Saturday, November 1, 2008

Seraphic Fire concert at Harriet a poignant New Orleans testament

Special to the Daily News

Friday, October 31, 2008

West Palm Beach, FL: The words transform and transcend are boldly emblazoned on the brochure — of a choir, for goodness sake. It's over-the-top enough to make a music-lover smile indulgently. That is, until said choir actually transforms a simplistic-looking program into a testament.

On Thursday afternoon, a concert by Seraphic Fire transcended the bounds of music and roared straight into the realm of social consciousness. Filmmaker Michael Moore would have been proud.

Seraphic Fire, Miami's professional, classical chamber choir, presented When the Saints Go Marching In, its second subscription concert in West Palm Beach, at the Harriet Himmel Theater at CityPlace. The program promised to re-create a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral. But in substance and format, the 90-minute event was groundbreaking, surpassing the sum of the 21 hymns, spirituals and traditional tunes of grief, faith and hope.

The funeral, it turns out, was for New Orleans itself, a city still struggling mightily to resurrect itself three years after Hurricane Katrina. Artistic Director Patrick Dupre Quigley, a New Orleans native, ripped the lid off the languishing situation he called "the most shameful thing to happen in the last 50 years."

Guest narrator Bill Quigley, the conductor's father and a New Orleans legal activist, told the story of three families between songs of grief, faith and hope. A distinguished professor of law, and director of the Law Clinic and Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans, Quigley laid out step-by-step the tragic human cost paid by hundreds of thousands of city residents — then and now.

The 13-voice Seraphic Fire and seven of its soloists further imbedded Professor Quigley's poignant images with artistry you just can't find short of far more famous recording groups. For vocal beauty, clarity and musical sensitivity, these singers are gold medalists, assembled by conductor Quigley from across the United States for the South Florida season.

For the first time in Seraphic Fire's Palm Beach County concerts, Quigley also played the piano throughout the afternoon, singing several tenor solos (Louisiana 1927, An Uncloudy Day) as well as riffing with guitarist Alvaro Bermudez in jazz and raise-the-roof gospel arrangements. Countertenor soloist Reginald Mobley stilled the soul in Blessed Assurance and His Eye Is on the Sparrow.

A trio of women, singing from the Harriet balcony, stopped time in an a cappella version of Softly and Tenderly. Tenor Darrin Stafford was the resident rock star in Gather at the River. As a whole, the a cappella choir showed off impossibly lovely legatos (smooth lines) and perfect blend even at its softest on Sweet Hour of Prayer.

It takes more than inspiration to found a choir, then prove to be a conductor of style plus sensitivity throughout its seven seasons. Add to that, Quigley dreams up programs that are not only overarching statements but also musically satisfying experiences. So whether in the ethereal incense of Victoria Requiem in September or the spirited dance-fest of Down by the Riverside on Thursday, Seraphic Fire is, hands-down, the early mover-and-shaker of the '08-09 season.

Seraphic Fire's West Palm Beach concert series continues at 1 p.m. Feb. 12 with "Ikon," music of the Russian Orthodox Church tradition. It's at the Harriet, 700 S. Rosemary Ave. For more information, call (305) 476-0260 or visit