Review: Secrest Artist Series Presents Apollo’s Fire
By Timothy H. Lindeman
Thursday night’s performance of the Baroque string ensemble Apollo’s Fire certainly brought a lot of heat to Wait Chapel on the Wake Forest University campus. Indeed, the group’s intensity and energy reminded listeners that there really is nothing like live performances.
Although the evening’s focus was on J.S. Bach (Germany, 1685-1750) and Antonio Vivaldi (Italy, 1678-1741), the concert opened with “La Bergamasca” by Marco Uccellini (Italy, c. 1603-1680). This short dance is built on a ground bass (a repeating melody in the bass), over which other instruments cavort. In this arrangement by artistic director Sorrell, a Baroque flute (traverso) was magnificently played by Kathie Stewart, whose lines sparred with the violin melodies. Sorrell’s harpsichord, set centerstage, added “oomph” to the proceedings.
Next up were the Overture and the Badinerie from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067. This performance again featured Stewart on the traverso, providing a distinctive timbre that contrasted with the strings. Pompous, slow music (with jerky rhythms) bookend an energetic and fiery middle. The short Badinerie put Stewart’s athletic flute playing front and center.
Bach’s 20-minute Violin Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052r featured bravura playing by the ensemble’s Artist-in-Residence Francisco Fullana. Sorrell’s spirited tempo brought the vividly dramatic nature of the score (not to mention the extreme virtuosity) to the forefront. Fullana’s playing was nothing short of astounding. Engaging with the others in the ensemble, he seemed to derive energy from the interactions, and his cadenzas were on fire.
Sorrell’s conducting from the keyboard, both here and throughout the evening, was full of energized nuance. She often seemed to be a sorceress, conjuring up swirls of sound from the group, which responded with palpable intensity.
Some final words about this spectacular performance – the ensemble plays with minimal vibrato, as is appropriate for 18th-century music. Intonation problems, often heard in straight-tone playing, were not found here. Instead, warm and rich timbres were displayed, and coupled with the incredible commitment to the scores, which resulted in one of the best performances I have had the pleasure to hear in many years.
The evening concluded with a short “Turkish” piece that featured Sorrell on tambourine and gypsy-like fiddling from an unidentified member of the ensemble. It was a treat that brought the crowd to its feet for several minutes of applause.