Ars Viva strikes string gold in rare concerto, varied program

Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 5:30 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Steven Colburn was the soloist in Vaughan Williams' Oboe Cincerto with the Ars Viva orchestra.
Stephen Colburn was the soloist in Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Cincerto with the Ars Viva orchestra.

It was a throwback to the days when Ars Viva music director Alan Heatherington used to lead the Chicago String Ensemble. “Once a season,” said Heatherington in tongue-in-cheek pre-concert remarks, “we get rid of all of the extraneous players.”

Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto opened Sunday afternoon’s Ars Viva concert at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. The soloist was the retired longtime Milwaukee Symphony principal oboe Stephen Colburn.

Given the small forces involved (soloist and string orchestra), how few oboe concertos there are in the repertoire and what a tour de force this remarkable 1944 work is, it is surprising it is not performed more often. But then again, having a soloist that can tear into it with the agility, gusto and lyricism that Colburn did makes all the difference.

A long and lanky man, Colburn took his introductory bow with a reed in his mouth before assembling his instrument and standing back for a careful tune of the orchestra. He played with the music on a stand in front of him and cleared his instrument with the care of a surgeon between movements.

What transpired was pure alchemy. The solo lines are often jazzily chromatic, leading the way while the string accompaniment is often conventionally homophonic. Sometimes soloist and accompaniment trade roles. The balances, tempo fluctuations and dynamic nuances were all ideal. The work is a wartime piece and stirringly alternates between optimism and poignancy.

Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48, has long been a Heatherington favorite and Sunday’s performance revealed its inner glories luminously. The second movement Valse was as exuberant and lively as the Élégie was touching, made all the more so by being dedicated to the memory of Claudio Abbado, who had performed a Tchaikovsky cycle with many of the veteran CSO musicians that are a part of the ensemble.

Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite, after Bizet, closed out the program in a performance that emphasized the work’s humor. Arranged as a ballet for Shchedrin’s wife, the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, the suite includes some of the opera’s best-loved tunes which are subjected to funhouse mirror treatment. Four percussionists and timpani are added to the string orchestra yet the percussion was never overpowering.

The low strings were particularly ominous and expressive in Carmen’s death scene which made the almost calliope-like return to the Overture music with its jaunty marimba a satisfyingly satirical contrast.

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