Ars Viva takes an eclectic and enjoyable musical road trip

Mon Jan 11, 2010 at 1:11 pm

By Bryant Manning

Experiencing a suburban orchestra these days doesn’t necessarily mean an afternoon of Beethoven’s Fifth or a second-rate performance of a Mendelssohn Concerto. The Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra, located up in Skokie by a massive shopping mall, has been reliable to dodge such stereotypes. Thanks to its charismatic and often very funny music director Alan Heatherington, the ensemble has cultivated superb playing and compelling programs.

The 64-year-old conductor surrounds himself with the area’s best musicians—many of whom are in the CSO—and restlessly devotes himself to expanding its repertoire. On Sunday afternoon’s program at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Heatherington selected music from those European composers used more often than not as programmatic window dressing.

The Partita from British expat Richard Rodney Bennett, who Heatherington described as a sort of English John Williams, is a bracing score with all the fun filmic touches. In the opening bars you can see the vast topography of the warm American west with its soaring lyrical lines and gallantly brisk strings. The lullaby opens with a mesmerizing viola solo by Li-Kuo Chang and the quivering violins created the most surreal and tensile accompaniment. Like most cinematic music, however, there are the usual clichés and the rolling timpani climax generalized an otherwise original nursery song.

Either through faulty scoring or interpretation, the last movement was noticeably imbalanced. The French horns were much too loud and exposed and left little wiggle room for the rest of the orchestra to mobilize.  Yet the work’s warmly scored and tuneful melodies made for a nice thaw of all that January frost.

It isn’t often you get to hear Ottorino Respighi without having to endure selections from his overplayed Roman trilogy. Sounding more French than Italian, his Botticelli Triptych vividly translates three works of the painter to abstract and brilliantly colored soundworlds. There is plucky scoring for celeste and piano (played by Tracy Figard and Patrick Godon, respectively) and the curving figures of bassoon (Dennis Michel) all came together in seductive Debussyian fashion. It was hard to stop thinking how fitting this music would be in any dance context.

Another vividly drawn portrait was Zoltan Kodaly’s quietly dramatic Summer Evening, rendered playfully by the orchestra. The musicians are alertly responsive to their maestro and Heatherington really excels when finding excitement in each of this work’s tiny sections. That’s saying a lot for a piece that essentially runs out of intriguing ideas halfway through.

As for Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, this was a worthy counterpart to the one currently being conducted by Pierre Boulez at Orchestra Hall. Oboist Michael Henoch seemed to be battling a faulty instrument but still found a strong identity in his important sections. Here was a timeless performance that provocatively conflated the whimsies of the 17th century with all the disquietude brought on by World War 1.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Ars Viva takes an eclectic and enjoyable musical road trip”

  1. Posted Jan 11, 2010 at 6:17 pm by Gayle Heatherington

    Mr. Manning’s comment about the balance of the French horns in the Bennett was correct – from where he was sitting. There seems to be an area of the balcony where the sound of the French horns in particular bounces off the shell behind them and seems to be almost amplified on the stage-right side. Having heard the rehearsal in the main part of the auditorium earlier, I can attest to this. I was sitting in the same area as Mr. Manning for the concert and heard what he heard. However, I am sure that they were not perceived to be out of balance by most of the audience. Next time, the press seats will be in an area less affected by an unpleasant acoustical phenomenon of the hall!

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