BWW Review: Apollo's Fire, Cleveland's 'Other' Internationally Recognized Orchestra Presents 'Sephardic Journey'

Apollo's Fire, Cleveland's "other" internationally recognized orchestra presents "Sephardic Journey"

Roy Berko

Apollo's Fire, Cleveland's "other" orchestra is credited with having built the largest audience in the nation for "early-music" (Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical). Headed by Jeannette Sorrell, the orchestra is forging "a vibrant approach to the re-making of authenticity."

Founded in 1992, Apollo's Fire has not only developed a large Cleveland following, but has played to sold-out audiences in such U.S. venues as Tanglewood and The Aspen Music Festival, as well as in international settings including the cities of London, Madrid and Bordeaux.

To date, Sorrell and Apollo's Fire has released over 20 commercial CDs, some of which have been bestsellers on the "Billboard" classical music chart.

Sorrell is noted for her creative programming. Next up is "Sephardic Journey, Wanderings of the Spanish Jews," which will weave the exotic sounds of Spanish Jews, who, after being expelled from their homeland in 1492 traveled and absorbed the musical accents and sounds of other cultures, including the tones of Italy, Turkey and North Africa.

The program will interweave Sephardic folk songs and choral works, as well as the daily sounds of the rhythms of love and life, rejection, celebration and mystical prayers.

Using authentic instruments such as the shawm, oud, harp, hammered dulcimer (zither) and exotic percussion, along with the 15-voice ensemble, the program will include the Hebrew choral work, "Songs of Solomon."

Lead vocalists are Nell Snaidas, soprano (and guest co-director for this program), Karim Sulayman, tenor and Jeffrey Strauss, baritone.

A recent interview with Strauss, who now resides in Chicago, but considers Cleveland his "semi home," due to his almost twenty year connection with Apollo's Fire, has required him to spend a great deal of time in this area. He commented that he is amazed by the "unbelievable changes" he has seen in Greater Cleveland.

A Buffalo native, he was exposed to music at a young age. His mother was a high operatic soprano and a fine pianist who taught music to children. Being a typical mid-century housewife, "she didn't pursue her singing as much as her talent would have allowed, but music, and musicians, were always in the house."

The talent and exposure paid off as not only Jeffrey, who sang with the Buffalo Philharmonic at age 17, but his sister Deborah too chose music as career. She is a "renowned Klezmer violinist, who found her voice in old style Eastern European violin music."

As a boy, Jeffrey studied Hebrew and, because of the quality of his voice, received special training for his bar mitzvah by his Temple's cantor. When the Temple built a new building, and also retained their inner city facility, Jeffrey was asked to lead Sabbath services as cantor at the old building, learning to "daven" [pray] and wound up with his "first paying singing job." Though trained as a lawyer, his professional singing career includes concerts with renowned baroque groups in London and the U.S., including Apollo's Fire.

The music to be used in "Sephardic Journey" may sound a little different to many Jews who attend the concert. Most Cleveland area Jews are Ashkenazi, whose ancestors came from Central and Eastern Europe. This group developed customs, pronunciation patterns and prayer rituals different from the other major group of Jews, the Sephardim, who lived mostly in Spain and Portugal and then migrated to Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe.

What is Jeffrey's role in the "Sephardic Journey" concert? He relates that "Jeannette is brilliant at constructing programs that have a narrative arc both on the page and as a concert experience." When she decided to do the "Journey" she asked Jeffrey for assistance in finding and translating Hebrew liturgical texts that could be used with the chant melodies she had chosen. An Ashkenazi Jew, whose family came from Russia, Poland, and Germany, Jeffrey was not an expert in Sephardic folk music, so he did "a lot of reading and listening." and even went to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York to experience a modern Sephardic Shabbat service first-hand. Jeffrey serves as the "cantor" and spiritual voice of the program, while Nell Snaidas is the featured voice in the Ladino songs of love, romance, and feasting. Jeannette Sorrell served as the overall architect of the program, designing the arc and flow of the "journey" and arranging most of the music.

"The program will offer a mix of traditional folk, ritual music from the synagogue and composed songs. It's an emotional journey interweaving daily life with sacred elements: the music of the Temple and the songs of the Sabbath," Jeffrey said. "The concert starts with the solo voice of a cantor [Jeffrey], using traditional call-and-response chant to calling the people to prayer and inviting them to return to Jerusalem-Yerushalayim-not , not necessarily the physical city, but the sacred place a place we carry with us in our heart and soul, through call and response, a middle eastern tradition."

This is followed by a Ladino tune celebrating the birth of Abraham (said to be a song the Sephardim sang as they left Spain following their expulsion in 1492). A set called "The Temple" includes 17 th century vocal and instrumental art music by the famous Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, and liturgical prayers for Shabbat. Other sets called "Love & Romance" and "Feasting & Celebration" include Ladino love songs, and it "ends with a wild ride with percussion, which will make everyone want to get up and dance."

Jeffrey, who has been praised as an "authoritative artist," considers himself to be "a storyteller, first and foremost," and finds his cantorial role in "Sephardic Journey" to be true to his philosophy of music and singing style and his family's spiritual tradition.

It is fitting that Sephardic Journey will be the first public professional concert to be given at the new Maltz Performing Arts Center, which for many years was the home of Temple Tifereth-Israel.

Apollo's Fire's "Sephardic Journey: Wanderings of the Spanish Jews" will be presented on Thursday, February 4, 2016 at 7:30 pm at the Fairlawn Lutheran Church (Smith Road); on Friday, February 5 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church (2747 Fairmount Blvd, Cleveland Heights) at 8 pm; Saturday, February 6 at 8 pm at the Maltz Performing Arts Center (1855 Ansel Road, Cleveland); and Sunday, February 7 at 4 pm at Baldwin Wallace University (275 Eastland Road, Berea).

For tickets or information go to: 216-320-0012 x 1 or

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From This Author Roy Berko

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