REVIEW: Apollo's Fire Spreads Christmas Joy on Sugarloaf Mountain
DECEMBER 17, 2018
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
Apollo's Fire, founded in 1992 by a young harpsichordist and conductor named Jeannette Sorrell, is Cleveland's other orchestra. Apollo's Fire is Cleveland's 21st Century orchestra. Led with creative ingenuity, they are constantly finding new ways to be relevant, and finding new ground to explore. They are a 21st Century orchestra, yet ironically, they're a Baroque orchestra. But, they're more than that — they have spent the past two decades exploring Early Music in facets both musicological and with a knack for cultural appeal.
Jeannette Sorrell, who studied conducting under Leonard Bernstein and harpsichord with Gustav Leonhardt, is a visionary. A spectacular conductor, recently appearing with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center and the New World Symphony, the broad scope of what her Cleveland Baroque Orchestra has accomplished is evidence of her genius.
Apollo's Fire, named for the classical god of music and the sun, has produced state-of-the-art recordings of Handel's Messiah, Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, the Monteverdi Vespers, and a fair amount of Mozart (their 40th Symphony is one of the best I've ever heard), among other traditional Early Music mainstays. Their 2018 CD entitled Songs of Orpheus, has been nominated for a Grammy Award.
Apollo's Fire has not just focused on European music from 1600-1750, as a period instrument orchestra is traditionally expected to do. Instead, they've explored a fascinating, and crowd-pleasing, variety of stuff, from Sephardic Jewish music to early American music, drawing award recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts.
"Christmas on Sugarloaf Mountain," a concert presented on Sunday at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, and a CD (or digital download) named "Best Festive Disc of 2018" by Gramophone Magazine, is an example of their forays into Americana, with a broader, timely message, as well. Subtitled "An Irish-Appalachian Celebration," this is more than a mere concert. It's a festive and enriching exploration of the music brought to America from Great Famine-ravaged Ireland and Scotland in the nineteenth century. This is a festive Christmas celebration, and also a redemptive reflection on immigration itself.
Sorrell exudes joy as she leads from her harpsichord center stage, surrounded by a bevy of instrumentalists playing Celtic harp, hammered dulcimer, Uillean pipes, and gourd banjo (to name just a few), an assortment of superb solo singers, a full chorus, and a children's chorus ("Apollo's Musettes"), and there is dancing and merriment enveloping the whole room. The music itself, which includes both traditional Irish folk music and Appalachian folk material, varies from invigorating dances (they play Irish "reels" with contagious infectiousness) and touching, lyrical hymns. The music is timeless and earthy, but actually intricate and quite difficult. Full of ornamentation, and sometimes involving a team of violins and flutes ripping away at a busy rhythmic tune in unison (a thrilling effect). It's actually fully appropriate that a virtuoso period instrument orchestra should tackle this repertoire.
The program is broken into sets that codify the humanitarian connections Sorrell is making here. After a rousing medley collectively called "Christmas Eve at the Crossroads," the second set quickly ushers in a bittersweet, nostalgic atmosphere, focusing on Irish music from the homeland, "Celtic Memories: Christmas Eve in Old Ireland." Susanna Perry Gillmore on the fiddle brought rhetorical passion to a medley of "Sheep in the Snow/Apples in Winter/Little Christmas Reel." And Brian Kay, master of plucked instruments (he had a a giant string instrument Sorell described as a "cross between a lute and a giraffe"), accompanied himself singing the plaintive "Blow, Northern Wind." Aaron Keeney sang the Gaelic carol "That Night in Bethlehem," adorned with a mysterious plucked accompaniment, and heavy with weighty melodic appoggiaturas, Sorrell's beautiful arrangement brilliantly incorporates the children's chorus. The set concludes with the rhythmically complicated Medieval British carol "Nowell, Tidings Trew," Sorrell proving that she is also a virtuoso of the tamborine. She led the large forces, tamborine in hand, with tossed off skill.
The first half concludes with "Caroling Across the Waters," showcasing the indefatigable flute playing of Kathie Stewart, and a another of Sorrell's refreshing medleys of carols. Following intermission, the theme of migrants is explored in a mashup of the traditional British carol "Joseph & Mary" and the Appalachian tune "I Wonder As I Wander," sung movingly by Ross Hauck and Amanda Powell. Sorell finally gives a brief taste of her harpsichord playing in "The Gravel Walk/Frost & Snow/28th of January/Over the Isles to America," a rhapsodic solo that builds to include the hammered dulcimer of Tina Bergmann.
"Christmas Morning in Appalachia" introduces the conceit of a country church service, and centers around the energetic vocals of the young Apollo's Musettes. Michael Temesi, treble soloist, sang with purity of tone and warm innocence in "Jesus Born in Beth'ny," The final set, "Christmas Barn Dance," returns to the indelible gusto of the upbeat reel.
Jeannette Sorrell's reminder that migrants, so much a part of the news in our current zeitgeist, are an integral part of the Christmas story -- and an integral part of what America is about, and where our traditions come from -- is given heartwarming affirmation in this inventive, moving event. The music, so brilliantly brought to life in this transcendent display of technical skill and subtle artistry, is like the sounds of our neighbors and, maybe, our ancestors, echoing from one end of the mountain valley to another. The audience, uplifted, seems to exit the hall inspired to be kinder, more mindful, and to embrace the true spirit of the holiday. What a gift.