Amanda Forsythe shines with Apollo’s Fire

November 21, 2015 at 11:10 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Soprano Amanda Forsythe performed with Apollo's Fire Friday night at Furst Church in Cambridge.

Soprano Amanda Forsythe performed with Apollo’s Fire Friday night at First Church in Cambridge.

Baroque music has a direct emotional appeal on the listener, and that is in no small part due to the design. Composers of the time systematically manipulated certain scales, dynamic shadings, and orchestral effects to generate a specific emotional response. Scholars call it “affect.”
One ensemble known for its keen sense of affect in performances is the Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra, which offered a rich program of Handel and Vivaldi works Friday night at First Church in Cambridge.

Cleveland’s period instrument ensemble, led by Jeannette Sorrell, is internationally renowned for its precision and stirring, even fiery, interpretations of Baroque literature. Performances have taken them to Tanglewood and the BBC Proms this past summer.

Friday night’s concert was just one stop in a multi-city tour aimed at celebrating the release of a debut recording, “The Power of Love,” which features soprano Amanda Forsythe.

Forsythe possesses a jaw-dropping facility with the burbling lines and clarion ranges so idiomatic to Baroque music, and she is beloved to local audiences, having performed as soloist with Boston Baroque and the Boston Early Music Festival on numerous occasions.

She sang with a shimmering tone and a fine ear to the emotional content of the Handel arias that she presented, fully capturing the fleeting excitement of first love to jealousy and madness. In “Il primo ardor” from Ariodante, her voice took on a light quiver to give the music a feeling of intensity. She did the same with “Tornami a vagheggiar” from Alcina, her high notes plucked out with a flute-like tone.

“Geloso tormento” from Almira was especially moving and aptly pained, with Forsythe singing her lines with dark tone and palpable weight. Oboist Debra Nagy added her own emotional touch by spinning sorrowful lines around the singer.

Forsythe also found the aching beauty in the outer sections of “Piangerò” from Guilio Cesare, and she dug in for a fiery “Ma poi morta” to give the music a palpable anger.

“Da Tempeste” from the same opera returned Forsythe to the dexterous vocal style that characterized her singing earlier in the evening, the singer tossing off the vocal flourishes and arpeggios with ease.

Throughout, the orchestra lent soft and dynamic support, playing with a silky smooth string tone and a continuo support that was never heavy.

But the most remarkable aspect of Friday’s performance was the way that the ensemble shaped the musical phrases. Sorrell, conducting from the harpsichord, led with pulsing and waving gestures to coax lines that were quick and lively one moment and slow and mournful the next. Rhythms were buoyant and the works seemed to breathe naturally, resulting in music that truly came alive.

That was most apparent in their performance of Vivaldi’s La Folia.

The composer originally scored this frantic Portuguese dance for two violins and continuo. Sorrell’s arrangement, heard Friday night, transformed the tune into a full- on jam session for orchestra.

The theme beamed from colorful dynamic shading, the forte passages ebbing away into sudden pianissimos, while some of the variations sounded with bristly, side-winding syncopations, aided by rhythmic guitar strums and the slapping of cello strings with bows. The stars of this performance were violinists Olivier Brault and Johanna Novom, who took turns handling the work’s technical fireworks.

The opening piece, Marco Uccellini’s La Bergamasca, also showcased the orchestra’s fine corporate qualities. The work is simple, but alluring, with darting string lines sounding over a steady repeated bass notes. Sorrell crafted the music through short energetic bursts rather than in long arcs.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B minor moved with liberal but effective use of tempo fluctuations. The strings tugged at the phrases for effect and the soloists—violinists Brault and Novom together with Adriane Post and Andrew Fouts—were free to sculpt their own phrases with light rubato, an approach that enabled Vivaldi’s work to sound anew.

Two excerpts from Handel’s Terpsichore filled out the program. The Entrée had the emotional immediacy of an operatic aria, while the Chaconne moved with a shapely, dancing lilt.

Sorrel and company returned for a pair of encores. Forsythe sang a sweet melancholic “If Love’s a Sweet Passion” from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, and the orchestra offered a rousing rendition of O’ Carolan’s “Favorite Jig.”

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