Friday, January 31, 2020

An Electrifying Union of Organ and Orchestra

Heather Cooper

Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz

An Electrifying Union of Organ and Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

   “Organ playing is the manifestation of a will filled with the vision of eternity.”  - Charles-Marie Widor

    Among many fascinating aspects of the January 25 performance by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was the ensemble’s untiring attentiveness to the conductor. Here was a remarkable connectivity, a sharpened focus, a palpable state of eager readiness. The musicians were always alert, ever poised to instantaneously respond, with riveting precision, to signals from the podium.

   Those signals were transmitted in delightfully animated fashion by the CSO Assistant Conductor, Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz. Throughout the entire concert, beginning with an exuberant performance of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, his lively baton technique was itself a kind of dancing at the podium. During the Berlioz work, he often leaned into the orchestra in flurries of pronounced gestures and prompts, as if to further embolden the whirling woodwinds, the sprightly percussion, and the blazing brass.

   The remainder of the evening featured the captivating organ soloist, Heather Cooper, in three late-19th century French works. The first of those was Alexandre Guilmant’s Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra. The work is a marvelous employment of the organ’s full range of aural colors and voicings, seamlessly integrated with the powerful sonority of strings and brass. Call it an orchestra within an orchestra. Cooper’s nuanced shaping of passages ranging from sumptuous majesty to quiet, idyllic lyricism was utterly stunning.

  Her rendering of the grand Toccata for Organ and Orchestra, the final movement of Charles-Marie Widor’s Symphony No. 5, was equally breathtaking. With bright, rhythmic punctuations from the brass and timpani, Cooper’s execution of the work’s thrilling cascades of constant staccato arpeggios, balanced with rich, syncopated chords, left the audience clamoring for more. She generously obliged with a barn-burner of an encore - J.S. Bach’s Gigue Fugue. The mesmerizing spectacle of her fingers moving along the keyboard, her feet gliding along the pedals, conjured a giddy vision in my mind: Imagine someone typing 100 words per minute while simultaneously doing a fast and intricate tap dance.

   Following the intermission, Cooper joined the full orchestra for a magnificent performance of Camille Saint-SaĆ«ns’ Symphony No. 3 in C Minor (the “Organ Symphony”). While her artistry was certainly brilliant throughout, in this complex work, the organ isn’t a stand-alone virtuosic element so much as it’s on equal footing with the orchestra. Both articulate a scintillating array of colors, textures, and moods. From serene and ethereal moments, to substantial summonings of remarkable orchestral power, Cooper and her ensemble partners formed an altogether electrifying union.

   The exhilarating symphony ended on a note of such splendorous grandeur that when conductor Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz finished his podium dance and turned to face the packed house, he seemed literally aglow. His triumphal, wide-eyed smile was contagious, prompting well-deserved joyous shouts of approval from all present.   

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Letting Their Freak Flags Fly

Letting Their Freak Flags Fly

Micah Harvey as Shrek

Justin Woody as Donkey

Sarah Marie Young as Fiona

Mike Burke as Farquaad

By Tom Wachunas

   Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to laugh we go…

   Once upon a time – May, 2014, to be exact – an impeccably crafted production of Shrek, The Musical romped gleefully across the big Players Guild mainstage with a superlative cast directed by Jonathan Tisevich. Well, it’s baaack, with Tisevich directing again.

   This time, though, the story plays out in the Guild’s much smaller arena space, the intimate W.G. Fry Theater. But don’t think for a second that ‘smaller’ or ‘intimate’ would signal diminished energy in any way. This resurrected musical frolic practically explodes into the space. Call it a madcap romance in-the-round.

    Based on the DreamWorks animated film, with lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, here’s the story of Shrek, a cranky ogre whose private swamp is invaded by a boisterous cavalcade of fairy tale characters, scorned as “freaks” and exiled from the land of Duloc by mad Lord Farquaad. To regain the deed to his land, Shrek, aided by a talking donkey, agrees to rescue the maiden Fiona, imprisoned in a dragon’s lair since childhood, so Farquaad can marry her. While the dialogue throughout is generously dosed with edgy word-play and inside jokes tailored for adult appreciation, there’s plenty of snap, giggle and pop in this spoofy take on classic fantasy tales to engage children as well.

