Friday, December 8, 2017

A Christmas Gem from Eric Benjamin and a Timeless Gift from Beethoven

A Christmas Gem from Eric Benjamin and a Timeless Gift from Beethoven

By Tom Wachunas

    In the beginning, I thought that the December 3d MasterWorks program by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), called “Gifts of Fate,” was a peculiar, even arbitrary pairing of very disparate works: The Secret Gift, a Christmas-themed symphonic poem of sorts, written in 2013 by American composer Eric Benjamin; and Ludwig van Beethoven’s iconic 1807 masterpiece, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor. But by evening’s end, I heard the connective light.

   Eric Benjamin, Musical Director of the Tuscarawas Philharmonic and the Alliance Symphony, named his work after a 2010 book written by Ted Gup, which chronicled the generosity of Gup’s grandfather, Sam Stone, a clothing store owner in Depression-era Canton.  In December, 1933, Mr. Stone was so moved by a church performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that he placed an ad in The Canton Repository asking for those in dire need to send him a letter describing their circumstances. Ultimately Stone, under the pseudonym “B. Virdot,” sent gifts of $5 to 150 destitute families. That’s perhaps a laughable pittance by today’s standards. But during the Great Depression, it was a Godsend.

   Conducted with amiable panache by CSO Assistant Conductor Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz, Benjamin’s work is a remarkable achievement of poignant storytelling. Evoking a Dickensian setting, the music feels like a lavish film score leavened with variations on 19th century English Christmas carols (such as God rest ye merry, gentlemen, and Here We Come A-wassailing), as well as imaginative passages  – at times reminiscent of George Gershwin’s melodic sensibilities - describing various events and individuals related in Gup’s book. In his program notes, Benjamin wrote of some musical styles he sourced, “ …Rumanian folk music for the account of Sam’s childhood there, early jazz for his arrival in and beginnings of his career in the U.S., something vaguely like cantorial music to underline his orthodox Jewish roots and the Talmudic teaching on social justice…” The spiritual dynamic of the work was further augmented by the dramatic sonority of the Canton Symphony Chorus. 

   Vintage photographs of 1930s Canton people, places, and letters sent to Sam Stone were projected on the large screen above the orchestra. Throughout the performance, Benjamin himself was an especially warm and empathetic narrator. The work was also peppered with narrations drawn from the citizens’ letters to B. Virdot, beautifully spoken by a cast of 11 gifted actors directed by Craig Joseph. 
   While Benjamin’s music is often heartrending in its sentimentality, it’s never mawkish. Beyond a deeply emotive remembrance of Sam Stone’s philanthropic heart and the lives it graced, the potent lyricism of the score transcends its specific historical narrative to resonate as a clarion call for compassion and hope in any era or circumstance. There is indeed an aura of timelessness about this work.

   And who could possibly doubt the timelessness of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, conducted here by Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann? He reminded the audience to reflect on the enormity of Beethoven’s desperate efforts to battle through his increasing deafness, once declaring in a letter that he was determined to “…seize Fate by the throat; it shall not bend or crush me completely.” 

   Hence the forever unforgettable opening of the work (“Thus Fate knocks at the door,” Beethoven was reported to have said) proceeds through a vast terrain of emotions in a heroic journey to arrive at the equally unforgettable and triumphant coda of the finale. Zimmermann’s reading of Beethoven was consistently brisk, translated by the ensemble into a palpable urgency, yet tempered with thrilling alacrity. Appropriately enough, the marvelous aural clarity and sheer power of the CSO throughout this phenomenal work suggested nothing so much as life’s most compelling forces.

   Beethoven’s developments from C minor to C major in his Fifth Symphony could be rightly regarded as a metaphor for darkness giving way to light. In that sense, his music is a gift for the ages, an exhilarating symbol of human spirit. Benjamin’s work proclaims a similar bent-but-not-broken message. Hearing them together on one program was an experience at once sobering and joyous.        

