Apollo’s Fire: The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra at Tanglewood

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Jeanette Sorrel conducts Apollo's Fire.
Jeanette Sorrel conducts Apollo’s Fire

Thursday, July 2, 8 p.m. Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood
Apollo’s Fire: The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra
Jeannette Sorrell, music director and conductor

A Night at Bach’s Coffee House:
Telemann – Excerpts from the incidental music
to Don Quixote
J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 4
J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 5
Handel – Chaconne from Terpsichore
Vivaldi (arr. Sorrell) – La Folia (Madness)

(For a podcast interview with Jeannette Sorrell, click here.)

For some time now, Tanglewood has included a variety of distinguished soloists and groups specializing in historically informed performance practice to play in Seiji Ozawa Hall, which is quite well suited to the less aggressive, more subtle colors of period instruments. Some seasons are more generous than others, and I personally favor liberality in this area, although the Berkshires enjoy one of the oldest and best of the early music festivals, Aston Magna. Tanglewood early evolved into a microcosm of classical music as practiced in America—and to some degree, necessarily, internationally—and HIP has become an essential part of a wider landscape, which embraces Tyondai Braxton, John Zorn, and Bernard Haitink all together. A forum like Tanglewood allows early music to be heard in this extended context. One thing we sorely miss in this—to me most welcome—movement is the ability to hear Bach and Handel on the same program as, say, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, and Webern. Beethoven and even Brahms can indeed flourish on period instruments, but the ability to look beyond them to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is lost. And there is one more consideration…Tanglewood’s early music concerts always sell very well. And one more question…should the TMC include an early music component in their program?

Jeanette Sorrell, Music Director of Apollo’s Fire: the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, is one person who would have an intelligent answer to that question at the ready, since she is a former TMC Conducting Fellow, as well as one of the most admired figures, both as harpsichordist and conductor, in the early music world, with increasing prominence as a guest conductor of mainstream symphony orchestras. She founded Apollo’s Fire in 1992, and its growth, both in institutional solidity and reputation among peers and audiences, has been rapid. Ms. Sorrell and her group began to record early—and successfully—and this has done much to spread their fame, now supplemented by extensive touring in the Untied States and Europe. Seiji Ozawa Hall was exceptionally full last Thursday evening, and the audience did not seem like people looking for something to fill the empty time between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga and the Boston Pops. Apart from the usual Seiji Ozawa Hall crowd, more informed and sophisticated than Music Shed regulars, there seemed to be a healthy contingent who had come specifically to hear Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire.

What Apollo’s Fire offered this mixed, pre-season (that is, nowadays, pre-James Taylor) assembly was a brief—very brief, at 105 minutes including intermission—visit with the secular Bach at Zimmermann’s Coffee House, the largest and most elegant establishment of the sort in Leipzig. It is well to remember that coffee, available in Europe for not much more than a century before Bach’s tenure at Zimmermann’s, was a very expensive luxury, consumed almost exclusively by the aristocracy and upper middle class. Bach’s own Coffee Cantata (BWV 211), in which the headstrong daughter of the rich bourgeois Schlendrian, argues with him about her passion for coffee (three cups a day—an outrageous expense!), explores this, as well as its intoxicating and erotic properties, while omitting coffee’s exotic African and Oriental associations. The transgressive hedonism of coffee-drinking, especially in regard to women, comes home, when we understand that Zimmermann’s and its competitors were an exclusively male realm. Ladies were not welcome, except to hear the special concerts of the Collegium Musicum, a band consisting of Leipzig University students, the direction of which J. S. Bach took over from Georg Philipp Telemann, who founded them as a law student in 1702. The Collegium began playing at Zimmermann’s around 1720, and Bach led the concerts between 1729 and 1739. They came to an end with Zimmermann’s death in 1741.There was no charge for the concerts, but, given their exclusive venue, they could hardly be described as popular, in the demotic sense.

