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Baroque Orchestra Conquers Tanglewood


Only a few minutes into the concert by Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland-based Baroque Orchestra directed by Jeanette Sorrell, last night in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, one realized that this was going to be no typical Baroque sewing-machine outing, such as one might hear in traditional Classical music since the middle 50s. Luckily, over the last quarter-century or so, the best exponents of this music have learned that a monotonously steady rhythm is probably not what musicians in the Baroque era desired or produced.

Sorrell spent the summer of 1989 in the conductor’s seminar at Tanglewood. For all its many virtues, this program was hardly one designed to lead an executant into Baroque music. But she followed that summer with study in the Netherlands with the great harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt and his colleagues, who made a profound study of the theoretical writings of the period, from which they deduced the principles of performance taught to a large number of their students, including how to be aware of what writers referred to as Affektenlehre, the doctrine of “the affections,” the particular musical devices that projected emotion and imagery, and how to enliven the music of the period with a flexible shaping of phrases and articulation.

Last night’s Sorrell and her group demonstrated full internalization of the modern scholarly way of performing this music, which makes it sound anything but “scholarly.” Academicism is replaced by expressive musical response. Drive and color provide enlivening variety.

This happens not only with the opening quirky and delightful suite by Telemann, a program piece entitled Don Quixote, but also with the most standard works on the program: the fourth and fifth Brandenberg Concertos of J.S. Bach.

The Telemann was offered to mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, part two. Following the traditional French overture, the suite consists of five movements, each of which is a pictorial piece based on an image or section of Cervantes’ novel. “Don Quixote awakens” suggests perhaps the unmoored mental processes of the elderly gentleman of La Mancha. The next three movements are more overtly pictorial: the attack on the windmills, sighs of love for the Princess Dulcinea (presented with the traditional “sighing” gesture of a falling second repeated frequently), and Sancho Panza tossed in a blanket. This last suggested the hapless squire with aggressive and strongly-marked upbows on a high note followed by lower notes as he is tossed in the air and falls back. In the end Don Quixote goes to sleep in the final movement, possibly the quiet sleep of death. Many parts of the work are designed to draw chuckles or at least smiles from the listener, and from Apollo’s Fire came humor aplenty.

Next came a cheery performance of the cheerful Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, with Olivier Brault as the solo violin and Francis Colbron and Kathie Stewart as solo recorders. Much of the first and last movement is presented in echo between the soloists and the full ensemble, a good thing, because there was a slight tendency when all were playing together for the soloists to be overpowered. The slow movement in which only the soloists appear was quite exquisite.

Up until this point Jeanette Sorrell’s harpsichord was placed so that she could face the musicians with the keyboard and her back to the audience, and set on blocks to raise it so that she could play standing and conduct from that position. For the opening number of the second half, it was turned to the side in the normal manner of the keyboard instrument being played by a soloist (and with the blocks removed, so that she played seated). That is because Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 contains perhaps the single most brilliant solo harpsichord passage of his entire output. Beforehand she pointed out to the audience something that many no doubt knew but was worth calling to the attention of those who didn’t, that in the first movement the harpsichord gradually moves from being a continuo accompaniment to joining with the other soloists, and finally taking off in a dramatic cadenza of astonishing virtuosity, metaphorically leaving the rest of the ensemble standing with their mouths open.

For this most dramatic of the Brandenburg concertos, the soloists were again Olivier Breault as violin and Kathie Stewart flute as well as Jeanette Sorrell on harpsichord. The cadenza was indeed hair-raising and brilliantly played to such a point that the audience gave a rousing ovation at the end of the first movement. Later on someone commented, “I’d be surprised if she could’ve played that standing up.”

Two pieces closed formal program, both based on a chaconne pattern, that is to say, a repeated bass line over which the other instruments present a series of variations. The first of these was a chaconne that Handel wrote for an early allegorical work entitled Parnasso in festa (“Parnassus celebrating”), then later inserted into his suite Terpsichore, featuring the Parisian ballerina Marie Sallé, and finally inserted into a 1734 revival of his opera Il pastor fido, originally composed in 1712. Since the original version was intended as a tribute to the Muses and each variation has a somewhat different character (possibly inspired by the theatrical appearance of dancers representing these figures), Sorrell inspired a remarkable variety of feeling and mood from one variation to the other.

Apollo's Fire (file photo)
Apollo’s Fire (file photo)

The finale has become something of a specialty of Apollo’s Fire, as indicated by the fact that the entire ensemble played the work from memory [listen here]. It is an adaptation by Jeanette Sorrell of a trio sonata by Antonio Vivaldi, turning it into a concerto grosso. Arrangements of this sort were entirely common in the Baroque era, and this one allowed the entire ensemble to develop a particularly lively finale to the concert. It is Vivaldi’s version of the traditional melody La Follia (“Madness” or “Folly”), which had been used by composer after composer for well over a century as the basis of a set of variations over an ostinato, traditionally believed to evoke young women dancing to the point of madness. As La Follia progresses, the variations get more and more extraordinary and challenging. There are two solo parts derived directly from the original trio Sonata, presented here by Olivier Breaux and Johanna Novom. As the work progresses there is a certain amount of quasi-theatrical byplay between the soloists. At one amusing moment, a somewhat sentimental, even romantic, variation, Olivier Breaux went down on his knees as if proposing marriage to his partner. She raised an eyebrow and indicated that she was not interested, to which he replied by inflecting the next variation with an air of true indignation. Purists might regard the whole thing as corny, but in truth it turned Vivaldi’s virtuoso showpiece into a delightful close.

For an encore the ensemble offered a very different kind of piece, one created for an offshoot of Apollo’s Fire, an ensemble of eight instruments devoted to music derived from Scottish and Irish Celtic roots transplanted to America and now found largely in the traditional music of the Appalachians. This was a number from their newest recording, entitled “Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering.” It is not at all inappropriate for a Baroque ensemble to undertake this music because many elements of that traditional music—melody, rhythmic, and harmonic—are very close to elements in the musical style of concert music of the Baroque. The encore truly brought the house down.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.   

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