On Saturday, March 12, 2016, I attended an Apollo's Fire concert at Trinity Wall Street's St. Paul's Chapel. Built in 1697, it is the oldest surviving church in Manhattan, and served as an apposite backdrop for the baroque orchestra's performance of J.S. Bach's St. John Passion. The Cleveland-based Apollo's Fire has been described as one of the "pre-eminent period-instrument ensembles," having released 22 commercial CDs (of which 6 have been best sellers on BILLBOARD's classical chart), and toured extensively throughout North America and Europe. It was founded in 1992 by its conductor and award-winning harpsichordist, Jeannette Sorrell, who studied conducting under Leonard Bernstein.
The group is named after the classical god of music and the sun, Apollo, and its mission is to bring out the various Affekts, or passions, in its listeners - a decidedly baroque ideal. It consists of 19 instrumentalists, and on the night of March 12, twenty four singers. Although I am a great fan of baroque music, the chief reason for my attendance at this show was to hear the superb singer, Amanda Forsythe, who I discovered a few months ago through her Handel collaborations with Apollo's Fire. Having watched their videos online, my interest in this particular baroque orchestra was sparked due to its excellent musicianship and passionate performances, led by their red-haired, musically entrancing conductor, who seemed to me to embody the ideal of the masterful musician, as well as their smart-looking, passionate ensemble, among whom their concertmaster, Olivier Brault, stood out in particular, for his spirited and stylistically sensitive performances.
Apollo's Fire thoroughly lived up to my expectations. This concert stands as one of the most unique, excellently crafted, spirited performances I have seen all year. Although I am not a religious person, I did not mind listening to a Bible-inspired work of high art for two hours for the following reasons: 1) The music was other-worldy and supremely gorgeous (It's hard to go wrong with J.S. Bach) 2) Apollo's Fire is an exciting, musically outstanding baroque orchestra 3) I was thrilled to have the opportunity to hear and see the Boston-based Amanda Forsythe perform, because her exceptionally beautiful light lyric coloratura voice and lovely stage presence is an inspiration to me. I've been listening to her most recent album, The Power of Love, on repeat of late, and have been struck by the refreshing individualism of her artistic interpretation of Handel arias.
Bach was 39 when he wrote the St. John Passion, which takes listeners closer to opera than his contemporary church-music colleagues had dared to go. From start to finish, the work is a tour de force, filled with the passion and pain of Christ's journey from his arrest in the garden to crucifixion and death. It is narrated by "the Evangelist," (i.e. St. John), played by tenor Nicholas Phan, who gave us a superb vocal and theatrical performance, and whose enduring performing stamina is truly something to be admired.
In the program notes, Sorrell wrote, "The music consists of recitatives narrating the Passion story verbatim from the Bible - in this case the Gospel of John - interspersed with arias and chorales set to contemporary (18th century) religious poetry, reflecting on the biblical passage just heard." At the time of Bach's writing, it was believed that the Apostle John was in fact the author, but scholars today contend that the Gospel of John was actually written by several people. The text was created in a Jewish Christian community that was in the process of breaking from the Jewish synagogue, and it described Jesus' opponents as simply, "the Jews." In later centuries, however, this same text was used to support antisemitism, making Bach's magnificent music an unfortunate medium for political agendas.
The entire cast was exceptional - all singer actors who with with passionate serenity, focus, and at times, fury, conveyed the dramatic last days of the work's protagonist, Jesus. Baritone Jeffrey Strauss played Pilate, and brought a solemn earnestness to the role. Playing the Disciple Peter, Baritone Christian Immler cut a striking figure onstage. Jesse Blumberg delivered an honest and coherent performance of Jesus. Countertenor Terry Wey beguiled us with his exquisite instrument, adding a touch of sweetness to the score's turbulence. Amanda Forsythe sang two arias, and epitomized the ideals of expressive grace, as her clear, exquisite voice filled the room with a refined peace. Her presence was winsome and compellingly artistic. Praise is due also to the chorus, who with gusto and sensibility, performed Bach's complex vocal counterpoint and overwhelmed the audience with their musical and dramatic acuity.
It is a pity I cannot give every one the performers and instrumentalists a personalized ovation, but let me say this much: Apollo's Fire consists of dedicated musicians who are bringing very special historical music to the public. Violinist Oliver Braut is a dashing figure that truly seems to personify the ideal of the 18th century musician: elegant, concentrated, passionate, earnest. His performance was a special pleasure to watch and hear, for one rarely comes across a musician whose every gesture seems to breathe his music to this consummate degree. Among his various projects, he is also a member of Four Nations Ensemble in New York, which presents music from the Renaissance through the Viennese Classical masterpieces - so go out and see him if you get the chance!
Apollo's Fire will release a CD in the spring of 2017 as part of their 25th Anniversary Season festivities. They will make their Carnegie Hall debut on March 22, 2018, and will perform Handel's Messiah at the Metropolitan Museum on December 18, 2018 as well as a to-be-announced December concert of their 2014 CD, Christmas on Sugarloaf Mountain - An Appalachian Celebration.
I look forward to the next time I can enjoy Apollo Fire's music-making and would like to give a very enthusiastic BRAVA to Jeannette Sorrell for her marvelous contribution to early music performance!