Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Making Ives Palatable, Grieg Rhapsodic, Elgar Triumphant

Canton Symphony Orchestra: Making Ives Palatable, Grieg Rhapsodic, Elgar Triumphant

By Tom Wachunas

    The November 24 Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) Masterworks series concert at Umstattdt Performing Arts Hall was billed as “Friends and Family.” While that designation was largely relevant to the second- half performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations – 14 short musical portraits of the composer’s friends – it was also no doubt a nod to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, traditionally a time of lavish family gatherings. Hence, the evening began with Charles Ives’ Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day, the final movement of his 1913 Holidays Symphony (alternately called A New England Holiday Symphony).

    This work could hardly be called a warm, festive mood-setter. In fact, it’s downright listener-unfriendly unless you’ve acquired some appreciation of Ives’ aesthetic explorations in polytonality, polyrhythms and other departures from traditional symphonic form. Toward that end, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann prefaced his unusually lengthy introduction of the work by saying that he considered Charles Ives to be “…the most authentic American composer there is.” He then proceeded to regale the audience with an astute, often humorous analysis, leading the orchestra through exemplary snippets to illustrate his points. Call it an invitation for listeners to identify a path through the piece’s aural challenges. It is indeed a daunting collision of fragmented traditional church and Thanksgiving hymns, often simultaneously rendered in conflicting keys and meters.

    The orchestra was consistently crisp, fervent and otherwise true to Ives’ celebration of cacophonous Americana. And thankfully, in the middle section there emerges a surprisingly elegant (and by Ivesian standards, conservative) passage that suggests a graceful albeit tenuous procession into clear light. An added surprise was the previously unpublicized contribution of Canton Symphony Chorus members, present in the audience, who stood to sing a charming hymn fragment in counterpoint to the orchestra. Ultimately it was a moment that resonated into the final moments of the work, imbuing it with more tenderness than tension.

    What followed surely must rank as one of, if not the most enthralling performances by a CSO guest soloist in recent years. German Pianist Alexander Schimpf, whose increasing rise to international acclaim includes winning First Prize at the 2011 Cleveland International Piano Competition, didn’t merely play with, but rather seemed to breathe in unison with the CSO. In an inspired exposition of Grieg’s magnificent Piano Concerto in a minor, orchestra and piano were equal partners in a compelling conversation, matching each other perfectly in tonal resonance and emotive power.

    There was neither superfluous bravado nor frivolous ornamentation in Schimpf’s playing, whether in his utterly breathtaking cadenza at the end of the first movement or in the mellifluous, dream-like second movement. Instead, he invested every note, chord or arpeggio with a sincerity of dramatic purpose and authentic poeticism, all the way through the rhapsodic theme developments of the majestic finale.

     In his encore performance of Grieg’s Notturno (Nocturne), from Opus 54 of Lyric Pieces, Schimpf further mesmerized the adoring audience with his lyrical touch and insightful phrasings. The sheer magic imparted by this pianist left me wondering if, after intermission, Elgar’s Enigma Variations would feel somewhat anticlimactic.

    In retrospect, it was a foolish concern. This is after all the Canton Symphony Orchestra. And Elgar’s score is an electrifying mix of orchestral textures, tempi and moods, all of which being delivered here with infectious vigor. I think it only right to say the CSO yet again surpassed its own standards of excellence.

    PHOTO: Pianist Alexander Schimpf

Friday, November 22, 2013

Unpacking The Nativity

Unpacking The Nativity

By Tom Wachunas

    “We consider Christmas as the encounter, the great encounter, the historical encounter, the decisive encounter, between God and mankind. He who has faith knows this truly; let him rejoice.”  - Pope Paul VI

    EXHIBIT: Nativity, at Translations Art Gallery, THROUGH NOVEMBER 30, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Wednesday- Saturday Noon to 5 PM (closed Thanksgiving).

