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Apollo's Fire Has Fuel, Does Not Ignite

Violinist Veronika Skuplik-Hein
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Members of Apollo's Fire, the early music ensemble based in Cleveland, came to Dumbarton Oaks this past weekend for a concert on the Friends of Music series. Their program, Mediterranean Nights, recycled from 2005, surveys examples of Baroque music based on ground bass patterns. Unlike a similar program, American Opera Theater's Ground, this concert seemed to shoehorn much of its music into its supposed theme, "Sultry Songs and Passionate Dances from Italy and Spain." Guest guitarist Steve Player, who also specializes in the speculative recreation of Baroque dance, tried to provide the sultry and passionate part, but in a way that struck me as kind of silly, clogging and spinning on the little platform at one end of the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room.

The music itself was often lovely, if not all that daring in terms of pacing or virtuosity, with the exception of the two violinists, the group's own Johanna Novom and guest star Veronika Skuplik-Hein, who dueled in the program's best piece, Marco Uccellini's Duo Bergamasca. Skuplik-Hein, generally on the upper of the two violin parts, provided the most exciting playing of the evening, albeit with an oddly passion-less efficiency, a thrill that was more intellectual than visceral. The first half would have ended more aptly if yet another performance of Riu riu chiu had been omitted, mingling somewhat uneasily with this decidedly secular program. Director Jeannette Sorrell, who was responsible for most of the arrangements, made a desperate attempt to exaggerate this dance-like, popular sacred song's secular qualities in her spoken comments, which mistook the work's piety and ultimately diminished it.

Other Reviews:

Donald Rosenberg, Apollo's Fire revels in sunlit Baroque repertoire (Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 1)

Gary Budzak, Baroque group's improvisations a delight (Columbus Dispatch, November 7)

Andrew Druckenbrod, Cohesive Apollo's Fire brims with passion and precision (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 9)

Mark Kanny, Apollo's Fire 'jams' into 'Mediterranean Nights (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 9)
Guest soprano Nell Snaidas, as noted of her appearance in the area with another ensemble in 2007, does not have the strongest voice: an angular vibrato that mucks up some of the clarity, some constriction at the top, an excess of point. What she does have in spades is a charming stage presence and the ability to act, surely a help in her past dalliances with musical theater. Two of her better performances demonstrate this duality, a fine rendition of Luigi Rossi's Lamento di Euridice, which nonetheless left some musical and virtuosic possibilities unexplored, versus a semi-staged and charming performance of Luis de Briceno's Romance Biejo, about a woman confessing her breaking of the ten commandments to a shocked priest. While one could have imagined a more interesting musical result for this program, the group's delight in improvisation on these repeating bass patterns and especially in rhythmic shifts was pleasing, if not captivating.

The Friends of Music series at Dumbarton Oaks makes a bid for the city's best holiday concert this year with its next offering, a program by the vocal quartet Anonymous 4 called The Cherry Tree. Get an early start on the Christmas season with these concerts for the First Sunday of Advent (November 29 and 30).

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