Cleveland’s Apollo’s Fire finds sizzling Allure in the early Baroque

United StatesUnited States Allure: The Three Amandas: Amanda Forsythe (soprano), Amanda Powell (soprano), Amanda Crider (mezzo-soprano), Members of Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor  / harpsichord). First Baptist Church, Shaker Heights, Ohio, 8.11.2020, and reviewed as a livestream. (MSJ)

(From left) Amanda Forsythe, Amanda Powell, Jeanette Sorrell,
and Amanda Crider with Apollo’s Fire.

Music by Landi, Falconieri, Luzzaschi, Piccinini, Marini, Capricornus, Ferrari, Strozzi, Monteverdi, Mazzochi, Ortiz, Arañes

One of the hallmarks of performances by Apollo’s Fire is a fresh way of handling the mechanics of movement on stage. This concert, the second that the Cleveland-based Baroque orchestra has streamed online under pandemic conditions, starts by showing the players walking onto the stage and taking bows in a conventional manner. The viewer sees a sparse, socially-distanced audience spread throughout the dimly lit church. As music director Jeannette Sorrell gives the downbeat to the ensemble, no one on stage plays. Instead a figure suddenly stands up from his seat on a front pew and begins playing the violin. It is the kind of simple but brilliant subverting of stale traditions that snaps one’s focus into the moment, a moment where something magical is about to happen.

And, true to form, this concert unfolds with plenty of magic. This opening moment was led by guest soloist Francisco Fullana. Before I say more of him, I would like to mention that when I am not critiquing concerts, I serve as program annotator and pre-concert speaker for the Mansfield Symphony, a fine Midwestern-US regional orchestra directed by Octavio Mas-Arocas. In 2019, Octavio brought the brilliant young Spanish violinist Francisco Fullana to Mansfield to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. This Tchaikovsky concerto is the one I have heard most often as a live music critic these past 20 years, so it takes a lot to impress me. But Fullana did. In fact, he reminded me of the very first time I heard the work live, also in Mansfield, way back in 1984 when Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg played it with the Mansfield Symphony just before she exploded onto the international concert scene. Fullana was equally masterful in this mainstream work. I subsequently discovered that he was also tremendous in modern music on his first album, Through the Lens of Time (Orchid Classics 100080), which took on Max Richter’s The Four Seasons Recomposed and pieces by Isang Yun and Alfred Schnittke.

Now here Fullana is, playing with a period-instrument ensemble with equally characteristic command. I mention this to demonstrate the kind of musicians that Jeannette Sorrell seeks out for her concerts. She isn’t interested in dry pedants and scholars. Rather, she seeks visionaries who can dissolve the walls of time. What Fullana began playing, with a discreet drone and soft percussion accompaniment from the stage, was the old Catalan folksong ‘El Cant des Ocells’, made famous in a cello arrangement by Pablo Casals. This arrangement, by Sorrell, let Fullana cast a spellbinding atmosphere as he slowly approached the stage and stepped onto the platform. Once he was there, violinists Emi Tanabe and Andrew Fouts began echoing Fullana’s phrases as the whole ensemble came to life. It is a simple enough way to frame the music, but it is astonishing how few ensembles actually make use of such gestures to frame their musical storytelling. One could say this is par for the course for Apollo’s Fire, except that the point is there is no course. Other than the conventions of ebb and flow on the program’s grand scale, Sorrell and her players do not resort to predictable habits.

As the song reached full voice in the ensemble, the three singers entered: sopranos Amanda Forsythe and Amanda Powell and mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider. While the program title references the three singers, there is a historical anchor behind the grouping. Sorrell’s in-depth program notes tell of a group of three female singers who worked in the late 1500s at the court of Ferrara in what is now northern Italy. Their names were Laura Peverara, Livia d’Arco and Anna Guarini, known collectively as the Tre Donne di Ferrare, and they were the first professional female musicians that we know of in modern Europe. Thus a main theme emerges in a program celebrating the work of pioneering female professional musicians, a battle against a male-dominated profession that is still going on today with Sorrell as one of the world leaders.

