Apollo’s Fire concert in the Ohio countryside packs both charm and substance

United StatesUnited States The Fiddlers of Dublin – An Irish-American Journey (created and directed by Jeannette Sorrell): Fiona Gillespie (vocals, whistle), Sam Kreidenweis (vocals), Susanna Perry Gilmore (fiddle), Caitlin Hedge (fiddle), Emi Tanabe (fiddle), Ian Crane (bagpipes, vocals, whistle), Tina Bergmann (hammered dulcimer), Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (director, harpsichord). Mapleside Farms, Brunswick, Ohio, 13.6.2023. (MSJ)

Soloists and ensemble of The Fiddlers of Dublin © Apollo’s Fire

Irish, Scottish, and British folk music 

What I like about Apollo’s Fire, Jeannette Sorrell’s early music ensemble, is that they don’t settle for the easiest path. For a summer concert series hopscotching across the northeast Ohio countryside, it would be easiest to do a Celtic folk concert with plenty of reels, a couple of soulful ballads, and call it a night. The crowd would go home happy. But Sorrell is not only a musician, she is a sort of conceptual artist of public engagement. Her mission is never simply to press the applause button, though this concert received plenty.

Sorrell and company can please aplenty, but there is provocation as well as scholarship worn lightly. The director launched the concert with a whimsical quote of the nursery rhyme about Old King Cole. The practical point of using the rhyme was to introduce her ‘fiddlers three’ – in this case, Susanna Perry Gilmore, Caitlin Hedge and Emi Tanabe.

But it is actually a resonance point for folklore of the British Isles: the rhyme appears to take its king’s name from an ancient British king of the Old North, Cole Hen (literally ‘Cole the Old’). While hardly a king by modern standards, Cole Hen was a warlord of the region that today consists of northern Britain and southern Scotland, near the end of Roman occupation. As their empire crumbled and the Romans pulled out of the north, it left the local tribes vulnerable to attack from the Saxons and other raiders. Cole Hen was a unifying force, but after his death, the Old North broke apart into warring factions, and the region fell to the Saxons. Folklore freezes memories of movers and shakers even after the details have fallen.

So, even though it is a nursery rhyme, Sorrell’s reference was a quick, deep pierce into the folklore of those ancient lands. It followed, with graceful poise, that before her introduction was done, Sorrell had sketched the parameters of the concert: life, dance, love, loss and death. Apollo’s Fire can and does throw a damn good party, but you can bet even the Grim Reaper himself will dance in the shadows of the corners of the room.

Fiddlers Three: Caitlin Hedge, Emi Tanabe and Susanna Perry Gilmore © Apollo’s Fire

Sorrell assembled a mighty trio of distinctive fiddlers. Susanna Perry Gilmore can play with fire where required, but her truest home is in longing, soulful passages played with deep poise and grave reserve. Caitlin Hedge brought a dark and earthy drive to her playing, both visceral and emotional. Emi Tanabe played with fire and sparkling brilliance in contrast to the others’ darker tones.

Fiona Gillespie, though petite in size, summoned a big voice where needed, but she controlled it with nuance to forefront the storytelling in such songs as ‘I Know My Love’ and ‘The Whitby Maid’. Her most vivid moment was a chilling ballad, ‘The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry’, a creepy tale about a shape-shifting lover. Sam Kreidenweis brought a rich baritone voice and magnetic stage presence to his songs. Gillespie and Kreidenweis adeptly shifted dialect for ‘Pretty Saro’, a British song that carried over to the Appalachians, and they blended harmonies gorgeously. Ian Crane further contributed to the songs vocally, as well as adding Irish bagpipes on several numbers.

Tina Bergmann was featured on hammered dulcimer in several numbers, including my favorite Appalachian tune, the version of ‘Blackberry Blossom’ played by fiddle-player and General (later US President) James A. Garfield during the Civil War. (As an aside, I tracked down that detail because I had a great-great-grand uncle who served as a guide to Garfield’s army in eastern Kentucky. It is said that Garfield played the tune frequently on that march, and I am delighted to know my relative would have heard it frequently. But I already loved the tune before I learned that.) Kudos also to lutenist William Simms, who subbed for an ill Brian Kay, joining in at the last moment to play the concert without time for rehearsal!

Sorrell herself had a solo moment playing Turlough O’Carolan’s lovely harp piece ‘O’Carolan’s Farewell’ on harpsichord. She preceded it by the account of an Irish family being forced to flee the country by English overlords who then set the house on fire. It is the kind of detail that resonates with a sudden stab, when one considers the current housing crisis in the US. Sorrell’s varied audience includes rich and poor, ancestors of people on both sides of such historical events. I thank the heavens we have someone like Sorrell to remind us both of how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

In classic Apollo’s Fire fashion, the concert closed with extremes of sorrow and joy brought side by side. Gillespie and Kreidenweis first put a lump in listeners’ throats with a radiantly beautiful but infinitely sad rendition of ‘The Parting Glass’, followed by the entire ensemble uniting to all but blow the roof off the barn at Mapleside Farms with a rollicking stomp in ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’, one where Sorrell reminded the audience, ‘We all walk together’.

Now that, my friends, is how you throw a memorable party.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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