hiroshima: A Requiem by Shawn Crouch. Now a professor of composition at Frost, Crouch conceived a deeply moving and potent score for Seraphic Fire, with a text drawn from the Latin mass for the dead as well as poems by Marc Kaminsky that picture the Japanese city and its inhabitants both before and after the devastation of the first atomic bomb.

Crouch’s wide-ranging compositional style alludes to Gregorian chant, atonality, minimalism, the choral works of Francis Poulenc and Carl Orff, Pacific Rim influences and impressionism, yet his music is strikingly original. Employing an array of bells, chimes, mallet percussion, strings and winds, he paints a picture of sadness and resilience that speaks to both the mind and the heart. He evidences a splendid gift for choral writing and his orchestral palette is innovative in spare lines that pack an emotional punch.

Quigley was in command of every change of meter, line and mood in the score. His superb blending of massed voices and the ethereal glow he drew from the female contingent enhanced a devoted reading of an important work. The choir’s entrance — a huge, collective cry of pain — was gripping and emotional, and Crouch’s UM-based Ensemble Ibis delivered precise accompaniment with its twining instrumental lines.

Seraphic Fire’s singers did their customary standout work. In the opening section, “Lauds,” set in the hours after the bombing, soprano Robyn Lamp and bass James K. Bass conjured scenarios of disruption and unrest. Enrico Lagasca’s stentorian bass underlined the grotesqueries of “Bones,” and soprano Rebecca Myers’ high, pure notes shimmered through the remembrance of “Every Year.”

The lightness of voice, soaring top range and gentle phrasing of soprano Elisse Albian registered the vital impact of “Every Day,” while baritone John Buffett’s powerful singing accentuated the repeating rhythms and solo interjections alike in the “Lux Aeterna” and “Libera Me” sections. Molly Quinn’s soprano was piercing and formidably dramatic, seconded by Paul Max Tipton’s sound bass, in the terse descriptions of “Shoes and Slippers” mingled with the “Dies Irae.” It would be difficult to imagine a better reading of this significant contemporary work than the one Quigley and his gifted singers offered on Friday.

In a nod to the choir’s composer in residence program at Frost, the concert’s second half opened with the premiere of “To Dream Again” by David Vess, a UM composition student. Vess’ setting of a text from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night opens with huge dissonance, followed by big melodic strokes. Sung with glowing vocal textures, Vess’ piece demonstrated real talent for choral scoring and great promise for his future as a composer.

The world premiere of Beloved of the Sky, by the rising and award-winning composer Tawnie Olson, announced the emergence of a distinctive compositional personality. Olson’s five-movement setting of texts by the late Canadian writer and artist Emily Carr speaks in boldly modernist tones: Aleatoric sections challenge the chorus to invent notes and passages on the fly; and there is a touch of the blues in the witty iteration of “Oh, that lazy, stodgy, lumpy feeling.”

Wild, varied dynamics and appropriately outside-the-box harmonics announce the Fourth Wall being broken in “The subject means little.” But mezzo-soprano Luthien Brackett’s rich, full singing was a centering force in the more abstract passages, and Olson’s writing, though immensely difficult, was superbly assayed by the choir.

The long-delayed first public performance of Alvaro Bermudez’s Danzas del Silencio — postponed by the Covid pandemic — was worth the wait. Bermudez, a charter member who sang in Seraphic Fire’s very first concert, has crafted a suite of Colombian dances that sways with Latin rhythms and catchy melodies set to words by the late Colombian writer Oscar Hernández Monsalve.

The text veers from romance to darkness, and Bermudez’s music matches the shifting aura. A section called “El Nombre Viento” was particularly haunting: The composer’s skillful synchronization of voices made the choir sound as one, and the composer’s guitar accompaniment on Friday was solid and decisive without diverting attention from the singers.

Saving the best for last, Quigley concluded the evening with a rare performance of English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis’ 40-part motet Spem in alium. Aranging the singers in eight sections of five each around the sanctuary, the surround-sound effect was magnificent and unique. Starting with spare soprano lines, the score, which was apparently conceived for the birthday of Mary Tudor, builds to a vibrant, full-voiced climax that rang through the church. Quigley is the master of this repertoire, and his singers totally encompassed Tallis’ subtleties and spatial demands. This special performance was a fitting close to a memorable evening, and a very good sign for the years ahead.

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. Gregorys Episcopal Church in Boca Raton.

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Sat Apr 29, 2023
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