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Mon Jan 21, 2019 at 4:19 pm
By Joan Reinthaler
Michał Balas

Michał Balas performed Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations” with the Apollo Orchestra Sunday evening.

The Apollo Orchestra is truly a neighborhood venture. It performs in a variety of venues around the Washington area, it provides an outlet for young freelance musicians and, thanks to the generosity of the Downing Family Foundation, its concerts are free. The orchestra was at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church on Sunday for a program that attracted a full house and then some with listeners crowding the back of the hall.

The program’s first soloist was organist Julie Vidrick-Evans, CCPC’s director of music, who opened the program with the quiet, gentle third movement of Respighi’s early Suite for Organ and Strings. Writing in the tonally turbulent 20th century, he imitated the baroque masters who defined tonality. The backward-looking idiom of this movement, a little sweeter and more personal (but no more harmonically daring) than Vivaldi or Handel could have imagined, was a graceful and low-key introduction to a much more high-energy program.

Music director Stephen Czarkowski makes it a point to feature local soloists like Vidrick and frequently yields the podium to assistant conductor Jeffry Newberger. The latter soon cranked up the energy. He led a well-balanced account of three movements from Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, ending with a cheerful reading of Dance No. 8.

The hit of the afternoon was 17-year-old cellist Michał Balas, whose sweet-toned take on the opening theme of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme belied a fearlessly acrobatic technique in succeeding variations. Most impressive was the varied repertoire of attacks on individual notes, from gorgeous legatos and soft mini-slides to steely snaps.

This young artist, who has studied in the U.S. and in his native Poland, has been winning his way through the requisite competitions. He is still taking a literal approach to this music’s phrasing, but that may relax as he matures. The orchestra, which for the most part, supported him well, had some significant ensemble problems in the second variation.

Czarkowski ended the concert with a heart-felt and spritely reading of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony that spotlighted both his orchestra’s strengths and weaknesses. The second movement’s fugue section was a model of clarity, grace, and balance, and the orchestral ensemble in the racing corkscrew lines of the Presto third movement was impressive.

Yet all sense of urgency had been lost in the first movement, where the orchestra played consistently on the back end of the beat. There were also repeated passages in the finale where the whole orchestra just blasted away noisily.

The Apollo Orchestra performs with members of Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program 5 p.m. February 23 at Church of the Epiphany.


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