October 8, 2019
Searching for a word to convey the distinctive character of the baroque orchestra Apollo’s Fire and its artistic director, Jeannette Sorrell, I settled on “presence” – the quality of fully inhabiting the present time, the present place, the present action, even the present body.
The celebrated ensemble, based in Cleveland, stopped by Temple Beth-El on Oct. 6 to play a mostly-Vivaldi concert for the San Antonio Chamber Music Society. The Four Seasons was included, of course, along with a concerto for two cellos, another for flute, and Ms. Sorrell’s own arrangement of Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata in D minor, based on the familiar, widely set theme known as “La folia.” The concert opened with Ms. Sorrell’s arrangement of Marco Uccellini’s brief, charming “La Bergamasca.”
Ms. Sorrell visited just last February in herdual roles as conductor and harpsichordist to lead an elite San Antonio Symphony crew in J.S. ach’s complete Brandenburg Concertos. Her return with her ownteam of baroque specialists – a dozen string players, a flutist, and one musician who switched between guitar and theorbo – imparted a fuller understanding of what she’s about. Namely, presence.
The performances throughout were remarkable for their limitless virtuosity and for their vigor, especially the emphatic, propulsive, lifelike danciness of the rhythms. From the beginning of the concert, it was hard not to notice that all the musicians were constantly in motion, their heads bobbing, their torsos swaying, rather in the manner of rock musicians. All but the bass player and the guitar/theorbo player stood throughout the concert, following baroque practice, and the standing position expanded their range of motion. The physicality of this performance was so strikingly different from the usual immobility of classical concerts that it’s likely Ms. Sorrell encouraged it, maybe even demanded it. Rhythm, deep down, emerges from basic repeating functions of physical human bodies – walking, breathing, chewing, copulating, and of course the heartbeat two-step. None of these functions can be isolated from the whole body without being denatured, emptied of life. A computer-controlled robot arm can beat a drum (or potentially bow a violin) perfectly well, but only a whole human body, with a whole human life, can make a musical instrument sound with authenticity and presence.
An important and welcome aspect of Ms. Sorrell’s appearance was her explanation of the story that unfolds through The Four Seasons. It’s the tale of a young shepherd as told through the sounds that he hears – the sounds of animals, the weather, springtime’s “rustic bagpipes,” winter’s “chattering teeth.” One might say that Vivaldi, like other European composers of the 17th and 18th centuries, was a precursor of Hollywood’s sound designers and foley artists. Musical examples of the sound effects in The Four Seasons were interspersed through Ms. Sorrell’s summary, helping her listeners to be more present to the music they were about to hear.
In her role as conductor, Ms. Sorrell gave expressive, sculptural shape to tempo and dynamics. The ensemble's performances (including her own on harpsichord) were never generically baroquey but always seemed to arise from the necessity of the moment.
In the basics of baroque performance practice, the troupe was fairly conservative: Co-concertmaster Alan Choo, violin soloist in “Spring” and “Summer,” played strictly non-vibrato, but the sturdy beauty of his tone and the feeling he invested in many of the phrases kept his contribution far from academic dryness. Co-concertmaster Olivier Brault, soloist in “Autumn” and “Winter,” allowed himself the merest hint of vibrato when justified for dramatic purposes, and his rhythms were deeply and crisply etched – aided, perhaps, by the deep knee bends he was doing.
In Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto in D, Kathie Stewart displayed lovely tone and extraordinary dexterity on baroque flute, which has no key mechanism and thus requires fancy finger work. Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor for two cellos got handsome, mutually supportive solo performances from René Schiffer and Ezra Seltzer, with the former providing especially apt details and wonderfully supported lyrical lines.
While the musicians were playing “La folia,” the closing work, they paired off and danced to the music. Not that there was ever a moment in this concert when they were not dancing.
Apollo’s Fire in Temple Beth-El. Artistic drector Jeannette Sorrell relates the story described by the music of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.