With a memory of the delightful, more party-like Zimmermann’s Coffee House, reincarnated by the Bethlehem Bach Festival still vivid in my mind, I viewed its invocation by Apollo’s Fire at Tanglewood more as a genial invitation to enjoy two of Bach’s most beloved and important works along with, appropriately enough, music by Telemann, as well dance music, not especially associated with Zimmermann’s, by Handel and Vivaldi. Jeannette Sorrell, who, as often, wrote the program notes, prefaced most of these with genial, audience-friendly chats about Zimmermann’s, Johann Sebastian Bach, especially his less serious side, and other topics related to Handel, the famous dance tune, “La Folia,” and a surprise encore. Ms. Sorrell’s intelligent insights into the music, reflected in the splendid performances and her stated approach to performance, gave some substance to the talks and genuinely helped the audience to listen to the music. At first I thought she may have underestimated her audience, but their response and noticeable engagement in the performances proved me wrong.

Around the time Apollo’s Fire was starting up, I, as a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, witnessed the growth of an unfortunate policy in the interpretation of art for the public, built an the assumption that most museum visitors possessed third-grade reading skills, an attention span limited to a few seconds, and an inclination to feel insulted if presented information they did not know already. This rampant dumbing-down enjoyed all-too-long a life at the museum and may have infected other areas of the arts in Cleveland. Ms. Sorrell seemed to skirt all this while maintaining some respect for her audience and the courage to impart helpful information. What matters, however, is the playing. If I discuss these other aspects of the evening, it is because they represent and influence the presentation in a significant way.

Jeanette Sorrell has written or said on several occasions that her approach to Baroque and Classical music is its Affekt, that is, its power to form emotions in the listeners and to influence their feelings, like one of the rhetoricians of antiquity. This important theme in the aesthetic theory of music in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries offered a way out of the dry manner of the early music movement in its early phase, which musicians and audiences were beginning to outgrow during her formative years in the 1980s. Affekt informs the music-making of Apollo’s Fire in every way, from the performative gestures we experience in the concert hall to matters of technique. The result is a contemporary version of a style of playing in which every measure, every phrase, every note, is filled with life and expressive intent—once so much admired in musicians like Wilhelm Furtwängler, Edwin Fischer, Alfred Cortot, and Pablo Casals. She and her musicians achieve this through a remarkable balancing act combining unified control with individual expression. While attacks are strong and clean, individual players, especially the principals, are encouraged to interact as pairs or slightly more extended groups in informing their phrasing in what they feel in the melody and harmony they are playing. This and Ms. Sorrell’s own vivacity brought the music far beyond the notes.

Telemann’s suite of short pieces depicting scenes from Cervantes’ Don Quixote needed this urgently if it were to come to life for twenty-first century audiences, and it is probably as vivid a representation as any musician of our time can create of how Telemann’s audience heard the music. This light, humorous music also tells us something about how people read the novel in the early eighteenth century. (Perhaps we take it too seriously today.) The music is descriptive, even ballet-like, although as far as we know the music was meant to stand on its own as an orchestral performance. The piece was billed as “selections,” which in practice meant that one two-minute movement, “The gallop of Rosinante – The gallop of Sancho’s donkey,” with its amusing rhythmical discombobulations, was omitted. I don’t understand why, especially in such a short program and such a short movement.

The first half of the concert ended and the second half began with the core of the program, J. S. Bach’s Fourth and Fifth Brandenburg Concertos. Sorrell stressed the innovative nature of Bach’s writing, and the performance manifested that most convincingly in both concerti, most obviously in the Fifth, with its massive harpsichord solo, but also in the Fourth’s intricate weft of two recorder parts with solo violin—played with such sensitivity and brilliance by Francis Colpron and Kathie Stewart, recorders, and Olivier Brault, violin. Their tone and phrasing could not be surpassed. As I mentioned, these three interacted intimately through body language with each other, Sorrell, who conducted from a raised harpsichord, standing, and with the rest of the orchestra, who played with no less virtuosity. Apollo’s Fire is most decidedly an ensemble of soloists. The performance was enlivened with various seemingly unpredictable gestures, including a Luftpause recalling Alfred Cortot’s still admirable, enjoyable, and relevant recordings from 1930, but in an odd, mercurial place. Even M. Brault seemed a bit surprised by what he had just done. This is typical of many seemingly spontaneous details which made the performance so fresh and exciting. You will not hear this sort of thing in the group’s outstanding recording of the work, which is, as studio recordings are, somewhat sobered up for repeated listening.

