Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Ravishing Virtuosity and Power from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

 Ravishing Virtuosity and Power from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

   In his program comments celebrating the 80th season of the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), Music Director Gerhardt Zimmermann wrote, “Why do I love conducting this wonderful orchestra?...The CSO is that rare gem of orchestras that conductors seek to make music with. Their playing is committed, heartfelt, powerful, and above all, exciting.”

   For the season-opening concert on October 14, that rare gem dazzled with exceptional brilliance, beginning with Samuel Barber’s Essay For Orchestra No. 2, composed in 1942. It’s a marvelous, single movement work of interwoven, contrasting themes and developments, and exemplary of Barber’s passionately lyrical aesthetic. Here the ensemble perfectly captured the work’s changing moods – like painting an expansive landscape of emotions in sumptuous orchestral colors - with compelling precision and dramatic sonority. The briefly tranquil opening theme gave way to darker passages of churning drama and foreboding. Those in turn transitioned to more light-hearted, pastoral interludes, with melodic counterpoints that eventually morphed into the majestic and triumphal solemnity of the explosive conclusion, all clearly thrilling the audience. 

    Lauren Roth, a former CSO concertmaster and now concertmaster of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, returned to Canton to perform Camille Saint-Saëns’ lavish Concerto No. 3 for Violin and Orchestra. What made this homecoming all the more exciting was that this was the first time Roth performed the concerto with an orchestra, though you’d never guess it from her virtuosic playing, delivered with astonishing fluidity and authority.

   Roth’s demeanor was mesmerizing, at once gently measured and aggressive, evident in both her impassioned facial expressions and stance. She was communing with not only the ensemble, but also with her instrument, making it sing in a marvelous range of tonalities, and at times seeming to demand its submission to the many technical challenges of the music. Her playing was especially poignant during the second movement, wherein the graceful violin melody engaged in a delicate dance with the woodwinds. Throughout the work, she articulated Saint-Saëns’ lush cadenzas – ravishing in their fast arpeggios and scales, double stops, and flawless ascensions into incredibly high-pitched harmonics – with stunning bravura.

   Respighi’s Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome), and Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) comprised the second half of the evening. The orchestrally rich score for the latter work called for a massive orchestra. Consequently, for this concert, the CSO ensemble was 92 members strong – a substantially larger group than usual, providing an unprecedented aural depth to the proceedings.

   While the performance of The Fountains of Rome was utterly enchanting, it was in the final movement of The Pines of Rome – “the pines of the Appian Way”- where the orchestra became an unforgettably unified embodiment, delightful in its unabashed flamboyance, of the composer’s intent. Respighi described it as the “…unceasing rhythm of numberless footsteps. A vision of ancient glories appears to the poet’s fantasy: trumpets blare, and a consular army bursts forth in the brilliance of the newly-risen sun…”

   A low, rumbling, relentless cadence, suggesting an army on the march, reverberated through the entire concert hall in ever-loudening layers, enough to rattle bones and make the heart race. We were engulfed in plangent waves of brassy martial trudging, augmented by the extra brass players standing in the side aisles. Maestro Zimmermann was particularly animated, turning this way and that, like a general rallying his troops. The final jubilant chord was a piercing blast, raising a collective shout of amazement from the audience. It was as if all of Roman history had just passed before us in a protracted sonic boom.

Saturday, October 14, 2017



By Tom Wachunas

   It’s still hurricane season. It will remain hurricane season long after its official meteorological end. Volatile storms of ideological conflicts will continue to afflict us, leaving us powerless and floundering in the vast, ever growing debris fields of our spiritual malaise.

    Questions blowin’ in the wind. A rare urge, or surge, this – to share with you, on this platform of ARTWACH, some considerations of my art for a change.

   Above, you see three paintings. At the top, “The Untied State of America,” made just a few weeks ago. Next, “Broken English Readymade,” from 2016. And at the bottom, “The United State of McMerica,” from 2010. Seems I’ve been developing a series. Maybe. “Political” art? That’s too easy and convenient a descriptor. Try ‘spiritual exercises,’ or ‘meditations,’ or even prayers.  The pleas, the please, of a wounded heart. An S.O.S. – Save Our Soul.

   …One nation, under God?

   The American flag, abstracted on grocery bags. Grocery bags – containers of consumables, sustenance, nutrients, sanitation necessities. Grocery bags – containers for disposables, things unwanted, trash. White stripes scratched with letters. Detached syllables. Words and phrases once familiar, now fragmented, foreign, fraught. 

   What do we stand for, and when? In whose presence? Untied, we kneel. The American Scream. Forgive us, Father, for we know not what we do.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Solid Air, Liquid Earth

Solid Air, Liquid Earth

By Tom Wachunas

   “To a nonpainter, oil paint is uninteresting and faintly unpleasant. To a painter, it is the life's blood: a substance so utterly entrancing, infuriating, and ravishingly beautiful that it makes it worthwhile to go back into the studio every morning, year after year, for an entire lifetime.” – James Elkins

 “The secrets of alchemy exist to transform mortals from a state of suffering and ignorance to a state of enlightenment and bliss.”
― Deepak Chopra
   EXHIBIT: in the whisper of silence / paintings by Mona Brody, on view THROUGH OCTOBER 27, 2017, at Main Hall Art Gallery, Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / viewing hours Monday-Friday, Noon-5 P.M. 

   Early in her gallery talk at Main Hall Art Gallery on October 6, visiting painter Mona Brody - currently Professor of Art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York - described her methodology. Several times she used the term alchemy in an overarching way. It’s a wonderfully loaded term in this context, useful as both a practical and philosophical descriptor. Without traveling too far into painting arcana, suffice it to say that Brody is an alchemist extraordinaire.

