Friday, April 17, 2009

Music review: World premiere adds luster to Seraphic Fire's Baroque offerings

By Greg Stepanich

WEST PALM BEACH -- A world premiere of a good piece of fresh contemporary music was the intriguing counterpart Thursday to a venerable piece from the core repertory as members of the Seraphic Fire choir opened their current series of concerts.

Thursday afternoon's concert at the Harriet Himmel Theater in CityPlace was sparsely attended, but the music, even in a scaled-back presentation, was richly rewarding. Two singers -- soprano Teresa Wakim and countertenor Reginald Mobley -- were joined by a string quartet and an organist playing authentic instruments in a recital of music by Pergolesi, Vivaldi, German Baroque composer Georg Hoffmann, and contemporary Anglo-American composer Paul Crabtree.

This program was efficiently and engagingly sung by Wakim and Mobley, both of whom possess youthful, untiring voices that blend well and sound as fine in 18th-century music as they do in that of the 21st. It helped, too, that the piece by Crabtree paid explicit homage to the Baroque in its opening and closing sections.

Crabtree's cantata, Sedebat Mater, was commissioned by Seraphic Fire director Patrick Dupre Quigley as a companion piece to the Pergolesi Stabat Mater (Seated Mother as opposed to Standing Mother), and in its quirky, hyper-intelligent selection of texts -- including a Latin translation of the chorus to Paul Simon's Mrs. Robinson and a speech from Shakespeare's Coriolanus -- as well as its widely varied music, it was a well-wrought example of this composer's genially eclectic muse.

The cantata opens with music reminiscent of the sunnier Brandenburg concerti, which is then interrupted by the two singers entering in a different key (A instead of C) on the word Vivat (as in Vivat uxor filli turdi, Crabtree's loose take on Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson); the Vivat two-note kept breaking in after that, giving the music a memorable, witty sparkle. In the Coriolanus speech that followed, Crabtree's music switched to hammered, savage rhythms, beginning with a five-note motif that dramatically illumined the words of a mother's pride in her son's warlike aspect.

There were softer moments, too, as Mobley gently sang When yet he was tender-bodied over delicate, super-soft repeated pulses in the violins, and also there was powerful melismatic work from Wakim at the words But had he died in the business. Brian Howard offered good solo cello playing in the third of the five songs, set to British poet Harriet Torr's Goliath's Mum, and there was a palpable sense of bigness at the end of the work, as the Baroque-style music returned in forthright, catchy style to a setting of Conception, by the late American poet Josephine Miles.

Sedebat Mater is a fine piece of new music, clearly difficult to sing but impressive when sung well, as it was here. It seems well-suited for enterprising groups such as Seraphic Fire, but it does exactly what it was supposed to do: provide a modern take on an old format and in so doing establish itself as a good companion to its Baroque predecessors.

The Pergolesi Stabat Mater that was the focus of Thursday's program is eclectic in its own way, being frankly operatic as well as severely churchy. It is full of bold dramatic touches (Fac, ut portem Christi mortem) and bubbly arias (Quae moerebat et dolebat), and makes a strong effect whether in chamber-cantata or major-chorus format. Mobley and Wakim sang with heft and ease throughout, and perhaps were at their best together in the Sancta Mater duet, where they traded off lines with equal smoothness and then joined together with warmth and precision.

The quintet accompanying the two singers, which had the violinists, violist and cellist playing on gut strings and period instruments, had to tune halfway through, and you could hear the temperament sliding around before that, which made the music sound less than polished. But the group played ably and sensitively, and in a more resonant acoustic than the Himmel would surely add more even more color to the proceedings.

The concert opened with two solo arias, beginning with Vivaldi's Nulla in mondo pax sincera, sung commandingly by Wakim. She has a large, full voice that is even across its registers; her ornaments on the second time through of this charming da capo aria were a little too forceful, with her voice overreaching somewhat in the highest notes.

Mobley's solo aria was Schlage doch, gewsunchste Stunde, once attributed to Bach but now assigned to Georg Melchior Hoffmann (1684-1715), who made his name in Leipzig during his short life. The aria calls for a carillon part, which Quigley played on handbells sounding a fifth apart, adding a lovely touch to a good piece of music. Mobley sang with sweetness and beauty, making an excellent case for this fine piece.

The members of Seraphic Fire will present this same program tonight in Coral Gables at the First United Methodist Church in a concert that begins at 7:30 pm. It can also be heard at 8 pm Saturday in All Saints Episcopal Church, Fort Lauderdale, as well as at 4 pm Sunday in Miami Beach Community Church on Miami Beach. Tickets: $30. Call 305-476-0620 or visit

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