Guest Critic Reviews

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

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


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’

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’

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

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’

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.

Guest Critic: In ‘Midsummer’ Inter-Arts Collaboration, CSO Provides ‘Bedrock’ for Students to ‘Flourish’

Review by Andrew Druckenbrod:

Puck’s famous epilogue at the end of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream apologizing if the play offended the audience is, of course, tongue-in-cheek. But after a sometimes goofy, often elegant but all-together pleasing multidiscipline production of Mendelssohn’s celebrated setting in the Amphitheater Tuesday night, it almost itself offended. After all, the audience witnessed — sometimes quite close-up — a frenetic and funny take on the classic by student performers that needed no apology.

With most of the performances in the Amp from artists in their prime (or at least well-known), here were performers of the future from Chautauqua Theater Company, School of Music Voice Program and School of Dance. The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra under Rossen Milanov formed a bedrock upon which the students could flourish, but they hit marks, often doubly so. The smart solution by co-directors Andrew Borba and Sarah Elizabeth Wansley to get all the young performers involved was to pair dancers and actors in many roles.

This strategy meant Puck stole the show twice as much as usual. Actress Kayla Kearney shared the role with ballerino Jack Grohmann. She channeled Mary Martin’s Peter Pan while he emphasized Puck’s impish side. Likewise, with mischievousness of their own, the dancers mirrored the actions of the actors, the lovers Demetrius, Helena, Lysander and Hermia. This clever mix of classic ballet technique and whimsical choreography shined in the scene when Puck sends the lovers into deep sleep.

Borne with, shall we say, a puckish modern translation by Avenue Q librettist Jeff Whitty, the young actors embodied the high school drama of the magically misdirected Athenian lovers, anchored by an appropriately self-assured Oberon. Sharp performances by all, but alas names were not attached to characters in the program. At one point, the frustration of the confused Athenians leads to a mad dash of singers and dancers throughout the audience. With the barest of sets, Dixon Reynolds’ costumes stepped in with eclectic and eccentric designs, from modern suits to matching T-shirts. I particularly liked the contrast between Lysander’s Chippendale look and Demetrius’ frumpy dad outfit, and Kearney’s bright green overall shorts were a deft touch.

My own apologia for not getting to the musical performances sooner. The singers from the Voice Program impressed, especially when joined together in the chorus, “You spotted snakes with double tongue.” With the focus on the development of the voice, by its nature an individual matter, blending by opera singers is not assured. It was nice to know the teachers here work on that, as well. That is not to say the soloists disappointed. To the contrary, they phrased well, displaying voices already rich but well on their way to fulfilling the potential that comes later to opera singers.

The CSO played gracefully, with lightness and precision in the elven music and with warmth and bloom in the full sections that followed. This is hardly difficult music for a professional orchestra, but Milanov crafted phrases with aplomb and the balance was excellent in the overture and incidental music alike.

VBO: ‘Music set ablaze’

A special secret about Chautauqua Institution is the chamber music performances that dot each week, usually during the day. Monday brought the smaller, but potent Venice Baroque Orchestra to Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall in a fiery performance that belied the undeserved notion that baroque music is background or church music.

The 15 string, harpsichord and lute players threw the gauntlet down at the onset with dynamic, well, dynamics as a diminuendo arrived so shockingly quick in the very first phrase. That was in a sinfonia from Vivaldi’s opera, L’Olimpiade, that ended with the 18th-century version of thrashing rock. A glorious treatment of the delicate opening to George Frideric Handel’s G-major concerto grosso, from his opus 6 set, progressed to clear soli phrasing and crisp tutti articulation.

Things got more wonderfully intense as the concert progressed, from bow strokes both bouncing and biting to furious, theatrical playing. A Vivaldi violin concerto in E minor brought the virtuosity of concertmaster Gianpiero Zanocco to the fore, and he led the charge in an electric and downright rowdy performance of Francesco Geminiani’s “La Follia.” Vivaldi’s C-major recorder concerto had violinist Anna Fusek pick up a soprano recorder for a lively end to the concert. Yes, there were many moments of exquisite — and quiet — music, but the overall impression was that of music set ablaze.

Andrew Druckenbrod is a lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Pittsburgh and former classical music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Guest Critic: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre & CSO Bring ‘Pastiche of Styles, Ideas’ to ‘Sleeping Beauty’


Guest Critic: Jane Vranish

To put it succinctly, you could say Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s latest appearance in the Amphitheater was a “gem” of a program. George Balanchine’s “Rubies,” the opening work on Saturday night, was the centerpiece of his full-length abstract ballet, Jewels (1967). And jewels themselves took a prominent human role in the aristocratic court of The Sleeping Beauty highlights, where “Precious Jewels Pas de Cinq” wove a dance crown of Diamond, Opal, Ruby, Gold and Silver variations in the third act.

But the connections didn’t end there. Of course, Sleeping Beauty is arguably the quintessential Russian pinnacle of the classical ballet lexicon for the purity of technique and line that it demands. Balanchine’s “Rubies,” on the other hand, is considered part of his neoclassical style, where ballet serves as the foundation, but adding dangerous angles, more speed and amplified leg extensions to an American jazz-like experience.

Actually this American-Russian connection is the kind we would like to see more of, but something that doesn’t often happen in the current political climate. As it was, the audience could pleasantly uncover other links throughout the program as they toyed with the festival atmosphere that this evening provided — entertaining, yet satisfyingly artistic.

It’s well-known that Balanchine choreographed “Rubies” for Chautauqua’s own Patricia McBride and partner Edward Villella (who went on to successfully found the Miami City Ballet) to take advantage of their exuberant onstage personalities. And it turned out, PBT performed for the dance icon herself, who happened to be sitting in the audience.

The cast, led by JoAnna Schmidt and William Moore, took advantage of the playful overtones. Schmidt, in particular, usually a neat, quiet little dancer, surprisingly became downright frisky, throwing her legs higher than usual and plunging full tilt into a penche arabesque at 180 degrees, all in Moore’s attentive hands.
JoAnna Schmidt from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performs “Sleeping Beauty” Saturday, July 13, 2019, in the Amphitheater. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The second lead, usually for a tall dancer (such juicy roles are few and far between), perhaps echoed the sinuous Siren in Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” (1929). Marisa Grywalski filled the bill here. With exquisite proportions similar to dancers from the Kirov Ballet (another Russian connection), she has been unable to trust her considerable talents thus far.

This was the first time she truly began to commit to the movement, using a new-found strength to charge toward the audience and repeatedly stab the floor. But the most striking aspect, especially in terms of this program, was the sequence where four men manipulated her limbs, perhaps an extension of the Rose Adagio that followed later in “Beauty.” As a bonus, McBride mentioned afterward that she was enamored with Grywalski’s performance and gave her own enthusiastic approval to the cast as a whole. However, the groups could have provided a cherry on top if McBride could have rehearsed the cast, even if briefly.

Maybe in a perfect dance world …

This “Game Night at the Ballet” continued as viewers could find a tiara here and a necklace there in the formations. And tucked into Russian-born Igor Stravinsky’s musical score, so superbly led by conductor Rossen Milanov, were many jazz inflections swirling around the percussive authority of solo pianist William Wolfram, who served as the heartbeat of the ballet.

