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Named for Apollo, the mythological god of music, healing, and the sun, Apollo's Fire is an extraordinary ensemble of instrumentalists, singers and dancers, formed in 1992 by Jeannette Sorrell and now famous throughout the performance world! Originally specialists in period performance of early music, they have branched out to include other more popular musicking of that time – which opens an exciting domain of spontaneous performance and improvisation. This particular group of selections focused on The Road to Dublin, although Sorrell pointed out that the true meaning would be clearer if the title of the show had read The Road to America, instead. In any case, the poverty in all parts of Ireland coupled with the Scottish resistance to English rule created a loose bond between Scot and Irish which then saw the migration of Celts to the New World.
The concert started ominously with a dramatic recitation of the nursery rhyme, "Old King Cole":
Old King Cole was a merry old soul,
A merry old soul was he!
He called for his pipe and he called for his bowl
And he called for his fiddlers three!
Whereupon, three charming ladies whirled from the back of the ensemble to center stage and proceeded to serenade us on their fiddles while a man picked up a cello, another a lute, a lady plucked her harp, a lassie wearing a flat cap picked up a drum, another lady stood in front of a tall dulcimer with hammers in hand – while Sorrell sat in front of the harpsichord with her back to the audience as she gracefully guided the ritardando and diminuendo that signaled the end of the first piece.
I have witnessed few orchestral ensembles with such spontaneous yet precise cohesion, albeit bursting with enthusiasm. Christopher Small, on page two of his book Musicking, states "There is no such thing as music… Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do." And from "penny" whistles to hammer dulcimers to cloggers, the performers of Apollo's Fire were doing music and so was the audience, with enthusiasm. We were treated to the dulcet tones of that softer bagpipe, Uillean [elbow] pipes, pumped under the right elbow, after which the fiddles exercised their virtuosity while miming a battle amongst clans, foot-stomping all in unison.
The fiddlers, all three, were extraordinary virtuoso musicians, each with other specialties. We heard most from Susanna Perry Gilmore, who when not on stage with Apollo's Fire, leads the Omaha Symphony as its concertmaster. Fiddler Emi Tanabe always looked ready to start dancing, and fiddler Caitlin Hedge also pleased the audience with a lovely dramatic singing voice.
Unknown to the audience, an illness had caused the ensemble, 10 strong, to change several roles as well as the choice of songs although most adhered to the very detailed program notes. In fact, a male singer was absent and several of his songs were distributed to other members of the group.
Fiona Gillespie sang several folk songs with a pure tone and impeccable intonation, as well as played several tunes on the whistle in perfect unison with one of the fiddles. She also surprised us all by dancing a short segment in a style comparable to "clogging."
A brief word about the remarkable conductor that is Jeannette Sorrell. In contrast to the world of time-beaters, where it is necessary to keep often under-rehearsed players together (not to mention their large number and the diversity of their instruments), it is a pleasure to experience the musically precise gestures which gracefully pace the music and allow it to breathe in a musical fashion. Indeed, Sorrell accomplishes far more with much less motion! Brava!