Ars Viva closes Sibelius cycle with a thrilling Second Symphony

Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 8:48 am

By Kyle MacMillan

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

In brief remarks before the second half of Sunday’s concert, music director Alan Heatherington described the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra’s program as one of “endings”: the orchestra’s final performance of the season, the last appearance with the ensemble by departing principal second violinist Nancy Park, and, finally, the conclusion of Ars Viva’s multi-year presentation of all the symphonies by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

Each ending was noteworthy in its way, but it was the last one that really helps explain what sets this group apart. Suburban orchestras typically perform the classical Top 40 and pops fare. They certainly don’t perform Sibelius cycles. But as Ars Viva made clear again Sunday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, it is no typical suburban orchestra.

Since he founded the ensemble in 1995, Heatherington has managed to bring an uncommon level of ambition to its programming while still maintaining the symphony’s appeal to everyday listeners. Just as important, he has successfully recruited a group of top Chicago musicians, including a significant number from the Chicago Symphony, and the result is playing of consistently high caliber.

Nowhere was this was more evident than in Ars Viva’s enthralling performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, which was premiered in Helsinki in 1902 and has been seen by many experts as an expression of Finland’s yearning to be free from the repression of Czar Nicholas II. Because it is the most popular and frequently performed of the composer’s seven symphonies, Heatherington saved the No. 2 for last, and the wait was worth it.

With shining brass fanfares, eloquent woodwind solos and involved, cohesive playing, the conductor and orchestra delivered a bright, energized interpretation that captured the spirit, depth and complexity of this compelling music. Each movement had its high points, but none topped the second movement, which opened with suitably quiet, suspenseful pizzicatos in the double basses and built steadily in intensity, with Heatherington drawing the full dramatic power from its constant shifts in tempo, dynamics and mood. The piece ended with a thrilling take on the work’s sweeping finale.

Another way in which Ars Viva differs from most suburban ensembles is its willingness to take on contemporary repertoire, as evidenced by the afternoon’s opening work – John Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances, which the composer originally wrote as a quartet of four-hand piano pieces in 1972 and arranged for orchestra two years later. These easy-to-like pieces have a kind of Americana feel, with Corigliano intending them to suggest the concerts played in the gazebos found in small-town parks across the country.

Heatherington and the orchestra did a good job of conveying the idiomatic feel and sense of fun that are intrinsic to these dances, especially the kind of old-timey, vaudeville flavor of the whimsical second dance, which Corigliano aptly describes as a “rather peg-legged waltz.” The Coplandesque Adagio opened with a handsome solo by principal oboist Stephen Colburn, but the line in that work got a little muddled at times.

Rounding out the program was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, featuring 15-year-old Ryan Jannak-Huang as soloist. He was the 2013 winner of the Emilio del Rosario Piano Concerto Competition, which is co-sponsored by Ars Viva and the Music Institute of Chicago. Right from the opening bars, this poised and obviously talented young artist showed himself to be at home in this ultra-familiar work and undaunted by its abundant technical challenges.

There are areas for improvement as he matures, including the need for more tonal nuance, more refined pedal control and more artful shaping of certain phrases. That said, Jannak-Huang has a nice sense of musicality, and, when the musical dialogue between orchestra and soloist called for an emphatic statement from him, he usually delivered it with firm aplomb. As comfortable as he was at the keyboard, though, he seemed a little overwhelmed by the enthusiastic standing ovation that immediately greeted the conclusion of his performance.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Ars Viva closes Sibelius cycle with a thrilling Second Symphony”

  1. Posted May 02, 2013 at 9:11 pm by Prof. Lou Becker

    As usual, an outstanding performance, with a truly marvelous conductor. We have been attending Ars Viva for years, and hope to be able to do so for many years to come. Congratulations to Maestro Heatherington – we wish you and your lovely wife long life, good health, and continued success!

    Lou & Loretta Becker

  2. Posted May 03, 2013 at 2:26 pm by Samuel and Paula Golden

    It was indeed a memorable concert, which we heard on Sunday afternoon. The orchestra was in fine fettle, and Maestro Heatherington did his usual masterful job of interpreting and leading the orchestra (despite his cold that inhibited him from making more extensive remarks). The young soloist was amazing, and there are reasons why the Rachmaninoff 2d is such a popular piece. Bit the highpoint indeed was the Sibelius, a most stirring symphony.

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