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Choral Music Media Review Print

Seraphic Fire Lights the Spirit

July 19, 2013 - Williamsburg, MA:

Seraphic Fire; Ariel Ramirez, Missa Criolla, Ingram Marshall, Hymnodic Delays, Alvaro A. Bermudez, “Padre Nuestro,” William Billings, “Invocation,” Shawn Crouch, “Pie Jesu” from The Road From Hiroshima: A Requiem, Maurice Duruflé, Notre Père, Op. 14, Rafael Hernandez, “Cachita,” “El Cumbanchero,” Jake Runestad, “I Will Lift Mine Eyes,” Tomás de Torréjon y Velasco, “A este Sol peregrino”; Seraphic Fire, Patrick Dupré Quigley, Founder & Artistic Director, Alvaro A Bermudez, guitar and chirango, Pedro Fernandez, percussion; Seraphic Fire Media SFM 14325 76182, © 2013, TT 54:07, $18.00 direct.

This self-titled CD has been issued to celebrate the ensemble’s first decade milestone and deliberately features a compilation of works that it has performed often in concerts, although this is not necessarily an actual concert program. The first two items in the above listing are the sole multiple-track works, in order of length; the rest are all single track works, although the two by Hernandez are performed together in the listed order at the end, following the Ramirez. All but the Hernandez pair are clearly religiously inspired, and range in time of composition from the 18th to the 21st centuries.

The program opens with its oldest piece, Boston-born-and-based Billings’ “Invocation,” the second line of which contains the ensemble’s name and was its source. Billings, who had little education (He left school at age 14.) and virtually no musical training, became a choral director and is considered to be the founder of American choral music. He wrote many hymns and songs based on texts of Isaac Watts, of local poets, and of his own, based on the Gospels and Psalms, all for 4-part a cappella chorus. This one was published in 1794 in a book called The Continental Harmony. His works became the basis for what is today sometimes called the American or Continental Harmony tradition, but every East-coast region has its own version, the most famous for CVNC readers perhaps being what is based on Appalachian traditional songs and called Southern Harmony, also the title of a book compiled by William Walker and published, curiously, in New Haven in 1835. It is also often referred to as the “shape note” or “sacred harp” tradition, has never gone out of style, but enjoys periodic revivals of greater prominence, and is always very inspiring and pleasing to hear.

This work sets the tone for the program of works with roots among the people rather than by professional composers, although a few of these, like Duruflé’s, which is the French text of the Lord’s Prayer, Roman Catholic version that ends with “But deliver us from Evil,” actually are. Bermudez’ “Padre Nostro,” which follows “Invocation,” is the Spanish text of the Lord’s Prayer, complete in the Protestant form. 

Hymnodic Delays is scored for a cappella quartet rather than chorus; it immediately precedes the Missa Criolla. The Ramirez was written in the early 1960s and took the music world by storm in its début recording by Los Fronterizos, led by the composer. It came out of the granting of permission by the Second Vatican Council to use the vernacular languages in worship services and to incorporate local and indigenous melodies, accompanied with indigenous instruments, into their music. The Missa Luba, arranged by Belgian Franciscan friar, Father Guido Haazen, came out of Congo (then still a Belgian colony) a bit earlier, in 1958, and the recording of it by its ‘original cast,’ Les Troubadours du Roi Baudoin, likewise catapulted it to fame. Alas, this performance lacks the raw energy and vibrancy of the original recording, although that spirit is present in other works on the CD, especially in the Torrejón y Velasco and Hernandez pieces, and was therefore disappointing to my ears, which ‘grew up’ with the original one. It’s not that it’s bad; it simply feels a bit too polished for my tastes and memories. The product would have been improved, in my opinion, had another appropriate American Harmony work (perhaps one from Southern Harmony?) been found and performed at the end to bring it to a cyclical close – the lovely modern Marshall (b. 1942) work near its center has a ‘harmony’ feel – and thereby also offer a slightly longer program and better monetary value.  The performances are all superb, my reservations about the Ramirez notwithstanding, so it is a fine addition to the library.

The booklet is a colorful production with oranges and reds appropriately dominating its cover that features an angel in dark full-length profile on its right side, image that is on the back cover and the inside of the tray card in mirrored form. Track listings and timings are on page 2 against a similarly colored background (reproduced on a dark red background on the outside of the tray card) with personnel list of the 18 singers (5 each soprano and bass, 4 each, alto and tenor), recording credits, and score publication information on page 3. The Billings’ opening couplet: “Majestic God, our muse inspire and fill us with seraphic fire,” serves as the header for Quigley’s introductory note on page 4, which precedes the texts (including translations when they are not in English) that fill pages 5-12. A ‘bio’ of the ensemble, the only one to receive Grammy nominations in two categories/for two separate projects in 2012, and its organization is on page 13, and one of two-time Grammy nominee (for the same recordings) Quigley on pages 14-15 with his photo in the right column of the latter. Copyright info and grant acknowledgements are on the back cover.

Note: Over the years there have been numerous NC performances of the Misa Criolla. The most recent one was by Women's Voices Chorus, on May 5. For a review, click here.