Exquisite soprano Fang graces Apollo Orchestra concert with new conductor

Mon Jun 03, 2024 at 1:55 pm

Soprano Ying Fang was the soloist in the Apollo Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 on Sunday.

After a period working with a rotation of three maestros, the Apollo Orchestra has appointed David Chan as its new principal conductor. The competition was fierce, but Chan, one of the longtime concertmasters of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, had great success in concerts featuring opera singers. His first program with the orchestra in his new position played to the same strength Sunday afternoon, at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center.

Chan opened his tenure with a rarity. Paul Hindemith first conceived his Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber as a ballet, planned in 1940 with Léonide Massine. Rather than simple arrangements of older melodies, like Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, the score transforms Weber’s music into something quite demanding and modern for a large orchestra.

Impressively, Chan conducted sans score, whipping up the fast-moving first movement into raucous brashness, if not always consideration for ensemble balances. The second movement takes up Weber’s incidental music for the Gozzi play Turandot, on which Puccini’s opera was also based. Woodwinds skittered on the faux-pentatonic folk melody, but the swift tempo caused some disunity, especially in the brass. The large battery gave exotic flavor to the long stretches solely for percussion.

The Andantino, a lovely serenade, could have been shaped with greater rubato and dynamic variety, although flutist Stacy Ascione excelled on the ornate flute decoration added to the second half of the movement. The brass redeemed themselves in the fanfares of the closing March, especially the trombones and tuba, musicians who were not going to return in the second half of the concert.

Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony includes only horns and trumpets in the brass section, but with extravagant writing for woodwinds, even though the instrumentation is relatively small for a Mahler symphony. The last of the composer’s early symphonies inspired by the poems of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, it ends with an elaboration of his earlier song “Das himmlische Leben,” making allusions to it throughout the first three movements.

David Chan, the new principal conductor of the Apollo Orchestra, led Sunday’s concert.

The sleigh bells that open the first movement set the jolly tone of much of the symphony. Chan paced the first movement well at the start, but a lack of clarity in his beat caused some alignment issues with the cellos and brass. Mahler scholar Henri Louis de La Grange calls this symphony a “virtuoso piece for orchestra,” giving each musician “the role of a soloist.” On that account, the performance was mixed, with shortcomings in the oboe’s high range and in the violas, among others.

Concertmaster Claudia Chudacoff gave a devilish edge to the scordatura violin solos in the second movement, inspired by the painting Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle by Arnold Böcklin. Chan again set a good tempo, allowing the music to unfold comfortably, but without Chudacoff to lead them, the violin section did not sound as unified. Besides Chudacoff’s whirling presence, the movement seemed somewhat bland.

Mahler once said that a tombstone depicting a person asleep peacefully in death inspired this symphony’s slow movement. Chan again chose a serene tempo, eliciting fairly lush sound from the divisi violas, cellos, and basses in the opening passage. The music needed more swooning rapture than this performance ultimately had, with perilously high writing for the violins and horn not optimal in intonation and clarity.

The saving grace of the concert came in the last movement with soprano Ying Fang, who appeared at the back of the orchestra at the big climax of the third movement. The Chinese soprano has made striking local appearances with Washington National Opera and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in recent years. She scored a triumph in the Metropolitan Opera’s new Orfeo ed Euridice last month, and her limpid voice suited this guileless song ideally.

Chan helped the orchestra mold the accompaniment to his exquisite soloist, never allowing them to swamp her in volume. The interludes between verses sparkled with variety, but it was the soaring lines of Fang’s voice that stood out, shining on the high notes at the end of each verse. The poem’s lines about there being no music on earth that could compare to the performance heard in this homey German heaven, with its ample food and drink, simply rang true.

The Apollo Orchestra opens the 2024-2025 season, with guest conductor Nicholas Hersch and cellist Romain-Olivier Gray, on September 29. All performances are free, through the generosity of The Downing Family Foundation. apolloorchestra.com

One Response to “Exquisite soprano Fang graces Apollo Orchestra concert with new conductor”

  1. Posted Jun 03, 2024 at 7:07 pm by Kathy R

    This concert was a brilliant performance by all. Rarely have I heard such a beautiful and engaging orchestra. Thank you to all who put this together. It’s greatly appreciated.

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