Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A Circuitous Path to Haydn's Mass in Time of War

 A Circuitous Path to Haydn’s Mass in Time of War

Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz

Dr. Britt Cooper

Canton Symphony Chorus

Soprano Heather Phillips

Mezzo-Soprano Sandra Ross

Tenor Tim Culver

Baritone Michael Roemer

By Tom Wachunas

   It would seem that the timing of the March 23 MasterWorks  concert from the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) – a few weeks into Lent -  was no accident. If the mission of the program was to leave the audience awed enough to ponder and savor heavenly matters, it was ultimately accomplished with glorious panache. But the road to get there was paved with strange intentions.

   The evening began on a decidedly funereal note with the Leopold Stokowski transcription of Henry Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. Purcell’s 1688 chamber opera, Dido and Aeneas, was based on Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid, and tells of Dido, Queen of Carthage, her love for for the Trojan hero Aeneas, and her suicidal despair when he abandons her to return to Italy. Dido’s Lament was named for the story’s final aria, among the most arresting moments in all of opera: “When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast. Remember me but forget my fate.”

   Stokowski once offered this observation to fellow conductors: “We have to try to understand and give to the listening public what we consider was in the mind of the composer.”  CSO Assistant Conductor Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz clearly took that sage advice to heart.  He let Stokowski’s sublime arrangement for lush-sounding strings do all the singing and  directed his attentive ensemble through slowly unfolding, nuanced layers of the bittersweet melody, beautifully augmented by poignant soloing from principal cellist, Brian Klickman. 
   One might reasonably hope that after experiencing the searing emotionality of the lament, the next program selection would offer something less morose, more uplifting, or at least gracefully optimistic. Instead, Igor Stravinsky’s suite of eight pieces from his music for the ballet, Pulcinella, was an oddly frenetic interlude in this context. After drinking so deeply of Dido’s pathos, Pulcinella, even in its most pleasant moments, had all the grace of a hiccup. The fault, if it could be called one, was neither in the orchestra’s adventurous performance nor in the brisk conducting by Jaroszewicz.

   In 1920, Stravinsky was so impassioned by his study of the charming simplicity he encountered in assorted choral and instrumental scores by 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi (and a handful of other forgotten composers) that he re-worked them for his ballet score. If the music sounds like  a somewhat scatterbrained exercise in thematic meandering, it’s only because it reflects the dual nature of Pulcinella himself. He was a comic hero who became a stock character in 17th century Neapolitan commedia dell’arte productions. Depending on a given scenario, he could be a crass, silly bumpkin, or a proud, witty thief, and often both.

    As it was, the orchestra pranced through all the suite’s spasmodic twists of harmonies, textures, and rhythms in a spirit of giddy abandon. Fortunately, the intermission afforded enough distance from such worldly wanderings so we could more calmly prepare for passage into loftier realms. After all, we were about to be taken to church.

   Responding to a complaint that the ending of one of his Masses was too frolicsome, Franz Joseph Haydn said, “I cannot write them otherwise. When I think of God, my heart is so full of joy that the notes gush forth as from a fountain. Since God has given me a joyful heart, He will forgive me for having served Him joyfully.” Haydn composed Missa in Tempore Belli (Mass in Time of War) in the autumn of 1796, a notably unjoyful time. France and Austria were at war, and Napolean’s army was advancing toward Vienna.

   Under the commanding baton of Dr. Britt Cooper, Director of the Canton Symphony Chorus, singers and orchestra delivered a reverent, brilliantly paced account of this dramatic work that was wholly magnificent. Cooper’s meticulous sensitivity to the ebb and flow of expressive aural dynamics in the work – when to be loud, when to be soft - was impeccable.  The vocal quartet – featuring the crystalline luster of soprano Heather Phillips, the steady warmth of mezzo-soprano Sandra Ross, the radiance of tenor Tim Culver, and the robust sonority of baritone Michael Roemer - was spellbinding. Additionally, the large chorus was itself an auditory phenomenon of astonishing clarity and power, and always in perfect balance with the orchestra.

