The renowned, Miami-based professional choral ensemble is opening its 2020-21, 19th-anniversary season on Sunday, November 8, with a virtual program designed to be reassuring and reflective.
The program — entitled “Still. Here.” and available via Vimeo — will feature a compilation of secular music, both known and unknown, written in times of plague and pandemic. A heavy focus, to be sure, but presented “from the angle of what happens when art survives,” says conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley, the ensemble’s founder and artistic director.
“That’s the lesson that art can tell us that doctors and politicians can’t — that things like this have happened before and we can look back to the art that was created in these times and see what they felt and realize that we’re not alone, that coronavirus has many precedents.”
Quigley’s Seraphic Fire is known for its difficult and varied repertoire — pieces that are rarely heard or that are recast with a different approach, ranging from medieval chant and Baroque music to Brahms and Mahler. It is known, too, for its recordings. A past Grammy Award nominee, the ensemble saw its self-released album of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 hit number one on the iTunes classical chart in 2010.
The path to “Still. Here.” began after Quigley was “sent home” in March while in the midst of a stint with the San Francisco Symphony. A member of the symphony’s conducting staff under Michael Tilson Thomas, Quigley was getting ready for two weeks of concerts in San Francisco and two weeks in Europe.
“I often find solace in reading history because it’s very hard to see into the future, but it’s easy to look into the past,” Quigley says.
Scouring through literature about pandemics, he discovered one in particular that struck him: Plague and Music in the Renaissance by Remi Chiu.
There, he found a score by whom he calls the patron saint of secular music, Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. The piece, “Sicut cervus,” is a motet for four voices that was published in 1604 and is now the centerpiece of the upcoming “Still.Here.” program.
“Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus.” (“As the deer long for the springs of water, so my soul longs for you, oh God.”)
“I cried and cried while listening to the piece, because it expressed these sort of shifting sands and longing,” Quigley says.
“Looking at the emotions that it boils down to are that they were concerned about losing their friends, they were longing for human contact and company, and longing for loves that had gone away,” he adds. “There is an incredible sense of longing for emotions that comes through in every piece.”
Quigley put together a program in which members of the ensemble individually recorded their parts, as he says, in bedrooms, bathrooms, and closets everywhere from Los Angeles to London.
It begins with an anonymous chant dating to the 1400s, “after the onset of the plague of the 14th Century,” Quigley says.
“Heaven’s star, nurturer of the Prime god, uproot this death plague, planted by our first parents.”
“A lot of what we found in the 14th Century through the 19th Century was that people thought that plagues were sent by God or by supernatural powers or a conjunction of planets,” he says. “So, the idea of the emotional tool that was going on with people at the time is not necessarily expressed explicitly. Since they thought it was a sacred thing to be solved by sacred means, you said another Mass or you set a historic text that dealt with plague to music, that was how they dealt with it.”
The pieces are not dolorous, Quigley says, but more about wistful longing, nostalgia, sometimes anger and, above all, love — romantic love, or love of friends, or love of life.
There is music to text attributed to Henry VIII of England. “It’s part of a set we have [in the program] from the early Tudor Dynasty with composers who were dealing with the mysterious Tudor plague, the sweating sickness,” he says.
“This music, that offers both comfort and perspective, was written during a time when what we were experiencing was going on except without electricity, running water, and Amazon delivery.”
– Michelle F. Solomon, ArtburstMiami.com
Seraphic Fire's “Still. Here.” 4 p.m. Sunday, November 8; seraphicfire.org. Tickets cost $20 via seraphicfire.org/performances/tickets/still-here.