Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Four Seraphic Voices on a First Friday

Seraphour: l-r Dana Rouse, contralto; Heidi Vass, soprano; Melissa Birch, soprano;
Emma Grace Roche, contralto.

Seraphour sing Daley, Brahms, Carrillo, Palestrina, Vass, and Thompson

Of all musical media, the human voice perhaps best evinces continuity, or at least commonality, between eras widely separated in time. This view certainly came to the fore during the February “First Fridays at First!~fff” lunchtime recital, organized as ever by Classical Crossroads, Inc., at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, in which the vocal quartet Seraphour performed works ranging from the Renaissance to last year.

Eleanor Daley.
This sense of continuity was strengthened by all six pieces setting familiar Christian texts, beginning with Os Justi (The Mouth of the Just) by the prolific Canadian composer of choral music, Eleanor Daley (b. 1955). This brief and straightforwardly enjoyable opening item, dating from 1994, was introduced by Heidi Vass (soprano), the founder of the group.

Somehow, despite the German Requiem (or perhaps because of it, in view of its non-liturgical text), one does not tend to associate Brahms with sacred vocal works, accompanied or not, so the opportunity to hear his Adoramus Te (We Adore Thee) Op. 37, No. 2, one of three geistliche Chöre (Sacred choruses) for female voices written in 1859, was welcome.

This piece, somewhat strenuously contrapuntal for a little over half its two-minute length, dissolved unexpectedly into a conclusion of sustained harmonies, beautifully enunciated by Seraphour, which made me rather regret that we weren’t hearing the full set of which Adoramus Te is the centerpiece.

César Carrillo.
Seeing the name Carrillo on the roster of composers got me temporarily confused with the long-lived Mexican Julián Carrillo, author of at least one fine symphony, but no—this was the Venezuelan César Carrillo (b.1957), whose output, like that of Eleanor Daley, seems mostly to be choral music.

Judging by the number of performances on YouTube, his warmly homogeneous Ave Maria (Hail Mary)—apparently a relatively early work, dating from 1983—is a firm favorite with female choirs and smaller groups, and Seraphour’s account of it could stand proud amongst any.

Taking over as introducer, second soprano Melissa Birch then cast back four-and-a-half centuries to one of the greatest of choral scribes, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594). His Magnificat quarti toni IGP817, published in Rome in 1591 and one of no less than 36 Magnificats by him, was the recital’s centerpiece and by some margin the longest item.

Sung by a large choir in a resonant cathedral, Palestrina’s music can seem at once ineffably mellifluous but somehow forbidding, as if it exists on a plane removed from and indifferent to mere human sensibility. Here, brought “down to earth” in the best possible way in a smaller but still vibrant church acoustic, this Magnificat revealed a warmth and gentleness, even fragility, that was very appealing, with gently pulsing rhythmic emphases like an eternal heartbeat.

Emma Roach, first alto, then introduced the item that represented both the recital’s extreme in temporal separation and that commonality between all. The Angele Dei (Angel of God) by 19-year-old Aidan Vass was commissioned by Seraphour, with the completed work being a surprise Christmas present to his mother, Heidi Vass.

Aidan Vass.
This proved to be as coolly contemplative as its Renaissance predecessor, though some unpredictable harmonic shifts proclaimed its modern origins, with close-packed chords and softly clashing dissonances that momentarily hinted at Gustav Holst being skillfully kept on the rails by Seraphour.

If there had been one element somewhat absent in the recital so far, it was a sense of drama, but this was amply compensated by the final listed item, Randall Thompson’s Alleluia—composed, as second alto Dana Rouse outlined (and as Thompson himself describes here), in the dark World War 2 year of 1940.

Randall Thompson.
Beginning ppp in a confiding, prayerlike, almost fearful manner, it opens out through rising dynamics and textural elaboration to an exultant fortissimo climax which then subsides, Lento, to a peaceful Amen. Thompson’s Alleluia is in its way as effective in its dramatic arc as Barber’s ultra-familiar Adagio for Strings, and Seraphour’s interpretation was as impassioned as could be imagined with only four voices.

Finally, there was an encore that closed the circle, texturally in that it was another Ave Maria, and temporally, reaching back even further than Palestrina to the much lesser-known Franco-Flemish Jacob (or Jacques) Arcadelt (1507-1568). The amiable, songful immediacy of his setting made it easy to understand that he was apparently (thanks, Wikipedia!) one of the earliest composers of madrigals.

With the permission of Seraphour, whose origins as a group can be read about on Shoutout LA, an edited recording of most of the items in this recital can be enjoyed on Classical Crossroads’ Vimeo page for a month here, ably captured in sound and vision by Jim Eninger. 


“First Fridays at First!~fff,” First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, February 3, 2023.
Images: The performers: author; Eleanor Daley: Alliance Music; César Carrillo: Discogs; Palestrina: Wikimedia Commons; Aidan Vass: Instagram; Randall Thompson: Classical Net.

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