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Guest Critic Reviews

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

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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’

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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

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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 dancecurrents.com. She is an assistant professor of dance at Point Park University.

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

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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.

Guest Critic: Familiar Gets Reimagined in Strohl Art Center’s ‘Getting Real’

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Review by Melissa Kuntz:

The 19th century artistic Realism movement, with a capital “R,” reacted to the lofty themes in Romanticism and history painting by, instead, truthfully depicting common laborers and ordinary people in everyday surroundings engaged in common activities. Ever since, we often assume any realistic art is the representation of objects in a way that is accurate, true to life, unedited and naturalistic. And, we habitually make misguided assumptions that realistic artworks are authentic, credible and faithful to “reality.”

Curated by Judy Barie, the Susan and John Turben Director of VACI Galleries, “Getting Real” features paintings and sculptural works that are rooted in realistic representation of objects and landscapes. Barie’s goal for this exhibition was to balance abstraction and realism without pushing the imagery to one side or the other. So, where does this “abstraction” manifest itself in a gallery filled with clearly recognizable objects like toy cars, flowers, animals and buildings? And how do the artists obfuscate the “reality” presented in their works?

The human brain is wired so that when it sees something incomplete, it attempts to create a “whole.” The Gestalt principles of perception state that the brain will perceive things as more than simply the sum of sensory inputs, and it will do so in predictable ways. Especially relevant to the work of William Steiger is the Gestalt concept of “closure,” which states that we organize our perceptions into complete objects, rather than a series of parts. For example, given segments of a circle, we will perceive it as a whole circle, not what it “really” is — just a series of lines.

Steiger plays with this concept in his meticulous and precise paintings and collages of buildings set within voided landscapes. “Wheat Pool #12” is the perfect example of the Gestalt phenomenon at work. This oil-on-linen painting, at about 30 inches wide, shows two grain elevators in strong contrast against a white background with only a hint of the horizon behind. Naturally, we assume these are complete, truthful depictions of the structures. Yet, very careful examination reveals that the white, highlighted sides of the buildings do not have boundaries. There are no marks to distinguish where the building ends and the sky begins. Yet, we are amiss to see Steiger’s landscape for what is it — essentially an abstraction of shapes and lines — and our well-trained brains invent a completed scene. Similarly, in “Tank Capacity 2400 bbls,” the assumption that the girders supporting the tank are arranged in a logical order is contradicted when closer inspection reveals that they are largely random, abstracted and impossibly arranged.

Using abstraction as a means to realism materializes in Stanley Bielen’s flower paintings. Peonies are portrayed with the thick, random and layered brushstrokes most often associated with Abstract Expressionism. Yet, their small-ish scale, about 20 inches high, and floral subject matter are the antithesis of the machismo and epic scale of Abstract Expressionist works.

Shelley Reed uses Northern European art from the mid-17th through 18th centuries as the inspiration for her work. At this time, there was a developing interest in science, nature and the animal world. Animals were anthropomorphized and works were epic in scale. Reed’s paintings are monochromatic, often with a flat black background. Using grayscale, with luscious paint application, she is able to render the details of the flowers and animals with striking precision. Yet, we must remember that a grayscale is simply a convention that we have come to understand as representing dark and light; reality is never actually so precise. Each individual petal, feather or bit of fur rendered by Reed is a small value scale — all of these small abstractions coming together in convincingly hyperreal objects.

Elizabeth Fortunato casts from glass common objects that carry a sense of nostalgia such as spools of thread, keys, pin cushions and skeleton key-hole covers. The glass is delicately colored, but retains its translucency, giving the objects a ghostly presence. Taken out of context, some of these objects become abstractions. The stunning installation, “3rd From the Left & 2nd From the Left,” is a series of 24 key hole covers, the kind found in historic homes and often made of brass or cast iron. Fortunato has cast them in subtle colors of greens, blues, grays and sepia and arranged them in an oval shape hung on the wall. From a distance, the piece is a series of abstracted shapes, but up close, the details emerge and lead the viewer to imagine the homes from where these came. Fortunato mentions her love of casting as it is a multi-step process; she spends hours with each object and becomes familiar with the form, their significance and imagines the people who used them.

Wendy Chidester paints obsolete machines, lost through time and advancing technology. The objects, although their usefulness has passed, are beautiful in form and craftsmanship. An antique cash register, toy cars and a bubble gum machine are depicted in her oil-on-canvas works. Chidester captures the surface textures of the objects with a deft hand. She does this by scratching into the surface, flicking paint and applying multiple glazes; up close, sections of the canvases appear as painterly abstractions.

Finally, Sarah Williams and Leslie Lewis Sigler develop painterly surfaces with lush, virtuoso brush marks. Williams paints predominantly mid-century buildings artificially lit at night. The buildings are de-contextualized, with no other structures, people or cars within the scene. This gives them a sense of timelessness; they could have been painted from photos taken this year or 50 years ago. “North Glenstone Ave” is an oil-on-canvas, approximately 36 inches wide; Williams’ paintings are not epic in scale, rather they are intimate and personal, like portraits of the structures. The neon light in this painting casts an unearthly pink and orange glow onto the painted lines of the parking lot and the fluorescent light from inside forms halos around the windows. The colors are so well studied — the cement of the parking lot is rendered in purple and the building is a pink-to-yellow gradient. The scene in the window is simply a series of abstracted gray and mauve marks that coalesce into recognizable forms.

Lewis Sigler works in a similar fashion, creating incredibly well-observed still lives of silver platters and utensils. Each object is alone in the canvas against taupe or gray backgrounds. All the images are life-sized, making them relatable, as we might remember someone having a similar spoon or plate. Lewis Sigler’s paintings are, up close, tiny abstractions. They are reminiscent of the work of Janet Fish because the realism is a result of seemingly random and expressionistic brush marks. Reflected in the silver objects painted by Lewis Sigler are colors from the surroundings and a figure — perhaps the artist herself — abstracted in the center of a silver platter. This sense of nostalgia, which appears in the works of Lewis Sigler, Williams, Chidester and Fortunato, presents another theme which ties together the work of the artists in the show.

This exhibition presents the viewer with gorgeously rendered and sculpted art works that replicate familiar imagery, but within each artist’s work are more complex themes, techniques and concepts. Each artist utilizes tropes of abstraction in their interpretations of realism and the works are much more than initially meets the eye.

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.

Guest Critic- ‘His Greatest Hits’: Paul Taylor Dance Company Celebrates Founder’s Legacy

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Review by Jane Vranish:

 

No longer just an impeccably designed, mostly Victorian community by the lake, Chautauqua Institution has taken on a series of performing arts projects, like the jazz giant Wynton Marsalis partnership, that will make it an even more important and vital destination.

Dance, up until now, has been operating in its own little bubble, with locally nurtured performances or regional companies, something that can be rewarding in itself.

No longer.

Due to the vision of Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts, the internationally renowned Paul Taylor Dance Company is permeating every nook and cranny in Chautauqua. This deep dive into the work of one of America’s greatest choreographers — mini-performances, classes, talks — has yielded more than anyone could have expected.

Could this be a Chautauquan nod toward the legendary Black Mountain College of the 1950s, which gave birth— through the likes of artist Josef Albers, choreographer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, artist Robert Rauschenberg and, yes, Taylor — American modernism?

Those results have been obvious, with Wednesday’s performance the proverbial cherry on top (although there is more to come through tonight’s performance). As a dance reviewer in Pittsburgh, I have seen the company many times over in the past 40 years. After all, we like to claim him — he was born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, just outside the city. Yet judging by the breathtaking performance in the Amphitheater, I have never truly seen them.

