Tag Archives: Seraphic Fire

In ritual, the sound, strength of religion


Pope Marcellus II (r.1555).

About a month from now, the Miami concert choir Seraphic Fire will give a concert of the great Missa Papae Marcelli of Palestrina, and for those of us who love Renaissance polyphony, this will be a concert we will anticipate with great pleasure.

For me it’s almost impossible to listen to Palestrina’s music without feeling the deep reverence and spirituality at the core of his work. We don’t know all that much about him, but we do know the high esteem in which he was held by church authorities from the pope on down, and the reverence in which his colleagues held him, and there’s no real reason to question the idea that he was a man of true faith.

But the music is beautiful regardless of what the texts actually say, and despite who his original audience was. That’s good for people like me who have little faith, but it also raises some interesting questions about the link between religious faith and the music’s creators, performers and listeners.

For me, the most moving thing about a performance of a piece by Palestrina, aside from the primary thing — the sheer sonic beauty of those melodic lines and harmonies — is its timelessness, like a conversation with angelic spirits that has been going on for eternity. Leave the church, reject all of it, then come back 20 years later and incline your ear to the choir loft: That sound goes on, unbroken, unruffled, serene and secure.

I also think about the history of this kind of music, and the centuries of churchgoers and listeners it had reached. To know that congregations that have been dust for four centuries were listening to the same piece of music, and that it was just as alive for them as it is for me, is somehow more poignant when it comes to Palestrina.

Then again, it may be that I am reacting to the only part of the churchgoing life that really appeals to me, and that is its ritual. I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of ritual, and I still think the same thing today, that ritual is one of the most important parts of human society. (And of course I mean relatively harmless ritual such as intoning the ancient prayers, and not the ritual of something like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, which does a sly job of building the repugnant ceremony at its heart as an honorable rock-ribbed tradition.)

But it’s ritual that ties us all together, that reminds us of the things we hold in common. If I go to a church during the Christmas holidays, I go because it’s Christmas, because generations of my ancestors have gone to church on Christmas, and because the other people there are in the middle of one of the most joyful times of the year, and you can feel it; all that goodwill is actually palpable.

If I cannot feel the spiritual ecstasy others feel in the nominal presence of the Lord, I feel something just as uplifting: That of ordinary people, happy to be gathered somewhere festive at the end of another long, hard year, happy to be with each other, happy to be singing the old songs, saying the old prayers, hearing the music of history.

That’s religion enough for me, and I’ll welcome it along with Palestrina when I hear that mass next month (here’s the Kyrie).

Holidays near, and it’s ‘Messiah’ time

Last year I wrote an arts column for The Post that didn’t make it into print, but as the holiday season is just about upon us, I took a look at this again and updated it for this year:

In the cold early March of 1827, the Viennese physician Andreas Wawruch tried to tell one of his patients, a 56-year-old man suffering from liver failure, that the coming spring would help restore his health.

But Ludwig van Beethoven, who was Wawruch’s patient, knew better. “My day’s work is finished,” he told the doctor. “If there were a physician who could help me” — and here he spoke in English — “’his name shall be called  ‘Wonderful.’”


It was a reference to the work of a composer Beethoven venerated, a man whose music, in a beautifully bound complete edition given to him as a gift, helped lighten the burden of his final days. It was also a reference to a specific work by that composer, a piece that is making its usual Christmas appearances at concert halls hereabouts these days.

And yet Messiah isn’t even a Christmas piece. George Frideric Handel (which is how the German-born composer spelled his name in his adopted English homeland) composed it in the late summer of 1741 to be performed during Easter week of the following year. The libretto was devised by a literary man of leisure named Charles Jennens, who stitched it together — with great skill — from Biblical passages to be fashioned as an oratorio.

Messiah was first heard in Dublin in on April 13, 1742 (one year to the day before the birth of Thomas Jefferson in colonial Virginia, to give it added context), to an appreciative audience of about 700 people. Three Irish charities shared in the proceeds, and it soon became the most performed of all the composer’s oratorios.

