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Seraphic Fire offers spiritual solemnity and discerning choices in annual Christmas program

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Seraphic Fire attempts to bring solemnity, depth and a sense of history to the season that these days begins on Black Friday.

“A Seraphic Fire Christmas,” which is making the rounds of South Florida churches, is presenting a series of works that focus on the religious source of the holiday, focused more on inward spirituality than the brassy jubilation that tends to dominate in contemporary Christmas music.

At a performance Sunday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale, the choir did sing arrangements of a few well-known carols, such as “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” But for all their familiarity, these came off as far as it was possible to get from the tunes blaring from shopping mall sound systems. Led by associate conductor James K. Bass, the 13 singers sang with the harmonic precision of a pipe organ, but with the phrasing, tonal luster and warmth that could only come from human voices.

If the solemn tone of the evening was pre-modern, many of the works were not. Particularly moving was “Coventry Carol,” an anonymous English work arranged by the contemporary American composer Paul John Rudoi. Inspired by Herod’s massacre of children in a futile attempt to kill Jesus, the work tells of the heartbreak of the children’s mothers. Ancient and timeless in tone, the arrangement used modern harmonies and dissonances to effectively convey pain and mourning.

An unaccompanied choir may seem bare-bones, but a pair of works showed virtuoso singers and skillfully composed music can produce some spectacular special effects.

“In Dulci Jubilo” by Michael Praetorious, arranged by Bass, a choir of four soloists stood apart from a larger choir, with the two groups of singers producing striking antiphonal sounds. The other work was “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” by the 20th century English composer Elizabeth Poston, a Seraphic Fire specialty that never fails to wow listeners, particularly those who have never experienced it before.

The work started with a single female singer in a simple joyful melody. Other singers joined in, surrounding the melody with rich but simple harmonies. Then the singers fanned around the church, surrounding the audience, and the melody then proceeded in a wave from singer to singer, climaxing in a show-stopping display of surround-sound polyphony. This aural extravaganza drew cheers and the loudest applause of the evening.

“Woods in Winter,” portraying a Christmas season of icicles, skating and the wind’s “piercing chill,” may not have been an obvious work to perform in Fort Lauderdale (high Sunday: 85 degrees). But the work by the contemporary American composer Dominick DiOrio evocatively expressed the traditional conception of the season’s weather, with high soprano tones that sounded like the sunlight shining through bare branches and aggressive notes that captured the cold wind’s bite.

“O Magnum Mysterium,” a celebrated 1996 work by American composer Morten Lauridsen, expressed solemn joy at the birth of Christ in the manger. The singing was extraordinarily resonant and balanced, with pianissimos that filled the church and a stirring climax with suspensions in the singers’ upper range.

The only work that didn’t come off well was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The 1943 classic, introduced by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St, Louis, may not be the world’s most upbeat holiday music, but it came off here as particularly lugubrious and plodding, without the sting of nostalgia that the lyrics and music require.

Several familiar carols were heard in superb arrangements, many of them contemporary.

“I Saw Three Ships”—arranged by Edwin Fissinger—featured lively lilting female voices over sonorous bass tones. “Adam Lay Ybounden” by the young English composer Matthew Martin was rich in harmonic complexity and driven by emotional, insistent motifs. “Maria Durch Ein Dornwald Ging” by the German composer Gottfried Wolters uses a simple but compelling melody surrounded by dark harmonies to tell of Mary walking through a forest full of thorns, with all the symbolic meaning that would have for the ordeal awaiting Christ.

A standout singer was the soprano Elisse Albian, who brought rich tones, expressive phrasing and warm emotion to “Away in a Manger,” arranged by by Ola Gjielo

A Seraphic Fire Christmas will be repeated 7 p.m. Tuesday at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Miami; 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale: 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables; and 4 p.m. Sunday at South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Coral Ridge. SeraphicFire.org.

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