Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Benediction

A Benediction
By Tom Wachunas

    “…and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.”  -Exodus 31: 3-5 –

   As Easter Day approaches, when many of us joyfully celebrate the most important Person and Event in all of human history, I prayerfully offer the following for your consideration.

    Heavenly Father, we, whom you created in your image and likeness, with all of our hearts, all of our souls, and all of our minds, thank you for the life you provide for us through the bounty of this earth you called into being.

    We ask that you let us clearly recognize that just as you nourish our bodies, so too you nourish our spirits with our ability to make and savor art.

    We remember, through the inspired writings of prophets and kings, how in ages past you blessed your people with the skills and talent to make music, vessels and structures that celebrated your love for them.

    Thank you, Father, for those among us whom you have gifted to enrich and inspire our lives with their surpassing skills and designing, those who have given all manner of marvelous form to their imaginations, imaginations you invented.

    We ask your blessing on all our artists – that you give them the wisdom to know that they are called to be servants of the creative spark which you bestowed. Bless them with humility and gratitude in knowing they are stewards of your power.

    Finally, Father, bless us all with the discernment to seek out, encourage and preserve the arts that would feed our spirits with your boundless wisdom, peace, and love.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Passion and Perplexity

   Passion and Perplexity
By Tom Wachunas

    “No one has yet written such incoherent music, ostentatious, chaotic, and disturbing to the ear. The most abrupt modulations succeed themselves in a truly repulsive sequence, and some minor ideas, far from any sublime touch, complete the incredibly unpleasant impression.”  - written by a critic in 1806 for the German periodical, Der Freimuthige, on the occasion of the world premiere of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No.3 -  

    If there is a single idea that remains maddeningly entangled with my overall sense of the March 23 program by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at Umstattdt Hall, it is that love is a many splintered thing. For it was largely a theme of love, in wildly diverse applications, that united the three works on the program: Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Canti guerrieri ed amorosi (Songs of War and Love) by American composer Claude Baker, and Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich. The evening was a stormy orchestral journey, some of it difficult to navigate, but in the end richly rewarding.

    Not surprisingly, the performance of the Beethoven overture was utterly entrancing. With inspiring clarity, the orchestra wholly embraced the work’s intense pathos and urgent drama of undeserved suffering and the resolute power of heroic love.

    The second selection of the evening was the much touted World Premiere of Claude Baker’s Canti guerrieri ed amorosi, commissioned through Meet the Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA Program, and written specifically to commemorate the CSO’s 75th Anniversary. Knowing this in advance of the performance, I thought it reasonable to expect an emotionally compelling encounter befitting the occasion. I anticipated a joyful, accessible work that would showcase all the sublime lyrical depth, astonishing technical virtuosity and sonorous aural range of this great orchestra.

    So much for lofty expectations. I do realize that ‘joy’ and ‘accessibility’ are subjective elements which can be, relative to a listener’s experience, completely absent from many contemporary orchestral pieces. And so it is that I found this particular piece to be an arduous conceptual exercise in sonic abstraction of a highly disaffecting sort. In this twenty minute-long, three movement excursion into labyrinthine polyrhythms, tonal dissonances and relentlessly overlapping percussive textures, melody had left the building.

    To be fair, Baker’s extensive program notes effectively illuminated the work’s intellectual thrust. Perhaps a fuller appreciation of its structural and aural complexities depends upon the extent of our familiarity with the medieval and Renaissance vocal compositions (about love and war) that inspired them. Even so, Baker states that he focused his energies on a more visceral presentation of the poetic essence of his source texts as opposed to rendering literal transcriptions of musical content. Consequently, melodic references to the Monteverdi madrigal, or the onomatopoetic song by Clement Janequin, for example, were admittedly minimal if discernible at all.

    While this was surely a challenging work for the audience, it was all the more so for the orchestra. Every section played with an eerily robotic if not riveting concentration and precision as they coaxed bizarre sound effects from their instruments. Judging from the lukewarm audience reception, this sort of musical severity was far too subtle and perplexing to elicit anything like real affection for the material.  Love can indeed be a battlefield. 

    We surely live in an era of cultural tolerance (albeit begrudging at times) for even the most alienating musical experiences, but such was not the case for Dmitri Shostakovich in 1936 Moscow. He was severely denounced and blacklisted by Joseph Stalin for his music that didn’t meet government “standards.” Shostakovich called his Symphony No.5, the final work on this program, “…a Soviet artist’s practical, creative reply to just criticism.”  The composer’s explanation of the work being about “joy of living” was just vague enough to regain his good standing, even though the work is now largely regarded not as an abject apology, but as a bittersweet and ironic skewering of pompous Socialist expectations.

