Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Stunning World Premiere from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

 A Stunning World Premiere from the Canton Symphony: Béla Fleck’s Juno Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

   “Once again, I’m attempting to put the banjo into different waters and not have it play the role of the hayseed.”  -Béla Fleck

    Everything about the March 19 MasterWorks program from the Canton Symphony Orchestra, billed as “Scenic Moments,” was thoughtfully designed to take us on an exhilarating journey, starting with Mikhail Glinka’s brilliant Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla. Just as the music tells of Russlan’s enchanted adventure to win the hand of Ludmilla in marriage, so too Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann was clearly on a mission to claim our unqualified affections for his ensemble’s thrilling versatility. And that he did. The intense rhythms of the opening theme, announced with an exclamatory burst from brass, winds, and timpani, charged ahead with strings scampering along at breakneck speed. Through all of this Rossini-like energy, the ensemble performed with electrifying precision and radiant warmth.  

    Speaking of Rossini, the third work on the program was his Overture to Semiramide, from his two-act opera composed in 1823. Despite the work’s categorization as a tragic melodrama about the Queen of Babylon murdering her husband and falling in love with her son, the Overture is anything but dark. The orchestra navigated the music’s many lilting, ornamental episodes and vivacious crescendos with the same remarkable finesse it brought to the evening’s remaining selections.

   Those included Jean Sibelius’ iconic Finlandia,  and Rumanian Rhapsody No. 1, by Georges Enescu. The latter work was an appropriately exuberant end to the evening, particularly in its high-velocity pyrotechnics from the wind instruments. And interestingly enough, its spirited folk melodies took me back to significant aspects of the second - and certainly most important - work on the program: The World Premiere of Juno, Béla Fleck’s Second Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra, composed 2015-2016, and named for his 2 ½ year-old son.

    Fleck’s first concerto, The Impostor, composed in 2011 and performed by the CSO in 2014, told a story wherein he is the “hero” banjo player infiltrating an orchestra in an attempt to validate himself as a Classical musician, only to find he could not completely forsake his Country/Folk/Bluegrass roots. While not a narrative work as such, Juno could nonetheless be regarded as a sequel if only because it is so successful in giving elevated credence to the banjo as a legitimate, indeed beautiful denizen of the Classical world. 
    Along with revealing Fleck’s heightened appreciation of the emotive colors that a full orchestra can provide, Juno also shows a studied commitment to    the traditional concerto format of three movements in fast-slow-fast order. Within that structure, Fleck’s thematic developments feel less frenetic than in The Impostor, though no less an adventurous platform for his astonishing virtuosity as a soloist. This time the music, for all of its harmonic eclecticism and contrapuntal complexity, exudes newfound elegance and confidence.

    The first movement has the character of an overture, introducing most of the concerto’s thematic motifs in one form or another. Initially, a fanfare-like passage for the brass mingles with strings and winds to evoke the feeling of a mystical pastorale, at times soaring with an almost cinematic flourish. Fleck’s chording and spectacular arpeggios act as a pulse, at times like so many dissonant heartbeats, adding a haunting tension. A similarly haunting lyricism in the slow second movement is enhanced by the sensual sliding notes from the sonorous cellos and violas. Passages from clarinet and oboe evoke vaguely Asian harmonies that seem to effortlessly morph into earthy tunes of an Appalachian nature. Indeed, the entire work is an ostinato tour de force of blended melodies, replete with complex rhythms in unexpected meters, all executed with riveting clarity and meticulous attention to aural textures. Yet never once does the music feel chaotic, even amid the boisterous swagger of the trumpets and percussion in the third movement. Another noteworthy development in Juno is Fleck’s creative generosity in letting the orchestra exercise its own remarkable virtuosity. He’s content to often be in a supportive rather than leading role. 

    In some ways, you could liken the difference between Fleck’s two concertos to the difference between a nervous first-date kiss and a fully-matured relationship. Greatly inspired by Gerhardt Zimmermann’s astute reading of his first concerto, Fleck was more than eager to choose the CSO as lead commissioner for this new work (co-commissioned by the Colorado Symphony, Louisville Orchestra, and South Carolina Philharmonic). The opportunity afforded him a way, in his words, “…of going back to the well, back to the same challenges and seeing what I learned from them in the first concerto…”

   “I’m really happy about this,” Fleck says of his fruitful work with the CSO, “because I love this orchestra and I love Gerhardt.” Judging from the purposeful and infectious chemistry that united composer with conductor and ensemble in this stunning performance, the feeling was mutual.   

