Monday, November 26, 2018

From Gershwin Swagger to Sublime Swan Lake

 From Gershwin Swagger to Sublime Swan Lake

By Tom Wachunas

   “Music of the People” was the theme of the November 18 Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) program, with works by George Gershwin and Pytor Tchaikovsky. As stated in the press release for the concert, “..the two composers… wrote music to touch the souls of the people of their respective countries.”

   What could be more “of the people” these days than national politics? Commenting on the evening’s opening selection - Gershwin’s overture to his 1931 satirical Broadway musical, Of Thee I Sing – a mischievously grinning Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann explained that he intentionally pre-scheduled the work to be performed on the heels of this country’s recent,  highly contentious midterm elections.

   Gershwin regarded Of Thee I Sing not so much as a traditional musical as a topical operetta. It was a grand lampooning of Depression-era political shenanigans, incompetency, and the democratic process itself. The absurd story centered on the presidential campaign, election, and comically troubled administration of a character named John P. Wintergreen.

   The majority of Broadway musical overtures prior to this one were generally medleys of the show’s most memorable tunes. But for this production, which was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1932, Gershwin composed an overture relatively more “classical” in nature and what could fairly be called a finely developed fantasia for orchestra. There are echoes of his 1928 An American in Paris as well as a foretaste of piquant moments from his 1935 masterpiece, Porgy and Bess. In embracing the work’s audacious spirit, the CSO delivered a delightfully bright romp, replete with crackling percussion accents and lavish, swaying orchestral harmonies. 

   The next piece on the program was even more adventurous - Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. The work is an intricate orchestral pastiche brimming with multiple themes and disparate moods infused with lush romanticism along with the pulsing swagger of urban jazz. As a central percussive and melodic element, the performance by guest soloist Spencer Meyer was commanding and vivacious from beginning to end. Especially during the Adagio movement, in playful dialogue with the electrifying ensemble, he articulated all of Gershwin’s bluesy savoir faire with captivating finesse. One of the most colorful sentences in that dialogue was the muted trumpet solo from Justin Kohan. His deliciously sensual, bent notes conjured a somewhat naughty image of drunken wandering along empty streets after a late night in the jazz clubs.  

   At several points during the performance of the evening’s final selection, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite, I marveled yet again at how the CSO can keep doing what it does with such consistent unity of purpose and power. What exactly is the ineffable chemistry that can make this orchestra become greater than the sum of its parts to produce a sound so sumptuous and completely immersive? Does it not begin with the conductor connecting with the soul of the music? In assessing the role of the conductor, Charles Munch, Music Director of the Boston Symphony from 1949 to 1962, once noted, “The conductor must breathe life into the score. It is you and you alone who must expose it to the understanding, reveal the hidden jewel to the sun at the most flattering angles.”

  Throughout much the performance, Maestro Zimmermann had the look of a man mesmerized, smitten by the sheer beauty of the music. His commitment to this monument of ballet led him to expand the suite - traditionally an arrangement of between six and eight of the ballet’s most popular scenes - with several additional excerpts, including the magnificent finale in its entirety. Zimmermann’s unique arrangement significantly augmented the sublime emotional agency of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic vision.

   A memorably crystalline, dreamlike moment came in “Dance of the Swans” from Act II, wonderfully rendered by CSO violinist Christian Zimmerman, harpist Nancy Peterson, and cellist Brian Klickman. But this was just one of many similarly astonishing passages that grace this work. Through it all, it was indeed an impassioned conductor and equally smitten ensemble who shed dazzling light on this most magical of Tchaikovsky gems.    

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

At the Site of Seeing

At the Site of Seeing / photos by Aimee Lambes

l. to r. - Abraham Adams, Natalie Sander Kern, Brian Newberg

Natalie Sander Kern as Molly Sweeney

Abraham Adams as Frank Sweeney

Brian Newberg as Mr. Rice

By Tom Wachunas

“…they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding,…”  - Mark 4:12

"Learning to see is not like learning a new language. It's like learning language for the first time."  - Denis Diderot

   What assumptions do we make about someone’s well-being or world- view? What perceptions inform those assumptions? Do they justify our judgments on the circumstances of that person’s life? How do those judgements motivate our actions toward that person? Living, and loving, can be complicated, mysterious, and hurtful.

