Unusual Holiday Journey from Apollo’s Singers and Soloists, Spanning the Atlantic

30/11/2017

United StatesUnited States Various composers, Christmas on Sugarloaf Mountain: A Celtic-Appalachian Celebration: Amanda Powell (soprano), Ross Hauck (tenor), with Molly Netter (soprano) and Jeffrey Strauss (baritone), and Apollo’s Singers / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor), Apollo’s Fire. St. Peter’s Church, Mansfield, Ohio, 29.11.2017. (MSJ)

Look, I was fully expecting to play hard-nosed critic on this program.

For one thing, I’m no big fan of Christmas programs, because most are a stultifying mixture of cheesy arrangements and bored performances. And moreover, taking on Appalachian music in this context could be fightin’ words. My dad is (or was, thanks to age and arthritis) a formidable mountain music fiddler from the hills of eastern Kentucky. I don’t impress easily in this kind of fare.

But it doesn’t pay to underestimate Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire. This program, being premiered at a touring concert in St. Peter’s Church in Mansfield, Ohio, was no generic collection of holiday hits. It was a composed show, written and directed by Sorrell. The ensemble first played in this reverberant venue last year, and discovered the challenge of its acoustics.

This year, Sorrell found skillful ways to work around the cathedral-like decay of sound. Having folk and hymn music with slow harmonic rhythms certainly helped, but there was also an engaging use of staging. The concert began with pipers positioned in the organ loft in the back of the church, as the singers filed in from the back of the hall. The prologue posited the angle of the show, telling the Christmas story within the framework of moving from the British Isles to America, with musical style and instruments changing along the way.

The lead singers were soprano Amanda Powell and tenor Russ Hauck. Powell owns a stellar voice, rich and expressive, yet capable of pulling back into a clear purity when needed. Hauck combined his attractive instrument with a strong sense of storytelling, giving the whole show a narrative flow. Soprano Molly Netter and baritone Jeffrey Strauss brought different colors to the engaging mixture of sacred songs, folk carols, drinking songs, and dances.

In addition to some brilliant fiddling from Susanna Perry Gilmore and Emi Tanabe, Julie Andrijeski brought in an authentic element with a medieval vielle, the ancestral instrument to the modern violin/fiddle. Brian Kay had an outstanding moment as he played lute and sang ‘Blow, Northern Wind’ with a plangent voice, while Brian Bigley was compelling on the Uillean pipes.

The second section opened with a spoken narrative: the story of Joseph and Mary searching for shelter and a place for Mary to give birth, was juxtaposed with a letter from an Irish immigrant named Michael O’Malley, describing Sugarloaf Mountain, deep in the Appalachian hills of Virginia. This section included alternately melting and sparkling flute solos from Kathie Stewart, Luke Conklin, and Brian Bigley. At the end of the third section, Bigley also delighted the audience when he pocketed his penny whistle and began Irish clog dancing on a small wooden dance floor placed in front of the players.

The second half saw a focus on American musical styles, opening with some astonishingly lovely harmony from Tina Bergmann, Powell, and Hauck, eventually accompanied by hammered dulcimer. Then came one of the highlights, a small group of singers breaking into the Southern shape-note hymn ‘Star in the East.’ As the rest of Apollo’s Singers filed out into the aisles and back of the church, creating a classic shape-note singing square, Sorrell positioned herself in the middle of the center aisle. The stark, bracing harmonies were delivered with intense, fervent style, not the sort of smoothed-out blandness one might expect from a Christmas show. It was a riveting—and rare—chance to hear this vital, mostly forgotten music.

Having reached a peak, the only thing to do was to go beyond it. Amanda Powell became the star of the evening with a performance of the Scottish/Appalachian ballad ‘Christ Child’s Lullaby’ so tender it could make a stone cry. Or even a hard-nosed critic. It was simply one of the loveliest things I’ve ever heard.