    While there is a sense of Shostakovich’s deep love for his homeland threaded through this symphony, I think of its inclusion here, replete as it is with tumultuous emotionality, as a brilliant vehicle for Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann to communicate his and the orchestra’s palpable love for the music itself. This is certainly not to presume that the CSO was in any way unsupportive of, or unenthused by, the previous work’s challenges, but simply to place afresh the Shostakovich work in the context of a “practical, creative reply.” 

    And what a bedazzling reply it was! Here was the orchestra at its electrifying best, totally immersed in and committed to soaring expressivity. Even Zimmermann’s demeanor at the podium was especially animated, his every impassioned gesture seeming to inject his musicians with inexhaustible vigor and finesse.

     As the roar of approval from the audience would testify, musical matters of the heart such as this one will trump cerebral experiments every time.

    PHOTO: Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cathartic Moments from the Canton Symphony Chorus

Cathartic Moments from the Canton Symphony Chorus
By Tom Wachunas

    The Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) “casual series” concerts presented in Cable Recital Hall are generally chamber music affairs featuring small instrumental ensembles – duos, trios, quartets or quintets. For scaled-down concerts of this sort, the acoustics in this modest hall, which can seat an audience of approximately 140 listeners, are more than suitable.

    So the first surprise about the concert on March 15 was that it featured a full chamber  orchestra – some 30 pieces – as well as the superb 53-member Canton Symphony Chorus. One might have reasonably anticipated a sound far too deafening for this intimate venue. Surprise number two: Orchestra and chorus, both separately and together, delivered a deeply satisfying aural experience that was clear and balanced in every way.

    The program consisted of five works, four of them by living composers. Each of the selections was part of a thematic arc, described by CSO Assistant Conductor Rachel Waddell (who shared the podium on this occasion with Britt Cooper, Canton Symphony Chorus Director) as a journey through water, earth, and sky. The first piece of the evening was La Tempesta di Mare (Storm at Sea), an overture by Antonio Salieri.  While this work is not a gripping evocation of an aquatic adventure as suggested by the title, the orchestra was nonetheless captivating if not a little understated in its rendering of lush, graceful textures.

    Following this charming work were two brief a cappella choral pieces conducted by Mr. Cooper: Water Night by Eric Whitacre, and At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners by Williametta Spencer. The text for Water Night is the eponymous poem by Octavio Paz. Whitacre’s  tantalizing and voluptuous music is replete with haunting, achingly sensual crescendos and harmonies at once medieval and modern. The mystical imagery of the last line lingers with a preternatural resonance: “Night brings its wetness to beaches in your soul.” 

    No less resonant is the spirituality of the Spencer work, a full quotation of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet VII. From the initially exuberant call to angels at the last judgment, to the humility of the repentant sinner at the end, the song is startlingly triumphant. The chorus infused both works with all the subtle, poignant tonal expressivity and dramatic sonority that their poetic content demands.  

    Waddell returned to the podium for the evening’s fourth selection, the world premiere of a single movement orchestral work called Lacuna, by Matt Smith. This contemporary composition, as Waddell carefully noted to the audience, is a thoroughly challenging departure from traditional Western classical structures.

     It is indeed a rocky journey - a complex sound tapestry threaded through and through with frenetic dissonances, wildly shifting moods, and colliding textures. Call it an exotic and otherwise atmospheric flow of consciousness, performed here with riveting intensity. There is in this work a relentless sense of quickly traversing difficult, forbidding terrain, and its placement in the program order was an eerie yet apropos portal into distinctly more beatific heights attained in the evening’s final piece or, if you will, final peace.

    Orchestra and chorus offered up a stunning performance of Morten Lauridsen’s brilliant, modern requiem, Lux Aeterna (Eternal Light), which was quite literally soul-stirring. Herein there is no hint of torturous, guilt-ridden sorrow. It is a majestic work, purposed by joyous hope and powerfully enunciated by inspired chorus voices. Our attentions were transported to angelic realms immersed in a light that can only be called Divine.

    In his introduction of the work, Cooper described it as “…a catharsis to sing.” He hoped it would similarly affect the audience.  In the end, his hopes were realized. The audience was elated. And even the angels were jealous.

    (PHOTO: detail from The Annunciation, by El Greco) 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Transcendent Tendrils

Transcendent Tendrils
By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: Continuum – Mixed Media Work by Susan McClelland, Main Hall Art Gallery, Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, THROUGH APRIL 10 (Gallery closed during Spring Break March 25-31). Gallery hours are Monday-Friday 11am to 5pm, Saturday 10am to Noon

    Much of the discourse surrounding Postmodernist aesthetics and forms embraces art as a system of symbols – a language – that is intrinsically metaphorical and elliptical. From this perspective, an artist’s chosen form will often signify a singular thing while exemplifying (either intentionally or not) a multiplicity of things.