   With his 1994 play, Molly Sweeney, Irish playwright Brian Friel gave us a deeply probative and eloquent examination of these considerations. It’s an utterly intriguing parable, generously laden with humor and pathos, about the vexing gap between seeing and understanding. The play visits an ideological crash site at the daunting crossroads of philosophy, psychology, science, and spirituality - all colliding with life-altering force.

   Three fascinating characters speak to the audience directly through intertwined monologues that address their divergent perspectives on the same story. Here’s the tale, directed by Craig Joseph, of 41 year-old Molly Sweeney (Natalie Sander Kern), blind since early infancy; her well-meaning dreamer of a husband, Frank (Abraham Adams); and Mr. Rice (Brian Newberg), a once famous opthamologist, now driven out of seclusion by his whiskey-soaked obsession to restore Molly’s sight.

   There’s something exquisitely appropriate about Craig Joseph’s choice of venue for this production – the 50-seat Dietz Theater in Akron’s Weathervane Playhouse. The performance space itself could be taken as a metaphor for how sighted people might assume that for a blind person, living must indeed be a sad condition - boxed in, it would seem, by blackness. The intimate darkness of the room gives way to an uncanny if not ironic effect of magnifying and illuminating even the smallest of emotive gestures and facial expressions articulated by the actors who are, in a word, astonishing.

   A thrilling element throughout the evening, thanks to dialect coach Chuck Richie, is the actors’ command of their enchanting Irish accents, particularly from Kern and Adams. It’s much less present in Newberg’s speech, though still authentic when considering that the Irish-born character of Mr. Rice spent years forging a career while living in America (before his marriage fell apart), thus becoming more Yankee-ized, as the character of Frank so eagerly reminds us at several points.

   Through a large portion of the play comprised of flashbacks on the characters’ lives, Natalie Sander Kern renders the character of Molly with a palpably luminous countenance. Kern makes Molly Sweeney an effervescent embodiment of charisma, a positively contagious presence, and anything but morose – that is, at least until the cathartic eye operation. Her consistently riveting gaze isn’t the vacant look of someone groping about the world tentatively (she doesn’t use a cane), but rather someone whose eyes sparkle with the shimmer of pure, wonderful apprehension. In one of the play’s richest passages, she speaks of a favorite life activity – being immersed in the sea, swimming. Her voice bubbles with joy, tinged with sorrow for sighted folk, when she recalls, “…Just offering yourself to the experience—every pore open and eager for that world of pure sensation, of sensation alone—sensation that could not be enhanced by sight—experience that existed only by touch and feel; and moving swiftly and rhythmically through that enfolding world; and the sense of such assurance, such concordance with it.” Molly doesn’t see her blindness, so to speak, as a tragic abnormality to be pitied or remedied.

   Equally captivating and intense are the performances by Abraham Adams and Brian Newberg in their roles of Frank and Mr. Rice, respectively.  Adams is a dizzying amalgam of boyish bravado, self-doubt, tenderness, mournful frustration, and righteous anger as he recalls his big-hearted but quixotic career pursuits. They include his hilarious story about making cheese from Iranian goats afflicted with chronic jetlag. And though all his support for the successful outcome of Molly’s surgery is genuinely ebullient, he doesn’t much like Mr. Rice.

   No wonder, perhaps. Maybe he sees too much of his own flawed motivations in the alcoholic doctor. In that role, Brian Newberg gives us a punctilious philosopher who quite effectively draws us into the angst-riddled disaster that his life had become, and the desperate hope to restore his internationally acclaimed reputation by performing a miracle on Molly.

   Molly’s partially restored vision initially leaves her in a short-lived period of giddy hope. But amid Frank and Mr. Rice’s incessant pressures to educate her in correctly connecting to what she can see, it dawns on Molly, and us, that to the men in her life, she’s become an agenda, a project, not a person. No miracle at all, the cure has forced her out of the ecstatic sensory completeness she once knew, becoming instead an infection that progressively thrusts her into a state of heartbreaking withdrawal and confusion.

   This work of truly great theatre may well leave you longing for the same assurance and concordance with the experience of being alive that Molly savored when swimming. In the end, more than a little heartbroken yourself, you’ll simply want to hug her.

