Ars Viva serves up subtle and brilliant Sibelius and Shostakovich

Mon Nov 05, 2012 at 6:00 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Alan Heatherington led the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra in music of Sibelius and Shostakovich Sunday in Skokie.

Alan Heatherington has long been a champion of the music of Jean Sibelius, and in fact, his Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra is in the midst of something you don’t hear very often: a complete Sibelius symphonic cycle.

Sooner or later, that cycle would have to tackle the Sibelius Symphony No. 4 in A minor, notable by virtue of the fact that it is very stingy in its actual use of, well, A minor.

On Sunday afternoon at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in illuminating remarks designed to manage audience expectations for experiencing Sibelius’ most unusual symphony, even Heatherington admitted that he was forced to “think more deeply about this piece in preparing it than anything else in my entire career.”

Rather than sail into the work as if its fascination with the tritone were merely a tonal aberration, Heatherington chose instead to actually emphasize this and other spicy aspects of the piece while referring back to its core Romanticism by the careful sculpting of its sonic details.

Heatherington drew a string sound that was robust and beautiful yet always poignant, providing depth as if the section were twice its size and yet maintaining remarkable subtlety and dynamic restraint. The somber cello solos of Steven Houser seemed to emerge organically out of the melancholy soundscape and the reverse Dresden Amens from Wagner’s Parsifal were given a deliciously dark edge.

There were moments as if Sibelius were looking ahead to Bartók and Pendercki in the string writing and effects, aspects emphasized by the careful timbral choices Heatherington made which the entire section was able to bring off with striking success.  No less impressive were the winds, where principals were often called upon to play in an almost concerto-like manner where each exhibited extraordinary personality that exquisitely fit the piece.

The ambiguity and tension were palpable throughout, Heatherington rightfully never attempting to milk one side over another and allowing the ultimately unresolved work simply to run out of time, much like fate and life itself.

The choice of the Shostakovich Ninth Symphony as a companion piece was brilliant on a number of levels, not least because they are both 20th-century symphonies of a half hour or so each.

Both are statements of ambiguity but contrastingly so as the Shostakovich Ninth is as witty and sprightly as the Sibelius Fourth is dark and brooding. This was an unusual symphonic response to the end of the Second World War where instead of writing the expected large-scale piece celebrating the Soviet victory over the Nazi Eastern front, Shostakovich instead wrote a sarcastic, relatively small and almost trivial piece that would once again get him into trouble with Stalinist authorities.

Heatherington and his forces gave the piece an almost mock military-like quality, exactly what it calls for, and refreshingly did not exaggerate its quirky effects. Its satire is actually far more biting when subtlety is employed, i.e., this becomes a cultivated send-up of an over-zealous military with its own naïve language cast in cultured terms.

A nicely nuanced and stately performance of the Brahms Academic Festival Overture opened the program.

Posted in Performances

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