What an endlessly inventive group is Apollo's Fire! Their current offering, "Come to the River," billed as "An Early American Gathering," combines drama, personal recollection, American musical and religious history, and a corncrib full of music. Baroque meets bluegrass, and gospel, and shaped-note, and Celtic, and . . . .
Somewhat changed from last year's sell-out version, this is a show that clearly delighted all ages (kids, oldsters, and -- gasp!-- even teenagers). At the matinee at Huntington Playhouse, the revival gathering may not have converted any souls, though Lake Erie's beaches were at hand for a baptism if it had been needed, but it won a bunch of hearts, judging from the foot-tapping, hand-clapping, and vigorous audience sing-along at the end.
Jeannette Sorrell's stamp, as with all of Apollo's Fire, is unmistakable here. It's she who frames the collection of fiddle-tunes, gospel songs, ballads, and other surprises around her own experiences as a teenager playing piano for a revival church in the Shenandoah Valley. Being an accomplished historian of music, as well as performer and impresario, Sorrell has researched the roots of the tradition in Appalachian barn dances, frontier shoot-em-up songs, shaped-note hymns, and those incomparable American melancholic tunes like "Wayfaring Stranger" and "What Wondrous Love."
This being Apollo's Fire, what might be called corny is also highly accomplished. The artfulness of the performances is evident even while the performers and the audience are having great fun. Watching the stunning cellist René Schiffer stagger to the ground as the two-timing Wild Bill Jones is a hoot; it's quite another thing, though, to hear Schiffer play his own variations on "Old Virginny," as a reflection on Scott Mello's heart-rending rendition of the beautiful sad ballad.
The barn dances that begin the show are simply wonderful: varied, expressive, full of the rhythmic energy we have come to love in Apollo's Fire performances. Tina Bergmann plays the dulcimer with a combination of the early American and the new Celtic sound; baritone Paul Shipper -- also a wonderful "preacher" -- does a stunning rendition of a 1609 English lullaby; flutist Kathie Stewart leads a set of traditional Irish dances with a melancholy sound full of the Emerald Isle.
Even the harpsichord -- not unknown in early America -- plays its part in a set of dances from New England and Ireland; here, as in many of the sets, the soloist (Sorrell) claims the stage for a solo and then subtly hands off the energy to others who join her. The eventual ensemble playing, with running bass lines, obbligato roulades on top, and a relentless percussive energy, made up for the fact that we couldn't actually get up and dance in the aisles.
Sopranos Sandra Simon gave us a number of songs; one of the most memorable was her "Fox on a Chilly Night," accompanied only by Sorrell on the bodhran, sung with such articulation and delivery that no one needed the printed text to understand what the story was. She was joined by tenor Scott Mello and soprano Abigail Haynes Lennox in a gripping lullaby, "Nobody but the Baby," from a field recording by the great folkmusic collector Alan Lomax. Fiddler Rachel Jones was collaborator with Lennox in a very moving "Wayfaring Stranger."
Apollo's Fire has taught us in their baroque concerts how corporeal baroque music was. In this program, the barn dances and fiddle tunes were given real "body" by the very accomplished body-percussion artist Matthew Olwell, whose fast-moving feet, hands, chest, arms, and even mouth, were his tympani and his marimba.
A great moment in the second half, which centers on a revival meeting, was Apollo's rendition of "Hold On," the great civil rights gospel song that Mahalia Jackson and Pete Seeger sang. Sorrell and Schiffer let loose with a bass line that made us think there might be an electric guitar in the wings.
The series of shaped-note hymns in the second half was the least convincing part of the program; the singers seemed a little glued to their part-books, with this unfamiliar and fascinating style. Even so, I loved hearing these modal harmonies, and the set provided a welcome reflective period in an otherwise high-energy afternoon.
Bravo to the group for finding such varied venues, and for traveling around Northeast Ohio to bring this music near to us. And bravo for having the spectacular and vivacious juggler Aaron Bonk (whose card lists him as "Object Manipulation Specialist") on hand to greet us and to give a show at intermission.
(performance June 20, 2010; review published in ClevelandClassical.com)