IN: Reviews

Glowing Orb Shone Brilliantly


Amanda Forsyth (file photo)
Amanda Forsythe (file photo)

Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland-based ensemble, put on a most effective show Friday night at a packed First Church in Cambridge. Directed by harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell, the ensemble of 13 strings and oboe was joined by soprano Amanda Forsythe in a program built around six arias from Handel’s Italian operas.

That the crowd came above all to honor Forsythe was clear from the thunderous applause that greeted her after introductory remarks by Harvard professor Tom Kelly, a former board member for Apollo’s Fire. But perhaps the most enthusiastic audience response followed the group’s frenetic performance of an arrangement of a work by Vivaldi, one of several instrumental compositions that alternated with the vocal selections.

The cheers for Forsythe were well deserved. She sounded as good as I have heard her, in selections that ranged from a wistful lament accompanied only by basso continuo to brilliant show stoppers joined by the full ensemble. Following period practice, each aria was graced by the type of unwritten embellishment that was one of the principal attractions of this music as originally performed. This led to fireworks far more spectacular than anything Handel ever wrote. Occasionally, as in “Geloso tormento” from his early opera Almira, the style of the embellishments struck me as later than that of the original music. But whether these decorations were justified either historically or by the dramatic circumstances of the original arias seemed almost irrelevant, given their nearly flawless execution and the panache with which they were presented. The same might be said of the histrionic manner in which the instrumental portions of the program, especially two arrangements by Sorrell, were played and conducted.

Indeed, Sorrell and her players were arguably more dramatic than Forsythe, who communicated with her admiring listeners chiefly through her extraordinary musicality. This made her restrained gestures (and costume changes that involved three stunning gowns) nearly superfluous. For the instrumentalists, however, the visual aspect was an essential part of the show, which included a sometimes stagey type of playing—and of conducting by Sorrell, who tended to leave the actual continuo playing to lutenist Simon Martyn-Ellis. An exaggerated tossing about of hands and bows has always been effective for eliciting audience response, as performers from Paganini to Bernstein have recognized. Whether it detracts from the musical impact of a performance may be a matter of personal taste.

The high points of this one were certainly Forsythe’s arias. Today a soprano enjoys the luxury of being able to perform male as well as female roles from Baroque opera, which could make the Roman emperor Nero a soprano and Julius Caesar a mezzo. Forsythe sang only arias originally for female characters, including two for Cleopatra from Handel’s Julius Caesar. Most affecting might have been the quiet “Amarti sì vorrei” from Teseo, although for this listener the effect was compromised by an overly busy continuo accompaniment, with harpsichord and lute frequently getting in one another’s way. This is one of several selections in which Emperor Charles VI’s advice to the soprano Farinelli might apply equally to players and singers: “those never-ending notes and passages only surprise . . . if you wish to reach the heart, you must take a more plain and simple road.” Forsythe did nevertheless “reach the heart” in Cleopatra’s lament “Piangerò,” which was paired with the same character’s bravura aria “Da tempeste” to end the program. Here a listener might have been excused for simply basking in the literally over-the-top embellishments, which reached into Queen-of-the-Night realms of the vocal stratosphere.

Playing expressively alongside Forsythe in “Geloso tormento” was oboist Debra Nagy, who also performed a fine solo from the third of Handel’s so-called oboe concertos. I wish that we could have heard the whole piece, rather than an excerpt. But this was a program of excerpts and adaptations, pasted together to form the sort of quasi-dramatic sequence now fashionable. The three segments, described in the program booklet as “First Love,” “Jealousy,” and “Delusions and Madness,” reflected the subjects of the arias. The program’s overall title “The Power of Love” was shared with the performers’ new audio CD, which was marketed shamelessly throughout the evening.