   Molly Sweeney, in The Dietz Theater at Weathervane Playhouse, 1301 Weathervane Lane, Akron, Ohio / Friday, November 16 & Saturday November, 17 at 8 PM, Sunday November 18 at 2 PM / produced and presented by Seat of the Pants Productions and presented through special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc. / tickets $20 - available ONLINE at  

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Elaborated Lives

Elaborated Lives

Photos courtesy Jonathan Tisevich

Sarah Marie Young

Brandon Michael and Joy Ellis

By Tom Wachunas

…Too many choices tear us apart / I don't want to live like that / Too many choices tear us apart / I don't want to love like that / I just want to touch your heart / May this confession be the start

- lyrics from “Elaborate Lives” by Tim Rice, from AIDA
  In the beginning of the Players Guild production of Aida, the Tony Award-winning musical by Elton John and Tim Rice, several people are strolling about the beautiful set designed by Joshua Erichsen in a convincing evocation of visiting an ancient Egypt exhibit in a museum. Emerging from a display niche, a statue of Amneris (Sarah Marie Young), daughter of a Pharoah, comes to life and intones the song, “Every Story is a Love Story.” It’s a richly sung summary of what will soon unfold, wherein we hear the solemn reminder, “…This is the story of a love that flourished in a time of hate.”

   In this highly moving chronicle of forbidden love, divided loyalties, and treachery in an era of tyranny and war, we meet Aida (Joy Ellis), a Nubian princess stolen from her country and enslaved in Egypt. There she struggles mightily to reconcile her growing love for Radames (Brandon Michael) – a imposing Egyptian soldier already betrothed (for nine years!) to Amneris – with the pressing burden of remaining a faithful leader to her own beleaguered people.  

   As he has done for so many past productions, director Jonathan Tisevich has assembled a wondrously gifted group of performers. Amid the ethereal lighting designed by Scott Sutton, the sonic magic from the live, 11-piece orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons, and further energized by Michael Lawrence Akers’ exotic, often sensual choreography, this 27-member cast effectively morphs the smallness of the Guild’s arena theater into a place of epic dimensionality.

    Tisevich has always been a thoughtful minister to his performers’ agency for articulating emotional and psychological authenticity in their characters. And nowhere does that agency have more depth than in the portrayals of Aida, Radames, and Amneris.

  In expressing, indeed exclaiming, all of Aida’s tortured heart and crisis of conscience, Joy Ellis is a thoroughly riveting presence. Her singing is a mesmerizing force in itself – plaintive and wounded when she sings the bitterly ironic “Easy as Life”; alternately fierce, plaintive, and tender elsewhere. Among of the evening’s most touching and powerful passages are her duets with Radames, such as “Enchantment Passing Through,” and the soaring “Elaborate Lives.” 
   It’s fascinating to watch Brandon Michael, a wholly compelling singer in his own right, as he navigates the changing tides in the heart of Ramades. The conquering soldier is conquered by Aida’s nobility and courage. He falls inexorably in love with a slave, though not without a price.  

   Speaking of changing hearts, an equally fascinating catharsis transpires as you watch Sarah Marie Young’s stunning portrayal of Amneris. Through half  of the story she’s a feckless, self-possessed, swaggering imp with an inflated sense of entitlement. In the hilarious “My Strongest Suit,” she and her women-in-waiting strut about the palace like so many fashionistas sporting ridiculously bizarre outfits and headwear (marvelous costumes by Stephen Ostertag). But as Ramades grows more distant and cold, the reality of her plight becomes all too clear. Now humbled and resolute, she pours out her woundedness, her surrender, in one of the show’s most heartrending songs, “I Know the Truth.”

   The evening flows fairly consistently with other memorable characters and interludes. David Everett plays Zoser, the stern and sinister father of Ramades, and who is slowly poisoning the Pharoah (Corey Paulus). Jeremy Clarke plays Mereb, a clever and tender-hearted Nubian servant who knows his way around the royal bureaucracy. He sings with palpable urgency in “How I Know You.” Aida pleaded with him to not reveal her true identity to the rest of the Nubians, but doesn’t keep her secret for very long. Destiny was calling.

   An electrifying choral high point comes at the end of Act I with “The Gods Love Nubia” – a thunderous cry for release from suffering, sung by Aida, her friend Nehebka (played by Sunayna Smith), and the Nubian captives. That anthemic single moment, replete with gravitas and grace, with its stratospheric harmonies gripping and soulful, embodied the entire spirit of this production. Call it a prayer of longing, love, and hope, and hauntingly relevant to our own time and circumstances. 
AIDA, in the Canton Players Guild W.G. Fry Theater, 1001 Market Ave., N. Canton, Ohio /  THROUGH NOVEMBER 18, 2018 / Shows Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. / additional performance at 8 p.m. on Nov. 18 /Single tickets $32, 17 an younger $25, Seniors $29 / / Box Office at 330.453.7617

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Alchemy Lives in The Canton Symphony Orchestra

Alchemy Lives in The Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

Alchemy: (from Miriam-Webster Dictionary)
1 : a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life
2 : a power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way
3 : an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting

   After hearing the very eclectic program offered by the Canton Symphony Orchestra at Umstattdt Performing Arts Hall on October 27, I was finally convinced of something I had suspected on numerous previous occasions: Every member of this ensemble, including Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann, is an alchemist. What else could explain the transmutation of the instruments they play and the scores they read into vessels of such profound spirituality? Alchemy.  

