Sunday, October 20, 2019

A Riveting Performance from a Rising Star


A Riveting Performance from a Rising Star



By Tom Wachunas

“…This is a story that commemorates living and passing through places of knowledge and of sharing and of that song called life.”
- Jennifer Higdon, writing about blue cathedral

   With Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann in the pulpit, as it were, the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) took us to church with the first of the three works on its season-opening  October 12 program. Written by the acclaimed contemporary American composer, Jennifer Higdon, in 1999, blue cathedral is a tone poem inspired by the searing loss of her younger brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, to cancer.

   Higdon has explained that she thought of cathedrals as symbolic portals, leading from our world into spiritual realms beyond. Resonant throughout the work is the suggestion of a contemplative walk down cathedral aisles, a slow rising past pillars and glittering stained glass windows, through an immense ceiling to a vast blue sky, only momentarily clouded with sorrow tinged with anger, and finally  to a peaceful state of transcendent celebration.

    Special attention is given in the music to the flute, which Higdon learned to play when she was 15, and the clarinet, her brother’s instrument. Here, both soloists – flautist Jenny Robinson and clarinetist Ethan Usokin – delivered achingly poignant dialogues amidst soft, shimmering chords from the strings, with the flute eventually fading out as the clarinet progressed alone into ecstatic quietness. Additionally, elegant percussive effects brought a haunting dimensionality. A variety of crystalline chimes and ringing bells augmented the sensation of being in a sacred place, including a passage wherein members of the string section gently rotated the small Chinese meditation balls they held in their hands, making a sound like distant wind.  All told, the orchestra rose to this wholly mesmerizing work with a reverence so palpable, so moving, that I felt physically uplifted.

   While blue cathedral is certainly an empyreal journey, the second selection on the program, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor -  with its unforgettable opening of a three-octave plunge down the keyboard – is a more earthbound experience, though no less compelling in its fervent soulfulness. Strangely, I’ve encountered some critical assessments of this work over the years which too quickly labeled it a tired warhorse. I’m sure that the CSO guest soloist, Eva Gevorgyan, would heartily disagree.

   There was nothing hackneyed about how this 16 year-old rising star performed the concerto with not only impeccable technical prowess and clarity, but electrifying emotional intelligence as well. An especially arresting element was Gevorgyan’s physical deportment. Her entire performance was infused with a quirky yet somehow endearing theatricality, as if she had adopted the animated mien of an entranced ballet dancer. In those passages when she wasn’t playing, she often gazed dreamily upward, listening intently to the ensemble, arms slowly swaying, hands poised in midair, seeming to gently grasp and sculpt the music itself.

    Gevorgyan’s articulation of the cadenza at the end of the first movement was a breathtaking display of youthful, sinewy vigor, and beautifully complemented by the delicate, nuanced wistfulness of her playing in the elegiac Adagio movement.  Her powerful rendering of the majestic final movement brought the audience immediately to their feet amidst giddy howls of approval. The encore, Alexander Scriabin’s Poem, Opus 32, No.1, was an all-too-brief moment of elegant, introspective lyricism.

   After intermission, the orchestra’s performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major was in every sense a brilliant exposition of the work’s almost dizzying array of moods, textures, colors, and rhythms. Still, even after the sonorous magnificence of the jubilant finale, what remains most bright in my appreciation of this extraordinary evening is Gevorgyan’s  riveting ride on Grieg’s warhorse.


Monday, October 14, 2019

Of Site and Sight


Of Site and Sight


"Tapestry" (2019)

"To lay your head on water" (2018)

"Constellation Group" (2019)

"Effigy" (2014)


By Tom Wachunas

   “…Overall, I equate my process as one akin to meditation rather than image making or craft. Repetition is employed to mark time’s passing, and with it I build elaborate surfaces covered with minute hand embellishment.  In this private, performative act of making I became a witness and a recorder.”  - Danielle Rante

EXHIBIT: Double Visions - solo exhibition featuring works by Danielle Rante / THROUGH OCTOBER 31, 2019 / at The William J. and Pearl F. Lemmon Gallery, located in the Fine Arts Building on the Kent State University at Stark campus / 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio
Artist’s Gallery Talk: Thursday, October 31, 11am Gallery Hours:  Monday-Thursday 11:00-6:00 pm, Friday 11-5 pm


   Hanging on the walls in one corner of the gallery – an alcove, of sorts, tucked away from the six large works on paper featured this exhibit – is a horizontal stretch of unrolled graph paper marked with words, numbers, and colored sketches of circles. Loosely pinned just above and below is an array of small photos of terrains from around the world, along with various dried botanical specimens.

