Apollo’s Fire burns darkly in a program of Hispanic music

United StatesUnited States Various, ‘¡Hispania! A voyage from Spain to the Americas’: Sophia Burgos, Andréa Walker (sopranos), Alan Choo, Emi Tanabe (violins), Jeremías García (guitar), Sandi Bohl (castanets), Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor and harpsichord). St. Bernard Catholic Church, Akron, 20.3.2024. (MSJ)

[front l-r] Andréa Walker, Jeannette Sorrell and Sophia Burgos after the opening night performance © Apollo’s Fire

This, arguably, is not the forum for examining extra-musical considerations. But when there is an elephant in the room, it would be foolish to suppose it can be ignored. The elephant that tried to weigh down this show was the misfortune of Apollo’s Fire concertmaster and assistant director Alan Choo, whose baroque violin was stolen a week and a half ago during an Apollo’s Fire rehearsal. It is agonizing for musicians when an instrument with which they have built their lives is stolen. Moreso, it is an absurd crime: such a distinctive instrument is unsellable in the market that would desire it.

The theft had been broadcast widely over the previous week in regional media, traditional and social, and this was the first concert since the incident in which the audience would see the ensemble. The turnout this evening in Akron was at or near capacity, with the crowd expressing fervent support for the ensemble (and Choo in particular). The group has been running out to Akron for concerts from their home base of Cleveland for almost thirty years.

By coincidence or design, the opening of this concert of Spanish and Spanish-related music was bold. Instead of the usual upbeat number one might expect for a program of numerous small works, Apollo’s Fire music director Jeannette Sorrell chose her own arrangement of the melancholy traditional Catalan ‘Song of the Birds’ to open. After a dusting of percussion and ground bass on the stage, a ripple went through the house when the first melodic sounds came from a violin, somewhere deep in the back of St. Bernard’s cathedral. Anyone familiar with the ensemble would have known that this sad, despairing violin line was being played by Alan Choo, on this occasion on a borrowed instrument. That voice was soon echoed by Apollo’s Fire principal Emi Tanabe, also in the rear of the church. They gradually made their way down the center aisle in a breathtaking musical dialogue that coalesced as they approached the stage. Vocalists Sophia Burgos and Andréa Walker entered and led from the folksong into the religious song ‘Santa Maria, Strela do Dia’.

It made for a powerful and emotional opening. But as the concert moved on to livelier numbers, a pall seemed to remain. One could not help but wonder at the level of tension which remained for the players after one of their members was violated by theft. It must provoke fear and an abundance of caution, neither of which is conducive to spirited music-making. But these players are nothing if not professional, and the anxious atmosphere gradually thawed as the concert progressed, with the usual smiles and camaraderie of the ensemble slowly appearing and finally blooming during the Flamenco guitar performance of guest soloist Jeremías García in the second half.

Building toward that release of tension were the solos and duets of sopranos Sophia Burgos and Andréa Walker. In signature style, Sorrell chose her singers with an ear for contrast, Burgos featuring a big, dramatic sound and Walker bringing a sweet, intimate voice. They blended exquisitely, dovetailing their phrases to give each other moments to shine. Burgos was particularly fascinating in the Sephardic Ladino ballad ‘Nani, Nani’, where a mother sings a lullaby to her child while waiting for her unfaithful husband to return from his lover. When Amanda Powell sang this song with Apollo’s Fire a few years back, her rendition made its impact from the way Powell could hover her statuesque voice in breathtaking manner. Burgos made it her own by pursuing an earthy, intense characterization of dialogue between husband and wife.

Burgos also scored the remarkable feat of talking Sorrell into programming an aria from Manuel de Falla’s opera La vida breve, and a moody Puerto Rican pop hit, ‘Lamento Borincano’. Though such jaunts are rare, the ensemble has voyaged into more modern times before, and Sorrell and principal cellist Rene Schiffer (on the de Falla) arranged the pieces – both have strong roots in the Spanish folk music that unites this program. The works fit seamlessly.

Special mention must be made of William Simms supporting García with vigorous playing of the vihuela, a small Spanish guitar of the Baroque period, and of guest castanet and hand-clap percussionist (and, at one point, dancer) Sandi Bohl. By no means least, percussionist Anthony Taddeo seemed determined to light up the stage with his vital joy, in addition to adding inspired lift with his rhythms. On this evening, Taddeo started the spark that gradually spread to his colleagues on stage, eventually burning away the darkness.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

Traditional Catalan (arr. J. Sorrell) – ‘El Cant des Ocells’ (‘Song of the Birds’)
From the Cantigas de Santa Maria Codex (arr. J. Sorrell) – ‘Santa Maria, Strela do Dia’
Ortiz2 Recercadas
Encina – ‘Oy Comamos y Bebamos’
Martín y Coll – ‘Danza del Acha’
Falconieri – ‘Folias della Spagna’
Sanz – Guitar Solo
Traditional Peruvian (arr. J. Sorrell) – ‘Marizápalos’
Traditional Mexican (arr. J. Sorrell) – ‘Xacara’
Gutierrez de Padilla (ed. J. Sorrell) – ‘A la Xacara, Xacarilla’
Santiago de Murcia (arr. J. Sorrell) – ‘Gaitas’, ‘Fandango’
Traditional Flamenco – ‘Fandangos de Huelva’
Traditional Sephardic Ladino – ‘Nani, Nani’
Tárrega – ‘Capricho Árabe’
de Falla (arr. R. Schiffer & J. Sorrell) – ‘Vivan los que rien’ from La Vida Breve
Marín – ‘Lamento Borincano’
Arañes (arr. J. Sorrell) – ‘Un Saran da le Chacona’

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