Ars Viva opens season with first-rate trifecta of Jewish composers

Mon Sep 26, 2011 at 1:18 am

By Michael Cameron

The Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening concert Sunday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie was thematic programming at its best, boasting a well-conceived balance of consistency and variety. Music director and master of ceremonies Alan Heatherington led his forces in music by three Jewish composers in first-rate readings that were thoroughly idiomatic, whether the origin was a saloon or a shtetl.

Audiences often get antsy when verbal introductions exceed even a small percentage of a concert’s running time. Given the subjects at hand, the conductor’s detailed explanations were informative, entertaining, and even necessary.

The concert headliner was the U.S. premiere of Stanley Black’s Music of a People, a compendium of orchestrations of popular Jewish melodies both ancient and modern. Black (aka Solomon Schwartz) hailed from London’s Jewish East End, and grew to become one of Britain’s most beloved film composers with over 200 movie scores to his credit. Black’s influences are legion, but his use of thick harmonies and lush scoring brought to mind the legacy of great Hollywood composers from the mid-20th century.

The collection of ten numbers was conceived as a recording project for Decca, but the score for the landmark 1965 LP has rarely been realized in live performance. Heatherington and Ars Viva tuba player Steve Marcus tracked the score to the BBC, and Marcus transcribed the score for one of the numbers when the original couldn’t be found.

The work is almost uniformly top-drawer and thoroughly entrancing, even without the aid of a lifetime of musical memory brought by many in the audience. The grandeur of the opening bars were given added potency with the clarion call of the shofar (ram’s horn), played with gusto by Daniel Gingrich. Havah Nagila may be little more than a punch line to many modern listeners, but Black’s realization brought the tune to life with brisk syncopations and a rousing chorus. Yes, My Darling Daughter was an amusing conversation between a girl and her permissive mother, the latter depicted by the resonant staccatos of a bassoon.

Given Black’s extensive experience in the jazz realm as bandleader, arranger, and pianist, it’s surprising that his take on Benny Goodman’s And the Angels Sing seemed stripped of much of its jazz roots. Still, the soaring violin passages and lyrical flute lines made for a convincing alternative.

Hershey Felder’s Piano Concerto (Aliyah) also came with a moving introduction from the pianist/composer, who in 1996 served as translator for holocaust survivors as part of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. The concerto attempts to depict this horrifying chapter of WWII, utilizing at one point a rough musical anagram of Hitler’s name in combination with Eastern European melodic material.

The concerto covers a wide swath of musical and emotional terrain, achieving its finest moments when simple tunes are allowed to emerge with the barest of accompaniments. When traditional piano concerto models are evoked, it is Prokofiev who comes most readily to the ear, with Mahler also being a clear influence. Felder’s performance combined keen musical sensitivity with virtuosic flair.

Two movements from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo opened the concert in readings that were brisk, transparent and expertly balanced.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Monday at the North Shore Center of the Performing Arts in Skokie.; 847-673-6300.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Ars Viva opens season with first-rate trifecta of Jewish composers”

  1. Posted Sep 26, 2011 at 10:49 am by Jim Jennings

    This was a wonderfully programmed and energizing celebration of Jewish music. Given controversial events regarding the very existence of Israel, Jews must have been deeply touched and very pleased. Non-Jewish allies felt welcomed and included and wanted more. Hershey Felder’s concerto for musical theater and piano was poignant and clever with a triumphant finale. The Stanley Black arrangements are spectacular examples of skilled orchestration, gorgeous harmony, and heartfelt devotion to tradition. I wish the show could be recorded and purchased on CD or something. It’s fantastic! All of this was made better by Heatherington’s introductions. He increased the accessibility of the music so that we could all partake of its significance. By the time we made it to “Hatikvah” we were overcome with emotion. ….a fabulous concert, quite different from usual Ars Viva marvels. What a great organization!

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