As it turned out, Wolfram has had a long history with Pittsburgh, where he has performed more than a dozen times over the years, including several occasions with PBT in “Rubies.” And he has an even longer history with artistic director Terrence Orr, going back to work with choreographer Agnes de Mille, so much so that this became a reunion of sorts.

But on to The Sleeping Beauty, here a pastiche of styles and ideas. Gone were the mime sequences. What was left was the purity of the dance. It was confusing, however, since Orr decided, given that the story was gone with the wind, to use no less than three Auroras, imbuing this particular “Beauty” with an aura of multiple personalities.

So let’s address that aspect. Amanda Cochrane was first out of the gate, the youthful Aurora celebrating her birthday. She is the most daring of PBT’s top ballerinas and received the famous Rose Adagio as her reward.

Confidently balancing en pointe in no less than two of classical ballet’s most precarious sequences, Cochrane maintained a serene center, supported, in a way, by the dramatic swelling in the orchestra, so important and wonderfully amplified in the pit. In fact, she didn’t even need her final suitor, electing to change balance poses on her own.

Hannah Carter took on the vision sequence in addition to the Lilac Fairy role (more confusion). It was well-suited to her sublime, ethereal nature, but simply consisted of the solo section, too brief and too subdued to make much of an impact. Kudos, however, to Yoshiaki Nakano for a star turn in Prince Désiré’s solo.

So it remained for Alexandra Kochis and Luca Sbrizzi to tackle the grand pas de deux, a pillar of classicism. Certainly this couple symbolizes that in the company — noted, as they are, for pristine technique. Although they met the considerable challenges, their splendid control tended to soften the awe-inspiring effect that this piece generally provides at the end.

In this abstract format, The Sleeping Beauty provided its own dance jewelry throughout as it, for the most part, highlighted PBT’s female dance contingent. The fairies, in particular, have come a long way. Once upon a time, they merely executed Marius Petipa’s choreography steps in diligent student fashion. On Saturday night they displayed a sparkling individuality, particularly Jessica McCann (Fairy of Song), who has never disappointed whether comic or classical, and technical powerhouse Tommie Kesten (Fairy of Energy).

Of course, the wedding act can stand on its own and often does. Even without their masks, Victoria Watford and Corey Bourbonniere delighted as the lively Puss ’n Boots.

The Bluebird Pas de Deux is generally treated as a feature for principal dancers. Jumping specialist Masahiro Haneji and, once again, McCann — who almost made this into a lovebird duet as she connected with her partner — elevated the third act with their bravura approach.
From left, Diana Yohe and Masahiro Haneji perform during the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “Sleeping Beauty” Saturday, July 13, 2019, in the Amphitheater. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

And one can’t forget the students from the Chautauqua School of Dance, who brought a fresh-faced Balanchine approach to the Mazurka and Waltz of the Flowers. Obviously they were stylistically different from PBT with their exuberant movement and the cut-flower porte bras that Balanchine favored. But they offered a rare comparison within the confines of an evening performance.

On the whole, this program symbolized the direction in which Chautauqua is headed. The Institution, under the programming vision of Deborah Sunya Moore, is retaining its popular festival atmosphere, but with programs that offer even more substance for its audiences.

Saturday evening seemed like an “A-list” of artists, with PBT in good form, Milanov there to supervise the musical end — he obviously provides a disciplined control with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, which has never sounded better — and Wolfram, a welcome virtuosic touch. This kind of planning will undoubtedly take Chautauqua Institution to a new level.

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

Guest Column: The Social Context of Aging ‘Unpacking the Myths & Stereotypes’


Guest Column: Kate De Medeiros 


For the first time in human history, more people in the world are aged 60 and over than under age 5. Although this shift in age structure is a direct credit to the success of public health efforts — clean water, vaccinations, reproduction education — it has been met with alarmism and misunderstanding. Phrases like “gray tsunami,” which link aging populations to devastating outcomes; zombie metaphors that characterize older persons as endless consumers of scarce resources such as health care; or works such as Zeke Emanuel’s controversial 2014 essay in The Atlantic titled “Why I Want to Die at 75” unfairly and inaccurately misrepresent both the great heterogeneity in older persons and the potential benefits or demographic dividends in aging societies. In reflecting upon Week Four’s lecture series exploring longer, fulsome lives, I therefore raise some points to consider on how social contexts shape how we think about later life. 

In social gerontology (a social science discipline that explores structures and policies affecting the experience of growing old), we describe aging as a social construction of a biological phenomenon. Social rules (for example, at what age is a person entitled to certain rights and privileges?) and values imbue physical change and the passage of time with meaning. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, for example, originally established age 70 as the official retirement age in his newly created welfare state in the 19th century, eventually lowering it later to age 65. Why 65? It was simply an age where he saw a sharp decline in the number of citizens making his program more affordable to administer. Even though researchers know that chronological age is a poor predictor of many things, and that nothing magically changes in people when they turn 65, 65 still stands out as the marker of “old age” in many countries. In countries like Thailand, where the mandatory retirement age is lower, age 60 is considered “old,” even though people there can expect to live 25 more years than that on average — or more. That leads to my first point to consider: What determines when a person becomes “old” and why?

Additionally, ageism, or the devaluation of people because of their perceived age, is another important consideration. Ageist practices — toward others or ourselves — emphasize the idea that aging is bad. Examples of ageist practices include phrases such as “young lady” to a person that is clearly not young, which actually emphasizes the point that the speaker thinks the person is old; self-deprecating humor such as “I’m having a senior moment,” that serves as a type of apology for aging; birthday cards meant to shame a person for getting older; or even using the term “elderly” to categorize a large group of people as frail and/or helpless based on chronological age. Aging activists such as Ashton Applewhite have called ageism the last socially accepted form of discrimination today, actively calling out ageist practices in media and on social platforms. Points here to think about include: Do ageist practices and attitudes cloud our views on what it means to grow old? Are there social risks in claiming old age as an identity? 

Finally, there are misconceptions regarding life expectancy and lifespan, which present a skewed picture of what the shift in age structure means. Life expectancy at birth describes the average number of years that a person born in a given year and given place could expect to live. Lifespan is the theoretical maximum number of years that a given species can live. In the United States, life expectancy at birth changed from around 50 years in the 1900s to around 78 years in 2019. Lifespan has remained the same — 120 years. As an average, life expectancy at birth was low at the turn of the 20th century due to high mortality rates (only 1 in 5 children on average survived past age 5). A life expectancy at birth of age 50 didn’t mean that few people lived to be older than 50, but rather fewer people survived childhood to reach old age. Recently, the United States has seen a decline in life expectancy at birth because of the opioid epidemic. In addition to declining infant mortality, fertility rates have also declined. In many countries such as Germany, birth rates are well below population replacement rates, leading to overall population decline and aging. Understanding the differences between life expectancy and lifespan is important in dispelling the myth that people are surviving longer due to extreme measures in health care or technologies that push human life past its “natural” limits. There are not large groups of older persons living on life support or living in nursing homes (fewer than 4% of people age 65 and over in the United States are nursing home residents). Instead, breakthroughs in cancer treatments, for example, have allowed people who may have died at a younger age to live longer. For some, added years mean added risk for other chronic conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, or for a fall that might cause a hip fracture. Given the full picture of life expectancy and lifespan, some points to consider include: How is older age being portrayed regarding health care and health care expenditures? Are there key aspects that are being overlooked or under-emphasized?