Friday, March 18, 2016

Intimate Trialogues

Intimate Trialogues

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

   “When I see people making 'abstract' painting, I think it's just a dialogue and a dialogue isn't enough. That is to say, there is you painting and this canvas. I think there has to be a third thing; it has to be a trialogue.”  - Philip Guston

   EXHIBIT: On And Off The Grid – Generating Abstraction: Paintings by Elizabeth Yamin, Emily Berger, Susan Post, and Bosiljka Radista, at Main Hall Art Gallery, Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio, THROUGH APRIL 6, 2016 / Viewing hours are Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.  (Gallery closed March 21 – 26 during Spring Break)

    In 1960, critic Clement Greenberg wrote in Modernist Painting, “…Flatness, two-dimensionality, was the only condition painting shared with no other art, and so Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else.” Accompanying that particular orientation was the Modernists’ hearty embrace of the materiality of paint and the gestural physicality of applying it to the flat surface, which was something that critic Harold Rosenberg had already declared in 1952 (in The American Action Painters) to be “…a gesture of liberation...”

   Another significant element in the advancement of abstraction in painting was the advent of Abstract Expressionism and its dismantling of the Old Masters easel tradition. Modernist abstraction of this sort had wholly severed ties to Renaissance ideas (and ideals) of painting as meticulously crafted imitations of the apparent, to create illusionistic windows on physical reality. Modernist canvases became large, immersive environments unto themselves. No longer “pictures” in the traditional sense, these were events of a kind - confluences of gestural expressivity, accident, and pure intuition on a grand scale.

   Of course this is not to say that abstract painting must necessarily require larger-than-life scale to achieve a compelling aesthetic impact. Applying  Philip Guston’s observations quoted above, it’s precisely the small scale of the works currently on view at Kent Stark’s Main Hall Gallery that can effectively draw us into an intimate “trialogue” with the painted surface.

   I think it’s important to appreciate painterly abstraction in general as a visual language of many dialects, and the four artists here (three working in NYC/Brooklyn, one in Boston) as engaged in dialogue with their own mark-making. Painters as raconteurs. You could consider it a call-and-response dynamic, wherein the act of putting down a brush stroke or a wash of color, or defining a shape, activates the surface and initiates an ongoing process not unlike constructing a written phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph. The artist “reads” the marks and responds (and here’s where the mystique of intuition comes into play) with other marks which could in turn cue the painter in how to proceed further along the picture plane. We viewers are in effect a third party in this conversation – negotiation, really – reading and interpreting what’s before us.

    Two of the artists – Emily Berger and Susan Post – have used grid configurations as a compositional foundation for their works. That said, most of Emily Berger’s seven oil paintings here have no drawn verticals as such. Verticality is implied, though, in her stacking of thinly painted, ribbon-like arcs of often transparent, earthy hues that sweep across the surface. There’s a tactile sensibility in the way the paint incorporates the grain of the support – either wood or linen – so that in some ways the paintings have the look of loosely-hung, dyed woven fabrics, or perhaps window blinds through which we see subtle changes in texture and color saturation. Additionally, look closely at how the paint sits on the surface, and notice how at times what appears to be the lighter “background” color can jump forward to become a positive mark on a dark ground. 

   A similar spatial playfulness with the figure-ground dynamic is at work in Susan Post’s oil paintings. The warp and woof of materiality and light. While the grid format is more overt in her pieces than in Berger’s, the vertical and horizontal elements aren’t actually straight “lines” so much as they’re gently undulating, rhythmic arrangements of soft-edged rectangular bands of alternating hues, seeming to simultaneously advance and recede. There’s often a lyrical sensibility to the repetitive, codified structuring of the picture plane, as if the vertical elements could suggest rows of trees or buildings, while the horizontal movement could signify strips of earth or sky.

    The intriguing compositions by Liz Yamin (including works in acrylic/ collage, and oil) and Bosiljka Radista (oils), on the other hand, are distinctly less structurally regulated. Yamin’s can be at once dense and airy in their loose mixing of vaguely familiar and ambiguous forms which can alternately suggest everything from figural and still-life studies to interiors and urban landscapes. Stylistically, while there are both solid and sketchy reminiscences of past Modernist luminaries in Yamin’s pieces (hints of Georges Braque, John Marin, Arthur Dove and Richard Diebenkorn, among others), she has deftly hybridized such influences into a unique vocabulary.

