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Arts Desk

Heating Up The Choral Music Scene in Philadelphia: Seraphic Fire!

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Seraphic Fire

Philadelphia has a new semi-resident choral group: Seraphic Fire, the Florida-based ensemble that is now expanding its seasons to New York and Washington DC as well. The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns reports on this rare export from the Sunshine State.

David Patrick Stearns: That is the sound of Patrick Dupre Quigley testing out the acoustics at St. Clements Church, where his choral group Seraphic Fire will present a three-concert season of Charpentier, Mozart and Brahms.

Patrick Dupre Quigley: Just enough stone, just enough tile, just enough wood, just enough plaster. I don't know if it's intentional or if it just ended up that way, as being such a regal and beautiful space.

DPS: Seraphic Fire will share the venue with Choral Arts Philadelphia and St. Clements' own excellent church choir. But the Seraphic Fire sound is unlike any other, partly due to low vibrato, partly because founder/director Quigley doesn't subscribe to the idea of equal tuning that has supposedly been the law since the time of J.S. Bach. It's a subtle touch, but Quigley believes that such tunings are essential to communicating the soul of the music.

PDQ: There's nothing like a real pure perfect fifth that makes something in your solar plexus literally vibrate where you feel the music. And so we tune in just intonation. We don't tune in equal temperament. We sing in a Pythagorean way. 

DPS: And the effect?

PDQ: Every one of those moments where you reach a musical climax, it's like a great novel where you have these moments of "I feel something, it's coming up but I don't know what it is" and when you get there and there's that release.

DPS: Something like this is perhaps nurtured in Florida because there's no skeptical musical establishment to stop it. Also, Quigley insists that the chorus members develop something bordering on friendship with audiences.

PDQ: We exit down the center and stand by the exit for every concert, no matter where we are and shake the hand of everybody who comes out. And at this point, after 14 years, we're just singing for our best friends.

DPS: Those best friends are even open to a completion of the unfinished Mozart Requiem, on that will be part of Seraphic Fire's season here. The completion in itself isn't unusual, except that composer Gregory Spears has no interest in sounding like Mozart. Any liturgical event, he points out, has a lot of music from a lot of places.

Gregory Spears: I hope that our version reminds listeners that liturgical music has always involved multiple voices in ways that, I think, allows for contemporary voices to enter these older works.

DPS: And how will Philadelphians feel about that?

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Seraphic Fire performances in Philadelphia at St. Clement's Church near the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood: November 12 at 7:30 pm, February 18 at 7:30 pm, and April 21 at 7:30 pm