Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Canton Symphony and Andre Watts: Burnin' Down the House

Canton Symphony and Andre Watts: Burnin’ Down the House
by Tom Wachunas

        Vive le Francais was the theme for the January 26 concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at Umstattd Hall, featuring works by Debussy, Ravel, Franck and Saint-Saens. Maybe a more apropos title for the evening would have been Vive le Watts, as in the eminent pianist, Andre Watts. His return to Canton (the last being in 2010) begins a three-year CSO residency. The 2014-15 season promises to be especially momentous, when he will perform all of Beethoven’s piano concertos with Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann conducting. 

    In some ways, this concert brought to mind a twist on the old adage, “a watched pot never boils.” For programmatically, this watched pot, so to speak, did finally bubble over, and explosively so, though only after a long, lingering simmer.

    First on the program was Claude Debussy’s symphonic suite, Printemps (Spring), a lesser-known work from his youth in two free-form movements which, despite their largely derivative nature, foreshadowed some of the more memorable developments in the composer’s later work. Here the orchestra was particularly fresh and tantalizing during the first movement’s atmospheric string crescendos. And in keeping with the spirit of the work, which suggested a bursting forth of new life, the aural intensity of the more extroverted second movement was decidedly more pronounced.

    The second program selection, Ma Mere l’Oye (Mother Goose Suite), by Maurice Ravel, seems in retrospect a more substantial exercise in frothy orchestral textures and thematic whimsicality, with enchanting solo passages from the winds, violin, and viola, along with a splendorous fanfare in the finale. By now the water, as it were, was getting warmer.

     Following the intermission, the much anticipated appearance of Andre Watts significantly raised the temperature, beginning with Cesar Franck’s Symphonic Variations. The work has often and rightly been described as a superbly structured, colorful dialogue between piano and orchestra. And while it does not require any unusually frenzied virtuosity on the part of the soloist, Watts voiced his end of the scintillating conversation with passionate animation and clarity. Call it the last step prior to full-boil.

    From the opening cadenza of the evening’s final work - Camille Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No.2 in G Minor -  with its solemn, muscular arpeggios, to the breathtaking rhythms of the exhilarating third movement, Watts exhibited astonishing stamina and flawless  authority. It is after all the piano which establishes the overall thrust of this work.  Watts greeted the task with fierce, riveting panache. So too the sparkling orchestra, responding in kind as a full partner on this remarkably powerful musical excursion. 

    At one point during the final movement I looked around the hall and saw rows of faces with eyes widened and jaws dropped in rapt attention. Presto indeed, Watts had completely immersed himself in a seemingly endless torrent of joyously cascading notes until the very last cymbal crash. Then, for a moment, he seemed to collapse, utterly spent.

    But his apparent exhaustion was short-lived. He quickly stood up and smiled broadly at the clearly adoring audience, which just as quickly stood for a long ovation. No encore was forthcoming. None was needed.      

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Softer Side of a Cautionary Tale

The Softer Side of a Cautionary Tale
By Tom Wachunas

     My momma always said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”  -from Forrest Gump –

    Having never read Roald Dahl’s 1964 fantasy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, my primary referent point regarding the story remains the 1971 film adaptation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring the brilliant Gene Wilder in the title role of the reclusive, complicated chocolatier. By comparison, the typically bizarre Tim Burton film, from 2005 and featuring Johnny Depp as the wily Wonka, was largely an unmitigated disaster.

    Based on the films alone, I never bought into the proposition that this was strictly a “children’s story.” Like the iconic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons of the 1950s, I still think this narrative is, at its core, more the purview of adults (well-adjusted and otherwise), and only pretends to be for kids.

    The current stage production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Canton Players Guild Theatre is a dramatization by Richard R.  George and directed here by Carrie Alexander Spina. The show is clearly intended as “family entertainment,” well- tailored to generously tickle younger folks’ fancies, and only lightly sprinkled with the film versions’ headier, less innocent elements that seem so darkly appealing to us grownups.

    That said, it’s a generally satisfying theatrical experience. Surprisingly so, when considering that it’s presented in the Guild’s smaller arena theater. You’d think that a fantasy spectacle of this scale would necessarily require the much larger main stage. But the limited dimensions of the performance space are creatively used in an expansive way, enhanced by the simple but very inventive scenic and lighting design by Josh Erichsen and Scott Sutton, respectively.

    Particularly clever is the manner in which four of the five Golden Ticket winners are introduced. We watch a pre-recorded video news cast on a large flat screen high above the set. Here’s where the children are individually interviewed prior to their tour of Willy Wonka’s factory, and where we first encounter their insufferably bratty and selfish natures.