    Bosiljka Rodista’s brushy surfaces possess an exquisite sensuality and translucence. Little ghostly clusters of amorphous shapes are still visible beneath layers of glazed color. Other clusters, luminous and strange, remain either uncovered or floating above these sumptuous fields, like so many diacritical marks in a mystical essay. 

    Probably like many of us, there was a time when I was fairly sure that the only folks who could fully apprehend abstract painting – both as process and product – were themselves abstract painters. But I’ve long since come to appreciate that something of the painter’s personal life and/or physical surrounds, no matter how subtle or masked, will invariably find its way into the visual vocabulary we encounter in a given work. Call it a joining of the psychic with the plastic.

    There’s abundant enough material in this show to inspire us to willful seeing. Willful seeing. That in itself is our purposed action, empathetic with the painter’s own act of painting. Despite the modest scale of these pieces, they nonetheless can cause us to experience surprise, to embrace the unexpected, and to be ourselves…enlarged.

   PHOTOS, from top: Daylight Moment, by Emily Berger; Morning Glory, by Susan Post; Green Edge, by Liz Yamin; Tweedledee, by Bosiljka Radista 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Anticipating A Legacy

Anticipating A Legacy

    One of my more thrilling side gigs over the past several years has been  being an annotator for the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) - writing program notes for the CSO’s MasterWorks Concert Series. What follows here is what I was honored to write for the world premiere of Béla Fleck’s second Banjo Concerto, which he will perform with the orchestra on March 19, 8:00 p.m. at Umstattd Performing Arts Hall. If you’re one of those unfortunates who’ve yet to see and hear the CSO, what are you waiting for? Here’s a link to CSO web site for ticket info, as well as to Béla’s web site. I hope to see you there.

Concerto No. 2 for Banjo and Orchestra – “Juno”
By Béla Fleck
Born July 10, 1958, in New York City

   For this very special occasion – the world premiere of Juno, Béla Fleck’s second Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra – I was privileged to have a delightful telephone conversation with the composer himself on March 6, 2016. We began with talking about the concerto’s title, Juno, named for his son, now 2 ½ years old.

    “When I was searching for titles, I realized that the biggest change in my life was that I was writing as a father,” Fleck said. “The world’s not the same when you become a father, and you see things very differently. You’re a different person when you’re part of that process. It’s not so much about me, even though writing a banjo concerto is sort of a heroic effort. But this time I had a different point of view.”

    This is not to say that his new concerto is a specific narrative about Juno or parenthood as such. When Fleck began composing the piece in 2015, the  reality of Juno’s presence necessitated significant adjustments in his working schedule and methods, which nonetheless enabled him to explore new and more refined interactions between banjo and orchestra. In that sense Juno, as both a person and a process is, as Fleck puts it, “…inevitably all over this piece.”

    In the course of performing his first banjo concerto, The Impostor, some 40 times since its premiere in 2011, including his performance with the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in 2014, Fleck gained a more inspired sense of orchestral dynamics which he sincerely hopes will be apparent in his new work. “It’s very much a dilettante’s concerto just like the first one,” he says of Juno, adding, “I love Classical music, but I’m not trained.  I’m doing it for love and trying to do something good as an outsider. But I’m not as outside as I was for the first concerto. I have a better idea of what can be expressed with an orchestra.”

    As clearly demonstrated in The Impostor, Bela Fleck’s virtuosic banjo playing is nothing short of astonishing. In composing it, he looked to do unexpected things with the banjo, things that people wouldn’t think possible with that instrument. “It was like writing with a chip on my shoulder,” Fleck recalled. “I made a very difficult piece to play, which I’m very proud of, and now it’s very easy for me to play. But for this new piece, I really wanted to write something that fell off the banjo, like butter. I even thought I’d call it “Ripple and Flow” for a while, because I’m really trying to take advantage of the things that the banjo does that are so natural and effortless, things that other instruments would labor at and never get… Now, I’ve still written a pretty rhythmically complicated and adventurous piece, but I think I did a lot better at using the colors of the orchestra and allowing them to do what they do best while hopefully allowing what the banjo can do best, maybe even more so than the first concerto.”