You might say this was the perfect evening of Taylor dance, with a beautiful arrangement of arguably his greatest hits. (After all, there are over 140 from which to choose). This program satisfied on so many levels. First, it was performed with the physicality inherent in American dance, but with a dynamic ease that remarkably illustrated the Week Seven theme, “Grace: A Celebration of Extraordinary Gifts.”

Then there was the program itself, beginning at the end with Esplanade. If there was a single work that might represent Taylor as an artist and human being, this is it. Seemingly simple, but laced with complex layers that beg repeated viewings, he created it in 1974. This was Taylor’s first work after he retired from performing. So he tossed aside conventional dance techniques to formulate his own style, but without losing the kinetic energy that audiences love. In the years since, Esplanade has become a choreographic mirror for the viewer, with everyday steps and themes that reflect our individual lives.

Audiences could get a clue from the start with John Rawlings’ costumes — simple dresses, pants and tops in numerous shades of orange and peach, tan and gold — the hidden nuances to come. Beginning with casual walks amid a sense of camaraderie, Taylor suddenly turned the tables toward grief, where one dancer sobbed and others crawled into a pulsating, comforting cluster around her.

So much followed. Intimacy. Fast-paced skitter steps. Most significantly, the men cradled the women in their arms and later tenderly passed them from one to the other.

Then the ending of all endings, Esplanade exploded in a series of baseball slides to the Johann Sebastian Bach score. The pace picked up even further with sitting spins, a windmill of a male solo and more. It was all about dancing on the edge. No; as former member Connie Dinapoli explained in an adult class earlier this week, it was all about falling. Think about it, to make a dance about falling …

That would hardly leave room for anything else. Yet there was a series of cradles, this time where the women darted across the stage and flew into the men’s arms. Inexplicably, Taylor reined it in after they all ran offstage. One woman was left, looking about her, confused at first. Then she turned to the audience to present herself, ostensibly to the world.

In a program of delicious contrasts, Esplanade was like a palate-cleansing sorbet, preceded, as it was, by the intense sensuality of Piazzolla Caldera, a tango-esque work with a flamenco attitude. Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla (the primary musical inspiration along with Jerzy Peterburshsky) is a favorite among choreographers, but never so richly decadent as here, dripping with atmosphere and a daring cast of characters.

Sometimes it was a battle of the sexes, sometimes not. For the most part, it was a constantly changing mélange of bodies and partners. Still, there were dramatic threads, like the woman who resembled Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, aging and rejected, but here able to pursue her passion to the end.

Occasionally, it resembled a mobile Henry Moore sculpture, thick and undulating, particularly when two men engaged in a drunken duet.

Full of tango’s smoldering underbelly and flamenco snap, the cast was undeniably on fire.

The two works amounted to a double finale, a rarity in dance and a tribute to the company’s strength. But there were preludes to that upcoming choreographic storm, a delightful pair of Taylor’s early works. Aureole (1962), an angelic, almost balletic creation, featured three women in floating white dresses with a single ruffle around the neck. They billowed around two men who displayed a masculine weight, a counterbalance. But their lava-like flow was coupled with turns that stopped softly on a dime and lighter-than-air frog leaps, thus providing a welcome match to George Frideric Handel’s music.

That left 3 Epitaphs (1956), the earliest and most comical dance of the evening, although humor and wit often run rampant through Taylor’s world just when you least expect it. 3 Epitaphs is known for Rauschenberg’s iconic costumes, where the dancers are completely covered in dark gray and dotted with circular mirrors.

Slumping and slurping, hipping and hopping to early New Orleans funeral music, the creatures delighted as they immersed us in their buffoonery.

Maybe this program was historic, where all the works were created in the last century. But with the generosity and talents of the dancers, whose predecessors Taylor once fittingly called the “bee’s knees,” they made it timeless.

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
dancecurrents.com. She is an assistant professor of dance at Point Park University.

Guest Critic: Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Performs with Violinist Augustin Hadelich

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During the last concert of the Russian Festival, from left, Violinist Augustin Hadelich performs “Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 63” while Music Director Rossen Milanov conducts the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Thursday August 1, 2019 in the Amp. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Review by Zachary Lewis:

Someone at the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra clearly knows what he’s doing.

Case in point: the group’s concert Thursday night in the Amphitheater, the third in the orchestra’s season-long Russian Festival with Music Director Rossen Milanov.

In both program and performance, not a thing was flawed. Every element was in its place. Indeed, it was as if the music and the performers were meant for each other, a case of artistic planning at its finest.

Whoever first invited violinist Augustin Hadelich to Chautauqua, and succeeds in bringing him back, is certainly a genius. A longtime and frequent guest whose bright star only continues to rise, Hadelich has been, and was again Thursday, an enormous addition to the musical life of this place. 

It’s not every violinist who can do what Hadelich did Thursday: lead an audience straight through the daunting twists and turns of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, without a single detour or moment’s wandering.

Where lesser violinists string together episodes to make some kind of whole, Hadelich wove three thoroughly cogent, seamless arguments, each more articulate and compelling than the last. The result was a reading that exposed both how deeply Prokofiev sits in Hadelich’s wheelhouse and how special his relationship is with the CSO.   

Struggle had no place in Hadelich’s performance. Every technical tool was there, at the ready, in a performance as collected and suave as possible. What’s more, that technique served the music. In the finale, especially, the violinist’s sense of freedom was both palpable and infectious. As he romped and frolicked with abandon, listeners did so, too, right along with him.

But the highlight of the performance was surely the Andante. Out of that haunting music, Hadelich crafted something truly memorable, a musical time-out that managed both to enchant and engage. That movement alone warranted an encore, and the concerto as a whole warranted an open invitation for Hadelich to return at will.

Another instance of programming brilliance? The second work on the program, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. If ever a conductor were suited to negotiate this nearly hour-long creation by the last great bastion of Russian Romanticism, it was Milanov. 

Never has an hour in concert passed so quickly. By keeping his sights trained on melody and motive, Milanov virtually sidestepped time altogether, grabbing and holding the attention of his listeners through each of the work’s four segments.

Lustrous string tone and continual upwellings of momentum made short, absorbing work of the opening movement, and the fourth under Milanov was no mad dash, but rather an irresistible recap, a propulsive survey before a dazzling finish. 

The second movement, too, was a thriller. The CSO all but devoured its first half, tearing into the music with ferocious zeal, and the second half saw an orchestra at the height of lyrical perfection.

But again, it was the slow movement, the Adagio, that stole the show. Aided by a golden clarinet, Milanov conducted this most famous of melodies the way Rachmaninoff himself might have played it on the piano, with shape and nuance and wave upon wave of emotion.

Many listeners Thursday left at intermission, daunted by the prospect of a 60-minute symphony. Boy did they miss out. Chalk it up to a lack of understanding. Unlike the CSO’s artistic planners, they must not realize what this group is capable of.

Zachary Lewis is the classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

Guest Critic: CTC Breaks Down Walls in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’

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Guest Critic: Anthony Bannon

It was in the eyes. They led the way and subtly stole the show, casting far more than a glance. These were quick eyes. They said it all.

It could have been in the words, because they were Shakespeare’s after all, and the play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in a very live adaptation by the nationally regarded Jeff Whitty (Tony Award for Avenue Q).

