Apollo’s Fire: Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts

United StatesUnited States Bach, Telemann: Apollo’s Fire: Debra Nagy (oboe), Olivier Brault (violin), Francis Colpron and Kathie Stewart (recorders and flutes), René Schiffer (cello), Jeannette Sorrell (harpsichord/conductor). Bath Church, Akron, Ohio, 20.2.2017. (MSJ)

J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G Major, BWV 1048; Ouverture No.1 in C major, BWV 1066; Oboe Concerto in G minor, BWV 1056R [Nagy]; Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049 [Brault, Colpron, Stewart]
Telemann – selections from Concerto Grosso in B minor, TWV 53:H1 [Stewart, Colpron, Schiffer]

Are the arts a luxury?

Not to smart professionals of the world, who could learn a bounty of insights by examining what artists do. Case in point: Apollo’s Fire, a baroque orchestra based in Cleveland, Ohio. The instrumentalists that director Jeannette Sorrell has gathered are without question first-rate players, many of them professors and specialists who often play in other important ensembles as well. But they become something greater than the sum of their already imposing parts when they unite as Apollo’s Fire.

While there are ample moments for all the players to shine individually, what is so remarkable—and was potently on display during their concert Monday night at the Bath Church in Akron—is that Sorrell has selected musicians who are also intensely committed to the idea of being a team. They interact supportively with each other while playing, and each seems as proud of their colleagues’ solos as their own.

The perfect example of this star/team duality opened the “Virtuoso Bach” concert. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 uses three sets of three string players (violins, violas, and cellos), along with basso continuo. The nine players work in seemingly infinite combinations as soloists, then come together as a united entity. All too often, performances emphasize the unity over the individual and lose character in the process. Sorrell deployed her players in an arc across the stage so that one could follow the inner workings of Bach’s ingenious score—a work both fractal and mystical. That sense of unity from constellations of trinities is no casual accident, coming from this composer of some of the world’s greatest religious music. Insightfully, Sorrell allowed space for each voice to establish itself, without ever losing a vital and graceful pace (and leading the brief, improvised second movement from the harpsichord), but then joined them with equal shape and poise.

Classical ensembles that miss the opportunity to speak to their audiences lose a chance to engage listeners more closely. Sorrell knows this and at times offers insightful commentary. Before the performance of Bach’s first orchestral suite, the Ouverture No. 1, Sorrell demonstrated how the opening bars would be played “straight,” as written in Bach’s surviving score. Then Apollo’s Fire played the passage again, this time with shape, tempo inflections, and sculpted dynamics, and the difference was stark. The first was a picture of the music. The second was the music brought to life. And the complete performance that followed included an infectiously earthy swing to the Forlane, and a tartly sweet oboe duet in the Menuet.

The concert was designed to focus on Bach from his period working in Cöthen, Germany, in the early 1700s. The second half of the program opened with part of a concerto grosso by his popular colleague Georg Philipp Telemann, featuring Kathie Stewart and Francis Colpron on wooden baroque flutes. The acoustics of Bath Church, while losing some sound to a tall ceiling, were clear enough to allow the instruments to be heard along with the vital solo cello of René Schiffer.

Debra Nagy was featured in the reconstructed Oboe Concerto in G minor, originally a keyboard concerto (No. 5), arranged by Bach himself. But internal evidence of the score suggests that it was originally for violin and/or oboe. Nagy’s handling of the baroque oboe’s pastel colors made this reconstruction sound completely convincing, particularly in the brief, tender Largo. Again, while Nagy offered plenty of brilliant and nimble playing, her emphasis was on interaction with her fellow musicians, making Bach’s interweaving of goals and routes to solutions all the more profound.

The concert closed with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, featuring concertmaster Olivier Brault, plus Colpron and Stewart, this time on recorders. The performance was joyful and vibrant, irrepressible yet adeptly focused

There has been a relative explosion of period-instrument ensembles in the last fifty years or so, but under Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo’s Fire is one of the best. Beyond scholarship or virtuosity, so masterfully incorporated they need no underlining, the ensemble’s music-making isn’t like life – it is life. Every person who has to work in a team – whether a corporation, a school, or a retail establishment – could learn a lot of secrets about how to live a good life here and now, by watching these musicians open up the gifts of a master from three hundred years ago

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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