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Of Gut Strings and Wooden Flutes:
Jeannette Sorrell's Passion Ignites Apollo's Fire

by Michael Chipman AD '00


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Apollo's Fire drew early inspiration from Oberlin and continues to nurture its ties here.





In 1990 Jeannette Sorrell graduated from Oberlin Conservatory with an artist diploma in harpsichord performance and a passion for early music. That passion became the spark that ignited Apollo's Fire, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra she founded in 1992. Dedicated to performing baroque and classical repertoire on period instruments, the ensemble consistently receives high praise for its rich musicianship, versatility and virtuosity.

Sorrell brings to the stage an unusual background as both early music performer and orchestral conductor. The winner of two international harpsichord competitions, she also studied conducting under Leonard Bernstein and Roger Norrington at the Tanglewood Music Center. She is the recipient of the 1994 Erwin Bodky Award, an international award given annually to the outstanding young performer in early music.


Sorrell's love of period instruments began in high school when she listened to recordings, although she didn't perform with other period instrumentalists until the summer of 1986 when she attended Oberlin's Baroque Performance Institute (BPI). "I was ecstatic," she says. "I have always loved the sound of gut strings and wooden flutes. I think these instruments offer a sweeter and more transparent sound. It's so much fun to play baroque music on instruments that make the counterpoint come alive in a natural way. And as a young pianist, I had always loved Bach. But most importantly, I think the early music approach allows for more freedom of interpretation since the composers indicated so few details, so as a performer I feel I have more influence in the artistic process."

She continues, "At Oberlin I mostly played Marais Gamba suites with my friends Ann Marie Morgan '89 and Sarah Walder '91; it was a great way to learn to play continuo. One of the best experiences I had at Oberlin was working with Bob Spano '84 who invited me to conduct the Schubert 'Unfinished' Symphony with the Oberlin Orchestra. His coaching in rehearsals had a major impact on my rehearsal technique as a conductor. Though I had already studied conducting at Aspen and Tanglewood, Bob's laser-like vision really illuminated the conducting process for me."

In 1988 Sorrell began studies with professor of harpsichord Lisa Crawford. Sorrell says her two years of harpsichord study with Crawford prepared her to set off on what she calls "the pilgrimage to every harpsichordist's Mecca: a year of study in Holland with Gustav Leonhardt, the father figure of the harpsichord world. When that year was over I came back to Oberlin with no job and no money."

Within a few weeks of her return, Sorrell was called by the Cleveland Orchestra, to interview for the assistant conductor position. She was of 14 young conductors selected from around the country, based on her work at the Aspen Music Festival where she had been a conducting fellow the previous summer.

In the course of my interview with music director Christoph von Dohnçnyi and artistic administrator Roger Wright, I confessed that my real love was working with period instruments," says Sorrell. "I obviously did not get the job, but Roger Wright decided to help me start a baroque orchestra in Cleveland. He took me to the Cleveland Foundation and persuaded them to fund me. I was only 26 at the time, and I could not have gotten through that door without him."

What gave her the courage to create an orchestra? "For one thing," she says with a laugh, "if you don't have a job, you have nothing to lose. I had no money and no reputation to protect so I thought why not give it a try. More seriously though, I had founded a small chamber orchestra during my undergraduate years. It was less professional, made of up of other students who were my friends. But it provided valuable lessons for a larger endeavor later on."

Apollo's Fire, Cleveland Baroque Orchestra. Jeannette Sorrell, founder and music director of Apollo's Fire.


While Apollo's Fire was in development, Sorrell rented a room in the home of Gil Miranda, professor of music theory. She hired Sarah Walder as personnel manager with whom she "used to sit on the living room floor in her apartment and make hand-written address lists of musicians who had agreed to be in the group."

Sorrell ran Apollo's Fire from her "office" in Oberlin during the first two years, and credits Michael Lynn, associate dean of technology and facilities/associate professor of recorder and baroque flute, with great early assistance. "I used to write many grant proposals on his computer," says Sorrell. Lynn had performed many years with the period instrument ensemble Ars Musica in Ann Arbor and he says, "I had learned the ins and outs of working with a baroque orchestra and was pleased to pass these lessons along to Jeannette."


Apollo's Fire maintains an active national touring schedule; the group is often showcased on National Public Radio and in national periodicals. It has produced five acclaimed CD recordings, including Handel's Messiah (Onda); Monteverdi's Vespers; J.S. Bach's St. John Passion; Noëls & Carols from the Olde World; and the latest recording, The Brandenburg Concertos of J.S. Bach
(on the Canadian label Eclectra). Visit the homepage to order:

"It is safe to say that 90 percent of the musicians in Apollo's Fire are either former Oberlin students, former faculty members, or former participants at BPI," says Sorrell. "Geography plays a part in it. There have been several masters students in Historical Performance who have joined Apollo's Fire while they were students, and continued to play with us after graduation."

Lynn says the high percentage of Oberlin grads in Apollo's Fire, "shows how important Oberlin is to baroque performance nationwide." Sorrell agrees: "There are only two or three schools in the country that offer a really solid program in early music, providing real ensemble and continuo experience for students. So it's not surprising that most of the musicians who end up becoming professional baroque orchestra players have gone through Oberlin."

She adds, "Recently the renowned harpist Andrew Lawrence King visited Cleveland and Oberlin, and he suggested that Oberlin's baroque ensembles should be called 'Apollo's Frying Pan': out of the frying pan and into the fire! It's pretty true. I don't take every Oberlin student who auditions for me, but most of the Obies who play for me are really great, and I'm happy to have them."