Christmas on Sugarloaf Mountain
Amanda Powell (soprano)
Ross Hauck (tenor)
Jeffrey Strauss (baritone)
Apollo's Fire, Apollo's Singers, Apollo's Musettes/Jeannette Sorrell
rec. 2017/18, First Baptist Church, Cleveland Heights, USA
AVIE AV2396 [68:22]
First off, a full disclosure: I reviewed the live concert where Apollo's Fire premiered this program, and it is quoted in the packaging of this recorded version. I was not paid for that review, the quote, nor this review. But I have happily reaped the riches of the experiences.
Jeannette Sorrell formed the period instrument orchestra Apollo's Fire twenty-five years ago with the guidance of an administrator from the Cleveland Orchestra, who was mortified when then-music director Christoph von Dohnányi refused to let Sorrell apply for an assistant conductor position because he felt the local audience would never accept a woman in that role. In the subsequent quarter century, Sorrell has crafted and polished her ensemble to world class, demonstrating her formidable skills as conductor, arranger, harpsichordist, and administrator. She and her ensemble have become adored by audiences wherever they go. One can only hope Dohnányi has since realized the folly of his skepticism.
Sorrell typically crafts programs that have not just a unifying theme, but an actual dramatic shape, bordering at times on outright narrative. This program follows on the heels of Sorrell's studies in Appalachian folk music, prompted by her experiences as a teenager playing piano for singers in a Baptist church in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia, which is where Sugarloaf Mountain is found. She and her ensemble have also delved into Celtic folk music, as well. This program brings the two strands together, which is historically apt, considering that the largest percentage of settlers in the Appalachian Mountains were Scots-Irish, and the folk music of the British Isles is the foundation for the American folk music of the region.
This disc opens with an overture, of sorts, a seamless medley of the Irish ‘Christmas Eve Reel’, the New England ‘Christmas in America’, and the Appalachian ‘Old Christmas’. One of the strengths of Apollo's Fire is that Sorrell seeks out players who are not just adept at polished formal playing, but who can also play with the freer spirit of folk music, ending notes and pushing accents. The blend of polish and spirit is intoxicating. Lest my word be insufficient, consider this: Until arthritis ended his playing days, my father was an enthusiastic and accomplished fiddle player, born in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. When I played some of the fiddle tracks for him from this recording, he got excited and pronounced it some of the best hillbilly fiddling he'd ever heard.
The first main section of the program is entitled Celtic Memories—Christmas Eve in Old Ireland. It starts with the solemn song ‘The Truth Sent from Above’, featuring the sweet tenor voice of Ross Hauck and the radiant soprano of Amanda Powell, joined by Apollo's Singers, the orchestra's chorus. Sorrell smartly involves her players in all aspects of the work. The next medley of fiddle tunes is arranged by Susanna Perry Gilmore and Rene Schiffer. Gilmore leads the solo fiddle selections with flair, with dynamic support from Schiffer on the cello. The arrangement brings back a phrase used in the opening medley, one of the ways this ensemble creates a unified show.
The ensemble's star lutenist, Brian Kay, both plays and sings ‘Blow, Northern Wind’, perfectly joining voice and accompaniment in his own arrangement. Brian Bagley follows with his moving arrangement for Uillean pipes the Irish song ‘Don Oiche u'd I mBeithil’ (That Night in Bethlehem) as introduction to a vocal version, arranged by Sorrell and sung in English by the rich-voiced baritone Jeffrey Strauss, backed by Apollo's Singers. The section closes with the rousing carol ‘Nowell Sing We, Both All and Some’, bringing back the three main soloists plus Molly Netter and the whole chorus.
Caroling Across the Waters uses carols as vessels to bring the program across the Atlantic. It opens with a medley arranged by flautist Kathie Stewart who steers the players and their children's chorus, Apollo's Musettes, through a number of carols, including ‘I Saw Three Ships’. They continue in a medley starting with the ‘Yorkshire Carol’. The ‘Somerset Wassail’ becomes humorously tipsy with the addition of some well-lubricated adult singers. The closing ‘Kentucky Wassail’ transforms the previous carol into an Appalachian effusion with closer, brighter harmonies.
The next section is Christmas Morning in Appalachia, opening a cappella with the Southern Appalachian folk hymn ‘Bright Morning Stars’, led soulfully by Tina Bergman with breathtaking harmony support from Powell and Hauck. The authentically bent lead-in notes are perfect, as is the high, nasal focus of tone. The only thing that could have improved this would be if the vocalists had used the ancient Appalachian technique of “feathering” at the ends of phrases, a sudden drawing-up of the pitch as the note fades off.
Sorrell and Powell worked together to arrange ‘Christ Child's Lullaby’, blending Scottish original sources and its Appalachian transformation. Hearing this tender ballad in Powell's life-and-light-filled voice in front of the slowly-blooming accompaniment is one of the highlights of this recording. Tina Bergmann follows up with a medley crafted with Schiffer of some hammered dulcimer songs. The piquant folk instrument is played with both exquisite skill and daring abandon.
Treble Michael Temesi is charmingly featured with Apollo's Musettes in the hymn ‘Jesus Born in Beth'ny’. The section closes with a pair of powerful shape-note hymns, from the repertory of Appalachian church music also known as Sacred Harp hymns, after a prominent early hymnal. Sung with only foot stomps as accompaniment, the stark, bold harmonies are exhilarating. It is high time that a classical ensemble paid attention to this important American music. Might we hope for an entire program in the near future?
The next section is Wanderers Under the Sky, focusing on the politically volatile topic of immigrants. Sorrell leaves little doubt where she stands, uniting Powell and Hauck in an expressive blend of ‘Joseph & Mary’ and ‘I Wonder as I Wander’. Sorrell finally takes a solo moment herself to play a medley of the traditional Scottish reels ‘The Gravel Walk’ and ‘Over the Isles to America’ on the harpsichord. Every moment that one hears Sorrell play harpsichord is a joy and reminds us that this student of Gustav Leonhardt is also a world-class keyboardist.
The program closes with a Christmas Barn Dance which shows off Ian Crane on bagpipes and Brian Bigley on whistle and percussive clog dancing. One more medley showcases all the instrumentalists for a joyous ending, as heard in concert. This disc, however, concludes with a tender bonus track, Powell and Hauck duetting on ‘The Parting Glass’ and leaving the final cadence unresolved, for every holiday gathering must end not with goodbye, but with the promise, “until next we meet.”
Erica Brenner and Daniel Shores crafted a warm but spacious sound that cradles the performers lovingly. The packaging and booklet are lovely and informative. In short, this is one of the finest holiday albums I've ever encountered.
Mark Sebastian Jordan