Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Contemplative and Sardonic War Remembrance from Canton Symphony Orchestra

A Contemplative and Sardonic War Remembrance from Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas
    "The body lies looking down the valley to the harbor, and from behind, an olive tree bends itself over the grave, as though sheltering it from the sun and rain. No more fitting resting place for a poet could be found than this small grove, and it seems as though the gods had jealously snatched him away to enrich this scented island." 
- Frederick Septimus Kelly  

      If America’s entry into World War II was seen by its citizens as not only necessary but also heroic and noble, then perhaps no other orchestral work better embraced such lofty resolve than Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Thus began the program called “Remembrance” by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), with CSO Assistant Conductor Rachel L. Waddell at the podium, on November 23 at Umstattd Performing Arts Hall.
   In 1942, Copland composed his brief but iconic fanfare to boost national morale. Even now the work remains a dramatic call to attention. Beginning with an explosive BANG from the percussion, resonating in the hall like a deafening thunderclap, and through a succession of martial soarings in the brass, I can’t recall a more powerful rendering of the work than what the orchestra delivered here.
   Copland’s Quiet City, the second work on the program, was drawn from the incidental music he wrote for a drama of the same name by Irwin Shaw in 1939. Though war as such was not a pretext for the music, Copland intended his concert suite to communicate the nostalgia and angst of a society deeply conscious of its insecurities. Rhapsodic solos for trumpet and English horn, exquisitely performed here by Scott Johnston and Cynthia Warren, respectively, evoked sensations of gauzy stillness, mystery, nervousness. Broadly spaced atmospheric passages from the sonorous strings built slowly to a climax before coming to a hushed, solemn end.
   The intensely pensive ambience of this work, as well as the next program selection, the first movement of Copland’s Symphony No. 3, was made all the more gripping by large-screen synchronized projections of black and white photographs from World Wars I and II fading in and out above the orchestra. The haunting photomontages were masterfully constructed by Nicholas Bardonnay, a photographer and multimedia artist who joined Westwater Arts Photochoreography in 2009.
    These arresting panoramas of war’s searing devastation were not present during the following piece, Elegy for Strings and Harp: In Memoriam Rupert Brooke. Still, the war time spectre of human sorrow resonated strongly in this short work from 1915 by Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly. Serving in the Royal Navy Division during a Mediterranean campaign in World War I, the 24 year-old Kelly composed his tone poem while in base camp on the occasion of the death of his close friend and ship mate, British poet Rupert Brooke.
    Though it is Kelly’s best known work (from an admittedly slim oeuvre), this achingly poignant response to the loss of a kindred spirit is very rarely performed. And that’s more than a little surprising, considering the profoundly moving, lyrical character of the music. The compositional dynamic is episodic, comprised of a series of gentle, hymn-like crescendos in the strings and lovely, shimmering accents from the harp, all conjuring images of a slow funeral procession against a backdrop of ocean swells, or sunlight dappling the wind-rippled leaves of the olive trees that hover over the poet’s island grave.  
    Without the magnetic effects of projected photographs, there was time to be visually drawn to the conductor’s animated demeanor. Rachel Waddell was palpably caught up in the emotional scope of Kelly’s music, as if pouring herself into the orchestra, which responded with an outpouring of equal passion.
    With the program finale, the tenor of the evening shifted away from the mournful gravitas of the preceding works into a distinctly more rambunctious realm. When Dmitri Shostakovich premiered his Symphony No. 9 in Leningrad in 1945, Russian audiences, and Stalin in particular, were expecting a transcendent victory fanfare, a paean to Soviet greatness in the spirit of Beethoven’s ninth. Instead, the composer offered an irreverent, startlingly compact orchestral essay threaded through with a sardonic spirit. Stalin, Shostakovitch’s nemesis, and many other Russians of that day felt insulted and otherwise mortified.
    Waddell took a somewhat hefty amount of time introducing the work, enthusiastically embracing it as a teaching moment. She led the orchestra through several passages of repetitious, inane triads and arpeggios to demonstrate the composer’s insouciant disregard for heroic or pompous theme development.
    The intent of including the work in this context was certainly not to dismiss or diminish our appreciation of war’s terrible toll, or our memory of those who served. It was, as Waddell explained, simply to lighten our mood a bit and hopefully raise a collective smile by providing some emotional relief. Including brilliant solo passages from the brass, piccolo and bassoon, the entire ensemble crackled as it was clearly victorious in accomplishing just that.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Drip the Paint Fantastic

