Sorrell leads Apollo’s Fire in a vital, transcendent “Messiah”

Sat Dec 10, 2022 at 2:34 pm

By Landon Hegedus

Jeannette Sorrell conducted Apollo’s Fire in Handel’s Messiah Friday night at First Presbyterian Church in Evanston. Photo: Mark Nelson

It’s undoubtedly an understatement to say that Handel’s Messiah is familiar fare to concert-going audiences. That is surely the case in Chicago, where the Apollo Chorus’s advent-tide performance tradition with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra dates back to 1879.

With home-team showings from church to concert hall thick on the ground—many of which, in recent memory, have been mixed — it’s hard to imagine making room for yet another, especially for a visiting ensemble.

But at Evanston’s First Presbyterian Church on Friday evening, the Cleveland-based Apollo’s Fire, led by founder and artistic director Jeannette Sorrell, delivered a Messiah imbued with a striking vigor and precision not heard since the pandemic.

With Sorrell at the helm, the Apollo’s Fire chamber orchestra and chorus attained with ease what many guest-conducting Messiah engagements leave wanting. The conductor’s respect for and mastery of this score was evident in her fluid yet exacting gestures; but the alchemical fusion of choral and instrumental sound that she drew from the ensemble was transcendent. The combined sound, like a pipe organ, was homogenous and organic, with articulation and pitch executed meticulously across each section of the ensemble. 

From the first full-chorus number “And the glory of the Lord,” the singing was marked by clear diction and vibrant sound. Each aspect of the interpretation was considered and expertly controlled; the ensemble made a meal of the articulation in “For unto us a child is born,” which contrasted clipped, separated recitation of “Wonderful / counselor” with expansive legato in “The Mighty God,” to great effect. Meanwhile, a halo of strings and winds swelled and receded in volume, giving the impression of swirling host seraphim.

Even without cuts in the program’s first half, Part 1 flew by under Sorrell’s brisk tempos. The players responded to the demanding pace with breezy virtuosity; only in “Rejoice Greatly” did the excitable tempo hamper Handel’s ebullient music. 

Some of the program’s theatrical elements worked better than others. During the duet chorus “All we like sheep,” half of the singers descended from the stands to line the aisles to sing in thrilling antiphony across the sanctuary. House lights were dimmed for the sequence of “For behold, darkness” into “The people that walked in darkness”—and then raised on “upon them hath the light shined” — a cheeky move that drew some chuckles, largely undercutting the drama of that text rather than heightening it. 

The evening’s soloists were a strong group. Erica Schuller, sharing soprano duties with Sonya Headlam, delivered consistent power and elegance, notably in “If God be for us, who can be against us?”

Baritone Edward Vogel did much of the dramatic heavy lifting, singing with clarion tone throughout his register. Steven Caldicott Wilson’s limpid tenor, while not as rich in timbre as some of the other voices, was nonetheless marked by wondrous phrasing and aching lyricism in “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart.”

Mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider brought sensitivity and drama to linchpin selections including “He was despised,” but her lighter voice failed to project relative to the other soloists, especially opposite Schuller in the duo aria “Then shall the eyes of the blind be open’d.” The singer’s voice was better served in the intimate rendition of “Thou art gone up high” (backed only by continuo and violin obbligato).

Other chamber vignettes afforded moments of intimate contemplation amid an otherwise fiery reading—especially for the revelation that was Sonya Headlam. She lent her honeyed soprano, pure and even from top to bottom, to “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Underscored by the folkish, sensitive playing of concertmaster Olivier Brault, Headlam brought a genuine tenderness to the aria that made for the evening’s most poignant moment. 

Such a performance by a big-name, out-of-town band may be a one-off occasion, but since last season, Apollo’s Fire has planted a foot in Chicago’s flourishing period-music scene with its Windy City concert series. Whether this marks the start of yet another annual Chicagoland Messiah tradition remains to be seen.

Apollo’s Fire returns to Chicago in March 2023 with “Exile: Music of the Jewish and African Diasporas.” 

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Sorrell leads Apollo’s Fire in a vital, transcendent “Messiah””

  1. Posted Dec 13, 2022 at 12:37 pm by Anon

    I don’t doubt this was a well-performed Messiah, but I question the logic and, frankly, morality of a group from outside our city coming in and cannibalizing audiences, donors, & media attention, (all of which already feels spread very thin), just to perform a work that anyone could hear performed dozens of times over the next month+ by any number of local orgs.

    The expense of flying in a full orchestra and choir to Cleveland is one head-spinning calculus; to then fly them all to Chicago to perform one time in a church in Evanston… I simply don’t see the wisdom in it, especially on a weekend where there were not only multiple other local performances of Messiah but dozens of other very high-level pro choral & early music concerts on offer all over the city.

    Chicago has a period instrument scene of its own that is growing & developing after a very precarious few years. I worry that AF’s growing presence in Chicago will be to the detriment of local musicians and even orgs like Haymarket and Music of the Baroque (both of which prioritize hiring local talent, btw), which need the attention and $$$ of local audiences in order to continue to live and produce art here.

  2. Posted Dec 16, 2022 at 10:24 am by Elisa Ross

    As Chicago residents and members of the Board of Apollo’s Fire Chicago, we wish to point out that Apollo’s Fire is deeply involved in education and outreach in the Greater Chicago community.  Apollo’s Fire employs 14 Chicago-based musicians and staff members, half of whom are teaching children 5 days per week in our “Side-by-Side” string program. This community partnership in the Matteson school district has been in place for over a year, and involves about 60 children. At our recent, sold out Messiah concert, 20 of those youth performed a renaissance carol as a pre-show performance. 

    At every Apollo’s Fire concert, free ticket drawings are held at intermission to promote concerts of Music of the Baroque, Haymarket Opera, Newberry Consort, and others. Apollo’s Fire shares/trades mailing lists with these partner organizations, and provides free, large program ads for their upcoming concerts. As an international, GRAMMY-winning ensemble on period instruments, Apollo’s Fire has an animated performance style that draws new and younger audiences to classical music.

    We are excited, as Chicago residents, that Apollo’s Fire has committed to our community.

    Katrina Pipasts, President, Apollo’s Fire Chicago
    Elisa Ross, MD, Vice President, Apollo’s Fire Chicago

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