2017 Mid-Career Prize in MUSIC
At age 17, when most kids are preoccupied with homework or buying a new bike, Jeannette Sorrell knew that she wanted to direct a period instrument Baroque orchestra. Obsessed with playing the piano and keyboard since she was a small child, a turning point occurred in high school when she began to hear recordings of period instrument orchestras from Europe.
“I really loved the sounds of the instruments and the colors,” remembers Jeannette.
Born in San Francisco, and raised in Denver, her arts-loving parents took her to numerous concerts, more with the intention of preparing her to be a cultured citizen of the world, than any expectation she would become a professional. Another harbinger of things to come: at age 14, she was already employed as a pianist at one church, and conducting an ensemble from the keyboard at another church.
“I always wanted to do larger-scale projects that would touch many people,” she explains. “To do that, you have to work with a team of other people, so in high school I was leading an ensemble and arranging music for them to play.”
Impatient with high school, she skipped a grade and left for college at age 17. At 19, she became the youngest student accepted to the famous conducting course of the Aspen Music Festival. The following year she took up harpsichord.
“Within about four weeks of harpsichord lessons, I knew this was my instrument,” she says. “It’s much more suited to my hand than the piano is.”
At 24, she was chosen for the prestigious conducting class at the Tanglewood Festival, where she was again the youngest member of the class. There, she studied with elite conductors Leonard Bernstein and Roger Norrington. She went on to study with “the great patriarch of the early music revival,” Gustav Leonhardt, in Amsterdam.
When she was 26, Jeannette returned to the U.S., won first prize and the audience choice award in a major international harpsichord competition, and founded Apollo’s Fire in 1992. Since then, she has become
internationally recognized as a leading creative voice among the new generation of early-music conductors. In addition to serving as artistic director of Apollo’s Fire, she also guest conducts many top symphony orchestras, including the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Utah Symphony, and the Seattle Symphony. She is the only baroque specialist to be invited to join the renowned conducting roster of Columbia Artists Management.
“From Apollo’s Fire’s conception, Jeannette has shown incredible drive and creative vision, constantly keeping her audiences in mind,” says Julie Andrijeski, violinist and founding member of Apollo’s Fire. “Her vision is not only to produce great music but to present it in a dramatic, emotionally captivating way, from the profound depths in Bach’s St. John Passion to infectious frivolity and drive in a Celtic dance.”
She and the ensemble have built one of the largest audiences of any baroque orchestra in North America – surpassed only by Boston’s and San Francisco’s. She has led Apollo’s Fire in sold-out concerts at many prestigious venues, including London’s BBC Proms and London’s Wigmore Hall, Madrid’s Royal Theatre (Teatro Real), the Grand Théâtre de l’Opéra in Bordeaux, the Aldeburgh Festival (United Kingdom), the Tanglewood Festival, Boston’s Early Music Festival, the Aspen Music Festival, the Library of Congress, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).
Jeannette and Apollo’s Fire have released 25 commercial albums, of which seven have been best-sellers on the Billboard classical chart. Her recordings include the complete Brandenburg Concerti and harpsichord concerti of Bach (with Sorrell as harpsichord soloist and director). She has also released four discs of Mozart, and was hailed as “a near-perfect Mozartian” by Fanfare Record Magazine.
She holds an artist diploma from Oberlin Conservatory, an honorary doctorate from Case Western Reserve University, two special awards from the National Endowment for the Arts for her work on early American music, and an award from the American Musicological Society.
She is especially proud of Apollo’s Fire’s Young Artist Apprentice Program and Musettes Youth Choir programs, which are training the baroque musicians of the next generation.
“The majority of the leading young professionals in the national baroque scene today have come through our apprentice program or our Musettes ensemble,” Jeannette says. “They are doing what they love and they are successful at it. That makes me very happy.”