It is easy to see how the Apollo’s Fire approach to Baroque music has won it several Billboard awards. While following current trends, their performances are not unmusical or unoriginal. They clearly benefit from rehearsing and performing together regularly, unlike some other ensembles which, despite bearing readily recognized names, are effectively pick-up groups. Although all “Baroque” orchestras these days follow pretty much the same quasi-historical performance practices, Apollo’s Fire has a lush and fairly aggressive string sound of a type that might once have been considered “modern” by early-music specialists. Indeed, Sorrell’s arrangements and her conducting render some selections remote from anything truly historical. But the carefully worked out rubatos and dynamics in the more expressive pieces, as well as the gutsy playing in quick movements, are executed with impressive unanimity. A few minor ensemble problems Friday night can probably be attributed to First Church’s difficult acoustic.

Anyone who still cares about the historical part of so-called historical performance must nevertheless express some reservations about this sort of event. Sorrell was quite wrong, in both her program notes and her spoken commentary, to describe Vivaldi’s B-minor Concerto for Four Violins as music “written for teenagers.” Even if he did compose it for the women of the Pietà, a sort of orphanage where he worked on and off for much of his career, many of the original players were mature women of considerable musical accomplishment. To preserve their modesty, their performances took place out of view of the listeners—hardly the rock-concert ambience that Sorrell’s commentary invited listeners to imagine. (By the way, the Pietà still exists; you can visit their website here .) This concerto, which Bach admired sufficiently to arrange it for four harpsichords, was executed with great energy, but the addition of extra instruments thickened the sound, rendering opaque some of Vivaldi’s carefully constructed sonorities.

Something similar must be said of Sorrell’s arrangements of two other instrumental works on the program. I think she was joking when she accused Vivaldi of making the “mistake” of writing his “Follia” variations for just two violins and continuo (i.e., cello and harpsichord). She might have said the same of the variations on “La Bergamasca” by the earlier composer Uccellini, which opened the program. Like Respighi, Stokowski, and other twentieth-century updaters of old music, Sorrell transforms these straightforward Baroque dances into orchestral fantasias. Her arrangement of the Vivaldi work, played by the ensemble from memory, certainly spoke to the crowd, which responded with glee. But it also re-invents the anachronistic pop-ification of early music which the “historical performance” movement originally tried to get away from.

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

Sorrell’s program notes included a helpful “Reader’s Digest Version” of the opera plots, explaining the original dramatic situations of all six arias. But the repeated likening of Baroque music to contemporary commercial pop strikes me as inaccurate if not tiresome. Of course this music was popular in its day, but it possessed a deeper meaning than self-display or audience entertainment. Baroque opera was not only about “love and despair,” as asserted in the program notes. It is obviously effective to market a program like this one as “Passions of Handel and Vivaldi.” But, like Sorrell’s arrangements, doing so imposes a contemporary sensibility on the music, whose writers and first audiences were concerned with the difficult moral choices that faced great historical figures. We may no longer take seriously the conflict between love and duty that is so often the issue for a Queen Cleopatra or a Princess Agilea. But this conflict was a genuine ethical concern for Handel and his audiences, central to his musical dramas. His greatest characters transcend their mundane personal feelings, and it is the music that communicates this to us—although not in the arias selected for this program, all taken from relatively early in the plots of their operas.

A concert such as Friday night’s is a triumph not only for the soloist but for the contemporary marketing of so-called early music. I hope, however, that anyone who admires this type of music-making (and music marketing) also recognizes that popular entertainment need not be the only model for contemporary “classical” music.

David Schulenberg’s The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was published in 2014 by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at the Juilliard School in New York City. His website is here.


9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. “”A concert such as Friday night’s is a triumph not only for the soloist but for the contemporary marketing of so-called early music. I hope, however, that anyone who admires this type of music-making (and music marketing) also recognizes that popular entertainment need not be the only model for contemporary “classical” music.”

    As Prof. Schulenberg suggests, there are other performance-practice models for baroque orchestras to follow; but, judging from the review, it sounds like “Apollo’s Fire” chose an excellent one.

    In my salad days (when I was green in judgment) I would have also shared Prof. Schulenberg’s disapproval of flamboyant, “over-the -top” playing of Vivaldi, Uccellini and friends. But now, thankfully, the salad is less green; this sort of playing appeals for several reasons. Here are two: 1) Such music making makes people happy; 2) It helps the performers get more gigs. This last reason especially is important for free-lance musicians.

