Wednesday, April 25, 2018


Feasting on Carmina Burana

By Tom Wachunas

   Thanks to all the pre-publicity surrounding this season-ending performance from the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), there wasn’t an empty seat in Umstattd Performing Arts Hall on April 21. We were promised a musical feast of epic proportions, to be served piping-hot by 86 musicians, combined choirs numbering more than 100 voices, three solo vocalists, and a modern dance troupe. So we arrived hungry. Just a few days before, a local newspaper article about the concert quoted CSO Music Director, Gerhardt Zimmermann, as saying, “It’s 100 percent a crowd-pleaser. It’s probably the most performed 20th century choral work ever.”  He was referring to Carl Orff’s monumental and still exceptionally popular Carmina Burana, composed in 1936.
   An opulent repast such as this would seem to merit particularly spicy hors d’oeuvres. The CSO obliged with a curious dish: Antonin Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds in D minor, composed in 1878.

   I say ‘curious’ if only because, compared to the sheer heft of the evening’s main course, the Dvořák is decidedly more humble fare. Still, this teasing morsel let the audience taste the always remarkable technical and interpretive skills of CSO musicians. Full of what the composer called Mozart’s “sunshine,” the charming, intimate geniality of the piece was exquisitely articulated by the small ensemble, comprised of pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns, all engaged in a frolicsome march over the steady lyricism streaming from cello and string base. In all, the performance was a delectable moment of breezy air and warm light – a calm prelude to the stormy ferocity that followed.   
  While Carmina Burana is not an opera in the traditional sense, it is nonetheless gripping in its dramatic thrust. Call it epicurean theatre of the flesh. The texts – most in Latin, with a few in Low German - were drawn from 24 medieval poems penned by a Bavarian group of rogue monks, defrocked priests, and itinerant scholars. Disillusioned with the rigid social and religious conventions of their day, they dedicated themselves to self-indulgent pursuits of worldly pleasures.

   Orff’s score is somewhat Spartan in the way it eschews complex orchestral harmonies, favoring instead very plain but memorable melodies. Their syllabic simplicity imbues the work with relentless rhythmic patterns, all superbly rendered here with glittering immediacy pouring out from the powerful ensemble, further augmented by two grand pianos and seven percussionists. 

   The narrative potency of this wild cantata rests in the declamatory choral singing. Here, it was delivered with electrifying precision and sublime, heartfelt fervor by the Canton Symphony Chorus along with Malone University Chamber Choir and the youth chorus from Summit Choral Society. 

   Additionally, the three excellent soloists provided some particularly savory passages, ranging from unabashed bawdiness to sensual gracefulness. In “Once I lived on lakes,” tenor Alfred E. Sturgis sang the anguished complaint of a swan being cooked over a fire pit (“Miserable me! Now I am blackened and roasting fiercely.”) Strutting about in nervous jerks, his words were inflected with funny squeals and squawks until he was stopped, open-mouthed and dead in his tracks, as it were, by a hilarious glower from the Maestro. Later, in “I am the Abbot of Cockaigne,” baritone Michael Roemer was oddly alluring as he performed with all the pompous, slurred swagger you’d expect from a drunken priest. Later still, in “This is a joyful time,” soprano Rachel Hall, accompanied by the youth chorus, was an elegant embodiment of conflicted emotions as she struggled to choose between chastity and surrender to physical love. In finally choosing the latter, her voice soared amazingly to what must be the stratospheric limits of the soprano voice. “My sweetest one, I give myself to you completely!” 
   The dancing by ten members of Neos Dance Theater, choreographed by artistic director Bobby Wesner, was alternately lissome, earthy, bestial, and always enthralling. They were an embedded, kinetic presence, like so many sinewy sprites darting about the tiered stage. Their elongated, colored shadows spilled up and out on to the side walls at the front of the auditorium, evoking a sensation of ghosts rising in a moonlit forest. At times the group moved like a single, willowy creature, or a tribal unit, swaying and writhing to the chanted melodies. Every extension of an arm or a leg, every leap, every facial expression or hand gesture was a studied, riveting punctuation mark in this ponderous ode to carnal indulgence. Even the incessant sounds of their thumping feet became another vital instrument in this work so lavishly laden with sonorous percussive effects.  

