The Artist as Entrepreneur: A Conversation with Apollo's Fire Founder Jeannette Sorrell

Apr 12, 2017

Jeannette Sorrell, founder and artistic director of the Cleveland-based period-instrument orchestra Apollo's Fire, is one of the world's foremost conductors and interpreters of baroque music. But she's also much more than that.

"I am an entrepreneur as an artist," Sorrell said in a phone interview. "I think Mozart and Handel were also entrepreneurs, and that’s OK. It forces you to make sure that your artistic work is accessible to the public and will draw an audience."

Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire are making available their performance of Bach’s St. John Passion for you to enjoy Good Friday evening, 7 p.m. April 14 on Classical 101.

Here's a little preview of Bach's St. John Passion in the hands of Sorrell and Apollo's Fire:

The occasion of this Good Friday broadcast prompted me to revisit an interview I conducted a little while ago with Sorrell about her work as a conductor in a male-dominated field, and how she came to found and lead one of the world’s most successful baroque orchestras. 

The Paper Keyboard

Apollo’s Fire might never have come about had Sorrell not enjoyed practicing piano. She was about 5 years old when she started begging her parents for piano lessons. Cash-strapped grad students at the time, Sorrell’s parents didn’t own a piano and had no money for lessons.

A few years later, Sorrell learned her school was making piano lessons available for free. The only requirement was students had to have a piano at home on which to practice.

“So I lied and said that we had a piano, and I made myself a little paper keyboard and practiced on the paper keyboard every day,” Sorrell said.

The day before each of her lessons, Sorrell would practice on a real piano at a friend’s house.

"(She) hated to practice, and I loved to practice," Sorrell said. "And so we would close the doors in the piano room and I would practice, and her parents thought Tracy was practicing. And everybody was happy. So I did that for a year, and then my parents saw that I was obsessed so then they got a piano."

"You might like being a conductor."

Sorrell’s piano studies continued, and while she was in high school, she started accompanying and arranging pieces for musicians at her church. Also during these years, her mother suggested she try conducting.

“I remember her saying, ‘Jeanette, maybe you might like being a conductor,’ and I said, ‘Mom, that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,’ the way teenagers do,” Sorrell said. “But I tried it, and then I found that I liked it, actually. I liked being able to focus on the music and being less occupied with the technique.”

Sorrell studied conducting in high school and spent three summers studying conducting at the Aspen Music School.

“I think by the time I as 17, I knew I wanted to lead a baroque orchestra,” Sorrell said. “It was just a question of whether I’d be able to do it.”

During her undergraduate years, she majored in conducting and switched from piano—which, Sorrell said, had always posed limitations for her narrow hands—to harpsichord. After graduation, studies at the Tanglewood Institute and studies in Europe, Sorrell’s goals and preparation were certain, but her path was still unclear.

“I ended up being told by several prominent conductors, ‘You should go do something else because this is not a field for women,’ ” Sorrell said. “And that was a shock to me the first time I heard it, but I just sort of ignored it and kept on anyway.”

Jeannette Sorrell conducting Apollo's Fire
Credit Roger Mastroianni / apollosfire.org

"They get hooked."

Sorrell began the process of forming a professional baroque orchestra, doing everything from filling out grant applications and filing for nonprofit status, to assembling musicians and programming concert repertoire.

Now, 25 years after founding Apollo’s Fire, the ensemble has released 19 critically acclaimed recordings and has received praise for its live performances throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in Europe and the U.K. The organization also boasts multifaceted youth music education and outreach programs, and regularly performs series at venues around northeastern Ohio.

Tapping into her entrepreneurial streak, Sorrell said Apollo’s Fire is geared toward bringing baroque music on period instruments to ever broader audiences and captivating early music audiences for the future.

“We’re always playing in new venues, always coming up with new ways of building new audiences,” Sorrell said. “We’re pretty focused on not merely playing for the Ph.D.s who will come to a concert at a college chapel. We do that sometimes, but we also play programs that bring in a grassroots audience. And what’s fun is to see how that grassroots audience then comes back here even to more esoteric programs, and then they get hooked.”

Jeannette Sorrell leads Apollo's Fire in Bach's St. John Passion at 7 p.m. Friday, April 14 on Classical 101.