Apollo’s Fire at CMA: Where Art and Music Meet

An Interview with Conductor Jeannette Sorrell

Apollo's Fire at the Tanglewood Festival, 2017 (photo credit Erica Brenner Productions)

Apollo’s Fire, the international touring baroque orchestra led by Jeannette Sorrell has played to standing ovations at Carnegie Hall, the BBC Proms in London, and the Royal Theatre of Madrid, as well as several engagements at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. But they call Cleveland their home.

Apollo’s Fire: Bringing the “Fire” to the World’s Stages for 25 Years — Jeannette Sorrell

This season, Apollo’s Fire has an increased presence at the CMA at the invitation of Director William M. Griswold. Apollo’s Fire launches its 2018–19 season on Friday, October 12, at the CMA’s Gartner Auditorium with a program called Magnificent Mozart.”

Apollo’s Fire is known internationally for bringing both virtuosity and passion to the stage. Their third London concert was chosen by the Independent as one of the Best 5 Classical Music Moments of the Year in 2014. The Independent’s review of that concert praised the “superlative music-making[,] . . . combining European stylishness with American can-do entrepreneurialism.” Their Carnegie Hall debut concert last spring sold out seven months in advance.

Their concert at the CMA on October 12 is a rare chance to hear Mozart’s symphonic splendor with the sparkling clarity of period instruments. Thirty-five virtuoso musicians under the direction of Sorrell bring Apollo’s Fire’s signature energy and passion to these classical masterpieces.

Apollo’s Fire Live at Tanglewood — La Bergamasca (Uccellini/arr. Sorrell)

Here, Sorrell shares her approach to baroque music, why it belongs in an art museum, and Apollo’s Fire’s upcoming CMA performance, “Magnificent Mozart,” on October 12.

Image: Jeannette Sorrell, photo courtesy Roger Mastroianni.

CMA: At the Cleveland Museum of Art, conservators work with patience and precision to examine artwork and restore paintings through a very careful process. How would you describe restoring baroque music to its original emotional vitality?

JS: It’s definitely detective work. Part of it comes through playing on period instruments — the instruments the music was actually written for. They teach us a lot about the transparent texture the music was meant to have and the lively tempos that are natural on those instruments. The sense of lilt . . . And part of it comes from reading the music treatises of the seventeenth century and looking at the artwork.

CMA: Do you visit the CMA and look at the artwork when you’re preparing certain pieces of music?

JS: Absolutely! Paintings and literature are the living, concrete example of the mood and style of their period. So right now I am preparing a Mozart program. He lived during the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth century. I love looking at the CMA’s paintings collection from that era; it’s a wonderful window into the spirit of the time. In the works of artists like Jacques-Louis David and William Blake, you see the elegance but also the boldness of thought. There was a great confidence in humankind’s abilities, but there was still a sense of our place as one species in a much larger ecosystem. All of that translates into the sense of elegance and order that you hear in Mozart’s music.

St. Matthew, Date n/a. William Blake (British, 1757–1827). tempera on canvas, Overall: 38.5 x 26.5 cm (15 1/8 x 10 3/8 in.). Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 2017.4. On view now in gallery 203.

The fact is, music and art belong in one house. They illuminate each other. So, when we perform at the CMA, I hope that our concert patrons will wander the galleries before the concert, taking in the artwork for a complete, immersive experience.

Paintings and literature are the living, concrete example of the mood and style of their period. So right now I am preparing a Mozart program. He lived during the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth century. I love looking at the CMA’s paintings collection from that era; it’s a wonderful window into the spirit of the time. — Jeannette Sorrell, Artistic Director — Apollo’s Fire

CMA: This year, Apollo’s Fire will be in our corridors more often. And you are launching your 2018–19 season on Friday, October 12, at Gartner Auditorium.

JS: Yes, the program is called Magnificent Mozart.” It’s a rare chance to hear Mozart’s symphonic splendor with the sparkling clarity of period instruments — from the lighthearted Finta Giardinera overture and the stormy Symphony no. 40 in G Minor to the exhilarating ballet music from Idomeneo. We’ll have thirty-five virtuoso musicians on stage.

CMA: How do you feel about playing Mozart on period instruments?

JS: It’s absolutely our favorite thing to do. People are used to hearing Mozart’s symphonic works on modern instruments, which are much heavier and produce a more opaque and sustained sound. When symphony orchestras play Mozart, no matter how excellent the orchestra is, the musicians have to hold back a bit — like walking on eggshells. The music sounds slightly reserved that way, which is the opposite of Mozart’s personality, as we see in his letters. It’s like the difference between driving up a mountain in a Cadillac or on a mountain bike. The Cadillac experience is smooth, sleek, and easy. The mountain bike experience is an exhilarating workout — and it’s thrilling.

CMA: When Apollo’s Fire musicians play Mozart, they are playing on the instruments he was actually writing for: the instruments of the eighteenth century.

JS: Our musicians can throw themselves into the performance with all the energy and passion that Mozart’s musicians would have used.

CMA: How do you feel about playing at Gartner Auditorium?

JS: When we performed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony there in 2017, it became clear to everyone that Gartner is a wonderful venue for Apollo’s Fire’s larger programs. We love the clarity of the sound there. Whenever we have thirty or more musicians on stage, Gartner is a great place to hear our group.

Apollo’s Fire at Gartner Auditorium — Beethoven concert, 2017 (photo credit Erica Brenner Productions)

CMA: In addition to the Mozart works, your October 12 program includes a selection from Haydn’s Concertante in B-flat.

JS: Yes, with four virtuoso soloists on violin, cello, period oboe, and period bassoon. It’s a delightful piece and rarely heard since it requires devilishly difficult solos. But in Apollo’s Fire we are fortunate to have many of the finest period players in the country coming to Cleveland regularly to make music together.

BACH Brandenburg Concerto №5, Mvt 1 — Apollo’s Fire — LIVE at Tanglewood