New Classical Tracks: Celtic Christmas Vespers

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
December 12, 2012
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — More than 20 years ago, Jeannette Sorrell was studying symphonic conducting at Aspen and Tanglewood, and she was a harpsichord student with Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam with no job prospects. "There were no jobs for harpsichordists listed in the newspaper, you know?" She muses. "And strangely, within a couple of weeks, I received a call out of the blue from the Cleveland Orchestra, inviting me to come and interview for the position of assistant conductor, which was really surprising because I had not applied for the job and I had been away for a whole year, studying harpsichord. But it turned out that I was on this list of the 15 up-and-coming young conductors. So anyway, I went and during the course of the interview, I confessed that my real love was to work with period instruments and I was not really pursuing a symphonic career. And that's not a wise thing to say if you want to get a job with the Cleveland Orchestra. But it was the truth, and the result of it was that the artistic administrator of the Cleveland Orchestra took me aside and said, 'I've always wanted to see a Baroque orchestra happen in Cleveland and I think you're the person to do it.'"

So, in 1992, with the generosity of Roger Wright, Jeanette Sorrell was able to create Apollo's Fire, a period-instrument Baroque Orchestra based in Cleveland. Much to Sorrell's surprise they've just started their 21st season, and recently released their 19th recording, Sacrum Mysterium: A Celtic Christmas Vespers.

Each year, Apollo's Fire puts together a special Christmas program. This recording resulted from six sold-out performances from last season's original Christmas program created by Apollo's Fire and an ensemble out of Montreal called La Nef, "This one was inspired by the work of my Canadian colleagues, Sylvain Bergeron and Meredith Hall who had both done a lot of work with Celtic carols, Christmas carols," Jeannette explains. "I really loved what they had done and I had the idea that we could take it to the next step and turn it into a kind of Celtic vesper service.

"I had this vision that the Celtic carols could be interwoven with some early historic art music, from Scotland or Ireland. Having had this idea, it was then my problem to find some music that survives from Ireland or Scotland, sacred music from the 17th century. And it turns out that that is quite a challenge. Because of the Reformation there, polyphonic music was pretty much banned in the church for a number of centuries. But what I was incredibly lucky to find was this 13th century vesper service from Glasgow Cathedral. It's the Vespers of St. Kentigern, who is the patron saint of Glasgow.

"Part One begins as a procession, a gathering in the cathedral. We performed this in a very beautiful cathedral in Cleveland for the premiere. And it begins with a Gallic carol called "Oikan ayns Bethlehem," which means, 'the babe in Bethlehem,' which is a very beautiful folk melody. The chorus and the soloists are all processing into the cathedral as we sing this.

"And this gives way to a lively Scottish carol called "Duan Nollaig,"which is very rhythmic and pretty wild — it reminds me of Orff, Carmina Burana.

"From there, we transition into the vespers of St. Kentigern, which will sound to people like Gregorian chant. It's basically plainchant, and then this merges with an Alleluia that I composed as a transition from the plainchant into a more folk aesthetic that would be happening outside the stone walls of the church, in the streets of Scotland."

The second part of the Vespers service is focused on Mary and the Magnificat, which is Mary's song of thanks upon receiving the news that she will be the mother of the Messiah. The companion DVD in this CD set offers a cinematic view of this concert, which is carefully choreographed. "We have a wonderful historic dancer named Steve Player who we bring in often from the UK, from Europe," says Sorrell, "And he does some impromptu what you might call historical Irish step dancing which is somewhat related to what people might think of as flamenco. At the end of the concert, there's a very joyous carol called the Seven Rejoices of Mary, which then bursts out into an Irish reel called Christmas Eve. And Steve is dancing in that, and he drags Meredith and me into the dance.

"We were a bit on the reluctant side because we are not as good dancers as he is. But by that point, I think people are just having fun!"

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