    Reprising his role as the cantankerous green ogre with the Scottish brogue, Micah Harvey is a commanding embodiment of Shrek’s heft and heart. The honest passion of his singing is robust and endearing. As the story moves along, he slowly sheds his mean nature and befriends Donkey. In that role, Justin Woody is a hyperactive gadfly. Through all his comical antics he’s fleet of hoof and mouth. Undaunted by Shrek’s ferocity, he’s stubbornly loyal, his singing filled with soulful tenderness and urgency. And talk about surprising footwork. At one point in their travels, Shrek and Donkey gingerly squirm their way through a whole row of occupied audience seats.

   Bedecked in an ingenious costume fitted with bouncing, golden prosthetic legs, Mike Burke is riveting in his role as the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad. Despite performing literally on his knees, he’s an amazingly elastic mover. His comedic presence soars to remarkable heights. He presents a delirious portrait of a brazen eccentric, a calculating misanthrope, a clownish megalomaniac with an inferiority complex. Yet there’s something mesmerizing about this high-stepping parody of a villain. When Burke sings, he seems caught up in a dream, his eyes fixed not so much on us in the audience, but on some unseen realm.

   Sarah Marie Young plays Fiona. She’s a wondrously versatile performer, here at times sweet and witty, at others unsparingly sardonic and earthy. She delivers some of the evening’s most memorable scenes and songs. Among those, I Know It’s Today is a moving reflection on her hope to be rescued by her true love (ultimately not Farquaad!), sung as if unfolding across time. She’s joined to her young self (Sophia Tsenekos, who, by the way, has an astonishingly charming, well-developed voice for someone so young), and teen self (Jordyn Freetage). Their harmonies are achingly gorgeous. Morning Person is a real showstopper featuring Fiona chirping with birds, twirling an inflatable deer, and joining a chorus line of tap-dancing rats. I Think I Got You Beat is a riotous duet with Shrek, wherein they debate who has had the harder life. Turns out they have much in common. Love at first fart. Beauty and the belch. Whatta gas.

   Other very noteworthy performances include Ashley Kendall’s powerful and fiery R&B-style singing as the Dragon; Morgan Brown as the infectiously giddy Sugar Plum Fairy and the voice of Gingy, the goofy Ginger Bread Man; and Robert Husted in his uproariously funny portrayal of the frenetic Pinocchio, complete with working expandable nose.

   The fact is, collectively this entire cast (most members playing multiple parts) is hilarity personified. That said, the show is more than just a silly cartoon in three dimensions. All the clever cosmetics and props, all the elaborate, dazzling costumes by Suwatana Rockland, are not so superficial or weighty that they obscure the authentically human elements of the story – a sincere embrace of social acceptance, diversity, and loving inclusivity.

    All these displaced fairy tale people celebrate rather than judge or hide their freakishness. And as Shrek songfully reminds us late in the show, “…beautiful ain’t always pretty.”  Combined with the effective scenic design by Joshua Erichsen, the scintillating orchestra under music director Steve Parsons, and Molly Weidig’s vivacious choreography, this is all a happy conspiracy of theatrical excellence sure to leave you delighted in Duloc.

Photos: by Jonathan Tisevich / Players Guild

SHREK, The Musical / at Players Guild Theatre, THROUGH February 9, 2020 / 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / Shows Fri. and Sat. at 7:00 p.m., Sunday at 2:00 p.m. / 2:00 and 7:00 on Sat., Feb. 8 / Tickets: Single tickets - $34 ; 17 and younger - $27; Seniors -  $31 / Order at   or call 330. 493.7617 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Split Decisions

Split Decisions

BalustAgain, by Craig Leslein

Dark and Deep, by Joanna Mack

Ceremonial Chip #2, by Stephen Calhoun

Charcoal in Nylon Bags, by Hope Hickman

Coral Dance, by James Leslie

Mask of the Meat Eater, by Kenn Hetzel

Innocence Lost, The Remnants of Human Trafficking - by Judi Krew

By Tom Wachunas

EXHIBIT: FRESH 2020, 16th Annual Juried Art Exhibit at Summit Artspace, 140 East Market, Akron, Ohio, THROUGH FEBRUARY 8, 2020

Free artist panel discussion on Thursday, Feb. 6 at 7:00 p.m. RESERVE A SEAT HERE:

EXHIBIT HOURS: Jan. 10-Feb. 8, open weekly Thursday and Friday, 12-7 p.m, Saturday, 12-5 p.m.; free. Open for 3rd Thursday, Jan. 16, 4-7 p.m., and Artwalk on Feb. 1, 5-9 p.m.