Most of the readings of Messiah we hear at this time of year include the “Christmas portion” of the work, which is Part One of the three parts, to which is usually added the most extroverted bits of Parts Two (the Hallelujah! chorus) and Three (I know that my Redeemer liveth, A trumpet shall sound, Worthy is the Lamb).

I know of at least four Messiah performances over the next month:  The annual Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church production in Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 5; the FAU Chamber Singers and Orchestra on Dec. 7; the Miami-based chamber choir Seraphic Fire on Dec. 19 at the Arsht Center in downtown Miami; and on Dec. 21, the Masterworks Chorus of the Palm Beaches’ annual singalong version at the Royal Poinciana Chapel on Palm Beach.

Thus has it ever been at this time of year. You can hear Messiah any number of times, and I don’t see this tradition dying out anytime soon. And that means all the traditions that go with it, such as standing for the Hallelujah chorus, which every audience I’ve ever seen does promptly. (And it appears to be true that the tradition really did originate with King George II, who found himself so moved by the music that he stood up, thus requiring the rest of the audience to do likewise.)

I, for one, am happy to see this popular work of late Baroque music still speaking with such vitality to today’s audiences. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard this piece in concert, including the complete performances the Florida Philharmonic used to give back in the mid-1990s. I even heard one at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in the 1970s in which the hall was so crowded that  I had to sit sideways in my front-row seat so the cellist across from me could use her bow freely.

People seem to react to it as a truly special part of the holiday ritual, as they do with Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker. Messiah has its moments that are tough going for an audience not used to Baroque practice (accompanied recitative, for instance) and its overall archaic sound. It also seems to me that Messiah is too difficult for many church and community choirs. In an earlier day before radio, television and the Internet, people had more time to spend on making music, but now it’s often just one more thing to multitask.

But the extra indulgence we give to family and friends at this time of year extends to these fortunate works of art, and so music that might normally be reserved for a specialist series of concerts to be enjoyed by a knowledgeable audience , instead is offered up to multitudes, many thousands of whom, no doubt, encounter it for the first time having never heard anything like it.

That would have pleased Jennens and Handel, who meant for the work to be popular. And though we might  keep scheduling it for reasons that date to late Victorian choral practice in Britain, certainly some part of it has to do with the special quality of the music.

Or as Edward Synge, the Bishop of Elphin, one of its first listeners, wrote: “It Seems to be a Species of Musick different from any other … the Harmony is so great and open, as to please all who have Ears & will hear, learned & unlearn’d.”

My must-sees for the classical season, Part I

The classical music season in this part of the state is about to get rolling in earnest, so here’s a first list of what looks good to me coming up.It’s a short list, and I’ll have a second one, likely longer, tomorrow:

New World Symphony: The finest orchestral ensemble in South Florida, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, plans many must-see events that will more than likely see me making the trip down to Lincoln Road on Miami Beach. There’s a U.S. premiere of the Irish composer Gerald Barry’s one-acter The Stronger (Nov. 22), in a concert conducted by the English composer Thomas Ades, who also has two works on that same program.

The American composer Kevin Puts (at right) will hear his new Hymn to the Sun on Nov. 8-9, and American music also will be represented April 26 in a program of music by Lou Harrison, Tilson Thomas, Ives, Bernstein, and Crumb. I’m also excited about planned performances of the Mahler First on Jan. 29 (violinist Joshua Bell does the Saint-Saens Third on the same bill) and on March 28-29, the Nielsen Fifth (the Sixth under Paavo Jarvi was a highlight of an NWS concert several years back).

The Korngold Violin Concerto is scheduled for Nov. 8-9 with soloist Vadim Gluzman, and the fine young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, whose Netcast recital this summer at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland showed me an intriguing young artist, comes to town for the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand and the Stravinsky Capriccio in concerts Oct. 17-19. Actually, I’d be happy to see pretty much everything on this group’s bill this season. Box office: 305-673-3331

Lynn Philharmonia: This is the Lynn U. orchestra, composed of students from the school’s conservatory, formerly the Harid Conservatory. The group, led by director Albert-George Schram, can be inconsistent but when it’s good — as when they took on the Shostakovich 10th Symphony a couple seasons ago — it’s very good, and well worth seeking out. Its first of its six concerts (this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon) under Lynn dean Jon Robertson, features the Rachmaninov Third Concerto with the Armenian-born pianist Sergei Babayan.

