We talk to Jeannette Sorrell, artistic director of Cleveland Baroque ensemble Apollo’s Fire, about the orchestra’s yuletide programme of Celtic carols
How did you go about putting the programme together for Sacrum Mysterium, your annual Christmas concert with Apollo’s Fire?
I devised it with Sylvain Bergeron, a colleague of mine from Montreal. He had previously recorded a CD of early Scottish and Irish Christmas carols with a small ensemble and it struck my imagination. I could envision something on a grander scale that could be turned into a Scottish Christmas service with a procession at the beginning. I eventually managed to convince Sylvain that it would work and we put this programme of Celtic vespers, Renaissance choral music and pagan carols together in 2011. We both worked on arranging the music and I created the overall shape and order. I also had to find the medieval vespers, which ended up being selections from the Vespers of St Kentigern from the 13th century.
How did you come across these vespers?
I did quite a bit of hunting around the internet actually. I was very lucky because a Scottish publisher called Musica Scottica came out with the scholarly edition of the Vespers of St Kentigern around this time and they were kind enough to send it to me straight away.
And who was St Kentigern?
He was kind of like St Francis of Assisi. St Kentigern was very good with animals and was known in particular for finding an injured bird and healing it, which was considered a miracle. He was very kind and gentle and became the patron saint of Glasgow. Glasgow Cathedral is built near what is thought to be his grave.
How has the Sacrum Mysterium programme evolved since 2011?
We have changed it a little bit each year – we keep tweaking it and honing it. The biggest changes occurred during the 2011 performances when we were workshopping it in Cleveland. I think there were two weekends of performances that year and I was experimenting with the order of certain pieces almost every night. But by the time we had finished that run, 98 per cent of it was the same as it is now.
Do you think there was a closer relationship between folk music and music composed for the church at that time?
Absolutely. The chasm that exists now between art music and folk music did not exist in the Renaissance and early Baroque periods – there was a much closer relationship between the two. You see composers like William Byrd and Henry Purcell writing what we would think of as serious, artful variations for the harpsichord which were actually based on folk music. Even Bach recycled his sacred cantatas and turned them into secular pieces for birthdays and other celebrations, just by changing the text.
The programme has sold out since 2011 and audiences seem to really love it. What do you think it is about the music and the way it’s put together that speaks to them?
I think that medieval plainchant and folk music form a deep part of human history and psyche. These pieces seem to speak to people on a purely emotional level. There is also a dance sequence with Steve Player, a trained Scottish Baroque dancer, that’s really moving. I often see men in the audience with tears in their eyes, maybe because it’s unusual to see a man dancing like that these days, in the elegant Baroque way. As they leave the concert, audience members seem to have been put in touch with some part of themselves that they needed to be.
This year you are taking Sacrum Mysterium to the New York Metropolitan Museum for the first time. How did that come about?
Our agent originally contacted the museum about a different tour of ours, the Monteverdi Vespers, which we have just finished touring. It didn’t work for them because of timing, but they said they would love to have something for the holidays. So I suggested the Celtic programme, which had already been such a hit in Cleveland. We sent them the recordings and the videos and they said ‘let’s do it!’
Apollo’s Fire will perform Sacrum Mysterium in Cleveland venues on 3 and 7 December and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5 December. Visit www.apollosfire.org for more details
• Interview: John Luther Adams
• Review: Sacrum Mysterium (Apollo’s Fire/Sorrell)
• Review: Monteverdi: Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, 1610 (Apollo’s Fire/Sorrell)