Tuesday, March 27, 2018

An Eclectic and Illuminating Concert from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

 An Eclectic and Illuminating Concert from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

   I can only guess at why there were so many empty seats in the audience for the March 25 concert from the Canton Symphony Orchestra. If familiar classical music breeds ticket sales, perhaps this program was perceived (undeservedly) as too light-weight, or the selections too obscure. Or perhaps  it was local Lenten fasting from orchestral music. In any case, it’s not my place to berate those otherwise faithful concert goers who were missing in action on this occasion, except to say that they missed a real stunner.

   One element common to the three works on the program is that they were written fairly early in their respective composers’ careers: Serenade No.2 in A Major by Johannes Brahms; Concerto No. 1 for Cello in C Major by Franz Joseph Haydn; and Four Dances of Estancia by Alberto Ginastera.  True enough, these pieces are not known to be frequently performed live. But they should be, even if they’re not “iconic,” thus making this marvelous performance by the CSO all the more gratifying.
   Brahms was 26 when he composed his Serenade No.2 in 1859 – 17 years before producing the first of his powerful four symphonies. Still, in all of its youthful energy, this five-movement work feels symphonic. More surprisingly, Brahms scored it without violins. The piece remained one of his favorites. As he wrote of it at a later point in his life, “I was in a particularly blissful mood. I have seldom written music with such delight.” 

   Despite the piece’s restricted tonal palette, it is delightful indeed. Without high, sparkling notes from violins to voice the melodies, the violas are necessarily front and center. As played here under the gently gliding baton of Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann, their deeper tonalities enunciated a rich,  lyrical depth that was at times shimmering, at other times somber, yet never morose. Meanwhile, the exhilarating winds were equally vibrant co-stars in providing crisp melodies, delicate textures, and jocular cross rhythms with generous support from the radiant horns.

   Franz Joseph Haydn composed his first cello concerto in 1765. It’s a superbly confident piece, soaring into all manner of virtuosic possibilities for the soloist, and as solidly designed as any of his early symphonies. Julia Bruskin, co-founder of the critically acclaimed Claremont Trio and cellist with the Metropolitan Opera, joined the CSO to illuminate this beautiful work in one of the most commanding partnerships I’ve ever witnessed at Umstattd Performing Arts Hall.

   From the start, soloist and the ensemble were a single, seamlessly blended entity, united in making the music a truly memorable event. Bruskin’s astonishing technical virtuosity, combined with the constant, luminous warmth of her instrument’s tonality, was in itself mesmerizing without ever succumbing to meaningless flamboyance.  More importantly, it was the evocative soulfulness of her playing that emanated a transcendent energy, a tangible aura of magnificence.  Her every note was succinct and savored, every breathtaking crescendo and arpeggio seeming to rise and fall like waves, or the ebb and flow of tides, in the undulating sea articulated by the ensemble. This electrifying performance was an appointment with magic, a visitation of practically divine dimensions.

   The evening concluded with Alberto Ginastera’s wonderfully raucous orchestral suite, Four Dances of Estancia. The work is comprised of four segments extracted from Estancia, a ballet composed in 1942. It exemplifies what Ginastera called his “Objective Nationalism,” the earliest phase in his composing career wherein he often quoted indigenous Argentine music. The original one-act ballet was a depiction of one day in the busy life of an estancia, a sprawling ranch on the grassy plains of Argentina.

   Replete with paraphrased Argentinian folk tunes, the music is a veritable tapestry of quick meter shifts, intricate triple rhythms, and wild tempo changes. The score calls for such a vast array of instruments and percussion that the orchestra was startlingly transformed into an enchanting, sensual embodiment of wind-blown fields and the creatures who inhabit them, the rough feel of everyday work, and even a slick city man engaging the gruff gauchos (cowboys) in an intense dancing contest to win the heart of a lovely ranch girl. Rarely have I heard the orchestra more infectiously loud, proud and unbridled than in the final movement, “Danza final – Malambo.”  It’s a cacophonous, exuberant dance, led by frenzied trumpets and driven by ear-splitting percussion, exploding at a furious pace through relentless repetitions of an eminently unforgettable melody.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

