I can’t speak for other critics, but the single most difficult part of my job is reviewing movies that leave me feeling indifferent. This happens when I consider something to be not quite bad enough to slam or good enough to recommend. “Playing with Fire” (“Fire”), subtitled: “Jeannette Sorrell and the Mysteries of Conducting,” is one such title.
This certainly isn’t for a lack of prime subject matter. Academy (“The Bolero”) and Emmy award (“Itzhak Perlman: Fiddling for the Future”) winning director and producer Allan Miller, the creator of several classical music documentaries, chronicles the life and impressive career of Jeannette Sorrell.
Not a Girl ThingMiller deserves a great deal of credit for not referring to Sorrell as a “female conductor” which is good, as there have been close to 100 females who have conducted major global orchestras since 1897. At one point in her professional career, Sorrell was slighted because of her gender, and it is the most interesting part of the film. More on that in a bit.
A relatively late bloomer, Sorrell’s interest in the piano (and later harpsichord) didn’t start until the age of 9. At age 15, she had her first paying gig playing for a Southern Baptist Church in Virginia. At 17, she applied to Julliard and was turned down, but received a full scholarship to the Oberlin Conservatory under the tutelage of Robert Spano. This led to a stretch at Tanglewood studying under Leonard Bernstein before moving to Amsterdam where she studied the harpsichord under Gustav Leonhardt.
In 1992, the then 26-year-old Sorrell founded “Apollo’s Fire,” an orchestra based in Cleveland, Ohio, specializing in 17th- and 18th-century “early music” (Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic). Sorrell is also the orchestra’s principal conductor and harpsichordist.
‘Affekt’As it is explained in the film, Sorrell also subscribes to something called “Affekt”: the practice of employing emotion as a performance technique. From what I was able to discern, this means Sorrell calls on her musicians to interpret and then play the notes to suggest various moods; happiness, brashness, boldness, excitement, calmness, relaxation, and a plethora of other human emotions.
I have what I consider to be a workingman’s understanding of classical music; meaning I can listen to a work and identify 200 or so of them by title and composer. As most of these pieces contain no lyrics, the composer (and conductor) must convey the desired emotional message solely through instrumental arrangement and performance.
Miller dedicates roughly a third of the 69-minute running time showing Sorrell and her players nipping and tucking particular pieces; changing the speeds, volume, and pitch, and while interesting to watch, nothing presented led me to believe she does anything different or better than any other A-list conductor.
Animated and demonstrative, it’s beyond obvious that Sorrell is deeply passionate and thoroughly committed to her craft, and this enthusiasm rubs off on the players. Theirs is less a boss-employee relationship and more of a team effort, but she makes it clear in no uncertain terms hers will always be the final word.
Back to the Gender IssueIn 1991, Sorrell was invited to interview for the assistant conductor position of the Cleveland Orchestra. In her meeting with music director Christoph von Dohnányi, he stated that “there was no point in trying to find time in the orchestra’s schedule for an audition because the audience in Cleveland would never accept a woman as a conductor.” In the film, Sorrell laughs about this as she found it odd that she was denied an audition for a job she hadn’t even applied for.
Not long after this somewhat bizarre incident, Cleveland artistic administrator Roger Wright reached out to her and helped Sorrell launch what would soon become Apollo’s Fire, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Fire” has its share of bright spots. The handful of performances of works by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mozart, and especially J.S. Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 5” are superb, albeit truncated.
In the end “Fire” fails to actually catch fire because of Miller’s static and unspectacular direction. It’s tough to profile such an engaging person such as Sorrell and have it turn out so average, yet Miller managed to pull it off.