   Carefully balancing these diverse components enough to let them breathe freely, to sustain their individual identities, yet integrate them into a palatable whole, must surely be a daunting endeavor.  In this context, you could rightly call Maestro Zimmermann the eminently successful master chef, or better yet, the wise shaman with the magic wand, keeping all those tasty ingredients from dissolving into a sloppy stew.   

  Carmina Burana ended as it began, with “O Fortuna,” a thunderous howl against the oppressive cycles of “monstrous fate” that entangle human existence. “Let us mourn together!”  were the last words we heard from the choir, but I don’t think anyone left the concert hall in abject mourning.  We were indeed howling, however, no doubt overjoyed at our good fortune in partaking of this truly magnificent feast.

   PHOTOS, from top: Gerhardt Zimmermann / Canton Symphony Chorus / Neos Dance Theater / Soprano Rachel Hall / Baritone Michael Roemer / Tenor Alfred E. Sturgis

Friday, April 20, 2018

Stand-alone Monochrome

Stand-alone Monochrome

By Tom Wachunas

 “Color tends to corrupt photography and absolute color corrupts it absolutely. Consider the way color film usually renders blue sky, green foliage, lipstick red, and the kiddies’ playsuit. These are four simple words which must be whispered: color photography is vulgar.” – Walker Evans   

   “Color is everything, black and white is more.” – Dominic Rouse

   “Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.” – Robert Frank

   “To see in color is a delight for the eye but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul.” – Andri Cauldwell

   EXHIBIT: Eight Twentieth-Century Master Photographers, at Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography / THROUGH MAY, 2018 / 520 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton / Featuring works by eight historic artists who changed the face of photography: Edward Weston, Berenice Abbott, W. Eugene Smith, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugène Atget.  Included in the exhibit is a portrait of each photographer and four of his monumental pieces.
   Gallery hours are Wednesday – Saturday, Noon to 5 p.m. 

   A cautionary note: The quotations cited at the top of this post are not intended to suggest any categorically pejorative criticism, on my part, of color photography. They’re meant only to set a tone (literally and otherwise) for my appreciation of this thoughtful gathering of photographs, curated by Craig Joseph with the approval Saxton Gallery Executive Director and owner, Tim Belden.

   Once upon a time, I considered black and white photographs exclusively as mute relics, or dusty, often boring documents which at best might induce a state of sentimental nostalgia. I easily dismissed them for being merely lower-case footnotes to our now, our point-and-shoot world so enamored of declaring itself with boldface technicolor. 
   In the wake of those shallow assessments, I’ve long since come to some deeper realizations about the nature of photography as an art form.  Any photograph – whether in color or black and white - is an abstraction, a distillation, a framing (both intentional and intuitive) of formal as well as subjective  elements that can resonate long after the specific time and context of their making. Further, the reductive palette of a black and white photograph is no less a meaningful manipulation of light than the most spectacularly bright and colorful picture.

   After viewing this handsomely mounted show, I was moved to compile still more quotes – these from five of the eight artists exhibited – if only as a salutary reminder that their works aren’t just retro curiosities. They in fact make for an improbably contemplative respite from all the polychromatic absurdities that engulf us these days. 

   “For that is the power of the camera: seize the familiar and give it new meanings, a special significance by the mark of a personality.” – Alfred Stieglitz

“Once you really commence to see things, then you really commence to feel things.” – Edward Steichen

“It is one thing to photograph people. It is another to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanness.” – Paul Strand

“The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.” – Edward Weston
“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

  These monochromatic manipulations of light certainly do illuminate the past in an important, historic way. But they’re even more fully and truly realized by the act of our intentional seeing, wherein they acquire a compelling new presence in our now.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. MGM Studios, 1939 by Edward Weston / 2. Pepper No. 30 (1930), by Edward Weston / 3. Blind Woman (1916), by Paul Strand / 4. Oil Refinery, Tema, Ghana (1963), by Paul Strand / 5. Marlene Dietrich (1931), by Edward Steichen /6. Equivalent, Mountain and Sky, Lake George (1924), by Alfred Stieglitz / 7. Moonrise, Mamaroneck, NY (1904), by Edward Steichen

