Ensemble APEX’s season finale performance this Sunday in Montclair features soprano Felicia Moore and baritone John Brancy of the Juilliard Vocal Arts Program, joined by the next generation of orchestra musicians led by Music Director and Conductor conductor David Chan, in a moving celebration of song, featuring the music of Coleridge-Taylor, Mahler, Wagner and Liszt.
APEX set is much more than a community orchestra — it is a training orchestra. Chan is the concertmaster of the prestigious Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. More than 150 scholarship students from the region’s top conservatory programs perform alongside mentor musicians from the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, New Jersey Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the ‘St. Luke’s Orchestra, performing throughout the season.
This one-of-a-kind playing and training environment has resulted in a full-circle experience, says Andre Weker, APEX founder and president of the organization, founded in 2016 as Orchester Montclair and renamed APEX in 2021.
“APEX Ensemble’s mission is to give young musicians the opportunity to perform at a professional level,” says Weker. “Students don’t just play with their peers, they play alongside working professionals. It’s a different experience and you have to adapt quickly.
APEX has fulfilled its mission. Quianwen Shen, a former violinist, won a scholarship for New World Symphony and now plays with the Met Opera. Shen, who returned to APEX as mentor, is just one of APEX’s success stories. Double bass player Alex Bickard is another.
“It’s the second time we’ve had someone who was a comrade, who then got a job and came back to us as a mentor,” says Weker de Bickard, whose winning audition won him the assistant principal bass position at the New Jersey Symphony.
Bickard comes full circle on Sunday when he returns to perform with the APEX Ensemble for the first time since winning his New Jersey Symphony audition.
Bickard first connected to APEX, when it was still the Orchester de Montclair, when he was a master’s student at Juilliard.
“When I heard the name David Chan and that some of the mentors would be Met members, I said yes right away,” Bickard recalled.
During the first rehearsal, Bickard finds himself playing alongside Brendan Kanea bassist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and someone he had followed and admired for years.
“When you play with seasoned pros and experienced veterans, it’s a different kind of learning than playing with students. The students all do their best and can bring that kind of energy to the performance, but you see in these professionals that unspoken confidence and intention and ease that you can learn so much from,” says Bickard.
Playing with professionals in an environment where they choose to be mentors and which showcases their love of music has been particularly inspiring and empowering for Bickard.
“The type of atmosphere that’s created is such a positive and special environment, and such a supportive one,” adds Bickard.
This support became even more significant when Bickard decided to audition for the New Jersey Symphony in March 2019.
Bickard was able to contact Kane, performing for him before the audition to prepare and get feedback. Then the auditions happened to conflict with some rehearsals for a performance by the Orchester de Montclair that Bickard was to play.
“Montclair wanted me to play and didn’t make me choose,” Bickard said. “They said ‘let’s do both’ and accommodated my schedule.”
Bickard went through the New Jersey Symphony audition cycle, progressing from the preliminary round to the semifinals and then finally to the final round.
When Bickard learned that he had won a spot as assistant principal bass just before the Orchester Montclair performance, he was greeted with a round of applause from his fellow musicians and congratulations from Chan on the podium. This Sunday’s APEX performance will be the first time Bickard will join many of these same musicians, this time performing as a mentor.
“I’m excited because I wanted to come back as a mentor and give back and create that same kind of positive energy,” Bickard says. “Students who perform with APEX are the best students in their class who sound and act like professionals who haven’t gotten that break or that job yet. It’s validating as a mentor to complete the circle and help others achieve their goals.
Bickard says the collaborative experience APEX provides is rare and wants it to be more extensive.
“In school, you have this illustrious faculty that you only experience in lessons and coaching. It’s a completely different kind of learning when you play next to someone of that caliber.
Weker is thrilled to see the list of APEX Fellows who have won auditions for the New World Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, National Symphony, Royal Stockholm and Met Opera continue to grow and see an even younger group of musicians to experience mentoring, expanding that circle.
Buy tickets or access the live stream for Emerging Voices, APEX Together’s season finale performance this Sunday, May 15 at 4 p.m. at Montclair Central Presbyterian Church here.