Heatherington, Ars Viva go out on top with stirring final concert

Mon May 18, 2015 at 1:31 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Alan Heatherington led the final concert of the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon in Skokie.
Alan Heatherington led the final concert of the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon in Skokie.

It was a bittersweet occasion, but, as always with Alan Heatherington and Ars Viva, the music won out.

Sunday afternoon’s concert at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie marked the final appearance of the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra, the ensemble founded by music director Alan Heatherington and his wife (and AV executive director) Gayle two decades ago. Musical introductions and speeches by the conductor and heartfelt tributes to both from board president Robert Quigley and concertmaster David Taylor pushed the event to nearly three hours, but no complaints were had on such a special occasion.

Heatherington is making a late life career change to become an Anglican minister, and hopes to found a new church with Gayle near their home in Libertyville. While he will continue to lead three programs a year as artistic director of the Chicago Master Singers, this effectively marks a rare voluntary podium farewell from one of the finest conductors on the local music scene. His interpretations of orchestral repertory will be greatly missed.

Ars Viva has been a labor of love for the Heatheringtons. Unlike many conductors in such an ego-driven business, it has never been about making big bucks, career advancement or self-glorification. Rather, Heatherington’s performances were always first and foremost about the music and creating concerts on the highest possible level. Even when performances sometimes fell a bit short technically, there was never any doubt about the honesty and integrity of the music-making.

As with most top conductors, Heatherington’s performances are so organic and strongly projected they rarely draw attention to themselves interpretively. One never walks out of a Heatherington performance thinking “Well, that was odd.” The music always emerges naturally and with great authority.

Sunday’s revised final program concentrated on the four Romantic composers that Heatherington says are especially close to his heart.

Dvorak’s Othello was the sole remaining work of the originally scheduled program of music inspired by Shakespeare. In this darkest of the three overtures that make up Dvorak’s “Nature, Life and Love” trilogy, Heatherington led the players in a taut, dramatic reading with glowing string tone and a notably stormy coda.

Virtuosic fizz was provided with Miklos Rozsa’s Violin Concerto. Written for, and with heavy contributions by Jascha Heifetz, the concerto is a virtual minefield of ludicrous difficulties and technical challenges, and not a vehicle for the faint of heart.

Ars Viva’s “second concertmaster” Ilya Kaler delivered a sturdy and largely impressive performance, playing with singing tone and fervent attacks. Kaler was clearly in synch with the rhapsodic tenderness of the central Lento, and, with equally propulsive accompaniment by conductor and orchestra, threw off the fireworks of the Bartok-meets-Hollywood finale with worthy fire and panache.

Sunday’s performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 had a clear sense of occasion about it with a thrusting drama and vehemence to the opening movement and the tough yet exultant final coda built with cumulative drive and intensity. The Andante was especially inspired, the ebb and flow judged with unerring skill and with fine solo contributions from Taylor, oboist Stephen Colburn and clarinetist Gene Collerd.

There are few concerts that provide a bonus after the blazing coda of Brahms’ First, but Sibelius’s Finlandia seemed just the right dessert. Sibelius has been especially favored repertory for Heatherington with his superb complete cycle of Sibelius symphonies among his finest achievements with Ars Viva.

On such an occasion, lesser podium hands may have milked the nostalgic central theme for more emotion, but characteristically Heatherington took a brisk and unsentimental view, the brassy coda making stirring impact without sacrificing taste.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Heatherington, Ars Viva go out on top with stirring final concert”

  1. Posted May 21, 2015 at 1:21 pm by Jim Jennings

    Four days later, I’m still feeling the greatness of Sunday’s concert. We’re both humming the Brahms and WISH we could hum the Rozsa Concerto. There’s no way to adequately thank you and everyone connected with Ars Viva for making accssible 20 seasons of musical greatness. — About 40 years ago, a girlfriend dumped me because she felt her true mission in life was to take her vows as a Roman Catholic nun. Until I found my wife, Judy, I remember feeling decisively outclassed… Thank God for Judy but now, as Alan’s ordination into the Anglican Church ends my love affair with Ars Viva I have that same feeling of being outdone. Someone is trying to tell me something… I’ll never stop loving this wonderful orchestra! All the best, JHJ

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