By Rex Hearn
George Frideric Handel, looking down from heaven, gathered his Baroque composer friends and revealed to them the mystery of the angels on earth called Seraphic Fire.
“St. Cecilia must have chosen each member of The Sebastians orchestra,’’ he said, “because they are so good. And young Patrick Dupré Quigley, their conductor, used 17 perfect singers, as did I back in Dublin when I gave the first performance, the proceeds going to charity.’’
The Archangel Gabriel, seeing that Handel was elated, handed him the Book of Reviews and said, “Write what delighted you below that we should know of it in heaven.” Taking the book, Handel began to write:
After composing 45 operas I needed to find a new idea. It came from a cleric who thought it wrong to perform operas about “the gods” on holy days. The idea was the oratorio. The singers could sing but not perform. No scenery was allowed, so we saved money. I wrote quite a few oratorios, but my Messiah is played every year about Christmas time all over the world. I’d worked with the best English poets of my day — Dryden, for instance — but for Messiah an unknown, Charles Jennens, wrote the libretto, selecting scriptural passages from the Bible and the Church of England Psalter.
This Messiah on Dec. 18 started 10 minutes late, because the traffic on Interstate 95 was backed up in both directions. I like to think my music caused it, but it was rush hour, and everyone needed to use this highway. There was a full house at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale, and people had to park their cars on a field by the water’s edge.
Beginning with the Sinfonia, the Sebastians orchestra of 20 players got a nice balance, giving the evening a lively start. I used an orchestra of 40 in Dublin, but no matter; these musicians were superb. A solo tenor, Steven Soph, sang the first two arias. In “Comfort ye, my people,” his breath control was good, as were his trilly decorations of the music. Soph’s refined tenor took off in “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” with more and more decorations, which were amazing.
The opening chorus, “And the glory of the Lord,” made the audience sit up. How can 17 singers sound so voluminous? Placement, of course. Instead of using a block section of the four main vocal groups, like they do in mass choir presentations, Quigley mixes them up. I’ve heard as many as 200 voices sing this chorus, but not as effectively. The sopranos of Seraphic Fire produce a head tone that is similar to that of English cathedral choir boys.
James K. Bass, next sang “Thus saith the Lord of hosts”; he has a round-sounding bass, well-produced and nicely placed, and sang it beautifully. “But who may abide” came next, sung by countertenor Douglas Dodson. His long runs were excellent and his particular decorations on the word “appeareth” were remarkably agile. Some countertenors tend to hoot in the upper register; Douglas avoided this with such a pleasant pleasing tone, so pure and easy on the ear. A chorus followed, “And He shall purify,” with some great singing. I heard that glorious soprano head tone again, and the syncopation was terrific. “For unto us a child is born” was so pure, so enjoyable. Each voice entry anticipated the beat, spot on, keeping the tempo fast as it developed.
After the exquisitely played “Pastoral Symphony (Pifa),” came three pieces shared by three singers. First came Sara Guttenberg’s lovely soprano in “There were shepherds abiding;” next, Kathryn Mueller, also a fine soprano, with “And lo, the angel of the Lord”; lastly, Megan Chartrand’s sweet soprano sang “And the angel said unto them.” Joining forces, all three sopranos sang, “And suddenly;” it was a novel idea. I liked their blending voices, which sounded like honey from a hive.
It was about this time that I realized Quigley was drawing the soloists from his chorus. In the big productions, the music directors bring in operatic stars with big voices. But I intended refined vocal timbres and smaller choral forces, like Seraphic Fire.
Mueller’s soprano delighted me no end when she sang “Rejoice greatly.” She managed all my difficult long runs with one breath, time and again. Her decorations were brilliant and Quigley’s direction of the orchestra here was done with loving care, so as not to overwhelm her but blend with her voice to make all the sounds equal in this aria. “Then shall the eyes of the blind” followed, sung by Margaret Lias’ fine mezzo-soprano. Soprano Brenna Wells joined her in “He shall feed his flock.” Lias’s decorations were lovely, too, and Wells’s head tones were marvelous. She swooped up to take a high note at one point — I think it was on the words “heavy laden” — but I quibble; it was a small lapse in an otherwise beautiful rendition.
Six choruses followed one after the other: “His yoke is easy”; “Surely, He hath born our griefs”; “And with His stripes”; “All we like sheep”; “Lift up your heads”; and “The Lord gave the Word.” The emphasis on the clarity of each sung word came through perfectly. Sung diction from the 17 was impeccable. Some excellent staccato singing came across vividly too with every attack clean and neat. This group shone brightly as polished silver in these choruses.
Tenor Brad Diamond next sang “He that dwelleth in heaven” and “Thou shalt break them.” Though he sang the runs effortlessly in one breath, his embellishments needed work. The “Hallelujah” chorus came next, and I noticed how smoothly the choristers left their seats to swiftly end up in ordered form ready to sing on the downbeat. Without fuss or noise.
Mueller tackled one of my high-tessitura pieces, “I know that my Redeemer liveth” next. It was beautifully sung, but the decorations she added seemed to get in the way of the melody. They can be very distracting here. Decorations at the end were fine, and perhaps that is where she should sing them.
