Apollo's Fire bring divine baroque sounds to Derry~Londonderry and beyond

Inspired by the music Irish immigrants helped bring to their shores, the American ensemble want to give back with performances that pack emotional power

Jeannette Sorrell has the sort of reputation that would bowl many a music fan over, myself included. The founder and artistic director of the highly regarded American baroque orchestra Apollo's Fire, born in 1965, has studied under Leonard Bernstein and led the United States' National Symphony Orchestra in Handel's Messiah.

But neither she nor her fiery-named period collaborative have touched down in Northern Ireland yet. That's about to change though, with visits to Belfast Castle, Ballymena and Derry~Londonderry all coming this week. And, speaking to me from the mountains of Pennsylvania, Sorrell is without a doubt looking forward to it.

'We're really excited, because we all have various Irish friends and acquaintances, and we know how beautiful Ireland is, and how warm and friendly the people generally are', she says. 'As Americans, what we know of Northern Ireland mostly comes from the news over the years, including the Troubles. But I think it's amazing how the people have risen past all of that to live in peace and friendship. I think that sets a wonderful example for the world.'

Apollo's Fire have certainly been setting a wonderful example for the musical world in their own right. The ensemble, based in Cleveland, Ohio, have been hailed as 'vibrant', 'life-affirming', 'beautiful' and 'eloquent' for their approach, praise befitting of a band whose name is derived from the Greek god of music and healing.

'I think it's very interesting that the Greeks unified music and healing in the same deity', says Sorrell, 'because they understood that music has the power to heal and move us, spiritually and emotionally. It was something that baroque composers also tried to revive. That is our mission: to restore that kind of emotional power to baroque and traditional music, and to leave our audiences feeling better after a performance than they felt before it. We're always trying to 'break down the fourth wall' and engage the audience on a journey with us.'

The programme Sorrell and company will present on these shores appropriately and thematically ties in with the Celtic roots of early American traditional music. Entitled 'Sugarloaf Mountain' (full title: 'Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering') after the Scottish, Irish and American mountain of the same name, the production explores the stories of the Irish and Scottish immigrants who journeyed to begin new lives in America – the Appalachian region, to be precise - while bringing their music with them. And judging by the popularity of immigrant-oriented films, namely Brooklyn, it looks likely to hit just the right note in capturing the soul of both the music and the people on this side of the Atlantic.

'We set out to grasp the sadness, the difficulties of the Scots and Irish who had to leave their homes due to poverty and the oppressive political situation', Sorrell explains. 'I spent a lot of time reading about the history of the mass emigration, the potato famine and the really oppressive situation with the British overlords. And I really admire that there are now positive relations between the Irish and the British. I am happy that people have been able to forgive, because it seems to have been a really long history of oppression.'

The music itself of Apollo's Fire is mostly drawn from the mid-to-late 19th century, reflecting the across-the-sea evolution of initially Celtic-sounding music, to distinctly Appalachian Southern hymns and African spirituals, at least one of which have fascinated the San Francisco-born Sorrell since her teenage years in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

There, after overcoming the initial culture shock of learning the southern accents, she got her first job playing piano at a small country church, where she was introduced to and fell in love with the stark open harmonies of shape note folk hymns. From that moment on, Sorrell the pianist, who was already leading ensembles, evolved 'pretty naturally' into the harpsichordist and conductor she would become and still is today, a role to which she brings a psychological and remarkably collaborative slant.


Jeannette Sorrell

'I am probably more collaborative than your typical symphony conductor', she admits. 'I like to really work with the principal players first. They become my 'allies' as we influence the style played by the rest of the group. You're like a group psychologist, bringing everyone together to express the music in the same way while respecting the musicians themselves, because they are all amazingly talented people.'

Talent that Sorrell and her band of eight musicians can't wait to present to our audiences – both on the stage and off it. 'We are so looking forward to meeting you all', she laughs, 'and exploring the pubs after the concerts!' 

Apollo's Fire perform Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering at an invitation only concert on August 15 at Belfast Castle before visiting Derry-Londonderry's Millennium Forum on August 17 (http://www.millenniumforum.co.uk/shows/apollos-fire/) and Ballymena's Braid Arts Centre (http://www.thebraid.com/whats-on-specific.aspx?s=Arts%20Centre&dataid=1264446) on August 18.