And it could have been the place, which was novel — the Southern Tier Brewing Company, the last of the free locations graced by the Conservatory of the Chautauqua Theater Company, also including sites in Jamestown, Mayville and Bestor Plaza — all outside, just where this play needs to be.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream counter-poses the culture of a rule-bound, walled-in, controlled location (Athens) with the nearby forest where the rules are off and fairies reign, particularly at night and especially on the eve of May Day, the festival celebrating a newly flowering life of the season and the fertility of love that goes with it.

In the woods, the play has an all-out joyfulness, employing pagan ritual, vaudeville humor, downright verbal and physical gibberish: A wild riskiness of chases around the audience and the taking of several flights into colleagues’ arms.

Back in Athens it is all starch, grounded by stilted formal dress and consultations into the civic rule book.

In his Dream, Shakespeare created an auger of the Beat era, still ongoing, a recognition that significant change does not happen out of a rule book. Change occurs out in the woods illuminated by a full moon, where the rules are off and the rug is ready to be pulled out from under, and the apple cart prepared for tipping. It is time for transgressions.

Look to the eyes for their vision. O, them eyes.


Sarah Elizabeth Wansley, the company’s staff artistic producer, directs this production. She lets it fly. Center stage, it is hells-a-popping. But around the center, everyone is also on-point.  Everyone is as if at the center, and director Wansley does it with the eyes especially: Eyes gathering information and making rue comment to complete and extend a communication loop. It works like a song. There are the “Eyes of the Tiger,” “Hungry Eyes,” “Far Away Eyes,” “Angry Eyes” and even “Bette Davis Eyes.” Everyone is called out, particularly those living dangerously at the center: congratulated, criticized, mocked, or corrected — with plenty of room for cross-comment.

It is great fun to watch; these young actors with faces more alive than words.

The play is easy enough. Names may be difficult to get straight, so ignoring names: There are three couples in various stages of marital commitment with various reasons for showing up on May’s eve in a forest supercharged for fecundity. Well, that is a polite way of saying it.

Director Wansley pulls off the real truth of the matter for an age-mixed audience sitting on blankets or folding chairs, and it is a subtle, though pervasive, sexiness — a giggle for youngsters, but for adults, not far from Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl, raunchy comics from the Beat era, brought to trial for their jokes 60 years ago. Though theirs were words, and this is mostly body language and eyes.

This is a sexy night, guided by sprites and fairies, and by a group of caterers seeking solitude to practice a ribald play. That play becomes a play within a play, which, as with Hamlet, tells the true meaning, and here it is that when the rules are off, change will happen — on a personal level and on a civic level.

Witty, the writer, and Wansley, the director, have arranged a parallel with the 1967 Summer of Love, and on the hill beyond the performance area, a group of men, not a part of the production, played an odd-looking game at the edge of the forest. A sunny evening, thunder in the distance, mead on the terrace and cards with Shakespearean drinking games readied on-coming night’s dreams.

Witty and Wansley begin and end the play with caterers and sprites performing a doo-wop excerpt from Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” — a message of sorts to the three couples that the recognition of love — or other matters — is often right in front of you: “What I want, you’ve got it …” Other popular tunes are sprinkled through the night, with music direction by Tommy Crawford, from New York. Characters make their own comments in dress, a tie-dyed shirt for one, a pop art image for another, a Jimi Hendrix vest for another. Flowers abound. Flower power in the set, costumes and as a ring, costumes by Dixon Reynolds, who also teaches at SUNY Fredonia and works theater in Buffalo and afar. Set design by Jill Davis, a pop-up variant.

This Dream is clearly a conservancy effort, a group of young actors making the bridge from school and internships to the professional stage. They are ready, and they are fine: Kieran Barry, Alex Brightwell, Kelsey Deroian, Rishan Dhamija, Elizabeth Erb, María Gabriela Rosado González, Amara Granderson, Kayla Kearney, Alexander De Vasconcelos Matos, Sofia Bunting Newman, Courtney Stennett and Titus VanHook. Bravo. Brava.

Anthony Bannon is the former director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State and of the George Eastman Museum in Rochester. He was a staff critic for The Buffalo News. A Buffalo launch for his new book with Damiani Editore, Portraits: William Coupon, will be held with the artist Sept. 26 in the Burchfield Penney.

CSO, Weiss, Wosner Deliver Unforgettable Premiere, Pay Homage to Composers of the Past

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Guest Critic: Zachary Lewis

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, a slew of people were genuinely honored by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night in the Amphitheater.

Not only did the performances reflect well on guest conductor JoAnn Falletta, visiting from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the music itself also paid homage to composers of the past, and pianists and orchestra engaged in mutual acts of complementary imitation. 

The rarer of the two treats on the year’s fourth “Into the Music” program was “Concerto d’avorio,” a concerto for piano with four hands by former Chautauqua Opera Company composer-in-residence Jeremy Gill. In a venue not often home to new music, Gill’s 20-minute creation Tuesday enjoyed a memorable premiere, courtesy of Falletta and pianists Orion Weiss and Shai Wosner.

Gill is a gifted and smart composer, an artist exceptionally well-versed in music history and adept at writing for orchestra and piano. In “d’avorio,” a co-commission from the Buffalo Philharmonic, Gill ingeniously distills the essence of at least four great composers, all while sounding wholly original and making smooth, compelling use of four hands at one piano.

The echoes of Gill’s sources of inspiration were clear. Across the work’s four movements, echoes of Frédéric Chopin, Béla Bartók, Leonard Bernstein, Franz Liszt and others were readily detectable. Sharp, fitful gestures and restless mechanical music redolent of the 20th century yielded to and emerged seamlessly from silken melodies and virtuoso displays straight out of the 19th.

And what engaging music it was. “This and That,” the first movement, hung on thrilling cascades in every direction, and “Trumpets and Drums,” the second, boasted a jaunty little hummable tune. “The Voice,” meanwhile, conjured the age of Romanticism, and the finale, “The Machines,” saw a frenzy of activity that rose to and went out in a glorious blaze.

Concertos for piano four-hands aren’t exactly common. That Weiss and Wosner performed as a unit and never let slip a hint of strain or stress even as they practically bumped elbows is nothing short of amazing. What’s more, they didn’t just execute a digital feat. They made real, energizing music. No amount of applause could have flattered them enough.

The second offering on the brief, intermission-less program was Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” in the transcription by Maurice Ravel. Here, in other words, was a work for piano brilliantly reimagined as a work for orchestra. Talk about imitation and flattery. 

Gill’s work, it seems, may have received the larger share of rehearsal time. Even as the performance Tuesday was generally effective and even stirring in places, the music also felt rushed, and moments of tonal insecurity were not scarce. 

Still, there was much to savor. The orchestra’s woodwind soloists made haunting work of “The Old Castle,” and the whole ensemble, like the characters depicted in the music, was deftly on its toes in the “Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells.”

Falletta also had no trouble conjuring the “Catacombs” with sweeping gestures and bold contrasts in dynamics, and “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” as played by the CSO Tuesday was a scene as crazed as they come.

These were no counterfeit “Pictures,” no half-hearted copies. So vivid were these treatments of Mussorgsky, in fact, one might even say they were inimitable.

Zachary Lewis is the classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

Guest Critic: ‘The Ghosts of Versailles’ a ‘Proud Addition’ to Chautauqua Opera’s 90-Year Catalog

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Guest Critic: Tom Di Nardo

Suppose a playwright could rewrite the past, avert the French Revolution and keep his love, Queen Marie Antoinette, from the guillotine? To pull off this premise, he’d simply invent characters to accomplish it in an opera — until one of his own fictional creations refused to cooperate.

