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June 13, 2009 - THE PLAIN DEALER
Apollo's Fire applies its magic to American fare
by Donald Rosenberg

Every program that music director Jeannette Sorrell devises for Apollo's Fire, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, is a fascinating journey. The itinerary usually takes listeners through well-known or obscure European terrain.

For her Countryside Concerts this year, Sorrell has come up with something closer to home: a musical travelogue through Appalachia of jubilant and poignant persuasion. The artistry is fresh, impeccable and enchanting.

The program's title, "Come to the River: An Early Music Gathering," only hints at the scope of the event, which a sold-out audience savored Friday at the Baroque Music Barn in Hunting Valley.

More musical theater than mere concert, Sorrell's creation is plotted, with a quartet of characters who take an extended, bumpy wagon ride to a Revival meeting in Kentucky. En route, they explore everything from love and death to murder and salvation.

The narrative acts as connective tissue for a cavalcade of musical Americana, including fiddle tunes, ballads, hymns and spirituals. In the tradition of her Baroque concerts, Sorrell dusts off pieces we may never have heard and compels us to ask where they've been all our lives.

As always, the result is a keen Sorrell blend of scholarship and performance smarts. The musicians dance in the aisles and raise their voices in communal celebration. The theatrical aspects of "Come to the River" are so charmingly realized that you can't help but wonder if a sequel is in store.

Paul Shipper, a guitarist and basso, is a larger-than-life personality as the Rev. James McGready, the leader of the Revival movement in the early 19th century. (He even zealously hawks Apollo's Fire CDs and other paraphernalia during intermission.)

Cellist Rene Schiffer gets his momentary comeuppance during "Wild Bill Jones," a ballad that tenor Scott Mello sings with fierce (even violent) passion. In secular and sacred songs, sopranos Abigail Haynes Lennox and Sandra Simon wrap character and text into a series of touching and amusing packages.

The program's bounty of vocal and instrumental selections also is kept aloft by harpsichordist Sorrell, Rachel Jones (a dandy country fiddler), flutist Kathie Stewart (stellar in Irish pieces) and guitarist and banjo player Gary Stewart (whose oh-so-dry wit hits the mark in a scene with Mello).

And to my ears, there can never be enough of Tina Bergmann, the hammered dulcimer player who makes ecstatic gold of everything she touches.

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