Seraphic Fire keeps the candle alight for Christmas program

South Florida Classical Review
David Fleshler
December 9, 2015

There’s something countercultural about Seraphic Fire’s annual Christmas concerts, with their solemn tone and refusal to acknowledge the credit-card fueled activities at the nation’s malls.

The Miami choir opened its annual series of Christmas concerts Tuesday at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palm Beach Gardens, the first of seven such concerts that will take the singers to churches in Miami, Coral Gables, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

“A thousand years ago, Christmas did not start after Halloween,” guest conductor James K. Bass told the audience. “For many, many centuries, Christmas started at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, with the singing of chants and the ringing of bells.”

From behind the audience in the darkened hall, male voices rose in the plainchant Pater Noster, as the other singers took the stage. The performance moved seamlessly to the familiar O Come, All Ye Faithful, in an arrangement by David Willcocks with modern harmonies that still respected the tone of the original.

The concert was a mix of centuries-old devotional works, traditional carols such as The First Nowelland Carol of the Bells, and contemporary music—all delivered with the choir’s trademark perfect intonation, tonal clarity, rich sound and musical panache.

Bass, filling in for Seraphic Fire founder Patrick Dupré Quigley, was just nominated for a Grammy award as a soloist with the Austin-based choral ensemble Conspirare. Bass led a fine performance and was an informative, engaging host, explaining the significance of the works in a way that added to one’s appreciation, particularly for unfamiliar pieces.

Although the music spanned a millennium, a sense of continuity flowed though the concert that might have been less apparent in a similar span of non-sacred music. The harmonies and melodies changed dramatically over time, but the sense of devotion and seriousness did not.

Particularly moving was the Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen’s Even When He is Silent, a setting of a poem found scrawled on the walls of a German concentration camp: “I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining. I believe in love, even when I feel it not. I believe in God, even when He is silent.” This defiant statement of faith was given a stirring performance, with the choir under Bass bringing it to an affirmative climax that never felt easy or shallow.

A Seraphic Fire specialty clearly wowed the audience, Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. Beginning with the lone female soloist, the work gained force as the singers left the stage and took up posts around the hall, finally surrounding the audience with a showy display of multi-voice polyphony, yielding an ovation and delighted comments during the applause.

For sheer musical power, the choir was at its best in two works by the 16th century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria, Ave Maria and O Magnum Mysterium, where the complex polyphony was given a dramatic, finely paced performance.
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