Even more layers of dramatic imagination were fashioned by librettist William M. Hoffman, then set to music by John Corigliano, in The Ghosts of Versailles, in its Chautauqua Opera Company performance at the Amphitheater last Saturday evening.

By the time the Metropolitan Opera was looking for a composer to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1991, Corigliano was widely celebrated for his powerful First Symphony and other symphonic works. His flexibility in writing the Oscar-nominated film score to “Altered States” did not go unnoticed (his Oscar-winning “The Red Violin” would come a few years later). And Hoffman’s conception of Beaumarchais’ final drama, The Guilty Mother, expanded the original and transformed this into a play within a play — and then some.

The gestation of this opera helps to place Chautauqua Opera’s formidable challenge into perspective, considering that the Met utilized its enormous production resources and provided famed stars in major and cameo roles. Yet the settings for Chautauqua Opera’s production, designed by Alan Muraoka, worked splendidly, using three constantly rolling structures with windows and doors, and two stairways plus occasional relevant projections.

This show requires a large cast of around 40, and Peter Kazaras’ direction clarified the spectral, theatrical and real characters and, usually, their individual motivations. To make this venture even more impressive, the company’s resources were utilized on the two days before with reprises of the first two classics of the Beaumarchais trilogy, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro.

Titles were also projected, essential for any English-language opera.

Beaumarchais’ final play continues the adventures of the well-known characters years later. Countess Rosina has had a son, Léon, with the frisky Cherubino, and Count Almaviva fathered a daughter, Florestine, from another dalliance. Rosina and the Count refuse to allow the two youngsters to marry. The evil Bégearss hopes to steal Léon’s inheritance and marry Florestine himself, but Figaro and Susanna connive once again to ensure a happy ending.

Hoffman took this plot many steps further, setting the story in the Petit Trianon in Versailles, where bored, white-wigged and elegantly dressed ghosts are waiting for a Beaumarchais opera, A Figaro for Antonia, to begin. Beaumarchais is in love with Marie Antoinette, hoping for his play to rewrite history, while the money from a valuable necklace may allow their escape. To Beaumarchais’ astonishment, his own creation Figaro takes the necklace but has no interest in saving Marie, hoping to rescue the Almaviva family instead. Beaumarchais makes Figaro sympathetic to Marie after showing him her mock trial but, in entering his own opera, loses his power to manipulate his characters. The evil Bégearss tries to arrest Almaviva and marry Florestine, but Figaro and Susanna again prevail. The Count, Countess, Figaro, Susanna, Léon and Florestine escape in a balloon to Philadelphia (where the real Marriage of Figaro librettist Lorenzo da Ponte would soon arrive in 1805), and Marie accepts Beaumarchais’ love for her — and her tragic fate.

The singing in this opera was uniformly excellent, despite the difficulty of many of the vocal parts. Corigliano didn’t write any arias you’d go home humming, but the passion inherent in each one kept listeners involved in what the singing was about, and why. Soprano Caitlin Lynch, as Marie, sang many passages high above the staff, and handled them formidably with a minimum of screeching, no easy feat when her painful memories ended in near-hysteria. Baritone Daniel Belcher was an affecting Beaumarchais; tenor Patrick Dean Shelton was a nasty Bégearss; Aleks Romano did a cameo, some in Turkish, as Samira; and baritone Marco Nisticò portrayed Louis XVI by zinging a bunch of funny one-liners.

These guest artists and Young Artist Shelton are mentioned first, only to emphasize that the many other roles were handled with impressive vocal and acting skill by upcoming singers from the company’s deep Young Artists roster. They included a funny and rambunctious Figaro (baritone Scott Purcell); very believable Susanna (mezzo-soprano Quinn Middleman); Almaviva (tenor Blake Friedman) and Rosina (soprano Lauren Yokabaskas), as well as the young lovers Léon (tenor James Stevens) and Florestine (soprano Natalie Trumm); all head into the “I heard them when” category. The Lady in the Hat, a cacophonic trio of women in white dresses, and lots of excellent costumes added to the entertainment value, as well as the necessity for a sea of white hairpieces.

Purcell, as Figaro, catalogued his many past talents in an homage to his famous aria in Barber, this time almost like a Gilbert-and-Sullivan patter song. He was constantly being chased around, but never caught and, as always, makes himself the soul of the show.

Some hilarious moments: The jealous King and Beaumarchais in a duel, with the playwright impaled until they realize they are both dead; Samira’s wiggly dance and goofy aria at the Turkish embassy, with Figaro flouncing around dressed as a dancer to swipe the necklace; and the very curious “Long Live The Worm” pronouncement by the reprehensible Bégearss.

And some glorious moments, too: Marie’s initial aria, in which she just wants to forget her past, a duet between Rosina and Susanna (recalling their magical one in Figaro), and a flashback of mirrored duets between imminent lovers Rosina and Cherubino, while Marie and Beaumarchais become close as well.

Conductor Steven Osgood, the company’s general and artistic director, always seems to come up with a savvy season combination of classics and cutting-edge choices. For the company’s 90th anniversary, to embark on this famous trilogy seemed like a stretch — though one reached with a level of polish that would impress anywhere. His conducting of this difficult and very sophisticated score was exemplary, with some outstanding woodwind and horn work.

Hoffman created plenty of strange moments and odd detours, and the first act even ends with a title saying “THIS IS NOT AN OPERA!” But it is still captivating, mostly because of the fascinating concept Hoffman has created, and the skill and care brought to this performance.

Despite the usual acceptance by Chautauquans of unfamiliar repertory, Ghosts deserved better than the sparse attendance in the side risers. Nevertheless, there was no disappointment in the face of attending composer John Corigliano, who came up onto the stage to share the ovation. He’s written a work that requires plenty of talent in a variety of disciplines, and the present performance provided them all in another proud addition to the company’s 90-year catalog.

Tom Di Nardo is a Philadelphia writer on the arts. His recent books include Listening to Musicians: 40 Years of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Performers Tell Their Stories: 40 Years Inside the Arts. He has also written Wonderful World of Percussion: My Life Behind Bars, a biography of legendary Hollywood percussionist Emil Richards.

Guest Critic: ‘On Common Ground: Works on Paper’ ‘Blows Open the Parameters of Drawing’

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Review by Vicky A. Clark-

“On Common Ground: Works on Paper” at the Strohl Art Center, curated by the Susan and John Turben Director of VACI Galleries Judy Barie, shows how the medium of drawing has changed.

Traditionally, drawings were used as preliminary sketches for more formal works, but some artists had such a deft hand and rendered the smallest details so perfectly that a drawing looked like a finished work. Someone like Albrecht Dürer could capture the most detailed world in his prints, utilizing hidden symbols to add meaning to his mostly religious subjects. Leonardo da Vinci, in contrast, filled notebooks with ideas for inventions, drawings of human anatomy, and quick studies of nature. Centuries later, artists like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres continued to produce highly detailed portraits, but some, like Henri Matisse, experimented with new methods, landing on his famous paper cutouts when his physical situation deteriorated so much that he couldn’t continue to paint. The definition of drawing continues to expand with artists using new methods and techniques such as fiber or videotape. Tree branches can be used as a drawing tool or as components of the composition. From preliminary study to scientific rendering to abstract composition, works on paper have captivated viewers for centuries. 

While many historic drawings were never meant to be framed and shown in a museum, things have shifted substantially in the modern era with some artists only producing drawings. Additionally, artists have increased the size of their work and have been experimenting with new materials. Sometimes the final product is a cross between drawing and photography, painting, sculpture, and even film.