As the Week Four lectures present a variety of perspectives on longevity — including talks centered on policies and aging, health disparities, frailty, technology and spiritual aspects of later life, I encourage everyone to think deeply on what shapes their own attitudes toward aging and later life, to challenge stereotypes they may have about what it means to grow old, and to consider what they can do to positively change the social contexts that frame old age.

Kate de Medeiros is the O’Toole Family Professor of Gerontology at Miami University of Ohio, where her research interests are concerned with cultural structures affecting the experience of aging and the construction of self, such as autobiographical writing, as well as personhood in people with dementia. She is one of three Miami faculty on the grounds during the 2019 season as part of a Faculty Fellow program made possible by a philanthropic gift aiming to expand dialogue beyond the confines of Chautauqua in the tradition of the Chautauqua movement, as envisioned by its founders. She will lead post-10:45 a.m. lecture conversations at 12:30 p.m. today in Smith Wilkes Hall and Thursday in the Hall of Christ.

Guest Critic: Chautauqua Opera Offers Vibrant and Timely Mozart Adaptation ‘¡Figaro! (90210)’

062619_¡Figaro! (90210)_MS_08
  • Jesús Vicente Murillo performs as Figaro during the Chautauqua Opera Company’s dress rehearsal of "¡Figaro! (90210)" on Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Norton Hall. The opera opens June 28, and will continue through July 26. MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Review by David Shengold-

Chautauqua Opera Company has been a key cultural feature of the Institution since 1929 — ranking it among the very oldest companies in North America. From the start, young singers performing here — both in leading roles and as Young Artists at various levels — have gone on to significant careers at the Metropolitan Opera House, in concert life and even in Hollywood. The lovely mezzo-soprano Gladys Swarthout, who took a featured role in 1929’s Faust, did all three. Plus, Chautauqua attendees, both new to opera and fans of it, have had ample chances to enjoy a varied banquet of the hybrid form’s great works.

¡Figaro! (90210), at Norton Hall, may challenge traditional opera-goers, but it may delight or at the very least intrigue them; it certainly would provide a lively introduction to the operatic universe for millennials and Generation Xers. Based on Mozart’s staggeringly lively and tuneful The Marriage of Figaro — by many estimates the most perfect comic opera ever written, this show conceived and adapted by Vid Guerrerio’s opened to acclaim in Los Angeles in 2015. Using cell phones, a framework of exploitation of Mexican immigrants and a salty mix of Spanglish, street language and contemporary references, the adapted libretto — in places brilliantly reimagined, in places rhythmically apt doggerel — addresses major questions about nationalism and identity. Remarkably, this adapted work was developed before the Donald Trump candidacy and administration’s all-out assault on Mexican immigration. Yet the issues portrayed — though treated with an admixture of humor befitting the source — could scarcely be more timely.

Chautauqua’s general and artistic director since the 2016 season, conductor Steven Osgood, has made some substantive changes in the program. The Norton Hall shows have longer runs — ¡Figaro! (90210) plays five times, with additional performances at 7 p.m. Sunday, and at 4 p.m. Friday, July 26. Also, seasons now have a conceptual unity. This summer’s operas are all associated with French author and polymath Pierre Beaumarchais, specifically his trilogy of “Figaro” plays, set in then-contemporary Spain and centering around a figure like the author himself: a sub-aristocratic (his surname’s “de” came to be added later, through considerable conniving), clever operator forced to rely on his own wits to contend with — and sometimes outwit — his social superiors. The trilogy includes The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother.

When the second Beaumarchais play was still proscribed in France for its revolutionary sentiments, it obtained Viennese performance in Mozart’s version in 1786. This was largely due to the connections and libretto of the Veneto-born Lorenzo da Ponte, whose career outdid even Beaumarchais in variety and ingenuity: priest (despite his Jewish origins), teacher, diplomat, Viennese court poet, librettist, grocer (in Philadelphia), founder of Columbia University’s Italian Department and one of New York’s first operatic impresarios. An opera about da Ponte’s varied activity has appeared: Tarik O’Regan’s The Phoenix, unveiled this past season at Houston Grand Opera. Meanwhile, Beaumarchais himself plays a key role in John Corigliano’s 1991 The Ghosts of Versailles, which riffs on The Guilty Mother and comes to Chautauqua Saturday, July 27, in the Amphitheater.

Whether dealing with Beverly Hills or the original Andalusia, director Eric Einhorn has much experience with the Figaro characters, having directed for New York City’s On Site Opera many works inspired by the Beaumarchais trilogy, including Giovanni Paisiello’s initially popular Il Barbiere di Siviglia (later eclipsed by Rossini’s “Looney Toons”-cited classic, also in this summer’s repertory locally) and Darius Milhaud’s thorny La Mère Coupable. Einhorn certainly got his cast to explore the ambiguities and complexities of their identities and interrelations, even when Guerrerio’s update gets raunchy. (The “good guys,” the persecuted immigrants, themselves unleash racist epithets like “dragon lady” in relation to Marcellina, here “Ms. Soon Yi-Nam,” an exploitative trafficker and sweatshop boss). The spare design elements are all apt, with B.G. FitzGerald’s costumes particularly well observed. I regretted only Einhorn’s having the four conspirators against Susana and Figaro’s marriage indulge in the hoary provincial trope of “funny steps” in the brief dance rhythm section of Act II’s sublime final sextet.

The adaptation deploys a chamber group: the excellent pianist Emily Jarrell Urbanek and five accomplished string players (though perhaps due to humidity, the key violins sometimes veered a little sharp). Conductor Jorge Parodi led with verve and maintained good coordination with the stage — which was not always the case with the projected titles, a difficult task in this particular production.

As the undocumented — thus, at-risk — Susana, Laura León showed the sunny lyric soprano flow and ingratiating feisty persistence for the character. The occasional top note splayed slightly, but her performance — verbally keen in both Spanish and English — gave considerable pleasure. Jesús Vicente Murillo’s Figaro worked hard to please but seemed too affable; maybe his professions of being “street” and “dangerous” are meant to be self-deceptive? His bass didn’t always carry into the hall and got rather shouty on exposed top phrases. Matthew Cossack showed excellent diction, good legato and a smooth baritone as the lustful tycoon Paul Conti (also known as Count Almaviva). Guerrerio’s text smartly shows the character’s hypocritical sense of himself as a liberal, yielding easily to nativism (“Why can’t they speak English?”) when crossed.

The put-upon Countess is “Roxanne Conti,” an actress stalled in her career. Despite grotesque plastic surgery jokes (“Christ, I look like the Bride of the Mummy”) that contradict the spirit of Mozart’s music, the rich-toned Lauren Yokabaskas managed the famously testing entrance aria with dignity. Roxanne’s worries about being washed up at 40 seemed puzzling when the very handsome soprano looks to be at most 27, but perhaps one can ascribe that to the Los Angeles ethos that pervades Guerrerio’s revised text (lunch in Brentwood substituted for hunting). Be warned: “Dove sono” loses its recitative, repeat section and final trilled cadenza, and Susana and Roxanne’s beautiful “Letter Duet” — very wittily restyled as having the latter sext her own husband on the former’s cell phone — also drops its repeat. But the unconventional use made of Susana’s sublime final aria (no spoiler here) proved highly thematically relevant and moving.

