Three Duets and a Funeral from Apollo’s Fire in Akron, Ohio

United StatesUnited States Vivaldi, Bach, Telemann: Johanna Novom, Adriane Post, Susanna Perry Gilmore, Carrie Krause, Alan Choo, Emi Tanabe (violins), René Schiffer, Rebecca Landell Reed (cellos), Jeffrey Strauss (baritone), Kathie Stewart (flute), Christine McBurnery (theatrical director), Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor), First United Methodist Church, Akron, Ohio, 7.3.2019. (MSJ)

Vivaldi – Concerto in D major for Two Violins, Two Cellos, and Strings, RV 564 (Novom, Post, Schiffer, Reed); Concerto in B minor for four Violins, RV 580 (Gilmore, Novom, Post, Krause); Flute Concerto in D major, RV 428, ‘Il Gardellino’
Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major, BWV 1048
TelemannFuneral Cantata for an Artistically Trained Canary-Bird (Strauss)
Vivaldi/arr. SorrellLa Folia, after the Trio Sonata in D minor, RV 63

From Apollo’s Fire’s latest concert, the headline is the welcome return of baritone Jeffrey Strauss, who had been out of commission for some months with illness. Happily, Strauss is back at full strength, relishing the chance to pair Telemann’s melodious writing with comic flair in the whimsical Funeral Cantata for an Artistically Trained Canary-Bird Whose Demise Brought the Greatest Sorrow to His Master, to give the absurdly full title. Commissioned by a patron whose pet canary had met its demise thanks to a mischievous cat, Telemann set a text full of over-the-top praise and mock-woeful tragedy.

To give Strauss latitude to play up the comic element — as Telemann’s music is discreetly (and characteristically) understated — Christine McBurney served as stage director. McBurney gave the singer some inventive stage business, such as walking in, hanging up his coat and uncovering a bird cage to discover feathers strewn everywhere. The part of the ex-canary was played by a thankfully not-too-realistic clump of feathers. Strauss delighted in his role, lamenting to the bird, then casually flipping it back in its cage.

The cantata’s villain was played by an amusingly plump stuffed kitty that had been secreted away next to an audience member. Strauss delivered the scathing closing aria directly to the toy cat, held up by the scruff of its neck. For all the comedy, Strauss maintained elegance and artful shaping. The orchestral support from Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire was similarly poised and witty.

Akron’s First United Methodist Church has a beautiful sanctuary, but it doesn’t suit all music equally. The broad, fan-shaped hall was ideal for the Telemann, making it easy to hear and sort out the words of Sorrell’s English translation of the original German text. For the instrumental works, the hall was variable. At its best, it was good for clarifying textures and allowing the transverse flute in Vivaldi’s concerto Il Gardellino (‘The Nightingale’) to be heard clearly. On the other hand, though, the hall diffused massed sound quickly. Where one would expect the full string ensemble of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 to have some heft — even on period instruments — the group was no louder than any given solo snippet passed from section to section.

But that rapid attenuation of sound helps sort textures in more soloistic concertos. For instance, Vivaldi’s familiar Concerto in B minor for four violins features extended solos for each instrument or intertwining pairs. Only rarely do all four players become enmeshed with the rest of the ensemble. Sorrell’s conception is suitably dramatic, yet spacious enough to allow maneuvering room. Susanna Perry Gilmore, Johanna Novom, Adriane Post, and Carrie Krause all tore into Sorrell’s conception — dramatic, yet spacious to allow maneuvering — though the dry, cold weather spelled some intonation trouble, with periodic tuning adjustments as the show went on.

The acoustic suited Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto in D even better. Kathie Stewart’s evocation of the goldfinch was a mix of artful playing and naturalistic phrasing, reminding one that birdsong was the composer’s inspiration. Sorrell and the ensemble matched the concept, bringing Vivaldi to life instead of making him a prisoner of machine-like bar lines and relentless tempos.

The Concerto in D major for two violins and two cellos, RV 564, is lesser-known but well worth rediscovering. Despite characteristic gestures, unusual first-movement syncopations brought some surprises. With their contrasting timbres, Johanna Novom and Adriane Post made an intriguing pair of upper-voice soloists. Novom’s violin has a pure, flute-like tone, while Post’s instrument is more plangent, almost like an oboe. René Schiffer and Rebecca Landell Reed also maintained individuality while interplaying with each other and the violins.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 was hampered by intonation issues in places but was still full of character with boldly conceived gestures. Sorrell’s bridge between the two movements remains one of the best solutions ever conceived for performance of this piece.

For those unfamiliar with the problem, Bach left no slow movement for this concerto, only writing two transition chords, presumably to mark an improvisation. Simply playing the two chords sounds strange, so in the past, some substituted a short Bach keyboard slow movement that ended with the same cadence. But that introduces elements that have nothing whatsoever to do with the concerto. Sorrell’s bridge is an extended harpsichord flourish (based on the motifs of the first movement) subsequently joined by a gesture from violin and cello. As the two chords that Bach wrote are played, the motif changes to the gesture heard throughout the final movement. It is brilliant and effective, though in this venue, the artists’ vigor made more impact visually than acoustically. An acoustic is truly odd when one sits just a couple of rows from the stage and the orchestra sounds far away, yet solo instruments project fine.

To close came Sorrell’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s La Folia variations from his Trio Sonata in D minor, RV 63. The ensemble had fun with the composer’s daredevil turns, with soloists Alan Choo and Emi Tanabe warily circling around each other.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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