Brenda Stumpf makes mixed-media works by adding a variety of materials to her surface, creating, ironically, a texture that resembles layers found at excavation or archaeological sites. Her most recent work has been influenced by her new house, an old church that she is restoring. In “Revelation” and “Invocation,” steel beams replace paper as a surface, adding to the architectural and structural grounding. Stumpf then produces a light-filled, scumbled ground that evokes the mystical and the sacred, in both places and people, with traces of histories, stories and states of being in her combination of real and imagined worlds. Her work could be considered maps that have moved far beyond geography. Her aesthetic and conceptual combinations can also be seen in her sculpture, including “To the Unknown” that is included in the “Small Sculptures: Big Impact” show.

A similar interest in enriching the surface, adding texture and depth, is a characteristic of the work by Bridget Quirk. She, however, uses kitschy materials, most notably fake hair, to animate her colorful portraits. Collage became popular in the early 20th century, as artists began to flatten their picture plane, fracturing objects into intersecting planes to create spatial confusion. Soon, that deconstruction included content as well, with an accumulation of symbols or disparate items that create a personal iconography. Using such a variety of materials — pastel, acrylic, hair, colored pencil and magazine cutouts — Quirk enhances the spatial inconsistencies as her cast of characters seem slightly out of sorts, broken down into parts and then pieced back together. The eyes, clipped from magazines, add a disconcerting touch of realism, and we are left with more questions than answers about her subjects’ identities. Although based on photographs of important people in her life, they seem like sketches for idiosyncratic players in the theater of the absurd, anime or video games, or perhaps people featured in Saturday morning cartoons. 

An artist whose work relates well to Quirk’s is Su Su, who emigrated from Beijing to Pittsburgh, in 2011. Like many transplants, she views the world through a bifurcated lens, and she channels her interests in intersections, juxtapositions and disconnects into her paintings where she experiments with complex, often disjointed, compositions as well as new painting materials. For this show, she contributed three paintings on paper of pop culture icons, Cary Grant, Mr. Rogers and Humphrey Bogart. Restricting her palette to an eerie bluish/gray-like sepia, stretching and distorting her faces like visual effects artists or English artist Francis Bacon, she presents a radically different interpretation of these men. They have been put through a blender and then placed in front of a funhouse mirror, perhaps to star in an episode of “The Twilight Zone” or some sci-fi, shape-shifting adventure.

Working in a very different way is Nathan Heuer, whose extremely precise drawings make viewers question whether he is depicting real or imagined buildings. They have the same double-take effect of Claes Oldenburg’s proposed monuments that ranged from a toilet bowl float in River Thames, to a teddy bear in Central Park. Heuer’s “Next Year’s Remodel” features a series of brick buildings in a state of disrepair. Are we looking at urban decay or the beginning of new dwellings? Creative reuse is a recurring theme here. Heuer gives us a schematic rendering of a semi, but upon closer examination, there is an incongruous air conditioner on the roof. In fact, this piece records a repurposed rig retrofitted as an office/store in order to sell shrimp. The artist also follows in the footsteps of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose exquisite, mind-blowing architectural prints record both existing and imaginary structures.

Despite the differences in the work of these artists, they share an interest in an in-between space that exists somewhere between dream and quotidian, imagined and real. They all make the ordinary, extraordinary, in ways that evoke ideas of stranger than fiction, more real than real, and imagined fantasies. Their content, like their technique, has blown open the parameters of drawings with a freshness and excitement.

Vicky A. Clark is an independent curator, critic and teacher based in Pittsburgh. Throughout her 30 years in the Pittsburgh art scene, she has served as a curator for the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and curated “The Popular Salon for the People: Associate Artists at the Carnegie Museum of Art” exhibition.

Guest Critic: Alumni Dance Gala

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Guest Critic: Steve Sucato

Monday night’s edition of the annual Chautauqua School of Dance’s Alumni Dance Gala in the Amphitheater proved yet again the school is a summer breeding ground for some of the finest dance talent in the world. The jam-packed program of nine short works triumphed over the muggy conditions to bring the appreciative audience repeatedly to its feet throughout the evening to applaud the top-flight dancing and dance works presented. 

Curated by Sasha Janes, director of contemporary studies for the School of Dance, and a familiar name to dance audiences the past several decades at the Institution, the program led off with a bit of Christmas in July in the form of the “Mirlitons” dance from School of Dance Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s The Nutcracker.

Set to music by Tchaikovsky and staged by Kennedy Center honoree and School of Dance Director of Ballet Studies and master teacher Patricia McBride, the lively ballet trio was performed by current Chautauqua School of Dance students Alexandra Baksay, Johanna Sigurdardottir and Julia Vinez (who will join Pennsylvania Ballet this coming season).

Sometimes called the “Dance of the Reed (or Pipe) Flutes,” Bonnefoux’s rendition was a fast-moving, effervescent dance sans often-used flute props. With choreographic influences from his former boss and ballet legend George Balanchine, the 2 1/2-minute dance was full of quick-changing footwork and leg extensions.

Next was a reprise of Janes’ 2013 pas de deux “Dominant Curves” that left the audience breathless. Chautauqua’s “king of the pas de deux,” Janes originally created the piece on dancers from Richmond Ballet; it is one of his very best.

Performed by alumni dancers Anna Gerberich (Joffrey Ballet) and Pete Leo Walker (Aspen Santa Fe Ballet) to music by Osso and Sufjan Stevens, “Dominant Curves” was all about its curving movement both on the ground and in the air. Acrobatic in its myriad of beautiful and daring partnered moves that saw Walker lift Gerberich in the air and then swirl and wrap around his shirtless torso, and so thickly lacquered in grace as to defy any hint of exertion by the dancers  — such as Gerberich’s feather-like descent from a lift high over Walker’s head to delicately reach the ground — the pas de deux was the stuff ballet dreams are made of.

Switching gears, modern dance beauty then took center stage in a solo excerpt from 1969’s “Masekela Langage,” the first of two works on the program by legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey.

Inspired by the era of South African apartheid and the race-induced violence of 1960s Chicago, the solo was performed by 2006 Chautauqua alum and current dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Jacqueline Green. Driven by the soulful jazz trumpet music by Hugh Masekela, Green poured her heart out in choreography that mirrored the mood of Masekela’s music. Sometimes angry and pounding her fists on the stage floor, and sometimes appearing frightened with eyes darting about, Green’s dancing covered the breadth and width of the stage in pirouettes, leaps, and leg-extending steps that captivated both visually and spiritually.

Rounding out the program’s first half was Balanchine’s 6-minute burst of ballet fireworks, Tarantella.Staged by McBride, who debuted the pas de deux with Edward Villella in 1964, the fast-moving, folk-dance flavored piece danced to ebullient music by composer Louis Gottschalk, was performed with giddy charm by alumni Angelica Generosa (Pacific Northwest Ballet) and nearby Jamestown-native, Jordan Leeper (Atlanta Ballet).

Current Chautauqua School of Dance students perform “Walpurgisnacht (Excerpt)” at the Alumni Dance Gala Monday July 29, 2019 at the Amp. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Balanchine’s nod to the southern Italian dance meant to ward off death from a tarantula bite, was itself a killer in its exhaustive pace and non-stop virtuosic choreography dense with jumps, leaps and an obscene amount of turning steps that Generosa and Leeper adroitly performed.

While the program’s first half might have been enough to satiate many dance fans, its second half piled on even more helpings of world-class dance delights, beginning with an excerpt of the “Walpurgisnacht” scene from Balanchine’s 1975 opera production of Faust that was turned into its own ballet in 1980. The scene depicting Mephistopheles bringing Faust to watch the traditional celebration on the eve of May Day when the souls of the dead are released, was played out in dramatic fashion as 24 female teen students of Chautauqua School of Dance rushed the stage, long hair flowing behind them, in a wave that was both frantic and magnificent.

Serving as a brief look at some future alumni stars in the making, the ballet excerpt was highlighted by the performances of lead dancers Elaine Rand and Vinez, along with an eye-catching solo by the ballet’s lone male dancer, Noah Martzall.

Next, alumni and married couple Christina LaForgia and David Morse, both of Cincinnati Ballet, performed Morse’s 4 1/2-minute barn-burner, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” The pas de deux, premiered in 2016 by Charlotte Ballet and set to music by John Adams, was Morse’s contemporary ballet version of concentrated virtuosity, a la Balanchine’s Tarantella, albeit less intense.

Danced with zeal by LaForgia and Morse in spotlight, the pair ripped through pulse-quickening, back-and-forth unison choreography that sparkled.

Next came a dance treat rarely seen outside of Ailey’s two namesake dance companies, “Fix Me, Jesus” from Ailey’s iconic 1960 work Revelations. Performed by Green and special guest artist Antonio Douthit-Boyd, formerly of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the pair wowed in the spiritual duet that both dancers undoubtedly have ingrained in the very fabric of their beings from having performed it innumerable times. Dancing to traditional music of the same name, Green and Douthit-Boyd were flawless in the work’s slow, bendy steps and wonderfully rendered balancing moves. Patting at the air with their hands like the patting of a dog’s head, the work calling on the Divine for healing and salvation was itself divine.

Rounding out the program were reprises of two ballets seen in past summer seasons at Chautauqua, beginning with Mark Diamond’s “Spartacus” pas de deux.

Set to Soviet-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian’s powerhouse score for the ballet, Diamond’s choreography did its best to try and match the music’s dynamism and emotional intensity. Performed by Walker and Gerberich looking typecast in their roles as the muscular Thracian gladiator and his wife Sura, the pas de deux depicted their last morning together before he was to go off to battle. Diamond effectively filled the pas de deux with passionate embraces and tortured realizations of having to say farewell to each other — that was moving. 

A farewell of a different sort was then played out in “Hallelujah,” an excerpt from Janes’ 2015 ballet, Sketches from Grace, danced to late singer Jeff Buckley’s popular rendition of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.” Performed by Generosa and Leeper, the pas de deux combines a contemporary dance aesthetic and playfulness with the melancholy sadness of watching a home movie of a loved one whose life was cut short. The dancers lovingly performed Janes’ soft and reflective choreography that concluded with Leeper lifting a backwards arched-bodied Generosa heavenward in a final, poignant image.

Based in Painesville, Ohio, Steve Sucato is a contributing writer, critic and reporter. His work has appeared in such publications as The Plain Dealer, The Buffalo News, Pittsburgh City Paper and Dance Magazine, among others.

Guest Critic: Representation Core of ‘Reconstructing Identities’

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Review by Howard Halle-

Depending on whom you ask, sometime within the next 20 to 50 years, the United States will become a minority/majority nation. That’s basically an oxymoronic way of saying that people of color will make up the largest piece of the population pie, a prospect unsettling to the considerable segment of white Americans who voted for a president more than happy to shred the Constitution to hold back the tide.

Nonetheless, demographic change is coming, and its stubborn statistical inevitability will utterly transform American life forever. Indeed, within the realm of contemporary art, one could argue that it already has.

As proof, look no further than the Fowler-Kellogg Art Center’s current offering, “Reconstructing Identities,” curated by Erika Diamond and closing Tuesday, which presents the work of five contemporary artists of color: Sonya Clark, April D. Felipe, Roberto Lugo, Jiha Moon and Wendy Red Star. The main question it poses, “Who gets to be represented in art?” is one that has been kicking around the art world for more than 20 years. In 1993, the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted what became the most controversial edition of its signature showcase: the Biennial. It was the first major institutional exhibition — anywhere — to tackle the rise of multiculturalism and its attendant storm of identity politics. The show included a 10-minute videotape of the Rodney King beating by artist George Holliday, while another artist, Daniel J. Martinez, designed an admission button that read: “I CAN’T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE.” Needless to say, the reaction by the largely white, male critical establishment was resoundingly negative, with one — Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times — stating flatly, “I hate this show.”

There’s nothing quite as confrontational here as Martinez’s piece, though the debate it sparked still informs “Reconstructing Identities.” The show deals with, yes, identity, but also with how the Europeanized arc of history and culture might be bent to reflect an ever-diversifying society.

Case in point: a series of digital color photographs by Red Star. In them, Red Star, a Native American born in Billings, Montana, and raised on the Crow Reservation, debunks the romanticized view of Native Americans, using a play on the classical four seasons theme to expose the emptiness of Old West mythology. She poses within sets representing winter, spring, summer and fall, wearing native attire appropriate to the time of the year. Each backdrop is evidently fake, as are certain props like the inflatable plastic deer next to Red Star in her depiction of autumn. However, she subverts the artifice of each scene with her own resplendent presence, which is incontrovertibly real. Thus, she reclaims a cultural space for both herself and her heritage.

African American artist Clark deals with intractable issues surrounding race by delving into American history. Clark, a professor of art at Amherst College who is of Afro-Caribbean descent, explores the Civil War and how it continues to resonate today with a number of works, like a pair of small cases with a $5 bill laid inside each. One has the head of Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” wreathed in a huge Afro made of black fluff glued to the note. The other is entirely encrusted in translucent crystals that encase Lincoln’s image as if it were buried in ice, suggesting, perhaps, the broken promises and glacial pace of racial justice over the 150 years since slavery ended. Elsewhere, Clark presents a shelf with three small piles of yarn on it: one red, one white, one blue. They are the unraveled remains of the Stars and Bars, the former Confederate battle flag, which is now an icon of white supremacy. Here, Clark notes the irony of how this banner of hate shares the same color scheme as its emblematic opposite, Old Glory.

For Lugo, a Philadelphia native born to Puerto Rican parents, the issue of identity is bound up in his roles as potter, painter, musician and social activist. Having never received a formal art education, he is essentially self-taught, yet his bowls, plates, vases and figurines possess the ornate craftsmanship of the finest products that came out of the workshops of Ming-dynasty China or 18th-century France. His ceramics incorporate references to hip-hop and are often decorated with portraits of important personages from history and pop culture such as Frederick Douglass and rap artist, The Notorious B.I.G. In several wall-mounted medallions, Lugo evokes Luca della Robbia, the Florentine Renaissance master known for his vividly polychrome, tin-glazed terracotta statues and reliefs, with one object depicting the profile of Martin Luther King Jr., as if he were a Medici prince.

Born in Korea, Moon lives and works in Atlanta, and describes herself as a “cartographer of culture” who draws upon Eastern and Western art, as well as folk tradition, advertising and corporate design. This varied jumble of sources yields compositions that resemble phantasmagoric bouquets of symbols, including one large example recalling a kite or fan. It contains a painterly thicket of overlapping landscape and floral motifs interrupted here and there by smiley faces and Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs.