FRESH Narratives

FRESH Narratives

By Tom Wachunas

   “…In my juror’s statement from last year’s FRESH, I spoke about the presence of our nation’s political and social crisis that I saw in the works submitted. We are reeling in shock; now we begin to join together to heal, stand for the causes we hold true, and find ways to move ahead as one. FRESH 2017 explores new definitions of space and this new place that we must all learn to navigate and inhabit together.… If FRESH 2017 was a reeling in the face of a shocking new narrative, FRESH 2018 is about artists constructing a better narrative.”  - Artist Charles Beneke, Juror for FRESH 2018

    EXHIBIT:  14th annual FRESH, through March 31 / Summit ArtSpace, 140 E. Market St., Akron / Hours: Noon to 7 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays / Information: 330-376-8480/ www.summitartspace.org
   ARTIST PANEL DISCUSSION Thursday, March 22, 7 pm / Free and open to the public / Reserve your seat at  http://bit.ly/2BBUzlq

   I’m very pleased to report that my mixed-media relief painting, “After the Sermon,” was selected to be in this exhibit, and grateful to be in the company of so many truly engaging works from 34 artists, chosen from 150   submissions. I wrote here about my piece back in October, 2017, so if you missed that post and you’re interested, here’s a link: 

   A particularly ‘fresh’ aspect of this exhibit is the adjudication procedure. Artist Charles Beneke was the sole juror for last year’s FRESH exhibit, and he was asked to return this year in the same capacity. In his juror’s statement (excerpted above), Beneke explains, “The organizers were curious to see how time and cultural movement in this volatile era could have affected the artists of our region and how any potential changes may have become manifest in the artworks they produced and chose to submit as evidence of who they are one year later.”  I highly recommend reading his full statement, so once again, here’s a link: 

   I didn’t see FRESH 2017, but evidently there were threaded through it manifestations of the sociopolitical Sturm und Drang of our time – our “volatile era.”  If I’m reading Beneke’s assessment of the current show correctly, this year’s installment is distinguished by a comparatively different kind of probity, a lens-shifting of sorts.

   Eminently noticeable in this exhibit is its pervasive inwardness - a palpable arc of personal introspection, discovery, and yes, mystery. The pieces I find most compelling aren’t only visually beguiling but also conceptually and psychologically insistent. Some of them keep singing in my memory like a song I can’t stop humming even if I’ve forgotten the words. 

   A substantial portion of the paint in Catherine Spencer’s abstract oil on gessoed woodboard, Separation Anxiety, looks like it was applied with a putty knife, erasing some shapes and color passages while simultaneously creating others. And then there’s that odd vertical divide right down the middle. It’s a stream of self-conscious mark-making that maybe wants to harmonize with its surrounds, yet ultimately disrupts the composition’s equilibrium. Purposeful, or accidental?  Anxiety indeed. 

   Robert Carpenter’s fascinating three-sided Sketch is a sculptural work made from wood, plaster, gauze, and paint. It’s an unusual spatial configuration that hangs perpendicular to the wall and has the look of an improvisation with scrappy found materials. The formal complexity of this 3D drawing conjures a wrecked building being salvaged and re-assembled, a ravaged space being repaired.

   Holy Games is a sprawling abstract work on paper by Jack St. John. His layered strata of acrylic, ink, pastel, and spray paint make for an active surface, seething with idiosyncratic scribbles, frenetic splotches, and broad scrapes. The whitish cruciform emerging from the middle of the picture plane (or is it being engulfed?) is vaguely suggestive of a figure, arms outstretched and dripping pink, as if attempting to embrace and unify all the volatile energy surrounding it.

   On a more charming note, there’s the shimmering Random Star Variations by Roger Benedetti. These brightly colored, very shiny (some painted with nail polish) whittled sticks pop off the wall and seem to dance with their own shadows. I wanted to see a much wider expanse of them, to be more fully mesmerized by this cosmetic cosmos. As it is, the piece is nonetheless a titillating evocation of childlike wonder.
   Amidst all of the remarkably diverse iconographic and material content clamoring for attention in this exhibit, it could be easy to miss the foam, paper, and metal piece by Carol Klingel, parts of me I know nothing about. From a distance you might think it’s an electrical wall fixture. Plug into it anyway. This close encounter of the tiny kind (approx. 5” x 3”) resonates in a large way, if only in its uncompromisingly enigmatic nature.

