Grammy nominee Seraphic Fire scales the heights of Bach’s Mass in B minor

February 11, 2012
By David Fleshler

Seraphic Fire performed Bach's Mass in B minor Friday night at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale

There was an air of celebration to Seraphic Fire’s magnificent performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass.

Friday night’s concert at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale was sold out, with extra chairs crammed in behind the chorus to accommodate as many as possible. The single piece on the program was one of the greatest works in the repertory. And the morning after the concert, the choir’s founder and artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley was to board a plane for Los Angeles, where the Grammy Awards were to be announced Sunday, with Seraphic Fire nominated in two categories.

Quigley entered the church to thunderous applause, word of the Grammy nominations having been well publicized on television, in print and on the web. The performance he led was all one could hope for in this work — joyful with thumping timpani and gleaming trumpets, radiant in the choir’s singing of Bach’s otherworldly harmonies and majestic in passages of choral grandeur. Although the B Minor Mass is a devotional work, with its gaze fixed firmly on God and the Bible, Quigley and the performers suffused it with a warm humanity, never lapsing into the mechanistic phrasing that marks mediocre Bach performances.

Augmented to 17 members from its usual dozen or so, the choir had a darker, richer sound, with particularly strong support in the bass. The work is full of complex fugal passages, executed with the choir’s usual technical excellence and a crackling energy that gave the whole performance a feeling of forward motion.

In Gratias Agimus Tibi (“We Give Thanks to You”), which opens with male voices ascending as if reaching toward heaven, Quigley slowly built a magnificent crescendo as other voices joined in, bringing the section to a tremendous jubilant climax, with timpani, trumpets and the rest of the orchestra joining in. Quigley often takes brisker tempos than usual. And although he tempered this in the Bach mass, he did take a quick pace in the Crucifixus, giving this grave, minor-key account of Christ’s execution an unaccustomed urgency, as if the story were being told for the first time. Among vocal soloists, mezzo-soprano Misty Leah Bermudez was a standout, giving an account of the Agnus Dei of great dignity, authority and vocal richness.

The Firebird Chamber Orchestra was first-class throughout the concert, with vigorous and accurate playing in the fast lower string bass lines and a superb corps of soloists who brought characteristically Baroque sounds to their playing. Among the three trumpet players was Billy Hunter, principal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; his playing, along with that of Mary Bowden and Brian Neal, was particularly impressive, achieving a real Bach sound – brilliant but not overpowering, with glints of darkness — as in the virtuoso upper-register playing that closes the Gloria. Horn player Andrew Karr gave a shining performance of his long, difficult solo in Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, with well-executed trills and robust phrasing.

The performance will be repeated Saturday in Coral Gables and Sunday in Boca Raton. Since Quigley is in Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards, he will be replaced on the podium by Scott Allen Jarrett, music director of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel and a specialist in Bach’s choral music.

Even among music lovers, Bach can have a forbidding reputation. He is the master of the fugue, a composer whose work appeals as much to mind as heart, looking out from the famous Haussman portrait with an expression that radiates intelligence and even a bit of contempt. Yet he also composed long flowing melodies, gentle passages for flute and oboe and violin, unparalleled musical expressions of joy and moments of overpowering drama. All of this was brought out in Friday’s performance, and although the concert season is far from over, this is clearly one of the finest performances of the year.

Seraphic Fire performs Bach’s B Minor Mass 8 p.m. Saturday at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables and 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton., 305-285-9060.

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