Roberto Diaz shines in Higdon Viola Concerto with Apollo Orchestra

Mon Jan 13, 2020 at 2:39 pm
By Jamie McCrary
Roberto Diaz performed Jennifer Higdon’s Viola Concerto with the Apollo Orchestra on Sunday. Photo: Bruce V. Boyajian

The Apollo Orchestra performed its first program of the new year on Sunday at the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church, featuring works by Arnold, Bizet, Higdon and Mendelssohn. The concert drew a standing-room-only crowd, with patrons lining the walls and aisles of the sanctuary.  

Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra was the clear highlight, performed in the first half by internationally acclaimed violist Roberto Diaz, with music director Stephen Czarkowski conducting.  The concerto, which is quickly becoming a staple in contemporary viola repertoire, boasts sweeping melodic passages, rhythmic counterpoint and technical challenges, the latter all accomplished masterfully by Diaz.

The soloist began the concerto in subtle fashion, easing into the opening melody as he built solo intensity towards the piece’s first climax on the A string. He navigated these high, chromatic passages beautifully, both in pitch and in tone. His vibrato was notably impressive, remaining centered and expressive—an especially challenging feat so high up the fingerboard.

The Apollo strings did not match the soloist’s virtuosity. At the beginning, the ensemble seemed confused and unsure, resulting in lackluster tone and lagging rhythms. Their sound was unbalanced with the soloist, and alternating passages felt random and soupy, though the orchestra playing improved as the concerto progressed.

The second movement is rhythmic and chromatic, reminiscent of Hindemith, Bartok or Bloch. Diaz’s approach was both playful and intense, drawing out urgency of the music. The strings were much better aligned, thanks to timpanist Don Johns and percussionist Timothy McKay, who led the ensemble’s main rhythmic passages.  

The final movement’s performance was similar to the first. Diaz’s technical mastery was astounding (specifically in the multiple, broken octaves he executed up the A string), while the ensemble again seemed lost and unsure of itself. 

The Apollo strings also tackled the first movement of Malcom Arnold’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, featuring guest organist Julie Vidrick Evans, and Bizet’s Suite No. 1 from L’Arlesienne during the first half. 

Vidrick Evans drew a beautiful, powerful tone from the church’s towering organ. Her tone and mood was joyous, helping invigorate the accompanying strings.

In the Bizet suite, the orchestra presented a strong, unified opening, though the interplay between principal cellist Andrew Rammon and co-principal horn player Chris Brown was not rhythmically aligned. Alto saxophonist Steven Temme’s beautiful, soaring solo was a notable performance highlight, both for its musical excellence.

After intermission, the concert concluded with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, the beloved “Scottish” Symphony, led by associate conductor Jeffry Newberger. 

The first movement opened with its iconic theme in the lower strings and woodwinds, presented in a mysterious, almost other-worldly tone. The strings did a solid job of varying dynamics and cleanly trading off the theme between orchestra sections. The violins handled the development section particularly well, which was fraught with winding, chromatic scales.

The orchestra captured the second movement’s minuet-feel capably, with principal clarinetist Shawn Buck taking the lead with his solo. In the third movement, the violins presented well-timed, melodic lines, in partnership with the violas’ accompanying pizzicato.

Overall, the performance was well-polished and emotive, though energy occasionally flagged. Transitions were well-timed and decisive, helping build energy. The performance ended with its celebratory fourth movement, transitioning from A minor to A major. The violas and horns led the transition, launching the ensemble into an uplifting, triumphant ending.   

Pianist Peter Orth will join the Apollo Orchestra for music of Respighi and Beethoven at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater 6 p.m. March 5.

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