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26 October 2014

Seraphic Fire presents fine feast of contemporary American music

by Greg Stepanich (Palm Beach Arts Paper)

It’s heartening to hear the evidence of the continued good work being done in new American art music composition, much of it by composers just barely out of their studies, presented on Reincarnations, a recording released earlier this month by Seraphic Fire.

The Miami-based concert choir opened its 13th season of concerts with selections from that disc, plus two other works, in a richly absorbing program of all-American contemporary music. The iteration of the choir heard Oct. 18 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale — Seraphic Fire hires a changing series of professional singers from around the country — was one of the smoothest and nimblest I’ve heard.

Choir founder Patrick Dupré Quigley opened the concert with his own recently completed arrangement of the hymn How Can I Keep From Singing?, written around 1868 by the Rev. Robert Wadsworth Lowry, a Baptist minister then working in the New York City area. Quigley has done a deft job; it opened with mezzo Luthien Brackett singing the first lines unaccompanied, with admirable purity, to be joined in the second verse by mezzo Lexa Ferrill. After some close-imitation echoic patterns, it blossomed out into a full choral treatment with attractive chordal clusters on the offbeats. It was pretty and tasteful, well-suited for the music and the concert at hand.

That was followed by two works by young composers still in their 30s, Nico Muhly — one of the current darlings of the contemporary scene, not least for his opera, Two Boys, presented at the Metropolitan last season — and Shawn Crouch, until recently in charge of the Miami Choral Academy program in the Miami-Dade County schools. Muhly’s I Cannot Attain Unto It, a setting of a portion of Psalm 139, is an intensely felt piece that mirrors its awestruck text with a good deal of obsessive repeated vocal chatter that does not detract from its intimacy, and Crouch’s The Light of Common Day, set to a text by Wordsworth, makes its direct, optimistic way through a sparkly, high-register accompaniment in the piano, played expertly by Anna Fateeva.

Both of these pieces were sung with beautiful precision, everything clear, clean and polished, and as I mentioned at the outset, the blend of this particular group of singers was exceptional.

The Crouch piece was performed in the 2012 season, and so was the work that came next, Samuel Barber’s Reincarnations (Op. 16), a complex and sometimes harrowing work on the poems of James Stephens, who drew on Irish folklore. It lends its name to the new Seraphic Fire recording, and it is good to have it championed in our own backyard.

Clarity of attack was again in evidence, in moments like the unexpected cadence in a remote key on the words “She is the love of my heart” in Mary Hynes, the first of the three songs. Quigley and his singers built gradually and powerfully to the anguished “Anthony!” in the funereal Anthony O’Daly, while in the final song, The Coolin, Barber’s strong melodic gift comes to the fore, and the singers responded with vocalizing of buttery warmth.

Four songs by younger composers followed, beginning with Dan Forrest’s Good Night, Dear Heart, a setting of words by Australian poet Robert Richardson, adapted by Mark Twain for the gravestone of his beloved daughter Susy, who died at 24 of meningitis. Forrest is surely one of the most popular young choral writers today, and this song shows why: It’s got a lovely tune, heart-rending lyrics, and sweet, rich chords skillfully deployed. It was sung with tenderness and careful attention to long-breathed lines, as was the next work, Colin Britt’s As There Are Flowers, a subdued but deeply felt song to words by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Dominick DiOrio’s I Am, set to a text by Mary Elizabeth Frye about the afterlife, expands from a minor second into a mosaic of clusters that float in and out amid more straightforward settings of lines; the Fort Lauderdale performance was somewhat more flexible than the recorded version, and highly effective. Fear Not, Dear Friend, by Jake Runestad, a pretty setting of Robert Louis Stevenson, has a slippery harmonic style that changes rapidly, and the singers were dead on, which helps the music’s glinting, shifting colors work.

Works by two older composers followed, the Earth Song of Frank Ticheli, best-known for his band music, and the Mid-Winter Songs cycle of Morten Lauridsen. Ticheli’s song, set to his own anti-war words, came off with a quiet, beautiful radiance. Fateeva joined the choir again for the Lauridsen, a five-part work on words by the English poet, classicist and war memoirist Robert Graves.

This is a challenging and difficult cycle, but unified by a tone color that is heard at the outset of the first song, “Lament for Pasiphaë,” and which carries through the bumptious “Like Snow,” and the quiet post-midnight flavor of “She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep.” In that third song, on the repeated words “Despite the snow/Despite the falling snow,” Quigley and his charges sang each repetition with increasing intimacy, an effect that had the large All Saints audience absolutely rapt.

The fourth song, “Mid-Winter Waking,” was a good bit more aggressive than the new recording, driven by Fateeva’s propulsive playing, but still had room for nice touches like the final two words of the last line, “But found no winter anywhere to see,” perfectly intoned and positioned. The closing “Intercession in Late October,” which has a long, meditative piano passage that returns to the opening bars of the cycle, is succeeded by a gentle plea for mercy, sung and played here with mastery.

Lauridsen was the composer for the encore, Sure on This Shining Night, to words by James Agee (which Samuel Barber used for one of his best-known songs); it’s part of Lauriden’s Nocturnes cycle. This is a warm and lovely tune, much more conventional than anything in the Mid-Winter Songs, and deservedly beloved of choirs. Seraphic Fire sang it with excellence and a relaxed vocal style that made it communicate with disarming directness.

South Florida’s classical music culture, as well as its profile as a region nationally known for its arts activity, is greatly enriched by Seraphic Fire, and its first concert of the new season showed its audiences why. We have much to look forward to in this season, and much to be grateful for.

Seraphic Fire’s next performances are set for Nov. 7-9, when the Gloria of Antonio Vivaldi will be featured, accompanied by the New York early-music group The Sebastians. Performances are at the University of Miami’s Gusman Hall (Nov. 7), All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale (Nov. 8), and the South Miami-Dade Cultural Center (Nov. 9). Tickets are $55; call 305-285-9060 or visit www.seraphicfire.org.