Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, believed in the existence of angels and was most especially enamored of the seraphim, whose fiery wings signify that love brings us closer to God than knowledge. Commenting on Seraphick love, Boyle urged the reader: “Rival these Glorious Spirits and make them your Friends.” On Sunday, the Seraphim Singers performed a concert at First Church in Cambridge that fulfilled Boyle’s hope of bringing hearts together through a special kind of shared love. Under Choirmaster Jennifer Lester’s thoughtful baton, the Seraphim Singers introduced us to six African-American choral composers. “These, too, Sing America” the concert title drawn from Langston Hughes, celebrates diversity within diversity. All six composers featured therein were/are passionately attentive to their own Black experiences but also passionately committed to expressing their perspectives in the universal idiom of the purest classical tradition.
In Magnificat (2001) by Trevor Weston, a soft, meditative introduction in the solo organ gave way to a solemn chant, almost Gregorian in its power and intensity. Bold modernist dissonances and a turbulent organ threatening to vanish or to overpower, captured the sheer upheaval of Mary’s pregnancy and the vastness of its consequences. A forceful finale praising God’s glory brought the Seraphim Singers at their unified best, with voices beautifully harmonized but distinct, actively united rather than passively blended, drawing all of creation towards the same goal of renewal and redemption.
Canticle: The Hungry Angels, composed by Robert Harris in 1979 on a poem by the community activist Philip Lloyd White, had beautiful polyphonic moments, solemn and deeply affecting. The organ underpinned the needs of the distressed as the choir pleaded in their behalf.
The evening’s highlight, Psalm 59, Unfailing Love, by Sarai Hillman, dates from 2020. Soprano Brianna Robinson joined the Singers in a spell-binding performance of a rapturously beautiful score. Her richly poised but pointedly eloquent voice went right to the heart. Tears poured from a young woman sitting near me. Unfailing Love showed inspiration from beginning to end; fresh, vital, and inventive, it conveyed peace, gratitude, and serene self-acceptance all at once. The audience knew that we were not supposed to applaud but could not refrain. Hillman came on stage and received a warm ovation. “I’m trying not to cry,” she said.
Visions of Glory by Weston (2004) and Nunc dimittis by Zanaïda Robles (2005), along with an organ interlude, the excellent Air and Toccata from Suite No. 1 by Florence Price, as interpreted with flair and intelligence by Heinrich Christensen, also left vivid impressions. Weston’s Visions of Glory, which sets Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s final testament, involves very refined polyphony, which the ensemble expertly vivified. Those Seraphim created sonic clouds which enveloped us like an atmosphere of emotions. Elegiac tone, elegant structure, modernist angst, dialogical yearning, and subtle dynamics converged to great effect.
Combining piano and organ, and built on an octatonic scale, Robles’s magical work forced us into a provocative, unsettling “land of truth” where we are strangers. The Seraphim Singers boldly rose to the daring dimensions of the piece. Jennifer Lester’s refined musicianship deserves credit for balancing her six carefully picked sopranos, six altos, five tenors and seven basses in such a way as to achieve a dynamic coherence without any deadening unison. Her choral aesthetic, which we might describe as preserving a “bundle theory of voices,” suits modernist impulses exquisitely by avoiding regimentation.
Betty Jackson King’s Psalm 57, of 1972, as majestic and elegant as an Anglican anthem, conveyed tenderness and hope as it fittingly closed the concert. The female voices carried the words, supported by slow waves of sound in the male voices. The combination of sadness and determination—of restraint and resolve — seemed to summarize the Black experience of Betty King’s generation. Will we do better? Drawing from Psalm 59, Hillman pierced us to the heart with “unfailing love.” As Boyle himself had put it long ago, citing Hebrews 10-24: “Let us consider one another, to provoke unto Love.”
Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.