Apollo’s Fire in a Glimpse of the Ancient Middle East

United StatesUnited States Israel & Egypt: A Multicultural Celebration: Amanda Powell (soprano), Members of Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor). Akron Art Museum, Akron, Ohio, 1.10.2017. (MSJ)

Apollo's Fire.Akron Art Museum
Front row, from left: Jeanette Sorrell, Allison Monroe, Jeffrey Strauss, Amanda Powell
Back row, from left, Luke Conklin, Dylan Moffitt (c) Apollo’s Fire

Traditional Sephardic: Cuando el Rey Nimrod
Traditional Hebraic, arr. René Schiffer: Khaddish
Handel: “Thou Didst Blow with the Wind” from Israel in Egypt (Powell)
Traditional Hebraic: Lecha Dodi
Traditional Arabic: Lamma bada yatathana
Traditional Sephardic/Ladino: Nani, Nani;  La Comida la manyana

Apollo’s Fire, the baroque orchestra based in Cleveland, kicked off their 2017/2018 season with a free preview in its Music Alive! series at the Akron Art Museum. Entitled “Israel & Egypt: A Multicultural Celebration,” the program preceded an upcoming series of performances of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt, and featured traditional Jewish and Arabic music from the areas portrayed in Handel’s work, along with an aria from the oratorio itself.

The short performance took place in the lobby of the Akron Art Museum, a space designed by the architectural firm Coop Himmelb(l)au when the museum was greatly expanded in the early twenty-first century. At first glance, the angular structure of steel, concrete, and glass doesn’t look promising for music, but it worked surprisingly well for the small ensemble of players drawn from the larger roster of Apollo’s Fire. Music director Jeanette Sorrell conducted, played, sang, and served as emcee, announcing the program from the stage to the packed audience.

Opening the show was the traditional Sephardic Jewish song “Cuando el Rey Nimrod,” a vibrant paean to an ancient king. Baritone Jeffrey Strauss started with his rich and commanding voice, before being joined by the brilliant soprano Amanda Powell in the refrain. A dramatic solo cello transcription of the traditional “Khaddish” followed, written and played by René Schiffer. The brooding chords of Schiffer’s arrangement made it spellbinding, except for a few moments of what seemed like unnecessary virtuoso flourishes. Anyone who has heard Schiffer in a concerto will know that he’s the owner of a staggeringly great technique. In a devotional music context, though, less would be more, since Schiffer also has the ability to communicate great intensity.

Amanda Powell was featured in the aria “Thou Didst Blow with the Wind” from Handel’s Israel in Egypt, in a scaled-down arrangement, presumably crafted by Sorrell for this presentation. The simplified orchestration put the focus on Powell’s crystalline and agile voice, a true delight to hear, particularly in the Akron lobby, known as “The Crystal” in architectural design circles. Strauss and Powell formed a duet for the traditional Hebrew song “Lecha Dodi,” joined by Sorrell on harmony vocal, Allison Monroe on medieval vielle (the forerunner of the modern violin) and the amazingly diverse Luke Conklin, switching between replicas of 11th and 12th-century shawm, bagpipes, and harp.

The traditional Arabic love song “Lamma bada yatathana” powerfully communicated a poignant longing, almost in spite of Powell’s stagey theatrics. Perhaps her swooning and gesturing would play better in a large hall, but it did not seem to organically arise from some necessity in the introspectively trance-like music. Nonetheless, it was music-making of moving intensity with a slow resolution of the passing dissonance at the end, which cut like a knife.

For the Sephardic Ladino lullaby “Nani, Nani,” Powell was joined by Conklin, this time playing a period transverse flute, matching the singer’s expressive ebb and flow at every turn. Another Sephardic Ladino song, the fun and lively “La Comida la manyana,” closed the concert. Sorrell again joined Strauss and Powell, who like the whole ensemble, exulted in the romp in 7/8 time.

The program was another outstanding example of the way Apollo’s Fire is reinventing classical music in the U.S. heartland by reaching out to find audiences, instead of sitting back and waiting for listeners to find them. Sorrell, in particular, commented about the way the ensemble was committed to treating folk and art music of the past as a continuum, just as the program itself embraced the cultural diversity of the ancient Middle East.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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