Seraphic Fire creates its Christmas magic once again

By Lawrence Budmen

James Bass conducted Seraphic Fire’s Christmas program Friday night in Coral Gables.

Seraphic Fire is one of South Florida’s musical gems and the chamber choir’s annual Christmas program has become a holiday tradition. In recent years, the group has toured the concert to other parts of Florida and beyond. 

On Friday night, fresh from performances in Vermont, Fort Myers, Sarasota and Naples, associate conductor James K. Bass led 11 vocalists in this season’s iteration at St.  Philip’s Episcopal Church in Coral Gables. The program again worked its magic.

Six male voices at the rear of the sanctuary sounded the opening lines of the Advent hymn” Vieni, Vieni Emmanuel” with spare vibrato while the purity of timbre of the five female voices at the front formed a striking response. In the final stanza, the full group’s sound was finely blended and balanced. As they finished singing, Bass entered and led artistic director Patrick Quigley’s arrangement of “Adeste Fideles,” first sung in the original Gregorian chant by the men. Seamlessly, the ever popular version” O Come All Ye Faithful” was taken up by the full group in a refreshingly subtle and restrained manner. Bass’s attention to subtle variations of dynamics added to the pleasure of hearing new life infused into a Christmas standard.

Bass brought a flowing pulse to Michael Praetorius’s carol “Quem postores laudavere” (Shepherds sang their praises over him) in a vibrant arrangement by John Rutter. “I Saw Three Ships,” originally a French carol translated to English, emerged rollicking and lively. The exquisite textures of the women’s voices were like icing on the fine ensemble confection. Bass’s rhythmic impetus enlivened “Ding Dong Merrily on High” and he drew exceptional choral articulation in “Once as I Remember.” The choir excelled in the rapid lines picturing the ringing of bells throughout legendary choral master Peter Wilhousky’s arrangement of “Carol of the Bells.”

pastedGraphic.png“There is No Rose of Such Virtue,” a very British traditional carol, was accorded full sonorous treatment. Praetorius’ “Est ist ein Res entsprunungen” (Lo, how a Rose e’re blooming), initially sung straightforwardly, became a canon with Bass melding the individual voices masterfully and exhibiting superb control. The original melody of the carol was repeated at the conclusion. The harmonic modernity of “Maria durch ein Dornwald” (Mary walks amid the thorn) by Gottfried Wolters developed into a powerful ensemble proclamation following the solemn opening.

In the sanctuary’s splendid acoustic, the choir reverberated in Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Magnum Mysterium” with the solemnity and grandeur of creation. In contrast, Praetorius’s “In dulci jubilo” radiated sheer joy. Bass utilized a double choir with one voice to a part to delightful effect.

It would be difficult to imagine a Seraphic Fire Christmas concert without Elizabeth Poston’s “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” From the silvery sound of two solo sopranos to the mass reverberations of the choir in surrounding formation spread around the church, this now familiar melody remains uplifting and sentimental in the best sense of the term.

Craig Hella-Johnson’s “Gitanjali Chants,” based on Hindu tradition, abounds in patterns austere and angular. The contrasts between male and female voices were strongly emphasized by Bass, with pacing perfectly on target. 

Frank Ticheli is one of America’s most gifted composers with a large catalogue of works for orchestra and wind ensemble. “There Will Be Rest” may be his most performed piece. It is contemporary in aural texture, yet with a sense of traditional choral expression. From the first bars, the sheer beauty of singing and Bass’s variegated grades of soft and loud gave full value to Ticheli’s creative mastery.

Quigley’s arrangement of “Silent Night” was sung with directness and quiet fervor, the members of the choir exiting the sanctuary carrying candles. A standing ovation brought them back for a spirited version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as an encore. For sheer vocal beauty and varied quality of repertoire, Seraphic Fire’s Christmas celebrations remain an annual musical treat.

Seraphic Fire repeats the program 7 p.m. Saturday at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach; 7 p.m. Sunday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale; 7 p.m. December 12 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach; 7:30 p.m. December 13 at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Miami; 8 p.m. December 14 at Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale; 7:30 p.m. December 15 at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables; and 4 p.m. December 17 at the Moss Center in Cutler Bay.

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Sat Dec 9, 2023
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