The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts February 10, 2006

Apollo’s Fire Ignites Burning Baroque Passion
Baroque Period Brought Beautifully to Life by Skillful Orchestra
Fire on the stage: Apollo’s Fire energizes Finney Chapel with its dedicated and accurate portrayal of Baroque music and dance.

Finney Chapel has seen many different spectacles recently — everything from the Winter Term opera Cosi fan tutte (a wonderful presentation, by the way), to the Danenberg Honors Recital, featuring several newly composed pieces by Oberlin student composers, to “Earth, Wind and Fire,” Apollo’s Fire’s show. This performance space changes tremendously with each new presentation.

Apollo’s Fire, Cleveland’s Baroque Orchestra, performed an astonishing, unbelievable event, which still resonates in my mind. Before last night, I admit — I was not a Baroque music lover; but since yesterday, I’ll root for it everywhere I go.

For two hours, I felt like I was sent back in time to Europe, with its old-fashioned stylistics, witty charm, lavish costumes and incredible musical taste. I started to ask myself how exactly this music would have sounded in its traditional environment — Paris, aristocracy, ballroom hall, heavy wigs.

In the 21st century, Baroque music is a supreme rebellion. It’s a riot against atonality, with its absolute order and exploration of the ultimate harmonic relationships. If in the last decades non-tonal music landed itself in the mainstream and ceased to be treated as the ultimate revolt, then today, Baroque music performances must be viewed as the New Atonality.

The concert opened with C. Kocher’s For the Beauty of the Earth, the “showpiece” of the program, according to the ensemble’s music director, Jeannette Sorrell. She conducted the ensemble with gorgeous gestures that I have rarely seen in live performance.

Baroque orchestras, which perform on period instruments, have a particular color palette with a buzzing, slightly abrasive sound that is out of this world. Maybe it was the harpsichord, maybe it was the pear-shaped violin that one of the performers used, or maybe it was the principal cellist’s Baroque cello, but the result was beautiful and charismatic, almost as if it were produced by electronic instruments, yet lacking the coldness of modern high tech inventions.

Who could guess that old music could sound so contemporary?

The piece was indeed a showoff, full of virtuosic passages, scales running up and down, consistent tremolos and a neat control over the tempo changes with breaths taken at the ends of the phrases. Indeed, it is an extraordinary ensemble.

The first piece was dedicated to the memory of Professor of oboe James Caldwell, who passed away on Tuesday.

The second piece, Vivaldi’s La tempesta di mare, was a showoff for the violinist who played the historical instrument. Before his exuberant and over-the-top performance, he shared with the audience the narrative that he had in mind for the three movement piece: a stormy sea, a dream of a tropical island and then a rude awakening in the storm once again, but in a more lighthearted note, indicating hope on the horizon.

Sometimes the violinist’s passion compromised the quality of the technical passages, but his excitement was so overwhelming that the audience, including me, forgave him the small misfortunes.

Sorrell played the harpsichord and conducted from her bench; she obviously did not need to stand up to lead the orchestra. The high professionalism between her and her colleagues was madly captivating.

Then the dancers appeared, Catherine Turocy and Carlos Fittante of The New York Baroque Dance Company, dressed in startling period costumes. They moved around with unprecedented grace. One really could observe from where the ballet tradition started to develop.

Yes, before Swan Lake, there was Vivaldi’s La Folia — an exuberant, fiery dance, which started off slowly, got its way through the “slow-fast-slow-fast and even faster” character of every game of seduction and ended with a bang.

During the intermission, sophomore Shi Mei said, “I think this is an amazing performance. The conductor is so versatile and all the performers, too. They look and sound so comfortable doing this Baroque music.”

I couldn’t be more enthusiastic myself.

Vivaldi’s Summer opened the second part of the concert, in arrangement for a chamber orchestra with a solo harpsichord. In her spoken interlude to the performance, Sorrell admitted that she arranged the piece, “because it is so beautiful..and I wanted to play it.”

Originally written for a string orchestra with a solo violin and a basso continuo accompaniment, this rendition was energetic, brisk, sizzling and full of imagination and lovely duets between the soloist-conductor and the first violin, or the harpsichord and the cello. I found out that I like this interpretation quite a lot.

The concert ended with Rameau’s Suite from Les Indes Galantes. Dancers came onto the stage once again, dazzling with their historical costumes and period dance movements. They looked like they had just come to life, popping up from a music history textbook .

I lost the sense of where I was; the performance took me out of Finney and brought me someplace else that I did not want to leave so soon. The orchestra was moved to the back of the stage, but it did not disappear. On the contrary, it was a full member of this festival for the senses: Sorrell played the tambourine at times, the big drum pictured an earthquake, castanets sung in the hands of the dancers, and fast passages showed off coherency and great ensemble work.

There were various musical color effects, contrasts in tempo and dynamics, freshness of ideas, and not a single boring note. One characteristic remained persistent – the noble, honorable feature of each phrase. In the audience, I felt privileged, along with the other people around me, to hear this astounding performance, intended only for the ears of the aristocracy 300 or more years ago.

Rameau easily flowed into La Beauté de la terre by R. Duchiffre. The orchestra was accompanied by a soprano choir in a solitude canon in a Pachelbel-like style, celebrating the peace of Earth and Sky, rising to incredible dignity, just to sink back into its own soft beauty, followed by a tastefully placed last chord.

Senior Evan Few, who joined the ensemble, said, “Playing with Apollo’s Fire is an extremely creative and interactive experience and the group has developed a distinctive flair that separates it from many period groups and makes it unusually accessible to audiences.” I cannot agree more!


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