    Along with Fleck’s sensitivities to orchestral colors in Juno, there is also a decidedly more conscious employment of the traditional concerto format of three movements in fast-slow-fast order. “I did a better job on the slow music this time,” he notes. “Slow music is one of the really great things an orchestra can do – beautiful, open, big, or relaxed sounds.” He describes the tempo of first movement as medium, and as an overture-like exposition of most of the piece’s themes. The slow second movement brings back a motif foreshadowed in the first. Fleck describes it as having “…a lot of ostinato, a lot of underlying rhythms in an odd time meter, with different kinds of harmony in an uneven flow and an old-fashioned sound.”  And so on through to further developments, which Fleck calls “one long thought,” in the faster third movement. In characterizing the overarching content and energy of Juno as avoiding overtly Bluegrass or Appalachian associations, Fleck strikes a lighthearted chord when he says, “Once again, I’m attempting to put the banjo into different waters and not have it play the role of the hayseed.”

   A prominent element that recurs throughout the concerto is what he calls “groups of five” - something he first explored in The Impostor. To appreciate this aspect, remember that the two numbers in a time signature tell us how many beats are in a measure (bar) of music. A time signature of 4/4, for example, signifies four quarter note beats in a measure. But it does not mean that each measure must have just four quarter notes per se. It means only that each measure has four beats. So traditionally, we might expect even, i.e. symmetrical sub-divisions of notes in a beat. The beat could be comprised of quarter, eighth, sixteenth notes, and so on. In The Impostor, however, Fleck presented many variations of asymmetrical sub-divisions, including groupings of five notes, effectively “stuffing” as many notes as he could into a beat.

    For Juno, he says, “Whenever I got the opportunity, I would stick an interesting group of five in, and I decided it was my fun number for the whole piece. I looked for places where five could be an identifying mark. You’ll find it scattered throughout, but in different ways.”

    After the CSO’s 2014 performance of The Impostor, CSO President and CEO Michelle Mullaly asked if Fleck would consider another large work commission, and Music Director Gerhardt Zimmermann said it should be another banjo concerto. Fleck agreed quickly and wholeheartedly.

   “There are other orchestras co-commissioning this piece [the Colorado and South Carolina orchestras], but it was Canton’s that got the ball rolling, it was their genesis,” Fleck told me. “Canton was the main one, and it’s centered around Gerhardt. I’m really happy about this because I love this orchestra and I love Gerhardt. I liked the idea of going back to the well, back to the same challenges and seeing what I learned from them in the first concerto, and I was excited that he thought I had another one in me. I just felt that he brought something really different to The Impostor. It was…mature. It was such a growth experience for me that I wanted more interaction with the orchestra, to see if I could do it better. I wanted more than one banjo concerto out there, because there aren’t a lot of challenges of this type in the world for someone like me. I want to get better at it and would like to create a body of work for banjo in an orchestral and a Classical setting that I can leave behind.”

   Who knows? Perhaps one day we might look back at Béla Fleck’s adventuresome forays into orchestral music and collectively call them The Juno Legacy.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Picaresque Puppetry

Picaresque Puppetry

By Tom Wachunas

    Remember Bert, Ernie, and Cookie Monster? Imagine each one married, raising children who were happy, hopeful, and secure in their beloved Sesame Street neighborhood. Then imagine the frustrations of those children as 20-somethings on their own and who, encountering a world terribly different from the one they envisioned as kids, find themselves destitute and lonely on a far-flung, shabby street in New York City.  What’s this ‘lost generation’ to do? To paraphrase a song from Avenue Q, the Broadway musical that premiered in 2003 (music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff Whitty), it sucks to be them.

    Most of the characters are Muppet-styled rod puppets, with their human operators always clearly visible with them on stage. For this production by Canton’s Players Guild Theatre, Steve Parsons not only conducts the sparkling six-piece, off-stage orchestra, but also directed the amazingly gifted cast in a comical romp that starts in frolicsome overdrive (choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers) and rarely slows down. The intimacy of the Guild’s arena theater allows the audience to admire at close range the cast members’ delightful abilities to let their puppets be their syncopated, empathetic partners in expressivity.  