    Kudos to the brilliantly directed young performers who clearly relish this chance to credibly play badly-parented children and give new meaning to “acting out”: Elden Mortensen as the gluttonous Augustus Gloop; Bella Marie Gill as Veruca Salt, the spoiled-rotten, loud rich girl; Morgan Brown as the haughty, incessantly gum-chomping Violet Beauregarde; and Jared Six playing Mike Teavee, hopelessly addicted to television. The scenes of their hilarious comeuppances (Violet, for example, gets turned into a blueberry, and Mike is morphed into a television transmission) are made all the more delicious by the convincing hysterical reactions portrayed by their flummoxed parents.

    In direct counterpoint to all this manic mayhem is the endearing character of Charlie Bucket. To that role, Drake Spina brings a quiet yet spunky energy, grounded in authentic curiosity and warmth, as does J. Scotland Gallo in his role as Grandpa Joe.

     E.J. Dubinsky’s enjoyable rendering of Willy Wonka is decidedly less enigmatic and edgy than Gene Wilder’s, and imbued with a gentler, youthful accessibility. He’s more the quirky wizard than the eccentric paranoid. And the six children sporting candy-colored hair bobs, cavorting about in hippity-hop stutter step as the Oompa Loompas, aren’t so weird or otherworldly as they are simply adorable.

    The difference between the film version and this sweet confection is the difference between dark chocolate-covered nuts and creamy-smooth nougats.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton. Shows THROUGH Feb. 3, Fridays at 7p.m, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $15, and $12 for age 17 and younger.  Box office at (330) 453 – 7617, or visit
  PHOTOS (rehearsal shots) by James Dreussi. Top, left-to-right: Elden Mortensen, Morgan Brown, Drake Spina, E.J Dubinsky, Bella Marie Gill, Jared Six   

Monday, January 21, 2013

Welcome to Their World

Welcome to Their World
By Tom Wachunas

    “The power of the press belongs to those who can operate one.” – a sign in the printmaking studio of Ruthann Godollei at Macalester College, Minnesota -

    EXHIBITION: Printivale! At Translations Art Gallery, THROUGH JANUARY 26, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, Ohio. Viewing hours are Wednesday, Noon to 9 p.m., Thursday – Saturday Noon to 5 p.m.

    This just in, hot off the presses: Printmaking is definitely making an impression in these parts. If you’ve yet to see Printivale! at Translations, there’s still four days (Jan. 23 – 26) to view it. My sincere apologies for not getting around to commenting on the exhibit before this.

   You may or may not remember New Hampshire artist Erin Sweeney from her collaborative show here with Marietta artist Bobby Rosenstock back in February, 2011, when the gallery was known as Anderson Creative. Here’s a link to my review of that exhibit because I think much of it is relevant to this one as well:
   Curated by Erin Sweeney, Printivale! presents works by 22 printmakers (including her own work as well as that of Rosenstock) from around the U.S. and Ireland. Most impressive about the show is its depth of styles, diversity of subject matter, and technical virtuosity.

    Speaking of technical virtuosity, Mr. Rosenstock continues to ply the ancient and painstaking practice of woodblock printing with a thrilling level of masterful workmanship, as demonstrated in his unusually large (and aptly titled) Wondrous Wonder, and the multi-colored Unfathomable Tangle. Similarly meticulous is Building the Perfect Worm Hole by Rebecca Gilbert, with its unframed representational images cut out and mounted on the wall, somewhat like a relief sculpture. And Christopher Baker’s letterpress printed red dice (simple but far from simplistic) is a mesmerizing exercise in decorative, variable patterns. A-mazing.

    There are some notably captivating works here in the realm of social and/or political commentary. Among them, the hand- embellished woodcut, Rockwell’s Freedom from Want, by Chad Creighton, is a startling if not humorous appropriation of Norman Rockwell’s iconic Thanksgiving gathering. Creighton’s feasting family members all wear turkey face masks. Another appropriation of a sort is Amanda Benton’s digitally printed spoof, Benton’s Bazarro.  Convincing in its slick commercial look (all written, designed and edited by Benton), it’s a deliciously vicious parody of women’s fashion magazines. Maps, by Amos Paul Kennedy, superimposes letterpress text on a found map of Alabama. The word  RACISM is diagonally emblazoned in red across the middle of the map, along with LUKE 6:31 horizontally in black. Call it a boldly interactive message piece to the extent you don’t forget to look up the Scripture citation.
    In short, this exhibit is a stunning confluence of traditional and non-traditional printmaking approaches and formats – a fresh melding of centuries-old methods and materials with expanded contemporary applications. Beyond that, it is compelling evidence of Translation Gallery’s vital and continuing commitment to showcasing fresh artistic visions that are as intelligent and evocative as they are entertaining.

PHOTOS, courtesy Craig Joseph/Translations Gallery: (from top) Wondrous Wonder by Bobby Rosenstock; Rockwell’s Freedom from Want, by Chad Creighton; Building the Perfect Worm Hole, by Rebecca Gilbert

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Giving Form to Meditation

Giving Form to Meditation
By Tom Wachunas

      Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  – Hebrews 11:1 -

    EXHIBITION: Thin Places, photographs by Michele Waalkes, at Market Street Art Spot, 219 N. Market Street, Minerva, Ohio, THROUGH FEBRUARY 2. Viewing hours are Thursday – Saturday, 1:00 – 6:00 and by appointment.

