Lin joins roster guest conducting Apollo Orchestra in mixed concert

Mon May 01, 2023 at 12:29 pm
Violinist Michelle Kim

Violinist Michelle Kim performed with the Apollo Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church. Photo: Eddie Sanders III

The Apollo Orchestra, which presents several free concerts each season, continues to test the waters with different conductors. David Neely was the first in rotation, when the ensemble announced last fall that Stephen Czarkowski was no longer music director. Veteran violinist Cho-Liang Lin, who has a history with the group, took the reins again on Sunday afternoon, with suboptimal results in a concert heard at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church.

Michelle Kim, assistant concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, joined as soloist for the first two pieces. She took the first violin part in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in A Minor, with Lin playing second and leading the orchestra at the same time. That combination of roles caused trouble right away in the first movement, which got off to a rocky start in terms of tempo agreement. Julie Vidrick Evans, the church’s director of music, played the continuo part from the console behind the orchestra, adding to the coordination issues.

With only fifteen string players, intonation problems and ragged attacks seemed multiplied, and the bass line, especially organ and two double-basses, often overwhelmed the texture. Lin, a celebrated violinist, did not mesh well with Kim, especially in the second movement, where the two solo lines should be most like indistinguishable twins. The spirited tempo of the third movement did not help with ensemble unity.

Kim was on more solid footing as the lone soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. Her high notes excelled especially, beautifully in tune and either floated or played with force. The cadenza of the first movement felt a little tentative in tempo, but she displayed a high degree of accuracy in the fast passages of the first movement, with some minor weakness in octave passages. Lin kept the orchestra in line with a clear beat, but balances were not always ideal, as the brass and timpani often played too loudly.

Similar strengths and weaknesses appeared in the slow movement for both ensemble and soloist, with some of Kim’s double-stops sounding not as clean. Again Lin capably led the orchestra in accompanying the soloist in this beautiful Larghetto. The third movement proved the highlight, with Kim’s precision on the fast refrain matched by woodwinds in lockstep with her. In a concerto that is heard so often, though, it was not a banner performance.

Lin’s dutiful conducting brought little to his interpretation of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, a piece for large chamber ensemble offered to the composer’s wife for her birthday. The strings did not blend well in their slow introduction, but the sound improved as they grew louder and the rest of the musicians joined them. Some ensemble uncertainty cropped up, involving the basses at one point, with some off notes in the horns and sour woodwind intonation, especially at the top of their range.

The orchestra’s sound improved in the final selection, Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 (“Haffner”), perhaps because they were in greater numbers. The first movement, taken at a sprint, sounded less anemic and exposed. The woodwinds and horns kept a lower profile in the second movement, set in a gentle walking tempo, but with string intonation still not ideal. The Minuetto felt a little staid and dull, even the sweet trio section.

Fortunately the group’s interpretation of the Finale proved the strongest of the four movements, crisply paced and imbued with a vital spark. All sections seemed to center on Lin’s leadership, and timpani, brass, and woodwinds buttressed some of the best playing from the strings heard in this concert.

Guest conductor David Chan leads the Apollo Orchestra in music by Schubert and Mendelssohn, plus opera arias with soprano Hera Hyesang Park, 4 p.m. June 4 at Church of the Resurrection in Burtonsville.

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