by Daniel Hathaway
Playing With Fire, Allan Miller’s 70-minute documentary about Apollo’s Fire artistic director Jeannette Sorrell that made its debut in New York last October, will be streamed through April 28 by the Cleveland International Film Festival — which has now moved online. Click here to watch a trailer.
The film follows Sorrell as she rehearses and performs with her Baroque orchestra in Cleveland and at Tanglewood, as she works with the conducting class at the Aspen Festival, and as she prepares for a Messiah performance with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota. Testaments to her leadership by a number of her musicians are seeded through the narrative.
Miller, who has received Academy Awards for his documentaries about Isaac Stern (From Mao to Mozart) and Zubin Mehta (The Bolero), and has filmed the musical activities of Kurt Masur and Valery Gergiev, was inspired to follow Sorrell around after hearing a New York performance by Apollo’s Fire. The conductor and harpsichordist told me about that encounter in a recent Skype conversation.
“Three or so years ago, we played at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a gentleman came backstage afterward and introduced himself as Allan Miller, a film director. ‘I’m retired,’ he said, “but I feel that I have one more film left in me, and I want to make it about you.’ I thought, this is so sweet, but it will never happen — and everybody I talked to told me the same thing,” Sorrell said. “But Allan went out and raised all the necessary money, and a year and a half later we were filming.”
That took place beginning in June of 2018 with an Apollo’s Fire rehearsal at the Cleveland Institute of Music, followed by Sorrell’s day of guest teaching at Aspen, a performance at Tanglewood, and the conductor’s gig in St. Paul. “A fair amount of planning went into deciding where to film and why, but it was entirely Allan’s choice about what to include,” Sorrell said.
In addition to capturing the conductor’s work with ensembles, Miller devoted significant attention to Sorrell’s childhood and her later struggles as a woman trying to gain traction in a male-dominated profession. That led her to found her own Baroque orchestra in Cleveland in 1992 — which introduced even more challenges.
After the final edits were made and Sorrell viewed the finished product, she confessed to being a bit amused by certain scenes. “The parts about my life seem boring. Why would anyone want to know about that? But I think it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of what I spend my time doing, and people find it insightful to go behind the scenes. Being a woman with hurdles to get over is interesting to a lot of people, especially now.”
Noting that she had no editorial control over the project, Jeannette Sorrell admires the director’s work and the point of view he’s taken. “It’s very much Allan Miller’s film. He had a strong vision of what he wanted to do from the beginning, and it seems to be speaking to people very well,” she said.
Ironically, there may be a benefit to showing the film online. “Maybe more people will watch this way,” Sorrell mused. “Churches and synagogues are reporting that more of their congregations have been attending online since the shutdown.”
Speaking of shutdowns, on March 11, Apollo’s Fire had the distinction of playing the last public performance in Cleveland before stay-at-home orders went into effect. “We also played on-tour concerts in New York and Chicago just before their own announcements were made. So now I guess we can say in our publicity that Apollo’s Fire shut down three major cities in style!”
Click here to purchase tickets for the Cleveland International Film Festival’s screenings of Playing With Fire (available on-demand through April 28).
Live Q&A sessions via Zoom with Allan Miller and Jeannette Sorrell are scheduled for Saturday, April 25 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, April 26 at 4:00pm. Click here to register.
Photo by Jason Hudson.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com April 21, 2020.
Click here for a printable copy of this article