While these artists more or less tie their notion of identity specifically to race or ethnicity, another ceramicist, Felipe, ponders the more personal question, “Where do I belong?” Born in Queens to parents from the Caribbean, Felipe cites her mixed ancestry as the reason for never feeling like she belonged to any particular group, while still being regarded as a person of color. As a metaphor for the vicissitudes of finding a way to fit in, Felipe turns to the childhood tale of “The Ugly Duckling.” The story finishes with the titular character turning into a swan, but Felipe prefers a more inconclusive narrative frozen at the tipping point between duckling and swan, ugliness and beauty, social rejection and social acceptance. In one relief sculpture, Felipe imagines this developmental-limbo as a circular space shoved to one side of an expansive, irregularly shaped plaque. It’s filled with a cacophony of clashing tile patterns and occupied by a recumbent woman — possibly the artist herself — wearing a mask in the shape of a duck with a long bill. Her head and arms are plunked onto a curving green form that appears to be a plantain with the far end lopped off. She holds a long fall of hair, which seems to originate from the back of her head, though it’s hard to tell because the latter is cropped out of the picture.

The puzzling nature of this figure speaks to the larger enigma of identity and the contingent circumstances of its formation. We are all born with an identity that is at once innate and shaped by outside forces such as family, ancestry or community. Each of us is a unique being, attached by varying degree to one cohort or the other. The extent to which someone privileges the former over the latter really depends on psychology and a sense of self-worth. But it is also one of the realities of human nature that in times of duress or perceived threat, we cling more tightly to tribe — a situation that, as history teaches us, can be extremely destructive. We are living in such a moment, as the battle over who gets to be represented is being joined. “Reconstructing Identities” points to one hopeful outcome — over another that is far more dangerous.

Howard Halle is editor-at-large and chief art critic for Time Out New York.

Guest Critic: CSO and MSFO Bring Skill and Color to ‘Fiendishly Difficult Work’

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Review by Andrew Druckenbrod:

Think of the volume of a typical orchestral fortissimo and then double it. Then double it again. Now you have a good sense of the decibel level inside the Amphitheater Thursday night. The first amplification came with Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” one of the loudest works in the Western canon. The second was due to the combination of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Music School Festival Orchestra under the baton of Rossen Milanov.

The count was 164 onstage in a piece that already calls for heft, including multiple bass drums, timpani and eight horns. The musicians were elbow-to-elbow but not cramped, a reminder of how important it is that Chautauqua Institution built the new Amp. The dual concert is a significant part of the School of Music season — yet another step into professional life for the students — and the facility, with its expanded stage, did not hinder it.

Anyone who knows the level of the music students here is aware they also wouldn’t hold the concert back. And that was the case, with ensemble, pitch, phrasing — anything you want — in fine form. It was in such good taste that Milanov recognized Maria Fuller, the MSFO’s conducting fellow this summer, for her work preparing it for the concert, aided in this effort by its music director, Timothy Muffitt. But I chuckled thinking about what those in the audience who neither knew this, nor the deliberately off-kilter score of Alfred Schnittke’s “(K)ein  Sommernachtstraum” that opened the concert, thought of the performance.

Composed in the mid-1980s, the work is on one level a metaphor for lost innocence. An inviolate pseudo-Mozartean theme meets a buzz saw that sends splinters of dissonance everywhere until it returns, troubled and transformed, at the end. After the dainty theme arrives in a trio of piano, violin and flute, it fractures into what seems like the out-of-sync, out-of-tune jangle of an elementary orchestra.

“The quality of the student musicians at Chautauqua isn’t what it used to be …” If that misguided thought actually occurred, it would have been immediately recanted in the superb rendering of “The Rite of Spring” that followed. Stravinsky’s music for the ballet by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, in 1913, may not shock like it did a century ago, but its story does. Here, Schnittke’s lost innocence is replaced by the loss of an innocent, as the “Rite” is an imagined virgin sacrifice in a pagan ceremony. Stravinsky didn’t portray this in mythical terms, but exposed its brutality, one very soon to be matched in the trenches of World War I. 

Awash with strident playing and ground-pounding rhythms, “Rite” is a fiendishly difficult work. Milanov often played the role of a marching band conductor, although he wisely held back the full force of the orchestra early on to allow for intensification as it progressed. The musicians, with students and professionals sharing each desk, attacked the work’s almost capricious accents with precision and its walls of sound with clarity. The percussion and timpani players admirably led from the back in the most cacophonous moments. The strings, handling plenty of forceful down bows, were smooth and cohesive.

But one measures the success of a “Rite” performance in its quieter episodes. Here, soloists and sections, especially the horns and woodwinds, were on form and Milanov had space to craft phrases and bring out color. It all began with bassoon player Jeffrey Robinson’s glowing tone as he made quick work of the opening solo. 

Guest critic Andrew Druckenbrod is a lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Pittsburgh and the former classical music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has contributed to many music publications, including Gramophone, BBC Music and Opera News.

Guest Critic: Dancers’ Choreography Showcased in ‘Made in Charlotte,’ with ‘Unsex Me Here’ as Highlight

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Review by Steve Sucato:

Proving their exceptional July 3 “International Series” program was a hard act to follow, Charlotte Ballet’s final offering this summer, “Made in Charlotte,” on Monday night in the Amphitheater, was an up-and-down affair choreographically.

It began with a trio of ballets by Charlotte Ballet company dancers that all had their premieres this past May in Charlotte, as part of the company’s Choreographic Lab program. First to the stage was Sarah Hayes Harkins’ “Essence of Numbers,” danced to an original piano score by Ballet West music director Jared Oaks. The 12-minute contemporary ballet for eight dancers — including Hayes Harkins, who was a last-minute replacement for Amelia Sturt-Dilley — opened with the ballet’s four women, stiff as planks of wood, being held up at an angle by their four male counterparts. Costumed in all white, the four male-female couples shifted to the dancers forming same-sex partnerships for a floor-work series of steps.

Playing into its numerical title, Hayes Harkins’ deliberately incorporated into the abstract ballet equal pairings and clusters of male and female dancers throughout. And while Hayes Harkins’ sharply-angled choreography was precise, it was also less than captivating overall. The ballet’s best moments came in a pas de deux between dancers Alessandra Ball James and Josh Hall in which Ball James, in an arabesque position (supported on one leg, with the other leg extended directly behind the body with a straight knee,) appeared to stretch upward as if to touch the Amphitheater ceiling. The pas de deux then morphed into a trio with the addition of dancer Ben Ingel that saw the two men lift and flip Ball James around in various positions.

Next, Juwan Alston’s “A Road To Pieces” appeared to be a chip off “Essence of Numbers’ ” block stylistically. The 2-minute pas de deux danced by David Preciado and Hayes Harkins also hitched its wagon to being an interpretation of the music, in this case, Francis Poulenc’s “Sonata for Four Hands 1: Prelude,” and was more sharply-angled and delivered contemporary ballet movement, only performed faster.

While both these ballets by emerging choreographers had merit, if the expectation was in seeing work on a world-class level as in Charlotte Ballet’s previous “International Series” program, they, and “Made in Charlotte” overall, fell short of that.

The most surprising and interesting of the three dancer works, Chelsea Dumas’ “Sonnet 116,” the first of two Shakespearian-themed works to round out the program, came next. It was danced to recorded, atmospheric orchestral music composed by Thomas Wander and Harald Kloser that included a dramatic reading of Shakespeare’s love Sonnet 116 by Judi Dench. In terms of dance style, Dumas went in a completely different way from her colleagues, choosing a syncopated contemporary dance movement language for the work. 

