Apollo’s Fire strikes sparks in a timely Ohio return

United StatesUnited States Resilience – Music for Troubled Times: Members of Apollo’s Fire/Jeannette Sorrell (conductor). October 2020 performance from First Baptist Church, Shaker Heights, Ohio, reviewed when streamed on 19.10.2020. (MSJ)

Members of Apollo’s Fire perform between clear separators (c) Apollo’s Fire

Program: music by Purcell, Tomkins, Dowland, traditional folk tunes and Spirituals

It is fascinating to observe the differences in northeast Ohio’s two premier classical music ensembles. The Cleveland Orchestra recently returned to music-making in its traditional, classically understated manner. With characteristic contrast, Cleveland’s Baroque orchestra, Apollo’s Fire, returned to public performance by not only addressing the current elephants in the room, but also by saddling them up and going for an unforgettable ride.

The first half of the concert responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by presenting music from around the time of the Great Plague of London in the 1660s, while the second half pulled traditional music from the American South to delve into the social unrest of race relations, which has also been a marked feature of this devastating year. While other ensembles play it safe during troubled times, leave it to Jeannette Sorrell and her stable of geniuses to bring both catharsis and balm.

Since little music specifically documented to the London plague years is known to exist, Sorrell gathered characteristic music of preceding and following decades to sketch the flavor of the era. The first set, entitled ‘Crowded City’, featured music by Henry Purcell. Sopranos Amanda Powell and Ashlee Foreman were glorious soloists in ‘We the Spirits of the Air’ from The Indian Queen, launching Purcell’s intricate lines with an appropriate hauteur.

Powell is familiar, having long been one of the brightest stars of this ensemble. Foreman, though, is a real discovery; she had previously been involved with Apollo’s Fire as an intern and just earlier this year joined Apollo’s Singers. She is currently in a vocal graduate program at the University of Akron and has studied voice with Powell. That Foreman can fearlessly hold her own on stage against the tremendous presence and poise of Amanda Powell signifies the arrival of an important new singer. Her voice, slightly tangier in timbre than Powell’s creamy blend, has a tremendous range and is deployed with theatrical assurance. Like her mentor, Foreman knows that even just standing there as a singer is still a theatrical performance requiring focus, presence and engagement.

Hearing such dramatic commitment from the singers, followed by the equally intense instrumentalists in Purcell’s Chaconne in G minor and Hornpipes from King Arthur, reminds one how dearly vital such music making is, and how much we have missed it the last half year. In addition to directing the ensemble, Sorrell handled the arrangements and framed all sections of this curated program with period quotes and readings.

The second set, ‘The Plague is Among Us’, used a sobering quote from a period physician to set up a thoughtful performance of John Dowland’s somber ‘Fortune My Foe’ by guest lutenist Daniel Shoskes. This was followed by traditional songs led with a tender, almost vocal flow by Kathie Stewart on the Irish flute in ‘Gye Fiane (Wild Geese)’ and, with dancing ebullience, in ‘Scotch Mary’. It was heartening to see the shared glances among the musicians as they relished the rollicking music. They were home again and together.

Set 3, ‘Quiet City’, opened with another bright star, Brian Kay, singing the Scottish folk song ‘If I were a Blackbird’ while accompanying himself on the lute and leading the other instrumentalists as they joined him. Such a plain statement does not do justice to Kay’s witchcraft. His instrumental prelude in itself made the lute speak as eloquently as a voice, only to be superseded by Kay’s actual voice, a plangent high tenor that, for all its artful detail, carries an incredible emotional charge. Susanna Perry Gilmore matched Kay’s moving lyricism with an expressive violin solo, followed by Kathie Stewart giving the lonely final notes of sadness. Thomas Tomkins’s ‘Sad Pavane for these Distracted Times’ was led with intensity by concertmaster Olivier Brault. Powell returned for Sorrell’s powerful arrangement of the traditional ballad ‘The Death of Queen Jane’. The first half of the program closed with Purcell’s ‘The Queen’s Funeral March’ from the Funeral Music for Queen Anne, with Kay marking time on a tabor which hauntingly faded into the distance as he left the stage.

The second half of the program kicked off with Set 4 and ‘On the Plantation’, marked by the fiery hammered dulcimer of Tina Bergmann in a set of Kentucky fiddle tunes arranged by René Schiffer and Sorrell. The ensemble’s fiddlers were joined by the singers, who proved as adept at folk music as high art. At one point, Foreman danced as Powell played the spoons, a delightfully unexpected turn of events. After Sorrell’s dramatic reading of a Civil War poem, the singers gave the emotional heart of this concert with a set of Southern spirituals in alternating solos and selected duets. ‘Death Come to my House’ found the unaccompanied singers ringing the rafters with potent emotion, perfectly matched in harmony and graciously giving each other the spotlight in solos. Amanda Powell alone can be a heartrending singer, but combined with Ashlee Foreman the impact was squared. The rest of the ensemble joined in singing ‘Oh Freedom’. The traditional code song ‘Wade in the Water’ – used by Harriet Tubman to convey guidance to escaping slaves – closed the set with bluesy swagger.

The final set, ‘Resilience’, started with a timely quotation from Frederick Douglass about the dangers of social inequality, before moving on to an arrangement of a Sacred Harp hymn that assigned some of the vocal parts to instruments. It suited this socially-distanced concert setting with only two vocalists and a handful of players and, to minimize contact, the soloists and director were separated along the front of the stage by clear panels. While the musicians surely had to make extra efforts to deal with the sonic reflections of the panels, they were a fascinating addition for the video, providing mirror images and refractions of the players. The video by Erica Brenner Productions made great use of this happy accident. Kudos as well to sound designer Daniel Shores, who caught the sound of Apollo’s Fire in the Shaker Heights First Baptist Church in glorious bloom. My only suggestion would be to find a way to keep the fervent applause of the audience yet turn down the sound of the performers walking on and off the forestage platforms, if possible.

The concert closed with more Appalachian fiddle music, including ‘Blackberry Blossom’, the favorite tune of Civil War general (and future US president) James A. Garfield. This particular critic was delighted with that one for personal reasons: I discovered during my family tree researches some years back that a relative of mine, one John Jordan, served as General Garfield’s guide during a military expedition down the Big Sandy River during the Civil War. Garfield saw to it that this bewitching tune was played plenty, and one can imagine those fiddlers grinning at the way Apollo’s Fire can kick up their heels a century and a half later.

Kudos to Apollo’s Fire for presenting a full digital program book, accessible online, unlike the Cleveland Orchestra, which condensed their usually impressive program down to a no-frills smartphone app that left much to be desired. Apollo’s Fire gave a full PDF of their rich and informative program, a surprising comfort during these times of disruption.

Apollo’s Fire is a cultural treasure, particularly in its willingness to grapple with the world’s problems and offer comfort and catharsis. Above all, the ensemble proved, once again, that they are the embodiment of the program’s title: resilience.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

For more information on the program and performance click here.

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