    Interpreting the object at hand then necessarily becomes a matter of identifying or sorting out what experiences and/or predispositions we as viewers bring to the encounter - to fill in the blanks, so to speak, between the signified and the exemplified. As the years march on, I’ve found this approach to understanding the complicated ethos of Postmodernism to be increasingly useful, and particularly helpful on the occasion of seeing the fascinating work of Susan McClelland, adjunct faculty (sculpture) at Kent Stark.

    Five small, mixed-media wall pieces, under the collective title, Series of Strategies, have all the appearance of dissected spinal vertebrae. But these organic forms aren’t objective illustrations of medical specimens. They’re invitingly tactile, meticulously stitched together and colored, and exude a distinctly lyrical quality. Backbones with character. You might view them as allegories of evolving personhood. 

    McClelland’s other sculptures here are evocative of vine-like stems and tendrils. Their highly textured, multi-colored surfaces give them a bold and magical sort of presence – not unlike encountering strange growths in a fantasy forest.

    Three of the works are collaborative projects with three students – Jen Jones, Cory Wilson, and Joshua Humm. McClelland presented each student with one of her spindly configurations and the student “responded” by merging it with painted styrofoam forms, manipulated to suggest, perhaps, stratified rock formations or primitive architecture. I think these chimerical convergences are largely successful on the part of the students in consistently sustaining the spirit of McClelland’s working process.

    It is a process which is - as manifest by the show’s most compelling and ambitious piece, a large-scale installation called Speciation - certainly ephemeral and intuitive. On the surface, this spectacular work is a gnarled tangle of long, thin, intersecting sticks (at times looking like bones) that have been encased in waxy color and ciliated fiber. 

    I think of the work’s linearity as spatial writing – a three-dimensional documentary, or diary if you will, about the continuity of decisions involved in its construction. There is a sense of fending off structural collapse, as indicated by the inclusion of black metal braces joining various segments together. This tension between the industrial and the organic is itself an engaging metaphor for the ontological concerns that can vex us all. 

   The simultaneity of decay and repair, damage and mending, or disease and healing is a sensibility resonant throughout this show. The colorful knotting together of disparate directions (decisions) apparent in Speciation does seem to indicate a subtle optimism amid potential chaos, as if to say when all else fails, go with the flow. A tentative if not harmonious resolution.

    PHOTOS (from top): from Series of Strategies; Organic Syncopation (collaboration with Joshua Humm); Speciation (detail)    

Monday, March 11, 2013

Let Loose on Seuss

Let Loose On Seuss
By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: Seuss-talation! Translations Art Gallery, THROUGH MARCH 30, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW,  Works inspired by Dr. Seuss children’s books, featuring art by: Kevin Anderson, Ashley Barlow, Mary Bergherr, Brennis Booth, Joseph Close, Lynn Digby, Marti Jones Dixon, Matthew Doubek, Laurie Fife Harbert, Kelly Rae, June Kucalaba, Megan Mars, Margene May, Pam Neff, Su Nimon, Bobby Rosenstock, Sarah Winther Shumaker, Meghan Stratman, Uncle Dreg, Michele Waalkes, and Mark Yasenchack.

     Nothing too dark, nothing insane, nothing too heavy to burden your brain.  Nothing too gritty, queasy or tragical. It is rather witty, easy and magical!

    Here is a show to tickle and tease, with works wise and fickle, and fond memories. It’s a Seuss celebration of tales bold and clever and in my estimation, they’ll be told forever.

    Many artists are here, 21 concisely, to honor his birthday, March 2 precisely.

    So many looks to command our attention, inspired by books, too many to mention. So here’s just a sprinkling of some playful sights, to give you an inkling of their artful delights.

    You might meet a Who, to tell you the truth. For that you can thank Mister Brennis Booth.

    Joseph Close, with skillful reach, probes the world of the mischievous Sneetch.

    There’s Digby’s hatted cat, brightly serious, and Doubek’s socksy fox, rightly delirious.

    From Kevin Anderson, a circus notion, a real kinetic surprise. There’s circular motion that a push-button supplies.

    Shumaker’s scene is an eye-popping treat, a gleeful memory of Mulberry Street. Meanwhile Mars’s yen for Yertle is a funny green stack of verticle turticles.

    So come in for a while, have a fine rhyme time, get loose with Seuss, and remember your smile.
    Look at this gathering more than a minute or two, or if you’d be rathering, 30 might do.

    And to think that I saw it on Cleveland Avenue.

    PHOTOS (from top): Mixed Memes by Lynn Digby; Fox and Socks by
   Matthew Doubek; No. 1 Mulberry Street, by Sarah Winther Shumaker