Apollo’s Fire wraps Chicago season with music of Mozart and Bologne

Sat May 14, 2022 at 1:54 pm

By Katherine Buzard

Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire performed Friday night at DePaul University’s Gannon Concert Hall. Photo: Roger Mastroianni

In the final concert of their inaugural Windy City concert series, Apollo’s Fire set their sights past the baroque era. In a program titled “Mozart and the Chevalier,” the early-music ensemble presented works by Mozart alongside those of Joseph Bologne, also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a prominent French violinist, conductor, and composer ten years Mozart’s senior.

The incredible life and career of Bologne has only started to enter the public consciousness; a concert-theater work in February—jointly presented by Music of the Baroque and the CSO Association—helped to introduce Chicago audiences to his work and story. Bologne was born in the French colony of Guadeloupe to an enslaved mother (who was only 16 at the time) and her white master. Bologne defied all odds, overcoming racial prejudice to become a renowned musician that rubbed elbows with French royalty, a national fencing champion, and later a colonel in the army of the French Revolution. 

Mozart and Bologne spent the summer of 1778 together in the elegant Parisian mansion of the Duke of Orléans. Though we know little of what occurred or the extent of their interactions, Bologne may have influenced Mozart is evident in some of elements of technique and forms Mozart employed soon after their meeting. Conductor and artistic director Jeannette Sorrell writes in her program note that the idea of juxtaposing these two intersecting geniuses is not to compare them as equivalents, but to see how Bologne “paved the way for Mozart by forging the classical style,” and how Mozart “came at the moment when the classical style was poised to reach its culmination.” 

The program in Gannon Hall at DePaul University’s Holtschneider Performance Center began with familiar fare, Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni. With such a famous piece, the period instruments were an adjustment for the contemporary ear, though the leaner sound did allow for details to come out that might otherwise be obscured in the modern opera pit. The tempo was surprisingly staid, however, given the ensemble’s reputation for bringing rock ’n roll energy to their performances. 

Matching the Mozart overture in drama was Bologne’s recitative and aria “Enfin une foule…Amour devient moi propice” from his opera L’amant Anonyme (which will be performed by Haymarket Opera at DePaul next month).Soprano Sonya Headlam gave a dramatically engaged performance of the recitativo accompagnato and exhibited sensitive phrasing and impressive breath control in the aria. Her voice  offers a pretty but relatively contained sound, lacking the sonic impact necessary to make this aria the showstopper it has the potential to be.

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine came to the stage for Bologne’s Violin Concerto in A Major, a work she performed with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in February.

The concerto was a bit of a slow burner, with the soloist playing in unison with the violins throughout the entirety of the first theme. However, this simplicity belied the virtuosic stunts to come. Bologne was a famed violinist who pushed the limits of violin technique, particularly in exploring the violin’s uppermost register. Sorrell writes, “The dexterity evident in his fencing also characterized his violin playing,” which explains the vigorous arpeggios that permeate the fast movements, almost to excess.

Barton Pine, playing an unmodernized violin from 1770, was masterful in this feat of endurance and finesse. The slow movement was especially lovely, as she brought the faintest whisper of vibrato to her playing, providing a moment of welcome warmth. The extended cadenza in the slow movement—which one assumes Barton Pine wrote herself—was highly inventive, and her control of the impossibly high notes throughout the concerto was admirable. The Rondo found the soloist rushing ahead but Sorrell and the string section were a steadying force underneath Barton Pine’s soloistic flurries.

After the concerto, Barton Pine brought on her young daughter, Sylvia, to play a movement from one of Bologne’s violin sonatas for two violins. Wearing an emerald dress that matched her mom’s, the ten-year-old violinist acquitted herself exceptionally well, and the mother–daughter moment definitely upped the cuteness quotient of the evening.

The second half of the program included more Mozart favorites: the motet for solo soprano Exsultate, jubilate and Symphony No. 35 (“Haffner”). 

Headlam was able to relax a bit in this more familiar piece and sang with more assuredness than in the Bologne aria. Her phrasing was sensitive and musical throughout, matching the level of detail for which the Apollo’s Fire orchestra is renowned. The soprano demonstrated beautiful control of pianissimo high notes in the slow middle aria, “Tu virginum corona,”—a strength she exploited in her impressively delicate cadenza. She tackled the coloratura of the outer movements admirably, though her runs tended to be shaky and sometimes got bogged down, especially the idiosyncratic twists and turns of the “Alleluia.” Nonetheless, she capped off her performance with a stellar high C.

Once again, Sorrell and the orchestra of Apollo’s Fire proved generous collaborators, lending the orchestral introductions and interludes a warmth of sound they had not attained in the previous selections. However, some of the articulation was fitfully overwrought, and “Tu virginum corona” could have been played with greater delicacy and grace.

In the “Haffner” symphony, Apollo’s Fire brought the vivacity that audiences have come to expect from them. The opening leaping figure was imbued with the kind of dramatic tension the Don Giovanni overture was lacking. Sorrell allowed her personality to come out in full, moving around the podium like a sorceress incanting the music into being. Again, the Andante could have been played more gently and subtly, or at least that’s what contemporary audiences have come to expect of Mozart’s slow movements. 

Certainly, Apollo’s Fire gave a rendition of the Symphony No. 35 that was wholly different from one you’d hear from someone like Dame Jane Glover or anyone on the podium at the CSO. But that’s the beauty of a group like Apollo’s Fire: they’re not afraid to challenge expectations.

“Mozart and the Chevalier” will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, Evanston. apollosfire.org

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