If the combination of instruments and the writing for them and the ensemble are unique in the fourth Brandenburg, they are actually eccentric in the fifth, which, with Bach’s fair manuscript dated 1721, is the earliest known attempt to show the concertante possibilities of the harpsichord—in a triple concerto shared with a traverse flute and a violin. More than usual of the harpsichord part is written out in Bach’s 1721 MS, especially as the first movement reaches a climax in which the three solo instruments weave a dense texture together, as the harpsichord emerges further and further. Eventually it breaks loose on its own and embarks on a solo 65 bars long (an earlier, shorter version exists, of only 18 bars). In her introduction, Sorrell rightly stressed just how innovative this treatment of the instrument is and prepared the audience for its length. During the performance the audience remembered her words, and some laughed, as the solo seemed to approach a climax and then gathered new energy for a different tack. There is in fact nothing to laugh at in this grand music, or so I thought, as I heard the first wave of titters…then I reflected, “What if they’re right? What if Bach was presented this revolutionary excursion on the keyboard as a musical joke? Haydn, after all, passed off some advanced musical ideas as jokes, and composers three or four generations later—the Second Viennese School, for example—returned to them in deep seriousness. Bach’s heavenly lengths in this case are likely enough to inspire some awestruck but humorous outburst. We might well exclaim “Holy shit!” today, and so we should. Sorrell’s Fifth was just as fiery and fresh as the Fourth, and I was able to admire and savor the solo—and every note of the rest—as if the work were new to my ears. And that is a rare feat, given the number of times year in year out I hear the Brandenburgs sliced and diced in various ways. It takes more than a good or even excellent performance to rejuvenate in this way.

Apollo’s Fire did justice both to the dance-like qualities of Handel’s chaconne, as well as to its theatrical grandeur. He wrote it originally for an allegorical masque, Parnaso in festa, in which Apollo summons the Muses to demonstrate their powers. In her program note, Sorrell imagines each variation of the chaconne as a contrasting characterization for each Muse, as she enters. In this case Apollo’s Fire demonstrated their considerable powers as soloists and and ensemble. The variations were an ideal score to set off the scintillating colors of the group’s strings, which coalesced in a rich and solid ensemble sound, while allowing shifting hues from individual players.

Sorrell’s own arrangement of Vivaldi’s version of the famous Portuguese dance, La Folia (“Madness”), as a concerto grosso for her whole group was equally full of life and color. Some of the players, above all M. Brault, danced a few steps with colleagues. In the spirit of a programmed encore, it worked the audience up into a flurry of enthusiasm and pleasure.

The unprogrammed encore was a number from their latest CD, Sugarloaf Mountain,: an Appalachian Gathering. Their interest in the folk music of this region, not so far from Cleveland, and one which has left its mark on Cleveland’s demographics and culture, derives not only from the enthusiasm of some of the musicians in the group, including Ms. Sorrell, but from a favored summer venue, a barn in Chagrin Falls (discussed in my interview with Jeanette Sorrell), a semi-rural town east of the city, which is particularly suitable for folk music—and Bach. Like “La Folia,” the Appalachian tune was set for the entire orchestra.

With the decline of Cleveland from its lofty place as one of the most dynamic industrial cities in the U.S. and the general decline of private philanthropy in the arts, it seemed that the public-spirited genius which created Cleveland’s repertory theater, art museum, and orchestra in the early twentieth century had left for good. For someone who has worked in the arts in that city, it is deeply reassuring that such an ambitious, original, and excellent an enterprise has been founded and has flourished there within the past quarter-century.

(For a podcast interview with Jeannette Sorrell, click here.)

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