Friday, April 13, 2018

Mined Memories - Tangible Transience

Mined Memories – Tangible Transience 

By Tom Wachunas

   “To my mind, one does not put oneself in place of the past; one only adds a new link.”  - Cy Twombly

   “Artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.”  - Sol LeWitt

EXHIBIT: Dreaming in Reverse - works by Clare Murray Adams / at John Strauss Furniture Design, 236 Walnut Ave. NE in downtown Canton, THROUGH APRIL 23, 2018 (my apologies for this late posting) / Monday-Friday 9 – 5, Sat. 10 - 4

   The second of the two links above (the first being to Clare Murray Adams’ website) is to an excellent article by Dan Kane on John Strauss’s contemporary aesthetic and his uniquely handsome venue located in a revitalized, century-old building in downtown Canton.

    Climbing the creaky staircase to the second floor gallery is to encounter a changed atmosphere. The airy elegance of the main floor show room gives way to a vaguely haunted niche. It’s nothing spooky, certainly, but more like an attic - a place packed away, a retreat from the accoutrements of the present to those of another time. The gallery itself is actually a converted hallway - long, tall, and wide enough to accommodate all sorts of art, I would imagine.  A distinct presence seems to whisper in this physical space. For now, call it one of remembrance and retrieval, and one which harmonizes quite effectively with the spirit of Clare Murray Adams’ exhibition.

    The selections here are from eight series of her works, ranging in time from found object sculptures of the early 2000s (“…influenced by my love of Joseph Cornell and the collection of objects that I have amassed,” she tells us in the exhibit information sheet) to 2017-2018 drawings on paper and small collages on wood panels. In appreciating the great diversity of media, techniques, and processes that Adams engages, I found this, from her web site statement: “…Reflecting upon my art origins as a contemporary quiltmaker, I can see that the use of various kinds of fabric, stitching and appliqueing was the foundation for the way in which I now work.” 

   There are no actual quilts hanging in this exhibit, the dictionary definition of a quilt being “a bed coverlet of two layers of cloth filled with padding (such as down or batting) held in place by ties or stitched designs.” But consider quiltmaking in a more expansive way, as a compositional concept. If you think of it as an overall image-making sensibility beyond our typical associations with decorative or functional objects, then you might better grasp the essence of Adams’ absorbing visions. At the heart of her work is a psychological and emotional thrust born from the act of layering and juxtaposing multiple components, or conjoining variable materials – patching together pieces of something into a cohesive and very intimate whole.

   Adams draws those ‘somethings’ from her memories of people and places, or past sketchbooks and journals. Or they can be abstract responses to ideas explored in earlier artworks, at times incorporating remnants from older pieces. Works such as “Anonymous” (from an eponymous 2017 series), for example, deconstruct the formulaic look and method of a quilt into separate tactile and painterly elements floating on, or stitched to, a nonspecific plane.  
   “Last Season Sweet Potatoes,” like many other pieces here, has a gestural spontaneity and immediacy about it, replete with signs and markers laid out as if mapping a route to an affectionately recalled event or discovery. Even her relatively more austere black-and-white paintings exude a playful fondness for the disarming simplicity of certain forms and textures.

   In all, Clare Murray Adams is a remarkably deft linguist, so to speak – a multilingual mystic of a kind. There’s perceptual intrigue in the way she folds the literal into the abstract, the tangible into the ephemeral. In the process, she articulates a hybrid visual language suffused with poetry both visceral and sweet.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Fly Away Home / 2. Anonymous / 3. Last Season Sweet Potatoes / 4. Stone and Twine / 5. Resisting Today’s Reality / 6. Sunspots

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Sizzlin' Swagger

Sizzlin’ Swagger

By Tom Wachunas

   Here’s a curious prequel to the riotously titillating Players Guild Theatre presentation of Chicago, directed here by Jon Tisevich and, by the way, now sold out for its entire run through April 22.  Even as we of the audience are busy finding our seats in the Guild’s downstairs arena space - and before a scripted word was spoken, a song sung, or dance danced – ensemble performers are casually stretching, bending, pacing, and posing inside the effectively stark set designed by Joshua Erichsen. (We would later see them again in the same scenario during the intermission.) Some of them look lost in thought. Some whisper to each other furtively. Others peer out at us with a lascivious grin, or a yearning glance, or a threatening stare.

