Imagine Claudio Monteverdi and other luminaries of the early Baroque era gathered in an Italian café, trading ideas over generous glasses of vino while the band improvises on their latest musical creations. Itʼs a fanciful scenario, though not entirely inaccurate in spirit, as Apolloʼs Fire demonstrated in their latest program, “Blues Café 1610.” With a sampling of songs and dances rooted in popular music of the era, the Cleveland-based Baroque orchestra made a persuasive case for a direct line running from composers like Monteverdi and Diego Ortiz to Woody Guthrie and the Rolling Stones.

Apollo's Fire © Apollo's Fire
Apollo's Fire
© Apollo's Fire

One of the hallmarks of the ensemble is its easy blend of erudition and entertainment, with founder and music director Jeannette Sorrell compiling tasty, instructive programs and acting as a personable hostess from her seat at the harpsichord during performances. For this one, she focused on four ostinato rhythms – passacaglia, passamezzo moderno and two versions of ciaccone – brought to life by six musicians and a quartet of strong voices: soprano Nell Snaidas, tenors Karim Sulayman and Oliver Mercer and baritone Jeffrey Strauss.

The full group established the atmosphere for the evening with a rousing rendition of the opening piece, “O Felix Jucunditas” by Samuel Capricornus, aka Samuel Bockshorn, from his 1669 collection of madrigals Theatrum Musicum. Cellist René Schiffer laid down an opening bass line that can best be described as “funky,” and the three men picked up the beat with a joyful bit of vocal bonhomie that lacked only backslapping.

The modernist thread continued through musical scenes from a “Bistro in Toscana,” which featured Sulayman and Mercer trading lines and striking engaging harmonies in a Monteverdi madrigal, and violinists Julie Andrijeski and Karina Schmitz weaving intricate filigrees together in an inventive sonata by Monterverdiʼs younger colleague Dario Castello. In between, guitarist Bryan Kay served up a toccata by Giovanni Kapsberger with a sound and approach reminiscent of contemporary banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck.

Sorrell soloed on what she called “a pop tune of the time” (1664) by Bernardo Storace that segued neatly into an early version of “Greensleeves,” Diego Ortizʼs “La Romanesca”. The other musicians came in like jazz players, expanding and detailing the melody as it grew into Ortizʼs “Passamezzo Moderno”, a dance tune given a modern burnish by percussionist Rex Benincasa on darbuka (a type of goblet drum) and bells. In this rendition it was easy to hear the familiar “Gregory Walker” that evolved into the modern twelve-bar blues.

Snaidas opened a trio of richly emotional Sephardic songs, invoking the suffering of love in a soft voice suffused with yearning, with delicate backup from Andrijeski. Sulayman joined her in full operatic mode, approaching verismo in portraying the anguish of a betrayed lover, echoed by Schmitz on violin. The full ensemble provided a rousing finish to the first half with a carefree, Mideast-tinged farewell ballad.

A pair of 17th century Italian ciaconne to open the second half showed how old forms can sound fresh using modern phrasing, tempos and improvisation, with Kay and William Simms providing rhythm on guitars, Schiffer working melodies from the bottom and Andrijeski and Schmitz providing lilting, spirited top notes. The contemporary club atmosphere set the stage for a section of the concert titled “You Done Me Wrong” – a convincing demonstration that whatever theyʼre called, the blues have been around a long time.

Sephardic musicians © Apollo's Fire
Sephardic musicians
© Apollo's Fire

Sorrell and Schiffer set the tone with a melancholy prelude by Taquino Merula that brought the four singers back for a lament by Monteverdi, featuring Snaidas in full, anguished voice and sensitive harmonies from the three men. Strauss then soloed on Barbara Strozziʼs LʼEraclito amoroso, showing strong command and a forceful style in bringing lines like “weeping is my only pleasure” to life.

Like any good blues band, the ensemble finished the night in a happier mood, with two songs from Monterverdi. The first was a “sweet torment of love” number delivered nightclub-style by Sulayman, sitting on a stool next to the harpsichord. The closing piece from Scherzi Musicali featured the full ensemble playing, singing and tossing off a few dance steps to a final flourish of percussion from Benincasa.

Though it sounds whimsical, a program of this depth and caliber can only be assayed by an ensemble that knows its music history, and has mastered early music chops well enough to bend them to other purposes. The sheer delight that permeated their performance made it easily accessible and fun, even for listeners who werenʼt aware of all the references and refinements. If Bessie Smith ever returns looking for a backup band, she will find kindred spirits in Apolloʼs Fire.

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