    First this, from Summit Artspace: “Art that will be accepted as part of this annual exhibition must be innovative and challenging... Accepted artists will have pushed the boundaries of what art can be… will challenge the viewer to see the world through a new lens...will feature novel styles, original thinking…”   And, “…FRESH 2020 is following in that tradition with cutting edge works by local artists.”

   Are we to take the promotional buzzwords and phrases such as innovative, challenging, pushed the boundaries, new lens, original thinking, and cutting edge (my favorite) to mean that this entire exhibit is a sizzling hotbed of avant-garde ideations? If so, as a whole, this year’s show of 69 very diverse works (one of them is mine – check the ARTWACH archive for my post from December 14, 2019), selected by juror and artist Katina Pastis Radwanski, falls somewhat short of that lofty mark.

   This is certainly not to say that the show lacks overall aesthetic excellence and skillful execution in the conventional sense. In the elegant simplicity of Craig Leslein’s BalustAgain, the play of light along the uneven surface of all those re-purposed cut wooden porch ballusters, packed together like so many puzzle pieces, creates an array of small shadows which in turn make a separate composition integrated with the larger field of repeated colored wood shapes.  And the alternating angles of the pronounced woodgrains are a rhythmic punctuation that augments the hypnotic character of the piece.

   More mesmerizing still: Joanna Mack’s marvelously intricate fiber work, Dark and Deep, and Stephen Calhoun’s Ceremonial Chip #2. Calhoun’s work is an inkjet print on aluminum - a spectacular, infinitesimally detailed mandala. Looking at it – or more precisely, looking into it – is to be immersed in a radiant symmetry, a complex matrix of practically religious dimensionality. 
   In a mixed bag exhibit of this magnitude, there are some distinctly more edgy, intriguing visions prompted by social consciousness - and conscience. Speaking of mixed bags, Hope Hickman’s arresting acrylic painting, Charcoal in Nylon Bags, is at once serene and disquieting. A disturbed fertility. An alert. Those pristine white sacks piled in a field of wild grass are positioned such that they suggest hooded ghosts, dancing their eerie dance of chemical pollution.

   The naturalistic forms in Coral Dance, a beautifully textured ceramic piece by James Leslie, seem to float in a swaying motion. The piece is decidedly celebratory in nature – a bittersweet savoring of our beleaguered ocean environs.

   There’s something oddly precious about Kenn Hetzel’s Mask of the Meat Eater. You might call it a tribal trophy. This neatly crafted appropriation of a real skull adorned with forks seems to be a glib if not too obvious skewering of juicy steak connoisseurs.

   One aspect of this exhibit that I find a bit problematic is that all the artworks aren’t in the main gallery. There is art to view in the newly-named THREE G Gallery (formerly the Big Box of the BOX Gallery) on the third floor of Summit Artspace building. The continuity of the viewing experience in a single dedicated space gets disrupted, initially creating a sense that these upstairs works, stashed away as if in an attic, and so distant from the main body of the show, were an afterthought, a parenthetical inclusion. Interestingly enough, though, one of the most compelling works in the entire exhibit is in this space: Innocence Lost, The Remnants of Human Trafficking, by Judi Krew. 

   But the piece was situated too close to a corner of the gallery. This sculpture-in-the-round merits considerably more walk-around space, more breathing room, than it was given here. It’s a female torso on a pedestal, clad in a patchwork lingerie gown.  Hanging from a red ribbon around the neck is a large handwritten tag, quoting Leah Carroll (on Refinery An excerpt: “…(a trafficker) was not just a rapist, he was also a murderer; he’d murdered their childhoods, he’d killed the girls they’d once been. The details of the abuse were terrible to hear…”  Viewers are invited to take hold of the paper cut-out hands dangling from the hem, turn them over and read what’s written on them, to “be made aware of a fact that needs a voice.”

