Rising conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley to make MOB debut

December 18, 2019
By David Fleshler
Patrick Dupré Quigley conducts Music of the Baroque’s Holiday Brass and Choral concerts Thursday through Sunday.

At a church north of Miami, the acclaimed conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley was explaining a work that would be a tough sell to even the most musically sophisticated audience.

Hildegard of Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum, a choral morality play nearly 900 years old, lacks much in the way of traditional harmony, conventional tunes or plot. But Quigley was fascinated by the piece, the story of a female soul tempted by the Devil.

“From the very beginning of the work, you are stunned by the unity of composition,” said Quigley, founder of the Miami choir Seraphic Fire and a master of drawing audiences in for some unusual experiences. “She used motifs in a way that Wagner would use leitmotifs hundreds of years in the future.”

A conductor in increasing demand across the United States, Quigley makes his debut with Music of the Baroque Thursday night, leading the ensemble’s Holiday Brass & Choral Concerts at various Chicago-area locations through Sunday. He will return to MOB in April to lead a program centered on the French Baroque.

Under Quigley’s leadership as artistic director, Seraphic Fire has grown from a south Miami church choir to a nationally known ensemble that recruits singers from across the United States. The choir has snagged two Grammy nominations, seized (briefly) a spot on the iTunes chart ahead of a hit by Lady Gaga, and developed a deep and loyal audience and donor base that has allowed it to thrive as other classical organizations cut back.

Although the beard he grew a few years ago gives him a touch of gravitas, at 42 Quigley remains youthful in manner and appearance. His style with audiences is informal yet serious.

“He is obviously extremely knowledgeable and loves the music, and he is able to convey that love to other people,” said Marilyn Moore, a retired lawyer who has been attending Seraphic Fire events for a decade, at the Hildegard performance. “He exudes it in every performance when he’s describing the history and setting of the music. He just pulls people in.”

After the concert, Quigley and his singers stood outside the church and talked with audience members, accepting compliments and answering questions. The conductor’s friendly and approachable manner is pretty much the opposite of the forbidding maestro in evening clothes who leads a performance, gravely accepts applause and vanishes off stage. 

As for the Hildegard performance itself, Moore said, “I loved it. That was a perfect example of Patrick explaining at the beginning and giving everyone enough background to understand it.”

Seraphic Fire would never have made much of a mark if it had been simply the result of a charismatic conductor and slick audience outreach. The quality of the music-making is astonishingly high and has been since its origins.

Quigley recruits nationally, with singers flying in from all over for rehearsals and concerts. He demands an extremely high standard, and this is reflected in the agility, tonal beauty and perfect intonation of the choir’s performances. Beyond the sheer sound of the choir, performances have a deeply human quality, coming off as expressions of communal music-making rather than exercises in vocal virtuosity.

“He really trusts his singers,” said Luthien Brackett, the mezzo soprano who sang the role of the Soul in the Hildegard work. “He doesn’t micromanage. In this piece, he wanted to make sure we didn’t get bogged down in making it so incredibly musically accurate that it lost its narrative arc. 

“He didn’t want a sense that it was too polished or fastidious. He wanted it to sound like it was coming from the heart and that the women completely believed what they were singing.”

In a field in which pretentiousness is not unknown, Quigley’s use of his French middle name, Dupré, may seem like an affectation. It’s not. It’s an expression of his roots that lie in the Cajun culture of southern Louisianathe swampy, alligator-infested land to which French-speaking Catholics fled after the British conquest of Canada.

“My middle name is not because I’m French but because I come from a very small community of Cajun French-speaking people in central Louisiana who were driven out of every place that they ever lived,” he said. “It’s an important and beautiful culture that’s also exceedingly musical. My Cajun heritage is very important to me. I come from a place in the United States that still has a regional accent, a regional character, that’s only partially assimilated into the U.S.”