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Urban Scintillations

Urban Scintillations

By Tom Wachunas

   “We become intoxicated with color, with words that speak of color, and with the sun that makes colors brighter.”  - AndrĂ© Derain

   EXHIBIT: PAINTINGS by Christopher J. Triner / in the Fountain Gallery /  on view THROUGH DECEMBER 10, located in the Johnson Center on the campus of Malone University, 2600 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Ohio / Gallery open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.– 6 p.m., and closed when there are no classes in session.

   On one level, there’s something delightfully retro about the seven recent paintings that comprise this exhibit by Christopher Triner. Think of France in late 1905, and the reactionary Salon d’Automne in Paris. There, AndrĂ© Derain and his illustrious co-rebel, Henri Matisse, showed some of their radical new paintings. The innovation of those works was lost on the critics, one of them curtly dismissing the paintings as “les Fauves,” i.e., “the wild beasts.” Still, the name stuck, and Derain and Matisse were soon recognized as establishing yet a new, vivid painting style in those already eclectic times, thenceforth dubbed Fauvism.

   Wild indeed. The landscapes, portraits, and urban scenes by the Fauves were veritable explosions of untamed colors. They made even the most experimental of Impressionist works feel conservative in comparison.   

   Similarly, Triner’s acrylic architectural landscapes here were designed to dazzle. His hues are so saturated and luminous that the canvases themselves can seem like they’re extruding real sunlight.

   Much more than a simple throwback to the Fauvist aesthetic, however, the luminosity of Triner’s paintings is not an opaque one. Through the layered translucency of his colors, the canvas surfaces are alive - gently excited with a rich array of painterly underpinnings.  There, undulating shapes, patterns, and subtle textures all contribute to a sense of liquid depth.  Familiar structures and skylines – some of them local - are morphed into mesmerizing, crystalline etherealities. In this beautifully painted urban milieu, architectural materiality becomes palpably, even joyously…spiritual.

   If you’ve not seen the exhibit yet (my apologies for this late posting), I highly recommend a visit. And bring your sunglasses.

   PHOTOS, from top: Fountain Gallery installation / Stark County Courthouse / Graphic Canton / Graphic Cleveland / Graphic North Canton

Monday, November 27, 2017

Compelling Nondescriptions

Compelling Nondescriptions

By Tom Wachunas
   “A photograph is an instantaneous evidence, a mechanical capturing; but, painting is evidence through layering and materiality.   Painting is an accumulation of marks and a series of decisions. And it is the evidence through time and labor that pushes the portrait beyond a fleeting moment and develops a unique personal relation between the model, the artist, and the painting.”  -Melissa Markwald

   EXHIBIT: New Chapters – Paintings by Melissa Markwald / in the Malone Gallery /  on view THROUGH DECEMBER 10, located in the Johnson Center on the campus of Malone University, 2600 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Ohio / Gallery open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.– 6 p.m., and closed when there are no classes in session.

     Here’s part of what I wrote in February, 2016, about Melissa Markwalds’s immense (the largest being 90” x 72”) oil portraits in her solo exhibit at Massillon Museum: ...these works are pleasantly intrusive invitations to consider portraiture beyond the merely cosmetic incidentals of “individuality.” Instead, you might consider seeing them as allegories of a society far too fond of enlarging itself, of building and celebrating the predictable and superficial (think about all the megalomaniacal clutter on Facebook) in the name of declaring – almost desperately so – a uniquely meaningful identity…
(for the full review of that show, click on this link -  

    While you may or may not agree with that particular read on the sheer hugeness of the faces, the larger-than-life aspect of Markwald’s work is still present in her current show at Malone Gallery. For all of her big paintings’ association with photography, it wouldn’t be accurate to consider them as Photorealist in the purest, formal sense of the term. From a distance they certainly do appear to be startlingly faithful imitations of human countenances. But this convincing mimeticism is momentary, soon enough giving way to the ubiquitous presence of the artist’s hand. What we actually see is the brilliant instrumentality of Markwald’s brush as authoritative blender of so many accumulated and harmonized marks. Their kinship to photography is essentially superficial – superfacial, if you will - resting primarily in the uniformity of smooth, flat surfaces.