Drip the Paint Fantastic

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: ACTION & ACCIDENT: Paintings by Cecily Kahn, Main Hall Art Gallery at Kent State University At Stark, 6000 Frank Ave. NW, North Canton, THROUGH NOVEMBER 30 / Gallery hours Mon.-Fri. 11 AM to 5 PM, Sat. 10 AM to Noon

    “What goes on in abstract art is the proclaiming of aesthetic principles... It is in our own time that we have become aware of pure aesthetic considerations. Art never can be imitation.”  -Hans Hoffman

    The above observation by Hans Hoffman is an invitation to consider  motivations and meaning in the 20th century emergence of nonobjective abstract painting. The casual viewer might understandably regard contemporary abstract art as an abandonment of the standards and definitions that had traditionally guided the art of painting. Those standards were at one point largely driven by the presumption that painting should be the skilled representation or even improvement of recognizable reality. This gave rise to centuries of masterful artifice, to be sure, but illusionism just the same, and certainly nothing that photography wouldn’t eventually accomplish.
   Still, much of Modernist abstraction was not so much a forsaking of aesthetic principles as it was the inevitable liberation of the painted picture plane from the formal constraints of imitation. Painting was finally freed to declare a basic truth of itself - pigments on a flat, two-dimensional surface. By the time the Abstract Expressionists arrived during the 1950s, markmaking, which is to say the overall configuration of lines, shapes and colors, had become an intuitive process that was in effect an unashamed surrender to the substance and properties of paint, the physicality of gesture and brushstroke, and an otherwise apparent empathy with chance and accident.
     These painters (as opposed to the reductive Minimalists who undermined the meaning of meaning, as it were, by rejecting emotive or metaphorical content in their works) generated a visual language of essences that transcended the duplication of incidentals from “the real world.” Think of it as evolving a highly expressive visual language comprised of many dialects.
     I think of painter Cecily Kahn, a resident of Manhattan, as eloquently “speaking” a uniquely urban dialect. And while her works gathered for this exhibit indicate a kinship with the Abstract Expressionists, the surface tactility and vibrant palette of her oil paintings (aside from her nine luminously liquid gouache pieces) suggest a  subcategory one might call Abstract Impressionism, as in impressions of urban energy, both visceral and evanescent.
    A dominant characteristic of these paintings is the sense of tension between colors and shapes, as if suspended in moments of flux. Clusters of concentrated activity – repeated linear elements, generous daubs and dots of paint, organic shapes of varying sizes – seem to rise from and/or disappear into fields of color poured on to the surface and allowed to leave intersecting drip trails. Exclamatory patterns emerge from amorphous “background” expanses. Through it all there is a great degree of painterly wit, often evidenced by the interplay of negative and positive shapes and space.  
    These works draw a fascinating bead on the oscillating pulse of a sprawling island city that never sleeps. I see them as suggesting, without literally illustrating, the urban milieu – shifting topographies of mechanical traffic and pedestrian movements, the variable geography and architecture, the nearness to water.  Look long enough and you might even get the sense that Kahn doesn’t just see contrasting rhythms and motion threaded through ever-present structures, but also hears ephemeral harmonies in the cacophony, and savors periods of quiet amid frenetic noise. New York, New York…there’s always melody in the mayhem.

    PHOTOS, from top: untitled oil on panel; untitled oil on panel; untitled oil on panel; untitled oil on linen; Surf, oil on linen

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Soulful Elegance of Sean Qualls

The Soulful Elegance of Sean Qualls

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: A Brief History of Things Seen Only in Shadows – published and unpublished work by illustrator Sean Qualls, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH NOVEMBER 29, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Wed. – Sat. noon to 5 p.m.