The singers were highlighted in vivid runs of the African-American spirituals ‘Rise Up, Shepherd and Follow’ and ‘Mary Had a Baby.’ They jumped into the authentic style, without pushing it too far. As always, there was an artful balance between documentary authenticity and artistic palatability. The fiddlers, singers, and dancers all joined together to close the show with boisterous joy.

To those who can open their gifts to the grace of inspiration, the lightning strike of genius can happen, sometimes even repeatedly to those willing to earn it. Jeannette Sorrell is one such person. This show was intense, interesting, spectacularly performed, and deeply moving. If that’s not genius, I don’t know what is.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

For more about Apollo’s Fire click here.

Comments

Comments

  1. Jennifer Hurst says:

    I regret not going to the trouble of adding this to my busy Mansfield evening. I told you earlier that last year’s acoustics disappointed. I should have known that such talented musicians would know how to use the venue rather than be used by it. I won’t miss this again. Thanks for a lovely review. ” … so tender it could make a stone cry.” I’m really sorry I missed that.

Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews

Season Previews

__________________________________
  • NEW! BBC Proms turns 125 years old – 17 July to 12 September 2020 __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera North in 2020-2021 – postponements and plans __________________________________
  • NEW! Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich 2020-2021 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Glyndebourne Festival Opera opens for a 2020 summer season __________________________________
  • NEW! Baritone Federico Longhi’s Rigoletto is part of Parma’s June Verdian renaissance __________________________________
  • NEW! 69th Wexford Festival Opera – 11 to 18 October 2020 __________________________________
  • NEW! Dresden’s Semperoper reopens with Anna Netrebko on 19 June __________________________________
  • NEW! Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal in 2020-21 __________________________________
  • NEW! LMP’s first UK chamber orchestra performances since Covid-19 struck __________________________________
  • NEW! Oxford Lieder Festival – 10-17 October 2020 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Metropolitan Opera (2020–)2021 season update __________________________________
  • NEW! Royal Opera House announces first live concert since beginning of lockdown __________________________________
  • NEW! Semi-staged Das Rheingold on Deutsche Oper Berlin’s parking deck from 12 June __________________________________
  • NEW! A breath of fresh air: Opera Holland Park announces 2021 season __________________________________
  • NEW! Grange Park Opera’s 2020 Found Season – 4 June to 12 July __________________________________
  • UPDATED! 2020 Salzburg Festival – 1 to 30 August __________________________________
  • NEW! English Music Festival’s 2020 online series of concerts and talks __________________________________
  • The Singapore Symphony in 2020-2021 __________________________________
  • Musikfest Berlin 2020 __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Free Review Summary Newsletter

    Search S&H

    News and Featured Articles

    __________________________________
  • NEW! We’ll be back! The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra weathering the Covid-19 storm __________________________________
  • NEW! World Ballet School Day – inaugural edition 7 July 2020 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Longborough Festival Opera launches podcast and extraordinary generosity of the audience __________________________________
  • NEW! The Music Critics Association of North America Best New Opera Award to Blue __________________________________
  • NEW! Lincoln Center honors Pride with a light installation on its iconic plaza __________________________________
  • R.I.P. Dame Vera Lynn (1917-2020): Did we really need Vera Lynn during the war? __________________________________
  • NEW! What price Sherlock Holmes? __________________________________
  • NEW! BBC to show the ROH’s first post-lockdown performance and their other recent music news __________________________________
  • NEW! Woody Allen comes back fighting with a book and A Rainy Day in New York __________________________________
  • NEW! Educating Rita, says who? __________________________________
  • NEW! 2020 Three Choirs Festival – postponed __________________________________
  • NEW! ACCOMPANIST OR PARTNER? PIANIST SUSIE ALLAN IN CONVERSATION WITH JOHN QUINN __________________________________
  • NEW! Need to escape reality? Enter into the magical world of composer David Hertzberg __________________________________
  • NEW! BTHVN2020 – Beethoven anniversary goes into overtime __________________________________
  • Archives by Week

    Archives by Month