Sharkova leads Seraphic Fire in an eclectic journey of women composers

By Lawrence Budmen

Elena Sharkova conducted Seraphic Fire in music women composers Friday night at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables.

A cornucopia of women’s creative voices resounded with “In Her Own Voice,” Seraphic Fire’s tribute to female composers, Friday night at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables. Music by 22 composers from the Middle Ages to recent Pulitzer Prize winners and pop songwriters illustrated the diversity of musical styles. The California-based conductor Elena Sharkova exuberantly led the expanded 24-voice choir which included singers from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music Ensemble Artist Program.

“O Virdissima Virga” by Medieval abbess Hildegard von Bingen opened the evening with part of the choir at the rear of the spacious sanctuary; their distant voices sounded ethereal while the others on the main stage responded. Finally, the singers and Sharkova sang as they walked down the aisle and assembled at the front rostrum. The spare vocal writing and sense of stillness was strikingly beautiful, especially the women’s voices.

By contrast, “Surge, propera amica mea” by Raffaela Vittoria Aleotti (circa 1570-1646) was a rollicking ode to love, sung with deft attention to variation of dynamics. Sharkova drew her own distinctive sound from the choir, larger in texture and heft and less ornamented than the elegant vocal patina of artistic director Patrick Quigley or associate director James Bass. 

The romantic lyricism of Clara Schumann’s “Abendfeier in Venedig” (Evening Celebration in Venice) spotlighted Sharkova’s masterful blending of the lower male and female parts. Cecilia McDowall’s setting of “Regina Coeli” brought a strongly flowing line in tones modernist, yet reverent. The mass sound Sharkoiva drew from the ensemble wonderfully engulfed the performance space.

“I Shall Forget You Presently, My Dear” from Sonnets of Desire, Longing and Whimsey by Chicago-based composer Stacy Garrop and “Pluck the fruit and taste the pleasure” from Songs of Youth and Pleasure by Libby Larsen mined a brighter modern idiom. Larsen’s piece was winningly rhythmic and light on its feet, sung with supple dexterity. Seven female voices captured the Latin beat of “La Estrella” from Rinas Tropicales by Cuban- American Pulitzer Prize winner Tania León with the top voices soaring.

The gorgeous thematic threads of “and the swallow” by Caroline Shaw were treated to full choral outbursts, as well as humming and the softest utterances. Indian-American composer Reena Esmail’s “The Unexpected Early Hour” from A Winter Breviary was one of the concert’s delightful discoveries. A lively mix of raga-based improvisation and rapid turns of phrase, the score challenged the singers and their terrific performance proved fully up to the task.

Jessica Ulusoy-Horsley’s setting of “Song of Songs” mixed spoken text with dissonant choir eruptions. In addition to  reciting the spoken lines fluently, Chelsea Helm’s high soprano vibrantly overlapped the chorus.  The serene conclusion calmed the music’s inner turmoil.  

Soothing harmonics embellished the sentimentality of Dale Trumbore’s “Light of Late November.” At Sharkova’s behest, the audience joined the singers in the variegated “alleluias” of “My Guardian Angel,” a shining anthem by Judith Weir, the current Master of the King’s Music.

Turning to lighter fare, Amanda Crider’s warm and voluminous alto took solo honors in an idiomatic, gospel style rendition of “Storm Comin” by the Canadian folk-pop group The Wailin’ Jennys. The choir’s rhythmic stomping feet added pulse to the irresistible tune. 

“Wanting Memories ” by Ysaye M. Barnwell, a hit for the pop a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, was assayed with vibrancy and finely melded timbre and the gospel spirit of “Stand in the River” by Moira Smiley was fully mined. 

The generous program concluded with country icon Dolly Parton’s “Light of the Clear Blue Morning,” in which Kimberly Leeds’ burnished alto combined vernacular pop affinities and classically spun vocalism.

There are two more performances of this unique musical journey that should entice choral aficionados and newbies alike.

Seraphic Fire repeats “In Her Own Voice” 7:30 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale and 4 p.m. Sunday at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Sat Jan 20, 2024
at 12:40 pm
No Comments