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13 December 2019

Seraphic Fire brings joy and gravitas to Christmas program

by David Fleshler (South Florida Classical Review)

Seraphic Fire wishes you a solemn Christmas.

The Miami choir embarked on its annual round of Christmas concerts this week, a series of performances that attempt to recreate the spirit of the holiday before the era of multicolored lights, Cyber Monday and shopping mall Santas.

At St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton Thursday, they sang Medieval chants, traditional carols and contemporary works. But aside from a couple of upbeat pieces and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” this year’s program tended to be a bit more serious than usual, even dark at times. When the music expressed joy, it tended to be a joy of religious ecstasy or quiet devotion, not the merry mood of children opening presents.

James K. Bass, the choir’s associate conductor, led supple, sensitive performances that made the most of the choir’s unparalleled unity, agility and tonal beauty.

The chant Puer Natus Est was stately and majestic. But more interesting was the following chant, Alma Redemptoris Mater

After first singing the unadorned Medieval version, they sang an arrangement by the contemporary British composer Cecilia McDowall. Her version achieved a fascinating combination of ancient and modern, using fifths and pedal points that sounded 400 years old alongside tangy modern dissonances to create a radiant tribute to the Virgin Mary, sung in soaring, transparent tones by the choir.

They sang familiar carols, such as “The First Nowell,” “Silent Night” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Of the carols, two were particularly successful. “Adeste Fideles” (“O Come All Ye Faithful”) opened with unharmonized male voices from the back of church. Female voices answered from the front, and as the music progressed toward its English version, contemporary harmonies gave the melody both greater gravity and extra freshness. A performance of “Away in a Manger” was notable for the sweet-toned, heartfelt solo by soprano Sara Guttenberg.

Of the contemporary selections, “Woods in Winter” by the American composer Dominick DiOrio, was among the strongest, with  a striking opening of ethereal harmonies in female voices, as the men sang the words. The work took surprising harmonic turns and led to pianissimo processions of harmonies, sung by the choir with almost preternatural richness and balance.

They performed the traditional American song “Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head,” arranged by Seraphic Fire’s founder, Patrick Dupré Quigley (who is making his debut with Music of the Baroque in Chicago next week). The baritone John Buffett sang with a rich tone and warm sympathy in words that tried to comfort the baby, “You has got a manger bed,” while the “evil folk” “sleep in feathers at their birth.”

It wouldn’t be a Seraphic Fire Christmas without the choir’s surround-sound showstopper “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” by the late English composer Elizabeth Poston. The piece starts with a single soprano singing in the front of the church. Other singers join in. Then all 13 fan out around the church and begin singing separate parts, as a few notes of melody move from singer to singer, voices emerging from every direction, in a dazzling expression of religious joy and vocal virtuosity.

The seasonal joy of the concert was not enhanced by the parking situation. A half hour before the concert, there were no spaces left in the church’s lot, a large part of which was blocked by a sign saying it had been reserved for valet parking for Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Probably not a great idea on a concert night.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church, Coral Gables; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at All Souls Episcopal Church, Miami Beach; 7 p.m. Sunday at All Saints Episcopal Church, Fort Lauderdale; 7 p.m. Tuesday at Sunshine Cathedral, Fort Lauderdale; 7 p.m. Dec. 19 at Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church, Naples; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20 at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Coral Gables; and 4 p.m. Dec. 22 at South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, Cutler Bay. seraphicfire.org; 305-285-9060