Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Rewarding Program of American Works

 Canton Symphony: A Rewarding Program of American Works

By Tom Wachunas

   Foote, Hanson, MacDowell, Piston: André Watts (piano), Gerhardt Zimmermann, Rachel Waddell (conductors), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio
   Arthur Foote: Suite for Strings in E Major, Op. 63 (1907-09)
   Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2, Op. 30 (193
   Edward MacDowell: Piano Concerto No. 2 in d minor, Op. 23 (1884)
   Walter Piston: The Incredible Flutist Suite (1938)

     American composer Arthur Foote (1853-1937) once wrote that “…the object of the artist should be to tell us in music…the truths of life and the beauty and sublimity of life.” It is an operative philosophy that inspired his best works. The most famous of those is his Suite for Strings in E Major, which was the first selection on the January 25 Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) Masterworks program that spotlighted American composers. I think it fair to say that the other composers on this program shared Foote’s musical outlook.

     His Suite for Strings is a brilliant platform for showcasing the depth and sensitivity of this orchestra’s string section. From the lush and pastoral sweep of the first movement, the delightful precision of the Tchaikovsky-esque Pizzicato second movement, and throughout the churning power of the finale, the orchestra was altogether breathtaking.  An added delight here was the Masterworks debut appearance of CSO Assistant Conductor Rachel Waddell at the podium. The gentle yet impassioned physicality of her conducting style elicited an equally vivacious orchestral response to the lyrical thrust of the work.

    Speaking of lyrical thrust, at one point in the heroic finale of the next  program selection – Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”) – Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s baton became airborne, landing at the feet of nine year-old Mya Miller who was seated in the front row. She couldn’t get Zimmermann’s attention as he walked offstage at intermission, so she dutifully handed the baton to one of the violinists. Not even a minute later Zimmermann, smiling broadly, walked back out to the edge of the stage and handed the baton back to starstruck Mya. Talk about a rewarding experience…

     And for those who traveled through unprecedented polar weather conditions to attend the concert, bravery was rewarded with the incomparable event of witnessing Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2 performed by guest pianist André Watts. I could read his animated face. He has a unique, enchanting way of apparently “speaking” cascades of fleet-fingered notes with uncanny authority. As if he were a wizard, he conjured tones and moods that were alternately delicate and tumultuous, soft and sinewy, ebullient and brooding.  His adventuresome sonority and sublime technique throughout the work were seamlessly entwined with the emotive clarity of the orchestra. It’s difficult to imagine that Watts has ever played better, or this orchestra ever more attentive to a soloist. This was an astonishing performance that brought the audience immediately to its feet in a collective paroxysm of praise.   

    Next, the program took a curious turn. Watts’ compelling performance was a true show-stopper. A follow-up piece of any sort would seem counterintuitive at best. So I remain conflicted about the program placement of the evening’s final selection – The Incredible Flutist Suite by Walter Piston.

    Not that the work as performed by the orchestra here wasn’t wildly invigorating and charming in its own right. In fact it’s downright rambunctious in parts, including the section called Arrival of the Circus and Circus March, wherein orchestra members hilariously vocalize the sounds of a boisterous circus crowd, complete with Zimmermann’s climactic dog bark (followed by an orchestra member’s cat howl). Still, the high-energy theatricality of Piston’s suite was for me an unnecessary intrusion on savoring the magnificent accomplishment of André Watts.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Once Upon A Time...

Once Upon A Time…

By Tom Wachunas

    “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” –Joan Didion

    “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” –Graham Greene

    Is all our Life then but a dream / Seen faintly in the goldern gleam / Athwart Time's dark resistless stream? –Lewis Carroll, from Sylvie and Bruno

    EXHIBIT: Whimsical Worlds of Wonder – Digital Photography and Mixed Media by Michael Weiss, at Malone University McFadden Gallery, located in the Johnson Center, 2600 Cleveland Ave. NW. Open Mondays - Fridays during regular business hours. THROUGH FEBRUARY 4

     While I have seen several of Michael Weiss’s works here in past group shows over the past few years, this collection of 33 digital photographic/mixed media pieces exudes an epic air – as in a sweeping, ongoing narrative. Call it a fantasy saga spanning love and longing, loss and discovery, desire and fulfillment. Aside from the tantalizing and facile digital wizardry that Weiss brings to his imagery, this exhibit amply demonstrates that he is at heart a mesmerizing storyteller who has given free rein (and reign, for that matter) to the proverbial inner child.

