Seraphic Fire launches tenth season, victorious in Victoria

October 20, 2011
By Lawrence Budmen

Tomas Luis de Victoria (c. 1548-1611)

The tenth-anniversary season of Miami’s chamber choir Seraphic Fire opened Wednesday night with “A Requiem for the Renaissance,” an exploration of the creative influence of 16th-century Spanish composer Tomas Luis de Victoria and his contemporaries. St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church, one of the group’s newest venues, proved an ideal performance space; located in Brickell Avenue’s condominium row, the church’s stone interior creates a glowing and resonate acoustic that enhanced the upper and lower voices in the choral ensemble.

In many ways this program was a return to Seraphic Fire’s roots, a celebration of Renaissance polyphony masterfully directed by Patrick Dupre Quigley, the choir’s founder. The concert opened with Circumdederunt Me by Cristobal de Morales, one of Victoria’s predecessors. An example of chant in homophonic style, this work effectively displayed the depth and solidity of the lower male voices.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Victoria’s death. Victoria, who served the Dowager Empress Maria at her convent in Madrid for nearly two decades, was a strikingly original creative force in the sacred music of his time.

The Introit from Victoria’s Requiem introduced a bold new world of soaring polyphony. At once reverent and grandly ceremonial, this music abounds in melodic and rhythmic invention, and the beauty and expressive power of the ensemble’s a cappella singing was deeply moving.

Victoria studied with the Italian master Giovanni Palestrina during a residency in Rome, and two works by Palestrina vividly demonstrated the differences between the composers’ stylistic and formal approach to church composition. The Kyrie from Palestrina’s Requiem was more spare than Victoria’s work, conceived in direct and simple terms enhanced by the pure tones of the ethereal female voices. An excerpt from Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus offered greater contrapuntal complexity, Quigley’s signature mellow choral blend spinning exquisite hues.

An Ave Maria setting by Alonso Lobo anticipated the grandiose Venetian antiphonal writing of Gabrieli. Quigley’s attention to the most subtle nuances and absolute clarity of the vocal lines captured the work’s spiritual depth. Sebastian de Vivanco was a fellow choir member with Victoria during the composer’s apprenticeship, and Vivanco’s O Quam Suavis proved both austere and otherworldly.

Turning to the transition from Renaissance to the Baroque, two pieces by Francisco Guerrero predated the new era by seventy years but displayed emotional resonance and grandeur and capitalized on the full vocal strength of the Seraphic Fire forces.

The work of the Venetian master Claudio Monteverdi broke new ground. From Monteverdi’s remarkable Book of Madrigals, The Tears of a Lover at the Tomb of His Beloved is a six-movement testament to this seminal composer’s bold harmonic palette, penchant for songlike strophes of operatic dimensions and adoption of reinvented Renaissance gestures. This music still sounds incredibly original and contemporary.

Concluding with Victoria’s four part motet Pange Lingua “More Hispano” the thirteen-voice choir excelled in the contrasts with dulcet moments of melancholy set against the resounding joy of the vociferous finale. In the complex writing of Monteverdi and Victoria, Seraphic Fire displayed the artistry and corporate gleam that has made its first decade such a joy to behold.

Seraphic Fire repeats “A Requiem for the Renaissance” 7:30 p.m. Thursday at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton; 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Ft. Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. Sunday at Miami Beach Community Church. 305-285-9060

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