Carter Brey’s dazzling Haydn a clear highlight in Apollo Orchestra program

Mon Nov 18, 2019 at 1:47 pm
Carter Brey performed Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major with the Apollo Orchestra Sunday at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church. Photo: Bruce Boyajian

The Apollo Orchestra provides an important service by presenting free concerts to the public, bringing live symphonic music into neighborhoods, to people who may not be able to attend a concert at a larger venue. 

The ensemble played its latest program, presented Sunday afternoon on the concert series at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church, before an audience that filled the church’s small sanctuary, with many people standing.

The downside of the orchestra’s business model is its reliance on less-seasoned musicians. In Respighi’s Suite No. 1 from Ancient Airs and Dances, the violins, for example, struggled to play with unified intonation. Other problems surfaced in the lower strings to a lesser degree, and the harpsichord, rendered on a loud, electronic instrument, was not in lockstep with either the ensemble or assistant conductor Jeffry Newberger.

Principal oboist Noelle Drewes shone on the solos in the Gagliarda and Villanella movements, while the skittering runs of the flute part, especially in the last movement, were less elegant. Newberger’s conducting did not help the musicians find the grace of this music, based on renaissance sources, with clunky accents favored over a lighter touch.

Carter Brey, the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, gave a fiery rendition of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1. Conductor Stephen Czarkowski started the first movement a little more moderately in tempo than Brey had in mind. With a sinewy tone, Brey shifted the tempo forward authoritatively when he entered, displaying agile runs and pure intonation, even in extremely high passages. At critical moments in the first and second movements, he showed off pleasing cadenzas of his own composition, complete with some interesting double-stops.

The Apollo strings, fewer in number, sounded more of one mind than in the Haydn. Brey’s keen melodic sense and consistent, polished tone made the second movement a highlight. Czarkowski accompanied sensitively, allowing the musicians  to give their soloist a wide path in volume and rhythmic space. A more excited buzz crept into Brey’s sound in the demanding finale, played with astounding precision at such a daring tempo. This was playing that was not only near-faultless in execution, but musically rewarding in terms of pathos and drama.

After intermission Brey joined the back row of the cello section for Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Czarkowski made a case for the composer’s original version of this symphony, premiered in 1841. Johannes Brahms also preferred it to the heavier re-scoring Schumann carried out a decade later, even publishing it against Clara Schumann’s wishes. Nevertheless this version, with its nine brass parts, was a bit much for the church’s small acoustic.

On the other hand, Czarkowski could have taken a little more care with volume and balances, seeming more concerned with big gestures and incisive sounds. In addition to more intonation issues, with the string numbers back up around thirty players, the plangent solo shared by solo cello and oboe in the second movement soured in tuning. In the more delicate middle section of the slow movement, concertmaster Alexandra Mikhlin gave a velvety smoothness to her murmuring triplets.

Czarkowski’s crisp, articulated gestures gave the rousing Scherzo movement a taut ensemble unity. Schumann merged his unusual repeat of the softer Trio with a mysterious transition into the finale, which Czarkowski led his musicians through with a sure hand. At full force in the finale, with brass and timpani marking major climaxes, the orchestra made its best sounds of the night, playing with triumphant edge and unity.

Czarkowski and the musicians added a celebratory encore, wishing a happy birthday to Lynn Downing, of the Downing Family Foundation, which funds the Apollo Orchestra.

Violist Roberto Diaz and organist Julie Vidrick Evans join the Apollo Orchestra for music of Arnold, Bizet, Higdon, and Mendelssohn 4 p.m. January 12. 

2 Responses to “Carter Brey’s dazzling Haydn a clear highlight in Apollo Orchestra program”

  1. Posted Nov 19, 2019 at 11:51 am by Lorraine Day

    Bravo Bravo.. to Steven & the entire orchestra for an amazing performance..
    I wish I was present to witness a masterpiece.
    Regards & all the best
    Lorraine Day

  2. Posted Nov 20, 2019 at 11:33 am by Joan Pezzuti

    A very dedicated and talented to his music. He is also a wonderful person.

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