   This seemingly impromptu arrangement suggests a travel log, a navigational chart, or maybe a bulletin-board journal of geographical sites visited and explored. As such, the display is an inviting portal to appreciating the conceptual essence Danielle Rante’s works on paper.

   Double Visions indeed, these thoughtfully wrought pieces show Rante to be an inquisitive voyager who transforms the material nature of a place or surface into a poetic contemplation. Her colored pencil drawings are hypnotic compositions, at once atmospheric and architectural, straddling the material and the ethereal, and replete with delicate detail and exquisite ornamentality.  Even more striking are her cyanotypes. To look at them is to be drawn into gorgeous, undulating cyan fields to encounter sublime empyreal dramas, where tiny earthbound floral and organic forms take on a galactic dimensionality. Like star maps.

    The cyanotype process (from the Greek word cyan, meaning “dark blue substance”) was invented by the British scientist, Sir John Herschel, in 1842. Not requiring a conventional darkroom or camera per se, images were produced by placing objects directly on to photosensitive (chemically treated) paper and exposing it to light to make what were then called “photograms.” The process was soon used to make architectural documents which we know as blueprints. Interestingly, the botanist Anna Atkins, considered to be the first female photographer, used the process to make an album of collected algae specimens in 1843.

    The notion of collecting, examining, and savoring, both scientifically and aesthetically, is a resonant presence in Rante’s cyanotypes. These configurations are made up of multiple, identically-scaled units of paper, arranged in a way that brings to mind the ground grids typically constructed for meticulous archaeological excavations. In Rante’s explorations, the terrestrial merges with the celestial. Our act of seeing becomes itself a spiritual exercise, a meditation. Site becomes mesmerizing sight.

Friday, October 4, 2019

An Epic Passage to Canaan


An Epic Passage to Canaan

Hidden Passage

A Brief Respite

Look for the Grey Barn Out Back

Stopover

Friend or Foe?

Nightlight


By Tom Wachunas

      A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, Sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We want to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.”  – Frederick Douglas

   EXHIBIT: Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad / at The Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH OCTOBER 20, 2019 / 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / www.cantonart.org /330-453-7666

  “For over 14 years, Jeanine Michna-Bales logged countless hours of meticulous research and traveled extensively to create this series of images. Her efforts culminated in the release of this body of work in February 2017, as well as the release of the trade publication from Princeton Architectural Press in Spring 2017, and the launch of a traveling exhibition from Mid-America Arts Alliance that is currently touring the United States until 2024…”
- from the artist’s web site, at:


   After just a single step into the main exhibition space at The Canton Museum of Art, you’ll immediately feel engulfed in dimness. It’s an unexpected sensation of tangible dusk. You’re there to see pictures, but instead notice, at first, only dark brown-black rectangles on the walls. Curious, maybe even cautious, you get your bearings as you draw nearer to these things. With each step, your tentative walk in the waning light of day, as it were, becomes a progressively commanding sensation of being pulled  in, closer and closer, to peer through what might seem like windows on to landscapes where full-fledged nightfall reigns. Your eyes finally do adjust to their seemingly indecipherable opacity until, until…

   You’re immersed in a tenebrous immediacy. Looking into these beautifully subtle photographs by Jeanine Michna-Bales is to embark on an epic journey. As viewers we become vicarious travelers in an extraordinary odyssey: The Underground Railroad. Aided by the highly engaging and informative auxiliary exhibits here of other photos and artifacts, we become effectively sympathetic witnesses to a secretive trek, fraught with danger, following some of the same night-shrouded routes traversed by an estimated 100,000 slaves who escaped their Southern oppressors between 1830 and 1865 to find freedom in the North.

   Who could navigate these forbidding paths, enfolded as they are in gloomy night, with any sense of certainty? Who could determine actual nearness or distance with any sense of assurance? In these intensely compressed terrains, even shadows feel indistinguishable from the forms that cast them.

   Still, there’s light. It might be a whisper, a far-away glimmer, a ghostly reflection in a swamp, the risen moon, a pitch-black sky perforated by tiny stars, an illuminated farmhouse window. But light. A beacon, however faint or bright, of possibility. The idea of rescue, of safe haven. A call to compassion.

   And who would deny the timeliness of this exhibit? Michna-Bales’ stunning images resonate powerfully with our current – and volatile – societal concerns about immigration.

    Her art also reminds me of the original meaning of her medium - Photography, from two Greek words for light-writing. Interestingly, in all of their sumptuous tonal murkiness, these pictures are indeed a clear enough writing, a narrative. In the end, it’s not so much a story about the weight, the impenetrability, of darkness. Instead, it’s a compelling affirmation of light, and the dauntless determination to pursue it.