Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Magical, Mystical, Profoundly Relevant New Hildegard Recording By Seraphic Fire

Seraphic Fire‘s new recording of Hildegard von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum – streaming at Spotify– couldn’t have come out at a more appropriate time. It’s a parable of good versus evil. The Virtues and the Devil battle over a soul; eventually the Virtues win. At the most pivotal moment in world history, as the voices of reason struggle against a genocidal, needle-wielding cabal of tech oligarchs, this celestial, otherworldly, stark music offers considerable solace and inspiration.

The central riff in the introit is an aptly solemn, desolate, seven-note phrase in the blues scale. It occurs here and there in British folk music and has been appropriated by the occasional classical composer in the centuries since. The rich natural reverb in the space where this was recorded enhances the feeling of isolation – something the world has suffered in unprecedented proportions since March 16 of last year.

The choir take their time with the prologue, the syncopation livening its hypnotic melody. As Anima, the embattled soul, Luthien Brackett sings with understated drama and optimism. Clara Osowski portrays Humility, Queen of the Virtues with a calm tenacity. James K. Bass plays the role of the Devil, the lone male character in the narrative. Hildegard refuses to give him a melody, so all he can do is bluster and bellow: feminism, 12th century style.

The men and women of the choir sing the rest of the roles, conducted with masterful attention to detail by Patrick Dupre Quigley. After the devil makes his entrance, we get a tantalizing bit of close harmony from the women. Long, understatedly imploring solos interchange with a sneering, diabolical presence.

A whispery, sepulchral drone lingers beneath the women’s voices as the soul returns. The final two passages, where the devil gets tied up and then sent back to hell, are tidy and bright: if only salvation was this easy!

June 15, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seraphic Fire Deliver Thrills and Transcendence at Trinity Church

That the Mozart Requiem wasn’t the centerpiece of the program last night at Trinity Church speaks to the ambition of conductor Patrick Dupre Quigley and the transformative brilliance of his choir, Seraphic Fire. The sixteen-piece ensemble put on a virtuosic display of vocal prowess and daunting extended technique, not for the sake of show but for emotional impact. The sold-out crowd – comprising all ages and pretty much every demographic that exists in this multicultural city – rewarded them with a series of standing ovations.

Quigley programmed the Mozart as a coda, including new material by Gregory Spears, replacing the three next-to-last segments originally cobbled together by Franz Sussmayr in the wake of Mozart’s death. On one hand, this was as much of stretch for the audience as it was for the emsemble. Sure, singers on as elite a level as this crew are expected to shift on a dime between very diverse idioms, but there was definitely some gearshifting going on as the group – backed elegantly by chamber ensemble the Sebastians – voiced Spears’ minimalistic and frequently challenging variations on comfortably post-baroque Mozart riffs. Spears didn’t follow Mozart’s eighteenth century tonalities for long, but he did stay true to the original thematically, moving between stately waltz time, lustrous washes of sound and plaintively prayerful interludes. Since the Requiem is an incomplete work – if you include all the repetition, only about twenty percent of it is original Mozart – lots of composers have taken up the challenge of wrapping it up. Quigley encouraged the crowd to see this new version as a requiem in the broad sense of the word, a memorial service open to those who need to contribute and share

Interestingly, Quigley didn’t direct the Mozart portions of the work as a mighty, all-stops-out tour de force as choirs tend to do. Instead, he led the group on a matter-of-fact build through sorrow and wistfulness to the fullscale angst of where Mozart realizes that this is finally it.

The rest of the program was sublime. The choir opened with Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach, its enveloping, misty textures and endless washes of sustain showcasing the singers’ seemingly effortless command of circular breathing. Baroque composer Heinrich Schutz’s Selig, Sind die Toten, with its striking balance of celestial highs and pillowy lows, made an apt segue with Mendelssohn’s Richte Mich, Gott, considering how much its early Romantic composer drew on Schutz’s forward-thinking orchestration. The group channeled the same kind of confident ebullience and optimism that characterize Mendelssohn’s organ works.

Throughout the terse, nebulously minimalist variations on simple, baroque motives in a new arrangement of Ingram Marshall’s Hymnodic Delays – originally written for vocal quartet and loops rather than a full sixteen-piece ensemble – the group foreshadowed what they’d do with Spears’ work a little later. And soprano Molly Quinn made the most of her flickering and then soaringly riveting appearances in front of the choir, in and out of Dominick DiOrio’s I Am, a prayerfully-tinged, bittersweet launching pad for her literally spine-tingling flights to the upper registers as it wound up on an optimistic note. Seraphic Fire return to Trinity Church on April 20 at 7:30 PM with a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem.

February 18, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Obscure Church Music Recording Knocks Lady Gag Off the Charts

The big story is that a self-released album of a 400-year-old Italian choral work by a couple of respected but little-known choirs from Florida and Michigan knocked Lady Gag off the top of the charts. It happened last month: the independently-released album of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 by Seraphic Fire with the Western Michigan University Choir actually reached the top of the itunes charts and then, after a little help from NPR, settled into the top ten of the itunes classical chart alongside the London Symphony Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma. As welcome as this news is, there’s considerable historical precedent for it. As far back as the 1950s, high-quality recordings by symphony orchestras from such unlikely spots as Rochester, New York and Louisville, Kentucky reached sizeable audiences, at least for the pre-internet era. And 2010 just happens to be the 400th anniversary of the Monteverdi Vespers, spurring renewed interest in a piece which has been a staple of the choral music repertoire practically since the year it was written.

The early music movement sprang from the desire to take medieval compositions out of the museum and play them with the same verve and raw energy with which they were created. This album is a sublime example of how well a group can bring that desire to life. Seraphic Fire director Patrick Dupre Quigley empasizes in the cd liner notes that Claudio Monteverdi, being a resourceful composer, wrote the piece with sufficient flexibility to make it suitable for ensembles both large and small. The intimacy of this performance vividly spotlights one of many possibilities offered by its writer, and one that’s been overlooked. Chorus master James K. Bass leads the choir along with understated accompaniment by Joel Spears on lute and theorbo, Philip Spray on violin and Scott Allen Jarrett and Karl Schrock on chamber organ. Plainly and simply, this rocks. The joyous, hypnotic insistence of the opening cantus firmus, the energetic counterpoint of the Dixit Dominus, the pinpoint inflections of the Duo Seraphim and the alternately lush and energetic dynamics of the Nisi Dominus are just a few of the highlights. By contrast, the Magnificat-a-6 here is rapturous and tersely otherworldly. As old as all this is, it’s amazing how modern it sounds. Over the centuries, the ideas in this piece have spread from Bach to Mozart to the art-rock bands of the 60s and many other places besides, testament to how far ahead of his time Monteverdi was.

So far the popularity of American Idol and all its spinoffs has not translated to renewing interest in early music as it has in the UK, with the popularity of Stile Antico et al. But it’s not out of the question to think that this album might help spur a resurgence on this side of the pond. After all, you can do this at home: the Choral Public Domain Library is the perfect place to start.

September 8, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment