Guest Critic Reviews

‘A power beyond the norm’ CSO, Buffalo Philharmonic come together for ‘profound,’ ‘beautiful’ evening of Brahms, Moravec/Campbell’s ‘Sanctuary Road’


Zachary Lewis – Guest Critic 

Orchestral programming doesn’t get much better than what the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra presented Thursday night at the Amphitheater. Nor could anyone have asked for finer performances. On its own, Paul Moravec’s 2017 operatic oratorio Sanctuary Road would have made a profound impression. Paired with Brahms’ “Schicksalslied,” however, it and the evening as a whole hit home with a power beyond the norm. 

To be clear, Sanctuary Road could have stood on its own. An hour-long work for orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists based on the writings of the Underground Railroad conductor William Still, it was a complete experience that needed no complement, explanation or occasion. 

Much of the credit, of course, goes to Moravec. His music Thursday proved readily listenable and often profoundly moving. In Sanctuary Road, commissioned by the Oratorio Society of New York, he wields orchestral, individual vocal and choral forces deftly, weaving together and infusing with drama five soloists and chorus as effectively as the masters of Italian opera. 

But the impact of the CSO Music Director Rossen Milanov, the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus (directed by Adam Luebke), and the guest soloists cannot be overstated. That Sanctuary Road is a work of special import to them was clear in a performance marked by tremendous passion and care. It came as no surprise that two soloists, soprano Laquita Mitchell and baritone Malcolm J. Merriweather, hail from a recording of the work. 

One thing that would have helped: supertitles. English is notoriously difficult to follow when sung, and the result Thursday was that much of Still’s fervent, poignant writing, lyricized by librettist Mark Campbell, simply couldn’t be heard. This listener picked up maybe half. 

Thankfully, one got the gist. A narrator served as Still himself, relaying what he learned from various travelers and conveying the urgency he felt to save lives and words. The others, meanwhile, portrayed other real-life figures, singing of grueling experiences and feelings. Through soaring, vital songs of struggle, fear, anguish and longing, Moravec captured a sliver of what it must have been like to travel the railroad and how Still felt as a steward and living historian. 

Although Mitchell and Merriweather recorded Sanctuary Road, they stood out Thursday only as members of a perfectly blended, incredibly eloquent band of soloists that included mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson, tenor Joshua Stewart, and baritone Richard L. Hodges (in lieu of bass-baritone Dashon Burton). They also stood before a chorus and orchestra that were each perfect in their own respects: articulate, unified and vividly expressive. 

Featuring Sanctuary Road during Chautauqua’s 2022 season was smart. Pairing it with “Schicksalslied” (“Song of Destiny”) was a stroke of genius. To an oratorio about the Underground Railroad, there could have been no more apt partner than a choral song hailing earthly redemption.  

In this, the program’s opener, the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus made a brilliant first impression. Milanov and the CSO supplied supple, nuanced support and the large band of singers in the balcony capitalized on it fully, carrying listeners along a wide emotional spectrum from dread to bliss, from a feared unknown to a place of comfort and serenity represented by warm, softly glowing sound. 

It was a beautiful performance, one made all the more beautiful moments later by the hope that Still and his hundreds of travelers reached just such a place themselves.

Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist in Cleveland and the communications manager at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He is the former classical music and dance critic of the newspaper The Plain Dealer, and still covers the Cleveland Orchestra for the newspaper.

Rain Harris’ ‘Wallflowers,’ closing this Sunday in Strohl, allows viewer to interpret through personal meaning


Guest Critic Melissa Kuntz

The exhibition “Wallflowers” was curated by Judy Barie, the Susan and John Turben Director of CVA Galleries. Work by artist Rain Harris is displayed in the small, intimate space on the second floor of the Strohl Art Center. Harris is a sculptor and installation artist who received her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from Rhode Island School of Design, and her Master’s of Fine Arts from Ohio State University. Her experience studying ceramics in Jingdezhen, China also informs her practice. The sculptures are all wall-hung salon style, except two on pedestals, and are hand built from porcelain and colored clays. Each consists of a collage of three-dimensional flowers of many varieties placed so closely together, sometimes overlapping, that from a distance they appear like abstracted textures. The hand-crafted petals on the flowers and leaves are detailed and paper thin. Some are all black, and others are black with one other solid color. Most are tondos, or circular, others are rectangular, square or oval. One of the largest wall pieces is 25 by 10 inches, and the smallest are six and a half inches in diameter. The flowers almost seem untamed; as if left to grow unhindered, they have densely filled in the space.

Harris states that her ideas are spurred by an interest in the ironies associated with excess and class which become interpreted visually through color, pattern and decoration. She freely borrows styles and motifs from the decorative arts and combines elements that push the limits to a point of excess. At the heart of her sculpture is an investigation of the ideas of beauty, artificiality and preciousness. She creates work that has contradictions between the tasteful and the tawdry, and good and bad taste.

Dave munch / photo editor “Rectangular Wallflower 10×26.”

Flowers are a common motif throughout the decorative and fine arts, and Harris’ flowers reference a myriad of histories. From one perspective, when comparing the wallflowers to “low” decor, the perfection of the individual flora reminds us of familiar, tawdry, artificial silk flowers. The rosettes also look a little like those used to decorate elaborate cakes. From another perspective, the works allude to the Victorian era. Victorian courtship was regimented and long, and this led to the popularity of using flowers as a secret language to communicate between lovers. Dictionaries with lists of flowers and their meanings were all the rage in Europe. A tussie mussie was a small, hand-tied bouquet given by suitors. If the recipient was pleased to receive it, she would hold it close to her heart. The round works in this exhibition are reminiscent of these bouquets of amour.

The artist mentions her inspiration from the Blaschka glass flowers, which are one of Harvard University’s most acclaimed treasures. The collection consists of 4,300 glass models that represent 780 plant species made between 1886 and 1936 by a father and son team of Czechoslovakian glass artists. The precision with which these glass flowers are crafted echoes the clay flora in Harris’ work.

Harris also references the vanitas, a style that was popular in Holland beginning in the 17th century. Vanitas artists devoted themselves to works which stressed that pleasure, wealth and beauty are fleeting and that death is certain. A common theme in vanitas works are flowers in vases, which we know will wither and die. In vanitas paintings the flowers symbolize the temporality of beauty, youth and pleasure. Harris’ all-black wallflowers also suggest death and the passage of time.

Dave munch / photo editor A detail shot of Harris’ “Rectangular Wallflower 10×26,” made with hand-built flowers alluding to nature and growth patterns.

Some of my favorite works are the small round bouquets in black with a contrasting color. A black and white work consists of densely-packed black flowers with white berries and stems protruding out from the mass; the contrast is stunning. The two pieces on the pedestals, titled “Caverne Noire” and “Grotte Noir,” are organic forms, textured like rock and with cavern-like openings. The black “cave” is decorated, almost like a cake, with pink rosettes on one, and dark blue berries and leaves on the other. The juxtaposition of textures in these two works is exquisite. The larger all black wall pieces are also striking. Because they are monochromatic, the focus becomes on the shape and textures of the individual leaves and petals.

Harris’ wallflowers play off of the rich history of flowers in high and low art and culture. Her works are elegant and refined and can be appreciated for their simple beauty, but they also inspire the viewer to make their own associations and bring personal meaning to the artwork.    

Pittsburgh-based Melissa Kuntz is a professor in the Department of Art at Pennsylvania Western University, Clarion. She holds a Master’s of Fine Arts and a Master’s of Arts from SUNY Purchase and a doctorate in administration and leadership through the Department of Sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She has been writing art and book reviews since 2002, for publications such as the Pittsburgh City Paper, Canadian Art magazine, The Chautauquan Daily, and Art in America magazine. Her upcoming research publications use quantitative data analysis to study the impact of race, gender, socioeconomic status and prestige of art schools on gallery representation and museum collections and exhibitions in the United States.          

Principal Horn Kaza soars through Amp with CSO, bringing life to Mozart, Schickele


Guest Critic Zachary Lewis

The charm of Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s “Wit and Genius” concert was deciding which was which. In this short, entertaining CSO program, presented Tuesday night at the Amphitheater, both of the featured works contained healthy doses of each.

Mozart certainly qualified in both categories. One of the composer’s most famous and tightly constructed creations, his Symphony No. 40, set the standard for musical brilliance and, when played well, as it was Tuesday, epitomized wit in any number of smartly turned phrases.

At the same time, no one could have denied the wit or genius of “Pentangle,” a suite of five songs for horn and orchestra by Peter Schickele, the beloved “discoverer” of P.D.Q. Bach and a serious composer in his own right. It, too, came across as the product of a mind both gifted and comic, a work of pure, wonderful invention.

Sean Smith / staff photographer Kaza holds up for the audience a stuffed bunny and flowers that were inside his horn during his performance of Schickele’s “Pentangle: Five Songs for Horn and Orchestra.”

The choice wouldn’t have been nearly so difficult if the performances hadn’t been so thoroughly engaging. There was no real need, of course, to label one work wit and the other genius. Still, the feisty, colorful readings by the CSO and Music Director Rossen Milanov begged one to listen closely and at least make the attempt.

Name a quality that defines good Mozart and chances are it was present Tuesday. Given more time, Milanov might have tightened the ensemble here, adjusted the textural clarity or balance there, but on the whole, the performance was a model of refinement and collective expression.

The propulsion in the opening Allegro was spot-on, the intricacy of the Menuetto genuinely delightful. The finale, too, was a thing of graceful, driven beauty. The high point, though, was surely the Andante, where Milanov and the CSO took Mozart’s dotted rhythms and turned them into so many eloquent, lyrical expressions.

Sean Smith / staff photographer Milanov conducts the orchestra in Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 Tuesday in the Amp.

Credit Roger Kaza for making “Pentangle” the joy it was. Schickele, in 2015, penned the music, five memorable and readily listenable songs for horn and orchestra, but it was the CSO’s principal horn who brought them to life so capably, and played one of the odder roles for horn with such flair.

The work’s roots in 1970s folk rock were particularly apparent in the opening movement, a mellow trance titled Cottonwood Grove, with which Kaza, the CSO and a luminous percussion section cast a powerful spell. They also were clear in the finale, The Riddling Knight, where Kaza sang (with his voice) a lilting ballad when not executing brilliant runs on his horn.

Really, though, “Pentangle” was just more in the way of genius. The second movement, Tom on the Town, saw Kaza and the CSO horn section trading jazzy, swaggering licks, while in the third, Noonsong, the soloist held his listeners captive for a solid 10 minutes with a somber meditation full of quiet, buzzing horn effects.

Sean Smith / staff photographer The CSO bows after its performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, as the crowd gives a standing ovation.

There was plenty of wit, too. Riffing on the earlier notion of magic, Kaza — at Schickele’s behest — spent an entire snappy movement of the orchestra attempting to play his horn, only to find the instrument plugged by confetti, handkerchiefs and a bouquet of flowers. The only thing louder than the laughs Kaza got then was the applause he and the CSO received when the night drew to a close. 

Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist in Cleveland and the communications manager at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He is the former classical music and dance critic of the newspaper The Plain Dealer, and still covers the Cleveland Orchestra for the newspaper.

Artists in CVA’s ‘Undercurrents’ urge importance of protecting water, natural resources; evoke sense of responsibility


“Undercurrents,” curated by Erika Diamond, assistant director of Chautauqua Visual Arts’ galleries, is particularly relevant in relation to recent articles, especially one published in July by BBC in which author Jane McMullen details a bold plan that was developed 30 years ago to spread doubt and persuade the public that climate change was not a crisis. Some of America’s biggest industrialists, and a public relations genius, began a campaign to convince us that there was scientific uncertainty on climate change. And this had devastating consequences for policy and action that would have begun to address the global issues related to our environment.

Water is the underlying theme of all the artwork in “Undercurrents,”  currently on display through Aug. 21 in the Strohl Art Center. Diamond brilliantly ties the theme to Chautauqua Institution’s history with a work by North Carolina-based artist Marek Ranis. Chautauqua’s venerable start as an educational camp for Sunday school teachers used Palestine Park, a scale model of the Holy Land on Chautauqua’s grounds, to explain the geography of the area. Since then, the Institution has operated each summer, offering programs in the arts, education, and, of course, religion. Ranis’ video “Stewardship” is a collection of interviews with Charlotte, North Carolina, spiritual leaders who explain their perceptions of the environment, and our role in it, as mediated through their faith. The perspectives are from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Rabbi Judith Schindler tells a story of two men arguing over who owns a piece of land; they go to the rabbi who tells them that the land belongs to neither of them, and in fact, the land says that they belong to it.

“Undercurrents” as a whole is arranged to suggest water’s transformation through its many natural states and the implications for climate change. Two stunning digital photo prints on aluminum by Ranis are the entry point to the exhibit. They show icebergs in Greenland, reflected in water and turned sideways. The familiar horizontal landscape is poetically rotated to portrait format, reminding us of our own role in preserving this landscape. The series is titled “Kunstwissenschaft,” which is loosely translated as “aesthetics.” Ranis is interested in how we idealize the landscape. The icebergs reflected in the water below them are breathtakingly beautiful, but also present the uncomfortable reality of melting ice caps and disappearing arctic environments.

One of my favorite works in the show is Merritt Johnson’s “Fancy Shawl for the Frontiers.” She has fashioned a common blue tarp into a woman’s Indigenous dance shawl. Blue ribbon and fringe adorn the life-sized garment. The common, cheap tarp is the kind used to repair or create shelters to keep us dry and protected from weather. Tarps bring to mind emergency fixes after natural disasters or temporary structures in refugee camps. This work suggests celebrating and protecting Indigenous women as guardians of land, water, culture and future generations. The piece encourages us to consider whose land this is, and it is also a reminder that all of us living on this continent are responsible for its well-being.

Indigenous voices are included in other parts of the exhibition, and Diamond aims to develop relationships with these local artists. The Catt Rez Beaders, led by Mary and Samantha Jacobs, are a group of bead workers interested in exploring, researching and creating contemporary and traditional beadwork. Ages of the group span from teenagers to elders, and most live on the Cattaraugus Reservation in Irving, New York. The collective has created two pieces for the exhibition, one being a display of beaded water droplets in a museum vitrine, referencing the preciousness of both our water and first-nations cultural traditions. The water droplets also double as tears; in their statement, the artists tell us that Mother Earth is shedding her tears. In a further effort to connect to the work of local artists, a QR code on the pedestal takes us to the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum, one of the Indigenous tribes of this area. 

The Catt Rez artists are also responsible for a beaded painting, “Water is Life,” which punctuates the exhibition with a final statement.

There is a series of lush paintings by artist Asia Freeman, based in Homer, Alaska, who co-founded and serves as executive director of the Bunnell Street Arts Center. These are somewhat traditional landscape paintings of the changing seasons in Alaska. The paintings contain energetic and aggressive brushstrokes, in predominantly icy blue hues. The active marks on the canvas bring to mind Impressionist paintings, but rather than trying to capture the rapid pace of modernity, Freeman’s quick brushstrokes suggest she is trying to capture the landscape before it is gone. Painting is a political act of capturing this drastically and irreversibly changing landscape.

Tali Weinberg’s climate “data scapes” are abstractions of statistics collected from studies of temperature data for each of the 18 major river basins in the continental United States and of the Earth’s oceans. The wall-hung pieces are constructed of medical tubing or petrochemical-derived fishing line, woven with varying colors of naturally-dyed organic cotton string. There is a material relationship between the man-made and the natural materials in Weinberg’s pieces that is poetic. This work draws on the history of weaving as a language for women and marginalized groups. She attempts to create a feminist material archive of the worsening climate crisis.

Jean Shin also relies on relationships between disparate materials. In her work, “Prized to Extinction,” a hand-blown glass jar is filled with vintage mother of pearl buttons. On the pedestal beside the jar are freshwater mussel shells from the Delaware River. Approximately 70% of the mussels in this river are endangered or threatened. As filter feeders, mussels increase water clarity and stabilize bed erosion. Shin is known for her large-scale installations, yet this smaller piece speaks boldly to our material consumption.

Emily Williams also explores threatened sea life in her stunning flameworked borosilicate glass sculptures. In her glass reef project, she studies marine life that is unique to coral reefs, and then crafts them from glass. Most of the marine life that inspires these sculptures is threatened, and her artist statement relays the sobering reality that 70% to 90% of the world’s coral reefs are projected to disappear in the next 20 years. The fragility and ghost-like translucency of the glass Williams creates mirrors the precariousness of disappearing coral reefs.

Derrick Woods-Morrow presents three photo prints that explore the complicated histories of Black sexual freedoms. He aims to represent alternative queer futures. His black-and-white photos are of African American figures on a beach. In one, titled “Frederic on Lake Pontchartrain | After Lincoln Beach,” a man posed as an ingénue in a vintage women’s beach costume and swim cap wades out into the water. Lincoln Beach was an amusement park in New Orleans, which from 1939 to 1965, during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, was designated for the area’s African American population. The photograph in itself is poignant, tying racial segregation and queer freedoms. Woods-Morrow represents voices of those systematically oppressed, questioning who has, and has had, access to our natural resources.

The works in “Undercurrents” call us to action to admire and protect the water. The artists speak of environmental responsibility and reference the socio-political issues underlying our relationship to water. The artists use a wide range of materials and approach the topic from varying tactics, but all remind us of the preciousness of water and all the natural resources that surround us.                    

Pittsburgh-based Melissa Kuntz is a professor in the Department of Art at Pennsylvania Western University, Clarion Campus. She holds an MFA and an MA from SUNY Purchase and a PhD in Administration and Leadership through the department of Sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She has been writing art and book reviews since 2002, for publications such as the Pittsburgh City Paper, Canadian Art Magazine, The Chautauquan Daily, and Art in America Magazine. Her upcoming research publications use quantitative data analysis to study the impact of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and prestige of art schools on gallery representation and museum collections and exhibitions in the United States. 

Embodying ‘tutti,’ CSO, MSFO provide chills, delight in Mahler’s First




The term for all musicians to play together is fitting for this entire Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra season, and particularly last week. 

After losing the 2020 season to COVID-19, followed last summer by a repertoire of smaller works as the pandemic continued, it has been a joy to hear the full ensemble this year. A concert Thursday night doubled that, as Music Director Rossen Milanov invited Chautauqua Institution’s Music School Festival Orchestra to the Amphitheater. It marked the largest return of the students performing in tandem with the professionals since 2019 — an important part of the training they receive here.

The program was fitting: Gustav Mahler’s mammoth Symphony No. 1. Not many orchestral pieces actually benefit from squaring the performing forces as you might think; Mahler’s works are not among them. Nearly 150 musicians felt just about right, and perhaps the best compliment is that it was easy to forget students were on the stage. But this group, trained by MSFO Artistic and Music Director Timothy Muffitt and prepared by 2022 David Effron Conducting Fellow Yeo Ryeong Ahn, are budding professionals, so that isn’t surprising. I’d argue that any slight issues with intonation or cohesiveness — and there hardly were any — were attributable to the realities of melding two orchestras.

If the cymbal crashes and sudden climaxes of this late 19th-century masterpiece can startle the audience, the soft and slowly building opening measures can trouble a conductor. With bird calls and distant military/hunting fanfares set against a delicate background, it is supposed to sound disjointed. That’s hard to do, but here, as throughout, Milanov kept his motions simple to not only hold it together but also to instill confidence. He wasn’t sweating this, so why should the students?

The symphony’s plot, as it were, is the struggle of a protagonist to find peace and redemption amid life’s hardships. But it abounds with lyrical themes, often given to the cello section, which was up to the task. Many of these melodies come from songs Mahler wrote earlier in his career. In fact, the best way to experience the work is by listening to them. The second of his “Songs of Wayfarer” is the basis of the first theme, which the musicians explored with tenderness. While the tempo was slow at times, when it bloomed, you could hear every section: the mark of a good performance. 

Milanov’s interpretation of the second movement captured the rustic peasant dance with lusty cellos and basses, clear winds and colorful violins. The third movement’s spooky, minor key rendition of “Frère Jacques,” introduced with a mahogany timbre by the principal bassist, was the heart of this performance. The woodwinds performed the unexpected klezmer-like intrusions with apt buoyancy, and the violins proffered an elegant tone.

The violent opening to the finale was suitably strident, and its subsequent disintegration impressive. Here, Mahler supplies a false ending, throwing one last obstacle at the protagonist, aggressively begun by the violas, that was overcome as Milanov urged the musicians to the climatic victory with big, circular gestures. The horns — excellent from their mellow rendering of passages in the first movement to their iconic “yelps” — were on their feet in full force. I got chills to go with my delight at seeing the full orchestra. 

Tutti, indeed.

Andrew Druckenbrod is former classical music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He studied musicology at the University of Minnesota and is an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

CTC’s ‘Indecent’ sets ‘wildly high bar’


Guest Critic Review by Eric Grode

“If you must throw stones, throw them outside the tent.”

This advice is given to (and ignored by) Sholem Asch early in Paula Vogel’s sprawling, beguiling Indecent, which kicks off Chautauqua Theater Company’s season as a whip-smart production. Asch filled his debut play The God of Vengeance, written in 1906, with whores and pimps and lesbians. That’s bad enough. But, to add to it all, they’re Jewish whores and pimps and lesbians — and the real threat comes in his goal to have it translated from Yiddish into other languages.

Vogel spent some seven years developing Indecent, which began as a piece about the obscenity trial that awaited Vengeance when it reached Broadway in 1923. But she ended up going far, far deeper and wider in this semi-Brechtian distillation of the shameful treatment of Jews and homosexuals and immigrants in America: a treatment that still finds time to be funny and sexy and name-droppy and, in the hands of director Lisa Rothe, blazingly theatrical.

Curiously enough, Indecent makes the case for Asch’s play as a provocation and a tribute and a trailblazer — but not necessarily a strong piece of writing. We see his wife and an instantly stagestruck tailor (Conservatory Actor Charles Denton, in a beautifully calibrated performance) falling head over heels for Vengeance, but the snippets we see don’t make much of a case for it. In fact, a clever montage of various international productions demonstrates how stage performances tend to grow, and not always for the better, over time. 

The melodramatic excesses in this sequence read as faintly ludicrous to a modern-day sensibility, and the temptation is to give it a pass on the assumption that this is what passed for convincing acting in its time. But Rudolph Schildkraut, the Austrian star performer who had envisioned Vengeance as his crossover hit in America, didn’t fare much better in 1923. 

“He slaps his cheeks … pulls his hair and froth issues from his lips,” said one 1923 review. “He gurgles and mumbles, his eyes grow wet and glassy, and he dies a dozen deaths.”

As it happens, 1923 was also one year into the run of the biggest hit Broadway had seen at the time, Abie’s Irish Rose, which looked at an interfaith marriage through the eyes of a fully assimilated second-generation Jew named Abie Levy. It has been estimated that one-third of Broadway audiences at the time were Jewish, and they wanted to see Abie Levy, not a gurgling, glassy-eyed, cheek-slapping pimp. 

The most vocal opposition to God of Vengeance came from within the Jewish community; a prominent rabbi named Joseph Silverman essentially ratted out the production, saying that it provided ammunition to those who would target “those unfortunates of our faith.” And Vogel, who wrote empathically from the perspective of a pedophile in How I Learned to Drive, musters a comparable level of sympathy for Silverman (Conservatory Actor Ben Schrager) in a vivid monologue.

In other words, there’s a lot of material to get through. Understandably for a play that dips deep and wide in history, Vogel sometimes settles for lumpy exposition. (If you were to bump into Eugene O’Neill on the heels of his winning a Pulitzer Prize for Anna Christie, would you say to him, “Congratulations on the Pulitzer for your play Anna Christie”? Even the notoriously long-winded O’Neill might hurry you along.) 

Indecent has one, and perhaps two, endings too many, especially since one — an imagined flight that somehow conflates the joys of the play with the horrors of the Holocaust — is near perfect in its brutal simplicity. (This owes in part to Barbara Samuels’ wizardly lighting design, which conjures nearly a half century of stages, dusty attics and more.)

But both of these quibbles stem from the wildly high bar that Vogel, Rothe and the CTC have set for themselves. In the space of less than two hours, they have packed the Bratton Theater with love and lust and music and anguish, and a reminder that art can be, and sometimes must be, dangerous. The result promises to be an artistic high point of the 2022 season.

Eric Grode is the director of the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Guest critic: CSO Diversity Fellows, wind section deliver ‘chamber music of the highest order’



Above left, 2021 Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Diversity Fellows open the show by performing Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum” Tuesday in the Amphitheater. Above right, Music Director Rossen Milanov conducts the winds section of the CSO during Mozart’s Wind Serenade in C minor Tuesday in the Amp. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

​​By no definition does the Amphitheater qualify as a chamber. Indeed, it’s the opposite of small.

Tuesday night, however, thanks to a few talented members of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, the grand old gathering place served quite admirably as a venue for chamber music.

Not just any chamber music, either. Chamber music of the highest order. No matter that the Amp has no walls and a soaring roof. Playing works by Mozart, Strauss and Jessie Montgomery, the artists convinced a crowd they were the king’s band and the Amp was an intimate drawing room at the royal palace.

For a listener accustomed to hearing the full CSO, the evening amounted to a real treat. The orchestra is unquestionably an impressive force, but here was a chance to hear just the woodwinds and horns in their individual and collective glory.

They did not disappoint. Mozart and Strauss present no small challenges, but the CSO players hurdled them all with remarkable grace and sophistication. Music Director Rossen Milanov played a vital role, but in the moment, the conductor all but disappeared into readings that were organic and profoundly collaborative.

