Miami choir soars in Handel’s “Israel in Egypt”
Frogs, locusts, and hail came to a small church on Key Biscayne Thursday, as the chamber choir Seraphic Fire unleashed a dramatic performance of Israel in Egypt.
Handel’s 1738 setting of the Old Testament story of plagues, Moses and the flight to Canaan has the driving power of opera, and the choir gave an energetic, technically excellent performance that will be repeated in Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach. Although they performed the shorter chamber version, there was no lack of grandeur as a double chorus and orchestra filled the church with Handel’s music.
Founded in 2002 by artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley, then a young conducting graduate of the Yale School of Music, Seraphic Fire has earned a reputation for adventurous programming of contemporary works as well as historically respectful but artistically vigorous performances of Bach, Handel, Palestrina and other Baroque and Renaissance composers. Quigley recruits singers nationally, and most of the performers have to fly in for rehearsals and concerts. This year, the choir takes its first tour outside the United States, with a visit to Mexico to perform Monteverdi’s Vespers, marking the work’s 400th anniversary year.
Thursday night the two choirs were arranged on each side at the front of St. Christopher’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, with the orchestra in the center toward the back. Quigley, normally a talkative concert presence, this time entered and without a word struck up the first notes.
Technically there’s nothing new to say about Seraphic Fire. As usual, intonation was rock solid and tones pure. The oratorio is in English—normally no guarantee of comprehension in a choral setting—but the singers worked hard and successfully to bring out the text. As the different voices sang He smote all the first-born of Egypt, they snapped off the word smote,” so that despite all of Handel’s complex counterpoint, the meaning came through verbally as well as musically. The same was true of other contrapuntal sections such as He rebuked the Red Sea.
The chorus He gave them hailstones for rain soared, with surprising exultation over a meteorological phenomenon, as the different voices cascaded over each other. One of the most impressive sections came in the minor-key chorus The people shall hear and be afraid, where the orchestra opened with a dotted-rhythm figure that grew in power as the two choirs entered, building in intensity before fading into darkness and mystery.
The Firebird Chamber Orchestra, the choir’s house instrumental ensemble, provided solid support to the choir. Although violin intonation problems continue, the strings blazed through the swift passages and blended well with the choruses.
Seraphic Fire performs Handel’s Israel in Egypt 7:30 Friday p.m. at First United Methodist Church, Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church, Fort Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. Sunday at Temple Emanu-El, Miami Beach. Call 305-285-9060 or go to www.seraphicfire.org.
David Fleshler is a staff reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and has been writing about classical music for the past five years.