Apollo’s Fire founder and conductor Jeannette Sorrell defined the injunction of Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again by making a triumphant return to her undergraduate Alma Mater, Wake Forest University. A modest but appreciative audience in Wait Chapel heard her direct an imaginative program combining favorite concertos of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) with real rarities in the form of arias from his finest opera Orlando Furioso (1727). These highly descriptive pieces were brought vividly to life by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, one of the foremost coloratura singers for baroque opera.

The Apollo’s Fire program was a model of its kind with full texts and translations along with extensive musicological notes and performers’ biographies. Director Sorrell also used a mike to speak from the stage. During the course of the concert, she drew attention to the instruments that included a baroque guitar and harp, a resonant theorbo or archlute, in addition to period strings. The latter used all gut strings, flatter bridges, lighter bows and a lower pitch of 415 Hz. Sorrell said the tour had helped them realize which works would not do well in a large space such as Wait Chapel. Bach’s intimate Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, S.1048 and Sorell’s own transcription of Vivaldi’s L’Estate (Summer) for solo harpsichord were dropped and the remainder reordered.

Two of Vivaldi’s best loved works from the Four Seasons opened the concert. Violinist Julie Andrijeski was the incisive soloist for La Primavera (Spring) which received a fine standard period-style interpretation with the usual tempos and careful recreation of the effects such as chirping birds or the famous barking dogs portrayed by violas. In place of the omitted works, L”Autunno (Fall) was added next. The fine and VERY strongly characterized violin soloists were Andrijeski and Cynthia Roberts. Sorrell’s excerpts from the concerto had emphasized the grotesque, such as the stumbling of drunken peasants celebrating the harvest. This willingness to produce harsh sounds for dramatic effect was carried over in the full performance which led to some drawn out attacks with more coarseness of sound than is usual. This approach was not as over-the-top as that of Red Priest, one of the most extreme of current early music ensembles.

The fantastic plot of Vivaldi’s operatic masterpiece, Orlando Furioso, was drawn from the 16th Century epic poem by Ariosto. The composer wedded great music to a heroic and tragic drama. The role of the powerful sorceress Alcina was created for Vivaldi’s protégé Anna Giró (rumored to be his mistress) and it demands the utmost virtuosic technique, expressive poignancy, and dramatic commitment. The four arias for Alcina reveal different facets of her character. In “Alza in quegli occhi,” she comments on the love spell she has cast upon Orlando in the fast-paced opening stanza and in the slower second stanza she reveals her doubts of its lasting effects. “Vorresti amor da me” finds Alcina defiantly proclaiming her promiscuity. A halt at the words “che mai (“but”)” is a comical reinforcement. In the slow-paced and simply accompanied “Cosi potessi anchio,” Alcini regrets her inability to find contentment in love. The multiple repeats of the two stanzas give the soloist the broadest range of display of improvisation and ornamentation. In “Oh ingiusti numi! … Anderò, chiamero” Alcina displays her full wrath in extremely fast notes and wide dynamics. Jennifer Larmore’s svelte figure belied her powerful and evenly supported voice. Her precise intonation was combined with extraordinary coloratura abilities. Her diction was immaculate and her ability to execute extremely fast notes cleanly left the listener breathless.

Sorrell seems to have Stokowski-like tinkering tendencies. Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata, La Follia, Op. 1 has a theme based on a Portuguese dance with variations set for two violins and cello that has attracted the attention of many later composers. Sorrell expanded this material to give parts to every member of her chamber orchestra and it was surprisingly successful. Arranged as a sort of concerto grosso, it reverted to a trio setting from time to time. The three trio members were violinists Cynthia Roberts and Jennifer Roig-Francoli and cellist René Schiffer.

Cellist Schiffer was joined by cellist Mime Yamahiro Brinkmann for Vivaldi’s pioneering Concerto in G Minor for Two Cellos, Strings and Continuo, RV. 531. Both produced full, rich tones and phrased stylishly while maintaining fine intonation no mater how fast the tempo.
The stormy opening movement and fast paced finale sandwiched the heart of the concerto, the seraphic slow movement. This was a delightful unscheduled replacement piece.

Jennifer Larmore’s astonishingly clean diction was displayed in arias from two English language oratorios of George Frederic Handel. In “Where Shall I Fly” from Hercules, the hero’s wife Dejanira courts madness from guilt for the slaying of her husband. Larmore was on top of every quicksilver change of mood or tempo. Jupiter’s resourceful and vengeful wife, Juno’s “Iris, Hence Away” from Semele was boldly embodied by Larmore. Bravo! I look forward to more opportunities to hear the Cleveland, Ohio-based Apollo’s Fire and Jennifer Larmore.