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Guest Critic Reviews

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

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ZACHARY LEWIS – GUEST CRITIC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ZACHARY LEWIS – GUEST CRITIC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ladies first, to be polite. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ZACHARY LEWIS – GUEST CRITIC 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ZACHARY LEWIS – GUEST CRITIC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ZACHARY LEWIS – GUEST CRITIC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ANDREW DRUCKENBROD – GUEST CRITIC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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