The indefatigable Alan Heatherington adds a new vocation to his musical ministry

Tue Sep 24, 2013 at 5:08 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Conductor  Alan Heatherington opens Ars Viva'a season with music of Bartok, Brahms and Bruckner Sunday afternoon in Skokie.
Conductor Alan Heatherington opens Ars Viva’a season with music of Bartok, Brahms and Bruckner Sunday afternoon in Skokie.

Alan Heatherington, one of Chicago’s leading conductors, readily admits that his professional life is something of a checkerboard.

“Too many hats,’’ he says with a rueful smile. “My whole life long, too many hats.”

Starting out as a gifted violinist, Heatherington, 67, eventually focused on conducting. Until this spring, he led three Chicago-area ensembles: the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra, which he founded in 1994; the Chicago Master Singers, where he is celebrating his 25th anniversary, and the Lake Forest Symphony, where he recently resigned the music director post after 13 years. (Heatherington’s connection with Lake Forest goes back much farther. From 1968 to 1978, as a busy freelance violinist, he served as Lake Forest’s concertmaster.)

Ars Viva opens its five-concert season Sunday at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts with a typically varied program of Bartok, Brahms and Bruckner. Chicago Master Singers’ season of three programs opens with music by John Rutter and Brahms Nov. 8 and 10 at the Chapel of the Society of the Divine Word in Techny.

For many listeners, a highlight of Ars Viva concerts is Heatherington’s informed, engaging commentary about the pieces on the program. Passionately devoted to spreading the word about classical music, he’s a compelling communicator, as skilled in public speaking as with his baton. He chooses his words carefully and his diction can sound sternly precise, but a mischievous wit regularly bubbles to the surface.

But music is not Heatherington’s only calling.

It’s hardly surprising, for some, that the conductor has long considered becoming a preacher. He’s been drawn to the idea of religious ministry all his life and at various points that became his primary focus.

In addition to a master’s degree in music from Northwestern University, he earned a graduate degree at the seminary at Trinity Evangelical School in Bannockburn. For five years in the early 1980s he taught music exclusively, heading the string and orchestral conducting departments at the State University of New York at Buffalo. But before that, he spent 10 years at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute teaching both Bible theology and music.

This year Heatherington will finish his on-again-off-again journey to the priesthood. He’s enrolled in a distance-learning program at Nashotah House School of Theology in Wisconsin, and in spring 2014 will be ordained as an Anglican priest. He and his wife, Gayle, Ars Viva’s executive director, plan to stay in Chicago. The goal is to add work as a minister while continuing to lead Ars Viva and the Chicago Master Singers.

“I can’t remember when I didn’t love music,’’ said Heatherington. As a little boy in Rochester, N.Y., he played with his toys under the grand piano that his mother and visiting students played virtually every day. He started piano lessons at age 5, but the violin soon became his passion.

The family home was deeply religious, however, and conservative in outlook.

“In my parents’ mind,’’ said Heatherington, “it was foreordained that I would become a minister. I grew up with that, and it was both a positive and a negative for me. The challenging part was feeling hopelessly unworthy of living up to their expectations. And that became part of my own psyche: I wasn’t worthy at all, of anything including music. So I was riddled with this tension.”

But Heatherington was having “such amazing success as a musician” in high school, he said, that he began to think about pursuing music professionally. After earning his master’s degree in violin and conducting at Northwestern, he stayed in Chicago. As a gifted freelancer, he played everything from chamber music concerts to recording sessions for advertising commercials. At the time Chicago was a major center for broadcast advertising, and the advertising gigs, with their potentially lucrative royalties, were godsends for freelance musicians. Those soaring strings on United Airlines’ ubiquitous Rhapsody in Blue jingle? Heatherington is among them.

In the mid-1970s, he succumbed to the conducting bug and founded the Chicago String Ensemble. He had performed with dozens of musicians, including members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera orchestra, over the years, and many of them were more than happy to join his new group. The Chicago String Ensemble quickly became one of Chicago’s most vibrant smaller ensembles and lasted until the mid-1990s, when it imploded over conflict between Heatherington and the board, which wanted more popular programming.

Alan and Gayle Heatherington celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in 2014.
Alan and Gayle Heatherington celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in 2014.

In 1994 Heatherington founded Ars Viva, which has continued his vision of combining unusual repertoire with standard fare.

