UChicago Presents: When you were a kid, your parents encouraged you in a number of artistic pursuits. But music was the thing that stuck. When did they realize you were serious about being a musician?
Jeannette Sorrell: My parents are both professors, and my father was also a former drama critic. So I grew up doing a lot of theater and ballet, and I played the violin and the piano as well as singing in choirs. In high school, I was directing an instrumental ensemble and doing a lot of arranging for them, too. But I also did a lot of competitive speaking in school, like debate team and original oratory. I was just doing a lot, the way kids do.
I don’t think it had occurred to my parents initially that I would want to pursue music as a career. For them, it was just part of being a cultured person, so they took me to a lot of concerts. But from the age of five, I kept begging for piano lessons. We didn’t have a piano, but eventually I was so obsessed with it that I made myself a little paper keyboard to practice on. Plus, once a week, I would go over to my friend Tracy’s house—she hated to practice, and I loved to practice, so we would go into the piano room and close the door. Her parents thought that she was practicing, and everybody was happy! [Laughs]
I did that for a year, until my parents bought me a used upright. That was when I was I think 10, and I still remember the day that it arrived. I was so excited that I sat there for four hours, playing the little pieces that I knew over and over again.
So, yeah—music was always the thing that I loved the most. It was just through junior high and high school that I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it, because I started on the late side. But it was always what I wanted.
UCP: You mentioned the music ensemble that you directed and arranged music for as a teenager. How did that come about?
JS: It was something that I did at my church. I think it started as something for one of the Christmas pageants, and then I thought, “Hey, we could just continue this; this is really fun.” So I just asked the minister if that would be OK, and he said sure. I had about seven or eight musicians, some of whom were adults and some who were a little bit younger than me. But at the same time, I also had a job as a pianist for a different church. So I would go to my own church for the early service and this other church for the late service, where I was paid. It was always a busy Sunday! But I learned a lot of practical skills doing all that, like how to rehearse.
UCP: Clearly you were playing the piano a lot, but when you went to Wake Forest University, you switched to harpsichord, which is what you went on to study—along with conducting—at Oberlin. What triggered the switch?
JS: I went to the Aspen Music Festival the summer after my freshman year, and I was doing both piano and conducting there. It became clear that doing both of those is kind of impossible, because as a pianist, you have to practice, like, six hours a day. It doesn’t leave enough time for pursuing conducting. So when I came back to school in the fall, I decided to switch my major to conducting instead of piano, because it was clear after Aspen that I could be a successful conductor.
When you’re a conducting major, you’re required to take a secondary instrument. So I looked through the list of instruments that were offered—all these things like french horn and clarinet, which I knew nothing about—and I saw harpsichord listed there. I thought, “Oh, this’ll be easier than anything else!” [Laughs] So that’s why I signed up for harpsichord!
But after four weeks, it was clear that it actually suited me much better than the piano. My hands are pretty narrow, so it was always a struggle for me to reach things on the piano—it really limited the repertoire I could play. But the harpsichord keys are narrower, so I could play everything written for harpsichord quite easily.
UCP: As a young conductor, your name was fielded for the assistant conductor post at the Cleveland Orchestra. But then-music director Christoph von Dohnányi turned you down, claiming that audiences “weren’t ready” for a female conductor. That being said, I’m guessing that wasn’t the first time you experienced resistance as a female conductor.
JS: You’re right that it wasn’t the first time; there was some pushback. I think the first time was my conducting audition at Juilliard, when I was applying for grad school there. The conducting teacher in those days was Otto Werner Mueller—a very respected conducting professor, but very old-fashioned. It’s a competitive audition process: first, there’s a very difficult ear-training exam which eliminates two-thirds of the people, then you have to play scores at the keyboard—also very difficult.
I passed these rounds of elimination, and I got to be one of I think three students who got to conduct the orchestra for the finals. After I conducted, a bunch of the musicians came up to me after the break and told me, “We really loved playing for you; it was really fun.” The whole time, Mr. Werner Mueller was standing right next to me—he could hear exactly what they were saying. Then, he said to me: “Well, I think you should find a different profession, because the musicians will never accept a woman as their conductor.”
I thought, “You just heard your players five minutes ago telling me that they really enjoyed it!” It was quite a shocking experience, because up until that time, I had just grown up thinking that your gender didn’t really matter in a profession, and my parents had always told me I could do anything I wanted to do.
So I went home and figured I’d just apply somewhere else. There’s no point in fighting with people about their mindset, in my opinion. You just find a different path.
UCP: Do you think you would’ve taken the post with the Cleveland Orchestra if it’d been offered to you—if you’d continued along the path of being the conductor of a symphony orchestra?
JS: The thing is, from the age of 17, I knew that what I wanted to do was work with period instruments, leading a Baroque orchestra—which is exactly what I’m doing. I spent six or seven years studying orchestral conducting at a high level—at Tanglewood and Aspen and all that—only in order to really learn a solid technique. I didn’t want to be one of those early music conductors who can’t conduct. At the time when I was growing up, that’s really what there was in the early music scene—harpsichordists who didn’t know how to conduct. I wanted to be better than that, so that’s why I was pursuing all of that. But it was never my end goal.
When I had my interview with the Cleveland Orchestra for the assistant position with Maestro von Dohnányi, he never asked me anything about music—he just talked for 20 minutes about politics. Then he said, “Well, my dear, I don’t think there’s any point in finding time with the orchestra for you to audition, because the audience in Cleveland will never support a female conductor.” I responded, “Well, that’s fine, sir, because I actually didn’t apply for this job; you guys contacted me, and really, I want to work with period instruments.”
