Apollo’s Fire flames in Finney
On Saturday, April 23, Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland baroque orchestra led by Jeannette Sorrell (OC ’92), treated Oberlin to an evening of Salieri and Mozart. In the program entitled “Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony,” Apollo’s Fire, better known for its energetic interpretation of baroque music, managed to bring a fresh approach to the oft-performed music of classical master Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Antonio Salieri’s Orchestral Variations on La folia opened the first half of the program. La folia was a popular Renaissance/Baroque dance and chord progression. Largely forgotten by the 19th century, La folia came into vogue again between the years of 1815-1820. Salieri’s Orchestral Variations are the composer’s personal contribution to this short-lived fad.
For the listener unaccustomed to hearing classical music performed by a small, period-instrument orchestra, the variations were helpful in demonstrating the continuity between the baroque and classical styles.
Salieri’s La folia starts with a very baroque statement of the theme in the strings. Gradually the woodwinds enter, providing mischievous, patently classical tone-crunches. At this point the fun starts. Montage-style, Salieri presents a series of variations that represent a virtual encyclopedia of musical styles, images and references. Pizzicato strings play at being guitars. Two violins disappear mid-performance and echo each other from offstage, straddling the clamor momentarily. The ghost of Arcangelo Corelli, the baroque composer and violinist famous for his own La folia variations, makes an appearance on solo violin. Torrential downbows give way to a lighthearted jig. The piece ends with a suspiciously Vivaldi-esque barrage of string sound. Salieri’s La folia came off successfully due to the incredible sensitivity with which the musicians of Apollo’s Fire characterized each variation.
The remainder of the first half of the concert was devoted to two horn concerti of Mozart. These works were masterfully performed by James Sommerville on natural horn, the valveless predecessor of the French horn. After the first concerto, Sommerville spoke to the audience regarding the history of the instrument and its repertoire.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of the natural horn is the abrupt change in tone color that occurs sometimes due to the player’s hand position in the bell of the instrument. In the horn concerti, this timbre change would often happen in a way that did not seem to line up logically with the music. These changes must have been surprising even to an 18th century audience. As this sonic playfulness is eliminated by performing the horn concerti on a more even-toned modern French horn, Apollo’s Fire presented a powerful case for the necessity of period instruments in certain music.
In consulting the original score of the E-flat major Horn Concerto, one may discover Mozart’s hilarious, bawdy messages, addressed to the horn player. It seems that Mozart’s references to animals and the sounds they make were not entirely lost on the audience. Junior John McKean, a harpsichord major, commented with delight that after hearing the horn concerti he felt “like a dog being summoned by his master in the woods.”
The second half of the program consisted of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, the piece for which the program was named. Certain aspects of the performance were clear: The first movement highlighted swift contrasts in dynamics and character while the third movement featured a loping, danceable minuet. One bothersome aspect of the performance was the contrived choreography at the endings of the first and last movements (The strings all end up with their bows in the air then pause as if posing for a photograph). Why? In the context of the piece, it is not clear. The “Jupiter” Symphony begs to dance to its own choreography. As befits a Roman god, Jupiter must wear no leotard!
Saturday’s concert represented a valiant attempt on the part of
Apollo’s Fire to breathe new life into well-known music. Let us
hope, however, that in the future the group will be able to keep its more kitsch
tendencies in check, as they do not always serve the music at hand.