Mozart’s Wind Serenade K. 388 was a model of classical virtue. The CSO nonet struck and maintained a perfect blend and balance, and the playing was never anything less than pristinely articulate.

But this wasn’t some dry technical display. This was an insightful, expressive and often refreshingly playful reading, the sort of genuinely animated performance Mozart or any composer of the era would have loved.

One has to think Strauss, too, would have been pleased. The account of his Suite Op. 4 offered by 13 members of the CSO Tuesday was right on the Straussian money, a performance that boasted all of what distinguished the Mozart along with even richer textures, dramatic pacing and bolder virtuosity.

Above left, 2021 Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Diversity Fellows open the show by performing Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum” Tuesday in the Amphitheater. Above right, Music Director Rossen Milanov conducts the winds section of the CSO during Mozart’s Wind Serenade in C minor Tuesday in the Amp. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Time and again, the artists under Milanov proved their Strauss bona fides. The fugal finale was a marvel of clarity and insight, but across the work, the group’s pacing was flexible, its dramatic sense keen. In its playing was real warmth and marvelous color, and while every member had flattering moments in the sun, the horns in particular came off in especially regal, golden light.

That would have been enough to send listeners home happy. The late addition of Montgomery’s “Strum,” however, made the program only slightly longer but significantly more rewarding.

Woodwinds, of course, can’t strum. No, this was a piece for strings, specifically the CSO’s 2021 Diversity Fellows: violinists Yan Izquierdo and Scott Jackson; violist Edna Pierce, cellist Maximiliano Oppeltz; and bassist Amy Nickler.

In this short but highly effective single movement clearly penned by a string player, the five artists took turns offering crisp pizzicato support while the others passed around bustling, folk-style melodies. Out of a few simple ideas, they made a lively, joyous occasion.

The performance was outstanding, the last measure or two a dapper retort, but the true star of this particular show was the composer. Montgomery is already quite accomplished, but if there’s any justice in the musical world, she’s still going places far beyond Chautauqua and the Amphitheater.

Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist in Cleveland. He is the former classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer.

Guest critic: In collaboration with CSO, Chafetz, Chautauqua Opera wraps season with ‘stunning parade of talent’



Chautauqua Opera Company Young Artists perform their final song “Sing to Love” with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and Principal Pops Conductor Stuart Chafetz Saturday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Worry not about the state of opera. If the Young Artists this year at the Chautauqua Opera Company are any indication, the future of the art is bright indeed. 

So it would seem, anyway, after the annual Opera & Pops Concert Saturday night at the Amphitheater. On a fun evening in collaboration with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and Principal Pops Conductor Stuarts Chafetz, the troupe’s up-and-comers proved they’ve already come quite far and only have the world ahead of them.

If the farewell to the 2021 opera season, aptly subtitled “We Are Different, We Are One,” was limited in any way by the pandemic, it wasn’t apparent to the audience. The 90-minute program, a charming mix of operatic arias and scenes from musical theater, amounted to a stunning parade of talent and a thorough showcase of every voice type, all of it supported by an alert, colorful orchestra. 

Sopranos, mezzos, tenors and baritones — seven artists in all — took the stage in various combinations and worked often surprisingly mature magic on an array of scores penned by everyone from Mozart and Puccini to Jasmine Barnes and Sage Bond, the company’s 2021 composer fellows. At night’s end, all gathered with others from the troupe for a beautifully lilting account of “Sing to Love,” from the finale to the Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus. 

Those 90 minutes passed quickly. Nothing about these singers, other than their visible youth, suggested inexperience. No matter whether they were singing opera or musical theater, alone or with another, in English, Russian, French or Italian. All sounded ready for any stage and virtually any repertoire. This was no three-course musical meal. This was a smorgasbord. 

To name one star or one highlight would be a disservice. There were standout moments, to be sure, but virtually every performance and every artist evinced some special quality worthy of note. In some cases, it was a masterful grasp of the language, or a gift for character portrayal; in others, it was a knack for partnership, for melding voices. Still others emerged as pure vocal powerhouses.

Ladies first, to be polite. 

Soprano Chasiti Lashay was a knockout. Wielding a robust, radiant instrument in an aria from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, the soprano filled the house with throbbing sound and captured the crowd with ease. She also stepped adroitly into Puccini and hammered home the message with baritone Yazid Gray in Barnes’ timely “Do Something!”

Composer-in-residence Sage Bond looks out to the crowd after performing her song “Truth” during the Opera & Pops Concert. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Another polished presence was mezzo-soprano Lucy Baker. Her power in a more subtle scene from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette was her expressive French and nuanced vocal shading, but she also played Little Red Riding Hood to naïve perfection in a scene from Sondheim’s Into the Woods.  

No less impressive, in other ways, was mezzo-soprano Kelly Guerra. She stole the show with sheer color and bubbly animation in a scene from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, then turned around and commanded attention with a fierce performance of “You Don’t Know This Man,” from Parade.

Gray, a baritone, was similarly versatile. He was a force of nature in the Barnes but also an ardent lover, singing in Russian, in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. Jared Esguerra, too, would seem to have just about any leading tenor role in his pocket, after his performances Saturday of Verdi and Puccini, along with “Stranger in Paradise.” 

Baritone Henry Griffin and bass Michael Colman shared a role in the Strauss finale but handily distinguished themselves everywhere else. Colman oozed evil as Sondheim’s wolf but also stole some hearts with “If Ever I Would Leave You,” while Griffin delivered luminous Mozart and a supremely tender “Edelweiss.”

Easily the night’s most unusual offering, and a rarity in opera, was “Truth.” Accompanying herself on guitar and backed by deft orchestration, mezzo-soprano and composer Sage Bond unleashed a folksy anthem whose text was hard to discern but whose raw power and sheer originality was undeniable. 

Wrapping the 2021 season and showcasing Young Artists weren’t the only functions served by “We Are Different, We Are One.” No, the night accomplished something else as well, something arguably even more important. It reminded a sizable crowd that opera hasn’t changed. Even in 2021, it remains what it’s always been: entertaining, edifying and, often, a whole lot of fun. 

Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist in Cleveland. He is the former classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer.

Guest critic: With Stafford at Massey, CSO delivers ‘illuminating’ evening of Guilmant, Dvořák



Under the baton of music director Rossen Milanov, Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist Joshua Stafford team up for a performance Saturday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Patrons of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra got their money’s worth Saturday night in the Amphitheater. Between two large works for full orchestra on the program, they heard almost every regular member of the ensemble, and then some.

Happily, everything was worth hearing. Indeed, with music director Rossen Milanov on the podium, and a stellar guest soloist, both the program and the performances were illuminating, and the evening proved distinctly, even uncommonly satisfying.

Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony No. 9 is a welcome presence under any circumstance and certainly was so Saturday. But the main attraction on this occasion was the Organ Symphony No. 2 by Alexandre Guilmant, a French composer and organist active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Unlike comparable works by his more famous peers and predecessors, Guilmant’s symphony from 1911 utilizes the organ less as a soloist than as an integral member of a large orchestra. The instrument features prominently, to be sure, but also plays supporting and textural roles.

Milanov was the artist in charge, but the star of this half was organist Joshua Stafford. Seated stage left at the Massey Memorial Organ console, he delivered an assured, colorful performance that was poetic and stirring in equal measure.

The score, to be fair, isn’t a work of staggering genius. It does, however, have much to recommend it, including numerous and brilliant passages of counterpoint, and Stafford and the CSO made the most of every opportunity.

The opening movement, in their hands, was bold and sumptuous, an entrance to remember. The second and fourth, by contrast, saw Stafford in a more reflective, lyrical light, playing alone or corresponding intimately with various woodwinds in fine form.

Stafford joins the CSO for a performance of Alexandre Guilmant’s Organ Symphony No. 2 on Saturday in the Amp. The evening’s program also included Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony No. 9. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Still, the highlight, for this listener, was the finale, marked “Intermede et allegro con brio.” A spicy, fast-paced showpiece for orchestra and organ alike, it was the symphonic equivalent of the thrilling church postlude one simply can’t walk out on.

Staggering genius, of course, is everywhere present in Dvořák’s “New World.” A marvel of musical construction and cultural appropriation, it ranks among the greatest works of its kind in existence.

The performance Saturday, like the Guilmant symphony, had much to recommend it. The third movement may have been too consistently slow for the music’s varied character, but the rest of the account by Milanov and the CSO was Dvořák of the most thoughtful, potent sort.

Time and again, Milanov resisted flashy tempos, opting instead for substance. The result, largely, was a considered, spacious reading that packed enormous drama but also allowed orchestra and listeners alike to savor every harmony and phrase.

This paid enormous dividends, not only in the famous slow movement, but also in the first and last movements. Here, refreshingly, there was ample time to relish the gleam of the strings, the pristine articulation of the woodwinds, and the consonant vigor of the brass, all the way through the last measure.

And oh, what a slow movement. Voicing one of the most beloved melodies in all of classical music, the CSO’s Anna Mattix on English horn was a model of resonant, expressive playing, and the support she received from Milanov and the CSO was as tender and radiant as can be. Talk about the price of admission. This alone was worth it.

Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist in Cleveland. He is the former classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer.

Guest critic: Replete with drama, Apollo’s Fire takes audience on ‘vivid, almost visceral’ Baroque journey



Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, performs for Chautauqua Tuesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Emotions ran uncommonly high Tuesday night at the Amphitheater. With and through Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland-based baroque orchestra, a sizable crowd sincerely felt in music the joy, agony and sheer beauty of romance.

“Love in Venice,” as the program was called, escorted listeners on a vivid, almost visceral trip to 17th- and 18th-century Italy, where cultures collided, music flourished and the likes of Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Strozzi were household names, at least among the well-heeled.

Apollo’s Fire doesn’t just play, you see. It inhabits the music. In the hands of this award-winning chamber orchestra, and especially in “Love in Venice,” scores become veritable pieces of theater, animated scenes replete with drama impossible to absorb passively. When these players utter their creative tagline, “Passion. Period,” they mean it.

The quick but densely packed evening was divided into three sections, each depicting one stage of a relationship. “Party at the Palazzo” imagined a meeting and the festive bloom of love; “Love is Difficult” depicted a more mature, complex phase; and “Summer Madness” conjured a rough conclusion in storms and arguments.

By the end, the house was on its feet, clamoring for more, and founding artistic director Jeannette Sorrell was wandering about the stage, delightedly tapping a tambourine instead of her harpsichord in time with the Turkish folk song the players offered by way of an encore.

The lion’s share of the evening was devoted, as well it should have been, to Vivaldi. Apollo’s Fire, back at Chautauqua for a third visit, made a bold entrance with his feisty “Ciaccona” (“Chaconne”) and went out stomping with “La Folia,” a dance that rose from quiet elegance to a frenzied peak, the Baroque equivalent of a rave, with violinist Emi Tanabe brilliantly leading an explosive charge.

In between came a turbulent account of “Summer” from “The Four Seasons,” with its evocations of cloudbursts and dynamic solo role handled with verve by violinist Susanna Perry Gilmore. The same artist also distinguished herself alongside rotating concertmaster Olivier Brault in Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor for Two Violins. Together, the two were wonders of expression, and the support they received from Sorrell and the orchestra was as intimate and seamless as could be. (Happily, a distant, repeating siren was no match for either of them, or Apollo’s Fire.)

Monteverdi was the other giant on the program, and through him emerged another star. Twice, soprano Erica Schuller bewitched the Amphitheater with his music, conjuring with dulcet tone and poignant, shapely phrasing the onset of spring (“Zefiro Torna”) and pure regret (“Alas, I Tumble Down”). In a similar vein, and no easier on hearts, was Schuller’s performance of “What Can You Do?,” an aria by the great Barbara Strozzi.

The Amphitheater sees all kinds of music. Every night, practically, it’s something different. But Apollo’s Fire, as a whole new batch of Chautauquans now know, is something else entirely. Even within the realm of classical and period music, it stands apart. Not until Apollo’s Fire returns is this stage likely to host anything quite like “Love in Venice” again.

Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist in Cleveland. He is the former classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer.

Guest critic: With ‘bridge-builder’ Măcelaru, CSO shines light on Dvořák’s ‘Legends’



The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra performs with guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru Wednesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

At first glance, there might not have seemed anything terribly remarkable about the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s program Wednesday night at the Amphitheater. Just another evening of Beethoven and Dvořák.

But looks, especially glancing ones, can be deceiving. With acclaimed conductor Cristian Măcelaru, music director of the Orchestre National de France, on the podium, the staid slate of two great composers was anything but dull. Indeed, in some ways, it was revelatory.

Perhaps most rewarding were the lines of connection drawn between two titans of classical music. That Beethoven influenced Dvořák is well known. Wednesday, though, proof of that lineage was laid uncommonly plain, in a manner all could hear.

Why Dvořák’s “Legends” aren’t played more often, and in fact received their premieres at Chautauqua Wednesday, is something of a mystery. The seven pieces (the original cycle consists of 10 pieces for piano duo) Măcelaru presented – Nos. 1-5, 8 and 10 – were veritable gems, brief scenes teeming with melody, drama and regal flair. Each one could have been the seed for a symphony or some other, much longer work.

At least they received the treatment they deserve. Măcelaru and the CSO, bound by a clear chemistry, identified the essence of each piece and then set about relaying it with exquisite grace and flexibility. The strings rose brilliantly to every diverse occasion and the horns repeatedly proved a golden, harmonious force.

But the genius of the evening rested in those ties to Beethoven. Throughout the Dvořák, one couldn’t help but hear similarities and even echoes of the older master, as if the one had been somehow on the mind of the other. Even had the program ended there, the link would have been edifying.  

But the program did not end there, of course. As if to balance the equation, Măcelaru also programmed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, a work that for many represents the pinnacle of the canon and unarguably contains some of the composer’s most characteristic pages.

The performance itself was a joy. A vivid but not overbearing presence, Măcelaru coaxed from the CSO a reading that skewed exciting but never veered radical or strayed far from tradition. Here was a conductor who insisted on shapely phrasing, demanded crisp enunciation, and took matters of dynamics seriously.

He may have been guilty, in the fourth movement, of pushing the pace beyond the articulate limit, but everywhere else, his choices struck this listener as not only reasonable but spot-on. The zeal of the orchestra in the first movement was palpable, not to mention infectious, and the account it gave of the famous Allegretto second movement was as propulsive, sleek and profound as any in recent memory, thanks in no small part to the CSO’s stellar winds.

It’s telling that in addition to leading orchestras in Europe, Măcelaru also presides over the Cabrillo Festival, a leading celebration of contemporary music. Not every conductor is comfortable in such different realms. Judging by his performance Wednesday, however, Măcelaru is a musical bridge-builder, and clearly knows how to make any venue and any repertoire feel like home.

Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist in Cleveland. He is the former classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer.

Guest critic: Concerts showcasing individual CSO sections — and a cappella — play out in refreshing ways



The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra wind section, under the baton of Music Director Rossen Milanov, presents “Wind Serenades” on Tuesday in the Amphitheater. MEREDITH WILCOX / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

If you ran into any surly percussionists this past week on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution, chances are you can blame the programming. With the Amphitheater hosting a Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra concert Tuesday highlighting the wind players, followed by the vocal ensemble Chanticleer Wednesday and then an evening devoted to string instruments Thursday, it’s easy enough to see why. One hopes an all-percussion concert is planned soon: these musicians know how to wield sticks, after all.

The benefit to the audience was obvious, though, as the concerts brought a raft of diverse works to the Amp stage. At its onset, COVID-19 closed concert halls and canceled performances. But as it continued, it also upended many conventions and advanced innovations that should remain. The most prominent are the inventive ways in which the performing arts embraced video and online content. As the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra has shown this season, however, classical music might need soloists and warhorses less than we think.

Faced with uncertainties, the CSO and Music Director Rossen Milanov programmed a season without many “big names.” Most of the offerings are shorter, require fewer musicians and occasionally are off the beaten path. Just as refreshing is the lack of guest soloists, placing the focus on the musicians who call the Amphitheater home — who are just as captivating.

Both streams coalesced Tuesday evening at 8:15 p.m. in the Amp, with two wonderful ensemble works rarely heard in an orchestra subscription series: Antonin Dvořák’s Wind Serenade in D Minor and Richard Strauss’ Serenade in E-flat Major. It was fun to see the wind section of the orchestra get top billing, and it was a joy to hear these gems played with such élan.

The concert might have begun with the piece that showed how profound a wind ensemble can be, Mozart’s “Gran Partita” Serenade No. 10. But we still got Mozart in the form of the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, arranged for winds by a contemporary of the composer. It turned out to be the perfect opening. It was fascinating to hear how little it captured the ebullience of the original. Simply plugging in different instruments doesn’t do the trick. Despite admirable delicacy, it sounded like a music box version of the overture. This only heightened one’s appreciation for what Strauss and Dvořák created when expressly writing for winds. Pervading their works are exquisite duets and sly duels, contrasts of timbre and dynamics, orchestration and part-writing that give space to each instrument.

While written as a teen, Strauss’ compelling Serenade only nominally qualifies as juvenilia, and Rossen let it unfold masterfully. The slower pace permitted rich phrasing by the players and allowed the piece to build to a full bloom following its main themes. The horns capped this with a mahogany tone. After an expressive rendering of the airy solo oboe transition, the development saw the musicians deftly giving way to each other, with the bassoons urging everyone along. The horns reprised the theme with smooth and almost congenial cohesiveness. Throughout, the flutes, oboes and clarinets offered sumptuous lyricism.

In the Dvořák, Rossen again was in no hurry, which lent the opening march an apt stateliness and let the oboes and clarinets float above the others. The players blended well — even when the second movement pitted clarinetist and oboist against each other in friendly, “Anything you can do, I can do better” competition. Rossen crafted the swings of dynamics and emotions in the third movement so that the music swelled when called for but receded for the plaintive detour before the boisterous finale brought the opening march magnificently back.

We then turned this past week to the renowned all-male Chanticleer, one of the great success stories in the music industry. Formed in the late 1970s in the early days of the period music movement, the group originally focused on compositions from the medieval and renaissance periods. But as the popularity of this music grew, the ensemble wisely branched out, becoming one of the most versatile musical groups performing today. Wednesday’s concert put this on display with a program covering centuries of song, from the sacred and secular to the serious and silly.

The repertoire that put the group on the map was well represented with pieces by Monteverdi, Byrd, Agricola and Lusitano. Splendid as the acoustics of the Amp are, it is not the ideal venue to hear this music, lacking as it does the resonance of a cathedral or enclosed hall. In particular, the characteristic blossoming of the countertenors was often clipped. But the precision of the singers cast off as many overtones as could be collected and the sound was glorious. One could follow any individual line and cadences were impeccably tuned. Equally supportive of contemporary composers, Chanticleer presented a remarkable new work by Ayanna Woods. Her “close[r], now” shimmered as pointillist falsetto and pulsing harmonies swirled amid snatches of text taken from a newspaper article from the depths of the pandemic explaining why concerts were unsafe. James MacMillan’s “O Radiant Dawn” and Augusta Read Thomas’ “The Rewaking” showcased the singers’ superb intonation by casting them into intricate progressions. Works by Lajos Bárdos and Béla Bartók brought rhythmic vitality.

The CSO string section, conducted by Music School Festival Orchestra Music Director Timothy Muffitt, performs “Serenaded by Strings” Thursday in the Amp. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

A tender rendition of Burton Lane’s classic “On a Clear Day” pulled at heartstrings, forming the first panel of a triptych with an arrangement of “SUNRISE” by MICHELLE and Byrd’s “Laudibus in sanctis.” The silliness came with lighthearted and occasionally animated onomatopoeia of bird song, bird noises and strange utterances, with Clément Janequin’s celebrated “Le chant des oiseaux” at the center. The concert ended on a good footing with a beatboxing rendition of Richard Evans’ bossa nova “Journey to Recife.”

Thursday brought Timothy Muffitt to the podium to lead the CSO strings. As conductor of the Music School Festival Orchestra, he knows the Amp well. From the precision of Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony” to the profundity of George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” to the lusty bowing of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings, Muffitt focused on clarity of sound to carry the details to the back seats. This constrained some of the robust sections of the Dvořák, but served the contemplative and delicate elements well. The violins rained beauty in the second movement waltz, the fourth was sumptuous and the cello section offered several lyrical solos throughout. The orchestra matched the cohesion of a string quartet for the emotional tapestry of the Walker. Muffitt kept the introspection of the piece from slipping into a lament and the personal nostalgia of Britten’s Sarabande from sounding too precious.

Andrew Druckenbrod is former classical music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He studied musicology at the University of Minnesota and is an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Guest Critic: In Rossen Milanov’s Final Concert of Season, CSO and Michelle Johnson Give Strauss Works ‘Life in Death’


Review by Anthony Bannon:

The footing is difficult; the way to death is not easy, or clear. Art in its first, unique moments is difficult — as if finding one’s way into a new night.

A small end-of-season and under-threat-of-rain audience heard Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra first-class music filling the empty seats and the humid air of the Amphitheater’s huge space and beyond. 

The concert awakened dogs.

Soprano Michelle Johnson suggested, when she last performed here, that the CSO interpret Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” among the most extraordinary in the repertory of concert music, in good measure because of what it asks of the fragile relationship between orchestra and soloist, each to their roles, each in ensemble, each truly caring for the art of the other. It was a masterful, unforgettable experience.

Yes, it was, as billed, “Sensational Strauss,” though the two works at play summoned cerebral ideas of the first and the last: The beginnings of ideas and their last breath. The composer’s “Four Last Songs” were indeed Strauss’ last compositions, with lyrics for three by the poet with whom he shared so much of life’s direction, Hermann Hesse (1877-1962). The fourth song is by the deep Romantic Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788-1857), who spares no fine words within his “At Sunset”: 

“The great peace here is wide and still / and rich with glowing sunsets: / If this is death, having had our fill / of getting lost, we find beauty — No regrets.”

This review is not about the waltz king from Vienna.

The German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) sought profound guides to aid his passage, sought poets, wise men, even a prophet. Zoroaster, the Persian thinker from 1500 to 1000 B.C.E., was a selected prophet, discovered in the novel of a fellow traveler, Fredrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the German philosopher whose recognition of the complexity, the contradictions and the shifting understandings in life had great influence. The two men — Strauss and Nietzsche — realized Zoroaster’s call for a self-aware search for truth, not rule-bound, but free.

A history of ideas cites Zoroastrianism as among the prototypical philosophies. One finds it in the Greeks, where an actively examined life is engaged by thought, word and deed as keys to an often contrary search for truth. This much also was central for such as Voltaire, William Butler Yeats and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Strauss had been moved by one of Nietzsche’s novels, written between 1883 and 1885. And Strauss responded by using the same title for his influential work, fully entitled “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” Tone Poem (Freely After Fredrich Nietzsche) for Large Orchestra, in 1896. It holds a good bit of complex wisdom but does not presume to illustrate the philosopher’s poetic voice. Strauss had plenty within his own voice. Sometimes too much.

Strauss had entered the stride of his creative life. He had heard Johannes Brahms and was moved by the emotional depth of a powerful romanticism. He abided by the work of Richard Wagner, particularly in its interpretive referencing to nature. Aware of the dissolution of his time, Strauss responded in voice with Hesse and Nietzsche, expecting the hero, an Overlord, to overcome uncertainty.

For “Zarathustra,” Strauss created huge entrance, the sunrise theme that now is iconic. It has become a sign of a transformative higher power, that dawning moment memorialized in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as well as in its conclusion, when “Star-Child” was born. 

The Massey Memorial Organ, a symphonic instrument within the Amphitheater, holds more than 5,600 pipes. Its estimable presence, a resonant voice that is felt as much as heard, created a base to venture toward such a heroic understanding.

The performance was Saturday evening, in the last hour of Sabbath. The orchestra performed with ringing clarity, crisp enunciation from the crucial trumpet call that is so well-known, and a knockout summation. 

Plucked strings harshly, and a call of crows from beyond the Amphitheater, the audience freshened for the following ascendant grace, a passage called “The Great Longing,” proclaiming the good, as well as anticipating a countering discord. Such is the repeated challenge for the 33-minute-long tone poem. Heard with focus upon Strauss’ era, uncertain about its direction — with its new technology and its industry yet finding balance — “Zarathustra” asserts a will to persevere and struggle, manifest in the warrior spirit of a leader Nietzsche named “Overman.”

And outside the Amp, the sounds of a flight of geese. A great longing in the strings, and the yap of a small dog.

The orchestra’s work is to order the jagged narrative of the work. A sample of eight topics shows “The Great Longing,” followed by “Joys and Passions,” whereupon “The Song of the Grave” giving way to thoughts “Of Science and Learning.” Then at the last, “The Dance Song” and “Song of the Night Wanderer.” A swirling complexity of learning, shrill, painful experience, a repose, the sounds of birds and a darkness of doubt. An awful lot is managed, and under the baton of CSO Conductor and Music Director Rossen Milanov, a standup, learned performance.

“Zarathustra” requires both elation and pain. Music has its right to require a world from its listeners, including promise of confusion and quiet; chaos with calm. Solutions may be hidden, riddles especially about sequence and development. And the puzzle may be repeated another way. At least opened, the poem then comes to an end. Extraordinary.

Michelle Johnson, the returning soprano, had opened the evening with death’s development. Strauss was notoriously opportunistic and loathsome. But his selection of Hesse’s poems “Spring” and “September” point toward a finally tranquil understanding of time’s passage. From “Spring”:

“I feel the healing touch / Of softer days, warm and tender/ My limbs tremble — happily, too much — / As I stand inside your splendor.”

And from “September”:

“With a final glance at the roses – / too weak to care, it longs for peace – / then, with darkness wherever it gazes, / summer slips into sleep.”

Then, in “When I Go to Sleep”:

“Now that day has exhausted me / I give myself over, a tired child …”

The majesty of the CSO with Ms. Johnson cites the miracle of spring with the miracle of the soprano’s voice. It finds openings to emerge from the orchestra, to counterpoint an instrument or to play as one with a section. The listener finds her within the violins, within the woodwinds, and then rise above and locate a beat or a breath as a time to emerge, and the orchestra swells.

Nietzsche spoke of his understanding of Zarathustra’s teaching as if it was “All,” or it was “Nothing.”

An orchestra, a team, is all, with each its recognized part. Or it is nothing. With the CSO’s fine work, this death cannot be proud, for there remains life, surely a life of art, within it. Ms. Johnson’s voice never forces its play, it sounds through its appearance a moment with all of its possibilities, always in company with the orchestra, never without. 

Ms. Johnson stood center stage with head slightly lifted, slowly regarding the curve of the space. She came to her part, entered, and gave it presence until completed, just 24 minutes.

There is an aesthetic to duration. Few, artists included, know how it works. But these songs were perfect. How much time is necessary to suggest there is life in death? The artists and their director had the answer.

Dr. Anthony Bannon received his undergraduate degree from St. Bonaventure University, and his advanced degrees in media studies and cultural studies from the English Department at the University at Buffalo. He is director emeritus at George Eastman Museum and the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State. His new book, Portraits: William Coupon, features collected photographs from the artist’s long career with TIME magazine, and thereafter with tribal and countercultures around the world. It will launch at 7 p.m. Sept. 26 in the Burchfield-Penney.

Guest Critic: Anna Clyne’s ‘DANCE’ ‘Echoes the Rich Understanding of Mahler’


Review by Anthony Bannon:

Celebrate a wise new music in its second performance, an art that will be an enduring gift from our age, a struggle with opposites. This is the creation of Anna Clyne’s “DANCE” for cello and orchestra, softly at first, in the strings, an invocation of the evening and introduction of the full breath of the cello, a masterpiece expression of a 17th-century instrument and an important artist, Inbal Segev, honored at the Pablo Casals Festival and acclaimed by orchestras and publics internationally. “DANCE” was written for Segev, drawing upon text by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet. Performed here as an East Coast premiere, it was co-commissioned by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz, California,  which presented the West Coast premiere two weeks ago.

For the poet, as for composer and her player, dance is central: It is within the broken-open, in the tearing off the bandage, in the middle of a fight, within the blood, and in the perfectly free — thus the five movements of “DANCE.” The art of sound is filled up and broken open; it is at the edge of silence and at the crest of chaos; it is a dirge and an emergence; it lives within the certainty of familiar melodies and within the ambiguity of the present, as if always in formation.

Split wood; I am there. Lift up a rock; you will find me there.” –Gospel of Thomas, the Gnostic Bible.

And the cello had begun like a flute, at its highest sounding, then developing — long and throaty, full-bodied, exquisite, taking its measure with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Thursday evening in the Amphitheater. And then, the dance fills with double stops; it fires, swirls, sings with the past. Is it Handel? A folk song? Stately, is it the Sarabande, itself a dance? 

“DANCE” recognizes through a glimpse of Charles Ives, an American composer of a century ago, the creation of the 20th century with such as Gustav Mahler, whose work was about music and transcendence, not some simile to wind through trees, morning birds or breaks of thunder. Mahler died in 1911. Clyne was born in 1980, and she, too, introduces words in her work and mixes melodies and atmospheres as if mixing media, pushing ideas to their presumed limits and therein creating a new aesthetic — a new way of being in the world.

Clyne is a genius for our time, knowing that when form meets form — music with words or visual art, or dance, or film — life takes hold, uniquely, as it did at first, where sea met shore. Her work is ever new and anticipated.  She is British-born and schooled and now lives in Brooklyn. Herself a cellist, she created “DANCE” for talent her equal.

Soloist Segev held her audience in a profound resonance to experience opposites, melody confronted with turbulence, those moments of the poet, where one feels acutely alive within the sharpness of pain — then surprised by underlying beauty. How apt that Clyne found a way to remember Rumi’s profound dance now, within a world characterized by division, the tension of the full orchestra. The soloist continues, expressing a new form, and giving it away to orchestra, and another and on. These are loops, interlocking like Borromean rings, an ancient sign of strength in unity. Such a victory, this music, a deep horizon. For this time, 23 minutes along, “DANCE” ends, but only after vigorous plucking of strings and bows against wood, harsh and assertive, all hands on deck, swirling and quoting melodies again, quieting within a false ending, a brief climax, and a soft ending after all, a rare understanding, absent the tired trope of a full-tilt climax. From within its surprising and singular frame, “DANCE” acts for its listener as a theory of everything, known and as yet unknown.

There is a sensibility in Clyne’s work that echoes the rich understanding of Mahler, particularly expressed in his Symphony No. 4 in G Major. Completed in 1900, and premiered to an angry audience the year following, Mahler’s Fourth is a forerunner in the 20th century’s declarative break with expectations. Art assumes a fluid shape. The century no longer plays a program of musical imitation of babbling brooks and butterflies gently riding the breeze. Mahler led the way; his work is music itself — music as a reach into the spirit, to those larger notions created by all that nature can give.

To achieve this vision, Mahler worked from past masters, as in the symphony’s Adagio, a vast plane for the strings, well beyond mind’s eye (and ear), as if pure essence. This third movement is among the most memorable adagios, yet under recognized, likely for its exuberant conclusion that breaks the peace. Mahler perceives through his own ear, not the license of a governing academy or school holding the rules. Mahler writes what will become the new rules, rendered, as with Clyne, through their own search.

And both composers use words: Mahler appropriates a series of folk song poems. The poem recognizes both the child’s innocence and the child’s proximity to endgames. Mahler’s fourth and final movement declares in song the doubling nature of humankind. In “The Heavenly Life” the song recognizes the presence of Harrod the Butcher as St. Luke slaughters the ox. The angels lead the lamb to its death.

Still, the food is fine, and the fish come swimming in for their death the day after the fast. Angels bake bread, and “we skip, and we sing.” This is about as good as it gets. Never mind musical babbling brooks, the breeze through the trees, and the joys of morning. Know that the terror of thunder and the fearful chasm of the sublime remain in the underside.

These two works by Clyne and Mahler are tightropes of quick changes, of forces that move mountains, and of calm. CSO Music Director Rossen Milanov carefully, subtly gathered the thin lines of the two compositions and led the orchestra to make sounds grand, gentle and whole: Rare leadership, save for allowing the orchestra to seize and swallow the low register from soprano Rebekah Howell in the concluding fourth movement and its important folk songs. Howell is a Chautauquan, performing here during the past three years with the Chautauqua Opera Company.

Free and rich, lyric, diverse, even contrary, yet always cozy with the supernatural, Mahler’s quest is to discover the supernatural in the face of horrible death. He recognized and embraced discord. The timpani had figured it out. Sound can simply be itself, or it can create melody; it can be left in the air, or it can carry its listener beyond. The rough has exchange with the smooth; the raw may be cooked.

At the last gasp of Mahler Thursday evening, big Chautauqua thunder made contact, and there were torrents and hail.

Anthony Bannon was an arts critic for The Buffalo News. He is director emeritus of the George Eastman Museum and the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State. His writing about the arts appears, according to the Online Computer Library Center, in 42 books, held by nearly 2,000 libraries worldwide.

Guest Critic: Paul Taylor Dance Company and CSO Performance Concludes Seminal Residency


Review by Jane Vranish:

It was good to see such a monumental pairing of music and movement last Saturday night at the Amphitheater, a match that became epic in so many ways.

There hasn’t been such a grand partnership within recent memory, so difficult, yet ultimately satisfying for both the Paul Taylor Dance Company and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Even the lighting design, projected onto the organ pipes above the stage, added to the imposing nature of the program.

The three works each had their own epic angle as well, Concertiana being the final work Taylor choreographed before he died Aug. 29, last year; Dust, inspired by a friend who was deaf and mute; and the gargantuan Leopold Stokowski arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in Promethean Fire

But there was a time when Taylor himself was not considered grand. He engendered disrespect from critics who thought his choreography carried little artistic and mental weight. Time has proved them wrong, and a program like this is a living, breathing example.

Concertiana referred to Eric Ewazen’s Concerto for Violin and Strings, which premiered in 2000, by St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, currently the live music partner for PTDC in New York City. To further the connection, St. Luke’s concertmaster, Krista Bennion Feeney, performed the virtuosic solo with a sweeping panache, the orchestra in swift pursuit.

The piece itself was a pictorial scrapbook of the Taylor choreographic style, full of sweet memories for the audience. Those who had seen the company performance at the Amphitheater on Aug. 7 could see trademark snippets like the curvilinear arms of “Aureole” and the sitting spins and cradle lifts from Esplanade.

Was this a nod to the creative process, the need for the choreographer to focus despite the numerous distractions that surround it? One could see lovely solos and duets to savor, but broken by a flurry of group activity consuming the stage.

Then there were many linear elements, such as repetitive jumping and running across the back, that periodically drew the eye upstage. On closer inspection, Taylor was making minimal adjustments, like turning one dancer around mid-stage and varying the speed of it all.

Yet each of those seemingly minute details was lovingly executed, making it apparent that the dancers will always cherish this work.

Dust (1977) posed a number of questions because it was a piece full of conflicting emotions. The score itself was reflective of Francis Poulenc’s youthful glee in its quirky, almost haphazard changes of mood and rhythm. Schuyler Robinson took on the harpsichord solo, often a mad dash through a musical obstacle course, with superb athletic abundance. Again, the orchestra was in full support mode, led with customary authority by conductor Rossen Milanov.

Inspired by those with disabilities, the movement could have been perplexing to the viewer. With the performers clad in nude bodysuits embellished by “lesions,” it became monkey-like, awkwardly itchy, painfully grabbing, with parts of the body deliberately askew. One section saw a woman overwhelmed by “blind” dancers, something that subsequently affected her as well. It sometimes invoked a chuckle or two, followed by a momentary sense of shame. 

Dust then began to fall apart with an outburst of acrobatics and crazed runs. All of a sudden, the dancers looked up as a bright white light bathed the stage, perhaps in reference to the thick rope that dangled at the side. Although they never acknowledged it, the rope could have been a symbol of reaching beyond one’s limits, whether physical, mental or personal.

That connected in some ways to Promethean Fire (2002). In the piece, many have seen the aftermath of 9/11, with airplane lifts and architectural groupings, although Taylor himself denied this. Clad in somber black unitards, the dancers evoked the pace of a city as they scurried through ever-changing patterns. One ended up in a giant letter “S” where, one by one, the dancers threw themselves to the ground.

Nonetheless it will remain an everlasting gift to the resilience of New Yorkers and specifically this company. For at the center of Promethean Fire was artistic director/dancer/historian Michael Novak, whose eyes burned bright with hope and purpose as he rose from the “rubble” section of the choreography. It was as if he was shouldering the responsibility to carry the company forward into the future.

Yet all of the Taylor dancers will undoubtedly participate, for they all harbored what might be termed a “secret joy.” It was one that oozed from Taylor’s impressive choreography, one that they subsequently shared on stage and one that permeated Chautauqua all week long. In the end, it was apparent that this was a singular event, which even company manager Bridget Welty admitted was “special.”

In other words, this residency has not been seen, nor will it be seen anywhere else in the near future, although it should be for all benefits that it bestows.

This seminal week took Chautauquans on a meaningful journey, much like an extensive Picasso exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art would, enabling the community to appreciate this modern master.

Maybe Promethean Fire was not just about the America we all want, but also about a company that will give us what we all need.

Jane Vranish is a former dance critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and continues there as a contributing writer. Her stories can also be read on the dance blog “Dance Currents” at She is an assistant professor of dance at Point Park University.

Guest Critic: Strohl’s ‘Flora/Fauna’ Reinterprets Functional Pottery

Review by Melissa Kuntz

Rich traditions within the ceramic arts are given a new twist in the “Flora/Fauna” exhibition in the Strohl Art Center’s Arnold and Jill Bellowe Family Gallery, which runs through Tuesday. The four artists in this show reinterpret historic techniques to create thought-provoking works in clay. All the artists are represented by Ferrin Contemporary. Judy Barie, the Susan and John Turben Director of VACI Galleries, worked with Director Leslie Ferrin to develop this exhibition.

Although all works in the exhibition are not functional ceramics, they are all rooted in the processes of crafting functional pottery. Sin-Ying Ho’s pieces are like collisions of vases and abstracted sculptures, yet they do not necessarily lend themselves to use. She crafts them using multi-part molds, wheel throwing, cutting and pasting pieces together — constructing, deconstructing and then constructing again. The results are incredibly complex and visually stunning. Traditional one-fire techniques from Jingdezhen and hand-painted cobalt lines that were in fashion in the Ming dynasty in China are combined with digital decal applications; she merges antiquated and contemporary techniques. Conceptually, her work reflects the impact of globalization on culture. Growing up in Hong Kong, moving to Canada and then New York City, involved a constant negotiation of identity. The collision of Eastern and Western culture is a constant theme within her work. She combines symbols and decoration from Chinese porcelain with visual signs and icons that are familiar to Western culture. A spectacular piece, “Made in the Postmodern Era, series No. 1” exemplifies this. Hand-painted cobalt segments appear to be part of a Chinese vase that seemingly collided with portions of a contemporary-looking white crackle glazed pot. Digital decals of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Andy Warhol’s Mao and Monroe portraits and the Mona Lisa are printed onto the white areas. These motifs from both East and West cross boundaries of time and geographic distance and become a visual interpretation of globalization.

Mara Superior works in porcelain. She is a native New Yorker who made use of her proximity to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her work exhibits both love and knowledge of historical precedents in art and ceramics. “Mates for Life: Pair of Ducks,” are reminiscent of the familiar Chinese porcelain duck-shaped teapots. But these ducks don’t have handles or spouts. Instead, they sit on a flat base and wear golden crowns. One displays a bow tie and the other a cobalt-rendered necklace that reads, “mates for life,” with a diamond ring drawn beside it on the duck’s chest. The result is a playful interpretation of the duck teapot.

On display from Paul Scott are works from two series. Scott is an expert on printed vitreous surfaces and has authored books on printmaking techniques in ceramics. A work titled, “Scott’s Cumbrian Blue(s), American Scenery, Grain Silo No. 2,” is an example of this. The ironstone platter is adorned with a blue decal of a grain elevator, and rimmed and flecked with gold luster. Scott’s other series utilizes a technique based in the Japanese practice of repairing broken pottery with gold. Called Kintsugi, translated as “golden repair,” the technique dates to the 15th century, and is used to repair broken pottery with gold, silver or platinum. Instead of hiding breaks, and related to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, the idea is to see beauty in the flawed or imperfect. Of the three Kintsugi techniques, Scott’s is most like the joint-call technique which uses similar shaped pieces from other broken wares and combines two (usually aesthetically different) works into one unique piece. A work from the Cumbrian Blues Series, “Bridgeless Bridge Garde,” is a collage of two Minton found-object plates combined so that the bridge ends halfway across the span, meeting up with the gold line of the Kintsugi. The works are stunning, but also thought-provoking, post-modern interpretations of traditional ceramic techniques.

Finally, Stephen Bowers, whose influence is the Australian version of the 1970s and ’80s Funk Ceramics, creates works that are almost always functional. The images on the ceramics are hand-drawn and painted with impressive skill. He is also influenced by textiles, wallpaper patterns and natural history illustration, and his work contains ongoing motifs of cockatoos, kangaroos and other creatures native to Australia. His techniques are inspired by Staffordshire wares — the mostly earthenware pieces are created with layers of hand-painted decoration built up in stages across as many as six firings. Alongside the animals and birds one might find images of flora and fauna native to Australia. For example, in one of my favorite pieces in the exhibition titled “Eastern Rosella & Botanical (18th C. French Toile fabric print patterns),” the rosella (a bird) is perched atop a painting of a plate decorated with Toile pattern and behind it sit portions of three more plates. It is a playful take on decorating the plate with other plates that become “real” objects within the scene. The illustration is spectacular, and the colors used by Bowers are utterly stunning, but within the seemingly innocent decorations are often ironies and social commentary. “The Dodo’s Message” is a plate upon which is depicted a dodo in cobalt underpainting in front of a mottled backdrop. The dodo has small human hands emerging from cloaked arms, reminiscent of the hands of the philosophers in Raphael’s “The School of Athens.” This is fitting to the ongoing theme in Bowers’ work of the effect of settlement on the environment.

Altogether the craftsmanship, skill, playfulness and thoughtful reinterpretations of traditional ceramic techniques by these artists results in an exhibition of visually stunning works that are also conceptually meaningful.

Pittsburgh-based Melissa Kuntz is a professor in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She holds an MFA and an MA from SUNY Purchase. She has been writing art and book reviews since 2002 for publications such as the Pittsburgh City Paper, Canadian Art Magazine, The Chautauquan Daily and Art in America Magazine.

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