Chicago on the Aisle

Review: Apollo’s Fire concert Oct. 14 at the University of Chicago.

By Kyle MacMillan

Even though Apollo’s Fire is based just across the Great Lakes in Cleveland and has attained international attention during its nearly 25-year-history, it had never performed in Chicago. That odd omission came to an end Oct. 14 in the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall when the 16-member period-instrument ensemble opened the UChicago Presents’s 2016-17 season with plenty of sparks if not a full-fledged blaze.

Although it might not possess the improvisatory fervor of some of its peers, this group of first-rate musicians combines an air of refinement with an invigorating sprightliness and focus and an appropriately light, well-balanced sound.

The musicians perform standing up, and they brought obvious physicality to their playing, especially concertmaster Olivier Brault, who plays with a dancerly flair.

Founded in 1992 by harpsichordist and conductor Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo’s Fire has gained a reputation for imaginative programming that was borne out by the music on display here.

Sorrell understands that early music can be somewhat alien and challenging for new and sometimes even seasoned classical audiences, so it’s helpful to have a hook – a bit of context that allows listeners to get their bearings. Thus, rather than just a conventional assemblage of works, Sorrell devised a concert line-up that was intriguingly titled “A Night at Bach’s Coffeehouse.” (Her program notes, written in an engaging, conversational style, greatly aided in animating this idea.)

In addition to all his other musical duties, the seemingly indefatigable Johann Sebastian Bach oversaw informal weekly concerts at Zimmermann’s Coffeehouse, a popular gathering spot in 18th-century Leipzig. It allowed Bach to blow off steam and create and play music outside the sacred realm.

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