Kaler’s superb Brahms performance with Ars Viva, a season highlight

Mon Nov 16, 2009 at 2:10 pm

By Bryant Manning

Ilya Kaler performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto with Ars Viva Sunday in Skokie.

What could be a better birthday treat for a conductor than a concert program of personal favorites?

For Alan Heatherington, the freshly turned 64-year-old selected works exclusively from Johannes Brahms, his most admired composer, Sunday afternoon in Skokie. The program included his “favorite piece of music in all the world,” the Violin Concerto in D Major.  To have a soloist of Ilya Kaler’s caliber at his side, it appeared the veteran maestro was exercising a little birthday self-indulgence.

While the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra concert at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts was certainly lighthearted, the guest solo appearance of the Moscow-born Kaler was serious musical business.

Kaler boasts an enviable line of significant recordings on the Naxos label and he’s also the only violinist on the planet who can hold up gold medals from each of the world’s main concerto competitions: the Tchaikovsky, Paganini and Sibelius. His superb performance Sunday afternoon certainly lived up to all the street cred.

The performance of the Brahms Concerto, a work Kaler has played since he was 16, was surely one of the finest musical solo offerings heard this year. It is hard to think of a single moment where a note was not played without the fiercest intensity or a resounding lyrical touch. His is a magnificent bold tone that comfortably filled a hall with underwhelming acoustics, and he eased into each treacherous transition fearlessly.

His cadenzas, written by Brahms’ dear friend Joseph Joachim, were kinetically charged and crowd-seducing. Even as the house lights dropped for the slow movement, Kaler delivered a refreshingly alert Andante, untarnished by any excess sweetness. The final movement sizzled. A Bach nugget and a swelling rendition of Happy Birthday completed the encores. (That you can catch Mr. Kaler in free concerts at DePaul University, where he currently teaches, is thievery.)

The tuneful Symphony No. 3 was nearly as memorable despite some timing issues and intonation miscues. Yet there was much to love in the tragically sweeping opening bars or the cosmic awakening at the beginning of the Andante. Horn player Michael Buckwalter punctuated the mysterious Poco Allegretto with a fine solo, and the closing Allegro was big and powerful even for Brahms’ most pastoral symphony. Heatherington made a convincing case for admiring this work all over again.

Lesser known but equally absorbing were the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a. It was almost amusing to hear citations of dainty Classical themes wistfully transmute into Brahms’ unabashedly lush and heavy sound worlds. Glancing across the orchestra you could spot many of the area’s best musicians like timpanist Robert Everson, clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and violinist David Taylor, all of whom made stellar contributions.

Ars Viva concerts feature, for better or worse, mini-lectures delivered on stage between pieces. Heatherington was charming and professorial as he regaled the audience with personal and historical anecdotes, but over thirty minutes of emceeing felt excessive for a symphonic concert. While these talks are built into the orchestra’s mission, it is a mild nuisance not to immediately hear more music after such excellent performances.

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