Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Redefining 'Inspired'

Canton Symphony Orchestra and Chorus: Redefining ‘Inspired’

By Tom Wachunas

    For the final concert on April 23 in the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) MasterWorks series of the 2015-2016 season, conducting duties were split. Rachel Waddell, CSO Associate Conductor, directed the ensemble in Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Oberon, and the Ohio premiere of Dreamtime Ancestors by American composer Christopher Theofanidis. Rounding out this eminently spirited program were Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, and Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, both works for orchestra and chorus, and both conducted by CSO Chorus Director Britt Cooper.

   In Waddell’s vivacious rendering of Overture to Oberon, there was charismatic fervor in her conducting style. At once spunky and intimate, it was as if she thoughtfully absorbed every musical passage - whether calm and enchanting, or turbulent – and at the same time seemed to pour every note back into the ensemble. It was a sensibility eagerly reciprocated by the ensemble as it responded with marvelous tonal depth and palpable exuberance.

    That same chemistry was all the more apparent after intermission, in the Theofanidis work, a tone poem in three movements, composed in 2015. As Waddell explained in her introductory comments, Dreamtime Ancestors is a reference to Australian aboriginal creation myths. The music is a sweeping episodic journey, as visceral as it is ethereal, symbolizing the fusion of past, present, and future into a single living entity containing the stories and potential energy of all of us.

   Indeed, the orchestra was mesmerizing in its suggestions of primordial forces in constant flux and realization. Throughout, there was the sensation of cyclic pulsing, and at times an eerie mood of dissonant imminence. Then, in the second movement, there’s an unearthly harmonic emergence, represented by the piercing drone of the strings. Finally, in the movement called “Each Stone Speaks a Poem,” there’s a sparkling brassy burst, a revelation. The earth’s crust is talking. Call it the sound of timelessness.

   Certainly not as cosmic in scope as the Theofanidis work, Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances still has a timeless character all of its own. Part of that character is no doubt due to one of its central themes, a lovely melody now instantly familiar to us since being adopted for “Stranger in Paradise,” from the 1953 Broadway hit, Kismet. In any event, the performance here, resplendent in orchestral and choral color, was a wild and vigorous end to the evening.

    While all of the program selections were surely inspired and inspiring enough, it was the second piece on the program, the wholly – and holy - immersive performance of Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna (Eternal Light), that was arguably the most transfixing of the evening.  It is a modern work, composed in 1997, that recalls aspects of the traditional Requiem Mass. But there is little if anything of the morbidity that we find in some famous predecessors’ Requiems. This cathartic masterpiece is all about Divine light and its power to transform the darkness of grief and sorrow into peace.

    There were moments throughout the five movements, played without pause, when Britt Cooper’s conducting suggested, interestingly enough, the impassioned and authoritative promptings of an intercessory priest sustaining a superb aural balance between orchestra and singers so that both could soar without one clouding the other. The Canton Symphony Chorus, combined with Walsh University Chamber Singers, pronounced the beautiful polyphonic Latin chants with astonishing clarity and precision, infusing them with genuine solemnity and unfettered joy.  

    Is it possible for choral magnificence of this kind to transcend the incidentals of its own substance and become something else?  Absolutely, though I’m somewhat at a loss for naming it. Suffice to say that whatever we may choose to call such a phenomenon, it wasn’t simply great music that we in the audience experienced here. This was a baptism.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Poetry in 3D

Poetry in 3D

By Tom Wachunas

  Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.  ― Flannery O'Connor

   Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. –T.S. Eliot
   EXHIBIT: Palpable/Sensory/Tactile – Sculpture by Isabel Farnsworth & Shannon Hines – THROUGH MAY 6 at MAIN HALL ART GALLERY, Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / Gallery hours are Monday-Friday, 11 A.M. to 5 P.M.

   What makes Main Hall Art Gallery such a singularly edifying venue, and more so, I feel, than any other gallery in the greater Canton area, is the challenging breadth of contemporary aesthetic visions and ideologies that it consistently embraces. More often than not, the exhibits aren’t “art shows” in the ordinary or provincial sense. The artists featured in this space are very often from outside the Canton area, and regularly offer works that require something more from viewers beyond passive glancing. So I recommend coming here not looking to be merely entertained by the niceties of traditional wall and pedestal art. Instead, be willing to be engaged by and immersed in what one could rightly call experiential installations.

   Associate Professor Isabel Farnsworth and adjunct faculty member Shannon Hines are studio fine arts instructors at Kent’s main campus. Here, each offers three sculptural works that speak to the idea of memory and its associative processes. Both artists have provided written material very useful in grasping the contents and contexts of their respective pieces.

    Farnsworth’s mixed-media Tide combines wall and floor elements in a way that situates the viewer as if standing on a shore when the tide washes in, suggested by parallel rows of metal ribbons mounted on wooden frames along the floor. The repetitive pattern of these ornate, curled configurations echo and complement the look of flowing, long-hand script on the wall. There, like a blackboard “sky” overlaid with plaster water droplets, the text is a litany of references to bodies of water in English and Latin – Lakus Doloris, Lake of Sorrow, Sinus Amoris, Bay of Love, Mare Marginis, Sea of the Edge…  It’s a mesmerizing chant about the alluring mysteries and beauties of the sea, personal and universal. There’s a similarly hypnotic lyricism at work in the mandala-like floor piece, Halo, wherein painted cast forms bring to mind floating petals, simple boats, or ponds dotting a landscape seen from the air.