A promising choreographic talent, Dumas showed a level of craft and dance maker intuition that was impressive. In the piece’s opening duet between dancers Elizabeth Truell and Peter Mazurowski, Truell moved around a mostly statue-stiff Mazurowski touching, brushing against, leaning into and embracing him without touching him. It was an unconventional, yet moving portrait of love emotionally mirroring Shakespeare’s poetic verse spoken by Dench.

Dancers Raven Barkley and Maurice Mouzon Jr. soon replaced Truell and Mazurowski in a similarly-styled duet, whose movement rhythm matched the work’s music rhythm. The cast then expanded to a group of 11 as Dench’s voiceover came to an end, leaving only the fairytale-sounding music as a tide carrying Dumas’ pleasing unison group dance choreography to work’s end, the final scene being Mouzon Jr. slowly backing away from Truell to exit as the stage lights faded to black.

After an intermission, choreographer Stephanie Martinez’s marathon 45-minute ballet “Unsex Me Here” completed the program.   

Commissioned by Charlotte Ballet and premiered last January by the company as part of their “Innovative Works” program, Martinez, along with playwright, theater and dance historian Lynne Conner dreamed up the concept and direction of the ballet which explored four of Shakespeare’s leading female characters: Juliet (Hayes Harkins), Lady Macbeth (Ball James), Titania (Sarah Lapointe) and Kate (Shaina Wire) from The Taming of the Shrew.

Titled after Lady Macbeth’s cry to the universe to be released from the gender norms of her time in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act I, scene 5), the underlying theme of “Unsex Me Here” was an exploration of gender roles and gender fluidity paralleling Shakespeare’s time with our current social climate.

Performed to music by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Bernardo Sassetti and Antonio Vivaldi, along with original music composed for the ballet by Peter De Klerk and Johnny Nevin, “Unsex Me Here” was all over the map musically, in its mix of dance movement styles (ballet, contemporary, musical theater, social) and in its level of choreographic sophistication. It felt at times haphazard, as if it were the product of several different choreographers of varying skill.

The ballet opened with Ball James as Lady Macbeth dancing in spotlight to a voiceover of her lines surrounding the ballet’s title from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Full of theatrical drama, Ball James was striking in sleek and stalking dance movement that ate up the stage in anger.

A horizontally-moving partition then crossed the stage revealing from behind it as it went, the ballet’s three other female protagonists. At first, the women danced in a gestural manner hinting at their literary identities and then in unison as a group. Martinez’s choreography for them evolved and devolved from carefully crafted technical dance phrases that showcased the women’s skill and prowess, to toss-away social dance squirmings that had them looking like recreational dancers. This dichotomy of movement sophistication would appear and disappear at times throughout the ballet.

Similar in approach to choreographer Val Caniparoli’s better known treatment of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s heroines in his 2008 ballet Ibsen’s House for San Francisco Ballet, Martinez also paired her famous female literary characters with their male counterparts from their respective stories — Romeo (Ingel), Macbeth (Rees Launer), Bottom (Mazurowski) and Petruchio (James Kopecky) — to explore their dynamics as couples.

The ballet’s characters also appeared to ping pong across time from their Shakespearean personas to perhaps those same people if they were of our time, somewhat complicating the viewing experience. And while Martinez’s choreography showed inconsistency, she managed to pack in some highly entertaining and top-notch choreographic wallops, such as a Broadway-esque, testosterone-fueled, acrobatic and competitive men’s quartet full of lifts, jumps, hoots and hollers along with several humorous sections, including Lapointe as Titania and Mazurowski as Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream dancing in character in a slapstick duet to Judy Garland’s renditions of “You Made Me Love You” and “The Trolley Song.”

Wonderfully performed by Charlotte Ballet’s dancers, “Unsex Me Here” finished with a flourish courtesy of several carefully crafted and technically dazzling pas de deuxs between the various male-female character pairings that each ended with a voiceover line by the female protagonist; those ending pas de deuxs lifting the ballet’s energy and interest, giving rise to an enthusiastic standing ovation by the lightly populated Amphitheater audience.

Based in Painesville, Ohio, Steve Sucato is a contributing writer, critic and reporter. His work has appeared in such publications as The Plain Dealer, The Buffalo News, Pittsburgh City Paper and Dance Magazine, among others.

Guest Critic: Works in Patton’s ‘Lineages in Bloom,’ Closing Monday, ‘Possess a Gothic Floridity’

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Works by artist Daisy Patton are displayed Sunday, June 23, 2019 in her exhibition Lineages in Bloom: New Works by Daisy Patton in Strohl Art Center. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR
Review by Howard Halle:

In his seminal treatise, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes notes that photography’s power to fix a subject in seeming perpetuity links the medium to death. For example, he calls the photo “a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead,” a form of stasis that makes an image seem alive in the present, when in fact, it records the past, or a “this-has-been” already lost in time.

So, if photography represents “a kind of abrupt dive into literal death,” as Barthes also writes, Daisy Patton’s current show, “Lineages in Bloom,” in the Strohl Art Center’s Arnold and Jill Bellowe Family Gallery, could be described as a long-forgotten graveyard overgrown with the foliage of untended memory. Patton, who cites Barthes as an influence, presents 22 photographic portraits of women, each overpainted with stylized flowers whose petals and winding stems creep and crawl across the photo, framing and obscuring the person underneath. Perfumed with decay, the images possess a gothic floridity not unlike that of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who teased intimations of mortality out of glossy renderings of legendary figures such as Proserpine and Ophelia.

But while Rossetti drew inspiration from Roman mythology and Shakespeare, Patton locates hers in old photographs sourced from eBay, thrift stores and antique shops. Here, they are hung in an array of anonymous mothers, wives, daughters, etc., varying in age, ethnicity and race. Judging from the quality of the originals, the images appear to date from the era before digital cameras, primarily from the early to mid-20th century. Sporting reflexive smiles, Patton’s subjects stare at you like ghosts haunting family snapshots in which familial bonds have long since dissolved.

Having rescued these images from a musty purgatory, Patton reproduces them as prints laminated to a board-like substrate called Dibond. She then applies pigment in thick brush strokes that fill in backgrounds and articles of clothing, though she reserves a lighter touch to cover faces with transparent veils of color. The profusion of flora curtaining the compositions are limned in precise outlines with raised textures (which are sometimes bolstered with abstract dots and dashes). But there is no discernible relationship between plant and subject — or, for that matter, between flower and nature, as Patton’s designs are based on late-19th-century wallpaper patterns, particularly those by William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement.

These surreal trellises could be construed as an attempt to deflect the temptation to connect with the pieces nostalgically, and they succeed up to a point: The bold overlay of blossoms is the first thing you notice about the work, after all, but there are other components within the images that allow you to gauge their vintage, and perhaps stir a sense of longing. These include dress, obviously, but also another — previously mentioned — element linked to photography itself: film. There are examples of images taken as daguerreotypes and Polaroids, or with cameras such as the Brownie and Instamatic, all marking the leap from black-and-white to color that divides the first and second halves of the 20th century.

Somehow, within this larger frame of history, Patton attempts to reconstruct the specific families attached to these images — and maybe the idea of family itself — by superimposing untethered memories onto our own. The remembrance of things past, however, can be a slippery business, and in this respect it is worth noting something Marcel Proust, Barthes’ compatriot, wrote on the subject: “The images selected by memory are as arbitrary, as narrow, as elusive as those which the imagination had formed and reality has destroyed.” Patton’s work acknowledges as much, but wishes it weren’t so.

Howard Halle is editor-at-large and chief art critic for Time Out New York.

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