Fairmount Presbyterian Church
|An impressive start on the new season.|
Happy, happy, happy. That’s the standard operating mode of Apollo’s Fire, and how it pitches most of its music. “A high ranking on the happy scale,” the program notes say of a Telemann concerto. “The happiest of the Brandenburgs,” conductor and harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell says in introducing No. 4.
Happy is how the audiences typically leave as well, buoyed by the ensemble’s bright sound and energetic approach to playing the Baroque repertoire. What impressed about this season’s opening concert, though, was not so much the mood as the caliber of playing. The ensemble sounded sharp and deep, showcasing captivating duets, trios and quartets with rich, lively orchestral accompaniment.
The opening piece, the first movement of Telemann’s Concerto in D for two flutes, violin and cello, set the tone for the evening: An effervescent sound with a light, airy quality characterized by fine detail and precision solo work. As always, violinist Olivier Brault provided much of the detail. But the charm of the Telemann concerto was in the two traverso (Baroque flutes) played by Kathie Stewart and Francis Colpron, whose lines were like butterflies flitting through the main melodies.
Two pieces by J.D. Heinichen (pronounced like the beer) also featured spirited solo and ensemble work, though were interesting mostly as examples of the sophisticated compositions produced in Dresden in the 1720s. Selections from Heinichen’s Concerto Grosso in G major included a sublimely sweet quartet played by Stewart (traverso), Colpron (recorder) and violinists Brault and Johanna Novom. A trio of woodwinds – Stewart, Colpron and oboist Debra Nagy – were even more enchanting in his Concerto Grosso in C major. Still, what lingered were the composer’s arrangements and uses of color and tone, which sounded surprisingly modern.
Seeing Vivaldi’s Concerto for four violins in B minor performed is like watching an early version of a guitar heroes band, with the violinists lined up to trade leads and lines and see who can dash off the fanciest phrases. This is right in the ensemble’s wheelhouse; Brault and Newsom are both outstanding players, as is Julie Andrijeski. Andrew Fouts is not quite on their level, but his edges were equally sharp, and the ebullience of the full quartet embodied the joyful spirit of Vivaldi’s music.
Cellist René Schiffer opened the second half with the Prelude from Bach’s Suite No. 5 – not the most gripping movement in that piece, but technically challenging nonetheless. Schiffer showed impressive range and command, though his style is too legato for this critic’s tastes, rendering much of the music as a monotone.
Bach’s Concerto for oboe and violin in C minor featured Nagy and Novom, who were superb. With elegant backing from the ensemble, they wove intricate lines together and apart, combining fluid technique with eloquent expression. Perhaps more than any other piece on the program, this one demonstrated what Apollo’s Fire does best – take a familiar work and give it new life with enthusiastic playing and virtuoso musicianship.
The Brandenburg Concertos are the ensemble’s bread and butter, the mainstay of a North American tour it embarks on next week. This version of No. 4 sounded uptempo and a bit thin, with the traverso lacking definition. But Brault can always be counted on to fill the gaps with blazing filigree. And when he and Andrijeski led the ensemble in an encore of an Appalachian fiddle tune, no one was worried about the fine points of the performance. It was hoedown time, pure and simple.
And to judge by the audience reaction, a bell-ringer on the happy scale.
For more on Apollo’s Fire: http://apollosfire.org/
Photo by Daniel Levin