Ars Viva opens season with smaller-scale yet mighty Bruckner

Mon Sep 30, 2013 at 11:54 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Alan Heatherington conducted Ars Viva's opening concert Sunday afternoon in Skokie.
Alan Heatherington conducted Ars Viva’s opening concert Sunday afternoon in Skokie.

The epic musical canvasses of Anton Bruckner are regarded as the exclusive property of large symphony orchestras, ensembles with the massive brass and string sections to put across the Austrian composer’s vast cathedrals in sound.

Alan Heatherington has often taken the less-often-trod repertorial path in programming, one reason why his Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra, remains one of the most attractive classical tickets in the region.

The conductor opened Ars Viva’s 19th season Sunday afternoon with a concert that included Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 as the main event. Heatherington and colleagues made a surprisingly convincing case for performing Bruckner with more modest forces.

While the brass complement was as specified (four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba), the string choirs were less than half the size one usually hears in this music.

And yet, the strongly projected performance worked quite well, for a few reasons. First, with a sizable contingent of CSO string players on the roster, including David Taylor as concertmaster, the Ars Viva strings can make a rich and mighty sound beyond their numbers to balance the large brass section.

Second, the Sixth is a relatively intimate work by Bruckner standards, leaning more toward nostalgic lyricism then thundering brass chorales. And, finally, with Heatherington’s keen ear for balancing and textural clarity, all was kept in skillful alignment without any fear of the strings being swamped.

In his congenial opening remarks, the conductor made clear his love for Bruckner and the Sixth in particular, which was clear in Sunday’s majestic and eloquent performance. The lighter forces made for striking transparency and the conductor’s mobile tempos kept the music flowing and light-footed, avoiding any sense of heaviness.

There was some dodgy wind tuning and uneven moments from the orchestra’s principal horn in the lengthy opening movement, but the playing, individually and collectively, gained in security and assurance as it unfolded. Climaxes were imposing  and resolute yet acutely blended.

In the Adagio—one of Bruckner’s most indelible inspirations—Heatherington and colleagues brought out the searching lyricism in a natural organic way, and the ensuing Scherzo was notable for the punchy and vociferous brass attacks.

The performance was rounded off with a grandly scaled final movement that had cumulative weight. Heatherington, a violinst himself, drew a heart-easing warmth from the strings in the lyric episodes and pushed the tempo just enough to ensure a suitably grand and triumphant coda.

The concert led off with shorter works by two other “B’s.” In Brahms’ Tragic Overture, the lighter forces here too made for greater transparency than one usually hears in this rugged work. Heatherington led an urgent performance that had ample dramatic bite, some unsteadiness and raw tone in the horns apart.

One of Ars Viva’s most admirable elements in its consistent outreach to children through its “Music for Life” program, which offers an on-site music class geared toward youngsters right after they hear the first work on the program.

For this concert, Bartok’s Hungarian Sketches fit the bill admirably. These charming miniatures, originally written for piano, made a light and enjoyable opener, and apt classical bait for the urchins in attendance, though some were audibly restive before the music began. Heatherington and the Ars Viva musicians conveyed the sly wit and off-center inebriation of “Slightly Tipsy,” as surely as the nocturnal lyricism of the central “Melody,” and the growling rhythmic insistence of the “Bear Dance.”

On Sunday Heatherington welcomed Gina DiBello as Ars Viva’s new principal second violinist. DiBello, who joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first violin section in April, was formerly principal second violinist of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Ars Viva’s next concert presents Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, the second movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, and Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Ilya Kaler as soloist. Concert time is 3 p.m. October 27 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Ars Viva opens season with smaller-scale yet mighty Bruckner”

  1. Posted Sep 30, 2013 at 12:16 pm by Odradek

    I too was surprised by the small size of the string section, but impressed by how well it worked. The relatively swift tempi also sounded appropriate in this symphony, probably the “lightest” of Bruckner’s mature works.

Leave a Comment