Cleveland’s Apollo’s Fire summons Baroque storms

United StatesUnited States Various, Apollo Fire’s ‘Storms & Tempests’: Amanda Forsythe (soprano), Alan Choo (violin), Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor). First United Methodist Church, Akron, Ohio, 10.11.2022. (MSJ)

Jeannette Sorrell (conductor) and Amanda Forsythe (soprano) © Apollo’s Fire

Vivaldi – Sinfonia in G minor, RV157; ‘Siam navi all’onde algenti’ from L’Olimpiade; Violin Concerto in E-flat major Op.8 No.5, ‘La Tempesta di Mare’
Lully – ‘Passecaille’ from Persée
Grétry – ‘Vol des nuages’ from Zémire et Azor; ‘Marche égyptienne’ from Caravan de Caire
Dall’Abaco – ‘Passepied’ from Concerto à più istrumenti Op.5 No.3
Handel – ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ from Giulio Cesare
Graun – ‘Tra le Procelle assorto’ from Cleopatra e Cesare
Marais – Suite from Alcione

It is fun to encounter historically informed stagecraft in a period instrument concert. It turns out that the Baroque wind machine is essentially the same mechanical contraption of canvas and crank that Richard Strauss used in his Alpine Symphony, just smaller. And to match the thunder of the bass drum was the crash of a metal sheet. But such a flashy battery of percussion was merely dressing to the energy of Apollo’s Fire in full blaze.

Apollo Fire’s Storms and Tempests © Apollo’s Fire

The ensemble’s director, Jeannette Sorrell, is a master of program building. Here she assembled a compelling arc of French and Italian music, contrasting the elegance of the former with the drama of the latter, but further complicating the contrast by including both concert works and excerpts from stage works. This approach spurs the musicians to go beyond the conventions of the original genres to a sort of grand unified theory of performance: the operatic arias sound like concertos for voice, and the concertos pop like characters on a stage before you.

Soprano Amanda Forsythe made a welcome return to Apollo’s Fire in demanding arias by Vivaldi, Handel, Marais and Graun. Surprisingly enough, the show-stealing piece was the Graun. Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759) is one of those composers of the late Baroque/early Classical period who only rarely surfaces in recordings, and almost never in a live concert. Indeed, for some years, his biggest claim to fame has been that his great-great-great-great-grandson was Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita. Yet here he was, represented by the aria ‘Tra le Procelle assorto’ from his opera Cleopatra e Césare. And it turns out that it is a spectacular showpiece for the soprano.

The opera was written for the opening of the Berlin State Opera in 1742 and, if this aria is anything to go by, Graun handily fills in the gap between the waning intricacies of the Baroque era and the clean lines of the forming Classical style. (And, keeping in mind the theme of the program: though Graun was German, he wrote exclusively in Italian opera style.) One could imagine that in the wrong hands this aria might come across as empty grandstanding: there are a lot of scales, a lot of intricate passagework. But it also suddenly snaps a showpiece like Mozart’s ‘Martern aller Arten’ from The Abduction from the Seraglio into perspective. Without the Graun, we might not have had the Mozart, for Wolfgang certainly learned a thing or two from Carl.

Forsythe brought the Graun aria to life with such vibrancy that one wants it to have its own standing, regardless of Mozart or anyone else. Even more than illustrating wind and weather, her almost insouciant vocal assurance captured the hauteur of a royal character, the brilliance and wit of a skilled composer and a sheer delight in vocal pyrotechnics. She was equally compelling in the alternating dolor and fury of Handel’s ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ from Giulio Cesare, Vivaldi’s surging ‘Siam navi all’onde algenti’ from L’Olimpiade and the rustic dancing of the sailors’ scene from Marais’s Alcione.

That latter was a welcome chance to hear something other than the usual viola da gamba music for which Marin Marais is famous. Sorrell assembled a suite of highlights from Alcione that included the sailors’ scene, instrumental numbers and the Baroque storm referenced earlier. The music proves that Marais was just as adept at theater music as he was at chamber music.

Part of good programming strategy is to anchor an evening of mostly unfamiliar fare with a more familiar piece. In this case, it was the Vivaldi violin concerto known as ‘La tempesta di Mare’, which immediately follows The Four Seasons in Vivaldi’s Op.8, The Contest between Harmony and Invention. Whether it was truly created from a program about a storm at sea or merely given the programmatic title afterward is unknown, but this performance with Alan Choo as soloist seized on the colorful contrasts of the work.

It has been a pleasure watching Choo flower over the last few years. He first came to work with Apollo’s Fire as a technically skilled virtuoso, but in the last five years has grown bold and daring. Five years ago, he stood on stage almost apologetically but now stands there like a rock star, diving into phrases and finding the bizarre passing moments that make Vivaldi so entertaining, no matter how many stock phrases and chord progressions are used. Doubly impressive was that Choo didn’t take the rest of the concert off: he also served as concertmaster, even making sure his troops were rallied in the Vivaldi concerto by turning aside and playing to them as much as to the audience in the tutti passages.

That is typical of how this ensemble operates, flexing as a unit. They all seemed on the verge of taking off dancing (even the continuo players!) in the lilting ‘Passepieds’ by Dall’Abaco, of standing still like statues in the poised ‘Passecaille’ from Lully’s Persée and of high-stepping to Grétry’s exotic ‘Marche égyptienne’.

Sorrell and her ensemble continue to move from strength to strength, to the benefit of every listener.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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