Patrick Quigley and his Miami choir Seraphic Fire introduced a new orchestral partner Friday, the young New York period-instrument group called The Sebastians.
Even before the musicians started to play on the stage of the University of Miami’s Gusman Hall, you could see they were more than simply the skeleton crew of a symphony orchestra.
Touches of 18th-century performance practice were everywhere. Violinists played without chin rests, and cellists without the endpin that typically supports their instruments on the floor. Seated in the middle of the orchestra, Yale early-music specialist Grant Herreid plucked a theorbo, a sort of giant lute that added a percussive bass line to the ensemble’s sound.
In a program of Vivaldi and Handel, the orchestra — which will perform in three other Seraphic Fire programs this season — played in a vigorous manner that abounded in youthful energy, with a crystalline transparency that prevented all the excitement of the playing from turning the music into mush.
Still, as is the case with other period-instrument ensembles, playing perfectly in tune wasn’t always its strong suit. And their mostly vibrato-free playing and swift, light bow strokes often yielded a dry, brittle sound.
In Vivaldi’s Gloria, their light, fleet playing matched the style of the choir. Despite the dry tone of the orchestra, the overall sound of the performance was warmed by the sound of human voices. This came together most effectively in the second section, “Et in terra pax hominibus” (And on earth peace to all men of good will), in the orchestra’s pulsing accompaniment, swelling crescendos and aching dissonances. Another highlight was the performance by soprano Margot Rood in “Domine Deus,” sung with a flowing legato, grace and a brightly appealing voice.
The concert opened with a performance of “Winter,” from Vivaldi’s most famous work, The Four Seasons. Violinist Daniel Lee, co-founder of The Sebastians, opened with a free, improvisatory and a rather sloppy style. His playing emphasized ferocious and fearless attacks on the music, clearly putting virtuosity and the thrust of the musical drama ahead of getting every single note right.
While, in principle, there’s nothing wrong with such an approach, his headlong style bent the music far out of shape. He played the already quick last movement as fast as humanly possible — faster, actually, since he muffed a lot of notes. This showy blaze of virtuosity may have generated a few cheers and lots of applause, but it didn’t serve Vivaldi’s music well.
The orchestra’s agile, responsive style again combined effectively with the choir in the final work on the program, Handel’s Dixit Dominus, a setting of a psalm from the Vulgate, the ancient Latin translation of the Bible.
Orchestra and choir created rich textures and soaring musical drama in the ascending choral lines of “Tu es sacerdos in aeternum” (You are a priest forever). Sopranos Jolle Greenleaf and Esteli Gomez gave a deeply moving performance in the grave, searching “De torrente in via bibet” (He shall drink of the brook in the way), and the performance closed with passages of great choral grandeur, with cascades of voices ascending over a pedal point in the orchestra.
For complete coverage of classical music, go to SouthFloridaClassicalReview.com.