    So who are these partners? The affable Princeton (Matthew Heppe) is a recent college graduate ardently seeking his purpose in life, and conflicted about his budding relationship with Kate Monster (Abigail Riley), equally conflicted as she dreams of founding “Monstersori” – a special school for monsters only. The chemistry between Heppe and Riley is quite marvelous – a piquant blend of vulnerability and youthful hope.

    Additionally there’s Rod (Vincent Sisely), a tightly-wound banker and closeted gay, constantly at odds with his straight, lazy roommate, Nicky (Stephen Berg). The hermitic, strangely endearing, and porno-addicted Trekkie Monster (Adam Cerrezuela) lives upstairs. Lucy the Slut (Sarah Marie Young) is a sultry and intrusive temptress in the style of Mae West at her most lascivious. Then there are the relentless Bad Idea Bears (Craig Joseph and Alexis Long), mischievous critters who live up to their name by implanting pernicious impulses in their vulnerable victims. Joseph’s frenetic facial and vocal contortions constitute a gut-splitting performance unto itself. 

    Three actually human characters round out the Avenue Q tenants: Brian (Brian O. Jackson), an unemployed would-be comedian; his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve (Mary Sheridan), a therapist looking for clients; and the apartment building superintendent, ex-child star Gary Coleman (Tiffeny Brown).   

    Among the witty and/or wickedly cynical tunes (such as Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist, and The Internet is for Porn)  that pepper this gluttonously funny feast of a show, none seems more illustrative of its overall aesthetic than There’s a Fine, Fine Line. Riley’s Kate Monster leads one of the evening’s more  poignant and anxiety-filled scenes at the end of Act I when she sings, with her astonishingly sweet and crystalline tonality, “There's a fine, fine line between a lover and a friend; There's a fine, fine line between reality and pretend…”  Later in Act II, Mary Sheridan’s Christmas Eve, responding to Kate Monster’s frustration with Princeton’s fear of commitment, provides a hilarious quasi-counterpoint when she strides about the stage like a sarcastic opera diva, intoning The More You Ruv Someone (the more you want to kill them).

   That said, while fine lines can require careful walking, this show crosses several with cavalier if not disturbing ease - lines between compelling satire and insipid parody, between the venerable and the vulgar. Speaking of the latter, satire or not, and despite the paroxysms of laughter elicited from the house, did we really need to see the ribald enactment of Kate and Princeton’s one-night stand? Fornicating puppets…seriously?  

    After a while, the “off-color” humor gets to be just that. Call it a raucous monotone, which tends to overshadow any truly dramatic authenticity in those coming-of-age moments late in the show when these angst-riddled neighbors manage to find sustainable resolutions to their respective situations. Sure, there are a few references to Jesus and selfless service to others, but they come off a little bit like disingenuous afterthoughts amid so much existential insouciance. Like whistling in the dark. But I think the fault, should you perceive it as such, lies in the writing, not the performing.

    In the end, I ended up caring about these characters if only because, 13 years after their inception, they still reflect the flaws and wounds of a culture navigating life without a steady moral compass. Belly laughs aside, I want that culture to experience not just the cautionary jubilance voiced in the show’s closing number, Only For Now, but more importantly, an unequivocal surrender to a Divinely appointed forever.

   Avenue Q, at the Players Guild Theatre (in the W.G. Fry Theatre) runs  through Sunday March 13, 2016 / Friday and Saturday performances at 8:00pm, Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM. Tickets: $26.00 for adults, and $23.00 for seniors.  Tickets may be purchased online 24 hours a day at  or in person at the Players Guild Box Office, located in the Great Court of the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave N. By phone:  330-453-7617.  Please note, due to adult content this production is intended for mature audiences only.

   PHOTOS (rehearsal shots), courtesy Michael Lawrence Akers/ Players Guild Theatre - (from top):  #1. The cast of the Players Guild Theatre's "Avenue Q" is (front, left to right) Tiffeny Brown, Craig Joseph, Alexis Long, Brian Jackson and Mary Sheridan, and (back) Adam Cerrezulea, Sarah Marie Young, Matthew Heppe, Abigail Riley, Stephen Berg and Vince Sisley. / #2. (l. to r.) Matthew Heppe, Abigail Riley, Sarah Marie Young / #3. (l. to r.) Vincent Sisely, Alexis Long, Stephen Berg