Shaky ensemble moments apart, Lin’s playing shines with Apollo Orchestra

Mon Jun 20, 2022 at 11:57 am
By Andrew Lindemann Malone

Cho-Liang Lin performed music of Mozart and Sarasate with the Apollo Orchestra Sunday at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church. Photo: Bruce V. Boyajian

Violin superstar Cho-Liang Lin played a concert with the Apollo Orchestra at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church on Sunday afternoon. Even after more than four decades of performing, he can still wow a crowd with his playing. However, Lin’s efforts doubling as a conductor, in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, did not go as well.

In the first movement, the freelance Apollo players frequently got out of sync with Lin; he’d begin a new phrase before the orchestra, or end one with a slight accelerando as his accompaniment trailed a tick behind. He noticed, and began leaning over to coordinate more intently with the first violin section especially. The second violins and violas, seated opposite the first violins, sounded tentative as well, with occasional intonation problems. The slow movement went a bit more smoothly, but in the finale, he set a strong minuet pulse for the orchestra that ended up feeling more leaden than danceable.

That apart, Lin’s solo playing sounded marvelous, with graceful phrasing pointed up by a clean, bright tone appropriate to the music. The sharp rhythms in the “Turkish” section of the finale came off with crisp attack from both soloist and orchestra. However, the performance overall would have benefitted from someone who could listen to everything, set a common tempo, coordinate entrances and exits, and ensure a euphonious listening experience – in short, a conductor.

As if to prove it, Lin then ceded the podium to the Apollo Orchestra’s music director Stephen Czarkowski and ripped through an exhilarating performance of Pablo Sarasate’s violin showcase Zigeunerweisen. Not only did Lin sound more assured, the orchestra did too, producing more consistent tone and playing better together. Zigeunerweisen does not have any profound depths to plumb, but its surface shone bright and dazzling on Sunday.

Afterward, Lin gamely sat in the back of the first violins to join the orchestra in the last work on the program, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. (At first Lin’s violin projected so strongly that it sounded distinct from the other violinists; after a few minutes he blended in better.) The Apollonians did not get through this symphony without a few shaky moments either, but the performance began to take flight in the rowdy rhythms of the might-as-well-be-a-scherzo Minuetto, followed by a rousing finale.

The only work on Sunday’s program that did not involve Cho-Liang Lin in some fashion was its opener, the final movement of Rachel Laurin’s 2011 Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra, and Timpani, which instead featured Julie Vidrick Evans, the music director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian, as soloist. 

This movement bursts with rhythmic energy and uses comfortable harmonies; the vibe reminds one of Michael Torke, but Laurin has a few big juicy tunes in this finale, plus a quick, delightful fugato. (The first two movements of the concerto, not heard Sunday, contain some more severe passages; as a whole it makes a compelling package.) 

Evans knows what stops to pull on her home organ, and she nailed the rhythms and made her part sound great. The strings matched her energy, albeit with some lack of refinement of tone. Still, a movement well worth hearing, even if it sounded out of place on this program.

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