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Seraphic Fire’s Vespers released August 10

Led by conductor and founding artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley, Seraphic Fire has returned the sound of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) to the composer’s own age – the late Renaissance rather than the high Baroque of Bach or Handel most often heard on record. On its new recording of the Vespers – released August 10 via the Miami-based choir’s own Seraphic Fire Media – the smaller forces and intimate atmosphere yield a version of Monteverdi’s magnum opus that is finally in tune with the inscription on the score’s title plate: “suited for the chapels and chambers of princes.”

In his booklet notes to the Vespers CD, Quigley writes:

When one thinks of Monteverdi’s Vespers, inevitably our mind’s ear recalls the large-scale performances that have characterized the many historically informed recordings of this work by Baroque ensembles. Indeed, the work itself represents grand aspirations – the publication that contains the Vespers includes 12 movements of Vesper psalms and concertos, two full settings of the Magnificat, as well as the six-voice Missa in Illo Tempore. To the 21st-century mind, the Vespers is synonymous with grandeur, a monolith of early Baroque musical form. But is this Vespers that we know, with its large choir and massive instrumental forces, the same one that Monteverdi himself heard while first composing it? Almost certainly not.

When we think of Monteverdi, we now know him to be the torchbearer of a new age, a musical predecessor of Bach and Vivaldi. Monteverdi himself, however, had no concept of the music that was to come after him – he was a contemporary of Victoria, a young man during the age of Lassus. In his own time, Monteverdi’s sacred music was not the beginning of the Baroque; it was, rather, the pinnacle of the Renaissance. . . Monteverdi makes numerous gestures in the original publication of the Vespers indicating that he intends his work to be performed by smaller, intimate forces. One might even assume that the gigantic, set-in-the-grand-cathedral-of-San Marco performances were the exception rather than the norm.

In the way that late 20th-century performances by period bands sought to peel the soot and varnish of Romanticism off the works of the Baroque, Seraphic Fire’s performance of the Vespers is designed so that we can hear the Vespers through the ears of Monteverdi, not Bach. This is music written for voices primarily – the text-setting exquisite, the polyphony unequaled, the vocal writing second to none.  

With Quigley conducting and James Bass as chorus master, Seraphic Fire’s Vespers was recorded in league with the Western Michigan University Chorale, at Nazareth College Chapel in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The performances include continuo of lute/theorbo, violone and chamber organ, without the brass and other instrumental filigree often included. Quigley concludes his CD booklet essay by noting that producing this chapel-and-chamber vision of the Vespers allowed the musicians to discover “not something merely ‘interesting’, but rather something glorious, something intimate, something breathtaking.”

Seraphic Fire

The Miami-based Seraphic Fire, founded in 2002 by artistic director and conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley, is a national “all-star” ensemble of professional singers chosen for their exceptional talent and flown to South Florida for intensive rehearsals, area performances and national touring. Lauded by the Miami Herald as “one of the best choirs anywhere,” Seraphic Fire has gained a reputation for dynamic, cutting-edge programs. In an exciting crossover collaboration in 2004, Seraphic Fire was invited to record with international pop star Shakira on a track for her album Oral Fixation II, which has been certified platinum for more than 1 million sales in the U.S. alone.

Seraphic Fire’s programming is broad, including choral works that are classical and contemporary, sacred and secular. A fresh style of programming and performance has won the organization both awards and wide-ranging praise. Of a Seraphic Fire concert of Renaissance works by the likes of Palestrina and Allegri, the South Florida Classical Review said: “The choir sang in church-bell clear tones, with sensitive phrasing and the hint of swagger that keeps these old works from turning into museum pieces.” Over the past eight seasons, the organization has also commissioned and premiered works by up-and-coming young composers. In 2005, Seraphic Fire commissioned a 50-minute work from 28-year-old composer Shawn Crouch, The Road From Hiroshima: A Requiem, which was subsequently nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

In recent years, Seraphic Fire has made significant organizational and artistic strides, with record-breaking ticket sales. In 2007, the group was awarded a Knight Foundation grant for the formation of the Firebird Chamber Orchestra, which made its debut in 2008. Seraphic Fire performs full seasons in several South Florida communities, including Coral Gables, Miami Beach, Key Biscayne and Ft. Lauderdale. The ensemble began touring nationally in 2007, and three years later, Seraphic Fire debuted internationally to sold-out crowds in Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes and Catedral Metropolitana. The ensemble continues to expand its touring schedule and has signed onto the roster of Barrett Vantage Artists, one of the country’s top five classical music management firms.

Both Seraphic Fire and the Firebird Chamber Orchestra present a series of programs featuring rarely performed masterpieces and newly written works in a patron-friendly atmosphere. Young audiences are heartily welcomed and cultivated with free rush tickets available ten minutes before any concert. With Miami an already well-established hub of pop, Latin and hip-hop music, the continuing development of Seraphic Fire adds to the city’s cultural appeal as a growing center for classical music.

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© 21C Media Group, August 2010

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