Young cellist shows maturity in Ars Viva’s season finale

Mon May 05, 2014 at 3:16 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Cellist Nathan Walhout performed Bloch's "Schelomo" Sunday with the Ars Viva orchestra.
Cellist Nathan Walhout performed Bloch’s “Schelomo” Sunday with the Ars Viva orchestra.

Ars Viva’s final concert of the season is now spotlighted annually with a performance by the winner of the orchestra’s Concerto Competition, a project co-presented with the Music Institute of Chicago.

Nathan Walhout was the winner this year. The 16-year-old cellist from Wheaton North High School provided a highlight of Ars Viva’s Sunday afternoon concert with a performance of Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

The Swiss-American composer’s “Rhapsodie Hebraique” has not aged well, an uneven mix of febrile solo passages and souped-up orchestral outbursts that sound like outtakes from a Miklós Rózsa score for a 1950s Biblical film epic.

The young cellist showed impressive maturity and taste beyond his years, however, playing with fluency, and largely faultless intonation. Most of all, he brought expressive restraint and Classical poise to the dark-hued cantorial lines in a work not noted for understated musicianship. Heatherington accompanied his young soloist alertly and whipped up cataclysmic orchestral climaxes of Old Testament fervor.

Arnold Schoenberg’s free-wheeling orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor closed the program. Alan Heatherington is an insightful Brahms interpreter, but Sunday’s performance of this enjoyable confection took some time to gel. With an ample number of CSO players on the roster, Ars Viva’s limited number of string desks is usually not an issue. Yet in this work, one often wanted more heft and sonority in the strings to balance out Schoenberg’s vast brass and percussion brigades, especially in the Andante. There was also more rugged ensemble than one usually hears from Ars Viva with a shaky first horn and some raw wind and brass tuttis (the first-class trumpet playing of Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer apart).

Yet if not always offering the most polished playing one will ever hear, under Heatherington’s attentive direction the performance gained as it unfolded, and was rounded off with a fast and thrilling romp through the zigeneur finale.

The concert led off with another rarity, Josef Suk’s Fantastic Scherzo. The Scherzo capriccioso of his father-in-law Dvorak seemed to provide the inspiration, though this rather lumbering work lacks the melodic spark and spirited charm of the Dvorak work. Heatherington and company made as worthy a case as possible, the conductor drawing warm string playing in the balletic second theme.

Heatheringon indicated that more music of Josef Suk would be in the offing in future Ars Viva seasons. Can we hope for a performance of his brooding masterpiece, the Asrael Symphony?

Ars Viva opens its 2014-15 season September 28 with Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 and Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole with David Taylor as soloist.

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