As concert venues close, Apollo’s Fire lights a candle in Evanston

Fri Mar 13, 2020 at 2:53 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jeannette Sorrell (with soprano Amanda Powell on right) conducted Apollo’s Fire Thursday night at Northwestern University in Evanston.

Introducing the Cleveland-based Apollo’s Fire, artistic director Jeannette Sorrell noted that Thursday evening’s performance in Evanston would likely be their last in quite a while. Just hours before the event, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine banned gatherings of 100 people or more indefinitely throughout the state in response to COVID-19. Still, Sorrell said aptly, “What better way to light a candle in the darkness than making music together?”

The event will also likely be the final concert for a time for those hardy souls in the audience at Northwestern University’s Galvin Recital Hall as well as classical audiences coast to coast. From the Met and Carnegie Hall in New York to Symphony Hall in Boston and the Kennedy Center in Washington, a cascading wave of closings and cancellations took place across the country Thursday in response to COVID-19 transmission fears and resulting local government edicts. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra announced they will cancel all events at Symphony Center until April 12, followed by the Harris Theater and many other presenters. (Check Chicago Classical Review’s concert calendar for further updates.)

The Northwestern event was the last stop on Apollo’s six-date tour of its program “O Jerusalem! Crossroads of Three Faiths,” a follow-up to their well-received 2016 recording “Sephardic Journey.” As the title indicates, the present concert celebrated Jerusalem’s diverse history, with religious and secular music drawn from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions as well as Armenian and Arab sources.

The opening minutes made clear that this was not going to be your father’s scholarly program of early music. With Sorrell and the 11-member chamber ensemble on stage, the 19-member chorus entered from the back of the hall and walked up the two aisles, led by baritone Jeffrey Strauss and soprano Amanda Powell singing the nostalgic title ode to Jerusalem.

The program, divided into six sections, covered a dizzying range, from secular Ladino songs, lively dance music and sacred Armenian chant to improvisations on the qanun (a Middle-Eastern zither), Jewish love songs and excerpts from Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.

Sorrell acted as master of ceremonies as much as conductor and harpsichordist—leading with economical gestures, singing along with the soloists and chorus, and smiling beneficently over the proceedings.

Those who know more about this repertoire than I do can determine the authenticity of style, instrumentation and performance practices of the evening. Yet, while Sorrell and the Apollo’s Fire members offered consistently lively and enthusiastic playing, a sameness of style reigned at times that made these varied sources sound oddly alike. One would have liked a bit more nuance and expressive variety than the broadly populist approach sometimes provided.

There were also some precious moments and times when the theatrical conception seemed to veer into show-bizzy. With the souped-up arrangements, smiling soloists, and foot-stomping violinists, the concert at times felt like a Sephardic version of Riverdance.

Still, the performances were consistently engaging and the individual musicians brought exuberant—I was going to write infectious—dedication to their spotlit moments.

The vocal soloists were consistently excellent, not least baritone Strauss, the charismatic soprano Amanda Powell and tenor Jacob Perry whose singing of the Monteverdi excerpts was a highlight. Rex Benincasa and Zafer Tawil brought a febrile and idiomatic muezzin quality to their antiphonal Muslim call to prayer.

Many Apollo members showed impressive versatility as instrumentalists as well as singers, including Tawil—deftly handling vocals as well as playing the oud and qanun—and, especially, Daphna Mor, as fluent and affecting of voice as when playing the recorder.

Apollo’s Fire performs Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos at Ravinia on July 7.

Posted in Performances

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