The Count’s randy aristocratic page Cherubino, a female role traditionally, is here the 17-year-old wanna-be rapper Li’l B Man (also known as “Bernard”), a protégé of Conti’s who is getting on his nerves. If you know Cherubino’s two arias, it just grates to hear them in the tenor compass — not the fault of the show’s engaging performer, Sidney Ragland, who has an earnest, nimble music-theater style instrument, but the registration is just wrong. Scholars have sometimes posited that a third Cherubino aria may have been lost, so this edition reprises his love song (“Voi che sapete” in the original) to the teenage “Barbara,” here the Contis’ daughter than their gardener’s child. What initially is a typically misogynist rap becomes a sincere profession of admiration, a smart character arc for Li’l B Man — whom Barbara pegs as being “more bougie” even than her privileged self. Natalie Trumm acts the adolescent angst winningly, her nice dark lyric instrument sounding like a future Susana: exactly right. Another standout was dashing, sonorous bass Edwin Joseph as the sinister gangster Babayan (Dr. Bartolo), who proves to be Figaro’s father; Joseph seemed a good candidate for singing Figaro himself.

¡Figaro! (90210) will surely provoke discussions among those familiar with The Marriage of Figaro, and maybe desire among newbies to explore the original. Perhaps it’s important to recall that the “traditional” original has a wide history of being adapted and presented in different historical contexts. Former bad-boy director Peter Sellars Mozart’s trio of da Ponte-scripted works (the other two being Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte), all deal in some measure with class relations and their erotic complications. Sellars’ vision of a sleazy Manhattan millionaire abusing his servants was hailed as “the Trump Tower Figaro” years before Trump rose to national attention as the (putative) business wiz of “The Apprentice.” That version of The Marriage of Figaro, filmed in 1990, can be viewed on DVD. Two other appreciable versions to sample: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s sumptuous post-dubbed film led by Karl Böhm with an all-star cast and Claus Guth’s psychologically acute, visually updated — think Eurotrash — 2006 Salzburg staging under Nikolaus Harnoncourt with Anna Netrebko as Susanna. The Metropolitan’s current production by Richard Eyre, on view next season with Chautauqua Opera alumna Elizabeth Bishop as Marcellina, takes inspiration and aesthetic from Jean Renoir’s great pre-World War II film, “The Rules of The Game.”

A Philadelphia-based arts critic, David Shengold has written for Opera News, Opera (London), Opéra Magazine (Paris), Classical Voice North America and Time Out New York, among many venues. He has contributed program essays to the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Covent Garden and the Glyndebourne and Wexford Festivals programs and lectured for NYCO, Glimmerglass Festival and Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre. He has taught on opera, literature and cultural history at Oberlin, Mount Holyoke and Williams Colleges.

Guest Critic: ‘Small Sculptures’ Exhibit, On Display Through Tuesday, Expands Definition of Term

  • "The Shipwreck Ceramics" collection by Stephanie Kantor is displayed as part of the Small Sculptures: Big Impact exhibition at the Strohl Art Center Monday, June 17, 2019. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Review by Vicky A. Clark-

Two of the three exhibitions at the Strohl Art Center celebrate variety. Choosing broad categories as her organizing principle gave Judy Barie, the Susan and John Turbin Director of VACI Galleries, the freedom to mix and match small sculptures in one and works on paper in the other, highlighting different approaches and materials. This diversity is especially evident in “Small Sculptures: Big Impact.”

There is something for everyone in this show from colorful glass vessels to formal arrangements of geometric shapes; from ritualistic ceramic pots to narratives captured in small capsules. The success of the show is aided by an installation that allows for an initial impression of the group, but then allows each object to stand on its own. While weighed heavily toward clay and glass, the objects are quite different in intent, technique and form, making for a fun show.

Bringing an “Alice in Wonderland” magic to ceramic and porcelain pieces is Korean-born Ahrong Kim. In “Let it Rain,” she stacks three faces, a human with a brightly flowered hat, a dog — don’t miss its backside — and a sad figure in a boat wiping away tears. A large, puffy rain cloud hovers over it. What does this odd juxtaposition mean? Has something happened to the dog or the human? Who knows? The piece is like a dream without a clear narrative, allowing for an imaginative interpretation. Kim works from her own emotions, “the voices we hear from inside,” to create a visual diary. Similar cartoony characters with bright accents populate her other pieces. She adds decorative objects and patterns, but this patchwork effect actually derives from a traditional Korean fabric technique, jogakbo, where scraps are reclaimed and reused to create new cloth. Kim melds both aesthetic and narrative disparities into fun, innovative pieces reminiscent of fairy tales and literature with pop-cartoon characters in cross-cultural improvisation.

While Kim imagines personal, emotional states, John Sharvin, who lives and works in Pittsburgh, imagines different worlds in his small-scale dioramas in glass capsules. He is fascinated by memories, real and imagined; and his pieces, like Kim’s, require close looking. “Crystal Dream Capsule” contains two competing landscapes separated by a wooden disk. Like an hourglass, it is tempting to turn the sculpture upside down, and interestingly in 2011, Sharvin made a series of hourglass pieces filled with sand. While the upper part contains miniature trees, the lower part resembles a cave with crystal formations that could be stalagmites or stalactites, depending on your orientation. Spelunking figures — two tiny HO railroad figures — animate the scene, adding a dose of storytelling. Despite calling this a dreamscape, Sharvin based his piece on an actual crystal cave he read about in National Geographic, so he is combining fact and fiction in a fun narrative.

The artist has a great sense of humor in “Scenic Overlook,” which features a glass upper torso that supports a tiny deck where a man, another HO figure, sits on a tiny bench. He reflects on nature, perhaps contemplating how small he is in this “natural” world, by enjoying the view of trees that sprout from the head and shoulders of the torso.

Sharvin’s ability to fabricate small glass objects to combine with the HO figures adds even more interest. His capsules become miniature natural history dioramas, containing a hint of social history or scientific presentation. By mixing the real and the imagined, he makes us think about the relationship between fact and fiction while we marvel at his inventiveness.

Sharif Bey brings a whole other level of meaning to his work in the show. His two “Ceremonial Vessels” speak to ideas of power and history, especially by referencing the contested history of the colonization of Africa. His vessels begin life as typical vase-like forms that are then pierced with shards, creating a rough surface that hints at danger. The smooth, stylized bird atop the pieces is elegant in contrast, and the two parts suggest the sky over earth. Bey brings his interest in African ritual vessels to his work, referencing both personal identity and a cultural collective in objects of power and ritual. These kinds of objects, usually seen out of their original context in museum and private collections, have a contested history. Prized by colonizers and traders, they were stripped from their original use to become consumer goods, materialistic possessions, paralleling the power imbalance of colonization. Artists like Bey are influenced by that history as they reclaim the forms as part of black culture. In other works, he was influenced by the popular Central African nail fetish figures, joining artists such as Renée Stout, Vanessa German and Pascale Marthine Tayou in making artifacts for a new generation. His work could easily have placed in another Chautauqua exhibition, “Reconstructing Identities.”

Bey grew up in an African American family in Pittsburgh, and earned a doctorate with a dissertation titled, “Aaron Douglas and Hale Woodruff: The Social Responsibility and Expanded Pedagogy of the Black Artist.” He brings his understanding of race and global politics to not only his art but also to his teaching at Syracuse University, and he uses his knowledge to add an ideological rigor to the work in this show.

