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Christmas On Sugarloaf Mountain

Christmas On Sugarloaf Mountain

Gennifer Harding-Gosnell

Photography: Mark Krzysiak and EBP Music & Video


On the eastern outlying edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Maryland just across the border from Virginia sits the lone Sugarloaf Mountain; it’s a monadnock, a random rock rising up from otherwise flat land created by ancient geological forces, most likely fire and ice.

The Potato Famine in Ireland in the 1840s brought poor, starving immigrants from the British Isles to America, the majority of them settling together in the areas around Sugarloaf Mountain, the Shenandoah Valley, the area we know as “Appalachia”.

Jeannette Sorrell, the founder of Cleveland’s world-renown baroque orchestra, Apollo’s Fire, and Amanda Powell, the orchestra’s leading soprano soloist, spent much of their formative years in the Shenandoah Valley discovering and learning the area’s native musical history. This journey resulted in the 2014 program and album, Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering, which debuted at No. 5 on its respective Billboard charts.  

Sorrell and Powell re-visited Appalachia last week with the rest of Apollo’s Fire for a series of holiday concerts in Cleveland, Christmas On Sugarloaf Mountain: An Irish-Appalachian Celebration. All five performances sold out. Sorrell states in her program notes: “Appalachian music is the voice of the poor and the down-trodden – both the impoverished Irish immigrants and the African slaves on the plantations. And so, if the people of the mountains are going to raise their voices in song, what better time to do it than Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of history’s greatest advocate for the poor? It seemed that an Appalachian Christmas program was needed.”

And so it was. The Cleveland Museum of Art hosted last Friday night’s show in its Gartner Auditorium, a fine venue experience but for only one set of restrooms open for patrons and the auditorium ceiling lights that were never dimmed, stealing away some of the ambience essential to dark winter settings.

Our first scene begins in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Dublin circa 1603, with hymns and carols sung in early versions of the English language, from the sacred, haunting choral vocals in “That Night In Bethlehem” to the swaying, 3/2-time carol, “Nowell, Tydings Trew”. “Blow, Northern Wind” featured multi-instrumentalist Brian Kay playing the lyre and singing in Middle English.     

The program moves from the church to the streets featuring common carols, an introduction to Uillean bagpipes and the talents of the Apollo’s Singers and children’s choir, the Musettes. The versatility and vocal control of the singers were a highlight of the program – if you shut your eyes and just listened, the choir’s blended tones were so crisp and clear it was sometimes difficult to tell if the sound you heard was coming from human voices or Sorrell’s harpsichord.

No concert featuring the old time music of the British Isles could get away without a rousing pub song, this was no different. “Wassail” is a hot mulled cider drink popular in medieval England; Apollo’s Fire brought tunes about going “a-wassailing” to life with the help of star baritone Jeffrey Strauss, who’s stage-acting skills come in handy here as he does a little pretend-tipsy stumble-dance while swinging his pint mug and singing about how “a drop or two of cider will do us no harm!”  Oh, but if only it were just a drop or two, good sir!

The journey continues with a more sombre tone as the testimonials of the immigration begin alongside the story of another beginning, that of Jesus Christ, linking the fear and uncertainty of Mary to that of an Irish immigrant woman also expecting a child through great hardship. Just the slightest tinge of hope went with the audience into the intermission.  

Upon return, we’re moved into Early American times to a meeting-house in the 1800s where the Revival movement and the creation of Southern hymns influenced by the spiritual music of African slaves takes place. Because the program moves through the music chronologically, it is easy to hear the changes in style and structure that occur in the music when Celtic meets African. “Rise Up, Shepherd And Follow” and “Mary Had A Baby”, performed by Powell joined by other soloists Ross Hauck and Molly Netter, introduced the Southern drawl to the Irish accent. A lively “Go Tell It On The Mountain” brought foot-stomping from the audience, showing off the power of the Black spirituals that still shed influence on music into the present day. The program ended with a “Christmas Barn Dance” featuring Susanna Perry Gilmore, Apollo’s Fire’s much-heralded fiddle player, who’s blazing bow captures the spirit of the Christmas moment and leads the audience into their standing ovation.     

We were treated to a performance of the traditional Irish jig courtesy of dancer Brian Bigley throughout the night, complete with a few-second near-”moonwalk” that drew knowing laughs from the crowd.    

Apollo’s Fire has a busy 2018 ahead – the orchestra will make its Carnegie Hall debut

In March and will embark on a summer tour of Ireland and the UK in August. For more information, visit

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