If I’d wanted to get the job, then what I said would’ve been a huge mistake, of course—you don’t say something like that to a major orchestral conductor. But on the other hand, I was being very honest. In hindsight, I feel like that was a great lesson, because the artistic administrator of the Cleveland Orchestra—who was there at that interview—took me aside afterwards and said, “I’ve always wanted to see a Baroque orchestra in Cleveland, and I think you’re the person to do it. If you’d like, I’ll help you.” And that’s what led to launching Apollo’s Fire.
So if I hadn’t been so honest in that interview, I don’t think that Apollo’s Fire would have ever happened, because I was 26 at the time and had no money to start a Baroque orchestra on my own. Plus, I didn’t even live in Cleveland; I was living in Oberlin, and didn’t even know anybody in Cleveland! So the whole thing was totally crazy, but it happened as a result of what I said in that interview.
UCP: Why is Cleveland a good home for an ensemble like Apollo’s Fire?
JS: I think that at the time when I started Apollo’s Fire, there was already a strong interest in early music scene in Cleveland because of both Oberlin and Case Western University, which both have strong early music programs. But there was no professional Baroque orchestra. The city was ripe to welcome something like that.
In addition, I think Apollo’s Fire has benefitted from the legacy of George Szell, the great music director of the Cleveland Orchestra for 30 years. Szell built up the Cleveland Orchestra into a world-class orchestra and instilled into the wealthy families of Cleveland that it was their mission to support classical music on the highest possible level. I think that concept still resonates with many families in Cleveland today, and Apollo’s Fire has also benefitted from that support. Our debut concert was sold out, and I’m not sure that would have been the case in a lot of other cities.
UCP: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t know anyone in Cleveland when you first moved there. How did you end up recruiting musicians to get Apollo’s Fire off the ground?
JS: I had studied at Oberlin, and I’d also studied in Europe, so I primarily drew the players from contacts I had in those two places. There’s always been a very high percentage of Oberlin grads in Apollo’s Fire, even today. That first year, though, we did hold auditions in Cleveland for the sake of an open and transparent process. We did find a couple of players who I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
But there was always a clear understanding with my fledgling board that the group was going to have to be at a top-notch level from the beginning, or we would not have support in Cleveland, because we were born in the shadow of the Cleveland Orchestra. For that reason, we’ve always brought players in from out of town as needed, though the personnel is quite consistent. A lot of my principal players are founding members of the group, but some of them are flying in for every single project!
UCP: A major tenet of Apollo’s Fire is the notion of the doctrine of the affections. If you could, briefly describe that philosophy in layman’s terms, and how that affects performance practice.
JS: Music writers of the 17th and 18th centuries talked a lot about Affekt, or a Baroque term that meant that the purpose of music was to move the emotional mood of the listeners. So, the role of the performer was to engage the audience emotionally and essentially manipulate their mood. It came out of the Ancient Greek and Roman concept of rhetoric—the specific rhetorical devices of the great Greek and Roman orators. It’s a bit like Martin Luther King, you know: you speed up, you slow down, you have dramatic pauses… MLK was a great example of a skilled rhetorical orator. Those concepts were translated into music by the Baroque composers.
In Apollo’s Fire, we’re kind of obsessed with this, because I feel like that’s mainly what Baroque music was all about. We try to be very conscious of the emotional character of every phrase. I’ll often mark that into the music for the players—this section is excited, this section is agitated, this section is contemplative, this phrase is asking a question… We try to really project this to the audience.
UCP: An Apollo’s Fire concert I found online that I really enjoyed was Bach’s Coffee Cantata, with an English translation you wrote. Can you tell me a bit about that performance?
JS: Yeah! We’ve had a young artist’s training program for about 10 years now, and I’m very proud to say that the graduates of that program are now up-and-coming professionals dominating the national Baroque scene. We do different projects here for those apprentices: sometimes they play in the orchestra for larger classical programs, while in other years, they might have their own project.
A couple of years ago, we did that production of Bach’s Coffee Cantata, with our young apprentices as the soprano and the coffeeshop owner. The ensemble that played was a couple of our principal players with several of the apprentice instrumentalists. This piece is well-suited for this purpose, because it’s about a young girl who’s addicted to coffee, and her old-fashioned papa who won’t allow her to drink it. It’s really about the generational gap.
UCP: In a 2012 article for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a longtime supporter of Apollo’s Fire asserted that “Jeannette Sorrell is Apollo’s Fire.” What do you see happening to Apollo’s Fire should you retire?
JS: That’s something that I’ve discussed with our board now and then—not because I’m expecting to retire anytime soon, but because I want to prepare the organization gradually for that transition.
I think if you look at other Baroque orchestras that have gone through a founder transition, I see two different models of what has happened. For some, the founder picks and grooms his own successor over several years, and gradually steps back when that person is ready to take over. You also see situations where the founder has no say in it and the board of directors hires a new person. Those are two very different models, so I’ve encouraged my board to look at different case studies and draw some conclusions based on that.
So, I hope that they will do that in the next few years—it’s hard to get an organization to focus on something that’s not urgent! But ultimately, from a legal point of view, it is the board of directors that decides what happens. But if they choose to give some of that authority to me, I’d be more than happy to guide the process.