Seraphic Fire - Steal Away (Seraphic Fire Media)
Patrick Quigley, founder and artistic director of the choral ensemble Seraphic Fire, was first introduced to the African-American concert spiritual when he was just a kid performing in a multi-racial, Protestant church. "I grew up in New Orleans and was certainly in the orbit of Moses Hoga growing up," Quigley says. "Hearing the Moses Hogan Chorale live was a pretty formative moment for me, personally.
"This is music that was originally written for the concert stage, composed by African-American composers," Quigley continues. "This is an art-music form that is native to the U.S. And I think it can be claimed that it's the first native concert form in the U.S. So acknowledging it as part of our national music patrimony is something that's been very important to me."
And that's why Quigley and Seraphic Fire have dedicated their latest recording, Steal Away, entirely to this American art form. "And programming it in a way that does not look at it as a folk-music form but rather as a concert-music form on the level of Brahms and Mendelssohn and Beethoven since the form itself was being developed around the same time that those composers were composing as well," Quigley explains. The concert spiritual is unique in that it often features religious text, yet it's considered to be a secular art form."The concert spiritual began as a way to introduce African-American education, both musical and otherwise, to the abolitionists in the North," Quigley says. "After Reconstruction had ended in the South, many of these universities and colleges were having a tough time convincing the Southern society that funding African-American higher education was something that was important. In fact, it was something that was fought against. The origin of it is the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who arranged some of the folk music that had been passed down in oral tradition in the way that perhaps Brahms would have treated tunes from German folk music or Kodály or Dvořák or Bartók would have treated the folk music of their time and created it into a secular concert art form. And that is one of the things that make it distinct from gospel and often we conflate the two and say gospel and spirituals. But gospel is a sacred art form, whereas the African-American concert spiritual is a secular art form."
Seraphic Fire is an ensemble of 13 singers, all of whom are great concert soloists, like countertenor Reggie Mobley. "Well, Reggie comes to the countertenor voice starting out as a baritone, and so his ability to go into a lower chest range for this music is perhaps different than, say, a classically trained mezzo," Quigley says. "So that richness and depth that he brings to this music is particularly stunning."
Charles Evans, who hails from Georgia, adds a special authenticity to the baritone solo on William Dawson's "Ev'ry Time I feel the Spirit." "He has just that incredible Southern sound that is really at the heart of the spiritual," Quigley says. "You know, in many ways, the spiritual … while it had its life initially in the North, it was originally presented in the North, the concert spiritual … its roots, both its ethnomusicological roots as well as its melodic roots and particularly the roots of the text pronunciation come from the South … having someone who is so versed in the gestalt of the spiritual is pretty amazing, particularly in Charles, who has this unbelievable range for a baritone. I think on the disc he sings at least two octaves, perhaps even more. So he does yeoman's work in terms of going up and down the staff for this program."
The African-American concert spiritual, the first truly American form of classical art music, rooted right here in the United States, is celebrated in all its glory on this new collection, Steal Away with Patrick Quigley and Seraphic Fire. "This was our first sort of contribution to the greater classical music form and I think that that's an important thing to note," Quigley says. "Everything else that we perform in the concert hall has its roots as European, whereas this is definitively American. And I hope that this disc and the writings of my incredible colleagues who we feature on this disc continue to inspire people to have a greater appreciation for this genre as an art form and as a concert art form that is part of our national patrimony."