Seraphic Fire at Saint Clement’s Church: Song in the service of joy
Peter Dobrin
November 14, 2015

With a repertoire spanning a few hundred years, Seraphic Fire is likely to morph before our ears this season in its first visits to Philadelphia.

The professional choir from Miami, in a local debut Thursday night at St. Clement’s Church, fused its sound to Handel, Purcell, and Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and in this guise – with New York instrumental ensemble the Sebastians in tow – the group made a strong case for itself as an authoritative purveyor of three distinct strains of baroque music.

Seraphic Fire’s great skills were abundantly clear. The ensemble philosophy is thoroughly worked out, to the point that the two groups often melded timbres with exquisite blending. This quality was heightened in Handel’s The King Shall Rejoice, in which the singers made quite a bit of varying dynamics, and moving parts slid in and out of one another. Artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley has cultivated an ensemble personality for the choir that emphasizes both bright clarity (largely in moving lines) and exceptionally pure blooms of brighter resonance (in sustained notes).

If vocal soloists occasionally hit a threadbare note or two, as was the case briefly in Charpentier’s Te Deum, it only reinforced the notion that the spirit of the group resides in the collective. This concert was the last in a six-city tour, and perhaps it was not surprising that at this point, the ensemble moved with fluidity and confidence that erased all sense of bar lines in the Charpentier.

Still, at whatever point in an interpretive evolution, it was impressive to hear silken lines move deftly through the spectrum of moods, textures, and combinations the piece demands. Sixteenth-note runs in Handel’s Zadok the Priest, the popular coronation anthem, were neatly rendered by both singers and strings, and ornamentation was elegantly shaped in Act III from Purcell’s King Arthur.

The Sebastians had the opening to themselves in Handel’s Overture from an Occasional Oratorio – proud, stirring music that was matched, at the very end of the program, with Handel’s golden and jubilant My Heart in Inditing. As bookends, both works pointed to an ensemble that knows how to use technique in the service of joy.
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