Seraphic Fire, Miami’s feted chamber choir, set to launch 10th season
At a typical concert of a symphony orchestra, the audience streams into a downtown performing arts center and the conductor opens the proceedings at 8 p.m. After two hours or so of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Mozart — in a format that would be entirely familiar to a Carnegie Hall audience of 1912 or so — the concert ends, the orchestra packs up and everyone goes home.
Now consider the concerts of Seraphic Fire, the Miami chamber choir that is still flourishing in its 10th year as other South Florida classical organizations have shrunk or folded. Seraphic Fire goes into neighborhoods, performing at a lineup of churches in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties that allow people to attend concerts without the hassle of driving to a large, impersonal venue. Singers, all first-class musicians recruited from around the United States, dress in simple black outfits that seem ageless, appropriate for Bach’s St. John Passion or contemporary Christmas music. The concert last only 75 minutes or so. After the performance, audience members leave the church into a sea of smiling Seraphic Fire members, eager to talk or answer questions about the performance.
In a rough decade for classical music in South Florida, the Florida Philharmonic folded, regional orchestras came and went and the area’s two major opera companies cut back on their seasons. Yet during that period, under the direction of founder Patrick Dupré Quigley, Seraphic Fire has played to full houses with a wider age range than the senior-dominated patrons that tend to dominate classical audiences.
Seraphic Fire has seen a steady increase in subscriptions, with a record 700 sold so far this season. It has embarked on tours of the United States and Mexico. Two of the ensemble’s recordings have seized spots on the iTunes top 10 list since 2010, including a brief time as No. 1 for Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, beating out Lady Gaga and earning the group a profile on NPR’s All Things Considered.
“The story of Seraphic Fire is fascinating to me in that here is a flourishing, vibrant, vital arts organization in a climate in which other arts organizations are drying up left and right.” said Scott Allen Jarrett, music director of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, a source of Seraphic Fire recruits, who has performed keyboard accompaniments for the ensemble. “In their short lifetime of 10 years, they have quickly become recognized as one of the country’s best professional choruses. They are generally listed with three or four other groups in the country as sort of defining what professional choral art should be these days.”
Much of the credit goes to Quigley, 33, a musician with a constellation of qualities rarely found in a single conductor: an enthusiastic and audience-friendly personal style, a scholar’s instinct for rooting out obscure but worthy music, a scrupulous and historically informed approach to works that span a wide range of musical periods, an ability to bring out the best in his talented platoon of singers and a showman’s canny sense of how to appeal to audiences.
After earning music degrees at Notre Dame and Yale, Quigley came to Miami in 2002 to run the music program at the Church of the Epiphany, where he founded the choir. After three years, he decided to turn the choir into a free-standing ensemble, using his own savings and asking his parents for an early installment on his inheritance. He hashed over musical and financial matters with Joanne Schulte, an organist who teaches at Florida International University, who still serves as president of Seraphic Fire’s board. Her kitchen table was Seraphic Fire’s first office. The ensemble had a single part-time office assistant. Quigley took no salary.
The choir’s long climb from its humble beginnings were on Quigley’s mind when he walked up the steps of the Miami’s glittering new Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in 2007 for the choir’s first performance there of Handel’s Messiah. “There were forty people sitting outside just waiting for the doors to open, all people I had known for a long time, who come to our concerts, who were dressed like it was the Oscars,” he said. “I walked in the front door and everyone applauded. And the house manager said to me, ‘We’re sold out.’ I remember sitting on the lip of the pit at the Arsht Center by myself, no one else was in the room and just cried. It was one of those incredible moments.”
From the start, Quigley wanted to bring the audience and the ensemble closer together. He is an engaging speaker, offering insight into the program without turning into a windbag. And he encouraged members of the choir to interact with the audience.
“Part of Patrick’s idea for this group was to tear down the wall between performer and audience member,” said Misty Bermudez, a mezzo-soprano who has been with Seraphic Fire from the start. “It’s no mystery that classical music struggles to stay alive,” she said. “It was his idea that part of the reason for that was the lack of personal connection between performers and audience members. When you walk out and you see people that you know, who you know are rooting for you, and you feel that connection, it’s so awesome to share your art. We’ve met our audience members, and it creates a bond.”
On stage Quigley is an inviting, dynamic presence, enthusiastic and informal, but with an underlying seriousness about giving the choir’s best at every concert. “In performance he really comes to life even more, and he’s such a positive force during concerts,” said Kathryn Mueller, a soprano with the choir for the past four years. “Even if something goes wrong, he doesn’t show it on his face for five minutes afterwards like some other conductors.”
