Jeannette Sorrell hopes to spark an abiding flame for Apollo’s Fire in Chicago

Tue Oct 26, 2021 at 7:20 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Conductor-harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell opens Apollo’s Fire debut season in Chicago this week with concerts at DePaul and in Evanston. Photo: Apollo’s Fire

Thanks to mob action by an enthusiastic audience at a baroque concert five years ago in Hyde Park, Chicago might turn out to be Apollo’s Fire’s kind of town.

This week the acclaimed Cleveland-based early music ensemble launches its inaugural Windy City Series, a set of fall, winter and spring concerts opening Wednesday at DePaul University’s Holtschneider Concert Hall in Lincoln Park and Thursday at the Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston. 

The program is titled “Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons—rediscovered.” The series continues with a single concert Jan. 29 in Evanston and closes May 13-14 at DePaul and in Evanston featuring violinist Rachel Barton Pine.

In addition to its Chicago-area performances, Apollo’s Fire is also creating a full-time beginning strings program for a school district in south suburban Matteson.

Jeannette Sorrell, founder of the period-instrument ensemble now celebrating its 30th anniversary, is as animated in conversation as she is on the podium. She remembers the group’s Chicago debut well.

“We played on the University of Chicago Presents series at Mandel Hall. It was a really fun concert. But what was unusual was that after the concert, the musicians and I were kind of mobbed by the patrons,” she said, still astonished by the exuberant audience. “They were all saying, ‘You must come back. And you must come twice a year.’ So we went home, and we thought about it.”

With such long-established resident groups as Music of the Baroque, the Newberry Consort and Haymarket Opera Company, Chicago is hardly an early music/baroque music desert. But with its distinctive, high-energy performance style on period instruments, Apollo’s Fire, also known as the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, could find a niche.

“Where we’ve become kind of successful,” said Sorrell, “is bringing new audiences to early music. We really figured out in Cleveland how to do that. 

“In the last two years before the pandemic, we had five thousand  new attenders, and that was just in Northeast Ohio. We do quite a bit of contextual programming, theatrical programming, programming that uses architectural spaces in interesting ways. We just try to give people a window into the music.” 

Apollo’s Fire tours nationally and internationally, records regularly and has racked up legions of YouTube views. The orchestra performs its annual seasons in both Cleveland and Akron, 37 miles away. But the Windy City Series is its first season-long venture beyond Ohio. Sorrell researched the local scene carefully before committing to a Chicago residency.   

“We started talking with colleagues in Chicago,” she said. “The early music world is small. We know each other, and I think it’s a very collegial scene.  But we wanted to figure out, can we play in Chicago and be a force for good? We certainly didn’t want to come in and do harm.”

Apollo’s Fire hoped to test the Chicago waters last year with two sets of programs and some educational outreach The pandemic scuttled those plans. The project’s opening concert was March 12, 2020, at Northwestern University. Typically for Apollo’s Fire, the concept and format were unusual—secular and religious music associated with Jerusalem throughout the ages. Repertoire included Jewish love songs, Armenian chant and improvisations on the qanun, a kind of Middle-Eastern zither. Once again, the supportive audience surprised Sorrell.

“During the concert Governor Pritzker announced the shutdown,” she said. “The country’s mood at that point was very frightened; most people were huddling at home already. But three-quarters of the people who bought tickets showed up. Some of them had driven all the way up to Evanston from Hyde Park and even farther. I thought, ‘Wow, these Chicago concertgoers are really obsessed.’”

Photo: Apollo’s Fire

Sorrell knows about obsession. Born in San Francisco, she studied piano, violin and ballet as a child. The family relocated to Virginia when she was a teen, and Sorrell became smitten with the renewed interest in early music then sweeping the classical music world.

“When I was in high school, recordings started coming out,” she said, “things like Mozart on period instruments. I fell in love with the sound of the gut stings, the very chirpy woodwinds. I thought the music’s structure and the counterpoint came through so much better. And the dance feeling—as a dancer, that really appealed to me as well.”

By age 17, Sorrell knew she wanted to conduct an early music ensemble. She won a full artist’s diploma scholarship to the Oberlin Conservatory, but her path was circuitous.

“I had to study mainstream orchestral conducting,” she said, “Bach, Schubert and Debussy. And then I was separately studying early music—harpsichord. I wanted to combine those things, but there was no program where you could do that at a conservatory.”

After conducting fellowships at the Aspen and Tanglewood music festivals, she headed to Amsterdam in the early 1990s to study with the eminent harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt. In 1992 the Cleveland Orchestra invited her to apply for an assistant conductor position. It did not turn out well; the sexist bias against female conductors that has plagued classical music since forever hit Sorrell with full force. In their introductory meeting, Christoph von Dohnanyi, the orchestra’s revered music director, told her he wouldn’t even schedule an audition for her since he knew Cleveland’s audiences “would never accept a female conductor.”

As it turns out, Dohnanyi’s summary dismissal proved to be her lucky break. The orchestra’s artistic administrator, Roger Wright, took her aside and apologized profusely.

“He said, ‘I’ve always wanted to see a baroque orchestra in Cleveland, and I think you’re the person to do it,’ “ said Sorrell. “ ‘If you like, I’ll help you.’ It was really amazing because I had never met him before that day. In a way, I started the group by accident.”

After 30 years shaping Apollo’s Fire into a thriving period music ensemble, Sorrell’s delight in the music remains palpable. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is not exactly innovative programming. Thanks to myriad TV commercials and a gazillion recordings, even casual listeners can whistle its catchy tunes. 

But Sorrell sputters at the idea that there’s nothing new to discover in its portrait of the earth’s yearly cycle.

“Oh, there’s so much to discover!,” she exclaimed. “We’ve played The Four Seasons in so many different cities. And everywhere we go, people say, ‘Wow! I thought I knew this music. I can hum the tune, but I never understood it until now.’

“Vivaldi was telling a very specific story in the music, a story of the Italian peasants in the countryside who lived and breathed and celebrated in the changing of the seasons. We consider ourselves to be storytellers first, so the notes on the page are less important. For these two Chicago concerts we’ll have projected images of paintings that illustrate a story. We worked with a lovely Italian projection designer, Camilla Tassi. She has slightly animated some of these paintings so that you actually see things like a flowing brook and the rustling twigs. You’re looking at baroque paintings that move a little bit. It’s a way to understand the story with more immediacy.”

A CD of Apollo’s Fire’s Four Seasons will be released this month. Like the rest of the ensemble’s upcoming season, streamed video of a Cleveland performance of “Vivaldi Four Seasons—Rediscovered” will be available via subscription.

“Our musicians are quite animated and expressive onstage,” said Sorrell. “There’s a lot to watch. We’re very obsessed with deciding for ourselves what is the mood or character of each phrase, and we make sure we’re projecting that in a way that reads to the audience.”

“That’s kind of our mission in Chicago. We are well aware that it’s going to take some years. It’s not going to happen right away. We’re in the very embryonic stages of even just building a mailing list. 

“Chicago is such a vibrant community and has such a wonderful tradition of classical music on a high level. I think there are many thousands of people in Chicago who haven’t yet discovered the joys and inspiration of live classical music.”

Apollo’s Fire will perform 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at DePaul Concert Hall and 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston.

Posted in Articles

Leave a Comment