Saturday, February 14, 2009

Music review: Seraphic Fire gives moving tour of Eastern Orthodox music

Seraphic Fire.

By Sharon McDaniel

The names Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and even Ippolitov-Ivanov would raise few eyebrows among classical music lovers.

But pair the Romantic-era Russians with two modern minimalists -- England’s John Tavener and Estonia’s Arvo Pärt -- and watch the confused looks proliferate.

For direction, though, look not merely toward musical but the spiritual classics with Ikon, Seraphic Fire’s tribute to choral music of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It’s another ingenious musical fusion by the Miami-based professional chamber choir. This time, artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley effectively recreated the spirit of Russian, Greek and Ukrainian church services – hosted by churches in South Florida -- for Ikon’s four-performance tour.

The first stop, Thursday afternoon, was the Harriet Himmel Theater, once the home of the First United Methodist Church of West Palm Beach. Quigley laid out his plan in an informative talk with samples of the music and a handout full of translations. Then his choir of soloists zigzagged from ageless Russian “Greek” chant to a traditional Ukrainian hymn, from unknown works of Russian greats to favorites by contemporary trend-setters.

All were sung in the original languages, and connected by simple staging – a small white-draped altar with icons and candles, and a long line of lighted red and white votive candles that separated the stage area from the audience. Chorus master James Bass, the bass-baritone celebrant and part-inspiration for the program, intoned the chants and prayers as the 14 choral soloists made processions around the auditorium.

You would be excused for never having heard Hvalite imia Ghospodne (Praise the Name of the Lord), the second of two Tchaikovsky works. But it was one of the program’s most elaborate moments, near-operatic in fact, the kind of ecstatic flourish that Seraphic Fire revels in. Just as impressive was its opposite: the slow, serene opening of Bogoroditse Djevo (Rejoice O Virgin) from Rachmaninoff’s sumptuous, well-known Vespers (for unaccompanied chorus; 1915).

Handling chant as well as they did, it’s no wonder the singers sustained such otherworldliness in Tavener’s Song for Athene, while evenly floating the low-bass tones. Tavener’s seven-minute Funeral Ikos was arresting. Its English text, replete with almost hauntingly graphic descriptions of death, came through clearly and as dramatically as the pungent harmonic clashes. An even longer Tavener, Village Wedding, was nearly anticlimactic by comparison.

Slower tempos and simpler melodies seemed synonymous with spirituality, except for Arvo Pärt’s sprightly version of Bogoroditse Djevo and the midpoint of Tavener’s Wedding.

Regardless of tempos or languages, the most startling effect of Quigley’s Orthodox collection was the contrast between the distinctly Eastern sound – the traditional Orthodox hymns and chant – and the solidly Western harmonizations by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. The dichotomy played out strikingly in the final work, Blazhen razumevayay na nischcha i uboga (Blessed is he who considers the poor and needy), by Aleksandr Arkhangelsky (1846-1924).

Seraphic Fire performs Ikon at 8 p.m. today at All Saints Episcopal Church, Fort Lauderdale, and at 4 p.m. Sunday at Miami Beach Community Church. For details, visit or call (305) 476-0260.

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