Friday, September 25, 2009

The Power of Four

The Power of Four

by Tom Wachunas

Linden String Quartet, Cable Recital Hall, Canton, Ohio, USA, 11.9.2009, (TW)

Joseph Haydn: String Quartet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 76 (1796-7)
Bela Bartok: String Quartet No. 3 (1927)
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 59 (1805-6)

The Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has greatly enhanced what already promises to be a marvelous season with the recent appointment of the Linden String Quartet as its Quartet-in-Residence. The appointment is at the heart of the CSO program to promote Classical music and string playing through various educational presentations in regional schools. Formed in the spring of 2008 by members of the professional chamber ensemble CityMusic Cleveland, the Linden String Quartet won the 2009 Grand Prize and Gold Medal in the prestigious Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition (the largest in the world), as well as the Coleman-Barstow prize at the 2009 Coleman National Chamber Ensemble Competition.

After hearing the Quartet’s inaugural Canton concert (opening the CSO Casual Friday concert series) on September 11, it was easy to understand that such accolades were well deserved. This is an astonishing chamber ensemble, and its presence here marks nothing less than a local cultural milestone.

One immediately intriguing aspect of the concert was the continuity of the musical selections – a continuity not in chronology, but in conceptual terms. The Haydn quartet, first on the program, is among the composer’s most ambitious, written at a time when his instrumental sensibilities were at their peak. As such it was a seminal influence on Beethoven, who would begin composing his own quartets just a few years later. His quartet closed the program here. Placed between the two was the thoroughly modern-sounding Bartok, reminding us with a jolt, perhaps, that he is nonetheless still generally appreciated as the most important contributor to the string quartet genre since Beethoven. Kindred spirits of a sort, both composers consistently and radically expanded the form in their passionate search for new musical expressions.

Thus the imaginative programming laid a solid foundation for showcasing the Quartet’s remarkable depth of technique and brilliantly nuanced, sumptuous tonality. And all of the music on this occasion was delivered with a palpable, infectious joy.

The Quartet’s playing of the Haydn allegro exuded all the delicate grace intrinsic to the music, and was equally confident in delivering the adagio’s cadenza-inspired passages. The performance of the ebullient finale was a gem of show-stopping panache.

Violist Eric Wong then regaled the audience with his humorous but concise introductory comments on Bartok’s complex musical mischief, describing, for example, the allegro movement as “very fast, with some head-banging.” With electrifying and gleeful precision, the Quartet proceeded to execute Bartok’s dense, kaleidoscopic range of percussive effects and thrilling tonal acrobatics. The 15-minute work elicited a considerable number of pleasantly startled looks, and murmurs of delight from the audience.

Violinist Sarah McElravy warmly introduced the Beethoven piece with an informed grasp of its significance in history as well as its sheer musical power. Indeed, the Quartet demonstrated an uncanny ability to sound downright symphonic, particularly in rendering the second movement’s dreamlike atmosphere, as well as the jaunty dance energy of the presto finale.

What resonated, too, was McElravy’s poignant observation of Beethoven’s response to critics of the day who reacted unfavorably to the evolving formal innovations in his quartets. “Oh, they are not for you,” he said on one occasion, “but for another age.” As evidenced by the standing ovation here, that age is clearly our own.

Tom Wachunas

Photo by Josef Samuel for the Fischoff National Chamber Music Association.

The Linden String Quartet (left-to-right): Eric Wong, viola; Sarah McElravy, violin; Catherine Cosbey, violin; Felix Umansky, cello

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A League of Our Own

A League of Our Own

By Tom Wachunas

Dear Canton Artists League,

As I approach my third year as a member of the Canton Artists League (CAL), I feel compelled to communicate some things for our members’ consideration, and for that matter, anyone else who might be interested. To one degree or another, some of you may be taken aback by my opinions and observations, and I add only that these are offered in a spirit of honesty and genuine concern.

It’s clear to me that CAL is a combined fellowship of accomplished masters in their respective mediums, apprentices- in-progress, and dedicated novices, which would include hobbyists and “casual practitioners.” This is to be expected in a group such as this, with its generalized “mission” – a democratic embrace of art-makers at varying levels of development and passion. As I understand it, CAL’s over-arching intention is to encourage and inspire its members to not only nurture their artistic passion, but to “further their creativity” through various workshops and exhibition opportunities.

My concerns are in the area of what CAL demonstrates to both the art-viewing public at large, as well as to the local community of serious practicing artists who seem content to remain unaffiliated with it. In particular, I’ve been wondering about exactly what the League has projected to these communities with its flurry of group shows in the last 6-8 months or so, and its ever-growing hunger for exposure as it searches for more shows in more venues.