“Worthy is the Lamb,” another chorus taken at great speed, was magical. Again the reforming choir members moved quietly to their places. Then Bass stood centrally to sing the recitative, “Behold, I tell you a mystery,” then “The trumpet shall sound,” with trumpeter Brian Shaw soloing alongside on a valve trumpet. Valve trumpets were not invented until 1815, and so in my day we used a long coach horn, some called it a Bach trumpet, named for my contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach, whom I never met. But I do know that England would sink without its Bach trumpet players, who are called to the 40-odd townships around the kingdom to perform Messiah every year. Bass’s bass was lithe and supple, and a joy to hear.
One of my favorite moments came next. It’s the chorus that begins, “Since by man came death.” Seraphic Fire’s singers, who had every right to be tired by now, did me the great service of singing it beautifully with high energy, pulling back on the crescendos with wit and alacrity. The final chorus simply consists of the one word, “Amen.” It has the effect of putting an original musical full stop to this 273-year-old oratorio of mine. In my time Messiah’s royalties, paid to the London Foundling Hospital, helped sick children get well. And because I loved the sound of choir boys’s voices in St. Paul’s Cathedral, where I often played the organ postlude after services, I left 20,000 pounds in my will to the Foundling Hospital.
Handel finished writing and closed the book. All the seraphs in Heaven had heard the music long before he began to write and they agreed unanimously that Seraphic Fire played and sang with exquisite grace and beauty, re-creating the original version given in Dublin all those many years ago.
Handel’s friends, composers of the Baroque, complimented him on finding such talent on Earth and wished they had a Steinway grand to while away the hours in heaven. Harps, after all, are a dime a dozen.
Christmas program could use a shakeup or two
By Greg Stepanich
The candlelight Christmas concerts of Seraphic Fire have become a holiday tradition in the 14 years that the Miami concert choir has been performing.
This year’s concerts were so popular another concert had to be added Dec. 15 at All Saints Episcopal in Fort Lauderdale. And as chorus master James Bass, who led this concert, discovered during a show of hands in the house, there were many people there who were attending a Seraphic Fire concert for the first time.
They chose a good time to be there. The 13-person choir was in fine form: There was a smooth vocal sheen on everything, and its bits of theater — including opening the concert in near-darkness with Gregorian chant at the back of the sanctuary, and singers slowly walking down the aisle bringing candles to a table in front of the altar — were affecting and lovely, evoking some of the rapt devotional intensity that must have accompanied this celebration in the earliest days of the Christian Church.
The selection of music was familiar from earlier Seraphic Fire candlelight concerts, with British composer Elizabeth Poston’s “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” making a return appearance, as well as David Willcocks’s arrangement of “Adeste Fideles” and choir founder Patrick Dupré Quigley’s own arrangement of Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night.” As ever, the choir turned the last verse of the Poston carol into a canonic wash, as the 13 members entered with the melody one after another, standing on either side of the church, making a beautifully blurred and echoing blend.
The other pieces included the “Gitanjali Chants” of the American choral director (Austin, Texas-based Conspirare) and composer Craig Hella Johnson, and “Even When He Is Silent,” by the contemporary Norwegian choral composer Kim André Arnesen. Both were sung scrupulously and sensitively; the Johnson piece is an inspired reimagining of chant using texts by Rabindranath Tagore, and the Arnesen, which is now very popular with collegiate and professional choirs, is like so much modern choral music in being sonically ravishing and beautifully composed but without a distinctive melodic profile.
Timothy Takach, a member of Minnesota vocal ensemble Cantus, joined Seraphic Fire’s bass section for this concert, and contributed an elegant arrangement of “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” (aka “The Huron Carol”) in which the vocalists are challenged to keep a long-held minor chord steady at the opening as the melody floats in and out; the music builds to a small peak of intensity before evaporating at the end. It’s a fine piece of vocal writing, and was expertly sung.
Other songs included the familiar Peter Wilhousky arrangement of “Carol of the Bells,” Willcocks’s “The First Noël,” John Rutter’s setting of John Jacob Niles’s “I Wonder as I Wander,” the traditional English carol “Once as I Remember,” plus Dale Warland’s treatment of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as reset by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
And the concert opened with the ancient “Pater Noster” (“Our Father”) chant, plus two works by Spain’s Tomas Luis de Victoria, his “Ave Maria” and “O Magnum Mysterium.” This last work was distinguished by excellence of attack, which made the contrapuntal lines stand out in high relief.
Bass, a veteran conductor and choral educator, led the group with an easy professionalism that drew attention to the singing rather than him, and the musicians responded well to his lead. Indeed, so polished was this performance that it tended to obscure the character of the repertoire. It may be time, in other words, for the choir to reassess the pieces it has performed on its Christmas concerts; “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “The First Noel,” and “Carol of the Bells,” in particular, can be retired, as can the “Gitanjali Chants,” and even “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” has overstayed its welcome.
The program as is, lovingly and superbly sung as it was for the most part, tends to lean to the cerebral side of things without enough purely musical compensation. No one wants to hear this group do “White Christmas” or “Winter Wonderland” or any of the other cheesy songs of the season, but there are many magnificent Christmas works for chorus that could be done instead, such as Willcocks’s gorgeous rendering of “Quelle est cette odeur agreable,” Michael Head’s serene and beautiful “The Little Road to Bethlehem,” or even J.S. Bach’s setting of “O Jesulein süss,” just to pull three things off the top of my head.
Not my call, of course, but I’m hoping when the next Christmas rolls around, there will be some new things on Seraphic Fire’s holiday table.