Jeannette Sorrell: Undeniable and on Fire

Jeff Kaliss on April 9, 2018
Jeannette Sorrell | Credit: Roger Mastroianni

Illustrating the quality of Baroque music and the particular approach of Apollo’s Fire, her ensemble, Jeannette Sorrell looks back in time toward ancient oratory and forward to the majesty of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Baroque composers,” she notes, “were very consciously trying to emulate the rhetorical powers of the Greeks and Romans. And the modern-day example of this power would be the Reverend King, who could build up the tension in the room by the way he crescendoed with his voice, leave you in suspense for a moment, in silence, and then calm the atmosphere down. That’s what Baroque music was meant to be about, and that’s how we try to perform it.”

In its 26th season, Apollo’s Fire, aka the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, records and tours to international critical acclaim, praised by BBC Music Magazine for its “vibrant, life-affirming approach to early music.” Its motto is “Passion. PERIOD.” It’s expanded into presentations of Celtic, Appalachian, and Sephardic songs and music, performed on period instruments. Sorrell, who leads the ensemble from the harpsichord, is also a preferred guest conductor for period repertory; she debuted at the Kennedy Center last year, with the National Symphony Orchestra and Handel’s Messiah. SFCV spoke with her twice last week, during breaks in rehearsals for Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo, which Apollo’s Fire brings to Cal Performances Zellerbach Hall on April 20 and at the Green Music Center's Weill Hall on April 22.

How’s Orfeo coming along?

Karim Sulayman

Incredibly well, and we’re all so happy. The singers that we have (as well as the instrumentalists) are living in their roles, particularly [tenor] Karim Sulayman, who’s playing the title role.

How many in the ensemble?

The total, I think, is 47, approximately half-and-half singers and instruments. There are two harpsichords, five early trombones, virtuoso high trumpet, Baroque harp. It’s incredibly colorful, and we’re able to use these different instruments at different times to evoke different moods.

That connects with your prime directive, the link between rhetoric and emotion.

If you read what Baroque music writers wrote about in the 17th and 18th centuries, in what we’d call “method books,” all of them talked about moving the affekts, or the affections, of the listeners. At the dawn of the Baroque, which was also the time of Monteverdi, a group of Italian intellectuals and musicians had come to the conclusion that Renaissance music and art had lost their emotional power and their ability to guide or improve the morals of society. They were focused on trying to recreate what they thought the ancient Greeks had, with music involved in the dramas of Sophocles or Euripides or whoever. And they wanted to make music less polyphonic, less focused on intellectual counterpoint, and more natural, speech-like, and emotional.

Leading toward what we know as opera.

Yes indeed, and Monteverdi’s Orfeo was the first full-fledged ambitious undertaking of this concept.

How far back does your enthusiasm for the Baroque go?

My father, whose main profession is as a professor of French and German, did opera and theater reviews for the San Francisco Territorial News, and I was born in San Francisco [in 1965]. I grew up as a pianist, but my hands are quite narrow, and when I was a teenager it was becoming clear that I was never going to be playing Rachmaninoff or Liszt; I couldn’t reach that stuff, I was a Bach and Mozart pianist. Then, when I was in high school [in Virginia], I started hearing some of the recordings coming out of Europe of orchestral performance on period instruments, and I just fell in love with the sound and color of those instruments. It sounds sort of crazy for a 17-year-old, but I knew my dream was to direct a period orchestra.

Apollo’s Fire | Credit: Jason Hudson

And then you got a full scholarship to Oberlin.

Yes, and I ended up going into conducting [as well as studying harpsichord with Lisa Crawford]. And the summer following my freshman year, I went to the Aspen Music Festival as a double major in conducting and piano. After that summer, I put together a little group to do a Baroque orchestra concert. It had become clear to me at Aspen that there were a zillion other pianists who were fantastic, and that was not going to be me. But as a conductor, musicians were saying they really liked working with me, and the professors seemed to feel I had a right to exist as a conductor.

Did you realize that opportunities for women at the podium were limited?

Well, yes, but that awareness arrived as a bit of a shock. My parents had brought me up to think that I could do anything I wanted to do, if I worked at it. I took the audition for Juilliard as a conductor [in graduate school], and the conducting teacher at the time was an older German gentleman, Otto-Werner Mueller. It was obviously very competitive ... and I became one of three or four finalists, [who] get to conduct the Juilliard Orchestra. During a break, many of the musicians came up and said, “we really enjoyed playing with you.” Mr. Mueller was standing right there and heard them. And then what he said to me was: “you should find a different profession, because the musicians would never accept a woman as a conductor.”

Jeannette Sorrell | Credit: Roger Mastroianni

How did that hit you?

That was the first time I had ever encountered anything like that, I remember going home, and I cried a little bit, but then I thought, “I’ll find my own path.” A couple of years later, after I’d gone a year to study harpsichord in Amsterdam with Gustav Leonhardt, I came back home. I was 26, there were no jobs for harpsichordists, and I was actually living on prize money from a big harpsichord competition. I was housesitting for some former Oberlin professors, and out of the blue I got a phone call from the Cleveland Orchestra. They told me they were looking for an assistant conductor, and that my name was on this list of 15 up-and-coming young conductors in the country. People had seen me at Aspen and at Tanglewood [where Sorrell studied with Leonard Bernstein and Sir Roger Norrington]. The funny thing was that the other 14 people on that list had already applied for the job and had been rejected. It was the Orchestra’s artistic administrator, Roger Wright, who called and said, would you like to come and interview? I thought, “what do I have to lose,” though I was not really looking for a symphonic career.

