Preview: Love of music fuels Apollo's Fire

Jeannette Sorrell of Apollo's Fire conducts the chamber ensemble, plays the harpsichord in a celebration of traditions, cultures

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The partition that separates classical from early music, modern from period instruments, and ancient from standard repertoire is not so much wall but an accumulation.

Every trend in compositional style, change in music fashion and shift in technology puts more distance between the cultural life of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque epochs and the common musical language of the past few centuries.

It's a split that can roughly be said to have begun in the late 18th century when wind instruments became equipped with keys, the hammered keyboard developed toward the modern piano, and string instruments projected better with higher bridges and sturdier bows.

In recent years, conductor Jeannette Sorrell and others have worked hard to raze that obstacle.

  • When: 8 p.m. Saturday
  • Where: Synod Hall, Oakland.
  • Tickets: $10 to $35; 412-361-2048.

As the director of Apollo's Fire, the acclaimed Cleveland-based period instrument ensemble, she has championed early music as harpsichordist and conductor. But it came after rigorous training in classical music. She had lessons with Leonard Bernstein, was asked to audition for an assistant conductor position at the Cleveland Orchestra, and studied with legendary harpsichordist and rigorous teacher Gustav Leonhardt.

"I always knew I wanted to specialize in baroque music, but I wanted to have some semblance of technique," she says. "There were a lot of conductors leading baroque ensembles with no conducting experience."

She was the youngest conductor and only woman in her class at Tanglewood when she conducted Bartok's difficult "Concerto for Orchestra" in front of Bernstein. "He said he liked it and gave me a big hug," she says still with excitement in her voice. "What impressed me most about Bernstein was his overarching interest in all of the arts."

Her duo background will play out this season in Pittsburgh. She first brings Apollo's Fire for a December concert and in April leads the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in Bach's "Brandenburg Concertos."

She will bring a similar approach to both. "I am influenced by the concept of Affect," she says of the Baroque-era aesthetic that tied various emotions to specific musical expressions, such as sorrow identified by languid strains and multiple sighs. "When you read the various treatises the thing that stands out is that the main role of the performer is to move the listener. Music should be emotional and speak to people immediately like pop music. Over the years we lost that and people saw baroque music as stiff and unemotional -- not just because they were bit used to it but because it was often played that way."

You can't include Leonhardt, who died in January, in that grouping. Although an obituary in The Economist summed up his performing manner, "As he played he sat bolt upright, gaunt and aquiline [with] no unnecessary gesture, no hint of emotion," the playing was full of joy and character.

Ms. Sorrell was shocked when Leonhardt accepted her as one of only four students he teaches each year. She had only been playing harpsichord for a few years.

"It was fantastic," she says. "He was a man of few words, but every word was carefully chosen. In my first rehearsal, he said I was a better musician than a harpsichordist. But in my final year he said he was pleased with my progress. He only heard [you play] a piece once and you had to do another next week. I learned so much for that."

Ms. Sorrell brings both strands together when she conducts while playing the harpsichord, which she will do with the PSO and with Apollo's Fire.

The former, her debut with the orchestra, includes the extraordinarily taxing harpsichord part for Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. "I have performed Brandenburg 5 many times and recorded it, but it is four nights of a three-hour concert [and] it is going to be intense!"

But not because the musicians are playing modern instruments. I feel very comfortable with modern players. Modern instruments can successfully project much farther and if you have top players there is a lot that can be done stylistically, such as light. But highly skilled players can certainly do it. It will be a fun collaboration."

Apollo's Fire appears on the Renaissance & Baroque Society series. Pittsburgh's main early music presenter has booked the group nearly 10 times, but not since 2009. That program of holiday music from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man will do some melding of its own.

"We will straddle ... not only the crossroads of art music and traditional music, but also the crossroads of paganism and Christianity," she says in notes to the concert. "The intermingling of these traditions is so vibrant in the Celtic cultures that it would be impossible to make a Christmas recording -- or should we call it a Winter Solstice recording? -- without celebrating this delightful melange." The roll call includes Christian Renaissance choral works, pagan carols, folk music and dancing.

For many today, these are drastically different. "We are trying to break down [those] walls," she says.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: or 412-263-1750. He blogs at


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