   There’s something almost primordial about the image of what might be smoke plumes, or a vaporous sky, set at the bottom of a molded foam box, itself looking like packing material. What originally filled those negative spaces?  In solidarity with the artist, there are parts here we know nothing about. At once inviting and elusive, it’s that proverbial song in the head again. 

   The words are gone, but the tune won’t let go. Art can be like that.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Separation Anxiety, by Catherine Spencer / 2. Sketch, by Robert Carpenter / 3. Holy Games, by Jack St. John / 4. Random Star Variations, by Roger Benedetti / 5. parts of me I know nothing about, by Carol Klingel   

Monday, March 12, 2018

Of Place and Planes

Of Place and Planes

By Tom Wachunas

    “But, after all, the aim of art is to create space - space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space within which the subjects of painting can live.”  - Frank Stella 

    “A painter is a choreographer of space.”  - Barnett Newman

   EXHIBIT: MULTI – by Natalie Lanese / THROUGH APRIL 6 at Main Hall Art Gallery / Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / Viewing hours are Monday – Friday 11 A.M. to 5 P.M. (closed during Spring Break, March 26 – April 1) 

   Back in 1959, Frank Stella’s seminal ‘black paintings’ knocked the art world for a loop. More than a few passionate purveyors of abstract expressionism regarded his bleak, so-called minimalist surfaces as the death of art. Stella’s assessment? “What you see is what you see.”  It’s not too unreasonable that we would regard his statement as deliberately smug and elliptical. But we can and should just as well take it as throwing down a gauntlet – a challenge to deconstruct and re-configure the broader processes of making, presenting, and seeing a painting.

   Natalie Lanese is a resident of Toledo, Ohio, and Associate Professor of Art and Gallery Director at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. Her current installation at Kent Stark’s Main Hall Art Gallery certainly lives up to its name – Multi – in how it playfully explores and crosses multiple formal boundaries (painting/collage/sculpture). 

   Playful indeed, at least initially, there’s something momentarily disorienting in how Lanese’s paintings on paper are so insistent, so in-your-face loud while quietly seething with perceptual ambiguities of spatial depth and figure-ground dynamics.  Their sleek, commercially- printed look (from a distance) disappears on close examination. This is flat house paint, applied by hand. The surfaces have a subtly gestural immediacy.  Their flirtation with optical illusions or flickerings of ghostly after-images makes the whole gallery space pulse and sway. 

   A substantial portion of the exhibit is given over to multiple paintings joined in a continuous band, in turn mounted on top of black or orange diagonal stripes painted directly on to the gallery wall. The white gallery walls are no longer an incidental architectural backdrop, but now an integral part of a vast sculptural/pictorial collage. In other passages, the paintings break with traditional display protocol, casually curving away from the wall, their bottom portions jutting out and resting on the floor. It’s really a benevolent invasion of our psychological space - a literal undermining of our predispositions and assumptions about our sense of place as viewers in a gallery environment.

   You might think something like, “Wait a minute. I need this floor to be a floor, my spot to be grounded and stable as I look straight ahead at art on a wall.”  But your eyes start darting about in a zig-zagging manner, retracing the patterns of those colors, those bold colors so intensely present that you feel pushed, pulled, maybe even punched. You can’t help but see the ceiling, noticing its gridded rhythms of tiles punctuated by repeating lines of lights, their soft reflections, along with those of the paintings, seemingly puddled on the floor. No, not on the floor, but somehow underneath it. Suddenly, this kinetic sensation of floating, or being immersed, makes you an active participant in a bright theatre of intersecting planes, a partner in a performance.   
   Lanese has choreographed a glowing gauntlet – an integrated retinal, psychological, and conceptual experience. She’s invited us to not just see what we see, but to dance with it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Dazzling Fluency in Three Vernaculars

From the Canton Symphony Orchestra, Dazzling Fluency in Three Vernaculars

By Tom Wachunas

   The thematic and formal diversity of the March 3 MasterWorks program from the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was a compelling reminder  that the sounds emanating from an orchestra constitute a language. Like any spoken language, those sounds can articulate a distinct vernacular - the parlance of a specific time and/or place. Here in Umstattdt Performing Arts Hall, the marvelous expressivity of the CSO was transportive, taking us from America’s Texas plains, then to the mid-20th century jazz era, and finally journeying back to the pinnacle of 18th century European classicism.

