Seraphic Fire brings Haydn rarities to brilliant life

By Lawrence Budmen

Seraphic Fire performed music of Franz Joseph Haydn Friday night at the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables.

As the eighteenth century drew to a close, the lives of British naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson, his mistress Lady Emma Hamilton and Franz Joseph Haydn intersected. 

With Nelson and Hamilton as guests, Haydn presented a gala concert at the court of Esterházy. He composed a special song honoring Nelson’s 1798 victory over the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of the Nile and directed a performance of his Missa in Augustis (Mass in Troubled Times) which, thereafter, became known as the “Lord Nelson” Mass. To conclude Seraphic Fire’s two-week Enlightenment Festival, Patrick Quigley recreated that concert Friday night at the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables.

Quigley brought brisk pacing to Haydn’s Te Deum in C Major. The 20-voice choir (including 8 students from the group’s ensemble artist program at UCLA) and 20-piece orchestra were well balanced. There was particular strength in the male voices.

Lady Hamilton was a soprano and she sang “Lines” from The Battle of the Nile at the Esterházy concert with Haydn at the harpsichord. Long one of Seraphic Fire’s brightest vocal lights, Nola Richardson did the solo honors with Leon Schelhase on keyboard. Schelhase traced the stoic royal expression of the harpsichord introduction and brought spirit to the military march theme. Richardson’s creamy timbre, agility in the high tessitura and clear enunciation of the English text were entrancing. She received loud bravos from the large audience and her fellow choir members joined in the applause.

The “Lord Nelson” Mass is, arguably, the greatest of the works in this genre that Haydn conceived in his last years. Quigley gave weight and tension to the opening “Kyrie,” reflecting both the text’s plea for mercy and the dark events of Napoleon’s siege of Vienna when Haydn was working on the score.

The “Gloria” resounded with joyous celebration. Chelsea Helm’s gleaming soprano, coloratura facility and nobility of phrasing stood out throughout the performance. The firmness and solidity of Jonathan Woody’s bass down to the lowest notes embellished the exposed solo sections. Clara Osowski’s warm mezzo and James Reese’s well-placed tenor completed the finely balanced solo quartet.

Helm shaped the Mozartean mini-aria of the “Credo” with majestic grace. Quigley’s control emphasized distinct, individual instrumental lines and varied, terraced choral dynamics. Oboe and violin solos were articulated with exceptional beauty.

The concluding Osanna  in the “Benedictus” was festive. Osowski’s meltingly sumptuous solos were a highlight of the “Agnus Dei.” Trumpets pealed forth at the conclusion with Quigley drawing full-throated vocalism from the group. His ideal tempos and sense of the light and dark of Haydn’s creation could scarcely be bettered.

There are two more opportunities to hear this one-of-a-kind program, presenting the work of one of the greatest composers in music history at the height of his powers.

Seraphic Fire will repeat 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.

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Sat Feb 24, 2024
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