Vaughan Williams double bill takes flight with Ars Viva

Tue Mar 18, 2014 at 10:25 am

By Dennis Polkow

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

Ralph Vaughan Williams fans in Chicago have long known where to hear his music regularly performed—at Ars Viva concerts. Last month, it was the Oboe Concerto, but the Sunday afternoon audience at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie was treated to no less than two Vaughan Williams pieces, one familiar, the other a rarity.

The Lark Ascending was Vaughan Williams’ tone poem based on George Meredith’s poem of the same name. It was originally scored for violin and piano but was later orchestrated, the version best known and performed Sunday with Chicago Symphony Orchestra assistant concertmaster and Ars Viva concertmaster David Taylor as soloist.

Thanks to Alan Heatherington’s skillful conducting, the orchestral soundscape from which Taylor’s lark took flight and returned was as reliable as terra firma and evocatively pastoral.

Taylor preferred a deeply expressive if sometimes sweet and sentimental sound but his ascents into the upper register were superbly rendered with spot-on intonation and dynamic tranquility. This is clearly a piece he has given a lot of thought to, and every line felt well considered.

CSO and Ars Viva principal violist Charles Pikler was the soloist for the other Vaughan Williams piece on the program, the rarely performed Flos Campi, a suite of tone poems based on sections from the biblical Song of Songs. The piece is scored for violist, chorus and orchestra but in this case, was given a narrator as well to read the biblical texts at the head of the music portions evoking them.

It was sometimes hard to hear Pikler when all forces were employed but the moments where he and the chorus were performing a cappella were quite moving. The chorus, Heatherington’s own Chicago Master Singers, did a wonderful job of offering wordless vowel-centered ambience, an effect that was countered when the mystical music would be brought back to Earth with the spoken sections, supplied by the New Philharmonic’s conductor laureate Harold Bauer.

It was hard not to be struck by the unique position Heatherington is in to bring about such a superb performance of a rare piece like this with unusual forces—having founded both an excellent orchestra and chorus that he works with regularly and bringing them both together so artfully.

Rounding out the program were two examples — virtually a century apart — of pieces looking back, as it were. Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony is a 19th-0century nod to classicism, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (No. 1) is a 20th century parody of it.

Both pieces were performed with nuance and superb ensemble playing, making delicious use of humor and surprise, elements that Heatherington and his orchestra brought out with delightful aplomb.

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One Response to “Vaughan Williams double bill takes flight with Ars Viva”

  1. Posted Mar 18, 2014 at 11:11 am by Odradek

    Good to see that there are at least 2 conductors in Chicago area (Heatherington and Kalmar) who like to program Vaughan Williams. Maybe the CSO would like to join them at some point!

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