    A style of performance – practice that helps a musician get more jobs in the future is perhaps the most authentic and venerable of all performance practices. It has been going on before the Pietà ever existed or Marco Uccellini was conceived.

    If Apollo’s Fire ever comes to Miltown, I’ll be the first in line, inspired by the disapproving tone of this review, to buy tickets.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — November 21, 2015 at 4:33 pm

  2. Susan Adams’ excellent recent book “Vivaldi: Red Priest of Venice” has an extensive section on the four Venetian ospedale, including the Pièta where Vivaldi taught, which was the only all-girl institution of the four. They are compared to similar foundations in Naples (who were more well-known for producing castrato singers). Many scholarly sources re. Venice certainly describe “stars” being created through this kind of education, public performance, and encouragement of professional musicians (including Vivaldi).

    These musicians did give public performances but were hidden from audiences by screens, just like many church musicians performed further back from the altar area, sequestered from onlookers by various “screens” including massive, carved “choir screens” that can be seen in many Gothic buildings.

    For anyone really interested in this kind of history, check out the fantastic and detailed book “The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650-1815” by John Spitzer and Neal Zaslaw. They clarify what is meant historically by calling Vivaldi’s concerts one of the biggest tourist attractions of Venice.

    Comment by Laura Prichard — November 23, 2015 at 4:44 pm

  3. Thank you for alerting readers to these books. I have always wondered how Vivaldi ran his music school …especially the string department.) What was his role besides writing wonderful music for his students? Did he teach “one on one” lessons to the “top tier” students? Were there “group lessons” Did he have teaching assistants? If so, who were they? Was there a set curriculum? How were beginners started? Did they start at the school, or did they come already prepared? I hope these books take on at least some of these questions. I’ll order them up ASAP.

    Perhaps these books would also shed some light on this dispute:

    “Sorrell was quite wrong, in both her program notes and her spoken commentary, to describe Vivaldi’s B-minor Concerto for Four Violins as music “written for teenagers.” “

    In my time I have had three interactions with the splendid B minor Concerto that may lend some credence to Ms. Sorrell’s remark.

    The first one was when I played the 4th Violin Part. It was in 1969. I was a teenager. The second time was approximately 20 years later; I helped coach the piece. The performers were a group of teenagers. Last year I taught the third solo part to a violist. (There exists at least one arrangement of the piece for four violists.) She too was an adolescent. That my experience with this pieces is bound up with a bunch of 14-16 year-olds is not a coincidence. The piece lies beautifully under the hand of a capable young player. You don’t need to be a virtuoso to play it, but you need to have achieved a fluent competency in the first three violin “positions.” To put it another way: in order to play this piece well, you need a teenager’s technique. Is it possible that Vivaldi decided to write a concerto for four violinists in his class who were not virtuosos, but had such a capable technique? These students may or may not have been chronological teenagers — but very possibly they possessed, in their violin playing, teenage techniques.

    Perhaps Ms. Sorrell’s remark should not be dismissed so quickly. “Teenager” may not only be a term applied to chronological age. It may be applied to violin technique “age” as well.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — November 23, 2015 at 10:34 pm

  4. While some of the girls of the Pietà did stay through adulthood (as music teachers and singers in the choir), the contemporary reports that I have read describe the figlie di coro (the elite orchestra led by Vivaldi in public concerts) as primarily or entirely teenagers. There are many accounts of how the girls received marriage proposals, which were their ticket out of the orphanage. Rousseau loved attending their Sunday concerts and said that “not one of them was more than 20 yrs of age.” Here is the passage from his Confessions, Bk VII:

    “A kind of music far superior, in my opinion, to that of operas, and which in all Italy has not its equal, nor perhaps in the whole world, is that of the ‘scuole’. The ‘scuole’ are houses of charity, established for the education of young girls without fortune, to whom the republic afterwards gives a portion either in marriage or for the cloister. Amongst talents cultivated in these young girls, music is in the first rank. Every Sunday at the church of each of the four ‘scuole’, during vespers, motettos or anthems with full choruses, accompanied by a great orchestra, and composed and directed by the best masters in Italy, are sung in the galleries by girls only; not one of whom is more than twenty years of age.” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions, Bk VII, written c. 1767)

    Comment by Jeannette Sorrell — November 24, 2015 at 1:32 am

  5. Thank you for this fascinating quote from Rousseau. It gives much more veracity to your “teenager” assertion than any of my anecdotal stories ever could. Another book to order right after I finish typing this: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions.”