    Michele Waalkes’ sense of place transcends immediate sensory data. Which is to say that her photographs of “thin places” are really more akin to ethereal zones. Herein the obvious visual evidence of locations in Assisi, Italy, has been re-processed to suggest ghostly essences or ephemeral presences, transferred to a variety of surfaces including wood, canvas and reflective metal.

   Certainly her method of overlapping exposures of two scenes/locales may be simple enough. Yet from that simplicity of approach, she has generated richly textured, lovely juxtapositions of separate physical realities that seemingly merge to create a third, metaphysical reality. The pictorial whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

    These harmonizings of man-made entities (such as religious artifacts, churches or other classically-styled architectural works) with natural landscape elements are on one level symbols of a heightened sentience, or metaphorical meditations on the unity of things cognitive and intuitive, corporeal and spiritual, secular and holy.

    The two pieces printed on metal in this collection – Salvation and Today and Tomorrow – shimmer with an opalescence that brings an uncanny sensation of movement to the imagery. And in that sense, all of the images here, imbued with gentle, diffuse light, suggest a kind of animation  -  a temporal shifting, not too unlike a cinematic encounter of separate scenes simultaneously fading in and out of view. In Waalkes’ elegant pictures, the scenes hover in a frozen moment of serene equilibrium. 

    In all, these are visual devotions and meditations, seen through the lens of quiet awe and reverence.

    Photo:  Entrance, digital photo on canvas, by Michele Waalkes

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Canton Symphony Strikes an Exotic Chord

Canton Symphony Principals Strike an Exotic Chord

By Tom Wachunas

     The January 11 Casual Series chamber concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at Cable Recital Hall was an utterly fascinating  aural adventure. Principal CSO Flutist Katherine DeJongh and CSO Principal Percussionist Matthew Beck combined their remarkable skills to deliver a captivating program of works with scintillating textures, intriguing melodies, and infectious rhythms.

    Two of the seven works on the program were duets for flute and percussion: Henri Tomasi’s Le Tombeau de Mireille, and Lou Harrison’s First Concerto for Flute and Percussion. The Tomasi piece, with Beck steady on drum and DeJongh pure and piercing on piccolo, is at many junctures a frolicsome dance, at others a slow, solemn march. The performance conjured the spirit of medieval troubadors traversing the French countryside. 

    The very short Harrison concerto, composed in 1939, is comparatively less stark and far more rich in its array of percussive effects which were unconventional for their day. Here Beck, along with playing a set of graduated drums, included a Nigerian ankle rattle and lead pipe as part of his arsenal. The slow middle movement was more cumbersome and ponderous than poignant, though the outer movements were played with notable vigor, as indicated by the composer’s notations – “Earnest, Fresh and Fastish” for the first movement, and “Strong, Swinging and Fastish” for the third. 

    Mr. Beck’s solo performance of Third Dance for Marimba (1989), by Thom Hasenpflug, was a thoroughly delightful demonstration of the instrument’s sonorous versatility and otherwise a tour-de-force of technical virtuosity. Even more colorful and engaging were the duets for flute and marimba.

     Foundations (1997), by Josh Gottry, was infused with hypnotic passages wherein Beck’s facile touch allowed the instrument to sound a gentle pulsing or subtle drone over which DeJongh’s articulate flute alternately hovered and soared with lilting energy. Likewise, Due Northwest (2009), by Michael Culligan, was a splendid vehicle for spritely lyricism and crisp, rhythmic counterpoint between the two superbly gifted musicians.

  The spirit of the World Music genre was evident in varying degrees throughout the entire program, as in Astor Piazzolla’s L’Histoire du Tango. And the first movement of that work – Bordel 1900 - was certainly a hot and frisky enough selection (with the original guitar part very effectively played on marimba) for closing out the concert. Interestingly enough, though, the most compelling and riveting performance came earlier in the program with Gareth Farr’s 1996 work, Kembang Suling: Three Musical Snapshots of Asia.

   Here, the uncanny unity of sound between flute and marimba was like a haunting whisper in the opening Bali movement. Then, as if slowly emerging from a shimmering mist, the pulsing music became an increasingly intense battle of sorts between the instruments as each vied for supremacy. In the second Japan movement, once again the marimba became a ghostly drone - a tonal shadow that beautifully complemented the breathy, marvelously sliding flute notes. The final India movement was a breathtaking and complex journey into intertwined pentatonic melodies and rhythms. 

    Journey indeed, it was a work that embodied all of the evening’s best aspects with consistent intensity – mesmerizing and joyously exotic.