I’ll go to that one, and I’m also interested in the Feb. 21-22 concerts, which will see Schram and his charges take on the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra as well as the Mozart Symphony No. 29 and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide overture. Information: Call 237-9000.

Delray String Quartet: In their fifth season, the Colony Hotel-based foursome offers five programs this year, four of which will feature arrangements of the movements of Frederick Delius’ Florida Suite. Delius lived in Florida, near modern-day Palatka, in the 1880s, where he studied harmony with an itinerant musician and failed to get an orange grove going.

I’m most interested in the Feb. 1 concert, which will feature a world premiere: the String Quartet No. 2 of Thomas Sleeper, the well-known University of Miami composer who was commissioned by the Delrays to write the work. The concert also includes the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with guest soloist Paul Green, and the “Sunset Near the Plantation” movement from the Delius suite. For more information: 213-4138.

Seraphic Fire: Patrick Quigley offers another brilliant series of programs for his chamber choir and the new Firebird Chamber Orchestra, which debuts Thursday at the Arsht Center in Miami in a program of music by David Diamond, Samuel Barber, Telemann and Vivaldi. The two will combine in November for Bach’s Cantata No. 82 (Ich habe genug) and December for Handel’s Messiah. I’m particulary interested in the choir’s Ikon program (Feb. 12-15) which will feature music in the Russian Orthodox tradition (Part, Tavener), the April program (April 16-19), featuring Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, and the May 14-17 programs, which give pride of place to Salamone Rossi, the most eminent of early Jewish classical composers.

Seraphic Fire has added Thursday afternoon concerts at West Palm Beach’s Harriet Himmel Theater this year for non-orchestra concerts. For more information: 305-476-0260.

Music at St. Paul’s: This series at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach looks unusually rich this season. I’m partial to the March 21 concert, which will feature the church choir and the Sinfonia del Re in music by Haydn, Charpentier and Karl Jenkins.

The Bach Legacy, a May 17 program featuring music by C.P.E. and J.C. Bach, along with Krebs and Abel, should also enlighten audiences about the rich legacy of music J.S. Bach’s sons and disciples carried on after the master’s death. Information: 278-6003.

Seraphic Fire salutes music of New Spain

Another good sign of the musical season: The return of Seraphic Fire.

The Miami-based chamber choir is in its seventh season, and has added a series of Thursday afternoon concerts at the Harriet Himmel Theater at CityPlace in West Palm Beach. That will also mark the group’s return to Palm Beach County. It did a season of concerts at the First Presbyterian Church in Delray Beach a couple years ago, but discontinued them and scaled back to its original Miami, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale sites.

But this year is a next-level one for the group, which is adding the Firebird Chamber Orchestra to several of its concerts after getting a $250,000 grant last year from the Knight Foundation. This faith in Seraphic Fire’s director, Patrick Dupre Quigley, is surely well-placed.

Quigley has demonstrated time and again his ability to come up with sensational, innovative programming and memorable concerts, and the new season, which begins tonight at Miami’s Corpus Christi Catholic Church, looks like another fascinating series of programs.

Tonight, for instance (and tomorrow at the Harriet, where I plan to be), the concert features music from New Spain, in particular the music of Esteban Salas (1725-1803), “the first Cuban composer of art music,” as my trusty Grove calls him. His music, the article says, “is written in a rigorous and transparent Classical style, resembling that of Haydn, Pergolesi and Antonio Soler.”

I can say with certainty that I have never heard any Salas in concert or anywhere else, and I think it’s a mark of Quigley’s approach that he is seeking out music from the greater neighborhood of South Florida. It promises to be an enlightening concert, and I’m looking forward to it.

Here are some more details from the Seraphic Fire Website.

(Seraphic Fire’s first concert of the 2008-09 season, titled El Fuego Serafico, begins at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Harriet Himmel Theater, 700 S. Rosemary Ave., West Palm Beach. That’s in the center of CityPlace. Tickets are $35. For more information, call 305-476-0260.)

Here’s the choir in With Drooping Wings, from its concert staging of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas last season: