Apollo’s Fire explores musical crossroads in Ohio

17/03/2020

United StatesUnited States O Jerusalem: Crossroads of Three Faiths (conceived and directed by Jeannette Sorrell): Soloists, Apollo’s Singers, Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor), Fairlawn Lutheran Church, Akron, Ohio, 9.3.2020. (MSJ)

Amanda Powell, Zafer Tawil & Apollo’s Fire

At a time of global concern over the coronavirus pandemic, I was lucky to catch one of the last performances of Apollo’s Fire before the U. S. Midwest went into a public performance ban for the next few weeks. The program was a reprise of one first created almost three years ago by music director Jeannette Sorrell, exploring the musics of the various people who crossed paths in the holy city of Jerusalem.

The program looks at the four quarters of old Jerusalem — the Jewish, Christian, Arab, and Armenian Quarters — and explores characteristic music of each. Arrangements by Sorrell and her associated artists highlighted various aspects of the ensemble and its members’ diverse backgrounds. Cellist René Schiffer, for instance, was arranger and expressive soloist on the ancient Armenian hymn ‘Havun, Havun’, but he gave first word in his arrangement to the orchestra’s double bass, Sue Yelanjian, who has Armenian roots. This sense of personal connection allows all of the players to have moments of communion that collectively become emotionally potent.

And collective it is. Palestinian musician Zafer Tawil was expressive both in speaking a few words about his youth in Jerusalem as well as in playing a traditional Arabic-style improvisation on the qanun, a Middle Eastern instrument of the lute family. But, importantly, he could be seen at other times in the ensemble playing or singing along heartily with Christian and Jewish music as well. Tenor Sorab Wadia may be from India, and soprano Amanda Powell from the United States, but they both threw themselves into Sephardic Jewish ballads without reservation.

Ney soloist, vocalist, and arranger Daphna Mor was a star of the program, whether tenderly singing or playfully trading phrases with recorder player Luke Conklin or violinist Emi Tanabe. Baritone Jeffrey Strauss served not only as an elegant and energetic singer, but also as translator and arranger, as did Powell. Tenor Jacob Perry brought a noble brightness to his solo moments from Monteverdi’s Vespers.

Examples of the theatrical dynamism of Apollo’s Fire presentations were the openings of each half. The concert began with some of the instrumentalists on stage. But as they began playing, they were joined by violinists at the back of the church who proceeded to walk up the aisles toward the stage. The vocalists of Apollo’s Singers followed, intoning the homesick song ‘Ir me kero, Madre, a Yerushalayim’ (‘I Want to go to Jerusalem, Mother’).

The second half opened without warning as percussionist Rex Benincasa stepped up behind the stage area and began a muezzin’s call to prayer, with response from Zafer Tawil off to the side of the church. As they sang, musicians entered the stage and audience members settled into their pews. As soon as the Muslim prayers were done, the men of the chorus took up a medieval Christian plainchant. At this central point in the program, all roads met and mingled.

The program ended with a rollicking company romp through the Sephardic song ‘La Komida la Manyana’ (‘The Morning Meal’), a fun and flirtatious triumph. The program showed the ensemble as energetic and compelling as ever, even if the acoustics of the Fairlawn Lutheran Church are less than ideal, leaving the forwardly placed soloists without reflective surfaces to project their sound. Fortunately, Sorrell is a master of the moment, and she deftly adjusted levels on the fly to keep the soloists from getting swamped by the ensemble and chorus who were better projected by the church’s walls.

One can only hope that the world’s health crisis will run its course quickly so that we can return these vital musicians to their needed role of illuminating the social and emotional connections of all humanity.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

For an interview with Jeanette Sorrell click here.

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