United 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.