    It feels as though they’ve been living there long before we arrived, caged in a cloudy light behind rows of thick chains hanging down like prison bars from the ceiling. They seem poised to break out. And break out they do, in a manner of speaking. These marvelously talented performing artists, along with the sizzling offstage orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons, go on to topple theatre’s proverbial fourth wall with all the aplomb, polish, and panache you’d see and hear in a Broadway production. 

   This musical ode to 1920s Chicago is set against the backdrop of local tabloid headlines screaming scandal and judicial system corruption. It’s a relentlessly biting look at criminal celebrity wherein we meet Velma Kelly in the iconic introductory song, “All That Jazz.”  She’s a vaudeville showgirl confined to the women’s block of Cook County jail, awaiting trial for murdering her husband and sister after she found them together in bed. As we hear during the gleeful writhing and stomping of “Cell Block Tango,” performed with several other “merry murderesses”, they had it comin’.

   Heidi Swinford is devilishly commanding as Velma. With a strong, dynamic singing voice and dance moves to match, she gives us a deftly composed portrait of conniving desperation, driven by a viperous ego colored with gritty sarcasm. Things get decidedly dicey when another vaudevillian murderer, Roxie Hart, shows up and steals Velma’s thunder. An equally gifted singer - and electrifyingly lithe dancer - Keitha Brown, as Roxie, delivers a compelling picture of giddy complexity. For all of her fetching naïvete, she’s fiercely determined to become a vaudeville star at any cost. It’s a pursuit she brings to light in a riveting confessional soliloquy that accompanies her lusty, slinky chorus number, “Roxie (the Name on Everyone’s Lips)”. How can anyone be so decidedly childish and deliciously malicious at the same time? Fascinating.

   Speaking of malicious, Aaron Brown plays the debonair crooner and defense lawyer, Billy Flynn, with memorable relish. He’s a smooth-talking shark, a money-mad, narcissistic media manipulator. One of the evening’s most hilarious scenes transpires in “We Both Reached For the Gun,” featuring the attorney as a ventriloquist puppeteer happily pulling Roxie’s strings. 

   Other highly noteworthy performances include Kathy Boyd as Matron ‘Mama” Morton. She’s the earthy cell-block supervisor who glibly admonishes her residents, “In this town, murder is a form of entertainment.” With a big heart and infectious swagger in her voice, she promises reciprocal loyalty in her song, “When You’re Good to Mama.” 

   Meanwhile, on the outside, Allen Cruz is wholly endearing as Roxie’s gentle, neglected husband, Amos. His innocent demeanor recalls the fumbling awkwardness of a young James Stewart. His poignant and funny song bemoaning his social and marital invisibility, “Mr. Cellophane,” is the evening’s most tender moment. And then there’s Micah Harvey playing Mary Sunshine, a gushy gossip columnist in drag. Miss Sunshine goes unabashedly overboard in her sympathy for Roxie. Harvey sings “A Little Bit of Good” with all the gut-splitting earnestness of a dubiously-trained soprano belting out an aria. It may be very bad opera, but it’s gloriously entertaining nonetheless.

Throughout the evening, the choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers is a character unto itself. Akers has successfully melded the jazzy spirit of Bob Fosse with a unique, sensual intricacy that is at times ferocious. 

   While Chicago treads salaciously along a border between satire and parody, somehow it doesn’t feel right to think of it as mere farcical escapism or irrelevant fiction. Maybe it’s a piquant metaphor. Real life these days seems more than ever driven by insatiable social appetites for debauchery and scandal, or for the rationalizing of our celebrities’ moral turpitude, or the self-congratulatory pleasure we take in witnessing their demise. Is the audience for such things as complicit as the perpetrators? Is Chicago, after all, an indictment of all of us? 

   Yikes. Maybe I’m overthinking. Then again, leave it to the supremely skilled artistry present in this Players Guild Theatre production to offer something so thought-provoking that it resonates long after we’ve gone home laughing.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Keitha Brown as Roxie, Aaron Brown as Billy Flynn (courtesy Players Guild/ Don Jones) 2. Heidi Swinford as Velma (left), Keitha Brown 3. Heidi Swinford and Keitha Brown 4. Photo courtesy Players Guild - Jon Tisevich 5. Photo courtesy Players Guild – Jon Tisevich