   The first work on the program was Snakebite, originally written for chamber orchestra by Stephen Montague in 1995 while he was guest professor of composition at the University of Texas at Austin. This complex, adventurous piece of sonic mischief, rarely performed live, is largely built around the traditional Texas fiddle tune, “Dusty Miller,” and a fascinating story. As told to Montague by an old cowboy, when Plains Indians were bitten by a rattlesnake,  they would quickly lie down on the ground, shut their eyes, and will their heartbeats to slow until the poison dispersed – a process lasting sometimes up to 18 hours.

   It was clear from the outset that Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann heartily embraced the raucous spirit of this work. His enthusiasm was infectious as the orchestra proceeded to take a walk on the wild side. Once the jaunty fiddle melody emerged, variations of it were passed back and forth between various instruments throughout most of the work. Meanwhile, a substantial part of this musical narrative was left to the strings to enunciate. Accordingly, they poured out an onomatopoeic, entertaining array of strange squeaks and rattlings, percussive pluckings, cascades of bent and banged notes, all conjuring a picture of the coiled snake-in-waiting and its vicious bite. At one point, the music came to a screeching, brassy halt, followed by an eerily solemn passage. Here, the orchestra slowly gathered itself into a swirling, aleatory cacophony of colors and textures. After this haunting exhalation of venom, as it were, the jaunty fiddle tune was resurrected, building in tempo to a gleeful, boot-stomping finale.

   Randy Klein, CSO principal clarinetist, was the featured soloist for the second work on the program, Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. Copland composed this two-movement piece (played without pause) in 1950 for Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing.” The instrumental accompaniment for the concerto was unconventional. As Copland explained, “The instrumentation being clarinet with strings, harp, and piano, I did not have a large battery of percussion to achieve jazzy effects, so I used slapping basses and whacking harp sounds to simulate them.”

   At the beginning of the work, the harp briefly set the mood and tempo as the clarinet entered into an ethereal dialogue with languorous violins. The simple melody was a gorgeous, sensual expression, somewhat like a lullaby, evoking a pastoral serenity tinged with melancholy, and blended seamlessly with lower strings and harp as they sustained a quiet pulse. Klein’s cadenza -  a dramatic and melodic link to the second movement - was quite literally breathtaking, though maybe ‘breath-giving’ would be more apropos to  describing his riveting virtuosity. This was a dazzling gem of technical and aural control imbued with soaring, lyrical sensitivity. He brought that same brio to the second movement, injecting its spiky, Brazilian-flavored rhythms  with dashes of bright humor, and all ending with a Gershwinesque clarinet glissando (or in jazz-speak, “smear”), sliding easily from the lowest register up to high C.

   Of course we clamored for an encore, and Klein obliged with a beautifully piquant instrumental rendition of “Nature Boy,” a song first recorded (and made famous) by American jazz singer Nat King Cole in 1948. Throughout Klein’s mesmerizing performance, which at times had all the spontaneous feel of an improvisation, CSO principal cellist Erica Snowden bowed a single, low note. It was a poetic drone, at once doleful and seductive, and counterbalanced by Klein’s deft trills and arpeggios punctuated with flashes of bluesy swag. The moment resonated with me through the intermission in a haunting way, as if somehow foreshadowing the subjective breadth of the program’s final selection – Mozart’s magnificent Symphony No. 40.

   To this iconic work Maestro Zimmermann brought every bit of his uncanny interpretive prowess, along with a deep reverence for the soulfulness of Mozart. In turn, there was a brisk, gripping air of urgency in the way the orchestra delivered an altogether poignant and stunning performance.

   Mozart’s Symphony No.40 is a sublimely ordered, emotionally potent, and wholly unforgettable statement in a language born at the apex of his creative genius. More than just a singular European dialect indigenous to the Classical era, however, we have come to rightly revere it as a transcendent music, spoken in the patois of timelessness itself. Fittingly enough then, on this occasion it was an eminently inspired CSO that spoke so eloquently in tongues.