Of all our most recent exhibitions, the largest of course was the CAL Spring Show at the Canton Museum of Art. Some of you may recall my blog review of the show. Therein I observed that it was a good thing for student and novice artists to rub elbows with those who are decidedly more accomplished and mature in their adopted visual languages. I meant it strictly from the perspective of demonstrating to greater Canton that there’s a remarkable amount of joyous creative energy in this community. But by now, that’s old news (and has been for years, actually), and creative energy in itself is not synonymous with noteworthy art or art shows. Thus, I didn’t mean to imply that the Spring Show was a hotbed of stellar talent. It surely wasn’t. The League was quite fortunate to have the opportunity to present itself in such a prestigious context, and it seemed to me that maybe half of the works in that show were merely competent at best, and not museum-caliber material by a long shot.

The problems at the heart of the Spring Show were the same problems at the heart of all the CAL shows (I was in a few myself) over the past several years. Based on the overall content of our shows, the message we have consistently sent (and I agree with what I have heard from several dozen non-member artists, as well as curators and astute art viewers over the years) is that we are often too watercolor-heavy, and otherwise entrenched in the traditional niceties of representational art, though certainly there are a few interesting pure abstractionists and experimenters on our roster. And this is certainly not to say there’s something inherently wrong with watercolors or representational art, or that we must beat the pavement to fill our ranks with an avant- garde element -though we shouldn’t necessarily dismiss that possibility as untenable or ludicrous. Still, CAL shows have become increasingly predictable in how they exude a lethargic, generic regionalism. And with as many shows as we seem interested in lining up, I fear we will become too familiar too often (or have we crossed that line already?) to the viewing public. And familiarity here doesn’t so much breed contempt as it generates sheer boredom.

What is our primary purpose when we mount an exhibit? To invite the public to see our self-congratulatory indulgence in mounting lots of shows, of uneven quality, all over the place? Or are our shows strictly for us, to see how our work stacks up against that of our fellow CAL members? Do we want to consider a curatorial element, as in juried shows in the truest sense? Do we fear that such an element would foster unwanted competition, or internal divisiveness? For now, I think that for better or worse, it’s a foregone conclusion that as long as we carry on with business as usual, CAL group shows will continue to be mixed-bag affairs that have little impact beyond the confines of our membership. And if that works for the membership, so be it.

Yet, when I really get down to some serious daydreaming, I envision CAL as a local cultural lightning rod. I see a permanent facility- a home base- that presents a rotating exhibit of its members’ work, with knowledgeable and accomplished guest curators overseeing the installations. I envision a concerted effort to find grants, endowments, and/or filthy rich art lovers able and willing to get such a project off the ground.

Maybe this isn’t a sustainable vision at this or any juncture. Or maybe Canton isn’t ready just yet. Still, it would be thrilling to see us called up from the Minors to play in the Majors.

Photo: “Man Writing a Letter,” oil, by Gabriel Metsu, 1660

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wrong Stuff, Right Stuff

Wrong Stuff, Right Stuff

By Tom Wachunas

Consider this particular post a grab-bag of sorts…just some things I need to communicate. For starters, I love the attached cartoon. Is it prophetic in the context of my recent musings about the state of public artworks in Canton? I certainly hope not. The worst case scenario is that the wrong people foist the wrong art into the public arena, making Canton a laughingstock.

Speaking of states of things, Lois DiGiacomo, founder of Rainbow Repertory Theater (among other hats she wears well) and a charming arts raconteur who hosts her own show on Canton City Schools Television called “State of the Arts,” was gracious enough to interview me recently and we talked about my ideas on…you guessed it, public artworks in Canton. I am grateful. She asked some probing questions. I know this is short notice, but if you have access to Canton Time Warner Cable Channel 11, our talk airs several times for the remainder of this week, including Wednesday, September 16 at 6am and 7:30pm, Thursday at 12:30am (yikes), 6:30am and 8:30pm, Friday at 7am, 10:30am, 2:30pm and 6:30pm, and Saturday at 3am (yikes again), 7am, 10:30am, and 9:30pm. I’m the second guest on the show, and please do watch the whole show and for that matter keep watching it in the future. You can see the program schedule listed on the calendar at . DiGiacomo is doing a great service for Canton, giving voice to all sorts of artists and arts organizations. Her show is an example of the right stuff going on around here when it comes to promoting arts awareness and dialogue.

