The builders of Gothic cathedrals knew something, learned either by accident or experience, about the human voice: clear, vibrato-less voices in the natural reverberative volume of the ancient, narrow, lofty naves, create a sonic image that reinforce one's imagined concept--symbolically, at least--of heavenly choirs. In the Gothic-revival splendor of Knoxville's Church Street United Methodist Church, the choral ensemble Seraphic Fire, clearly one of America's most accomplished, achieved much the same the effect in their concert there last weekend.
As part of the church's intriguing Master Arts concert and recital series, the thirteen member ensemble that is based in Miami, Florida, made a tour stop in Knoxville with a program of sacred music encompassing centuries of choral music, from chant to the 21st Century. Immediately, one was struck by the exceptional blending capability of the voices and of the singers' individual abilities to listen to each other and follow the ebb and flow from director Patrick Dupré Quigley.
While the audience obviously gravitated to the more recent and gospel-y works--"Angel Band," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and "Precious Lord," I found the inventive choral depth of the 20th Century works of John Tavener ("The Lamb") and Morten Lauridsen ("O Magnum Mysterium") to be intensely satisfying.
For similar reasons, the following set, Ingram Marshall's "Hymnodic Delays" was really intriguing. Originating as a work in which four voices are manipulated, repeated, and expanded electronically, Quigley received the composer's permission to simulate that effect in concert with the ensemble's actual voices.
Anyone who has ever sung choral music was apt to be impressed by the performance of Elizabeth Poston's "Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree" in which the ensemble sings the opening as written, then spreads out through the nave for the final verse in round fashion.
I cannot fail to mention with admiration the final work on Seraphic Fire's program, the gospel favorite by Thomas Dorsey, "Precious Lord," featuring countertenor Reginald Mobley. In fact, the term "countertenor" is hardly adequate to describe Mobley's voice and style--it is a voice that simply has to be heard to be believed.
It isn't surprising to learn that Seraphic Fire has had Grammy nominations for two recent recordings. This is an excellent ensemble that deserves a lot of respect for the task of promoting great choral music performance in the United States.