By Marcio Bezerra
One of the crown jewels of South Florida’s performing arts scene, the choral ensemble Seraphic Fire is celebrating its 20th season with a series of seven concerts that promises to be a real treat to its faithful followers.
The celebration started at the highest level this past weekend with multiple performances of selections from Claudio Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals (also called the Madrigals of War and Love). Published in Venice in 1638, it represents the summit of the experiments of this father of modern music, and one of the highest cultural and artistic achievements of Western music.
Although there are several polyphonic pieces in the collection, the eighth book is justly famous for its monodic works — parallel experiments or offshoots of the newly invented operatic genre (of which Monteverdi himself was a pioneer).
The central work on the program heard at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton on Sunday was the hauntingly beautiful Lamento della ninfa (more on that later), with three more recent choral pieces added to provide contrast.
The afternoon started with the instrumental Entrada from the Madrigals of War and Love performed with expression and precision by a period-instrument ensemble of six players. Led by violinist Katie Hyun, the little band delivered a full sound (thanks to the nice acoustics of the venue) and a rhythmic drive that permeated all the selections.
The singers joined in for a rendition of Altri canti d’Amor, tenero arciero. Under the discreet and precise direction of founder Patrick Dupre Quigley, Seraphic Fire’s heightened expressiveness and clarity of diction delivered a memorable reading of this outstanding exemplar of the new stile concitato (agitated style) of which Monteverdi was the proud inventor.
The three modern selections (although not necessarily stylistically “more” modern than the revolutionary madrigali) provided contrast and a brief respite from the bellic and erotic agitation. In When David Heard, the contemporary Anglo-American composer Paul Crabtree combines biblical and contemporary texts woven in a bittersweet dissonant landscape that provided a touching testimony against recent clergy abuses.
Tu, Paz Mia, a Seraphic Fire commission by the Cuban-American composer Ileana Perez Velázquez, featured inspired choral writing using an evocative text.
But it was Sea Drift, by the British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, that impressed the most. A masterpiece from 1908 that has been rediscovered thanks to the increased efforts of bringing diversity to the classical repertoire, Sea Drift is almost orchestral in texture and technique. Quigley and his singers gave it a virtuosic reading that displayed remarkable balance among the voices, variegated timbres, and a cohesion of sound that was truly outstanding. One wishes to hear this work repeated in a future season.
After a few more instrumental selections performed with lively energy and acute sense of style, instrumentalists joined force with four singers for the main work on the program, the justly famous Lamento della ninfa. Arguably the most beautiful of the many laments written from the late Renaissance to the early Baroque, its central section is a soaring soprano solo written over a repetitive bass line.
Soprano Nola Richardson gave it a full-hearted performance, emphasizing the interior pathos of the abandoned nymph. She followed faithfully Monteverdi’s directions to sing freely “in the tempo of her emotions.”
Even though this is a choir formed by 13 master vocalists hailing from around the country, one cannot fail to mention some standout performers such as basses John Buffett and Enrico Lagasca, whose authoritative singing provided a strong base for the ensemble.
James Reese impressed in the madrigal Volgiendo il ciel per l’immortal sentiero not only for his acting skills, but also for his stylistically correct approach to the extensive solo. The program came to an end with the delightful Vago augelletto, closing this most inspiring program on a light note.
As always, the ensemble’s members walked off the aisle to greet the audience at the door.
Such intimacy, in addition to the musical mastery of Patrick Quigley, makes Seraphic Fire the dearest of the three major performing arts groups in South Florida. May they give us another splendid 20 years.