From Barber to Broadway, Ars Viva leads off with American music

Mon Oct 25, 2010 at 12:40 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Alan Heatherington led Ars Viva in an all-American program Sunday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been soaking up a lot of attention this fall, given the hoopla over the arrival—and unexpectedly early departure due to illness—of Riccardo Muti for his first set of concerts as the CSO’s new music director.

But it’s been more than a few decades since the CSO was the only orchestral game in town. The area is blessed with a wide array of fine, less high-profile orchestras whose 2010-11 seasons are also getting underway. Among them is the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra, which opened its five-concert season Sunday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

Founded in 1995, Ars Viva is led by Alan Heatherington, one of Chicago’s most respected conductors whose gifts include infectious enthusiasm for the music at hand. Its members include many CSO musicians, and its sizable, loyal audience relishes the mix of familiar composers and unexpected repertoire that has become an Ars Viva specialty.

A bit of that mix was on view in Sunday’s program of works by American composers. Music lovers certainly know the music of Samuel Barber, but pairing his less-familiar Symphony No. 1 with the better-known School for Scandal Overture was a deft touch. The collection of Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story is not exactly a daring repertoire choice. But another excursion into Broadway and film music, an arrangement by John Williams of a suite from Fiddler on the Roof, was a welcome novelty.

As Heatherington explained in brief remarks, Williams wrote the suite last year for

David Taylor

David Taylor, Ars Viva’s concertmaster as well as an assistant concertmaster of the CSO. For several years, said Heatherington, Taylor had badgered Williams, a frequent CSO guest conductor, for a suite from the score that Williams wrote for the movie version of the hit Broadway musical by composer Jerry Bock and librettist Sheldon Harnick. Williams’ score for Fiddler on the Roof included a lavish cadenza performed by Isaac Stern in the film’s soundtrack.

That cadenza was the main event of Williams’ brief suite, closing the work after a quick orchestral survey of some of the musical’s hit tunes. Taylor dug into his solo with impeccable technique, racing through its elaborate runs with astringent clarity but also relaxing into the bluesy languor of its slower sections.

The School for Scandal Overture showcased Art Viva’s lithe, transparent strings, so well-suited to Barber’s hectic, scurrying rhythms. But there was eloquent weight in the Overture’s more lyrical sections. One of Barber’s soaring themes brought to mind an immortal John Williams melody—heard in the film E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial when the homesick alien and his young rescuer, Elliott, pedal across the sky on Elliott’s bicycle.

Barber’s Symphony No. 1 was full of richer, more complex color, especially from Ars Viva’s noble brass. Heatherington didn’t hype the drama in Bernstein’s West Side Story suite. The music had a deeply confident, cool stride rather than an arrogant, hard-edged swagger.

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