     His pictures are enchanted scenarios that found their beginnings in book titles and quotes, song lyrics, and even movie taglines. But then, somewhere in the artist’s fertile imagination, such snippets of inspiration (sometimes identifiable enough by their titles) seem to have taken flight to unexpected dimensions and destinations – ranging from delightfully narcotic and tranquil to more shadowy and mystical. Yet even at their most strange, these haunting visions manage to somehow reside just on this side of familiar and accessible.

    Weiss has mastered a technique that gives his surfaces a stressed, aged look that nonetheless conveys a distinct sense of timelessness. The characters that populate his misty, surreal or exotic locales might well represent real individuals and situations personal to himself, the artist. But they could also just as well be any of us, caught up in our own journeys. That’s the power of story. We all have one. It’s the one thing that can bring us together – the common road we trudge.

   If that smacks of sentimentality, so be it. That said, many of these pictures do bring to mind certain clichéd sentiments: Home is where the heart is, or there’s no place like home, among others.

   One particularly strong image in this show that marvelously embodies both the whimsy and gripping reality of life as a journey is The Story Carried Them Away. A young boy and girl are riding through the air atop a huge open book, looking over their shoulders at a distant castle. Falling away from the book, like a vapor trail, is a stream of letters. Pieces of their story, remembered but left behind, even as they take it to a place unknown? Another “sentiment” comes to mind: Wherever I go, there I am.


    PHOTOS (from top): The Story Carried Them Away; Dropping Books Instead of Bombs; Gently She Rose with the Wind; Looking for Alyce   

Monday, January 20, 2014

Confluent Dimensions

 Confluent Dimensions

By Tom Wachunas

    “What I mean by 'abstract' is something which comes to life spontaneously through a gamut of contrasts, plastic at the same time as psychic, and pervades both the picture and the eye of the spectator with conceptions of new and unfamiliar elements...” -Marc Chagall

Exhibit: Acrylic Paintings by Sherri Hornbrook, THROUGH MARCH 2, in the Studio M Gallery of The Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon. (330) 833-4061

    Before walking all the way into the gallery, stand for a little while just a few feet in, and scan the whole room. Left to right, right to left or center to peripheries – makes no difference. Don’t make it an exercise in “picking favorites”, but rather “read” the whole space. Take its pulse. Feel its heartbeat. IT’S ALIVE.

   Next, try seeing the 21 abstract acrylic paintings on the walls collectively as a visual essay – or better, a poem - of ebullient, exclamatory nature. Then, consider each individual painting as an integral yet discrete stanza, constructed around one or more adjectives, so to speak, stated in the superlative degree.

    These poetic “adjectives” might be manifest as dominant, fluorescently colored shapes and linear elements, as in Strength; the amoeba-like dark contour in Protection; or floating clusters of vibrant, gestural curves of red in Wholeness.

   Further still, Sherri Hornbrook is something of an archaeologist with a remarkably probing and flexible paintbrush. Her pictures are painterly records of discovery, and otherwise lavish expositions of entwined visual strata that rise from an intuitive process. Embedded in many of them, like so many “fossils,” are the layered histories of their making – transparent and opaque shapes, thick trails of brush marks or ghostly washes of undulating color that in turn support more substantial, organic structures.

     From the perspective of iconography, Hornbrook’s statement for the show is friendly to those viewers who might want to look for identifiable representations. And to varying degrees, some of her paintings are suggestive of real world imagery – figurative, botanical, biological and, in a few instances, architectural. But generally, these aren’t sharply delineated references so much as they’re fleeting echoes or misty memories.

    A particularly engaging aspect of Holbrook’s technique is her sensitivity to textures and the reflective qualities of the paint. Many of the images employ a playful back-and-forth shifting between configurations of glossy and matte finishes. The resulting spatial tensions create fluctuating dimensionalities within the picture plane.

    With this collection, Holbrook has laid out a visual gestalt that harmonizes with a viable definition of art that I often offer to my students of art appreciation/history: Art is an intentional, human-made response to being alive.

    It’s a sweeping definition, to be sure, but one which nonetheless fits the tantalizing vitality and scope of Holbrook’s aesthetic. She’s wholly alive to her perceptions of the world and the capacity of art to illuminate realities seen and unseen, physical and ethereal, minute and mighty. For all of the sophisticated pictorial mechanisms at work here, what’s most exciting is Hornbrook’s commitment to raw spontaneity. Call it a child-like infatuation with seeing. In that respect, may she never grow up.     