As a teenager in New Orleans, Quigley accompanied singers on the keyboard in school and church. He earned an undergraduate degree in music at Notre Dame and a master’s at Yale. From there, he headed to Florida to run the music program at the Church of the Epiphany in a suburb south of Miami, where he founded Seraphic Fire in 2002. Three years later, he turned it into a free-standing professional ensemble.

Quigley and his singers quickly made a name for themselves, touring a circuit of churches in the South Florida megalopolis that runs from the Keys through Miami and Fort Lauderdale and north to Boca Raton and Palm Beach.

Although Seraphic Fire remains in Miami, Quigley moved to Washington, D.C., a few years ago, where his husband Rob Peccola got a job as a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, a libertarian organization that handles cases on property rights, government regulation and similar issues. Quigley returns to Florida for rehearsals and concerts.

They live in a 1910 row house in Columbia Heights with a Norwich terrier named Red and a growing collection of early 18th-century American classical art. When not researching centuries-old scores, Quigley gardens and cooks. He prepares dinner every night he’s home, with an emphasis on Cajun, Asian and grilled cuisines.

With his growing national prominence has come invitations to conduct major orchestras, including the San Francisco Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, Utah Symphony and New World Symphony. And in 2017, this former director of a suburban Miami church choir took the podium to lead a performance of the Mozart Requiem with the Cleveland Orchestra.

The choir’s repertoire emphasizes early and contemporary music. Under Quigley, Seraphic Fire has performed classics of Palestrina, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel and Mozart, Baroque opera, a few Romantic works such as the Brahms German Requiem, a rich vein of contemporary music and an impressive number of commissions. They perform little-known works from the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods, and Quigley’s audiences have learned to trust him, just as he trusts them.

“I think that when people are not patronized but rather are engaged in the performance, that even if they don’t particularly care for the music, they recognize why we’re playing it, why it’s intellectually interesting, and why their knowing this music is something that they can add to their repertoire of knowledge when they’re speaking about other things,” he said.

“If someone has a subscription to the Atlantic or the New Yorker or the New Criterion or the New Republic, that kind of intellectual curiosity is who I’m trying to reach in my performances. And just with a very basic discussion with the audience, where I can interact with them and look in their eyes, and say listen there are a lot of great things in this music, but here are some very special things that you can hear.”

Quigley engages in vast amounts of musicological research, often necessitated by the lack of authoritative scores for older works. He researches scores online and at the Library of Congress, two miles from his house.

Though he conducts performances of Handel’s Messiah regularly, despite his deep familiarity with the work he always hits the books. “Every year when I perform Messiah, I start over from the beginning,” he said. “Usually there are books written about some aspect of Handel’s life so I try to keep up on music scholarship and the scholarship on Handel’s life.”

Despite his scrupulous research and the historically informed nature of his performances, Quigley retains a practical sense of what should be expected of performances of pre-Romantic music. The attempt to produce “correct” performances, he said, has helped drive such music out of the concert hall, as major symphony orchestras decide to stick to what they’re good at.

“I’m very passionate about the early music movement moving into the modern concert hall,” he said. “Through the early music revolution over the past 40 or 50 years, we’ve seen a specialization occur because people have dedicated their lives to this style of music. 

“But what’s happened in the meantime is the people who are not specialists become more and more scared to approach this music because no one wants to perform it the wrong way, so modern orchestras don’t perform it as much.

“They don’t play it out of this fear of being wrong. We have to risk being wrong in order to perform some of the greatest music ever written.”

Patrick Dupré Quigley conducts Music of the Baroque’s Holiday Brass & Choral Concerts 8 p.m. Thursday at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest; 8 p.m. Friday at St. Michael’s Church in Old Town; and 3 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Divine Word Chapel, Northbrook. 

He returns to conduct a program of Rameau, Rebel, Purcell and Bach 3 p.m. April 5 at North Shore Center in Skokie and 8 p.m. April 6 at the Harris Theater in Chicago. baroque.org; 312-551-1414


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