Long before anyone began poking fun at Seattle for its coffee culture, Johan Sebastian Bach wrote a mini-comic opera called “Coffee Cantata,” in which a father tries talking his daughter out of her caffeine obsession by promising her a husband.
The piece most likely premiered at an appropriate venue: the Café Zimmermann in Leipzig, Germany, a coffee hangout where Bach took a weekly break from his regular duties as music director for the city’s principal churches.
“He had a huge, stressful job,” says Jeannette Sorrell, harpsichordist and director of the Cleveland-based orchestra Apollo’s Fire.
“What he liked to do to let his hair down was lead informal concerts on Wednesday nights at Gottfried Zimmerman’s café. Mr. Zimmerman figured if he held concerts, customers would come.”
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Sorrell makes her Seattle Symphony debut Jan. 10-11 conducting and playing in a chamber program called “Bach’s Coffeehouse.” The concert includes works heard in the café during Bach’s tenure as conductor of a music society called Collegium Musicum, largely consisting of University of Leipzig students and founded in 1688. It was revived in 1702 by the composer Georg Philipp Telemann.
Bach led Collegium Musicum from 1729 to 1739, and while the group’s repertoire included many of his secular compositions, he also presented music by others he admired, including Telemann and Antonio Vivaldi.
“Bach’s Coffeehouse,” a program conceived for Apollo’s Fire but presented in Benaroya Hall with Seattle Symphony musicians Mark Robbins (horn), Demarre McGill (flute), Elisa Barston (violin) and Cordula Merks (violin), includes Sorrell’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s “La Folia (Madness).”
“Vivaldi wrote it as a trio sonata,” says Sorrell, “but I arranged it so the whole band can join in the fray.”
Also on the bill is Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in A minor and Telemann’s Horn Concerto in D major.
Bach is represented by his Orchestral Suite in B minor, which Sorrell describes as a “quasi-concerto featuring a dialogue between flute and strings.” Sorrell takes the spotlight with the “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 5 in D major, which she says is the “first concerto we know of featuring the harpsichord as a solo instrument. The piece is a journey because you can hear Bach experimenting.”
A prizewinning harpsichordist, Sorrell also studied conducting at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Tanglewood Festival under Leonard Bernstein. Since childhood, her passion has been music.
In 1992, Sorrell was invited to interview for an assistant conducting position with the Cleveland Orchestra.
“At the interview, I was told there wasn’t any point in scheduling an audition because the Cleveland audience would never accept a woman as a conductor,” Sorrell says. “But the artistic administrator, who had set up the interview, took me aside, said he was sorry and offered to help set up a baroque orchestra in Cleveland.”
Apollo’s Fire was born. In 2010, the group signed to a British record label, leading to a surge in critical praise and international touring. Sorrell hopes the orchestra will be invited to play in Seattle someday.
“When you’re touring, it inspires players to give everything they have,” she says.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org