“Alan’s a very solid musician,” said David Taylor, CSO assistant concertmaster who has been Ars Viva’s concertmaster for years. “He’s not only a conductor and a violinist of real talent. He’s also a musicologist. He is so interested in all the different genres of music and the history surrounding them. I’ve never myself been any kind of a history buff when it comes to music. He’s really up on that kind of stuff.”

Ars Viva’s core roster of approximately 65 players includes a dozen or so CSO and Lyric orchestra members including Lyric’s principal harp Marguerite Lynn Williams and CSO percussionist Patricia Dash and principal violist Charles Pikler. In addition to working with Heatherington, they’re drawn by a chance to play smaller-scaled pieces that rarely turn up on the CSO’s schedule and also to perform as orchestral soloists. At Ars Viva’s March 16 concert, Taylor will be featured in Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and Pikler will play solo viola in the composer’s Flos Campi, which also will include members of Chicago Master Singers.

“We do some of the same music [as the CSO],” said Taylor. “But there are other pieces which we almost never see downtown. So it adds to my repertoire of classical orchestral music. And there are my solo opportunities with Ars Viva, which I’ve done at least every other season as well as concertmaster solos depending on the repertoire. That’s always something that I look forward to.”

From his first days with the Chicago String Ensemble, Heatherington possessed an uncanny flair for programming. At their best, Ars Viva’s concerts offer listeners a taste of something new, whether a world premiere or work like Flos Campi, a rarely played piece by a well-known composer that, in Heatherington’s opinion, deserves to be heard.

“Programming is one of the things I love most about being a musician and always have,” he said. “It’s something that draws me and feeds me and keeps me there.”

The very name Ars Viva reflects his approach to choosing repertoire.

There’s ‘Ars,’ said Heatherington, “representing the ars antiqua, the old, the tried, the true, the proven standard repertoire. And the ‘Viva’ says the vivacious, the new, the current, the living, the fresh.

“There are plenty of pieces that one could call justly neglected,” he said. “But there are also plenty of pieces that no one can fathom why this music is not heard all the time. And the audience always says that: ‘Why haven’t I heard that before? That was fantastic.’ I spend an enormous amount of time—always have, always will—thinking, plotting, scheming, doing programming. I have wish lists on the computer that I consult regularly, sometimes every day.”

Steven Houser, Ars Viva’s principal cellist, began working with Heatherington at the Chicago String Ensemble in the early 1980s. He also plays in the Grant Park Symphony and is principal cellist with the Lake Forest and Park Ridge symphonies.

“I’ve played practically every composer under the sun with Alan,” said Houser. “I’m hard-pressed to know any conductor who prepares a score so thoroughly. I’m talking not just know the music and know the phrasing. He knows the composer’s intentions, knows every single note that has a line, has a dot, any kind of articulation. Every dynamic, this guy knows inside and out and it’s really amazing; he’s so thorough.”

After leaving the Lake Forest Symphony (he and the board disagreed about visions for the ensemble’s future), Heatherington found himself with a rare gift—some unscheduled time.

Pursuing his dream of becoming a preist, one he had deferred for decades, suddenly became feasible. Churches are using more part-time ministers than ever before, which means Heatherington could do pastoral work while continuing with Ars Viva and Chicago Master Singers. Not surprisingly, however, the Heatheringtons, who celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary next year, are thinking about launching a church of their own in Lake County.

“We really feel there’s a need for an orthodox, Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church, an Anglican church, that has good music,” said Gayle. “There are plenty of places where you can go and get the guitar music and the rock music and the praise songs. But there are a lot of professional musicians and people who love music who aren’t comfortable in that environment, so they don’t go to church.”

“All the threads are coming together,’’ said Heatherington. For such a master of concert programming, indeed a dream come true.

Alan Heatherington opens Ars Viva’s season 3 p.m. Sunday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. The program will include Bartok’s Hungarian Sketches, Brahms’ Tragic Overture and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6.; 847-673-6300.

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One Response to “The indefatigable Alan Heatherington adds a new vocation to his musical ministry”

  1. Posted Sep 26, 2013 at 9:12 am by Buddy Black

    Wonderful article about a complicated man and his passion for God and music….in that order. I’ve been part of his CMS group for over 20 years and have learned a great deal not just about singing, but about the importance of music in ministry. I’ve become a Heatherington groupie and found it to be most rewarding to get to know the man as friend and maestro.

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