   While Haydn effectively implied some of the wartime angst of his day in the final part of this Mass, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), the stunning music eventually soars above the morbid. Yes, it began with the chorus voicing an urgent, somber plea for mercy amid the encroaching sounds of timpani sounding out an ominous march. But bright trumpet fanfares signal hope, and the chorus begins to voice divine assurance in a dance-like rhythm, repeating dona nobis pacem. Grant us peace. Haydn’s notes, gushing forth as from a fountain. In the end, not only God, but we too, had been served joyfully.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Dialects of Glossolalia?

 Dialects of Glossolalia?

Andrea Belag, "Cave" - oil on wood

Joanne Freeman, "Covers Cobalt" - etching

Deborah Freedman, "Oaks and Oleandrs #1" - acrylic on polyester

Joseph Haske, "Asterion #5" - acrylic on canvas

Mark Saltz, Untitled - oil, resin, pigment on linen

Marjorie VanDyke, "Ides #1" - oil on canvas

By Tom Wachunas

   “Abstract art is a fundamental distrust of the theory of reality concocted by the eyes.” – Robert Brault

   “One of the most striking of abstract art’s appearances is her nakedness, an art stripped bare.” – Robert Motherwell

   “Abstract literally means to draw from or separate. In this sense every artist is abstract... a realistic or non-objective approach makes no difference. The result is what counts.”  - Richard Diebenkorn

EXHIBIT: Painters Prints / works by Andrea Belag, Deborah Freedman, Joanne Freeman, Joseph Haske, Mark Saltz, Marjorie VanDyke / at The Lemmon Gallery, located inside the Kent Stark Fine Arts Building, 6000 Frank Avenue, North Canton, Ohio / THROUGH APRIL 6, 2019 / Gallery viewing hours are Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Gallery Talk: April 4, 3:30 p.m. / Artist Reception: April 4, 5–7p.m.

   Aesthetics 101: Two-dimensional art is a language of myriad dialects, both learned and intuited. When we say that an artwork “speaks” to us, we affirm its capacity to take us into some quiet state of perception that resonates with our own experience of existence.  Mindful looking, or listening, if you will, requires slowness, and begins with a surrender, founded upon our intentionality, our willingness to be transported, perhaps even transformed.  What the artist makes becomes all the more compelling when it prompts us, the viewers, to look at our world in a deeper way.

   Now stretch your imagination to consider the possibility that this highly captivating exhibition of abstract prints and paintings by six accomplished New York City-based artists could be a variation of the phenomenon known as glossolalia (glôs-ō-lā- lēə). Here’s the Collins English Dictionary definition of the term: 1. ecstatic or apparently ecstatic utterance of usually unintelligible speechlike sounds, as in a religious assembly, viewed by some as a manifestation of deep religious experience / 2. gift of tongues.  

   Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is known in many cultures, most of them ancient. In Christianity, for example, it is regarded as a mystical language coming directly from God, and spontaneously voiced by entranced worshippers. A communing with the divine. To the uninitiated or insensitive, such utterances might well sound like gibberish.

   Similarly, it’s no secret that there are viewers who, in their passing rush to identify the meaning of what they see only with their eyes, consider abstract art, particularly of the non-objective sort, as the strictly proprietary language of artists engaged in iconoclastic nonsense. Those who hold such a dismissive view are probably looking too fast.

   This is certainly not to say that we should consider all artists as either the dispensers of mystical experiences or the sole recipients of cryptic messages from on high. It’s not entirely unreasonable, however, to regard artists such as those presented in this marvelously diversified fete of abstractions as somehow akin to shamans, or spirit-catchers. Think of them in a larger sense as curious gatherers of energies and essences. As all visual artists do, the individuals in this exhibit have made symbols, allegories, metaphors. These particular artists, however, have channeled their personal encounters with corporeal realities and personal memories into varying dialects that depart from conventional naturalism to arrive at intriguing if not transcendent distillations.

   Back to mindful looking for a moment. Yes, there is a substantial presence of rarefied quirkiness in this exhibit. So slow down. Let your intuition do the deciphering. Here’s where the ordinary and the predictable get wrecked. It’s viewer-friendly glossolalia.  