None of this would matter — neither the style, the format nor Quigley’s enthusiasm — if the choir didn’t sound great. Quigley has assembled a choir with a tone as pure, focused and flawlessly in tune as you’re likely to hear anywhere. The ensemble’s small size, with somewhere between 12 and 15 singers at most concerts, most of whom fly in from around the United States, gives it the musical dexterity to handle complex, rapid passages with unusual clarity. For solo parts, singers steps out of the choir for a few minutes and then fade back in, emphasizing the ensemble’s philosophy that it is an ensemble of soloists, in which everyone is a star and no one is a star.
Finding singers with the voices, virtuosity, versatility and personality for Seraphic Fire takes time. Many recruits arrive by word of mouth, often from such sources as the Yale early-music program and Marsh Chapel. “People are not trained to do the Seraphic Fire thing in school,” Quigley said. “We need someone who can use every edge of their voice. We need someone who can sing non-vibrato for Renaissance music, we need someone who can sing full vibrato when we do Romantic music, and can switch it on and off in the course of the same program, when we’re performing 19th-century Russian sacred music, which is a very different sound than Palestrina.”
Some recruits, accustomed to being soloists, become miffed at finding they’re not stars in Seraphic Fire. “There have been some singers who come in and kind of don’t feel like the ensemble thing is for them,” Bermudez said. “If a person is used to always being a soloist, then that’s what they’re used to. They come in and they’re expected to be an ensemble member and a soloist, or only an ensemble member. And they get annoyed by that. The thing with Seraphic Fire is we have great soloists, but the choir is the star.”
The choir’s repertoire is vast. It performs music of Bach, Brahms, Monteverdi, Handel and Palestrina. It puts on choreographed, plotted choral shows, such as last season’s performance of Purcell’s King Arthur, for which the choir commissioned a playwright to provide new words to replace the long-winded 17th century text that had discouraged performances. The opening concert this year will be a show devoted to the Renaissance master Tomás Luis de Victoria, portraying the composer on his deathbed as his requiem is performed and his contemporaries show him their own works. Seraphic Fire has commissioned new works, puts on highly popular, candlelit Christmas concerts, with classic carols as well as contemporary music. And it performs classic American forms rarely undertaken by typical choirs, such as folk and gospel, without a trace of the attitude that they’re engaging in musical slumming to sell tickets.
“I loved doing the bluegrass and gospel concerts, said soprano Kathryn Mueller. “I’ve been doing classical music and especially early music, but getting to do a completely different style of music that I love — it’s not my background but I’ve always loved it. You can approach audiences in totally different ways, with songs that they’ve loved and they grew up singing, and they mouth the words along in the concerts or cry when they hear the song.”
Not everything the ensemble touches turns to gold. Quigley’s fast tempos, which work well for Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, resulted in a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem last season that seemed to miss some of the work’s essential dignity and repose. The Firebird Chamber Orchestra, started three years ago as the ensemble’s in-house orchestra, has yet to reach the same level of precision and tonal purity as the choir. And for some Seraphic followers, as the choir has become more successful, it seems to have turned away from more envelope-pushing contemporary works, like Shawn Crouch’s Road from Hiroshima in 2006 and the choral arrangement of Ingram Marshall’s Hymnodic Delays, both Seraphic Fire commissions and world premieres.
Quigley imposes time restrictions on performance — no more than 90 minutes and intermissions almost always avoided — in another attempt to be audience-friendly by leaving concertgoers time to go out for dinner afterwards. But this has also cost the group the opportunity to do some of the longest choral works and last season resulted in cuts to Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt that led to grumbling among some members of the audience.
In the next few years, Quigley would like to see the ensemble perform the works of Haydn and Stravinsky, whose large choral outputs have appeared infrequently on Seraphic Fire programs. And after the iTunes success of the ensemble’s recent recordings, he plans to use that medium to raise the ensemble’s national profile. Among the recordings planned this year: A Christmas concert, a set of music commissioned by the group, a recording by the Firebird Chamber Orchestra of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and a recording of this season’s concert of the music of Tudor England. ”We are not a day’s drive from New York or Washington,” Quigley said. “But we can reach those ears electronically.”
George Chesney, who has been a Seraphic Fire subscriber for five years said he’s learned to trust Quigley and his to put together rewarding programs of music he’s never heard before, such as the works of Renaissance composers or a program devoted to the music of Iraqi Jews. “The programs that Patrick puts together — I just think it’s genius,” he said. “You get exposed to things you never would have dreamed of.”
Seraphic Fire’s “A Requiem for the Renaissance: The Death of Tomás Luis de Victoria” runs Oct. 19-23 in Miami, Boca Raton, Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach. seraphicfire.org; 305-285-9060.