Ars Viva artfully bridges the centuries in season finale

Mon May 02, 2011 at 9:34 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

The Ars Viva concert Sunday afternoon at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie was a perfect example of why Alan Heatherington, the chamber orchestra’s music director, has built such a loyal following.

A gifted conductor and violinist, he also has a talent for making audiences trust him. He encourages them to take some chances, to open their ears to music that might be slightly beyond their comfort zone. The rewards—thanks in part to Ars Viva’s player roster, which includes some of Chicago’s top musicians, and Heatherington’s flair for unusual programming–are usually well worth the minimal risk.

They certainly were at Sunday’s season-closing concert, which included Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto and Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber. The performance opened with a short, high-spirited work by American composer James Stephenson, Concertino and Fanfare, composed in 2007 for the 40th anniversary of the Bozeman Symphony Orchestra.

Prokofiev and Hindemith aren’t exactly crazed modernists, but in his remarks to the audience Heatherington acknowledged that some listeners are suspicious of any 20th-century composers. He promised that the audience would find heart-melting lyricism in the Prokofiev, and inventive use of Weber’s ear-catching 19th century tunes in Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses, composed in 1943.

Alexandra Switala

Every year Ars Viva showcases local competition winners, and the soloist in the Prokofiev was Alexandra Switala, a 17-year-old student at the Music Institute of Chicago. This young woman clearly has the musical goods, both in terms of technique and insight into the music she plays. Her performance was sure-fingered and crisply etched, easily matching the orchestra’s hair-trigger responsiveness and jagged rhythms. Her tone was full-bodied and seamless, from the slow, brooding opening solo to the final movement’s mercurial filigree.

After intermission came a fascinating exploration of Hindemith’s most popular work. Historical context is important to Heatherington, so it wasn’t surprising that Ars Viva played the Overture and March from Weber’s Turandot. The idea was to let the audience hear the best-known theme from Symphonic Metamorphoses before listening to Hindemith’s transformation of it.

More intriguing was that fact that Heatherington tracked down three other Weber themes that Hindemith also used in the work. The melodies came from Weber pieces for piano-four-hands, but Ars Viva played them in arrangement for woodwinds. In both the Overture and March and the three other works, Ars Viva’s soloists played with zest and rich color. The music’s faintly Chinese overtones and syncopated rhythms spiced the melodic flow.

In Symphonic Metamorphoses, Hindemith gives Weber’s generally bright, untroubled tunes a darker, heavier cast. Major harmonies turn toward minor, and dissonances lurk in the background. But Heatherington and his players made sure that the individual strands in Hindemith’s dense textures emerged clearly, and the composer’s jazzy rhythms sounded both sophisticated and infectious.

This is 20th century music whose melodies you could actually whistle. Music, no doubt, to the ears of many in the audience Sunday afternoon.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Ars Viva artfully bridges the centuries in season finale”

  1. Posted May 03, 2011 at 11:25 am by Jim Jennings

    OMG, this Ars Viva, conductor, Alan Heatherington and concertmaster, David Taylor have become THE BIG NEWS in Chicago symphony orchestras. We attended Sunday’s outstanding concert. We’re pretty sophisticated listeners but we didn’t know the Hindemith (except for the scherzo) and it is a WONDERFUL piece. …and, yes, Alexandra Switala (serial winner of competitions from the Music Institute of Chicago) played the gorgeous, devilishly difficult, Prokofiev No. 2 extremely well. She will be a star, if she isn’t already. Wow! — Today, the “name of the game” in the classical music market is to MAKE IT ACCESSIBLE. Ars Viva helps listeners DISCOVER the greatness of music. Alan is outstanding at turning it into a musical adventure so we can appreciate it more fully. His orchestra sounds so well-rehearsed, so professional, so artistic! …and FREE PARKING; talk about accessibility! I think their name obscures their essence but, truly, I love this orchestra!

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