Apollo’s Fire opens new Chicago series with rock-n’-roll Vivaldi

Thu Oct 28, 2021 at 11:47 am

By Katherine Buzard

Jeannette Sorrell led Apollo’s Fire in the opening concert of the ensemble’s new Chicago series Wednesday night at DePaul University. Photo: Roger Mastroianni

Apparently, Chicago just can’t get enough baroque music. 

Already home to a number of excellent early music ensembles (Third Coast Baroque, Music of the Baroque, Newberry Consort, and Haymarket Opera), Chicago welcomed the Cleveland-based ensemble Apollo’s Fire on Wednesday night. 

After concertgoers “mobbed” the musicians after the ensemble’s debut concert in Chicago five years ago, the idea of the Windy City Series was born. 

Wednesday night’s program at the Holtschneider Performance Center at DePaul University marked the first concert in this series, and, given the ensemble’s rock-n’-roll approach to early music, the mob scene makes sense.

The concept of the program was to take Vivaldi’s famous set of four seasonal violin concerti, The Four Seasons, back to their programmatic roots. In the first publication in 1725, Vivaldi supplied a sonnet, likely written by him, for each concerto. He marked each line with letters, and placed these letters at corresponding points in the score to precisely indicate what each motif represents. 

To make Vivaldi’s dramatic intentions explicit to the audience, before each concerto, harpsichordist and director Jeannette Sorrell outlined each of the motifs in the context of the story and had the orchestra play short snippets of each theme. In her program notes, Sorrell argues that this level of dramatic detail is often lost in contemporary performances. Though The Four Seasons will be familiar to many audience members, it was helpful to have these guideposts, and Sorrell’s expositions were lighthearted and accessible without being patronizing. 

In the context of performance, the motifs sounded fresh, imbued with bold stylistic choices and articulation. For instance, the violas’ “barking dog” motif in the second movement of Spring was appropriately incessant and obtrusive instead of purely accompanimental. The drunkard in the first movement of Autumn staggered merrily, accompanied by flashy harpsichord glissandi from Sorrell. Though this souped-up style may be a bit over the top for some purists, this fresh interpretation served the story and highlighted the role of the performer as storyteller, which Sorrell agues “was fundamental to baroque performance, and especially to Vivaldi’s music.”

The main storyteller was violin soloist Francisco Fullana, who is also the ensemble’s artist-in-residence, Fullana’s performance struck a perfect balance between soloistic bravado and sensitive ensemble playing. A joy to watch, he maintained an improvisatory quality, practically acting through his violin, all while maintaining technical perfection and sweetness of tone on his 1735 instrument. 

At times, if you ignored what you heard, he could have easily been fiddling alongside a bluegrass band. However, he was able to pull it back in refreshing moments of delicacy, particularly in the slow movement of Autumn.

To further highlight the story, projected images designed by Camilla Tassi were displayed on a screen behind the players. These images were mostly bucolic scenes from classic works of art, with subtle animations for the movement of water. These illustrations provided just enough visual context without distracting from the performance, which was already visually engaging.

Sorrell led the ensemble standing at the harpsichord almost like an electric keyboard player in a rock band. Her conducting was balletic and expressive, using her body and face when her hands were otherwise occupied. The ensemble itself was buoyant and aerobic, following the shapes of the musical lines with their bodies. While some might find this distracting, their joy and physical connection to the music was infectious, and it made one want to join in their dancing, or at least tap one’s toe.

Apropos, in her program notes Sorrell refers to Vivaldi as “the rock-n’-roll composer of the 18th century,” with the ritornello form of these concerti “convey[ing] the bold and driving sense of rhythm and melody that is commonly associated with pop music.” Apollo’s Fire is known for its distinctive approach to baroque music, their earthy, physical playing smashing any stereotypes of early music being merely precious and polite. This ethos was especially evident in this concert, and Sorrell certainly achieved the goal of presenting The Four Seasons in a new light.

The program also included La Bergamasca by Marco Uccellini, Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor for Two Cellos, and Vivaldi’s La Folia. 

These selections gave the ensemble musicians opportunities to shine as soloists, with Alan Choo and Emi Tanabe serving as the violin soloists in La Folia and René Schiffer and Sarah Stone as the cello protagonists in the double Cello Concerto. In addition to their skillful playing, the tango-like skit that Choo and Tanabe acted out as they played was delightfully seductive. Schiffer and Stone’s performances were equally accomplished, and Schiffer’s nod to the opening motif of Vivaldi’s Spring in his cadenza got a knowing chuckle from the audience.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston. apollosfire.org

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