   Those facts are more than just sobering statistics about a virulent evil in our midst. They’re utterly heart-piercing. Cutting edge indeed.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Transumanza Extravaganza

Transumanza Extravaganza

Eons of History

Eons of History (detail)

Welcome to the Games

Touchdown Town

Touchdown Town (detail)

Big Betty - One Swell Lady

Big Betty-One Swell Lady (detail)

By Tom Wachunas

   “… I deeply believe in the symbiotic relationship between history and art. Both subjects are of the ultimate importance to our  understanding of the world today.”  - Carole d’Inverno

   EXHIBIT: Transumanza: Massillon, Ohio / work by Carole d’Inverno, at Studio M Gallery, in the Massillon Museum / THROUGH JANUARY 26, 2020 / 121 Lincoln Way, East, downtown, Massillon, Ohio / 330.833.4061 /

   Carole d’Inverno is a self-taught artist who grew up in Italy and Belgium, moved to the U.S. in 1979, and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. Immediately after her proposal for this exhibit - titled “Transumanza: Massillon, Ohio” - was accepted, she immersed herself in researching the history of Ohio, and more particularly, Massillon.

   Loosely translated from Italian, ‘transumanza’ means crossing the land. As d’Inverno explains in her statement, “…Transumanza is, for me, both an action and a metaphor that can be applied to the historical changes that have shaped the United States: our shared history of crossing lands, breaking boundaries, accessing and losing territories, and our comings and goings.” 

   In one sense, d’Inverno is a cartographer, a maker of maps. While her very large paintings (up to 14’ in length) are not the precisely measured geographic or topographic delineations of the sort you’d find in an atlas, they’re nonetheless fascinating navigational documents. Made with vinyl paint on unstretched linen, they hang on the wall from metal grommet rings like unfurled scrolls, or sails, if you will, charting Massillon’s zeitgeist - its cultural milieu. These paintings are a visual storytelling, presenting a collective history, condensed and codified in deeply imaginative panoramas embedded with all sorts of symbols, gestures, and markings which are indeed an immersive mapping of a communal identity as it evolved through time.

    With each of the four major works here, d’Inverno has generously provided a key – a written guide for identifying and interpreting her dazzlingly complex configurations. You can consider Massillon from an archaeological perspective, for example, when looking at “Eons of History.” Those sketches on the lower left represent fossils from a prehistoric era when Ohio was under water - a tiny part of a vast inland sea. Then, in the same painting, travel into the future as it were, and find signs of ancient Native American ceremonial mounds, a Quaker church, an Underground Railroad hiding spot, factories, football, and even a look at the tent in Massillon Museum’s famous Immel Circus installation.

   “Welcome to the Games” remembers the oldest known Native American team sport in North America – the game that became refined by European settlers and known as Lacrosse. Linked to images of early native sticks and nettings are images of Massillon Tiger football players. A fittingly raucous homage to local football is “Touchdown Town,” along with an equally elaborate tribute to the Massillon steel industry, “Big Betty – One Swell Lady,”  the title recalling the nickname given to the massive furnace in The Central Steel Company of Massillon.

   Looking at these works should rightly be anything but a sedentary encounter. If you get close enough to read the aforementioned guides (which I highly recommend), then you’re close enough to begin really savoring, to begin traversing the sheer length of their intricacies -  their diverse rhythms and juxtapositions of shapes, lines, and very bold colors – one slow step at a time. Call it a metaphorical, or metaphysical, walk through local history. Treasure hunt, anyone?

   Beyond these inspired references to Massillon per se, the overall stylistic sensibilities evident in d’Inverno’s paintings resonate with other histories and cultures as well. Her iconography is a rich interlacing of organic and geometric markings – often like so many runes and glyphs - that merge into sprawling sequences of decorative patterns and narrative motifs. It’s an abstract  iconography that harkens to considerably more ancient artistic practices such as those found in Incan tapestries, or Aztec manuscripts, or Australian aboriginal art, or Aegean art, or rock carvings from northern Europe, or Tibetan mandala sand paintings, to name only some.

   So there’s an exuded aura, an exuberant spirit of contemplation and meditation in d’Inverno’s scrolls. They actually transcend the specificity of Massillon history and arrive at a potent connection to – and celebration of –  the many cultures across all of human history which have embraced the power of an abstract visual language to tell the story of a place, a people, a time.

    Additionally, I’m happily reminded that abstract art has been with us since the beginning of…art.