An interesting aspect of this exhibition is the title itself. Some of the work would usually be seen in a craft context while other pieces question the boundaries of traditional craft forms. Some works look and feel like sculpture on a small scale. This leaves open the definitions of sculpture and craft. These categories have been questioned and stretched for the last half century, and the gap between art and craft in general is slowly narrowing. By including such a variety of work in this show and using the word “sculpture,” Barie seems to advocate for an expansion of the definition. Many curators would have used the more generalized category of “objects,” so her choice is interesting. These terms, like almost every aspect of contemporary art, are undergoing a critical reevaluation, something that adds another level of interest to this show. 

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.

JCT Trio Joins CSO and Rossen Milanov in Trio of Works Celebrating Natural World

Members of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra with conductor Rossen Milanov perform Bedřich Smetana’s composition From Bohemian Forests and Meadows Tuesday, July 9, 2019 in the Amphitheter. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Review by Christopher H. Gibbs:

Chautauqua Institution is uniquely positioned to connect various aspects of its programming over the course of a day, week or summer. The theme of the morning lectures this past week has been “A Planet in Balance,” presented in partnership with National Geographic Society, and on Tuesday evening, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra took the opportunity to make some connections between nature and music. Because the concert was part of the “Into the Music/After the Music” series, Music Director Rossen Milanov spoke briefly before the first two compositions to explain some of the intersections.

The concert opened with the marvelous “Cantus Arcticus” by the eminent Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. For much of the 20th century, audience’s principal association of music and Finland was most likely the towering figure of Jean Sibelius. But in recent decades, the phenomenally active musical life of this small nation has vastly expanded as conductors, singers and instrumentalists crowd the world stage and composers like Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen attract ever greater acclaim. Rautavaara, who died in 2016 at age 87, was the elder statesman of the group.

Sibelius himself was the one who selected the young Rautavaara to come to America in the 1950s to study at Tanglewood and Juilliard. Like Sibelius, Rautavaara was deeply connected to the landscape and soundscape of Finland. In 1972, he composed “Cantus Arcticus: A Concerto for Birds and Orchestra,” which went on to become his most-frequently performed and popular piece.

From the Middle Ages to the present day, composers’ attraction to birds seems natural — because it is. While most worldly depictions in music are not immediately obvious (how often, really, do we recognize a particular story in a programmatic work unless we are tipped off by a title or program note?), nature’s own melodists pose few such problems. Whether in a Renaissance madrigal, a Haydn string quartet, a Beethoven or Mahler symphony, or a Wagner opera, bird songs and calls stand out. Some composers — the great French composer Olivier Messiaen, most notably — present these sounds with almost scientific accuracy. Recordings in the modern age expanded the possibilities. In his “Pines of Rome,” Ottorino Respighi introduced a quite extraordinary innovation for the mid-1920s: a phonograph recording of a nightingale.

“Cantus Arcticus” makes use of taped birds, chance techniques and a harmonic language of extraordinary beauty. In three slow movements lasting some 20 minutes, the recorded birds heard on tape are imitated by the instruments of the orchestra. The evocative piece needs to be heard live to appreciate fully the interaction between recorded sound and live orchestra. The Amphitheater is the perfect place to encounter such a piece, connected as it is so organically to nature (granted, we more often hear barking dogs than chirping birds as ambient sound in the Amp, but the open-air setting nonetheless places everyone within a natural space). The CSO is playing extremely well this summer, and under Milanov presented the majestic work most effectively.

The fantastic Nordic landscape then shifted to a Bohemian one: the fourth symphonic poem of Bedřich Smetana’s six-part orchestral masterpiece “Má vlast” (My Country). Although Smetana is generally recognized as the first great Czech Romantic composer (he was born nearly two decades before Antonín Dvořák), much of his aesthetic was actually German — Franz Liszt served as his mentor and model. “Má vlast” displays his native Czech roots as well as his Germanic musical inclinations. Liszt was a pioneer in the single-movement symphonic poem, but I don’t think any of the 13 he composed quite match the six of “Má vlast” in their seamless exploration of different moods.

Vltava (Die Moldau in German) — the cycle’s second part that depicts the river running through the heart of the Czech lands — is much better known than its companion pieces that altogether touch on various aspects of the country’s vistas, history and mythology. What the CSO performed — “From Bohemia’s Forests and Meadows” — is the one most related to nature, to what Smetana called “the rich and beautiful land of Bohemia.” Milanov led a well-balanced and joyous performance, especially in the polka section near the end.

An obvious way to conclude the program would have been with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, but Milanov chose a less familiar piece by the composer — the Triple Concerto — and delivered a spirited performance with three terrific young soloists known as the JCT Trio. Although the concerto has no overt connection with nature, Beethoven was one of those composers (Mahler was another) for whom nature was crucial to his existence and creative process. He once remarked in a letter: “No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees and rocks produce the echo which man desires to hear,” and he despaired when Napoleon’s troops occupying Vienna meant he could not leave the city: “I still cannot enjoy life in the country, which is so indispensable for me.”

Beethoven communing with birds and flowers may seem at odds with the eccentric genius shaking his fist at fate, but the two images are complementary sides of his personality. The Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C Major, Op. 56 — to give its official title — shows the composer in a kinder, gentler mood as he looks back in time as well as geographically sideways in its Polish finale. The Triple is a relatively unusual 19th-century concerto in having multiple soloists, something that was common in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is the least performed of his seven mature concertos and is sometimes used as an excuse to bring together star soloists who don’t necessarily have a particularly unified vision of the piece. But the young JCT Trio, consisting of violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Jay Campbell and pianist Conrad Tao, not only delivered an engaged and vibrant performance, but also a fully integrated one despite this being the first time they had performed the work together (as they stated in the post-concert discussion). Expertly partnering with the CSO, they were by turns bold, elegant and in the dazzling coda to the final movement, really thrilling.

During the introduction before the concert, Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts, and Owen Lee, the CSO’s principal bass, took the opportunity to acknowledge the retirement of bassist Patricia Dougherty, who had played with the orchestra for over 40 years.   

Christopher H. Gibbs is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College, artistic director of the Bard Music Festival, executive editor of The Musical Quarterly and program annotator for The Philadelphia Orchestra. His books include The Life of Schubert, which has been translated into six languages, and the College Edition of The Oxford History of Western Music, co-authored with Richard Taruskin.

Guest Critic: Charlotte Ballet Offers Up ‘Even More to Love’ in ‘International Series’

Review by Steve Sucato:

Chautauqua mainstay Charlotte Ballet returned to the Amphitheater Wednesday night for the first of its two productions this summer. With its “International Series,” the company offered up a taste of the classics, both ballet and modern, along with two contemporary dance spectacles.

Opening the program was Peter Schaufuss’ reconstruction of the balcony scene pas de deux from Sir Frederick Ashton’s Romeo & Juliet. The rarely seen pas de deux, first staged on the Royal Danish Ballet in 1955 to music by Sergei Prokofiev, was danced by Charlotte Ballet’s Chelsea Dumas and Josh Hall. 

Ashton’s uniquely beautiful choreography for the scene was a mixture of reserved delicacy and elegance. Rather than focusing the pas de deux on Romeo and Juliet’s impassioned desire for one another, as in other interpretations — including Ashton’s successor at England’s Royal Ballet, Sir Kenneth MacMillan — the scene appeared to hone in on the couple’s unbridled joy. When the two first meet onstage, they get lost in each other’s eyes and we get lost in their heartfelt discovery of one another. 

