Saturday, March 19, 2011

Music review: Seraphic Fire's wonderful 'St. John Passion' sets local landmark



By Greg Stepanich

It‭’‬s true that the Miami-based concert choir Seraphic Fire is a national organization that draws many of its singing members,‭ ‬as well as the personnel for its Firebird Chamber Orchestra,‭ ‬from across the country.

But it is also nevertheless true that on Saturday night in a church in Fort Lauderdale,‭ ‬a large audience saw a South Florida musical organization that was able to perform a compelling,‭ ‬moving‭ ‬reading of the‭ ‬St.‭ ‬John Passion of J.S.‭ ‬Bach with thorough expertise and polish.‭ ‬And that‭ ‬is cause for celebration.

Patrick Dupré Quigley‭’‬s remarkable group has tackled Bach numerous times,‭ ‬from a program featuring all six of the composer‭’‬s motets to the current Brandenburg Concerto project,‭ ‬and the B minor Mass‭ (‬which is returning for the choir‭’‬s‭ ‬10th season next year‭)‬.‭ ‬The‭ ‬St.‭ ‬John Passion,‭ ‬in some ways trickier than any of those because of the wide variety of things the chorus is asked to do,‭ ‬establishes another important landmark for local music-making,‭ ‬one that Seraphic Fire brought off beautifully in its concert at All Saints Episcopal.

Led by a‭ ‬strong performance by‭ ‬tenor Bryon Grohman as the Evangelist,‭ ‬Quigley led a‭ ‬12-person choir and‭ ‬12-person orchestra through a lively and forceful performance of the‭ ‬Passion in which tempos were relatively swift,‭ ‬and the characterizations by the singers were persuasive and‭ ‬well-sung.

‭Grohman has a light,‭ ‬keening tenor sound that is very well-suited for music of the German Baroque‭; ‬in addition to his clarity of diction he also underlined the text,‭ ‬adding a sense of sharp tension to the word‭ “‬schrieen‭”‬ when it occurred in passages such as‭ ‬Sie schrieen aber‭ (‬They cried out‭)‬.

Baritone Paul Max Tipton made a fine Jesus,‭ ‬with a plushly carpeted baritone‭ ‬and a sense of regal resignation,‭ ‬and James Bass was equally fine as Pilate,‭ ‬singing with sober precision,‭ ‬and adding‭ ‬a calm beauty to his solo work in‭ ‬Eilt,‭ ‬ihr angefocht‭’‬nen Seelen.

Other lovely work came from the reliable countertenor Reggie Mobley,‭ ‬who sang‭ ‬Von der Stricken with great tenderness,‭ ‬and from‭ ‬soprano Kathryn Mueller in her‭ ‬Ich folge der gleichfalls.‭ ‬Mueller had some difficulty,‭ ‬volume-wise,‭ ‬in the first moments with this treacherous aria‭’‬s high-flying motif,‭ ‬but by the end had captured the sense of happiness and joyful service that fills this song.

Tenor Brad Diamond was appropriately anguished with his‭ ‬Ach,‭ ‬mein Sinn,‭ ‬singing with a near-manic approach,‭ ‬and mezzo Misty Bermudez gave a masterful,‭ ‬somber-colored‭ ‬rendition of‭ ‬Es is vollbracht.‭ ‬Tenor Dann Coakwell‭ (‬Erwäge,‭ ‬wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken‭) ‬and soprano Nacole Palmer‭ (‬Zerfleiße,‭ ‬mein Herze‭) ‬also sang their demanding arias ably.‭

The most engaging singing came from‭ ‬baritone Charles Wesley Evans,‭ ‬whose silky baritone moved beautifully through‭ ‬Betrachte,‭ ‬meine Seel‭’‬ to its closing‭ ‬Unterlauß auf Ihn.‭ ‬But it was his second aria,‭ ‬Mein teurer Heiland,‭ ‬that was the peak of the solo work Saturday night,‭ ‬his voice‭ ‬floating‭ ‬radiantly‭ ‬above the chorus quietly entering with‭ ‬Jesu,‭ ‬der du warest tot,‭ ‬and ending with a superb sense of surprised-by-joy in his final‭ ‬Ja‭!

The choir itself was wonderful,‭ ‬singing each of the multiple chorales with a glossy sheen and crisp ensemble‭ (‬especially the repeated breaks after the first two notes throughout‭)‬,‭ ‬and adding tremendous excitement to the proceedings in its roles as the crowd,‭ ‬particularly in the rising chromaticism of‭ ‬Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter,‭ ‬and the‭ ‬babbling polyphony of the calls for crucifixion‭ (‬Weg,‭ ‬weg mit dem‭)‬.

The orchestra was every bit as good,‭ ‬with excellent instrumental work from every player,‭ ‬especially bassoonist Anthony Ancura,‭ ‬cellist Brian Howard‭ (‬in‭ ‬Es ist vollbracht‭) ‬and oboist Jeremy Kesselman,‭ ‬whose English horn work on‭ ‬Zerfließe,‭ ‬mein Herze was marvelous.‭ ‬Quigley and his forces brought the whole thing home with a rapturous‭ ‬Ruht wohl,‭ ‬which got increasingly gorgeous with each repetition.

‭Not everything was perfect in this performance,‭ ‬but as a whole it stands with some of this group‭’‬s finest work,‭ ‬primarily because the listener could enjoy the music at a level of accomplishment that‭ ‬allowed him or her to‭ ‬appreciate the magnificence of Bach‭’‬s conception,‭ ‬his astonishing harmonic and melodic daring,‭ ‬his brilliance at setting text and making it come truly alive.

Lovers of the Baroque,‭ ‬of Bach,‭ ‬and of his Passion music,‭ ‬should make a point of attending the repeat performances of this work tonight in Miami or tomorrow afternoon in Fort Lauderdale.‭ ‬It is,‭ ‬again,‭ ‬a point of real cultural pride that a challenging masterwork of Western culture such as the‭ ‬St.‭ ‬John Passion‭ ‬can be performed so well,‭ ‬so powerfully,‭ ‬by a group that calls South Florida home.

Seraphic Fire performs the St.‭ ‬John Passion tonight at‭ ‬8‭ ‬at Trinity Cathedral in Miami,‭ ‬and at‭ ‬4‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday at All Saints Episcopal in Fort Lauderdale.‭ ‬Tickets range from‭ ‬$50‭ ‬to‭ ‬$60,‭ ‬depending on the venue.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬305-285-9060‭ ‬or visit www.seraphicfire.org.

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