One hundred years ago, in 1922, an ensemble later known as the Montclair Orchestra performed its first concert in the Montclair Art Museum. The ensemble grew and became the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, relocating to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

Ninety-four years after the township’s first symphonic band, resident Andre Weker created the Montclair Orchestra. Since 2016, the Montclair Orchestra has grown, as has its vision.

And, as with its predecessor, it has a new name.

APEX Ensemble continues to perform symphonic compositions. Its season finale occurred this past Sunday in Central Presbyterian Church, featuring works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Gustav Mahler, Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, along with vocal performances by soprano Felicia Moore and baritone John Brancy.

The performance was noted for the excellence of its musicians and singers, and for the mix of older and younger performers. The older musicians hail from distinguished organizations such as the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and the New Jersey Symphony. The younger performers are from music conservatories and sit alongside the “seasoned pros.”

“What we do is intentionally put together all of these top-notch students with professionals,” Weker said. “They are exposed to the fine nuances of what it means to be a professional. How do you develop these understandings? We show how it’s done in the real world.”

The APEX Ensemble opens its season finale with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's "Ballade in A Minor" Sunday afternoon. (ADAM ANIK/COURTESY APEX ENSEMBLE)
The APEX Ensemble opens its season finale with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's "Ballade in A Minor" Sunday afternoon. (ADAM ANIK/COURTESY APEX ENSEMBLE)

Expanding orchestral music’s reach

The APEX moniker’s subtitle is “The Orchestra for the Next Generation.” The organization focuses on mentoring young musicians, with professionals providing guidance and performance opportunities to students at conservatories, and these would-be professionals networking face-to-face with younger students.

Under the tutelage of Youth Program Director Diego Garcia, the APEX Youth Programs are about to start, with virtual audition applications due Friday, May 20, and live auditions on May 21 and 22 in Montclair.

Beginning this autumn, programs will feature coaching from professional musicians hailing from orchestras such as the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Mentorship will be offered to students from fellows attending music institutes such as Juilliard, Mannes, Montclair State University and Manhattan School of Music.

“I would say that, for me, the most noticeable feature of APEX’s evolution has been the traction that our mission has gained throughout the musical community in the N.Y.C. area, despite the challenges presented by COVID these past two years,” APEX Ensemble Music Director David Chan told Montclair Local in an email.

“Part of it has been the rebranding as APEX, which describes our mission and objectives more accurately than our previous incarnation,” Chan said, “but mostly it’s just about the enormous value that our professional mentors and student fellows alike have found in playing side by side.”

Acclaimed as a master violinist, Chan has been the concertmaster of the Met Orchestra for 22 seasons, and for the past five years has been the inaugural music director and conductor of APEX.

“It goes without saying that, being in the N.Y.C. metro market, we have access to some of the leading talent in the world, between the top conservatories and professionals who come from Lincoln Center,” he said. “What is not to be taken for granted are the bonds that form between what I like to call ‘older’ and ‘younger’ players, or ‘more experienced’ and ‘slightly less experienced’ musicians.”

“Maestro Chan has assembled an amazing orchestra,” enthused APEX Ensemble board of directors member Thomas Parente. Soprano Felicia Moore studied piano with Parente at Westminster Choir College.

Grammy Award-winning baritone John Brancy and conductor David Chan during Gustav Mahler’s “Song of a Wayfarer” at the concert. (ADAM ANIK/COURTESY APEX ENSEMBLE)
Grammy Award-winning baritone John Brancy and conductor David Chan during Gustav Mahler’s “Song of a Wayfarer” at the concert. (ADAM ANIK/COURTESY APEX ENSEMBLE)

Another member of the APEX board, Wendy McNeil of Montclair, said Weker had contacted her for her skills: “He found me on LinkedIn. I’m a professional fundraiser. Andre immediately convinced me of his passion and commitment.”

Weker asked her to join the board. “He wanted the board to reflect the demographics of the town, of the state. New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the country. APEX wants to reflect this diversity,” recalled McNeil, who is Black. “I thought about it for a day and thought, ‘Why not me?’”

“We’re doing a lot of diversity inclusion work,” said McNeil, who is on APEX’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. “The name change makes it more expansive beyond just a local nonprofit. It was this idea to make it more marketable to a larger community.

“Andre and David have been doing this since the beginning. It’s part of their DNA.”

Said Weker: “We are respecting tradition but also embracing modernism and what music is to become. Fifty years from now, what will orchestras be playing? We don’t know what’s going to be until we look in the rear-view mirror.

“We have to keep it going. Otherwise, we’re just stuck as a museum.”

McNeil echoed him. “Orchestral music will die out if we don’t get younger people engaged in it,” she said. “APEX is getting a new generation of people involved in the orchestral experience.”

APEX this week decided to operate its concerts on a pay-as-you-go basis, according to Weker. “These concerts are expensive to put on,” he said, pegging the cost of each at a minimum $65,000.

“We want the concerts to be inclusive. Costs can’t be a barrier.”

Weker said APEX connects with other organizations such as the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair Foundation, Montclair Film and Boston University, where Weker received a degree in music. 

APEX will provide a quartet at an upcoming Out Montclair event. This summer, APEX is working with the Valissima Institute at Montclair State, providing experience for young female musicians to learn orchestral conducting.

This Friday evening, May 20, in Edgemont Memorial Park, APEX musicians will perform during the AAPI Lantern Festival for Justice & Remembrance.

“We still are ultimately committed to Montclair as our home,” Weker said. “We want to uphold Montclair as an arts community. If we want to be an arts town, we need to support all of the arts.

“People move here for the arts. That’s what makes this town special.”