Hall’s Romeo was dashing to Dumas’ angelic Juliet. Ashton’s illustrative movement for the pas de deux included unusual rolls of the head and shoulders by the dancers, Hall lifting Dumas in arabesque to hop in small steps arcing around the stage, and Dumas contently relaxing into Hall’s embrace, her head resting on his shoulders. The euphoric and dreamy dance concluded with a trio of kisses by the pair as Romeo departed the stage leaving Juliet with one arm raised, smiling and pledging her eternal love for him heavenward.

From classical ballet to classic modern dance, a brief portion of “Cunningham Centennial Solos” came next. Performed by Anson Zwingelberg, the solo excerpted from Merce Cunningham’s BIPED (1999) and Objects (1970) was part of 2019’s international commemoration of what would have been the late choreographer’s 100th birthday. Zwingelberg, performing to experimental electronic music by John King, bounded about the stage, arms curved like parentheses at his sides, hopping and turning from one delineated dance step into another. Zwingelberg gave a respectable performance of the iconic choreographer’s signature minimalist, technically demanding choreography.

Next, the work of choreographer and former Ballett Frankfurt dancer Helen Pickett was presented for a second successive summer as part of Charlotte Ballet’s repertoire. Pickett’s “IN Cognito,” which the company world premiered in Charlotte last April, was inspired in spirit by North Carolina writer Tom Robbins’ 2003 novel Villa Incognito

The contemporary ballet, set to music by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Mikael Karlsson and Joshua Rubin, was said to explore the duality of wanting to be seen and not wanting to. With a nod to North Carolina’s furniture industry, Pickett littered the stage with furniture pieces including lamps, chairs, a sofa and a potted tree that dancer Elizabeth Truell, at times throughout the ballet, hid behind. 

Nine dancers performed Pickett’s idiosyncratic movement that appeared a cross between 1960s staccato jazz dance and the mechanized motions of a music box dancer. Injected into that was everything from lush contemporary ballet partnering to snippets of the social dance “The Floss,” in which a person with clenched fists repeatedly swings their arms from the back of their body to the front on each side.

All given a turn in the spotlight over the course of the ballet, Pickett juxtaposed dancers highlighted in spotlight with those in shadow performing alongside or behind them in moments of unison choreography; the effect was entrancing. When not moving the furniture about the stage, the dancers performed around and on it, as in a daring twisting and turning trio that saw Sarah Hayes Hawkins lifted and flipped about by Ben Ingel and Juwan Alston as a trio of women to their side danced with heads bowed and throw pillows pressed to their ears.

A quirky work of competing moods in both demeanor and musicality, the dancers could be found at times lounging on furniture as they watched others perform, coyly lurking in the shadows on various parts of the stage, or precision marching about in packs.

The movement-dense and engaging work came to a halt in a false ending as the dancers all laid on their backs in silence on the stage floor before continuing for a bit more as it had before that break.

The final piece on the program, “Petite Cérémonie” (Little Ceremony), came courtesy of French choreographer Medhi Walerski. Premiered by Canada’s Ballet BC in 2011 (where Hope Muir was a former rehearsal director), Walerski’s contemporary work for 15 dancers, 15 white boxes on a white dance floor, was a bit of a mashup of the choreographic stylings of a plethora of European choreographers over the past several decades, including Ohad Naharin, Pina Bausch, Mats Ek and Jiří Kylián.

Walerski said in a YouTube video about “Petite Cérémonie” that he wanted to create a work where the dancers and dancing were more human, with a less of an emphasis on perfection. Taken as a whole, he realized that desire with a gem of a work that was unlike any seen at Chautauqua before.

Danced to music by Mozart, Bellini, Vivaldi and others, the piece began in a slow burn to the distant sound of an opera singer’s aria as dancer James Kopecky quietly walked to center stage to stand with legs together and began a step sequence alternating one foot tapping the top of the other that was repeated continuously, while the rest of the cast emerged from various areas of the Amphitheater to walk through the audience and join him onstage in a horizontal line doing the same stepping sequence.

Walerski’s choreography for the work then moved through more of these unison group movement sequences that varied in tone and intensity. Costumed in black cocktail dresses for the women and black suits for the men (white shirts untucked and sans ties), the dancers moved through precisely timed, gesture-laden choreography that had them snapping their fingers, clapping, vocalizing grunts, groans and laughter in surprising spurts throughout the work.

Feeling more at times like being witness to a surreal dream of a dance work than to an actual one, “Petite Cérémonie” turned bizarre into beauty as it built energy toward an inevitable big bang ending. 

Father into the work, Ingel, in a humorous vignette, juggled three balls while speaking into a microphone explaining how a man’s compartmentalized brain differs from a woman’s, and adding one of those compartments is empty and that men are happy to dwell there doing nothing. A couple’s group dance followed, led by soloist Sarah Lapointe who performed with a smooth slinkiness. After that came a succession of delicious Kylián-esque pas de deuxs beginning with adroit dancers Maurice Mouzon Jr. and Alessandra Ball James and a women’s group dance in shadow light, with Kopecky to the side of them standing atop a white box mouthing a speech no one would hear. The work came to its climactic end with the dancers again each pushing around a white box, this time to the “Winter” section of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, stopping to perform dance phrases seated on them and then in one final flurry, lift and stack them into a pyramid where several dancers scrambled up it to create a tableau of posed dancers reminiscent of a fashion magazine photo spread.

For Chautauqua audiences who have known and loved Charlotte Ballet’s stellar performances over the past several decades, Muir’s bold new contemporary repertory for the company has given them even more to love.

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: CSO and Alexander Gavrylyuk Take on Rachmaninoff

  • The Chautauqua Symhony Orchestra, led by Conductor Rossen Milanov, delivers a strong performance accompanied by famed pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk on Tuesday night, July 2, 2019 in the Amphitheater. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Review by Christopher Gibbs-

Three long threads were woven into the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra concert Tuesday evening. The first is called “Into the Music/After the Music,” intermission-less programs after which the audience is invited to ask questions of Music Director Rossen Milanov. The second: several concerts this summer featuring Russian music, in this instance Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Finally, there is the ongoing collaboration of the CSO with the remarkable pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, who is appearing for his 14th consecutive summer at Chautauqua.

The briefer programming format has several advantages. Audiences evidently enjoy that some concerts are given without an intermission, while welcoming the chance to linger afterward for a discussion that helps to build bridges between listeners and performers. More practically, most CSO concerts are prepared with just one rehearsal. This used to be the standard procedure for every CSO concert until a few decades ago, when the total number of season performances was slightly reduced and the number of rehearsals somewhat increased.

But most concerts are still presented with limited rehearsal time, which demands the conductor’s efficient preparation and the orchestra’s adept professionalism. The fine results speak for themselves, but it all requires strategic planning. A program like the one on Tuesday, with just two works totaling some 45 minutes of music, benefits from having a bit more time to rehearse, especially when it includes an often tricky and relatively rarely performed piece like the Rachmaninoff concerto.

Milanov’s care was immediately evident with the opening work, the far more commonly heard Prelude and Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which he led in an uncommonly subtle performance. This is a piece that changed music history (two weeks from now we will get to hear another game changer when the Music School Festival Orchestra joins the CSO for Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”).