    I am deeply grateful to Translations curator Craig Joseph for his invitation to be one of the 15 participating artists in this remarkably eclectic interpretation of the birth of Jesus. Those of you who know me can appreciate how it’s a subject solidly within my creative wheelhouse. So in this case I will depart from a self-imposed rule to not speak of my work when commenting on group shows that include it, and tell you something about my piece. But first, I offer some words about those works here that resonate most with my Christmas sensibilities.

    Fredlee Votaw’s ambitious installation, Nativity, is a lovingly constructed  assemblage of sculptures and artifacts that clearly allude to Scriptural nativity accounts. Some of the wooden forms are literal, others symbolic. Together, their woody yet refined rawness exudes an ancient, reverential quietude.

   A similar aura emanates from a much smaller and more abstracted wall piece by Kevin Anderson, also titled Nativity.  Here, though, the precisely-cut walnut pieces, representing the Holy Family and other attendees on the scene, have a distinctly contemporary feel, right down (or up, actually) to the lighted arrow sign that hovers above the “stable.” Something like a theater marquee, the sign bears the word “KING,” lest we forget whom we behold. Anderson further emphasizes the fact by rendering the baby Jesus as a white cylinder in contrast to all the other rectangular forms.

   Twelve earthy, organic ceramic forms set on a table comprise Laura Donnelly’s Wise Men Still Seek… These forms, with ornate patterns pressed into the clay, are anthropomorphized vessels, each named for a spiritual gift. The work is a poignant reminder that to celebrate the Nativity is to celebrate the author of all life. As He bestowed on us gifts such as Joy, Nurturing and Generosity, among others, we would be wise in seeking to do the same for each other.

   The tiny, arresting oil painting by Erin Mulligan, Blood and Water, is a fetal portrait, and beautiful in a visceral way. For all of its pragmatic detailing, the piece is nonetheless a precious icon of sorts, bringing to mind a passage from 1 John, verses 5 - 6: “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the one who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ.”

   There’s also a visceral pragmatism about the piece by Li Hertzi, titled Did Mary know that her… But along with its somewhat jarring blend of wispy illuminated glass “flames” that glow amid pieces of what appear to be real bone, the work is invested with a haunting, lyrical mystique. The assemblage protrudes from a wooden stool seat, inscribed with the words, “Beautiful flesh and blood cradled his magnificent light.”

    For sheer conceptual scope – the whole Truth -  the fused glass assemblage by David McDowell is particularly compelling. He rightly reminds us in his extensive written statement (well worth the time to read carefully) that the Nativity is but one chapter, albeit a vital one, in an unbroken and unbreakable continuum of necessary Biblical events. They culminate in the gripping visions laid out in the book of Revelation. To unbelievers, those visions are horrifying, mystifying, threatening. Isn’t Jesus, Lord of all creation, supposed to be the merciful Saviour, Peacemaker, loving Redeemer? But he’s also the perfect promise- keeper and Judge. Sobering stuff indeed. 

    So then, on to my mixed media wall piece, titled Who for the joy set before him. Like David McDowell, I wanted to widen the scope of my offering by embracing the larger Scriptural picture. I don’t believe we can fully realize the impact of the Nativity until and unless we see the whole purpose of God incarnate. I present him here as a lamb (in a stone manger), bound for sacrifice. “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  - John 1:29

    As for the specific architectural look of the piece – its suggestion of a stone interior - here are some observations that might shed some light, so to speak, on your understanding of the Biblical account.

    Was Jesus born in a simple wooden stable, a barn, or a cave, as traditional Western-world depictions would have us imagine? The Nativity account in Luke 2 mentions only that the baby was laid in a manger – a feeding trough for flock animals – because there were no available accommodations at the “inn.”

    In Greek (the language of the Gospels), the word we have generally translated as “inn” is kataluma, and appears in only one other context in the New Testament (Luke 22:11 and parallel passage in Mark 14:14), in reference to preparations for the Passover meal that was Jesus’ “last supper.” Luke’s account of those preparations makes very clear that this kataluma was a furnished upstairs guest room in a house.

    Hence it is reasonable to think that Joseph and Mary had traveled to Joseph’s family home in Bethlehem for the census, and that the upstairs guest chamber was already filled with other, likely elder members of Joseph’s extended family.

