“We have fallen into the place where everything is music…”

On Shaker and Chagrin River roads, the borders of Pepper Pike and Hunting Valley, sits a smallish set of white barns outlined in black. It’s overcast and drizzly but warm as the sun goes down, casting a grey-blue shadow on the white wood siding. Soft orange light streams from the upper windows of the largest barn. A set of solid but narrow wooden steps greets you at the main barn door entrance, you’ll have to go upstairs. It is seriously a barn loft with enough room for nearly 200 chairs placed in a semi-circle around a small, maybe 12’ x 12’, wood-platform stage. At each end of the loft is a set of massive barn doors with a separated set of equally-large pane windows topped by a smaller, decorative window set that reaches to the ceiling. The design and subsequent illumination resembles that of a cathedral.

This is the Baroque Music Barn, a small music venue only classical music fans in the Cleveland area will be well aware of but nearly everyone here should. If atmosphere in your live music viewing matters to you, the Baroque Music Barn is to be taken very seriously. Oh, and there’s the fresh country air to breath in….

Apollo’s Fire is classical music for people who don’t get classical music. They’re a period-instrument-based baroque orchestra straight outta Cleveland and in 25 years of existence, they’ve become international stars.

This year’s series of Apollo’s Fire’s Countryside Concerts featured period music of the Mediterranean: primarily Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Persia.

The guest co-directors of the program are Brian Kay and Amanda Powell. Kay is known primarily as a traditional and world music artist; he has taught music at Yale and Baldwin-Wallace. Soprano singer Powell is a Cleveland stage regular who appeared as the lead vocalist on Apollo’s Fire’s 2015 Billboard best-selling CD, “Sugarloaf Mountain”.  

Kay will begin the show playing the oud, an Arabic instrument he says developed into what we know as a lute. “The oud is deep and it’s fretless. You can play quarter-tonal music on it, which is called for in Arabic notes. These are sounds that you won’t hear in Western notes. These are the notes that fall between the cracks on the keys of a piano.”

Powell’s instrument is her voice: “I spend a lot of time with the language, because the language shapes the way I will choose the [sounds] I’m going to use for my singing. Like, in Ladino, in the ancient Sephardic language (Judeo-Spanish), there are a lot of ‘jhuh’ and ‘zzz’ sounds, so it’s very sensual and very round in the mouth and that shapes the way that I sing, whereas in Arabic, it’s much more nasal and pointed, lots of ‘uh’ and ‘ah’ and forward kind of sounds.”

This becomes evident later during the show when Powell sings “To Yasemi (The Jasmine)” in traditional Cypriot, there is a noticeable difference in the way her whole face moves from the Arabic song she just sang.  

Obviously ancient percussion softly fades in as Apollo’s Fire begins the show with a Middle Eastern Taqsim, an improvisational intro common to ancient Mediterranean music. Percussionist Rex Benincasa is wearing ankle bells, literally a piece of leather with jingle bells sewn on and buckled around his ankle.

The upright, or “double” bass appears confusing as it’s definitely a Western instrument, but doesn’t sound so. Bassist Dave Morgan explains: “The closest thing to a bass instrument in Arabic music was the sintir. This was a three-stringed, skin-covered bass lute. The neck was a simple stick with goat strings. It was introduced by the Gnawa people, North Africans of sub-Saharan descent. I’m trying to emulate that. The upright bass began being incorporated into traditional Arabic in the 1920s, and is the one western instrument that has gained wide acceptance through the Middle East.”

The audience gets into clapping and stomping mode and are encouraged by the orchestra to get up and dance to through the musical journey, now in the Greek Isles. The rhythm of recorder player Daphna Mor’s style and sound feels almost like snake-charming, most of the bodies in the audience are moving with the hands.

The Apollo’s Fire orchestra is reactive to this, with Powell directly stating to the audience at one point that they feed off our energy. The musicians are often observed swaying with their eyes closed to the others’ music, motioning their arms almost like ravers beckoning a beat drop.

Songs of love and loss round out the first half of the show, most notably “As Froles Do Meu Amigo (My Beloved’s Flowers)”, a slow waltz, beautiful in its simplicity the way Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is more commonly known.  

The first set ends with “Mon Amy S’en Est Alle (My Boyfriend Left Without A Word)”. Powell’s fierce delivery suggests anger and desperation – “My boyfriend has left without a word, before tomorrow night I shall have revenge”, she sings in French. Had Carrie Underwood been a medieval French maiden, this song would have been called “Avant Qu’il Ne Triche”.

As the group left the stage for intermission, violinist Susanna Perry Gilmore quickly mentioned to us as she walked by, “The second half rocks.”

She wasn’t kidding.

Gilmore took over the entire room for the beginning of the second set, 15th-century Italian. The music is very expressive, as is most anything Italian, with Gilmore’s fiddle rolling between notes like a group of short hills on a roller coaster. The lilting tones gradually grow into the full-on stomping dance of “La Spagna” and the audience is now as close to headbanging as is possible at a classical music show.

The journey returns to Spain for what becomes the most noticeably heart-wrenching song of the second set, “Con Que La Lavre? (With What Shall I Wash Away My Sorrows?)”. Powell’s delivery gives you the feeling someone should tell Adele Adkins “Someone Like You” has been done before, hundreds and hundred of years earlier.

Apollo’s Fire is most positively known as being able to bridge the gap between classical music and the general public – the atmosphere is not exactly reflective of what the stereotypical perception is of classical music events and audiences. Anyone who lives by the “music is everything” philosophy is going to get Apollo’s Fire without any further explanation needed.

“And even if the whole world blows up, there are hidden instruments…”

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