   Shannon Hines explains that her works are born from childhood memories. Though there might seem to be a kinship with the Minimalist aesthetic of industrial surfaces and forms stripped down to their geometric essentials, Hines’ tactile ingredients are quite effective in how they conjure multiple emotional associations belying their pared-down look. Stacked/memories  is a cubical form made from multiple, variably colored velvety pillows compacted like so many over-sized Lego pieces. And the haunting simplicity of Blue Moon Rising, with its large blue plane of back-lighted cloth, is rich with suggestions of children playing in a homemade fort, or the night time glow of a lantern in a tent.   
   I’m reminded that in making really compelling art of the sort on view here, artists are not unlike tightrope walkers – daring performers gingerly teetering between matter and spirit. Or we could think of them as the technicians and engineers of life’s more ineffable and ephemeral energies, giving tangible form to sensations embedded in the deepest recesses of our psyches. Synthesizers of the lyric and the practical, they distill and manipulate common raw materials into the uncommon stuff of poetry.

   PHOTOS (from top): Tide, by Isabel Farnsworth; Tide detail; Halo, by Isabel Farnsworth; Stacked/memories  (foreground) and Blue Moon Rising (on wall in background), by Shannon Hines

Friday, April 15, 2016

Table for 14 at Gallery 6000

Table for 14 at Gallery 6000

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: Table for 14 – Still-Life paintings by Kent Stark Painting I and Painting II Students – THROUGH MAY 6 at Gallery 6000, Conference Center Dining Room , Kent State University at Stark / 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio

    ARTISTS RECEPTION on TUESDAY, APRIL 19, 5:30p.m. – 7:30p.m.

    I realize that this is fairly short notice and beg your indulgence. But I think that this brief and stunning exhibit – up only until May 6 – warrants the attentions of my readers - both those among you who might be passionate about painting per se, and those who can appreciate the necessity and depth of discipline acquired in “academic” studio arts training.

   The works on view here are by 14 Kent Stark undergraduate students in the Painting I and Painting II classes taught by Professor Jack McWhorter, a highly accomplished painter, educator, and Coordinator of the Kent Stark Art Department. The paintings he selected for this exhibit are, interestingly enough, collectively a perfect subject matter for Gallery 6000, housed as it is in an elegant dining room. And further, they electrify the space. The walls really pop. More importantly, these works are exciting outcomes of the students’ understanding of the projects assigned to them. I leave you with McWhorter’s words about the parameters of those projects, and look forward to seeing you at the reception.

   “Clarity and expression in painting require an understanding of the painter’s tools and concepts. The Painting I and Painting II course teach this information and understanding through a series of projects, each of which is intended to explore different key painting concepts involving direct observation and invention. Using acrylic and oil paint, students develop a body of work that explores issues of color theory, form through value and tone, and a better understanding of spatial relationships within the picture plane. Through completion of these projects students achieve a certain level of proficiency and explore their potential for personal expression in painting.

 Working in class from a large complicated tableau constructed from cloths, objects and furniture densely packed with many patterns, textures and colors, students begin by making several small preparatory drawings. Through these drawings the students investigate the relative merits of one vantage point over another, selectivity as to inclusions and exclusions. After making the initial decisions about composition, students begin their canvas using a palette of warm and cool grays in a grisaille technique. Further development of these paintings follows demonstrations of scumbling techniques.

 Visual emphasis on physical qualities of paint and gesture can supersede recognizability of the still life source. I encourage the students to become sensitive to viscosity of paint and method of application; to be inventive, daring, innovative, and to experiment with mixing colors directly on the canvas as well as on the palette. Every angle of the studio set up gives you split-complementary arrangements. Notice which colors have punch, and which are more subtle by paying attention to how they mix; the relationship between the amount of paint used and its tinting power. Paint each time as though you need to finish the painting during the present session.”

   - Jack McWhorter

Monday, April 11, 2016

Tolkien, Enchantingly Condensed

Tolkien, Enchantingly Condensed

By Tom Wachunas

    For this Players Guild production of The Hobbit (adapted by Markland Taylor and based on the classic 1937 novel by J.R.R. Tolkien), director Micah Harvey was a man on a mission. He must surely have felt a solidarity with the central character, a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, who was recruited by the wizard Gandalph to accompany a dwarf named Thorin to hunt down the evil dragon Smaug, and steal back its ill-gotten treasure. Harvey’s dragon, if you please, was to somehow transfer the fantastical dramatic and visual sprawl of Tolkien’s narrative – already imprinted on pop culture as an epic film trilogy - into the unlikely and otherwise tight confines of the Guild’s arena theater. Even more challenging is the fact that Markland Taylor’s very compacted stage adaptation unfolds in only about 90 minutes with a cast of just six actors.