    Additionally, it is interesting to note that in the ancient world, stone houses typically included accommodations for a few animals (including a built-in stone manger) that were kept indoors on the ground level at night.

    The title of this work remembers the reason for Jesus’ coming, planned from the beginning of all creation, taken from Hebrews 12:2 – “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

    PHOTOS (from top): Nativity by Fredlee Votaw; Nativity by Kevin Anderson; Blood and Water by Erin Mulligan; fused glass assemblage by David McDowell; Who for the joy set before him, by Tom Wachunas

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Exquisite Flux

Exquisite Flux

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: Recent Paintings by Danielle Mysliwiec, Main Hall Gallery, Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, THROUGH NOVEMBER 30 / Gallery Hours Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to noon   www.daniellemysliwiec.com 

    A major element of Minimalist art that remains unsatisfying to me is its overt disconnect from emotional resonance - its formal attempt to subvert associative narrative. If it’s fair to say that the idea behind “less is more” is somehow Minimalism’s rallying cry (as I believe it is), the answer to “more what?” is elusive. More beautiful, more meaningful, more “true” than…?

    OK, so I’ll get off my high-handed venting in short enough order. Still, I think it important to point out that there is a kind of Minimalism at work in these recent (2013) paintings by Danielle Mysliwiec but not, thankfully, in any off-putting way. Yes, these are highly distilled, abstract configurations of simple geometric shapes, rendered with a restricted palette, several of them on monochromatic fields of silver leaf. Even the gallery space itself exudes austerity, with just eight small (13” x 9”) paintings thinly dispersed across its white expanse.

    But this diminutive manifestation of ‘less-is-more’ is nonetheless alluring and visceral in its intimacy. At once sculptural and pictorial, these works are fascinating miniature portals to possible metaphors or allegories. A literary analogy seems appropriate here. Mysliwiec’s abstractions are clearly too finessed to be called wildly expressionistic. They’re not like, say, a sprawling epic adventure novel with lots of colorful characters. Instead, their refined structures suggest the lyrical brevity of sonnets, or even haiku. Painted poems.        

     In some of the pieces, such as After and Vigil, Mysliwiec explores the tenuous relationship between the human activity of creating and maintaining precise structures or systems, and the ephemeral intrusions of accident and/or unexpected change that can counteract their orderliness. Whenever she employs the silvery grounds, the pieces acquire a ghostly, oscillating presence. Their reflective surfaces appear to physically shift (or breathe?) relative to the viewer’s movement and position in space – perhaps an homage to the changeability of life itself.

   The shapes (forms in relief, actually) are comprised of painstakingly applied paint extrusions in repeated patterns. It’s an organized impasto so minute in scale and stringy in character that they have all the look of woven textile swatches. Mysliwiec’s technique is essentially that of a baker, using a piping bag and tip to apply frosting. Knowing that helps to bring some added conceptual dimensionality and mystical charm to these works. The meticulous weaving effect of the paint is a loving nod to the discipline of fine traditional crafts.

    In that context, to some extent, “domestic woman’s work” comes to mind. Call it icing on a hardy cake – a sweetness of remarkable substance.

    PHOTOS (from top), courtesy www.daniellemysliwiec.com : Aguayo (oil on wood panel); After (acrylic, metal leaf, tape on wood panel); Mild Winter (oil, metal leaf on wood panel); Ships Passing (oil, metal leaf on wood panel); Vigil (oil on wood panel)  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Canton Symphony Goes For Baroque

Canton Symphony Goes For Baroque

By Tom Wachunas 

     If not performed in a properly balanced fashion, Baroque-era music is often a more cerebral encounter than an emotionally alluring one to the listener. Musicians can get so caught up in delivering the music’s characteristically frothy ornamentation (which does allow for some exciting virtuosity on the part of soloists) that their technical prowess overshadows its intended “spiritual” affect, which can range from dramatic urgency and melancholy to reverential majesty and unfettered joy.

