Seraphic Fire Deliver Thrills and Transcendence at Trinity Church

by delarue

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.