Seraphic Fire will mark 20 years with final season program

By Lawrence Budmen

Patrick Quigley will lead Seraphic Fire this week in a program that presents four premieres as well as looking back at the choir’s first two decades. Photo: Dario Acosta.

Over the past two decades, Seraphic Fire has presented some of the most unique and memorable concerts in South Florida. The Miami-based professional chamber choir officially celebrates its 20th anniversary with performances in Naples, Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton April 27-30. 

Aptly titled “First/Last,” the program will revisit some of the organization’s past triumphs and look to the future with no less than four world premieres plus one of the largest Renaissance era works in the choral literature.

Patrick Dupre Quigley, the choir’s founder, artistic director and guiding light, is proud of creating “a lasting institution” in a distinctively American choral tradition. He believes “music has the ability to change people’s lives.” 

To that end, one of the group’s founding principles has been to bring music to neighborhoods throughout South Florida and to make the concert experience “friendly and welcoming without sacrificing quality,” according to Quigley.  

Starting with just three concerts each season at its original home the Church of the Epiphany, the group now presents over thirty performances annually in multiple venues from Cutler Bay to Naples and Boca Raton. The group has also performed in Miami with the New World Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. Even by Quigley’s consistently high standards, the recent performances of Bach’s Christmas and Ascension oratorios set a new artistic template for the ensemble.

Seraphic Fire also tours, makes Grammy nominated recordings and has an annual summer residency at the renowned Aspen Festival in Colorado. Education is an important part of the ensemble’s work. Artist programs at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music provide vocal ensemble training to undergraduate and graduate voice students. Participating singers join the choir several times each season in concert. A collaborative program with public school systems in Miami-Dade, Broward and Collier counties reaches over a thousand students.

This week’s celebratory program will open with Invocation by American colonial composer William Billings, which was the first work performed at the choir’s debut concert. Quigley named the ensemble after the opening line of Billings’ hymn, “Majestic God our music inspire and fill us with seraphic fire.”

The Road to Hiroshima by Shawn Crouch, Seraphic Fire’s first commission, premiered in 2005, will be reprised. This large-scale work is based on Misa pro defunctis and poems by Matt Kaminsky. In reverse order, the piece traces the fallout and devastation of the bombing, the moment of detonation and Hiroshima’s history as a bustling city of commerce prior to the blast. Quigley considers the score one of his favorite pieces and he describes the text as “spectacular and incredible.” Crouch, now a faculty member at the UM Frost School, brings his contemporary music group Ensemble Ibis to provide the work’s instrumental component.

One of the organization’s educational outreach initiatives is a student composer-in-residence program in cooperation with the Frost school. David Vess, the current holder of that position, has spent a season attending the choir’s rehearsals and concerts. To  Dream Again, his setting of Shakespeare (from The Twelfth Night), will receive its first performance.

Douce Espérance will mark composer Sydney Guillaume’s second Seraphic Fire commission. Guillaume’s piece was conceived as an invocation for his alma mater the University of Miami. 

Quigley is particularly excited about the premiere of Beloved of the Sky by Tawnie Olson. Winner of numerous awards including the 2018 Barlow Prize, Olson was commissioned to create the score for Seraphic Fire, the Philadelphia-based chorale The Crossing and the BYU Singers. Quigley describes the composition as concentrated on themes of nature with a text by Emily Carr in a setting for 8-part, a cappella chorus.

Quigley views the performance of Danzas del Silencio by Alvaro Bermudez as “a long delayed world premiere.” Originally commissioned and scheduled for a November, 2020 first performance, the Covid pandemic caused its cancellation. While the group taped a video of one section of the score, these performances are its first public iteration. 

The work is a suite of Columbian dances with guitar accompaniment, which will be played by the composer. The score was conceived in memory and honor of his father’s passing (by violence in Columbia). Quigley notes that this will be Bermudez’s fifth commission for the ensemble of which the composer and his wife mezzo-soprano Misty Bermudez were “charter members.”

The concert will conclude with one of Quigley’s most ambitious offerings to date. Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis’ motet Spem in alium was written for the 40th birthday of Mary Tudor (Queen May I). Deploying 40 voices (including members of the chorus’ UM and UCLA training programs), Quigley promises “surround sound . . . meant to inspire a sense of awe and amazement” in the listeners. He considers the score “a mammoth work” unique to its era.

Having traversed Bach’s Mass in B minor, St. Matthew and St. John Passions, numerous solo and choral cantatas and the Christmas and Ascension oratorios plus major works by Handel and Vivaldi, Quigley says he looks forward to presenting Mozart’s Mass in C minor, Haydn’s Creation, twentieth-century Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir and music of Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez in future seasons. 

Looking ahead, he also projects fully staged performances of Baroque opera, scores from the Golden Age of American musical theater of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s and cross genre collaborations. He also predicts touring will expand to the leading concert halls of America and Europe.

Seraphic Fire’s 21st season (2023-2024) will open with a program spotlighting the Prologue and scenes from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s French Baroque opera Castor and Pollux in the rarely heard original 1737 version, which Quigley considers “an absolute masterpiece that was too advanced for audiences of that time.” 

As part of the annual February Enlightenment Festival, he will recreate a concert at the court of Esterhazy (in Eisenstadt) in August, 1800 when Lord Horacio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton were guests for a program of Haydn’s Battle of the Nile (after Nelson’s famous victory), Maria Theresa Mass and Misa in Angustis (known as the Lord Nelson Mass) which was directed by the composer. 

Quigley also points to a program of music by female composers across the centuries (under guest conductor Elena Sharkova) and associate conductor James Bass’ “Mid-Century Modern” which will present music from the same period as the architecture that is distinctive to Miami and its skyline. 

First, however, Quigley and his greatly talented singers will celebrate twenty years of presenting adventurous programming and music-making of the highest order.

Seraphic Fire presents “First/Last” 7 p.m. April 27 at Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church in Naples; 8 p.m. April 28 at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables; 7:30 p.m. April 29 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. April 30 at St. Gregorys Episcopal Church in Boca Raton.

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Mon Apr 24, 2023
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