Ars Viva’s rousing Mendelssohn program avoids the usual repertorial suspects

Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 4:23 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Alan Heatherington led Ars Viva in an all-Mendelssohn program Sunday night in Skokie.

On stage at the start of Sunday’s Ars Viva concert, Alan Heatherington delivered the grim news to the audience. It wasn’t yet halftime and the Bears were already down 28 to 0. “You made the right choice,” said the chamber orchestra’s music director.

It may not have a good night for Chicago football but it was for fans of Mendelssohn, as Ars Viva opened its season with a program marking the composer’s 200th birthday year at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

Mendelssohn has not wanted for recognition in this anniversary year—or in non-anniversary years, for that matter—but Heatherington and the Ars Viva musicians served up a notably generous program that largely avoided the usual Felixiana.

Heatherington’s breezy and informed verbal program notes provided witty and interesting insights into various aspects of the composer’s life and career, from the tortuously nonlinear numbering of his symphonies to Mendelssohn’s “packrat” tendencies, including his stowing of 7,000 letters.

But, of course, it was Mendelssohn’s music that was the main course. The thematic leitmotiv for much of the program was Mendelssohn’s journey from Judiasm to Lutheranism. The fact that the composer was a devout converted Lutheran is infrequently commented upon, but his religion is manifest in a great deal of his (largely unperformed) organ and choral music, as well as the fitfully heard Symphony No, 5, Reformation.

His second symphony to be written but unpublished in Mendelssohn’s lifetime, the Reformation is a work the composer came to dislike, yet as the vital and brilliant advocacy of Heatherington and Ars Viva demonstrated, it’s a rich and characteristic work, fully in Mendelssohn’s mature style.

The Reformation is Heatherington’s favorite of all five Mendelssohn symphonies and his affection was apparent in the conductor’s alert yet sensitive direction and myriad of touches. Without neglecting the dramatic element, rhythms had an idiomatic lightness and buoyancy throughout. The conductor drew string playing of great delicacy in the first movement’s Dresden Amen as well as piquant wind contributions in the scherzo. The Andante had the apt somber reflection, and Heatherington and the players provided a finale that was stirring while avoiding bombast, the chorale Ein feste Burg delivered with brassy splendor.

Heatherington’s sure touch in Mendelssohn was also evident in the overture to the oratorio, St. Paul. One of the composer’s most popular works in his lifetime, Paulus has long since been shot out of the canon, though as this rich and eloquent account of the overture showed, this is a work in need of exhumation.

Sunday’s concert looked to be a marathon program on the Ars Viva website, with Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony on tap as well as the Reformation. Actually, Ars Viva presented just the opening Sinfonia, three orchestral movements, of the sprawling Lobgesang symphony (No. 2, but really No. 5—never mind).

Shorn of the choral sections, the three movements don’t really make  a satisfying whole, ending with a heart-easing Adagio. Still, the music is well worth hearing, and made a fine, offbeat bonus. Ars Viva played with great polish and verve in the majestic opening and brought glowing lyricism to the Adagio. One couldn’t help noticing the strong thematic similarity of the central Allegretto’s theme to the finale of Schumann’s Second Symphony, composed just a few years later.

The most familiar part of the program was Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, as spirited and irresistible a burst of youthful musical vivacity as exists in the repertoire.

Elizabeth Joy Roe made her debut with Ars Viva as a teenager a decade ago, and her scintillating rendition of Mendelssohn’s concerto was a highlight of the concert. Roe brought ample bravura to the knuckle-busting outer movements as well as conveying the lyric tenderness, with a musing, Impressionistic quality in the transition to the Andante.

Ars Viva continues its season Nov. 15 with a program devoted to Brahms, featuring Ilya Kaler as soloist in the Violin Concerto.

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