    Lest you think the title of this exhibit hints at things too cryptic, two good places to start in appreciating its aesthetic scope (the show is something of a retrospective, actually) are the artist’s web site at and Dan Kane’s excellent Repository article from November 6:  
    The world of haute art can be a divisive enough place wherein “illustrators” are still sometimes viewed disparagingly, as if the practice of illustrating is an inferior or insignificant aspiration when compared to “real painting.” I can still remember a college art teacher looking at an ambitious painting by a fellow student who was clearly influenced by Norman Rockwell. With a dismissive wave of his hand, the pompous professor said, “That’s not painting, that’s a magazine cover.” So much for intelligent critique.
    Not that the children’s book illustrations by Brooklyn, New York-based artist Sean Qualls should or could be compared to Rockwellian Americana. But make no mistake, Qualls’ mixed media works (mostly combinations of acrylic, collage and pencil on paper) function quite effectively both as tactile illuminations (so ok, illustrations if you insist) of specific narratives (many of them historical in nature) as well as remarkably striking, stand-alone images.
    While most of them were made to be pages for books about particular individuals such as great jazz artists John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald, others are Qualls’ more personal probings of racial identity. A Brief History of Stepinfetchit, for example, is a potent, earth-toned emblem that asks and answers “what’s in a name?” Indeed, as the adopted moniker of a film actor became synonymous with “lazy negro,” this starkly poetic work transcends stereotypical associations and reveals that Mr. Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry was anything but.
   In the simply configured Mother Theresa, the ideological focal point of compassionate service to the needy is certainly clear enough and charmingly rendered. Yet the most important points of visual impact in the work are the  red brush marks that appear to float on the right side of the large empty background of grayish blues. These painterly marks might seem isolated, perhaps even accidental. But in fact they’re vital, abstract unifying elements, activating the blue field in a way that ties it to the dominant red horizontal wave at the bottom.
    This sort of compositional economy and elegance – an impeccable design sensibility - occurs consistently throughout the exhibit. Pieces such as John at Home and Before John Was a Jazz Giant, with their playful variety of organic and geometric shapes rhythmically harmonized through connecting colors, bring to mind the serenity and balance that the great modernist Henri Matisse achieved with his representations of interior spaces.      
    Finally, there’s the distinctive palette that Qualls employs. For the most part, his hues are tinted to a low intensity, washing his scenarios with a haunting softness, and reminiscent of the moody color shifts you might encounter in films when the story cuts away from present reality to a character’s memory of a past event or distant place. So while many of Qualls’ images are imbued with an ethereal sense of remembrance, they nonetheless possess a palpable immediacy, and a vitality that makes them feel timeless.

    PHOTOS, from top: A Brief History of Stepinfetchit; Mother Theresa; John at Home; Little Cloud Dreaming; Before John Was a Jazz Giant      

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sublime Artistry from Canton Symphony Soloists

Sublime Artistry From Canton Symphony Soloists

By Tom Wachunas 

    What is it about witnessing a live performance of orchestral music that makes it so uniquely…magical? While the advanced technology of digital recordings these days can certainly produce thoroughly engaging aural experiences, there’s still much to recommend the notion that seeing is believing.
   So it is that the eclectic program, conducted by Gerhardt Zimmermann for the November 2 performance by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at Umstattdt Performing Arts Hall, was specifically designed to spotlight various soloists from the ensemble - to let them literally stand and be seen as they soared. And that they did with astonishing technical and interpretive finesse.
    Featured in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in a minor, No. 8, were CSO first violinist Rachel Sandman and principal second violinist Solomon Liang. From the propulsive episodes of the first movement and through to the ebullient finale, their shimmering, warm tonalities were nothing short of hypnotic. The interweaving of their respective turns leading and accompanying, particularly in the plaintive solemnity of the central movement with its high lyrical melody lines, was seamless. Throughout the work, they played with inspired unity of purpose, making all the more  palpable an uncanny sense of completing each other’s lyrical sentences.
    That same sensibility was clearly evident among the soloists for the remainder of the program. CSO Concertmaster Justine Lamb-Budge was joined by principal flutist Katherine DeJongh and harpsichordist Parker Ramsey for Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. While the soloists certainly performed with all the virtuosic grace and vigor that Bach invested in the work, the overall presentation here was not without its problematic moments. Beyond the too-slow tempo of the third movement, casting a somewhat sterile pall over the ensemble, there was the more significant challenge of hearing the harpsichord, a major component in this work. At issue was the instrument itself. Its sound was often so diaphanous as to be nearly inaudible in the mix with other instruments. Still, during the monumental (65 bars!) harpsichord cadenza in the first movement, the audience was bedazzled enough. We even seemed to have stopped breathing as we leaned forward to savor Ramsey’s riveting dexterity.
    The marvelous playing by flutist DeJongh, Meghan Guegold (principal French horn), Terry Orcutt (principal oboe) and Todd Jelen (principal bassoon) combined for a tour-de-force of brilliant expressivity in Sinfonia Cocertante For Winds in E-Flat Major, a work credited to Mozart, though historians still speculate as to whether or not it is wholly a Mozart composition. In any case, aside from sheer technical prowess, the operative word here was playing, and with jubilant energy. The quartet was situated in an arc across the middle of the stage, and watching the frolicsome, lucid interplay among the musicians – seeing their nuanced, fluid cueing from one to the other through many intricate arpeggios – was mesmerizing in itself.
    The program concluded on a more modern but equally mesmerizing note with Variaciones Concertantes (1953), a twelve-section work of remarkable vitality by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. The slow, somewhat mournful opening theme was established by harp and cello, forming the foundation for the rich variations that followed. Those were crisply articulated here with emotive intensity by a variety of instruments that act as characters in an unfolding dance. They included animated sprints from the flute; shadowy accents from clarinet, oboe and bassoon; a gripping viola solo; alternately electrifying and serene interludes from the trumpet, trombone and horn; and a stunning melodic whirlwind from the violin. After a strange yet beautiful pairing of harp with double bass in a reprise of the main theme, the full ensemble followed with an invigorating malambo, a competitive gaucho dance that was a recurring element in Ginastera’s compositions.
    The music finally built into a repetition of notes that suggested the joyous thumping of feet amid exhilarating ensemble flourishes. In all, a fitting end to a program that celebrated compelling instrumental artistry.