   Start with regarding alchemy in the sense of transmuting common, ordinary materials into uncommon ones, or a process of changing one thing into another. Here I’m not talking about using paint to make merely prosaic illusions of plastic realities. Yes, there are certainly indications of terrestrial or celestial metaphors to be seen in Brody’s paintings, such as animal forms and aerial views of landscapes, or volatile skies. But in her process of altering pigments and oil to transport us beyond their innate materiality, Brody constructs altogether discrete sensory experiences, independent of recognizable nature, and stunning on their own terms. 

   In considering alchemy as it might be applied to making abstract imagery, think of it as the practice of reconciling dualities or opposites: temporality and timelessness; permanence and ephemerality; the apparent and the implied; the literal and the metaphorical. Brody’s paintings are on one level really about the paint and, paradoxically enough, the paint transcending its paint-ness in the same way poetry employs words.

   The linear elements in such works as the magnificent diptych, “Keep Out,” might be seen as bleeding, or crying, or simply an overflowing, like rivulets  of emotive energy. They’re a drawing out, which is to say an identification, memory, or preservation of pathways - an intuitive sort of cartography to navigate through all those surrounding organic forms. Some of those forms  are in turn indeterminate, cloudy and vaporous, while others are relatively more substantive and defined. 

   As in many of the other paintings here (15 in all), these amorphous structures bloom toward us and also fade away simultaneously, all the while hovering or perhaps incubating, as if waiting in our present moment. The intimate scrutiny that they invite reveals a subtly mesmerizing depth of entities both veiled and exposed – a layered history of gestures and responses, of diaphanous things emerging and changing, or hiding in plain sight. 

   Throughout her paintings, Brody has incorporated a product called “interference paint.” This remarkable product’s name seems somewhat antithetical to its purpose of causing certain colors to change right before your eyes - with varying degrees of opalescence, iridescence, or otherwise translucent shimmering - depending on your proximity and viewing angle to the work. Maybe it should be called something more relevant to its effect, such as ‘augmentation paint’ or ‘enhancement paint.’  In any case, there’s often the delightfully uncanny sense that parts of the canvas surfaces are being illuminated from the inside. Brody uses the effect judiciously.  It’s most apparent in those hints of warmer and more verdant colors, or little flashes of metallic accents, that seem to lurk underneath a palette dominated by off-whites, muted greys, browns, and intermediate earth tones.

   So as the title of this exhibit tells us, Brody is not shouting. The sensations evoked here are not exclaimed via hyperbolic hues or heavy impasto, but uttered, even sung, quietly. Gazing at all the paintings, especially “Keep Out,” I went in. And what I heard when I got there was the exquisite sound of my looking. That’s alchemy.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Keep Out  2. Indistinguishable  3.  Leaning Into the Wind  4. In There  5. Layered Soil and Bone  6. Artist talking, photo by Jack McWhorter      

Monday, October 2, 2017

Salon Fantastique

Salon Fantastique 

By Tom Wachunas

    SALON: Official exhibition of art sponsored by the French government. It originated in 1667 when Louis XIV sponsored an exhibit of the works of the members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and the salon derives its name from the fact that the exhibition was hung in the Salon d’Apollon of the Louvre Palace in Paris. After 1737 the Salon became an annual rather than a sporadic event, and in 1748 the jury system of selection was introduced. During the French Revolution the Salon was opened for the first time to all French artists, although the academicians continued to control most of the exhibitions held in the 19th century. With the formation in 1881 of the Société des Artistes Français to take over the responsibility of holding the Salon, and with the growing importance of independent exhibitions of the works of avant-garde artists, the Salon gradually lost its influence and prestige.  - from Encyclopædia Britannica

   EXHIBIT: Salon Style: Works from the Permanent Collection Vault, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / THROUGH OCTOBER 29, 2017

   Talk about ambitious, hard work. A few months ago, Canton Museum of Art (CMA) Chief Curator & Registrar, Lynnda Arrasmith, along with CMA Assistant Registrar, Kaleigh Pisani-Paige, took on the daunting (some might say absurd) task of hanging, salon-style, well over 200 works from the museum’s permanent collection. The pieces are presented in the museum’s large upper gallery, placed very close together in a display method made famous by the French Salon exhibits of the 18th and 19th centuries (illustrated above in a 1785 etching by Pietro Antonio Martini). 

   These days the method is considered inappropriate to optimal viewing of artworks mounted on a wall, and otherwise passé. We’ve come to appreciate sufficient breathing room between our pictures. Still, and interestingly enough, the gallery feels electrified by a giddy what-was-old-is-new-again energy, as if the cloistered aesthetic spirits of the past have come out of hiding to strut their stuff in a wild dance.  

    So what prompted the making of this wondrous anachronism? You could call it a necessary labor of love. As the CMA press release tells us,“…This wasn’t entirely an aesthetic choice – the skylights in the collection vault are being removed, so the paintings needed to be temporarily removed. Rather than store the paintings in the gallery and close it off to the public, the CMA curatorial staff decided to hang the works – all of them – for the public's enjoyment. This exhibition doesn’t include every piece in the collection, but it provides a good foundation of the CMA collection as a whole.” 

   Good foundation indeed. This unprecedented exhibit is certainly a breathtaking overview of the museum’s regionally and nationally acclaimed focus on American watercolors and works on paper from the 19th century forward, along with contemporary ceramics from the 1950s forward. 

   But beyond that remarkable enough distinction, what makes the exhibit – and the CMA collection as a whole – additionally impressive is the significant and generous variety of other iconographic genres, including nonobjective abstract works. They provide an altogether exhilarating depth to this mad spectacle of beautiful plenitude.