    PHOTOS (from top): Strength; Standstill; Protection; Gateway; Wholeness      

Monday, January 13, 2014

Bass-ic Virtuosity

Canton Symphony Casual Series Opens with Bass-ic Virtuosity

By Tom Wachunas

    Among the more delightful inventions of human creativity is the string section of an orchestra. Think of it as the aural equivalent of a painter’s palette laid out with a full spectrum of pigments. Just as certain hues (singly or in combination) can conjure certain subjective responses from viewers, so too the timbres of particular stringed instruments are well-suited to elicit specific emotional states or images in the listener.

    I tell you this in a spirit of surprise at the opening concert of this season’s Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) Casual Series . These are informal, recital-style performances in Cable Recital Hall, spotlighting members of the CSO. The January 9 concert featured CSO Principal Bassist Cory Palmer along with guest pianist Katherine Monsour Barley. The eclectic program included the Baroque-era Sonata in g minor by Henry Eccles; four short, early 20th century pieces by Serge Koussevitzky; four more short works for solo bass by contemporary composer Dave Anderson; and Elegy and Tarantella by Giovanni Bottesini, often remembered as “the Paganini of the double bass.”

    Throughout the proceedings, the accompaniments by pianist Katherine Monsour Barley (a founding teacher at Pittsburgh Music Academy where she has taught since its beginnings in 1996) were lovely, articulate and acoustically well-balanced with Palmer’s bass work.

   The particular program selections are not largely memorable as especially powerful works of music. On the other hand, they are in varying degrees compelling platforms for technical prowess on the part of the bassist, and Palmer rose to the occasion with admirable virtuosity.

    And herein was the aforementioned element of surprise. After all, it seems counterintuitive to coax truly high notes (such as we reasonably expect from the violin or viola) from an instrument designed for delivering very low, rumbling sonority. But this program was amply endowed with demands to do just that. Palmer was wholly riveting as he employed a formidable arsenal of dexterous slides and crisp arpeggiations that took him into seemingly impossible high registers.

    Granted, there were occasional passages in those upper ranges when true pitch floundered momentarily. But such flaws never obscured the overall sensibility of the sustained mood, whether slow and mournful, sweetly plaintive, or spritely and joyous.

    I admit to finding something somewhat funny about the whole idea of this kind of animated music performed on the heavy, lumbering bass, even in its most solemn progressions. There were moments throughout the performance, after Palmer had finessed an intricate foray into ringing high tones, when I detected the glimmer of a smile on his face. Maybe he sensed the humor, too.  As this concert reminded me, what could be more poignant or stirring than to imagine the walrus successfully aspiring to birdsong?           

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Righteous Left Hand

A Righteous Left Hand

By Tom Wachunas

   “…It is my hope that the gallery audience will enjoy these life drawings and understand that all two dimensional art is based on drawing first and foremost. Perhaps, more importantly, the act of drawing conveys the thought process of the artist in a most fundamental way and in its most pure form.”  -Patricia Zinsmeister Parker

    EXHIBIT: Heads Or Tails: Contemplations of the Body with Patricia Zinsmeister Parker, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH FEBRUARY 1, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, Wednesdays-Saturdays Noon to 5 p.m.

    In a scene from one of my favorite all-time films, Lust for Life (1956), an exasperated Anthony Quinn, playing Paul Gauguin, barks at Kirk Douglas, playing Vincent van Gogh, “You paint too fast!”  The tight-jawed Douglas growls back, “You look to fast!”

    If van Gogh never said those exact words directly to Gaughin, he did say as much about the public’s general viewing habits in a letter to his brother, Theo. I often wonder if his 19th century observation doesn’t still stand up as an apt indictment of modern-day lazy looking. That said, know in advance that it takes some real time to genuinely appreciate the idiosyncratic pictorial content of Parker’s figure drawings and portraits.

    And again, I’m reminded of van Gogh’s assessment of his own compulsion to paint from life. He likened it to being overtaken by a “terrible lucidity” when beholding the world he saw, thrusting him into a painting frenzy. In this large collection of works spanning some 30 years, Parker often displays a similarly urgent, frenetic energy. Yet for all their apparently raw and quirky appearance – their conscious departure from the rigid formalities of “refined” pictorial illusionism – these nude studies and portrait heads are uncannily lucid and true in their own right, not to mention intensely expressive.