    Fortunately, the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) avoided that shortcoming during its all-Baroque concert on November 3 in Umstattd Performing Arts Hall. Not surprisingly, in performing the nine works on the program (four by Handel, and one each by J.S. Bach, Jeremiah Clarke, Arcangelo Corelli, Johann Pachelbel and Antonio Vivaldi), the orchestra was technically faultless. Most important and inspiring, though, was the pure expressivity of textures and moods conveyed by the musicians.

   Genuine emoting was abundantly present in the four vocal pieces that featured guest artist Erin Cooper Gay, who is both a professional French Horn player and a remarkable soprano. Her singing is well endowed with a seductively warm, lyric quality. In fact, Gay was at one point the CSO principal horn for eight years, and I can’t help but think that the aural character of that instrument has somehow magically fused with her voice.

   She clearly captivated the audience with her characterization of mournful solemnity in Lascia ch’oi pianga (Let me weep), the most famous aria from Handel’s opera, Rinaldo. But the versatile Gay also offered a delightfully lighthearted side in her portrait of a frenetic caffeine addict sipping coffee in J.S. Bach’s whimsical Cantata No. 211, aka The Coffee Cantata. Introducing the work, a very good-humored Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann regaled the audience with a schmaltzy short monologue on coffee, the “devil’s brew,” as he at one point quaffed heartily from a mug of beer.  

     Gay’s performance of the Vivaldi tone painting, In Furore Iustissimae Irae (In the Fury of the Most Just Wrath), was utterly breathtaking. The work is a propulsive expression of God’s anger at human malfeasance, an impassioned promise of repentance, and an otherwise electrifying showpiece for coloratura virtuosity. Gay embraced its melodic leaps and churning chromatic descents with astonishing vigor.  

    In Let the Bright Seraphim, an aria from Handel’s oratorio, Samson, Gay was ebullience personified. The rich timbre of her voice was wholly stunning in her intricate harmonies with Scott Johnston, CSO principal trumpet, who had dazzled us earlier in the program with Jeremiah Clarke’s famous The Prince of Denmark’s March.

    Along with a mesmerizing rendition of Pachelbel’s iconic Canon in D Major, and a fittingly majestic reading of Handel’s Watermusic, this program in its entirety rekindled my appreciation of Baroque music. Additionally, the concert was a tantalizing demonstration of CSO’s bilingual capacity, so to speak. These players are eminently fluent in the musical languages of mind and heart.    

    PHOTOS: (top) Soprano Erin Cooper Gay; CSO principal trumpeter Scott Johnston    

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Joseph Hertzi's Grand Adventure

Joseph Hertzi’s Grand Adventure

By Tom Wachunas

     I have to smile when I still hear some people affectionately refer to the Canton Museum of Art (CMA) as “The Institute.” While the CMA assumed that name on its 60th anniversary in 1995, these folks also remember its earlier designation, the Canton Art Institute, which traces its beginnings to 1935 and the Little Civic Art Gallery in the Canton Public Library. In 1941, the Institute moved to the renovated Case Mansion at 1717 Market Avenue N., once listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, but demolished in the early 1990s. By that time, the Institute had long before moved to the newly built Cultural Center for the Arts, which officially opened in December, 1970.   

    Any appreciation of the Institute/Museum would be woefully deficient without considering – indeed savoring – the very remarkable contributions and accomplishments of Joseph R. Hertzi (whom I will henceforth occasionally refer to as Joe). During its Annual Meeting on September 25, the CMA Board of Trustees conferred on him the title “Director Emeritus” in recognition of his 38 years of service.

   ‘Service?’ Quite so. But after my delightful two hour visit with Joe at his North Canton home on October 7, and receiving a hefty pile of collected newspaper articles, photos, catalogues and annual reports to peruse, I think we should add another descriptor to our appreciation of his truly distinguished tenure: legacy.

