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Thursday night's performance of the Baroque string ensemble Apollo's Fire certainly brought a lot of heat to Wait Chapel on the Wake Forest University campus. Indeed, the group's intensity and energy reminded listeners that there really is nothing like live performances.
From the group's website: "Named for the classical god of music, healing and the sun, Apollo's Fire is a GRAMMY®-winning ensemble. The period-instrument orchestra was founded by award-winning harpsichordist and conductor Jeannette Sorrell, and is dedicated to the baroque ideal that music should evoke the various Affekts or passions in the listeners." That really describes the performance in a nutshell.
Although the evening's focus was on J.S. Bach (Germany, 1685-1750) and Antonio Vivaldi (Italy, 1678-1741), the concert opened with "La Bergamasca" by Marco Uccellini (Italy, c. 1603-1680). This short dance is built on a ground bass (a repeating melody in the bass), over which other instruments cavort. In this arrangement by artistic director Sorrell, a Baroque flute (traverso) was magnificently played by Kathie Stewart, whose lines sparred with the violin melodies. Sorrell's harpsichord, set centerstage, added "oomph" to the proceedings.
Sorrell, who graduated from WFU in 1986, provided some background about the evening's performance (as well as having written the excellent and informative program notes); this was virtuoso music one would have heard in the first half of the 18th century in Köthen (Bach) and Venice (Vivaldi).
Next up were the Overture and the Badinerie from Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067. This performance again featured Stewart on the traverso, providing a distinctive timbre that contrasted with the strings. Pompous, slow music (with jerky rhythms) bookend an energetic and fiery middle. The short Badinerie put Stewart's athletic flute playing front and center.
Bach's 20-minute Violin Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052r featured bravura playing by the ensemble's Artist-in-Residence Francisco Fullana. Sorrell's spirited tempo brought the vividly dramatic nature of the score (not to mention the extreme virtuosity) to the forefront. Fullana's playing was nothing short of astounding. Engaging with the others in the ensemble, he seemed to derive energy from the interactions, and his cadenzas were on fire.
Sorrell's conducting from the keyboard, both here and throughout the evening, was full of energized nuance. She often seemed to be a sorceress, conjuring up swirls of sound from the group, which responded with palpable intensity.
The slow middle movement is hauntingly beautiful and provides a reflective profound pause between the two fast outer movements. Flexible rhythms from soloist and ensemble conveyed the deep emotional content in a seemingly improvisational fashion. The finale returns to the dramatic character of the opening movement. Again, a dangerously fast tempo allowed for Fullana to display his amazing virtuosity with sparks flying during the flights of fancy.
Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G opened the second half of the program. The concerto is scored for harpsichord and ten strings, all who serve as soloists. Indeed, incredibly delineated individual lines were tossed among the members of the ensemble like hot potatoes. The slow middle movement consists of only two chords, which allows the ensemble a lot of latitude to improvise. Harpsichordist Sorrell led the meandering that included a solo violin and solo cello give-and-take. The finale brings virtuosity back, with lots of fiery fiddling.
When I was in school, I learned that a hallmark of Baroque music was "terraced dynamics," meaning there are sudden changes in soft and loud passages, usually occasioned by a change of instrumentation, from a large ensemble to a smaller group of soloists. While this was certainly true in all the evening's compositions, the subtlety of dynamic changes evoked by Sorrell and company brought rich depth to all the playing, absolutely evident in the final two concertos by Vivaldi.
The Concerto in G minor for Two Cellos, RV 531 featured the soloists René Schiffer and Ezra Seltzer (both playing without a score) at the outset. The larger ensemble joined in the energetic exchange. The music is equally distributed between the two soloists. Both the opening and closing movements pit the soloists against each other, sometimes competingly spirited, other times good-humored.
The middle movement, scored only for the soloists and continuo, is a glorious, soulful exploration of beauty. Throughout the 10-minute work, Schiffer and Seltzer played with a deep understanding of this movement's emotional depth as well as the frolicking nature of the outer movements.
The printed program concluded with another show-stopping display of energy and virtuosity, Vivaldi's Concerto in A minor for Two Violins, with Alan Choo and Susanna Perry Gilmore as the spirited soloists. As in all the evening's three-movement works, the outer movements are given over to feisty and intense drama. Choo and Gilmore delighted in the frolic and interacted with others in the ensemble as well. The slow middle movement begins with a unison descent, which becomes a ground bass, over which the two soloists spun out glorious and seemingly endless ribbons of melody.
Some final words about this spectacular performance – the ensemble plays with minimal vibrato, as is appropriate for 18th-century music. Intonation problems, often heard in straight-tone playing, were not found here. Instead, warm and rich timbres were displayed, and coupled with the incredible commitment to the scores, which resulted in one of the best performances I have had the pleasure to hear in many years.
The evening concluded with a short "Turkish" piece that featured Sorrell on tambourine and gypsy-like fiddling from an unidentified member of the ensemble. It was a treat that brought the crowd to its feet for several minutes of applause.