Violinist spotlights a Northern program from Ars Viva

Mon Mar 01, 2010 at 10:21 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Two seldom-performed masterpieces by Nordic composers were the highlights of a challenging program fielded by the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra Sunday night in Skokie.

The Nielsen Violin Concerto and the Sibelius Third Symphony are both too good to be as neglected as they are. Probably the sheer difficulty of the music scares away performers; indeed it requires a degree of heroism to venture on the violin part of the concerto, and only a few major violinists have tackled it with success (Znaider, Vengerov and Cho-Liang Lin come to mind).

On an evening when America lost poignantly to Canada in overtime in the very last game of the 2010 Winter Olympics (news duly forwarded to the audience by conductor Alan Heatherington) the Chicago-based violinist Yang Liu scored his own athletic triumph in this challenging but rewarding concerto, written in 1911.

The performance of this unconventional work comes off best when taken as two movements, each with a slower introduction leading to a more expansive and dynamic second part. The first movement starts with a dramatic bang which modulates into a pastoral lyricism. The violin part, lies high above the orchestra, and requires precision and delicacy; it gently settles into a silken thread, leading to a contrasting and boisterous Allegro Cavalleresco, which presents the work’s main take-home tune. The movement ends on such a boisterous and conclusive note that the audience burst into prolonged (and  well-deserved) applause, which Heatherington had to stifle in order to proceed to the concerto’s second half.

The second part is almost anticlimactic, although offering as many technical demands and melodic pleasures as the first. A pensive adagio section subtly turns into a tipsy melody which marks the Rondo finale. Yang Liu is a violinist of the highest quality with a stage presence that is restrained yet empathetic, and he nailed every requirement of this treacherous piece with ease.

The other rare pleasure offered by Ars Viva was a chance to hear Sibelius’ Third Symphony of 1907, a spare and almost classical work though unmistakably of a piece with the composer’s more familiar orchestral music. There is optimism about this work that may reflect Sibelius’ recent move out of the stressful environment of Helsinki to a more remote country retreat. It also has pronounced religious overtones.

The first movement contains folkish motifs and a few larger orchestral gestures but is generally reflective and almost devout in places. It famously ends with an Amen cadence. The second movement is a magical andantino with a dark waltz emerging out of the underbrush with restrained and tempered joy – as much as Sibelius could allow himself. In the last section scraps of motifs and scurrying strings culminate in a comparatively grand conclusion which ends rather abruptly on a cadential triad.

Ars Viva gave this music a solid performance, though one not quite at the level of their execution of the Nielsen. There were a wealth of individual pleasures from all sections but it was clearly a demanding program.

The performance opened with the Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Grieg, which was atmospherically played if a bit slow. The clinical acoustics of the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts exposed every imprecision mercilessly, but the music triumphed as the ensemble reveled in the grotesquerie of the Mountain King’s Hall.

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