    PHOTO, left to right: Solomon Liang, Terry Orcutt, Todd Jelen, Meghan Guegold, Gerhardt Zimmermann, Katherine DeJongh, Justine Lamb-Budge, Rachel Sandman

Monday, November 3, 2014

Quo Vadimus?

Quo Vadimus?
By Tom Wachunas

“Postmodernism: The cultural condition marked by the absolute gratification of human desires and the absolute neglect of human needs.”                  ― Peter K. Fallon

    “Amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatans.” – Noam Chomsky

    “Postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.” ― Jean Baudrillard

    Leave it to the French to come up with memorably lofty expressions of disapproval. The above quote from social and cultural critic Jean Baudillard is a fine example – “…disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality…the random swirl of empty signals.”  Such elevated language! And who could forget the hilariously messy confrontation between English knights and French soldiers in the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” wherein one irritated Frenchman sneers at his enemies from high atop his castle wall, “I fart in your general direction.” Precious. Stretch the context a bit, and that snooty epithet could arguably describe the mindset of not only many viewers but also makers of contemporary art.
    Speaking of Frenchmen with an attitude, there’s Marcel Duchamp and his 1917 Fountain – a porcelain urinal offered as a work of art. I have often commented on this work as one man’s intentional crossing into utterly new and rocky aesthetic terrain – a harbinger of Modernism’s radical redefining of art.
     Signed “R. Mutt 1917” in black, like so much scrawling on lavatory walls, the work always suggested to me just how pissed off, so to speak, Duchamp  was at the impotence and irrelevance of the sacrosanct idealizations touted by the academic art world.  For that matter, so were many other upstart European artists at that time as well as during the previous 50 or 60 years.
    All of the above is by way of setting up a breach of my self-imposed blogging protocol to tell you something about my piece currently on view in the Stark County Artists Exhibition at Massillon Museum. While it’s called A Brief History of Modern Art, in retrospect the overarching “message” of my 3D drawing would be largely unchanged had I inserted “Postmodernism” in place of “Modern Art.” This is because I regard Postmodernism, an open-ended, catch-all term generally designating contemporary culture after 1970 or so, not as embracing anything “original” (and only superficially “new”), but rather as deconstructing and/or re-assessing the 20th century philosophies and cultural practices (which were in turn largely reactionary in nature) that preceded it. I think of Postmodernism as if it were the complicated, even troubled stepchild that views parent Modernism like an ordinary found object.
    So yes, my piece is derivative, but what art isn’t these days? (I can see right now that another post will be needed to further explain my thoughts on originality.) I incorporated three nearly identical vacuum cleaner undercarriages not necessarily as a snarky code for “modern art sucks,” though I can fully appreciate how such an association could be made, as a few folks have suggested recently. I simply found their convoluted forms to be visually intriguing and otherwise appropriate abstract symbols of the complex ideas embodied in Modernism/Postmodernism.
    Retracing all those intersecting and abutted shapes, volumes and planes with graphite on the middle unit – drawing on top of the pre-existing drawing, as it were – represents a dominant tendency in contemporary art toward recapitulating itself into a kind of Classicism in its own right, like sculpting in marble. Hence the faux stone effect of the unit on the right.
    These words from around 3,000 years ago come to mind: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here before our time…” (Ecclesiastes 1: 9-10)    
    Quo vadimus… where does our art (my own included) go from here? I’ve no idea. But wherever it is, I’m fairly sure it’ll be déjà vu all over again.

    TOP PHOTO: Fountain by Marcel Duchamp