While fighting the holiday rush in the annual fruitless search for the year’s must-have Christmas gifts, which nowadays begins even before we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, you might find yourself longing for a time when things were simpler, calmer, more peaceful.
Feeling a bit like Linus, in the classic TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” who rebels against the crass commercialization of the holiday? Unplug, take a step back and return to the solemn, joyful, soothing, true roots of Christmas by enjoying the lovely, soul-enriching sounds of Seraphic Fire, the South Florida a cappella vocal group that puts on a holiday concert every year.
But be warned: This is not a show for fans of the novelty song, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” Rather, it’s an intimate, candlelit tour through traditional Christmas music, both ancient and contemporary, performed by 13 singers with no instrumental backing whatsoever.
“The whole point is for time to stand still for a second,” says James K. Bass, who will conduct “A Seraphic Fire Christmas” on Dec. 22 at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay. “Concertgoers come and tell us afterward that just sitting in the low light and hearing the incredible voices of Seraphic Fire is something that makes Christmas just seem so different, rather than the kind of raucousness that we hear when we go to the mall and hear the music that’s on the speakers. So it’s just a very different experience.”
Bass, 46, who sings bass with the group and is associate conductor of Seraphic Fire, typically chooses the holiday program and the order of the songs.
“We begin our programs with Gregorian chants, and you’ll hear a nod to the medieval, with some of what we consider the ancient carols of Europe,” Bass says. “And we always perform some variant of new music, in a way that is incredibly delicate at times and very crystalline. It’s not your typical Christmas concert where you’re going to go hear a ‘Hallelujah’ chorus and ‘Joy to the World’ and loud things.”
Bass’ program strategically intertwines ancient and modern works in a way that highlights their similarities, and it can be a learning experience for the listener.
“For part of the concert at the beginning, the men will do the original Gregorian chant for ‘Adeste Fideles,’ which became ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful,’” he says. “And we work the single-line version of the original ‘Adeste Fideles’ into the modern, harmonized four-part version of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful.’ So people get to see where this music came from. They see the origins.”
Though the emphasis of the show is decidedly on older pieces, recent composers also get their due.
“We have two larger works, five or six minutes apiece, by English composer Cecilia McDowall and American composer Dominick DiOrio,” Bass says. “Cecilia’s piece was written in the last two years, but it really uses the idea of medieval rhythms to create her setting of ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater.’
“Then DiOrio wanted to write a winter piece, but with a non-sacred nature. So his piece is called ‘Woods in Winter,’ and it describes all these interesting images and scenes. And it’s hard for a person in Miami to conjure these images, but right now we’re rehearsing in Vermont, and we’re sitting in the mountains with ice and snow and a frozen lake. So the images in this piece are all describing the sound that you hear when things freeze – the sound of the icicles falling and how they create their own noises. It’s a very fascinating piece.”
Although this concert is fully focused on Christmas music, it nonetheless falls in line with the raison d’être of Seraphic Fire, which was founded by conductor Patrick Dupre Quigley, who is also its artistic director.
“The overall mission is to give high-level performances, and be the preemptive national standard, of music prior to 1750 and new music after 1950,” Bass says. “It’s to allow our community in South Florida to hear some of the greatest music written in the world be performed in the way that you may have heard it at that time. There are many wonderful pieces of music that exist from an earlier time period that you don’t get to hear very often, so our mission is to bring those pieces to South Florida.
“And people don’t realize that prior to the 20th century, the majority of music written was vocal music, and written for vocal ensembles, which is exactly what Seraphic Fire is,” he adds. “The modern-day orchestra didn’t even exist until the middle- to late-1700s, so all of that music written before that, from 800 to 1700, is almost all vocal music. And it takes a certain type of singer, with a certain knowledge, to be able to bring that music to life.”
Bass says that for him and the other members of Seraphic Fire, the Christmas season always means a little more.
“It’s a more special time,” he says. “There’s an eagerness and an anticipation that doesn’t exist at any other time of year. And for almost everyone that loves this time of year, whether you’re Christian or whether you just kind of celebrate the holiday in general, the musical aspect is almost equal to the commercial aspect. Yes, we want to have gifts, and we do parties and all that. And one of the things that I love about it, is it really doesn’t matter what tradition you’re from or how religious you are – there’s an amazing, almost global unification in the fact that at this time of year, music is elevated. It’s elevated to part of the entire experience. You cannot have Christmas without the music.”
What: “A Seraphic Fire Christmas”
When: 4 p.m. Dec. 22
Where: South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Bay
Cost: $20-$55; $5 tickets for age 13-22; purchase at cultureshockmiami.com
More information: smdcac.org
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