Apollo’s Fire season opener goes from darkness into light

By Bob Abelman

Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra, one of the world’s pre-eminent period-instrument ensembles, opens its season with the Cleveland premiere of Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.”

The oratorio, edited down to two hours, tells the epic tale of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and is, according to award-winning harpsichordist, conductor and Apollo’s Fire founder Jeannette Sorrell, “as gripping as the old Charlton Heston movie.”

“Israel in Egypt” is almost entirely a choral piece, with only a few arias for soloists interspersed among the choruses. It was originally performed in London in 1739, where it and Handel’s other Old Testament oratorios were poorly received because popular taste was not yet accustomed to works void of star soloists and popular prejudices caused Handel’s heroic portrayals of ancient Israelites – including Solomon, Esther, Joseph, Saul, and Judas Maccabeus – to fall on deaf ears.

His “Messiah,” composed in 1741, fared much better.

One of the earliest recordings of “Israel in Egypt,” performed at the Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace in London in 1888, included a 4,000-voice chorus.

The Apollo’s Fire presentation is of a much smaller scale, although it has had to double-up on some brass instruments to best capture the triumphant nature of the work. It features soprano Erica Schuller, counter tenor Daniel Moody, tenor Ross Hauck, as well as Jewish baritone Jeffrey Strauss.

Strauss’ primary solo takes place during the third part of the oratorio, when the Israelites celebrate their deliverance from Egypt. “It is accompanied by trumpet and oboe, which is magnificent,” he notes in a telephone interview from his home in Chicago.

Strauss has been affiliated with Apollo’s Fire since 1995 and regularly serves as a soloist. He has also worked closely on the company’s “Sephardic Journey,” a program that interweaves Sephardic folk song with chanting and the Monteverdi-like Hebrew choral work of Jewish composer Salamone Rossi.

“Jeannette has long been interested in work with Jewish themes and was drawn for years to do something about Sephardic Jews,” says Strauss, “but only recently discovered through a DNA test that she is half-Jewish. This might explain her fascination with Jewish culture.”

The season opening consists of four performances of “Israel in Egypt,” with Rabbi Roger C. Klein of The Temple Tifereth-Israel in Beachwood offering a pre-concert talk at each. He will focus on Handel’s genius, the genre of oratorio, and the biblical context of this particular work.

One of the performances will take place in Klein’s synagogue.

“We’ve had Apollo’s Fire perform here several times, before our recent renovation and when the acoustics in the sanctuary were really problematic,” he said. “Now the sound is absolutely spectacular. This is a great piece taking place in a great space.” CV

On Stage

‘Israel in Egypt’ performed by Apollo’s Fire

WHEN: Oct. 12-15

WHERE: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Akron, 7:30 p.m., Oct. 12; First Baptist Church, Shaker Heights, 8 p.m. Oct. 13; The Temple-Tifereth Israel, Beachwood, 8 p.m. Oct. 14; United Church of Christ, Avon Lake, 4 p.m. Oct. 15

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$72, call 216-320-0012, ext. 1 or visit apollosfire.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 27, 2017.

Lead image: Apollo’s Fire. Photo | Roger Mastrioianni



The Apollo’s Fire Sephardic Troupe | PHOTO / Gary Adams

‘Sephardic Journey: Wanderings of the Spanish Jews’ comes back to Northeast Ohio for second stint

By Carlo Wolff

Part of Nell Snaidas’ family is from Uruguay. She’s part Jewish, too. So it makes sense to Snaidas, a soprano for the acclaimed baroque revival group Apollo’s Fire, that Sephardic song appeals to her.

Snaidas and Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo’s Fire artistic director, put together “Sephardic Journey: Wanderings of the Spanish Jews” over the past three-plus years and are bringing it to the Cleveland area for its second run Feb. 4-7.

One of these concerts will be the first public performance at the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center at The Temple-Tifereth Israel on the Case Western Reserve University campus in Cleveland. Others will be staged in Akron, Cleveland Heights and Berea. The run coincides with the release of a recording of “Sephardic Journey,” which will be available at the shows.

In recent telephone interviews, Snaidas and Sorrell explained their commitment to this unusual and rarely presented musical canon. Snaidas spoke from Kona, Hawaii, where she’s part of a musical group providing live accompaniment to classic silent films. Sorrell spoke from the Apollo’s Fire office in Cleveland Heights.

When Snaidas studied with the famed diction coach, Nico Castel, at the Mannes School of Music in New York City, she discovered he was a Sephardic Jew steeped in the tradition of Ladino song, a form that, she said, “felt like home to me.” She began to research it by bringing it up in conversation, discovering a rich tradition of folk song and art song.

She also worked with the Gerard Edery Ensemble for some 15 years, touring the world “singing Sephardic music with the drummer I brought into Apollo’s Fire,” Rex Benincasa. Edery is a contemporary composer of Sephardic song and, like Snaidas, a classically trained singer. Along with the Bosnian native Flory Jagoda, Edery is one of the foremost exponents of Sephardic song.

Snaidas and Sorrell began to develop “Sephardic Journey” in 2012.

“Whenever I have a chance to program music myself, I program that,” Snaidas said of the Sephardic canon. It offers people “a new face of Jewish music,” a Latin face distinct from the dominant European, Yiddish tradition.

“It’s a beautiful experience to sing Sephardic music for a group of Ashkenazi Jews who had no idea. I love to bring that out into the world,” Snaidas said.

According to Sorrell, who founded Apollo’s Fire in 1992, “even when we’re playing straight baroque music by Bach or Vivaldi, I give it some sort of thematic program.”

Developing a program of Sephardic song was a natural for Apollo’s Fire, she said, “particularly since two of my dear friends and colleagues” – Snaidas and Jeffrey Strauss, a baritone of cantorial power — “could bring such a deep understanding of Sephardic and Jewish music.”

Sorrell is particularly excited about playing at the new performing arts center at CWRU, inaugurated on Sept. 27 with an invitation-only Violins of Hope concert.

The landmark has “the important amenities of a concert hall but it also has the character of a historic synagogue,” Sorrell said, making it “a perfect setting for this program.”

“Sephardic Journey” is divided into sets including O Jerusalem!, Love and Romance and The Temple. It will blend secular and liturgical strains and be both moving and entertaining, Sorrell suggested. It ends with Feasting and Celebration, a set that includes a recipe for making burmuelos. These Sephardic doughnuts, made with jam and honey, will be available at the Afterglow parties. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “Sephardic Journey: Wanderings of the Spanish Jews”

WHERE AND WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4, Fairlawn Lutheran Church, 3415 W. Market St., Akron; 8 p.m. Feb. 5, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 2747 Fairmount Blvd., Cleveland Heights; 8 p.m. Feb. 6, Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center at The Temple-Tifereth Israel, Case Western Reserve University, 1855 Ansel Road, Cleveland; 4 p.m. Feb. 7, Baldwin Wallace University Gamble Auditorium, 96 Front St., Berea. “Afterglow parties” Feb. 5 and 7; pre-concert talks with Dr. Daniel Shoskes, lutenist, an hour before each show.

Apollo’s Fire Artistic Director Jeannette Sorrell and three Apollo’s Fire members will discuss creation of this program in a free, half-hour event at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood at 10:45 a.m. Jan. 30. The address is 26000 Shaker Blvd.

TICKETS & INFO: 216-320-0012 or apollosfire.org


Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on January 21, 2016.

Lead image: The Apollo’s Fire Sephardic Troupe | PHOTO / Gary Adams