Heatherington, Ars Viva strings deliver gutsy and eloquent performances

Mon Mar 04, 2013 at 5:14 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Alan Heatherington led Ars Viva in a program of music for strings Sunday in Skokie.

One of the Chicago area’s finest and most engaging conductors, Alan Heatherington has long been a triple-threat, holding down three music director jobs with the Ars Viva Symphony, the Chicago Master Singers and the Lake Forest Symphony.

But, unlike long Chicago winters and Illinois’s abysmal budget woes, not much else lasts forever, and Heatherington and the Lake Forest Symphony have parted ways over “artistic differences”—an overused phrase, but one that in this case appears genuine. After finishing this season’s remaining concerts, Heatherington will depart the Lake Forest Symphony after serving as music director for 13 seasons.

There is another life change for Heatherington coming as well, although those who have attended his concerts and are aware of his missionary zeal in promoting great music will not be surprised. Heatherington will return to seminary school this year to complete a degree begun years ago and, in 2014 will be ordained as a priest in the Anglican church. Fortunately, for local audiences, Heatherington will maintain his other, musical, ministry, and continue leading both Chicago Master Singers and Ars Viva.

Sunday afternoon, he conducted the latter in a program for strings at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, offering one of Ars Viva’s finest events of recent seasons.

As a violinist and founder and long-time leader of the defunct Chicago String Ensemble, Heatherington has always elicited superb string playing with his various groups. Granted, having a large component of Chicago Symphony Orchestra members in Ars Viva’s ranks helps, but even so, Sunday’s smart, offbeat program, superb playing and dynamic, insightful conducting made for a terrific afternoon of music.

Like many once-popular mid-20th century American works (Roy Harris’s Third Symphony, Walter Piston’s The Incredible Flutist, Howard Hanson’s anything), David Diamond’s Rounds enjoyed widespread advocacy by several leading conductors but has since been shot out of the concert-hall canon.

That’s unfortunate, for Rounds is one of Diamond’s finest and most user-friendly works, a concise three-part suite with much attractive music albeit fiendishly difficult writing for the string players.

Heatherington led a vital and incisive performance, bringing out the vigor and “American” feel to the rhythms as well as the fiddling style of the string writing. The fugal writing in the finale was brilliantly assayed by the Ars Viva members, Diamond’s distinctive mix of retro nostalgia with acerbic 20th-century bite given thrilling advocacy.

Yet it was the central Adagio that continues to resound in the memory. While strikingly beautiful, Diamond’s dark-hued lyricism has a toughness that never descends to schmaltz, and was here most sensitively rendered by Heatherington and the musicians. Diamond, along with Piston, continues to be among our most unjustly neglected composers. Perhaps Heatherington will someday bring his podium skills to Diamond’s powerful wartime symphonies, among the finest works in the genre by an American composer.

Elgar’s Sospiri may technically be a salon work, but it remains a gorgeous piece, cast in the English composer’s vein of melancholy introspection, and here directed and played with great expressive feeling and acute dynamic detailing by Heatherington and the orchestra.

Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus hails from the same English terrain, though the work is cast on a somewhat larger canvas. Here too conductor and ensemble conveyed the English melodism, whch seems to covey something sturdy, venerable and slightly sad—-a blend of English pastoral countryside, deep-shadowed interiors of Anglican cathedrals, and a wistful longing for something important yet indefinable lost to the distant past. Heatherington deftly brought out the varied qualities of each iteration with concertmaster David Taylor and principal cellist Steven Houser contributing beguiling, sweet-toned solos.

Gustav Mahler’s transcription for string orchestra of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet made up the entire second half. Mahler adds string basses to the mix and revises some scoring, with a few of his dynamic additions sounding a bit fussy.

But for the most part, Mahler’s arrangement is faithful to Schubert’s original, and received supremely eloquent advocacy from Ars Viva. From the forceful tutti chords of the opening notes, Heatherington led a powerful and intensely wrought reading; at one point his baton flew out of the conductor’s hands and landed at principal second violinist Nancy Park’s feet.

Purists may object to Mahler’s retooling but so rich and convincing was Sunday’s performance that it really made you wonder anew at Schubert’s ceaseless invention and seemingly inexhaustible fount of melody. Impeccably paced by Heatherington, the long-spun Andante was quite glorious with the musicians bringing a striking array of subtle dynamic and expressive hues to Schubert’s score. The Scherzo went with sharply accented vigor and the performance culminated in an exhilarating finale with Heatherington and the players blazing through to a fiery and exultant coda.

Alan Heatherington may be adding a more directly spiritual job description to his teeming portfolio, but his music-making continues to speak with an equally ardent and even religious intensity. Long may it continue.

Ars Viva’s final concert of the season takes place April 28 and will include John Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2. arsviva.org

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Heatherington, Ars Viva strings deliver gutsy and eloquent performances”

  1. Posted Mar 04, 2013 at 5:30 pm by Odradek

    Great to see a conductor programming American and British music in the Chicago area – let’s have more of that, please.

  2. Posted Mar 07, 2013 at 9:18 am by francesco Lagona

    Alan is the greatest person that I have had the pkeasure to have met and a brother to me. His ability of making music come to life and his ministry is a credit to the Christian community. I am blessed to have him as a brother and friend.

  3. Posted Mar 07, 2013 at 9:25 am by francesco Lagona

    A great review for a very talented and wonderful person as Alan Heatherington…

  4. Posted Mar 08, 2013 at 1:59 am by Judith Lagona

    I likewise am privileged to have Alan as a brother. His devotion to God first and to his music has always inspired me. The Church will be greater because of his presence as a priest and leader; Ars Viva and the Chicago Mastersingers will be greater because of this added (or perhaps more developed) dimension to his life. He has been and will always be a blessing to me.

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