Concertgoers look to the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra to bring them unusual repertory, also thoughtful combinations of familiar and unfamiliar music, they cannot find in downtown Chicago. Music director Alan Heatherington has some of the area's finest symphonic players at his disposal – his small orchestra includes members of the Chicago Symphony – along with the skills to connect in an immediate way with instrumentalists and audience members alike.
Such was the case Sunday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie where Heatherington and friends wrapped a pair of Ralph Vaughan Williams works, "Flos Campi" and "The Lark Ascending," around symphonies by Beethoven and Prokofiev. Two Ars Viva section principals who were moonlighting from the CSO, violist Charles Pikler and violinist David Taylor, were the soloists in the Vaughan Williams works.
"Flos Campi" (Latin for "Flower of the Fields") turns up far more often on British than American concert programs. Much of this neglect no doubt relates to the unusual forces required: solo viola, chamber choir and small orchestra. Each of the six movements is headed by a quotation from the Old Testament "Song of Solomon." The viola represents the voice of the poet, heard against the background of wordless chorus, blending with the orchestra to produce a unique sound as sensuous as anything Vaughan Williams ever wrote.
Harold Bauer, music director laureate of the New Philharmonic and Du Page Opera, was present to read the apposite English translations of the original Latin texts at the start of each section. The score does not call for a narration, but Bauer handled it discreetly: The brief spoken portions rode unobtrusively over the continuous flow of the music.
One has heard cleaner readings of the virtuoso viola part, although Pikler's playing was confident enough. Then, too, British performers generally are more successful at capturing the music's mystical restraint. That said, Heatherington's orchestra and the 36 voices of his Chicago Master Singers made one grateful for the chance to hear this fascinating rarity.
That elusive mysticism came more effectively to the fore with "The Lark Ascending," long a virtual signature piece of Taylor, Ars Viva's concertmaster and the CSO's longtime assistant concertmaster. His singing tone, soaring and spiraling against quiet, sustained strings, was raptly beautiful, altogether apt for this quintessentially English-pastoral tone poem. Taylor's colleagues supported him nicely.
He was back in the concertmaster's chair for Beethoven's Symphony No. 8. The firm rhythmic drive and intensity of Heatherington's reading were counterbalanced by the Haydnesque wit he brought out in this compact masterpiece. Especially impressive were the eruptive surges of musical energy in the finale, a showpiece for the incisive timpani playing of percussion whiz Vadim Karpinos.
Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony" made sense in this program context, given the fact that the Russian composer always claimed his first symphony, from 1917, was the kind of symphony Haydn would have written were he alive in the early 20th century.
Heatherington elicited a performance that was crisp, clean-lined, buoyant of rhythm and tidily executed save for some suspect violin intonation in the opening movement.
Prokofiev's lean scoring took well to the dryish auditorium acoustics. Even with the recent addition, on an experimental basis, of plywood panels over the stage, the sound remains pretty much as it was at the beginning of the season: bright, direct, rather deficient in warmth. If the building's owners wish to make a significant improvement in the sound, they probably will have to do an "Avery Fisher Hall" – which is to say, gut the interior and start over.
The Ars Viva season will conclude May 4 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie; 855-277-8482, arsviva.org.