Lake Forest Symphony opens season with enjoyable French program

Sat Sep 11, 2010 at 3:49 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Conductor Alan Heatherington applauds soprano Michelle Areyzaga at Friday’s season-opening concert of the Lake Forest Symphony. Photo: Edward Ingold

The suburban counties surrounding Chicago are teeming with community orchestras, many quite accomplished but little known outside their local audience base.

Among these is the Lake Forest Symphony. Alan Heatherington is known primarily as music director of Ars Viva, but the conductor has clearly also been doing fine work with this North Shore ensemble, which opened its 53rd season Friday night in Grayslake. The program will be repeated on Saturday.

The orchestra benefits from its venue, the James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts at the College of Lake County, which boasts a superb acoustic and excellent sight lines. It’s an undeniable haul for city dwellers, but with Heatherington’s podium skills, smart programming and talented Chicago-based guest soloists, the Lake Forest Symphony is well worth a trek for those on the North Shore and in the northwest suburbs.

The orchestra doesn’t possess Ars Viva’s roster, with its large number of Chicago Symphony Orchestra members, nor can it match the tonal gleam and hair-trigger virtuosity of that ensemble.  Woodwinds were uneven Friday night, with one badly botched flute entrance in Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony and another wind entrance that never entered at all.

Still, the Lake Forest Symphony proved themselves a solid and spirited group of musicians, and played with impressive dedication in a challenging program. The strings are particularly fine, rich and burnished, and clearly boosted by having the intensely committed Ilya Kaler as concertmaster.

Debussy coolly refused a British producer’s request to excerpt music from his opera Pelleas et Melisande for the London premiere of the Maurice Maeterlinck play that inspired it. Thank goodness he did or we wouldn’t have Gabriel Faure’s beautiful incidental music. Faure’s Pelleas at Melisande suite comprises three extracts, plus the previously written Sicilienne.

Heatherington had the full measure of this ineffably gorgeous score, drawing out the lilting expression of the Andantino and the gentle charm of the Sicilienne–after the Pavane, probably Faure’s most famous melody. It is the two outer movements that evoke the essence of this tragic love story, and Heatherington idiomatically brought out the dark foreboding and sad-sweet melancholy with radiant, expressive playing from the Lake Forest strings.

Ravel’s perfumed mini-song cycle Sheherazade was adapted from a poetry collection by Tristan Klingsor, who was less concerned with the Arabian nights than painting an evocative if rather fanciful Asian atmosphere. If Klingsor’s ethnocentric chinoiserie seems quaint today, Ravel’s response to the poetry shows all his pellucid mastery, with gentle hues and subtle brush strokes that make the orchestra an equal partner with the singer.

Michelle Areyzaga possesses a pure, attractive soprano with reserves of power, well suited to these atmospheric Ravel settings. Friday night’s performance, however, felt like a work in progress, with the soprano proving an admirable rather than eloquent soloist.

Performing from a score, Areyzaga seemed to be battling some nerves Friday. In the spacious opening setting, Asie, the singer repeatedly looked down at the score in a way that proved visually distracting and seemed to inhibit a more sustained expressive engagement with the text.

Areyzaga appeared to relax as the cycle unfolded, conveying some of the requisite languor in the central La Flute enchantee, aided by Walfrid Kujala’s evocative flute solos. The final setting L’Indiffent, was, like, Asie, a bit generalized in expression, but offered some lovely vocalism.

Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony has received some sniffy comments from the musical press in recent decades as many popular, richly melodic works tend to do.

But his Symphony No 3 really is a marvelous score. The intermittent organ contribution are often more subtle than earth-shaking and Saint-Saens’ handling of the orchestra is masterful. He finds countless unusual combinations of timbres, tricking the ears with organ-like sonorities from the winds and strings, and his scoring is often audacious, as with the brief four-hand piano passage near the brilliant conclusion.

Under Heatherington’s skillful direction, the Lake Forest Symphony delivered a performance that–if not always airtight technically–got all the big moments right. The theme for strings over low organ chords was especially well done and Heatherington kept the momentum in the finale going full tilt with the grand finale, organ blazing and timpani poundng, genuinely thrilling. Stephen Alltop was the worthy organist and kudos to the nimble Tracy Figard for doubling on viola and piano duo.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at the James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts at the College of Lake County in Grayslake.; 847-295-2135

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