Seraphic Fire opens new season with ancient music

South Florida Classical Review
David Fleshler
October 2, 2009

In these challenging times, arts organizations do what they must to sell tickets. And so on Thursday the Miami choir Seraphic Fire opened its eighth season-to a sold-out house- with a concert entitled “The Musical Da Vinci Code: A Musician, a Message and a Pope. “

Actually despite the gimmicky name-and the use of Leonardo’s famous Vitruvian Man drawing on the program-there was no mention that evening of the Dan Brown novel or the movie that came of it. The concert at St. Christopher’s by-the-Sea in Key Biscayne was a fairly straightforward program of Renaissance choral works by Palestrina, Gregorio Allegri, Josquin Des Prez and others, performed with Seraphic Fire’s usual technical polish, vocal gleam and historical sensitivity.

Seraphic Fire, of course, doesn’t just put on concerts, it puts on shows. After a theatrical entrance, a solemn procession of singers holding candles, the performance got to the point of the title, a purported attempt by Palestrina to counter a movement in the Catholic Church to ban polyphony because the use of multiple, simultaneous melodic lines made it difficult for audiences to understand the words.

The various vocal selections, including Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, were punctuated by readings from a fictional diary of Palestrina’s servant, describing “my master’s” attempts to prevent the polyphony ban by composing a beautiful mass in which all the words could be heard and understood. This, according to the program, was the “hidden message” of the mass: “Don’t ban this music.”

The choir’s artistic director, Patrick Dupre Quigley acknowledged that this widespread claim about the mass may not be true, so you have to wonder about the point of building a concert around it. But the performance of the mass was excellent, despite the room’s challenging accoustic, which caused distortion in the upper registers. The choir sang in church-bell clear tones, with sensitive phrasing and the hint of swagger that keeps these old works from turning into museum pieces.

The most effective performance came in Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, where Quigley deployed singers to the side and back of the church, creating a rich, deeply resonant sound, highlighted by superb, passionate and beautifully phrased soprano work.
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