 He and his wife-to-be, Judith (who passed away in 2011), were two of only three students to graduate from the Akron Art Institute School of Design in 1954. When Joe spoke of his wife of 54 years during our talk, his visage took on a palpable glow as he tenderly recalled her artistry and their passionately shared commitment to art education. Helen Carringer wrote in an article for the Canton Repository in 1963 that “Judith and Joe Hertzi go together something like salt and pepper or bread and butter.”

    After graduating, and during their courtship, Judith began teaching at the Canton Art Institute while Joe worked at Goodyear. At her suggestion he entered a painting in the Institute’s 1955 juried Fall Show of Ohio artists. And here, it’s fair to say, is where Mr. Hertzi’s art career began in earnest. The painting - an abstract called Orchestration in Jazz and inspired by Stan Kenton’s music - won a prize and was bought by Institute Director Joseph Hutchinson, becoming the first of several Hertzi originals to be purchased over the years for the Institute’s permanent collection.

    Hutchinson (who was to become Best Man at the Joe and Judith’s wedding) invited Joe to join the staff in 1956 as Director of Education. Then, in 1961, Joe was named Institute Director, commencing a ten-year period during which, according to the Institute’s 50th Anniversary Commemorative publication in 1985, he “…almost single handedly ran the Institute. Many of the traditions and practices of the Institute observed to this day began under his direction, and there was a dramatic increase in the number of exhibitions with special emphasis on local and regional artists, growth in membership, more and varied educational programs, and attendance at Institute art classes went well over the 1,000 mark.”

    Additionally, he was highly instrumental in the years-long planning stages of the new Cultural Center for the Arts. With eyes widening as he recalled those days and the many that would follow, and with a broad, wistful smile, he nodded and said, “There were just so many adventures we had.”

   More adventures would ensue after 1971, when for six years Joe shared directorship with two interim directors before being reappointed to full control from 1977 to 1988. His accomplishments during this time included the All Ohio Biennial Exhibition (an event that was eventually discontinued after Hertzi’s directorship), significant additions to the permanent collection, great improvements in the scope and professional quality of exhibitions, and substantial growth in community and corporate support.

    Among the particularly high points were two exhibitions in 1985. For the first time since its founding in 1866, the prestigious American Watercolor Society (AWS) premiered its 118th annual juried show outside New York City. The Institute was already dedicated to showing Ohio watercolorists as well as eager to show touring versions of AWS exhibits. But this time, Hertzi had succeeded in prompting AWS president Mario Cooper to bring the original exhibit here, and more than 11,000 visitors converged on the Institute to view it. And certainly even more celebrated that same year was “Andrew Wyeth: Works from Public and Private Collections.” Hertzi and Donald Getz designed the catalogue that contained an essay on the artist and his work written by M.J. Albacete, who had become the Institute’s first Associate Director in 1979.

   Through it all, Joe continued to be an active artist, pursuing a variety of media and styles. He and Judith raised two daughters, Lisa and Emily, avidly instilling in them their own artistic passions. Joe continued working with the Museum until his retirement in 1994.

    And with that, I will end by going back to the opening moment of our invigorating meeting. Call it a welcoming ritual, or an intriguing peace offering. All visitors to the Joseph Hertzi household are quickly invited to select one of his original artworks in the form of a column of transparent colored resin beads mounted on a metal rod, called a Beadsicle. The simple, charming name originally came from Joe’s eight year-old grandson, Benjamin Cornelius.

    I regard my newly acquired Beadsicle with a great degree of reverence and gratitude. It does everything Joe hoped it might do, such as, in his words “…provide spiritual sensibility and healing qualities,” and perhaps much more. It’s a kind of magic wand, actually. For when I recently hung it outdoors, it caught the breeze, and the western sun, and began twirling in a tantalizing dance of multicolored glimmerings all in a vertical row. I thought of Joe’s years of dedication, the accumulated years, one-by-one, and vicariously embraced his hopes, goals, dreams, successes. So many adventures. The marvelous cadence of a life in art.

    PHOTOS (from top): Joe Hertzi in his studio; Orchestration for Jazz, oil on board, 1955, courtesy Canton Museum of Art; some collected documentation; my Beadsicle, made by Joe Hertzi