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Giggles and Grace from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

Giggles and Grace from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

   Imagine watching a very fine orchestra as it begins to perform the stirring final movement of a symphony. After only a few bars, the violinists abruptly stop playing and start to tune their instruments. Oh, the indignity! Nervous giggles ripple through the audience as the conductor, clearly mortified by such a cacophonous interruption, glares incredulously at his rude ensemble before continuing.

   Such a scenario was actually one of several intentional breaches of symphonic protocol that transpired during the first work on the March 2 program from the Canton Symphony Orchestra at Umstattd Hall. Franz Joseph Hayden’s  Symphony No. 60, Il Distrato (The Distracted, or The Addle-Minded), was an expansion of the incidental music that he originally composed in 1774 for a comedy  by Jean François Regnard about a man named Leandre, who was so absent-minded that he nearly forgot to attend his own wedding.

    Accordingly, Haydn penned a particularly quirky symphony in six movements, rather than the “normal” four, presented here in keeping with the overall theme of the evening, “Humor in Music.”  In mischievously breaking with his own standards of composition that would earn him the epithet, “Father of the Symphony,” Haydn convincingly transformed the orchestra into the persona of the blundering Leandre, creating a work  replete with goofy non-sequiturs and “wrong” music.  For example, the first movement is disrupted by the inclusion of a direct quote from a completely different symphony (No. 45, “The Farewell”). The lovely processional wedding tune in the second movement collides with the sounds of a passing marching band. Elsewhere there are jarring key changes, obtrusive fanfares, and snippets of seemingly random folk tunes. Other than Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s brief lapse into mock horror at the infamous tuning break in the final movement, he and his valiant ensemble navigated this impish farce with delightfully straight-faced, business-as-usual aplomb.

   And now for something completely different: The Carnival of the Animals, scored for two pianos and orchestra in 1886 by Camille Saint-Saëns, and subtitled “a grand zoological fantasy.” Zimmermann took a seat to the side of the orchestra in his role of narrator. Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz, CSO Assistant Conductor, directed this tantalizing tour of the animal kingdom from the podium with infectious zeal. The exhilarating narration, full of whimsical puns and tongue-twisting rhymes, was based on the the comical verses that Ogden Nash wrote in 1949 to accompany each of the work’s 14 movements.  Zimmermann inserted some hilarious improvisations of his own, including a much anticipated singing passage that was more a raucous chant than an actual song, though nonetheless endearing in its throaty chutzpah.

   Meanwhile, guest pianist Jeffrey Biegel and CSO pianist Dean Zhang significantly augmented the onomatopoeic brilliance of the music so magnificently articulated by the ensemble.  With enchanting keyboard magic, they deftly conjured everything from roaring lions, leaping kangaroos, and fish in glittering water, to galloping donkeys, fluttering birds, and even piano students practicing monotonous scale exercises.

  An old show business maxim admonishes, “Leave them laughing when they go.” So it was on this occasion with the final work on the program, Jacques Ibert’s wild, six-movement romp from 1929, Divertissement. The orchestra was clearly very eager to embark on this frenetic excursion into musical eclecticism that included some mild skewering of works by Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss Jr. It all ended with a zany evocation of a Keystone Kops chase scene, complete with Maestro Zimmermann frantically blowing a police whistle. And so yes, mission accomplished. We left laughing.

  Something else, however, lingered long after. Despite all of the evening’s boisterous, tweak-your-nose humor, I was left remembering, thankfully, the evening’s most quietly compelling performance – the second (Andante) movement of Dmitri Shostakovitch’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.2, composed for his son, Maxim, in 1957.

   Before the intermission, pianist Jeffrey Biegel had regaled us with an utterly stunning rendition of the work, which is for the most part playful, untroubled, and certainly witty. Biegel’s virtuosity was breathtaking, his technique in executing the work’s lavish trills and muscular arpeggiations clear, concise, and thrilling throughout. But it’s the second movement – ironically, anything but humorous – that lifted me up into Biegel’s mesmerizing state of impassioned lyricism. In this protracted moment of emotive profundity, his playing was a warm, slow pouring out of rapturous grace.