Brilliant Period Performances in Rural Ohio

United StatesUnited States A Night at Bach’s Coffeehouse: Olivier Brault and Julie Andrijeski (violins), Francis Colpron and Kathie Stewart (recorders and flute), Jeannette Sorrell (harpsichord), Apollo’s Fire/Jeannette Sorrell (conductor). St. Peter’s Church, Mansfield, Ohio. 15.10.2016. (MSJ)

Telemann – Don Quixote Suite (selections)

Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G, BWV 1049; Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D, BWV 1050

Handel – Chaconne from Terpsichore, HWV 8c

Vivaldi (arr. Sorrell) – La Folia [Brault, Andrijeski]

It isn’t often I am blessed to review internationally-famous ensembles in my rural Ohio hometown, but such an opportunity occurred when Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland-based baroque orchestra, added a stop in Mansfield on their way home from Chicago. Such outreach activities are of priceless value for bringing the highest quality of music-making and scholarship to communities that do not get many chances to hear baroque music—let alone in world-class, historically-informed period instrument performances.

Apollo’s Fire appeared under the aegis of the St. Peter’s Music Series at St. Peter’s Church in downtown Mansfield. The majestic, Spanish Mission-style church has been a community focal point since its construction in 1911, and the series has hosted concerts for many years, including regular appearances by the Mansfield Symphony Orchestra, a distinguished regional ensemble. One hopes that Apollo’s Fire will become a regular, too.

The ensemble played with both assured mastery and infectious joy, making it clear that for these musicians, it isn’t just a job. Founder and music director Jeannette Sorrell led the concert, which evoked the atmosphere of Gottfried Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse in Leipzig in the late 1720s or early 1730s, when Johann Sebastian Bach was the director. Starting with selections from the Don Quixote suite by Bach’s friend, George Philip Telemann—a previous director of those coffeehouse concerts—Sorrell directed from the harpsichord and emphasized Telemann’s wit and storytelling. For example, the musicians held back the tempo, underlining those big flourishes representing Don Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza, getting tossed in a blanket.

Likewise, the mischievous finale, “Don Quixote Asleep,” had hilarious flair and sped up to a breathtaking close. My only complaint is this: Why omit a movement of the suite? The concert’s first half would not have been overly long if the missing movement—included on the group’s commercial recording—were included, too. But perhaps I only complain because “The Galloping of Rosinante” (the mad Don’s horse) was one of my first classical music favorites, included on a children’s record published by Golden Treasury from many, many years ago.

Telemann’s light touch worked well in the ample acoustics of St. Peter’s Church, but the reverberation made Bach’s intricacies trickier. It’s a sure bet that Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse didn’t sound like this. Nonetheless, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 was still able to work its considerable wonders. Recorder soloists Francis Colpron and Kathie Stewart played with remarkable clarity and precision, never rigid or clinical, and achieved touching intimacy near the end of the slow movement. And violinist Olivier Brault was a dynamo both as soloist and section leader, while Sorrell ensured that the music kept dancing and flowing, even in its most far-flung explorations.

As leader of the ensemble and a formidable harpsichord player herself, Sorrell was featured in Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, though unfortunately, the result was stunted by the church’s acoustics. Bach’s sensitive writing for the solo violin and transverse flute (Brault and Stewart, respectively) came across exquisitely, and Sorrell’s long solo cadenza in the first movement was masterful, but when everyone was playing, the harpsichord’s notes became a blur. A lovely blur, perhaps, but surely not what the composer had in mind when writing out all those notes. Perhaps one of Bach’s solo keyboard concertos would have allowed Sorrell’s light to shine a little brighter, or a solo piece. (Or a solo concert—hint, hint.)

But for all her keyboard skill, there is no doubt that Sorrell is also a first-rate conductor, able to gracefully yet firmly shape the music with her hands. She was especially effective at capturing the balletic poise of the Chaconne from Handel’s Terpsichore, part of Il Pastor Fido. The ensemble, most of whom stood, swayed as the spirit moved them, making frequent eye contact with each other to achieve an outstanding sense of unity.

The program closed with Sorrell’s own concerto grosso arrangement of Vivaldi’s trio sonata variations on the Iberian popular song “La Folia.” Olivier Brault and Julie Adrijeski duelled back and forth with great animation, joined by the rest of the band at full tilt—a dramatic end to a rewarding evening.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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