A Chat with Jeannette Sorrell of Apollo's Fire Baroque Orchestra

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(Photo by  Courtesy of Apollo's Fire)

Apollo's Fire Baroque Orchestra, renowned for their outstanding musicianship and emotionally moving performances, returns to the Valley for "A Night at Bach's Coffeehouse-Bach's Brandenburgs 3-5", 7pm, Monday, October 28th at the MIM. Award-wining Harpsichordist and Conductor Jeannette Sorrell shares her insights on baroque scholarship, and the universal powers of music.

1) Apollo’s Fire is dedicated to the baroque ideal “that music should evoke the various Affekts or passions in the listeners.” Can you describe compositional techniques baroque composers might have used to affect the emotional states of their audiences? Would baroque audiences have universally recognized these gestures?

Baroque music was modeled on the ideas of oratory and rhetoric, from ancient Greece and Rome.  So composers used rhetorical devices – each phrase of music might be a question, an interruption, an exclamation, a moment of suspense, a surprise, etc.  The audience knew these rhetorical devices because rhetoric was a huge part of a basic liberal arts education at that time.  Baroque composers also used imagery and text painting.  For example, the Pastorale or “Pifa” from Handel’s Messiah – you hear the drone in the bass at the beginning, and the pastorale melody, and immediately, any 18th-century listener would know that we are with the shepherds in the fields.  It’s a lot of fun for us to evoke these various images and try to make them clear for modern audiences.

2) Sometimes classical music, and early music especially, carries a stigma as “dry” and “overly scholarly”. However, Apollo’s Fire is lauded again and again for spectacular concerts that pack a powerful and emotional punch. How are you able to balance scholarship and emotion in a way that serves the mind and hearts of your audiences?

I’m actually from a family of professors, and I grew up studying languages and literature and European history.  And I still spend a lot of time in libraries. But I think the scholarly aspect of early music should be behind the scenes.  It’s the homework we do – a tool that we use.  It is not an end in itself.  Music is an emotional language.  I’ve never been interested in performing little early music concerts for an audience of 64 people with Ph.D’s.  Music has the power to touch everyone -  to help us all connect with something universal inside ourselves.   What I like to do is put historical music in a context where modern listeners can easily find a way to connect with it – using narration, theatrical elements, dance, even social/political context, to create a window for people.

3) You are an award winning harpsichordist, Jeannette- what was your introduction to the instrument? What initially drew you to the keyboard?

I grew up as a pianist, but I was always kind of a Bach and Mozart pianist.  My hands are small.  And I started leading ensembles from the keyboard when I was in high school.  In college I switched my major from piano to conducting, and at that point I was required to take a “secondary instrument.”  I looked down the list of instruments… and saw harpsichord there.  So I thought, “Ah, that will be easier than anything else.”  But within about 4 weeks, I fell in love with it and saw that it was the right instrument for me.

4) You are also recognized again and again as an exceptional conductor. You studied conducting with some of the finest conductors of the 20th century: Leonard Bernstein, Robert Spano and Roger Norrington. How did those experiences serve you in regards to interpretation of early music?

I feel like I mostly learned how to rehearse, from these great conductors.  And how to pace a rehearsal, psychologically – to keep the players engaged and excited about what they’re doing.  But musically/stylistically, I think my influence was mainly my great harpsichord teacher, Gustav Leonhard.

5) We’ve shared your Brandenburg recordings with K-Bach audiences this week in anticipation of your October 28th concert at the MIM. The recordings are stunning, and we imagine the live performance will be even better. How do you keep a well-known masterpiece like Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti live and fresh?

It’s really not a challenge. The Brandenburgs are so fantastic and inspiring, it’s just a joyful journey every time we play them. I would get bored after playing a Telemann piece about 4 times. Never bored witih the Brandenburgs.

6) The Apollo’s Fire discography runs deep: 20 recordings since 1992. Is there a recording in the works currently?

Our latest recording is “Sacrum Mysterium:  A Celtic Christmas Vespers.”  It was an unusual project and kind of daring, blending Celtic folk music with highlights from a 13th-c. Scottish Vespers service.  It’s now made the bestseller charts on Billboard Classical, so we are very excited about this!

7) We hope you enjoy your stay in Phoenix and your time in the MIM’s beautiful hall. Will you and the orchestra have a chance to explore any parts of the Valley during your tour stop?

Unfortunately we are squeezing in this little visit, in the midst of a tour that goes from Pennsylvania to Chicago to Canada to California.  But we hope to be back in Phoenix again in the next couple of years!

-contributed by Jane Hilton

Apollo's Fire Baroque Orchestra /7pm, Monday, October 28, 2013/Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Blvd. Phoenix, AZ 85050 / Ticket details available at www.mim.org