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — November 24, 2015 at 12:57 pm

  6. The water has long flowed over this dam, or under this bridge, but let’s just recall a few things about Vivaldi’s B-minor concerto:

    (1) There is no evidence that it was written for performance at the Pietà, which was just one of the places Vivaldi furnished music. He wasn’t working there during the two years prior to the work’s publication.

    (2) References to “girls” singing at Vespers or receiving marriage proposals at the Venetian scuole tell us nothing about who might have played solos in concerts or concertos there. The famous Anna Maria, who lived at the Pietà for all or most of her 87 years, was about 25 when she began playing solo concertos.

    (3) I too played music like this as a teenager, and some teenagers can play it very well, but this doesn’t tell us anything about the people for whom Vivaldi wrote it.

    (4) It’s splendid music as well as a great deal of fun, but it’s also full of sophisticated counterpoint and other brilliantly imaginative touches that most teenagers, and even some older listeners, are unlikely to appreciate fully on first hearing.

    (5) Bach was probably in his forties or fifties when he arranged it for four harpsichords–okay, maybe some of these were played by his teenaged sons–and the Grand Prince of Tuscany, Ferdinand de’ Medici, to whom the first edition was dedicated, was 48 when it came out.

    To learn more about the Venetian ospedali, read this article (possibly written by a teenager)–and follow up her references.

    Comment by David Schulenberg — November 29, 2015 at 10:47 pm

  7. The Bach transcription for four keyboards made for a haunting and perfectly apposite score for Jean Cocteau’s film “Les Enfants Terribles.” A great choice for this neo-baroque fantasmagoria.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — November 30, 2015 at 4:26 pm

  8. A piece of anecdotal evidence. My violinist teen-age granddaughter loves Vivaldi. At least for this teen-ager, he wrote music that she can play, and she wants to.

    Comment by LoisL — December 2, 2015 at 9:27 am

  9. I accept (and thank) Prof. Schulenburg for taking the time to show that we can never know who the B minor Concerto was written for. Scholarship trumps hunches.

    Thank you as well to LoisL’s for the anecdote. It brought back ancient and pleasent memories. When I first played this music as a befuddled 16 year old, I adored the piece like LoisL’s granddaughter does. Still do.

    “It’s splendid music as well as a great deal of fun, but it’s also full of sophisticated counterpoint and other brilliantly imaginative touches that most teenagers, and even some older listeners, are unlikely to appreciate fully on first hearing.”

    Isn’t it possible that a listener who does not hear these things could appreciate the piece in a different, but equally worthy way? Is it possible that a Vivaldi novice, either as performer or a listener, when first confronted with this piece of B minor eloquence, could feel like the character in a Chesterton story who made a discovery that “was like looking at the first ship or the first plough…that he was still in the childhood of the world.”? Is it even possible that an academic schooling in how to listen to this music could distract the novice seeing such wonders?

    Sophisticated counterpoint and brilliantly imaginative touches are fine things. But they are not necessarily “the childhood of the world.” Lots of wonderful counterpoints has flowed under the bridge during the past many centuries. But, for me, great music helps me see a ship or a plough first. Luxuriating in a master’s contrapuntal triumphs comes later. Is it possible that LoisL’s granddaughter sees these magics, ships and plows, when she plays Vivaldi’s music?

    Possibly so; but it is only a hunch.

    One thing is not a hunch. She is fortunate to play this music in her youth.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — December 3, 2015 at 10:55 pm

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