If it’s not apparent to you by now, I love writing about what goes on around here, because there’s so much right stuff right here right now. For example, the Canton Symphony Orchestra. It’s one of the crown jewels residing in the Cultural Center for the Arts, along with Canton Ballet, Players Guild Theatre, VOCI (Voices of Canton, Inc.), and of course the marvelous Canton Museum of Art. I am happy to report that very shortly (beginning in another week or so) I will be a regular contributor to a web site called MusicWeb International, and in particular one of its links for live concert reviews, “Seen And Heard.” Canton’s orchestra can hold its own against some of the best I’ve ever heard, and deserves in-depth commentary that unfortunately you’ll never see (yet, anyway) in The Repository. The website is at When you get there, click on the tab for “Live Reviews”, which will take you to “Seen And Heard” web magazine, then click on the"International Concerts" tab. Better yet, go to and order tickets to see a phenomenally fine orchestra work its magic. Write on.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Primum non nocere

Primum non nocere
By Tom Wachunas

Huh? OK, it’s Latin for, “First, do no harm.” Long ago, this dictum became associated with the Hippocratic Oath, though the specific wording never appeared in Hippocrites’ original Greek instructions to doctors. The axiom has, however, nonetheless come to embody the spirit of accountability and intentionality that should drive healers’ actions. Beyond that, it seems to be a relevant admonition for all human interactions, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind after seeing the Players Guild Theatre’s season-opening production of the now iconic rock musical, “Rent.”

Here is a story of scarred, wounded, and dying people who at one point in the show sing out in “Will I?” their communal desire to hang on to their last real possession – their dignity. Their sense of personal worth. Their final measure of a life fully realized. On the face of it, it could be easy to dismiss their groanings as misplaced self-pity in the light of their lifestyles that many of us find unreasonable, self-destructive, and/or morally reprehensible. “Rent” is an unflinching look at the underside of a bohemian world that less adventuresome folks would regard as mystifying or darkly romantic at best, and genuinely terrifying at worst. Which is precisely the reason for us to examine it with open hearts and minds. For this story is not a celebration or condoning of particular behaviors or circumstances, among them homelessness, homosexuality, and drug addiction. It is, rather, an affirmation of the compassion that heals the devastation that those situations can generate. In essence, this is a love story. It speaks more to real hope than to preachy moralizing or superficial happy endings.

And the people who do the speaking here, whether in song or in spoken dialogue, do so with a verve and eloquence that can pierce even the most hardened, intransigent hearts. For starters, director Jon Tisevich has set the performing bar very high by virtue of his own Broadway performance history with the musical. Here, he reprises his role of Roger, the brooding and reclusive guitarist/songwriter, infected with HIV and struggling to finish composing just one more great song. Tisevich is a soaring, distinctly professional presence on stage, and in fact a blessing on the proceedings. While his astonishing musicality and dramatic skills are powerful, they’re never so overpowering that they upstage the rest of the cast. Rather, those skills seem to have inspired his fellow cast members to reach deep inside and deliver thoroughly riveting performances on their own terms.

Justin Williams plays Mark, a filmmaker and Roger’s roommate. He narrates much of the action with a fascinating mix of wry and melancholic humor. His singing and dancing duet with Tiffany Stoker in “Tango Maureen” is a gem of bittersweet hilarity. To her role of Joanne, Stoker brings notable wit and swagger, as does Samantha Crowe in her role of Maureen (Joanne’s lover), an alternately ditzy and defiant performance artist. Daryl Robinson is convincing as he struggles to reconcile with his estranged friends in the East Village artist community where he is now their landlord. Joshua Baum plays Angel, a cross-dressing drummer, not as flamboyantly as his costumes would seem to warrant, but rather with an endearing and confident gentleness. Jennifer Hayek’s portrayal of Mimi, a sassy exotic dancer with a serious drug habit, is searing and poignant, particularly as she sings the haunting “Without You.” And one of the production’s most emotionally commanding moments comes when Christopher Gales, in his excellent portrayal of Tom Collins, a former academic, mourns Angel’s death in a thunderous, heartrending reprise of the song “I’ll Cover You.”

Kudos to the five-member band, too. Steve Parsons (conductor/piano/keyboards), Erin Vaughn (guitar), Brent Schloneger (keyboards/guitar), John Chambers (bass), and Patrick Wagner (drums/percussion) make a marvelous noise indeed, rich with textures both silky and coarse.

For the moment, let’s set aside the understandable anxiety that can accompany how some (perhaps many?) of us might view “uncomfortable” theatrical literature. As this story unfolds, its more lurid (though never gratuitous) content is clearly outweighed by the timely urgency of its message: the possibility of healing through unconditional love. It starts with how we treat each other. Primum non nocere.

