Review: Apollo’s Fire delivers fun, frolicking Appalachian Gathering at Tuckerman Hall

From the Worcester Telegram & Gazette

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Who knew that Baroque repertoire and Appalachian folk music were two sides of the same coin? The Cleveland-based ensemble Apollo’s Fire did, apparently. And now, so does Worcester: On Sunday evening, Music Worcester brought the group — who’d last been here in 2018 playing Telemann and Bach (among others) — back to Tuckerman Hall for “Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering.”

The show, which shares its name with Apollo’s eponymous 2015 album, offers a survey of music brought from Ireland and Scotland to the American southeast up through the 19th century. There it mixed with other musical forms — notably African spirituals and the blues — to become one of the distinct genres of American folk music.

Semi-staged and winningly informal, “Sugarloaf Mountain” celebrates what Apollo’s artistic director Jeannette Sorrell describes as the four main facets of Appalachian music: singing, dancing, storytelling and prayer.

For that first aspect, Sunday’s concert was led by soprano Amanda Powell and tenor Ross Hauck. Both proved wonderful performers, singing with clarity, fine diction and warmness of tone — on top of which they exhibited an easy, natural chemistry in all their interactions.

The rest of the evening’s offerings showcased Apollo’s Fire either as performers or as players and composers/arrangers.

Cellist René Schiffer was most impressively represented in the latter category with his variations on a pair of Irish reels, “Pretty Peg” and “Far from Home,” which he and violinist Susanna Perry Gilmore dispatched with fiery spirit.

Hammered dulcimer player Tina Bergmann took a stirring solo turn in a set of her own arrangements of “Pretty Betty Martin,” “Katy Did” and “Red Rockin’ Chair,” handling the lead vocals, too, on the last number.

Brian Kay’s mastery of an array of strummed instruments dazzled throughout the evening, but he left an especially strong impression with “Nottamun Town,” both for the quality of his singing and the vigorousness of his playing of the long-necked hammered dulcimer.

Flautist Kathie Stewart delivered some lively duets with violinist Gilmore in the night’s opening set of reels (“Farewell to Ireland” and “Highlander’s Farewell”), as well as “Glory in the Meeting House,” a rousing tribute to Appalachian hymnody and fiddle tunes.

Sorrell ably presided over it all, either as harpsichordist (she had a lovely, if brief, solo moment in “I Wonder as I Wander”), emcee, arranger, or lyricist.

In sum, Sunday’s “Sugarloaf Mountain” proved musically arresting, diverting (the cast’s playing off of occasional hiccups in the narration, for one, was quite funny), and, ultimately — in its memorable treatment of timeless themes of love, loss, faith, and the like — touching.

Read the full review.