From Fellow To Mentor: Catch The Next Generation at APEX Ensemble’s Season Finale

Soprano Felicia Moore and baritone John Brancy

Montclair, NJ – The season finale performance of the APEX Ensemble this Sunday in Montclair features soprano Felicia Moore and baritone John Brancy of Juilliard Vocal Arts Program, joined by the next generation of orchestral musicians led by Music Director and Conductor David Chan, in a stirring celebration of song, featuring music by Coleridge-Taylor, Mahler, Wagner and Liszt.

APEX Ensemble is so much more than a community orchestra — it’s a training orchestra. Chan is the concertmaster for the esteemed Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. More than 150 student fellows from the top area conservatory programs play alongside musician mentors from the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Orchestra of St. Luke’s, at performances throughout the season.

This one-of-a-kind playing and training environment has resulted in a full circle experience, says Andre Weker, APEX’s founder and president of the organization, founded in 2016 as Montclair Orchestra and restyled as APEX in 2021.

“The mission of APEX Ensemble is all about giving young musicians the opportunity to play at a professional level,” says Weker. “Students are not just playing with peers, they are playing alongside working professionals. It’s a different experience and you have to quickly get up to speed.”

APEX has been delivering on its mission. Quianwen Shen, a former violin fellow, won a fellowship to New World Symphony and is now playing with the Met Opera. Shen, who returned to APEX as a mentor, is just one of the success stories coming out of APEX. Double bassist Alex Bickard is another.

“This is the second time where we had someone who was a fellow, who then won a job, and returned to us as a mentor,” says Weker of Bickard, whose winning audition landed him the assistant principal bass position with the New Jersey Symphony.

Alex Bickard. Photo: New Jersey Symphony

Bickard first connected with APEX, when it was still the Montclair Orchestra, while he was a masters student at Juilliard.

“When I heard David Chan’s name and that some of the mentors would be members of the Met, I said yes right away,” Bickard recalls.

At the first rehearsal, Bickard found himself playing next to Brendan Kane, a bassist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and someone he had followed and looked up to for years.

“When you play with seasoned professionals and experienced veterans, it’s a different type of learning than playing with students. Students are all trying their hardest and can bring that kind of energy to performances, but you see in these professionals this unspoken confidence, intention and ease you can learn so much from,” says Bickard.

Playing with professionals in an environment where they choose to be mentors and that showcases their love of making music was especially inspiring and affirming for Bickard.

“The type of atmosphere that is created is such a positive, special environment, and so supportive,” Bickard adds.

That support became even more meaningful when Bickard decided to take an audition for the New Jersey Symphony in March 2019.

Bickard was able to reach out to Kane, playing for him in advance of the audition to prepare and get feedback. Then, the auditions happened to conflict with some rehearsals for a then-Montclair Orchestra performance Bickard was scheduled to play.

“Montclair wanted me to play and didn’t make me pick,” said Bickard. “They said ‘let’s do both’ and accommodated my schedule.”

Bickard went through the New Jersey Symphony audition cycle, advancing from the preliminary round to the semi-finals and then ultimately to the final round.

When Bickard learned he had won a spot as assistant principal bass right before the Montclair Orchestra performance, he was met with a big round of applause from his fellow musicians and a congratulations from Chan at the podium.

“I’m excited to return as a mentor, to give back and create that same type of positive energy,” says Bickard. “The students getting to play with APEX are top of their class students who sound and act like professionals that haven’t yet gotten that break or job. It’s validating as a mentor to complete the circle and help others achieve their goals.”

Bickard says the collaborative experience APEX offers is rare and wishes it was done more.

“At school, you have this illustrious faculty that you only get to experience in lessons and coaching. It’s a completely different type of learning when you get to play next to someone of that calibre.”

Weker is excited to see the list of APEX fellows who have gone on to win auditions for New World Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, National Symphony, Royal Stockholm and the Met Opera continue to grow and to see an even younger set of musicians get to experience mentorship, expanding that circle.

Purchase tickets or live stream access for Emerging Voices, the APEX Ensemble season finale performance this Sunday, May 15 at 4pm at Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair here.

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