But a career on harpsichord wasn’t open to you either. What did you do?

Two days later, Roger Wright met me at Severance Hall [the home of the Cleveland Orchestra] and said, “I just got a call from [music director and conductor] Christoph von Dohnányi, and he wants you to come to his house.” So we went there — this was in August — and found him sitting by the side of his pool. Maestro von Dohnányi chatted with me for about 20 minutes, about politics in Germany and German literature. Luckily I did fairly well with that, because of my father. But he never asked me about music.

You must have felt creepy.

Right. And after a while, he said, “Well, my dear, I’m really sorry, but there’s no point in having you audition with the Orchestra. Because, unfortunately, the audience in Cleveland would never accept a woman as a conductor.”

There you go again. How did you respond?

It became a lesson in being really honest. I just said, “That’s okay, sir, I didn’t apply for this job, you all called me. And to tell you the truth, I’m hoping primarily to work with period instruments.” That was the end of that meeting. [chuckles] But Roger Wright, when he was taking me back to Severance Hall where I’d left my car, said, “I’m so sorry about this, I had no idea he felt that way; it’s ridiculous. But, I’ve always wanted to see a period instrument orchestra happen in Cleveland, and I think you’re the person to do it.” He took me to the Cleveland Foundation. We went to see them three times; the first two times they said “no,” and the third they said, “Alright, here’s $25,000.”

Did you prove Dohnyáni wrong?

Ten years later, I conducted Apollo’s Fire in Severance Hall, and it was a sold-out concert; we had 2,000 people there. I think most audiences are very accepting of women conductors. But sometimes the boards of directors of organizations aren’t.

Jeanette Sorrell and Apollo's Fire | Credit: Sisi Burns

What was it like working on harpsichord with Gustav Leonhardt?

He was a man of very few words, He took only four students per year, we were required to bring 20 minutes of music to each lesson, and we could never bring the same piece twice. So you’re practicing your fingers off, trying to survive your lesson. But the greatest thing was, after I played, he would sit down and play it for me, and I got to hear and see how he did it. That’s the best way to learn to be a musician.

Did he help you learn a period approach to the instrument?

He’d been the brilliant pioneer who’d sat in the library copying out manuscripts by hand. He gave us repertoire, and the early music movement is indebted to him forever for that. But people of my generation started at a different point; we were able to get acquainted with that beautiful repertoire at an earlier age. And so, a lot of us do have a freer approach to it. Leonhardt was incredibly expressive within his remarkably austere personality, and I’m a much more extroverted player than he was. But for some reason, I think he did actually like my playing, and he was very kind to me.

From the YouTube videos, it appears that Apollo’s Fire shares your extroversion. And that they’ve taken it beyond the Baroque and shared your enthusiasm for folk music.

My first job, when I was 14, was as a pianist for small country church in the Shenandoah Valley. We had a wonderful folksinger and that was my first exposure to Appalachian music. I just loved the soulfulness of it, and the open fifths and open fourths. It made the music very medieval, in terms of the sonorities. Though I think it was later on that I realized that if you go further back in history, you find a place where art music and folk music were one, before they became divided. That’s what Apollo’s Fire’s approach to folk music is about, because back in the late Renaissance, composers like William Byrd and Thomas Morley were writing fancy contrapuntal variations on pop songs, tavern tunes.

Sorrell conducting from the harpsichord | Credit: Sisi Burns

Is the majority of Apollo’s Fire resident with you in Cleveland?

I would say fewer than half, but the people we bring in from out of town are very much regulars. Some of them, though, got into Apollo’s Fire when they were students either at Oberlin or the Cleveland Institute of Music, where we have Young Artist Apprentice programs.

The Orfeo we’ll see is billed as a semistaged production.

We don’t have sets, but we do have a young, Italian projection designer, Camilla Tassi, who got permission to take photos inside the palace of Mantua, where Orfeo was premiered [in 1607]. And along with a fantastic cast of singers, we have the greatest Baroque stage director on the scene anywhere, Sophie Daneman, who, your readers probably know, is a soprano who has sung with Philharmonia Baroque many times.

I’m grateful to have found out more about you, but it really seems like the reputation of Apollo’s Fire has been spreading like — well — wildfire.

We played in Vermont, last month. We thought there might be 50 people who would come, and there were 700 people; we were amazed. We met [the audience] afterward, and they were saying they’d driven two or three hours to get to the concert, because they’d been fans of our YouTube videos for years and had never had a chance to hear the group live. Two days later, my parents came to Carnegie Hall for our debut, and the concert had been sold out for seven months! We were not sure what to expect, but during one piece, they interrupted with applause at the end of a solo, just like they were in a jazz club or something. [laughs] That never happens in a classical concert, ever!