As Apollo’s Fire artistic director, conductor, and harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell aptly pointed out in the program for last night’s concert at Ravinia, Antonia Vivaldi was the rock and roll composer of the eighteenth century. While that statement might seem odd for one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period, his melodies and use of instrumental solos share much in common with contemporary progressive rock. Indeed, I don’t believe it would be too much of a stretch to compare Vivaldi’s music with that of Dream Theater.
Apollo’s Fire was founded by Jeannette Sorrell in 1992 as an ensemble dedicated to Baroque music. Having taken their stage debut only recently in 2010, this Cleveland-based troupe are beginning to turn heads worldwide. Sorrell is well educated in music and conducting, having studied the latter under Leonard Bernstein and other great conductors. As a harpsichordist, she is masterful. Considering Vivaldi was often called “the Redhead Priest,” it is fitting that Sorrell has bright red hair.
The rest of the band is made up of a flautist (playing a traverso – a fancy 18th century-style flute), seven violinists, two violists, two cellists, one contrabassist, and a man playing the guitar and the theorbo (an instrument which Sorrell compared to a cross between a lute and a giraffe). All members use traditional gut-strings on their instruments rather than modern steel strings, and they all use a shorter style of bow than those common today. The cellists also lacked endpins, and Sorrell played a real harpsichord. The result was a sound authentic to the time in which the music was composed. The only thing missing was period clothing for the performers, but that obviously takes nothing away from the music.
Apart from the final encore, the entire set was Vivaldi, with a focus on “The Four Seasons.” After two flute concertos written to celebrate birds, in particular the goldfinch, flautist Kathie Stewart left the stage for the entirety of The Four Seasons. In an effort to bring the seasons to life, prior to each season, Sorrell, with the aid of the musicians, broke down the major themes Vivaldi sprinkled throughout his music. After that, they played a season, followed by explanation, and so on. I think this was absolutely brilliant, and I learned a lot about the music. From the happy chirping of the birds in “Spring” (a theme that I’m sure most people have heard) to the patter of cold rain falling on the roof in Italy during “Winter,” the entire piece came to life due to Sorrell’s thoughtful explication.
The first encore was a song called “La Folia,” based off of a Portuguese dance song where the musicians play faster and faster as the song goes on, as if they were going crazy. Flautist Kathie Stewart rejoined the band for the final encore, entitled “Sugarloaf Mountain,” a sort of cross between bluegrass and Irish music. The entire concert was full of wonderful twists and turns, as well as some pantomimed humor from cellist René Schiffer.
Concertmaster Olivier Brault proved himself worthy of the title when he took the lead for “Winter.” While all the violinists were exceptional, it was clear that he is a cut above the rest. All the musicians played in such wonderful harmony with each other, and it was clear they love what they do. They also seem to enjoy playing with each other, which cannot always be said for an orchestra. It was also refreshing to see the musicians actually following the lead of their conductor. Lately, when I’ve seen the CSO, it is as if the orchestra is playing without a conductor because they are never in sync with his downbeats. Apollo’s Fire was in perfect sync with Sorrell.
In the end, Apollo’s Fire deserved their standing ovation. Their show is not only entertaining, but also educational. It is not often one gets to hear instruments played as they were historically, and Sorrell’s explanations of different musical themes make the music come to life. If you ever get the chance to see Apollo’s Fire live, do it. They play a lot in Cleveland, as well as select shows elsewhere. They have also released over 25 albums over the years. By reaching into the past, Apollo’s Fire are bringing the music of the Baroque into a fresh new light.