Apex Ensemble still Montclair’s orchestra in rebranded return

Sat Nov 06, 2021 at 2:33 pm
David Chan conducted the Apex Ensemble Friday night in Montclair, New Jersey.

What’s in a name? In its first in-person concert since March 2020, Apex Ensemble sounded as sweet as the Montclair Orchestra, which is what it used to be called.

Performing Dvořák, Anna Clyne, and opera arias Friday night in its familiar venue of Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey, the “developmental orchestra” of advanced students and professionals continued to punch above its weight for energy, precision, and suave phrasing.

In fact, the group’s pandemic makeover seems to have consisted mainly of the name change (to something less small-town specific) and some new marketing graphics. Its mission remains the same: to give young musicians at the thresholds of their careers experience playing alongside seasoned pros.

And somehow, that wonky educational purpose regularly translates into music-making that gives better-known big-city orchestras serious competition.

David Chan, whose day (and night) job is concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, remains at the helm as music director. On Friday, Chan again brought the kind of crisp leadership that, in previous concerts, made music of Haydn, Mozart, and Bizet leap off the page.

Chan’s experience in opera was evident too, as he sensitively supported soprano Leah Hawkins in arias by Cilea, Still, and Puccini. There were even moments in Friday’s performance of Dvořák’s melodious Eighth Symphony, especially the Adagio movement, that would have sounded at home in the opera house.

But orchestral virtuosity was the order of the day in the program’s opener. Clyne’s aptly named Sound and Fury exploded in a rush of scales that continued to swirl around horn and brass calls and other melodic fragments. This 2019 piece too took inspiration from the stage: Shakespeare, and particularly Macbeth’s last soliloquy (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”), and music Haydn composed for a play, which became his Symphony No. 60, “Il Distratto.”

By her account, Clyne processed some of the symphony’s musical gestures with imagery from the Scottish antihero’s meditation on time (which in this performance was read aloud at one point by a young actor, Alexi Horne) to create the piece, which alternated a kind of inchoate rage—“distracted” indeed—with somber, chorale-like passages.

Clyne’s mastery of orchestration was evident in the piece’s variety of rich yet transparent textures, handsomely rendered by the players, who also demonstrated they could play scales like the wind.

The orchestra adopted “Sound and Fury” as the overall title for the evening’s program, although, given the folksy, dancing character of Dvořák’s symphony, “Sound and Furiant” might have done as well.

There was plenty of sound but not much fury in the sumptuous voice of Hawkins, an artist-member of the Met, who brought sustained line and velvety tone to “Io son l’umile ancella” from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, and a fine dramatic sense and delicious pianissimos to “Un bel dì” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Between these famous arias came one almost as deserving of fame, the Puccini-esque “Golden Days” from William Grant Still’s Costaso, in which throbbing orchestral chords and harp put a cushion under the soprano’s sweeping line.

The only complaint about Hawkins’s selections was that they were all lyrical-dramatic show-stoppers. One wished for something more poetic or playful—or furious—as well, to show off other sides of her interpretive art. But on Friday her rich sound and passionate delivery earned her a well-deserved ovation.

Dvořák’s Eighth may sound like a romp in the country, but its demands on the orchestra for balance, intonation, and rhythmic accuracy are considerable—demands one was uncomfortably aware of during some of the first movement Friday night. But conductor Chan did a good job of keeping the music moving through its many contrasting episodes.

Rhythmic order was restored in, of all places, the Adagio, whose sighing phrases and long pauses commonly tempt conductors to throw rhythm out the window entirely. Chan held the tempo slow but taut, to deeply expressive effect. Later on, the chemistry of a flute-oboe tune over light, staccato descending scales was enchanting.

So too, the third movement’s sinuous waltz combined graceful strings with burbling winds to make a magical sound, more than the sum of the parts. Rhythm sagged a bit in the trio, but bounced back in the brief, up-tempo coda.

The finale’s opening cello theme went somewhat out of focus rhythmically, but returned much improved later. Chan did well sustaining this movement’s long, elaborate crescendo so it didn’t exhaust itself prematurely. The “string dream” in the closing pages was deliciously nostalgic, and the coda, with its crazy accelerando, brought the house down.

Acknowledging the applause, Chan signaled a few individual players to stand for a bow, then each section in turn, including each of the string sections—fitting recognition for a fast-developing developmental orchestra.

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