In an imaginative touch, the cut-off to end the prelude was given not by Sorrell but by the three singers in unison. Their first number began without pause: the ‘Passacaglia della Vita’ (‘The Dance of Life’) by Stefano Landi. The piece rather startlingly allies a catchy, danceable melody with grim lyrics about the necessity of enjoying life because of the looming inevitability of death, something on everyone’s mind as the Covid-19 pandemic spirals to new heights. Leave it to Sorrell to find a piece of music within the stylistic frame of a historical program that also happens to directly address current events.

‘The Three Amandas’ have all performed with Apollo’s Fire before, with Powell one of the corner posts of the ensemble. Her vivid skills as a singing actress made her the centerpiece of their first number, colored by Forsythe’s silvery soprano and Crider’s tawny mezzo. They returned after a set that featured the lead violinists in a chaconne by Falconieri (arranged by cellist and continuo player René Schiffer), and a grave toccata played on solo harp by Parker Ramsay, who will be featured later in the season in a program exploring the harp traditions of the British Isles. That piece and the following vocal trio, ‘Dolcezze amarissime’, were written by Luzzascho Luzzaschi, a Ferrara court composer. The trio is one of the pieces he specifically wrote for the Tre Donne, and captioning on the streaming video helps one follow the music’s intricate word painting.

William Simms was featured on the theorbo in Piccinini’s Toccata in G minor, which alternates dramatically between rhapsodic sections and rhythmically driven parts. Fullana and Tanabe on violins and Fouts on viola interacted with the rest of the ensemble in Marini’s Passacalio in G minor. Without pause, the players jumped into Samuel Friedrich Capricornus’s ‘O Felix Jucunditas’ – again featuring the agile flights of the three Amandas – to close the first half of the concert.

The second half opened with a tour de force for Forsythe, Benedetto Ferrari’s ‘Amanti, io so vi dire’, a song which purportedly advises against the perils of love, but does so with witty flirtation. Forsythe navigated the piece’s virtuoso runs with relish, bending notes for intentionally over-expressive effect in Ferrari’s sudden veers into mock seriousness. An instrumental sonata by Marini led into another Luzzaschi piece for the Tre Donne, ‘Troppo ben può questo tiranno’. It was a delight watching the interaction between singers, director and ensemble as they coordinated expressive rubato.

A section of the program organized around the amorous custom of disdain gave a solo to each of the three Amandas. Powell came first, characteristically immersing herself in the rich dolor of Barbara Strozzi’s ‘Che si può fare?’. Crider was next, lightly scaling the giddy surges of Monteverdi’s ‘Quel sguardo sdegnosetto’. Virgilio Mazzochi’s ‘Sdegno, campion audace’ was the star vehicle for Forsythe’s finest moments, featuring a stratospheric cadenza delivered with utter surety. The singer even employed a rare, repeated-note embellishment at one point, something that few singers of the Baroque repertoire employ.

The final section of the program came back to Spanish music, starting with two instrumental ricercares by the early Baroque composer Diego Ortiz. The first, an adaptation of the familiar English song ‘Greensleeves’, was started by Sorrell on the harpsichord, taken up by cellist René Schiffer, then shared through the ensemble. Schiffer took the lead on the second work, arranged by Sorrell, as many of the program’s pieces were, to fit her players perfectly. Fullana doubled him an octave higher, matching the cellist’s driving agility. Let us hope this debut will lead to further visits with Apollo’s Fire, as Fullana seems to click impressively with the group.

To close the concert, Sorrell threw a musical party with ‘Un Sarao de la Chacona’ by Juan Arañes, another early Baroque composer. It brought the wide-ranging program to a rollicking end and was received with enthusiasm by the audience. Hopefully, these streaming broadcasts give more people around the world the opportunity to experience this treasurable ensemble.

The sound and video of the concert were excellent. As I was attempting to stream from the Appalachian hills of Ohio, however, I found that I had to reduce the resolution of my stream in order to make it through the concert without constant interruption of the signal. Out here in the hills, the Internet is only accessible through satellite feeds, and as more people rightly stay home because of the pandemic, the quality of the signal is deteriorating. The Internet is the most pertinent infrastructure in the US and, now that we are about to enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is astonishing – and embarrassing – that US politicians remain utterly ineffectual at fixing the most basic problems of a wealthy country.

Turn it all over to Jeannette Sorrell, I say. She makes things happen.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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