    This small band of performers has to in turn play a bevy of interconnected roles depicting dwarves, elves, goblins, trolls, and assorted other woodland denizens. A daunting task, to be sure. But aside from some passages when the overall dialogue energy and expressivity becomes a bit lethargic (arguably as much a flaw in the writing as it is in audible delivery), it’s a task well met here with notable versatility and panache.

    Three of the actors have single roles. Douglas Lizak, as Bildo Baggins, turns in a warm and intricately nuanced rendering of the reluctant and nervous hobbit, who much prefers simple creature comforts - such as smoking his pipe and eating favorite foods on his idyllic home turf - to stalking a dragon in forbidding lands. He’d rather be called “expert treasure hunter” than “burglar,” and much of the story embraces his struggle to realize his latent courage and inventiveness that prompted Gandalf to enlist him in the first place.

   But Bilbo’s travelling companion, the dwarf Thorin, played by Bobby Severns, doesn’t initially share Gandalph’s faith in the jittery hobbit.  As Bilbo’s more confrontational counterpart, Severns captures his character’s sardonic and feisty nature with memorable finesse.  
    In his role of Gandalph, Jonathan Tisevich is both a commanding and at times gently understated presence. He’s at once the tender encourager and the powerful, stern mentor - a mystical catalyst and embodiment of fatherly optimism tempered with cautionary wisdom.

   Meanwhile, the three remaining actors in the cast each have multiple roles of varying durations that nonetheless call for all sorts of postures and attitudes, ranging from the convincingly regal or militant, to the just plain silly or malevolent. In one of several scenes worth the price of admission, Russell Jones, Corey Paulus, and Jacob Sustersic are particularly spectacular – and hilarious – as three gargantuan trolls apparently made of stone. Bellowing in deliciously gravelly voices, they bicker over what do with the cowering Bilbo. Their sculpted costumes – a marvelous collaborative concoction by director Harvey, local artist David McDowell, and costume designer George McCarty – are works of art in themselves. A similar sculpted and kinetic marvel is the dragon, Smaug, voiced in explosive, bone-rattling tones by Sustersic, who also plays Gollum. In that role, he’s utterly startling in his frenetic writhing and leaping, all the while spitting out his urgent and faithful re-creation of that horrible and familiar voice from the films - a terribly throaty and liquid deformity.

    The combined technical works of scenic designer Joshua Erichsen, lighting designer Joseph Carmola, and sound designer Scott Sutton constitute a stellar “performance” in its own right. While static, the multi-tiered set can nonetheless evoke dense forests, rocky terrain, or darkened caves via the remarkably fluid light changes amid smoky mists. The richly layered recorded aural effects include bucolic music passages alternating with night sounds near and far, soothing as well as alien and terrifying. 
    So did Micah Harvey and company subdue their dragon and bring home the gold, as it were?  Is this ambitious mission, this highly edited epic by the Players Guild, a success? Given the sheer breadth and complexity of Tolkien’s narrative vision, in a manner of speaking you could call it a wholly enchanting some of its parts.   
    The Hobbit, at Canton’s Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio,  THROUGH APRIL 24 / Performances at 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday / Tickets: $16 for adults, $12 for 17 and younger, at 330.453.7617 or

    PHOTOs, courtesy Players Guild Theatre: Top (clockwise from top left) – Jonathan Tisevich, Bobby Severns, Douglas Lizak, Corey Paulus, Jacob Sustersic, Russell Jones / Bottom, l to r: Bobby Severns, Jonathan Tisevich, Corey Paulus

Friday, April 1, 2016

From Deep Inside

From Deep Inside

By Tom Wachunas

    “…We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body…”
    - 2 Corinthians 4: 8-10

    I suppose it’s a bit ironic that I should be writing this on April Fools’ Day, if only because what I wish to share with you is something of utmost seriousness. Still, you could call it a belated Easter meditation, though I dare say that it’s never out of season to seriously embrace the single greatest event in all of human history: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    Not so ironic is the fact that the art work pictured above - my newest, called “Supplication” – very quickly evolved as a spontaneous prayer for the disunited state of America, which I uttered many times over the course of Holy Week.

    When I decided to photograph my work (painted fabric and found flag mounted on a flat wood armature) strictly for the purpose of this missive, I simply took the quickest way and, without thinking too much, placed it outdoors on my cement driveway. Looking down at it through the camera, I had the eerie feeling of examining roadkill, though the work is intended to be ultimately presented as a wall piece. But I didn’t think this unsettling association was too inappropriate.

   For all of the diversity of voices in this country that we claim to hold so dear, we have become a cacophonous choir, united only in our dissonance, with neither a harmonious score to sing nor a director to lead it. Our country is pressed down to the point of numbness by the aimless and weighty pluralism of its ideas. And there are times when I’m profoundly saddened that we’re losing - if we haven’t lost it altogether – the willingness to trust and walk the Way of Jesus, much less successfully navigate the treacherous roads we’ve already paved.

    In my mourning, then, I am indeed perplexed, yet not despairing. So it is that I offer this prayer for surrender to the what, where, and why of Him who is our Hope.