   This uncanny phenomenon was wondrously evident in the evening’s first selection, Cantos in Memory of Benjamin Britten, composed for string orchestra by Arvo Pärt in 1977 as a memorial to the leading British composer of the mid-20th century who died in 1976. Pärt was greatly moved by what he called the “unusual purity” of Britten’s music.

    This work is so stunning in its hypnotic simplicity that the players themselves seemed mesmerized as they articulated an utterly ethereal reality. At the beginning, a solitary tubular bell rang out three times, followed by the whispered entry of very high violins that introduced the haunting melodic idea. Like a rolling mist, that single motif descended progressively into lower registers from violins to violas, then to cellos, then to the basses, and all against the ceaseless tolling of the bell. Most intriguing is how gradually through time the tempo slowed while the volume of sound increased to a roar until, at its loudest point, it suddenly stopped. We were left with just the sound of one more bell softly ringing and fading away into breathtaking, mystical quiet. It was silence with a pulse - an achingly poignant arrival at reverential, even tearful introspection.

   That was the calm before the stormy opening of the next work on the program, Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia Da Requiem, composed in 1940. Britten, an avowed pacifist, was commissioned by the Japanese government (at that time engaged in war with China) to write a work commemorating 2,600 years of Japan’s ruling Mikado dynasty. Perhaps the Japanese didn’t fully comprehend the implications of the work when they initially approved the title. After it was played through during a rehearsal in Tokyo, the score was rejected. The angry Japanese foreign ministry found the work’s Christian liturgical references disturbing and otherwise culturally inappropriate. The work has no references to the Japanese dynastic anniversary, and the titles of its three movements have no liturgical specificity as such, but rather speak to the intense emotional trajectory of the work – Britten’s feelings about war.

   It is a trajectory replete with alternately thunderous, writhing, and lush melodies voiced in layers by every section of the orchestra, all executed here with electrifying aplomb. The first movement, “Lacrymosa,” began with the startling ferocity of timpani blows, sounding like cannon fire, followed by a slow lament from the brooding cellos. The frenzied second movement, “Dies Irae,” ranks among Britten’s greatest feats of orchestral writing. With remarkable fervor, the orchestra conjured the full outbreak of war, symbolized by piercing flutes, snarling rapid-fire triplet figures from the trumpets, and explosive syncopations from the brass. In the third movement, “Requiem Aeternam,” all that grim tumult was left behind to impart a spirit of peace that concluded with a sustained, consoling note from the clarinet.

   For the next two program selections, the world-class artistry of the CSO was all the more augmented by guest soloist Mark Kosower, principal cellist of The Cleveland Orchestra. His performance here of Victor Herbert’s Cello Concert No.2 was a transcendent musical magnet, riveting in how it gripped and drew us progressively deeper into the work’s dramatic mood shifts. From the plaintive opening melody of the first movement, seeming to leap from the churning textures crisply described by the ensemble, then into the wistful, heartrending melodic journey of the second movement, and throughout the lyrical aggressiveness of the final movement with all its daunting passages of rapid sixteenth notes, Kosower’s mellow tonality was a constant, clearly sensual presence, and always in perfect aural balance with the ensemble.

   The soloist’s virtuosity was equally compelling throughout Dvořák’s Rondo for Cello and Orchestra. Kosower is an artist whose prowess rests not only in his dazzling, unfaltering technical precision, but more importantly, in giving palpable form to unmitigated passion. He transforms the cello into a sublimely emotive force.

   Speaking of emotive forces, the evening ended with a titillating rendition of George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No.1, composed in 1901. Rhapsodic indeed, this vivacious medley of Romanian- flavored folk songs and dances was delivered with infectious abandon. While medieval alchemists failed in their attempts to concoct a universal potion to cure all disease, the CSO alchemists were eminently successful in brewing up a delicious elixir of pure jubilation.