The opera’s plot revolves around the doomed love of the title characters, as Isolde is betrothed to Tristan’s much older uncle, King Marke. One of Wagner’s brilliant achievements in this opera was finding a musical analogue to the lover’s unfulfilled erotic passion. The first chord in the Prelude — the “Tristan Chord,” perhaps the most discussed and famous in all of Western music — is unresolved according to the traditional rules of tonal harmony (the Rolling Stones would say it gets “no satisfaction”). Wagner immediately repeats it, again without resolving the dissonance. And then does so again and again — for nearly five hours. The effect is astonishing. The chord is finally resolved only at the very end, when Tristan and Isolde are both dead.

What we heard Tuesday gave us the beginning and end of the opera, skipping the many hours in between. Milanov chose a relatively fast tempo for the opening, one that I think serves the music well, unlike some conductors who drag things out, supposedly for greater profundity. The pacing over the course of work was totally convincing and built to effective, blossoming climaxes that wonderfully captured the sweep of this intoxicating score.

Midway through, there is a quick splice that transports us to the end of the opera. This is when Isolde, standing over the body of her dead lover, sings her “Transfiguration,” which because of a piano transcription by Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt, became more popularly known as the “Liebestod” or “Love Death.” In the opera,   the music of this some 7-minute-long section largely repeats that of the great second-act love duet before the lovers are discovered, but orchestras often perform the excerpt purely instrumentally. 

Gavrylyuk’s special bond with Chautauqua has led to his return each summer for performances with the CSO, recitals and chamber music, master classes and a more recent position as artist-in-residence and artistic adviser to the School of Music’s Piano Program. There is clearly a commitment on both sides that continues even as his international recognition and career justifiably skyrocket.

This summer displayed another type of loyalty and flexibility. Daniil Trifonov, a terrific pianist who performed with the CSO some years ago, was supposed to play Scriabin’s Piano Concerto on the season’s opening concert, but had to cancel. Gavrylyuk graciously stepped in to perform Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” In turn, he switched his originally scheduled performance for Tuesday of Brahms’ First Concerto to Rachmaninoff’s First.

I will gladly hear Gavrylyuk play anything, but he is a Rachmaninoff specialist, so it is a particular pleasure that Chautauquans in short succession got to hear him perform two of the composer’s five works for piano and orchestra. While he has recorded all of Sergei Prokofiev’s piano concertos, and some of Rachmaninoff’s solo keyboard music, Gavrylyuk has not yet recorded the concertos (his widely praised performance of the Third Concerto at the BBC Proms concerts in 2017 can be viewed on YouTube, and is simply extraordinary).

Chances to hear Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 are relatively rare, especially in comparison with the composer’s much more familiar second and third concertos and Paganini Rhapsody (his fourth concerto is the unjustly ignored ugly duckling). Although he composed a fair amount of juvenilia, Rachmaninoff decided that the First Piano Concerto should be presented as the official Opus 1. The 17-year-old began composing the work in the summer of 1890, and premiered its first movement in 1892. A few years later he published the concerto in a two-piano version, but cooled on the piece, which he stopped playing until he could get around to revising it.

By his mid-30s, Rachmaninoff was an internationally famous composer, particularly after the success of the second and third concertos (1901 and 1909). It was not until 1917, just before he left Russia in the wake of the Revolution to live permanently in the West, that he returned to his youthful effort. The revisions involved a thinning out of the orchestration, making some structural modifications, writing a new cadenza for the opening movement, and considerable recasting of the finale. He gave the first performance of the new version in 1919, at Carnegie Hall.

Despite the revisions, the First Concerto still sounds like the Rachmaninoff whose music audiences so embraced, chronologically situated, as it is, both before and after its phenomenally famous siblings and dazzling Second Symphony. Since the original version of the concerto survives we know that the revision remains close to what the teenage Rachmaninoff initially composed.

Gavrylyuk brought to his performance his usual thrilling technical wizardry, but also the large-scale drama that makes his Rachmaninoff so special. Milanov and the CSO were perfect partners in this drama and adeptly handled the tricky metrical challenges of the final movement. Audiences can look forward to this fabulous pianist’s recital in the Amphitheater next week.

Christopher H. Gibbs is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College, artistic director of the Bard Music Festival, executive editor of The Musical Quarterly and program annotator for The Philadelphia Orchestra. His books include The Life of Schubert, which has been translated into six languages, and the College Edition of The Oxford History of Western Music, co-authored with Richard Taruskin.

Guest Critic: CSO Performs Tender Franz Schubert, Stirring Johannes Brahms

  • Conductor Rossen Milanov leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the performance of "A Saturday Evening of Symphonies" in the Amp Saturday, June 29, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Review By Johanna Keller:

A pair of beloved Romantic symphonic masterworks — by Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms — were performed back-to-back without intermission to close out the first week of Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s 90th season. The news of the night was that about half the concerts this year will be intermission-free, due to popular demand from the audience, a change announced by Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts, in her opening remarks from the stage.

On a more serious note, Moore also paid tribute to Peter Haas, principal bass player of the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra, who performed with the CSO for 24 years and passed away last autumn after a year-long battle with cancer. It was a profound loss for the close-knit community of Chautauqua, and in an interview after the performance, Haas was fondly remembered by bass player Kaitlyn Kamminga, who called him “a consummate professional and great colleague.”

The evening’s performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, dubbed the “Unfinished,” was appropriately dedicated to Haas’ memory.

So, it was in this somber mood that Music Director Rossen Milanov took the stage and stood for a long moment before conducting a singularly poignant interpretation of the two movements that Schubert wrote in 1822.

In the Allegro moderato opening, Milanov kept his gestures small, maintaining a restrained dynamic throughout. He pushed the lyricism of phrasing, demanding sweeping arcs of sound, so that the cellos and violins seemed to sing, while the sforzandi provided a muted punctuation. One of the most shattering moments in this work comes when Schubert abruptly halts the gorgeous second theme, follows it with a full measure rest and then brings in an unrelated chord, in C minor. The crispness of the CSO’s playing made this interruption freshly shocking. In the Andante con moto, each of Schubert’s unusual transitions and daring key changes — often a kind of pivot on a solo instrument — seemed transparent, even fragile. The pizzicati (plucked passages) in the low strings were on tiptoe.

I have heard the “Unfinished” played countless times with dozens of approaches — it can sound muscular, bouncy, tragic, dramatic, stately, yearning. But I have never heard it sound so tender. Such a subtle approach requires the kind of musical imagination that Milanov possesses, as well as a true fusion and trust between conductor and players that has obviously developed during his five years on the CSO podium.

Conductor Rossen Milanov leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the performance of “A Saturday Evening of Symphonies” in the Amp Saturday, June 29, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The mystery of why Schubert never completed his Eighth Symphony has been the subject of much scholarly debate, and the consensus seems to be that after writing his first six symphonies that hewed to fairly conventional classical structures, Schubert suffered a kind of artistic crisis — and it certainly couldn’t have helped that he also contracted syphilis. It is theorized that he was blocked by comparing himself to Beethoven, then a towering musical figure at the height of his renown. Schubert had sketched out a Seventh Symphony and then set to work on the eighth, composing two movements and leaving a third movement in an incomplete sketch.

By the time of his death in 1828, at the age of 31, Schubert left dozens of projects incomplete or abandoned, yet he was among the most prolific of major composers. He had written more than 600 songs, nine or 10 symphonies (or sketches, depending on how you count them), 15 string quartets, two piano trios, two quintets, 21 piano sonatas, 10 operas and other incidental music for the stage, seven full masses and a whole lot more. The two completed movements of the “Unfinished” symphony show Schubert experimenting with bizarre key modulations and harmonies, in a direction Beethoven never pursued. We are left to wonder how much more Schubert would have written, and how his music would have evolved, had he not died so young.

