Jeannette Sorrell, Founding Music Director, Apollo's Fire


The choice of the name, Apollo's Fire, for Cleveland's new baroque chamber orchestra in 1992 could not have been more inspired. In the decade since its founding by harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell in 1992, the ensemble has thrown new light on 17th- and 18th-century music we thought we knew and brought into the sunlight once again works that have been forgotten.

Sorrell and her musicians, a select pool of early music specialists from America and Europe on whom she draws as needed, perform the baroque repertoire on the instruments for which it is written and in the style in which scholars such as Sorrell have determined it was originally performed. The result, say audiences and critics, is a revelation. “All we're doing is playing this music the way it was intended to be played, the way it wants to be played,” explained Sorrell. Yes, and splendidly.

Fanfare magazine has called Apollo's Fire's performances “zestful” and “appealing." The Boston Globe has said that the ensemble's musicianship rivals “anything orchestras on either side of the Atlantic could muster” and described Sorrell as “one heck of a harpsichordist.”

It was evident from the beginning that her talent was something special. Having earned her artist diploma in harpsichord at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music (1990), Sorrell was immediately invited to join the faculty of Oberlin's Baroque Performance Institute. Competing against more than 70 performers from Europe, North America, the Soviet Union and Japan, Sorrell (who had studied with Lisa Crawford and Gustav Leonhardt, during a year at Amsterdam's Sweelinck Conservatory) walked off with both first prize and the audience-choice award at the 1991 Spivey International Harpsichord Competition. She was soon giving recitals throughout the United States as well as in France and the Netherlands.

She harbored another ambition, however: to lead her own orchestra. In the summer of 1989, Sorrell had studied conducting at the Tanglewood Music Festival in western Massachusetts with Leonard Bernstein and Roger Norrington, which had led to a conducting fellowship at the Aspen Music Festival the following summer. Her 1990 performance of Schubert's “Unfinished" Symphony with the Oberlin Conservatory Orchestra was broadcast by National Public Radio as one of the “outstanding performances of the year.” When she was invited to audition for assistant conductor under Cleveland Orchestra music director Christoph von Dohnányi, she declined the offer of a position that had been the launching pad for more than one career, explaining that what she really wanted to do was conduct an orchestra of period instruments. Later, Cleveland Orchestra artistic administrator Roger Wright took her aside and said he would help her start such an ensemble.

With backing from her own family and an enthusiastic board recruited by Wright and Sorrell, Apollo's Fire's inaugural concert took place in a sheep barn at Case Western Reserve University's Squire Valleevue Farm in June 1992. Its tenth anniversary concert, in 2002, would take place in the Cleveland Orchestra's Severance Hall. Five years earlier, a rising star on the regional and national music scene, Sorrell had led a benefit performance of the MozartRequiem at Severance with members of the Cleveland Orchestra, winning a standing ovation and critical acclaim. In 2001, she had made her Boston debut as guest conductor and soloist with the Handel and Haydn Society to rave reviews.

High points of the ensemble's first decade include revelatory semi-staged productions of Bach's St. John Passion (1997) and St. Matthew Passion (2003); the first Cleveland performance of Claudio Monteverdi's opera, Orfeo (1996), reprised five years later at the Cleveland Museum of Art in an exciting collaboration with the Opera Atelier of Toronto, a noted baroque opera troupe; and Monteverdi's rarely performed choral masterpiece, Vespers, which The Plain Dealer called a “stunning triumph.” International Record Review pronounced the ensemble's CD of Vespers “an unanticipated delight” marked by an “exhilaration and sense of discovery [that] is utterly infectious.” Scored for an ensemble that includes such now-neglected instruments as lutes, theorbos (a lute with a long giraffe-like neck), recorders and cornettos (a cross between a trumpet and an oboe that sounds like neither) and calling for a style of singing that employs vibrato only as an occasional ornament, this masterpieceranked by musical experts with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Handel's Messiahis virtually unplayable on modern instruments.

In 1994, Sorrell's achievements were recognized by the Erwin Bodky Award, reserved for outstanding young performers in early music. The following year, she and Apollo's Fire won the American Musicological Society's prestigious Noah Greenberg Award, given for an outstanding scholarly and artistic project. 

A number of the ensemble's recorded performances, including Mozart symphonies and piano concertos (done on an 18th-century fortepiano), are available on the Elektra label. Apollo's Fire continues to present subscription concerts each season throughout the Greater Cleveland area and, since 1998, a summer series known as the Baroque Music Barn at Squire Valleevue Farm, where it all began.

—Dennis Dooley


Cleveland Arts Prize
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