   The truly “New Chapters” in this exhibit, however, are to be found in the groupings of much smaller (8” x 10”) paintings on panels. If the scale of those large canvas paintings could arguably be construed as a commentary on our social obsession with celebrity or standing out from the crowd, then there’s a fascinating irony at work here. Markwald’s “Anonymous” portraits in oil, despite their nondescript character and relatively tiny size, do indeed stand far apart from their monumental counterparts. Yet in their smallness, they shout their individual identities with remarkable intensity. 

   This is not Markwald the deft illusionist, but rather the equally adroit abstractionist, wholly surrendered to the real essence of her craft – the skillful manipulation of paint across a flat plane. I’m not even sure that “portrait” is the most appropriate designation for these intimate, raw, highly tactile visions. To the extent we can call them faces, they’re alternately dreamlike, disquieting, even alien. Perhaps any one of them could just as well be called a haunted still-life, or ghosted landscape. In their bold distortions or denials of the familiar, they’re nonetheless eminently true to themselves.

   PHOTOS, from top: all “Abstract Anonymous Portraits,” oil on panel, 8” x 10” / courtesy

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Listening to the Land

Listening to the Land 

By Tom Wachunas

   "I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees." - Henry David Thoreau
   “Memory is the fourth dimension to any landscape.  - Janet Fitch

   EXHIBIT: Landscapes Lost and Found – Paintings and Drawings by Emily Vigil / at The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, Ohio / THROUGH DECEMBER 3, 2017

   There’s a river flowing in every artwork of this exhibit by Emily Vigil. I’m speaking neither of sparkling streams in verdant woods, nor torrents of water rushing through fertile valleys. You won’t see spectacular illusions of majestic geography. Don’t look to be wowed by huge, hyper-realistic renderings of breathtaking panoramas.

   It’s another sort of fluid continuum that courses through these works, varied as they are in materiality, scale, and iconography. Call it a steady narrative current of memory, discovery, and desire. Vigil tells us in her statement: “…I finally allowed myself to reach toward other places, not always physically experienced, but imagined, present in our culture. My questions about place evolved into questions about time…” The spirit of this exhibit is equal parts nostalgic and forward-looking.

   Vigil’s expressionist painting style has a gestural earnestness that imbues even her most delicate observations of nature with visceral immediacy, as in her mixed media “Duet.” Accompanying the painting is a thoroughly charming poem (written in a style recalling the syntactic playfulness of e.e. cummings) describing her serene encounter with a damselfly and bee that we see in the paining. Vigil is a painter with the soul of a poet.

   Further evidence of her considerable writing gifts can be found in the booklet placed on a pedestal for viewers to read, titled “Echo, our home.” In it, Vigil lovingly relates how she came to name her northeast Ohio home - the land upon which she resides with her family. At the end of the tale, she writes, “That is how I describe our home – this land: a relationship – the wetland and the valley, filtering back an echo of my words…our words…Ever diminishing, they never quite disappear.”  Painter and poet…always listening.

   Some of the most alluring pieces here - including several acrylic transfer prints that have the grainy patina of old photos taken in diaphanous light – are remarkably small in scale. The smallest of her all-acrylic paintings, such as “Presence (Towpath Trail),” “Broken River,” and “Dreaming,” are intimate, elegant microcosms of painterly textures. 

    Collectively, these images describe a journey at once deeply personal and yet approachable – a geography both private and familiar, stilled and in motion. One of the larger paintings, “The Paths Inward,” is perhaps  an invitation for us as viewers to literally reflect on our own relationship with nature. It’s executed on a mirror, with only a few slivers of glass still visible, punctuating the scene with little flashes of light as you move around it. Sparks of life and changeability.   

   Think of the exhibit as a confluence of people, places, and things remembered, longed-for, or presently real… of ephemerality side-by-side with permanence. Here, the ever-diminishing is juxtaposed with the never-quite- disappearing.  And all of it is situated in an enchanting flow. Like a river.

   PHOTOS, from top: Presence (Towpath Trail), acrylic on fabric; Duet, mixed media; Broken River, acrylic on panel; Dreaming, acrylic on aluminum; The Paths Inward, acrylic on mirror; Broken Forest, oil on paper