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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Apollo's Fire / Saturday, October 30, 2021
Jeanette Sorrell, director and harpsichord; Francisco Fullana, violin. Cleveland Baroque Orchestra

Apollo's Fire Oct. 30 with Visual

APOLLO'S FIRE LIGHTS UP VIVALDI'S FOUR SEASONS IN WEILL

by Terry McNeill
Saturday, October 30, 2021

Long ago the Canadian violin virtuoso Gil Shaham played a program in Weill Hall of solo Bach, with a visual backdrop of slowly developing visuals, such as a pokey flower opening over four minutes. The Bach was sensational, and some in the audience liked the photos but many found them disconcerting, including this reviewer.

The Baroque ensemble Apollo’s Fire took the same stage Oct. 30 in essentially an all Vivaldi program, with a unique backdrop of colorful videos that were not disconcerting but mostly innocuous. Why, because the musical presentation was such an engrossing success before 650 that surely came to hear one of a handful of classical music’s most performed works – the Four Seasons. La Quattro Stagioni wore its age supremely well.

Apollo’s Fire is headed by conductor, arranger and harpsichordist Jeanette Sorrell, and at this event was spread out on the stage – 3 violas, 7 violins, 1 bass viol, 3 cellos, guitar and theorbo, harp, and the brilliant solo violin of Francisco Fullana. Cleveland based, the ensemble is celebrating 30 years of playing the Four Seasons, and clearly they could play it in their sleep. It’s a comfy old shoe to them, and also to most of the audience that gave standing ovations following each of the four concertos, each with three movements – fast, slow, fast.

The music, composed in 1720, is mostly fast, and if Fauré is known as old arpeggio, the Venice composer is surely old tremolo. The familiar themes and musical descriptions of Italian countryside developed smoothly with excellent ensemble. Attacks and releases were crisp, string pitch for Mr. Fullana and additional soloists Alan Choo and Emi Tanabe were deftly altered to increase sonic interest, and cellist René Schiffer added visual comic movements that accompanied his forceful instrumental artistry.

Introductory comments to the audience by Ms. Sorrell were never cute, giving a tasteful and picturesque description of each Season to come, and her conducting and mostly inaudible harpsichord playing gave control to the many short solo duos and trio groupings. Frequently Mr. Fullana and Mr. Schiffer were joined by the piquant baroque guitar and theorbo playing of William Simms, perfectly amplified. The three violin soloists, and for that matter the entire high string sections, moved acrobatically to the resounding music, giving phrases a little extra excitement. Mr. Fullana played without score.

This music can seem continually aggressive, as the composer between the potent bookend movements created mostly short slow movements (two Largos, two Adagios) as bucolic lyrical interludes. Apollo’s Fire’s performances elegantly called to mind in each Concerto the visual depiction of nature – storms, a festival, sleep, languorous heat – with just passing reference to the scenes on the large screen. Perhaps the highlight was Autumn (L’Autunno) with the emphasis on novel harmonies and the march-like Tremolos in the last MAllegro.

The concert opened with Marco Uccellini’s La Bergamasca, a work roughly contemporary with Vivaldi, that passed without much notice. That was not the case with Vivaldi’s G Minor Concerto for Two Cellos (RV 541), wonderfully played by Mr. Schiffer and Sarah Stone. The work ended the first half, and Mr. Schiffer’s Cadenza in the opening Allegro had delicious references to Bach’s G Major Suite and, yes, themes from the Four Seasons. The two cellos were both in unison and at times far apart.

How to end such a feast of Vivaldi? With the singular La Folia (Madness), in Ms. Sorrell’s arrangement that featured Mr. Choo and Ms. Tanabe alternating musical phrases and stage antics, aided by an appearance across the stage by Mr. Simms and his insouciant guitar. It was intense music making, accelerating to the end, and generated a loud ovation.

An encore was demanded, and the conductor grabbed a tambourine to accompany Ms. Tanabe and the ensemble (including Mr. Fullana) in a dazzling tour de force set of variations of unknown identity, with strains of “Fiddler on the Roof” and Gypsy rhythms reflecting clapping and foot stomping from the audience. Of course it brought down the house.