Season opener of Heatherington’s “other” orchestra offers a diversity of delights

Sat Sep 10, 2011 at 2:50 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Alan Heatherington led the season-opening concert of the Lake Forest Symphony Friday night in Grayslake.

Folks up in north suburban Lake Forest sure know how to support an orchestra in their community: for the second time in less than five years of the organization’s 54-year history, the Lake Forest Symphony Guild has been named “Guild of the Year” by the Illinois Council of Orchestras. 

Underscoring the point, the Guild presented music director Alan Heatherington with a check for $11,500 at Friday night’s season-opening concert at the College of Lake Forest’s Lumber Center for the Performing Arts in Grayslake.

Heatherington is well known for his performances with the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra, which he founded in 1995 out of the ashes of the Chicago String Ensemble (also founded by Heatherington, in 1979, and which he led through 1995).  

Since Heatherington had been concertmaster of the Lake Forest Symphony during the 1960s and 70s, his taking the reins in 2000 as music director of the only professional orchestra in Lake County became a homecoming of sorts.

Heatherington acknowledged as much to the audience after Ilya Kaler’s traversal of Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso Friday night. “I think I played well,” said Heatherington of his own time as concertmaster, “but playing like that comes from only a handful of artists.” 

Ilya Kaler

Indeed, Kaler’s performance was on an extraordinarily high level, the Lake Forest concertmaster making far more of this music than the usual sugar-coated bon-bon default interpretation. Kaler reminded us that despite the piece’s virtuosity for its own sake, there is quality music in the gestures and phrases here and he delivered them with enough breathlessness, clarity and nuance to garner a standing ovation. 

What made Kaler’s performance all the more remarkable was that he also served as concertmaster for the rest of the evening, not only providing unfailing section leadership, but also delivered compelling solo contributions in other pieces as well. 

The concert also introduced the orchestra’s new composer-in-residence, James Stephenson,  a current Lake Forest resident. Stephenson began his tenure leading a performance of his 1996 The Legend of Sleepy Hollow with Heatherington acting as tongue-in-cheek and elocutionally finessed narrator. 

The twenty-minute work is described as a “tone poem” by its composer. That prospect might have been a more effective proposition than the actual condensation of passages from the Washington Irving original, spiced by a pastiche of character motifs, folk tunes, and hymns as accompaniment. A kind of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf meets Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, Stephenson’s Legend made for well-crafted but predictable results.

The program was fascinatingly book-ended by two 20th-century works written a year apart — Fauré’s Masques et bergamasques and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite — which both pay homage to 18th century music.

Only four movements of Fauré’s original eight were presented while all eight of the Stravinsky were heard complete. Even though the eight-movement Suite is less than half the music of the complete Pulcinella ballet, the proportionate sampling from both worked out well.

Heatherington achieved a rich, full-bodied yet thickly textured sonority for the Fauré that at times seemed overstuffed for the work’s delicate textures. The finale, the latest piece of the set, was also the best of the bunch, Fauré’s more adventurous harmony coming across as an almost tipsy view of tonality.

Pulcinella represented a “turning point” for Stravinsky, as Heatherington characterized it, into his own distinctive Neoclassicism, a style which Heatherington claims is his favorite Stravinsky period. 

That fondness certainly showed in his playfully whimsical rendition of the Suite, which was as persuasive and exuberant an interpretation of this music as a listener could ever hope to hear. The transparent textures emphasized its 18th-century elements and made the delightful contrast of the work’s tangy contemporary prism come across as if that earlier style was being reflected in a fun house mirror.     

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at the College of Lake Forest’s Lumber Center for the Performing Arts, 19351 West Washington Street, Grayslake;; 847-295-2135. 

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