In our culture that seems to value increasingly selfish, insipid and otherwise escapist forms of entertainment, “Rent” is a communal act of faith and courage, presented here with electrifying passion. As such, it resonates long after the applause has faded and the house gone dark. It asks us all, I think, to seriously own our accountability to others. It asks us all to consider ourselves not as passive members of an entertained audience, but rather as active messengers of hope far beyond the stage.

Bravo, Players Guild, for asking the tough questions.

Photo: The cast of “Rent,” at the Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, through September 27. Box office: (330) 453- 7617 /


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Gridiron Gauche?

Gridiron Gauche ?
By Tom Wachunas

Before reading any further, if you don’t already know some of my concerns about public art installations in Canton, I suggest going to the archive here and reading the March 18 post, “Downtown Dumping Ground,” as well as the August 15 post, “Desperately Seeking Connections, part 2.”

In his August 23 “Your Voice” piece for The Repository, Robb Hankins, president and CEO of ArtsinStark, the County Arts Council, proposed “The Amazing Football Collection” to be installed in downtown Canton over the course of a decade. The collection would consist of 15 pieces of “jaw-dropping” art with a football theme. The kind of art that will stop people in their tracks and throw them into fits of hyperbolic praise for the Hall of Fame City. The kind of art that proclaims Canton’s proud place in human history as the birthplace of professional football. The kind of art that will draw tourists from far and wide and leave them awe-struck as they spend their money in downtown restaurants and businesses and in the process generate lots of jobs.

In light of all the hype about Canton’s “arts explosion” (largely the result of partnerships between the city of Canton, ArtsinStark, real estate developers, and folks at the Canton Chamber and Special Improvement District), when it rains downtown public art projects, it pours. Or so it would seem, judging from Hankins’ ambitious if not far-fetched proposal.

In envisioning partners for this enterprise, Hankins also included private investors, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the NFL. Clearly, the intention here is to bring in the heavy hitters and ratchet up Canton’s cultural profile to national if not world-class status. But where in this mix of partners is Canton’s most prominent presenter and preserver of visual fine art, the Canton Museum of Art? Therein we have an astonishingly rich resource of experience and knowledge when it comes to discerning and exhibiting truly significant and important works. M.J. Albacete, the museum’s executive director, has told me on several occasions that in the process of witnessing the installation of past public art pieces in downtown Canton, he has never been asked for his input on either a professional or “official” level, and remains out of the loop in considering Hankins’ latest ideas.

Excluding Albacete from artistic endeavors designed to have far-reaching, indelible effects on our community is beyond curious. It’s a shameful and otherwise egregious affront to common sense.

So once again I beat the same drum, now beginning to sound worn and increasingly muted. Who exactly is approving what we see as public art downtown? One man? A committee of business people and politicians? A confederacy of well-meaning amateurs? Beyond an already well-demonstrated fundraising (though not necessarily fund-distributing) expertise, what relevant experience and legitimate arts credentials do they bring to the table? What, specifically, is the operative philosophy driving our public art’s look, placement, and ideological content?

Maybe we should rein in this public art wagon train for a time, and re-assess the terrain. In theory, there’s nothing really tasteless about the idea of using public art projects to enhance awareness of this city’s seminal place in football history. But 15 football artworks in downtown? That, I fear, amounts to overkill of the worst kind, the consequence being a community embarrassment rather than a cultural enhancement. There is real danger here that our desire for artful monuments will mutate into a macabre circus of tchochkes. Come to think of it, based on the current crop of downtown public art works viewed in the aggregate, we seem to be already well along that road.

So perhaps a less-is-more approach needs to be seriously embraced. Why not judiciously spread the wealth, and place spectacular sculptures at, say, just four or five “gateway” entrances to Canton? Or in selected city parks? Or establish such monuments in other designated areas, perhaps re-claiming presently neglected real estate?

There seems to be an ever- growing desire for Canton to receive more national attention to its football history. Why not start with upgrading the HOF annual parade and make it truly worthy of national attention once and for all with floats and balloons comparable to the artistic scale and excellence of those in the Parade of Roses or the Macy’s Parade?

If this community is indeed serious about glorifying football with public art, the least it MUST expect is art that is commanding and noteworthy in its own right. Art that stands on its own as the very best our qualified presenters can offer, and thus deserving of respectful attention from casual viewers and seasoned aficionados alike. Art that doesn’t drop the ball.