Apollo’s Fire serves up Irish holiday warmth with “Wassail!”

Sat Dec 09, 2023 at 12:04 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Apollo’s FIre presented “Wassail! An Irish-Appalachian Christmas” Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: AF

The Chicago Christmas concert calendar is in full cry, with ensembles the city over offering their annual yuletide musical celebrations. Apollo’s Fire, now in the third year of its “Windy City Series,” joined the festivities by presenting “Wassail! An Irish-Appalachian Christmas” in two performances Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

“Wassail!” was written and created by Apollo’s Fire director Jeannette Sorrell, and has the feel of an off-Broadway show. Part 1 depicts Christmas Eve in Ireland in 1849, at the height of the Great Famine, with a tightly knit community celebrating what they imagine will be their last Christmas together, as the younger generation prepares to embark for greater opportunity in America. Part 2, after the intermission, shows Christmas Day the following year, with the young folk established in Appalachia, making a go of life there. All the singers and instrumentalists are suitably costumed in peasant garb, and a handful of props—especially steins for the titular beverage—round out the simple set.

The vocal selections are a well-curated collection of traditional British, Irish, and Celtic-Appalachian holiday songs, some familiar (“What Child Is This?” “I Saw Three Ships”), others less so (“Drive the Cold Winter Away,” “Somerset Wassail”). These selections fluently progress the plot, all framed by narration from Sorrell’s convincing Irish accent. The action is also punctuated with infectious Irish fiddle reels, to which violinists Susanna Perry Gilmore, Caitlin Hedge, and Emi Tanabe brought irrepressible Gaelic flair throughout the afternoon.

Photo: AF

Soprano Fiona Gillespie, a core member of the vocal ensemble Skylark, and baritone Sam Kreidenweis were featured soloists, who take on something like starring roles in the ensemble production. Gillespie was a standout, singing with power, polish, and idiomatic Irish inflection, particularly in the traditional “What Child Is This? (My Lagan Love).” Kreidenweis provided an afternoon highlight with a stirring rendition of “Bright Morning Stars,” a Southern folk hymn, intoned in forceful baritone over hummed drones from the vocal consort.

The musical polymathy on display was impressive. Gillespie was perfectly at home picking up a penny whistle and step-dancing, and harpist Anna O’Connell was comfortable both on her plucked instruments—especially in the haunting “O’Carolan’s Farewell”—and lending her accomplished soprano to the vocal group when called for.

Violinist Hedge also sang beautifully throughout, and joined Gillespie and Kreidenweis for a moving rendition of “The Parting Glass” as the young folk prepare to leave. (One wished they had ended the first half on that emotional note, rather than with the boisterous jig that followed.) Kathie Stewart on wooden flutes brought an easy virtuosity to the reels in which she was featured, and Tina Bergmann showed off her chops on the hammered dulcimer in “Frost and Snow.”

Sorrell was an effortless master of ceremonies. In addition to having arranged much of the music, she narrated, conducted, played harpsichord, and joined the dance numbers, entirely at ease directing her creation. The evening ends with a “Christmas Barn Dance,” that found her and her colleagues swirling around the stage, and ultimately fanning down the aisles to get the audience clapping along. The collective effort was met with appreciative applause from the holiday concertgoers, and one wondered whether “Wassail!” may in time become another Chicago Christmas tradition.

Apollo’s Fire returns to Chicago for “Hispania!” Sunday March 24 at Nichols Hall in Evanston, and Monday March 25 at Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute. apollosfire.org

Photo: AF

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