    So then, Parker’s conscious departure from traditional representation? It originally grew from her interest in right-brain/left-brain workings and her cathartic decision many years ago to make images with her untrained left hand. It was, so to speak, a leftist decision which greatly expanded the vocabulary of her mark-making. To some viewers, many of the pieces here might seem scornful of conventional “good taste” at first blush – a kind of  indictable aesthetic offense, perhaps. But Parker’s methodology in fact freed her to express more playful, intuitive and visceral possibilities within the picture plane while still demonstrating, interestingly enough and to varying degrees, admirable draughtsmanship.

   Some drawings are more “sketchy” and extemporaneous than others, wherein Parker’s hand appears somewhat tentative before arriving at just the “right” rendering. In those, Parker nevertheless achieves a remarkably palpable vitality and sense of animated movement.

    In general, most of her contemplations of the human form, even in their most reductive or “primitive” manifestations, are confident, facile orchestrations of visual cues. The heft and flow of particular lines, splashes of bold color, or variations in value, for example, are orchestrated to effectively convey all manner of well-observed anatomical nuancing, from a weight-bearing leg or subtle twist of the torso, to a foreshortened limb or demure tilt of a head. And aside from such formal considerations, there’s also the matter of the wild range of expressivity. These figures are variously familiar or bizarre, dignified or awkward, quiet or shrieking, transparent or mysterious.

    Wilder still, and equally expressionistic, is Parker’s painting series of 13 portraits, all made in 1997 – clearly a heady year for her, pun intended.  Here is a riveting wildness and child-like painterly abandon that brings to mind the art brut of Jean Dubuffet, for instance. These faces, however, have a haunting and otherwise fascinating immediacy and electrifying color sensibility all their own. Brutal? Yes, sometimes. The more startling images look as if they scratched and clawed their way out of the deepest caverns of Parker’s psyche. These are well complemented by several visages of clearly less severe outlook, having the lyrical aura of personal remembrance about them. A few are even delightfully decorative in a way, though never frivolous.     

     In order for us, as viewers, to truly see all that this show has to offer, we need to be deliberate in focusing our minds on looking slowly. And if there’s an indictable offense anywhere to be found in this mix, it would surely be in our unwillingness to be arrested.

    PHOTOS, from top: Block Head; Women of San Miguel de Allende; Deux Models; Long Hair; Spots, Dots, and Memory

Friday, January 3, 2014

Ringing Out the Old, Forgetting the New?

 Ringing Out the Old, Forgetting the New?

By Tom Wachunas

    “Whoever neglects the arts when he is young has lost the past and is dead to the future.”  -Sophocles

    Now that I have your attention, file this one under ‘disappointed culture maven.’ On page A-6 in the December 31 edition of The Repository, Canton’s daily newspaper, 100 of 2013’s “Top Stories” about Stark County were listed (excluding a side bar listing of the 10 most-read stories on, month-by-month.

    I counted 22 sports-related stories and a paltry three stories that could qualify as arts oriented, in the realm of pop culture: one (in March) on the winners of the 10th Annual Battle of the Bands (sponsored by The Repository); one (in August) mentioning the Oak Ridge Boys as the grandstand act on day two of The Stark County Fair; and one (in October) about a Central Catholic High School graduate talking about his role in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.    

    I fully understand that Stark County is not a world-class bastion of haute culture. Nor is it a consistently major destination for fine arts connoisseurs. Yet. Speaking of world-class fine art, how is it that The Repository neglected to list the December opening of Illuminating The Word: The St. John’s Bible at the Canton Art Museum?

     Is this glaring omission merely an unfortunate oversight by the Repository editorial powers that be? Considering the excellent Repository articles about the show’s opening by Dan Kane (December 5) and Charita Goshay (December 7), that’s difficult to believe. Or is this year-end list more a reflection of reader response, online or otherwise, to stories thought to be most important or meaningful to the community? If that’s the case, it’s dismaying to think that Repository readership might be so disassociated from art in general.

     In any event, the exhibit is an astonishing aesthetic accomplishment of historic dimensions. It’s “news” that elevates the vital presence of an important cultural institution in our midst and, more significant, a gift to the world at large.

    As I recently watched news footage of the traditional ball-drop in Times Square marking the advent of a new year, I was hoping that in the future, we don’t drop the ball, so to speak, when it comes to recognizing and celebrating the invaluable impact of art on our lives. Happy New Year.