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Brandenburg Concertos recall baroque music's heyday

| Thursday, April 4, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Jeanette Sorrell leads Apollo's Fire
Photo by Roger Mastroianni
Jeanette Sorrell leads Apollo's Fire Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Enthusiasm for baroque music became widespread in classical music after World War II thanks to the popularity of two sets of concertos: “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi and the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. While occasionally offered previously by some big orchestras, their new popularity was at first manifest in record sales. Concert offerings followed suit.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra twice presented all six Brandenburgs on single programs when Andres Cardenes was concertmaster. Unlike the Vivaldi concertos, which all feature a solo violin, the Brandenburg Concertos feature multiple soloists in each one, and a different lineup of soloist from concerto to concerto.

Jeannette Sorrell will conduct members of the Pittsburgh Symphony and play harpsichord in Bach's Brandenburg Concertos at concerts April 5 through 7 at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Symphony soloists will include concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, flutists Lorna McGhee and Jennifer Conner, oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida, trumpeter George Vosburgh, and violists Randolph Kelly and Marylene Gingras-Roy.

Sorrell, who will be making her symphony debut, is the founding music director of Cleveland's period-instruments ensemble Apollo's Fire, which has made 20 CDs and which she led on sold-out European tours in 2010 and 2011.

Sorrell and Apollo's Fire have made many unforgettable appearances on the Pittsburgh Renaissance and Baroque Society concert series. Her artistry was characterized by BBC Music Magazine as “forging a vibrant, life-affirming approach to the remaking of early music ... a seductive vision of musical authenticity.”

Her talent was recognized early when she was accepted into conducting programs at the Aspen and Tanglewood Music festivals, in Colorado and Massachusetts. Her teachers included Leonard Bernstein and Roger Norrington for conducting and Gustav Leonhardt for harpsichord.

Although Sorrell usually works with period instruments, she's conducted modern orchestras and performed with the Cleveland Orchestra.

She will use the same tempos and style with the Pittsburgh Symphony musicians that she does with Apollo's Fire.

“The role of the performer in the 18th century was to be able to create different emotional moods in the listeners. This is what I try to focus on as an early music conductor and the focus of my work with Apollo's Fire,” Sorrell says. “What I feel about the ‘affekt' of a piece guides me to what I think will be the best tempo.”

She says performing on baroque instruments also provides its own instruction.

“Period instruments tell a lot about what the tempos most comfortable would have been. On modern instruments, you can do the music but they don't tell you the same way,” she says.

For example, Sorrell says that the baroque bow produces a sound that decays naturally but does not sustain very well.

“Baroque instruments generally decay, which is why they're so suited to clear, transparent performances of polyphonic music. All the lines emerge because nothing is sustaining. You try to create a line, but, if the tempo is too slow, there will be gaping holes.”

Fast movements are less obvious in tempo implication.

“Baroque instruments are very good at playing light and fast, but you want all the details and nuance to emerge. We're not going to do it at breakneck speed,” she says. “A lot of the Brandenburgs are in dance rhythms, especially Brandenburg No. 1.”

Sorrell's programming in Cleveland is wide-ranging and creatively assembled, extending up to excellent Mozart. However, the Brandenburg Concertos will be central in her life through the end of the 2013-14 season, because she has a big U.S. tour lined up to perform them with Apollo's Fire.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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