Seraphim explores a heartening range of joy and praise

March 3, 2024 at 1:08 pm

By Katherine Horgan

Seraphim performed “Inspired to Joy” Saturday night at Holy Name Church in West Roxbury.

The singers of Seraphim delivered an uplifting concert at Holy Name Parish in West Roxbury Saturday night. The program, titled “Inspired to Joy,” included works from the Renaissance to the 21st century, and was a welcome offering of joy and praise that warmed a rainy March evening.

In keeping with the group’s mission to offer “music to illuminate, challenge, and inspire,” Saturday’s program explored the themes of “praise, joy, hope, and consolation” in a contemporary world of uncertainty, violence, and rapid change. Music director Jennifer Lester led the group with confidence and clarity, eliciting stirring performances from the chorus.

The program opened with Sulpitia Cesis’s Cantemus Domino,—a motet which, in its complex interventions and harmonies, set the tone for the evening’s exploration of dissonance and harmony, inner conflict and peace. While the chorus and director were in constant communication, the acoustic sometimes swallowed the intricacies of the text and melodic lines. The more atmospheric 20th-century pieces, like “We Bloomed in Spring,” which followed the opening, were more at home in the space.

The first section of the program ended with Messiaen’s Joie and clarté des Corps Glorieux with a powerful performance by organist Heinrich Christensen. Christensen’s interpretation conveyed a strong sense of both the tradition of organ music of rejoicing as well as ensuring Messiaen’s dissonances and atonal intervals expressed raucous emotion.

For Duruflé’s “Gloria” from the Messe “Cum Jubilo,” the chorus joined the organ in the choir loft, which benefited the clarity. Led by soloist Stephen Griffin—who delivered several moving performances Saturday evening—the baritone section of the chorus showcased its warmth and sweetness of tone. The low voices coming from the loft above created an interesting tension between the grounded and the ethereal that stood out from the overwhelming power of the organ.

One of the highlights of the evening was the premiere of Trevor Weston’s Lauda, commissioned by Seraphim. The piece is a setting of Angelo Geter’s poem “Praise,”—a text that explores the complexity of giving praise in a society beset by gun violence, racial discrimination, and the uncertainty of the future. Before the chorus began to sing, Geter read his poem aloud. 

Even in the face of the doubts articulated in the poem, Weston’s setting found its way from more traditional modes of musical praise in motifs in the chorus and organ to an idiom that suited the smaller, more intimate moments of praise in which the poem ultimately finds its security.

The final section of the program provided the audience a chance to admire both the high and low voices of the chorus in isolation. Biebl’s “Ave Maria” was a perfect moment of peace and confiding trust. The balance between the swelling melodic lines and their quiet release held the space in a suspended meditation. Again, baritone soloist Stephan Griffin offered an earnest and sensitive performance.

Sarah Quartel’s “How Can I Keep from Singing?” began in meditative conjunction with the Biebl that quickly became a playful contrast to the piece that preceded it. The unified sopranos and altos largely navigated the complex rhythms of the work, though appeared stretched at times in the high passages of the last section.

The last two pieces of the program, Mendelssohn’s “Verleih uns Frieden, for chorus and two cellos, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Magnificat, were lovely offerings on the theme of joy. Cellists Stephanie Wingfield and Paul Mattal offered beautiful performances of the Mendelssohn. The instrumental counterpoint offered a complex commentary on the chorale that drew the listener into a musical space of sweetness and trust—a moment that balanced the difficulty and simplicity of the act of seeking joy.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at First Church in Cambridge.

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