Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire Condescend to Perform in Youngstown for a Remedial Concert

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Jeannette Sorrell conducting the same program at Tanglewood

Jeannette Sorrell conducting the same program at Tanglewood

Jeanette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire Condescend to Perform in Youngstown for a Remedial Concert

Early Monday morning, July 3, 2017, with neo-Baroque instruments in tow, Jeanette Sorrell and eighteen members of Apollo’s Fire ventured down routes 77, 80, and 680 from Cleveland to Youngtown’s St. Columba Cathedral for a performance of Vivaldi’s Le quattro stagioni (“The Four Seasons”) plus La Bergamasca by Marco Uccellini and Evaristo dall’Abaco’s Concerto in E minor , op. 5, no 3. This expensive event was billed as one of the highlight concerts for the 2017 American Guild of Organists’ Great Lakes Regional Convention.

Apollo’s Fire has risen to god-like status in this area of the country where Szell/Shaw performances of Baroque music are unfortunately still quite common place. Perhaps the fuel that fires Apollo’s Fire is diminishing, however.

Along with her voluptuous and colorful outfit and constant head-bobbing, Sorrell decided to talk at length prior to each of the six concerti du jour. At times I felt I was at a Bette Midler performance. Frequently, Sorrell left the microphone on—which led to some surprising sonic revelations, e.g. her harpsichord playing was often ahead of or behind the beat. The other most astonishing moment was when there was a 96 dB level plunk from the theorbo, which could be heard echoing through the cathedral’s luxurious acoustic. Having never heard a theorbo in ensemble, the amplified theorbo was quite a revealing moment.

Given the above anomalies, what bothered this author was the obvious inappropriateness of the selections that Sorrell chose for a group of educated and “seasoned” church musicians. A more appropriate choice would have been selections from Apollo’s Fire CD collection: Noels & Carols from the Olde World (2004); excerpts from Come to the River: An Early American Gathering (2011); or the various organ concerti by Handel or the not-often-heard ones by Haydn. Instead, Sorrell opted for all-too-familiar pickings.

Let’s start with AF’s rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Taking almost as long as the music itself, Sorrell presumptuously chose to make remedial-level points explaining the obvious text painting and affects of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to a musically educated audience, many of whom have advanced degrees in music. To make matters even more repetitious, printed in the convention booklet and program were the four seasonal sonnets in Italian and English that accompanied the 1725 Four Seasons publication.

As if the verbal explanations, printed notes, and sonnets were not enough, to say nothing of Vivaldi’s explicitly vivid music itself, Sorrell elected to have the players stand in small groups and actually demonstrate Vivaldi’s text painting as a conductor might do, to explain the various characters and instruments in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Trying to explain the affects and effects of the four seasons, Sorrell battered the Northeast Ohioans with a relentless weather report, a broadcast with which they are all too familiar. Really? Explaining the freshness of spring, the languid heat of the summer, the colors and crispness of the autumn, and the bitter cold of winter to people from this area is like explaining snow to the Inuit. At times I felt I was in a Baroque Romper Room. And did I mention the constant pitch of CD sales in the narthex?

Speaking of explicit word painting in Vivaldi’s scores, it is quite surprising, that while Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire spent a lot of time overemphasizing the barking dogs, cuckoo calls, bagpipes, howling winds, etc., there was no mention whatsoever of the Contest between Harmony and Invention, which is the umbrella title for the group of 12 concerti, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, from which the Four Seasons, are extracted.

Now, let’s get back to the constant head bobbing of the conductor. Chamber ensembles need no such overt cues to play well together. If anyone should lead, perhaps it should have been the solo violinist as this was a concert of violin concerti. How disappointing for the audience that the visual did not match the aural.

Despite a handful of harpsichords, recorders, and krumhorns in the Youngstown area, Sorrell informed the audience that her group was playing on authentic Baroque instruments. There is a great difference between modern reproduction instruments and instruments made in the actual Baroque era. Calling the instruments “Baroque instruments” is like calling Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland a ”Gothic cathedral.” Although it is rare to hear early music performances in Youngstown, the locals are not unfamiliar with now decades-old recordings of Early Music.1 In this country alone, one thinks of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and The New York Pro Musica,

American Bach Soloists, The Boston Camerata, the Texas Early Music project, and the student ensembles from Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Oberlin.

Speaking of Early Music groups, I compared AF’s performance of dall’Abaco’s concerti with Concerto Köln’s 1998 CD recording, Evaristo Felice dall’Abaco, and I can tell you the Apollo’s Fire performance was lacking in comparison. Concerto Köln’s recounting is more precise with beautiful phrasing, beautiful transmission, and overall mastery.

AF’s ensemble greatly suffered from the quirky-jerky and idiosyncratic conducting of the “queen bee” and the grouping of much of the figuratura into small musical terrorist cells that had little connection with the overall direction of the phrase. To exacerbate the lack of group-effort ensemble, it was obvious that there was a kind of master–slave relationship being presented between Sorrell and the participating instrumentalists. This was apparent in costume (Sorrell in a big colorful outfit—the others in black), placement, and body language. Because of these peculiarities, Apollo’s Fire’s presentation suffered.

Obviously unfamiliar with playing in such a live room, AF’s sound was confusing. Hurried tempi, lack of negative space, an absence of arched phrasing, and the poverty of clean articulation certainly did not add to the overall delivery of the music at hand. I was surprised to experience small sections that showed little or no relation to the larger sections.

Overall, the AGO Great Lakes Regional Convention week presented many fine, outstanding, and memorable performances by the likes of James David Christie, Craig Cramer, Janette Fishell, Nathan Laube, Illuminare, Todd Wilson, The Youngstown Scoring Stage, and The Arsenal Duo. What was promoted as a highlight concert by Apollo’s Fire proved to be an irritating and minimally inspiring occasion.

  1. not to mention their proximity to a major center of the early music movement, Cleveland, thanks largely to the efforts of Prof. Ross W. Duffin at Case Western University and the various groups and choruses he has led and participated in over many years, including the chorus that sings with Apollo’s Fire—ed.