By contrast, after a short pause (not an intermission), Milanov hopped onto the podium and dove headlong into Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 by Brahms. Hans Richter, who conducted the premiere, called this robust 1883 piece “Brahms’s Eroica,” referring to the nickname for Beethoven’s “heroic” Third Symphony. Both works open with a spirited Allegro con brio, and Milanov flung out his arms and stirred the orchestra into a full-out rendition that had the strings swirling while the brass and woodwind sections interwove those Brahmsian motives.

A particularly telling moment occurred in the third movement, Poco allegretto. The cellos introduce this throbbing minor key theme that is then handed around the orchestra and repeated again and again. This is a movement that can unfortunately become lugubrious and sentimental. But Milanov took it at a brisk pace and pushed the articulation in a fascinating way. Usually the two phrases of the main theme are played (bear with me here) Dah-dee-Daaaaah, Dah-dee-Dah. But Milanov demanded a legato that crescendoed into the second phrase with an extra surge at the top, so that it turned into Dah-dee-daaahHH-DAH-dee-dah. The difference in phrasing may seem minor, but it is just such a detail as this that turns a good performance into a great one, and demonstrates Milanov’s intelligence and refined taste.

Conductor Rossen Milanov, leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the performance of “A Saturday Evening of Symphonies” in the Amp Saturday, June 29, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Composers have often gotten their jollies by incorporating cryptograms — sequences of notes whose letters spell out words or names. Most notably, Bach spelled out his name (in German music, B-flat was named B and B-natural was H), and Robert Schumann inserted a form of his name into his music as well. Brahms had a friend and collaborator, Joseph Joachim, whose musical motto was “Frei aber einsam” (Free but lonely). A lifelong bachelor, Brahms converted Joachim’s motto into his own theme on F-A-F, to signify “Frei aber froh (Free but happy), and sprinkled it throughout the symphony.

Alas, it must be said that three times during the evening, dogs being walked by their clearly unmusical owners, added unwelcome interruptions, and always at the quietest and most sublime moments; why can’t Chautauqua institute a dog-free No Barking Zone on orchestra nights?

Speaking of acoustical matters, while I usually prefer to sit two-thirds of the way back to enjoy the surprisingly well-blended sound in the Amphitheater, I took this opportunity to take a seat in the choral section behind and above the orchestra, an experiment I recommend to any serious listener. Of course, the sound there is dry, like being in a recording studio, so that you hear the sections of the orchestra separately, including sonic details like the slight rasp of the bows. You also miss the visceral blare of the brass section (they are sitting 15 feet below with their bell ends pointed away from you). On the other hand, you get to closely observe the interactions of the players and see the conductor from the perspective of the orchestra members; it is revelatory to watch Milanov use his gaze and facial expressions to elicit the sound he wants from his players.

Finally, it should be noted that a new element has been added to the orchestral season — program books. Handsomely edited, the 51-page booklet contains repertoire, guest artist bios and David Levy’s fine musicological notes for the opening few weeks of the season. Best of all is the list of orchestra members with a photo of each and a note about their other institutional affiliations. Highlighting each musician is a great idea that all orchestras should adopt. It’s just another reminder of the atmosphere of Chautauqua, where each individual voice contributes to the whole.

Johanna Keller received the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for her essays on music in The New York Times. She writes for Opera and The Hopkins Review and teaches journalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School.

Guest Critic: Chautauqua Theater Company and Motet Choir Deliver Memorable Performance of Hnath’s ‘Christians’

  • Chautauqua Theatre Company Conservatory Actor Ricardy Fabre portrays the Associate Pastor in The Christians during the dress rehearsal on Thursday, June 27, 2019 in Bratton Theatre. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Review by Eric Grode:

Chautauqua Theater Company’s first play of the season begins with a musical number, some two dozen voices strong. It ends stirringly. But no one in the audience claps.

Then the leading man steps forth, microphone in hand, and begins a lengthy monologue. Its very first line sets the stage while also uprooting us: “Brothers and sisters, let us pray.” And it is around this time that we realize the house lights are still on.

What the hell kind of play is this?

It is The Christians, Lucas Hnath’s nuanced dissection of the limits of tolerance within a contemporary megachurch. And its blend of earnest theology and Shavian verbal gymnastics makes the 2014 play a natural fit for Chautauqua Institution, as Hnath himself pointed out during an Amphitheater event last year.

That opening monologue is, of course, a sermon, one in which the charismatic Pastor Paul (a convincingly earnest Jamison Jones) touches upon the courtship of his wife and the church’s material success before pivoting to a harrowing act of violence in a suffering (but unnamed) country far away. A young man there died in the act of rescuing his sister from a bomb, and a missionary from the pastor’s (also unnamed) denomination regrets that this heroic young nonbeliever faces eternal damnation.

The ramifications of this idea lead Paul to detonate his own bomb, one that rattles the newly bought-and-paid-for church (conveyed effectively by Adam Riggs antiseptic scenic design) to its bones. “We are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell,” he announces from the pulpit. “We are no longer that kind of church.”

Well, then.

How does an entire congregation change a linchpin of its core theology on a dime? Does it? Should it? Hnath, a daring young playwright with two playfully revisionist works reaching Broadway in the last three seasons, and himself a former member of an Evangelical church, takes the respectful measure of these questions by approaching them from several different angles.

The skepticism toward Paul’s abrupt shift is apparent from the beginning, at first in Associate Pastor Joshua (the stealthily powerful Ricardy Fabre). And as the two pastors wrangle over scriptural interpretations in front of the congregation, The Christians feels at first like “12 Angry Churchmen,” with one progressive dissenter patiently converting the room one naysayer at a time.

But as we’ve learned in plays from Saint Joan to Galileo to The Crucible to A Man for All Seasons, speaking out against religious dogma can be a risky business. And as the pushback continues from the church’s bottom-line-conscious board of elders (led by the stentorian Malcolm Ingram), its congregants and even Paul’s wife (the terrific Stori Ayers), Hnath manages to convey the congregation’s estrangement from Paul without ever condescending to those more hidebound voices.

Some of his less thought-through twists get the better of director Taibi Magar and her cast: Why does Paul spar so commandingly with Joshua early on and then turn into a stammering, and vaguely sleazy, mess when a deceptively meek congregant takes issue with virtually the same concept just two scenes later? But Magar shows a keen ear for subtle shifts in power — you learn a lot about the various characters’ misgivings even when they are silent — and finds an almost ideal synthesis of emotion and rigor during even the most Scripture-heavy passages.

Incidentally, Fabre and Madeline Seidman (palpably touching as that concerned congregant) are the only two members of the vaunted CTC conservatory to take the stage, and their material adds up to roughly a half hour of stage time. Granted, the Motet Choir lends solid support throughout The Christians. But with just two mainstage productions this season, using guest artists for 60% of the speaking roles feels like an odd underutilization of CTC’s considerable resources. Here is a gentle prayer that One Man, Two Guvnors, its next show, will use more of these talented performers and create a sufficiently ungodly mess.

Eric Grode is the director of the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at Syracuse University and a regular freelance theater contributor to The New York Times.

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