Guest Critic Reviews

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.

Guest Critic: In Chautauqua Debut, Stars of American Ballet Take Audience on Thrill Ride

  • Dancers Antonina Skobina and Denys Drozdyuk perform a ballet routine named “Irresistible”, during the Stars of America Ballet Recital on Wednesday night, June 26, 2019 in the Chautauqua Amphitheater. “Irresistible”, features music by Michael Jackson and choreography by Denys Drozdyuk. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Review by Steve Sucato:

One of several dancer-founded dance showcases touring the United States each year, New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht’s Stars of American Ballet made its triumphant debut Wednesday in the Amphitheater, in a mixed-repertoire program that brought the audience to its feet multiple times and left them wanting much more at program’s end.

A former student of the School of Dance in the late-1990s, Ulbricht, a St. Petersburg, Florida, native, formed Stars of American Ballet a decade ago after his mother was diagnosed with cancer and was unable to travel to see him dance. The idea was to bring top-flight dance to her and others who might not otherwise get the opportunity to experience it.

Ulbricht and company — which for Wednesday’s program might have been more aptly named, “Stars of New York City Ballet,” given seven of the 10 dancers were either soloists or principal dancers with the company — all lived up to their star billing in a stylistic variety of works.

The program opened with George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” the often performed, 30-minute ballet classic, that Balanchine originally created for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1928, and one of the iconic choreographer’s earliest works. Set to Igor Stravinsky’s composition, “Apollon Musagète,” the ballet depicted Apollo (Adrian Danchig-Waring), the young god of music being visited by his three half-sister muses who instruct him in their individual talents via a series of solo dances.

The first of them, Calliope, muse of poetry, carried with her a tablet. Danced by Sara Adams, who is also a School of Dance alum, Balanchine’s illustrative choreography for Calliope saw Adams mimicking writing poetry, and then, with her mouth agape, used her hands to trail a line outward from her mouth to indicate the recitation of said poetry.

Polyhymnia, muse of mime, whose symbol was a mask, came next. The unfortunate victim of a technical glitch, Carlisle, Pennsylvania-native Abi Stafford danced Polyhymnia, and was left standing onstage for an uncomfortably long time, waiting for the music for her solo to start. When it finally did, she too performed gestural movement illustrative of her talent, most noticeably holding one finger to her lips in a shushing gesture as she danced.

The last of the half-sisters, the lyre-carrying Terpsichore, muse of song and dance, was portrayed by Unity Phelan dancing the role for the very first time. She powered through her vibrant solo, full of waving arms and high kicks, that showcased her wonderful facility and skillfulness as a dancer.

  • From left, dancers Sara Adams, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and Unity Phelan, perform a ballet routine named “Apollo”, during the Stars of America Ballet Recital on Wednesday night, June 26, 2019 in the Chautauqua Amphitheater. “Apollo”, features music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by George Balanchine. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Each of the women were marvelous in their solos and in group dances that saw them twisting in and out of pretzel-like formations, on their heels in duck walks or moving one after the other across the stage on pointe in bourrée en couru (a series of tiny steps) that had them looking like mechanical dolls. But the ballet ultimately belonged to Danchig-Waring, who appeared every bit a Greek god in his commanding stage presence and in his technically brilliant dancing. His quick, sharp movements, jumps, leaps and turns were near flawless.

After an intermission, the program majorly switched gears with “Irresistible,” a ballroom dance duet performed to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” Denys Drozdyuk, a former winner of the TV program “So You Think You Can Dance Canada,” choreographed the number and performed it with fellow ballroom champion and Ukraine native Antonina Skobina. The pair delighted the audience with fast-moving, daring and adroitly danced contemporary ballroom movement, infused with Jackson signature dance moves. The killer duet surely would have landed the pair on the coveted “Hot Tamale Train,” a term coined by Mary Murphy, ballroom expert and judge on America’s “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Next, Ulbricht made his first appearance onstage in the 15-minute solo, “(A) Suite of Dances,” choreographed by Jerome Robbins in 1994 to music by Johann Sebastian Bach that was played live by cellist Ann Kim. The playful and charming ballet was originally created for dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose footprints remained all over it. Looking like a blend of improvisation from Baryshnikov mixed with bits of Robbins’ ballet and Broadway stylings, including cartwheels and somersaults, the solo created banter between dancer and musician that Ulbricht and Kim, who is a member of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, executed deliciously.

For his part Ulbricht brought a carefree ease and humor to the sometimes difficult and taxing choreography, while Kim brought poetry to Bach’s music in her playing. Perhaps the only letdown in the ballet choreographically was a rather bland, slow section — an obvious breather for the dancer, but also a momentum killer — which saw an introspective Ulbricht amble about the stage in thought. 

In the first of two dancer-choreographed ballets to round out the program, Danish dancer Ask la Cour’s pas de deux, “Change of Heart,” took the stage like a runaway freight train in its drive and unyielding pace. Performed to music by Edvard Grieg, la Cour and dancer Teresa Reichlen ripped through contemporary ballet choreography, that while lovely enough, provided little emotional connection between the dancers. The relationship piece could have benefitted from some purposeful pace changes to better explore the characters’ tumultuous bond.

Capping the program was perhaps its biggest “wow” piece, “Tres Hombres,” choreographed by Ulbricht, Drozdyuk and Lex Ishimoto. Danced to music by Astor Piazzolla, the trio of Ulbricht, Drozdyuk and former Boston Ballet first soloist Joseph Gatti, released the bravura dance hounds in a barrage of high flying jumps, blurringly fast turns, spins and leg beats. Steeped in machismo attitude and flamenco flair, “Tres Hombres” left many in the audience gleefully wondering what just hit them.

In the end, Stars of American Ballet was the perfect example of what happens when you give the keys to the luxury sports car to world-class dancers and let them drive the programming. They put the pedal to the metal, do donuts in the parking lot and take us all on a thrill ride we will never forget.

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 Season Opener Delivers ‘Unforgettable Performance’

  • Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra opens the season with conductor Rossen Milanov and pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk Thursday, June 27, 2019 in the Amphitheater. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Review by Johanna Keller:

The 90th season of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra opened with heavenly performances of three works that, in various ways, revolved around the theme of Hell.

Conductor Rossen Milanov, beginning his fifth season as music director, chose Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op. 32, as his challenging opener, which immediately plunges the listener into darkness and the swirling, stormy sufferings of the underworld. Programming it as an opener was a bold move, since the slashing strings and eddying woodwinds allow no time for orchestra players to warm up — welcome to Hades.

Doomed lovers abound in literature and myth: think of Orpheus and Eurydice, Tristan and Iseult, Romeo and Juliet. Once just as well-known, the story of Francesca’s illicit love affair with her brother-in-law Paolo inspired numerous operas, including one by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The tale comes from Dante Alighieri’s epic “The Divine Comedy,” and there are no more beloved passages than those of the fifth canto of The Inferno, when the author Dante reaches the second ring of Hell. There, raging winds eternally buffet those who committed the sin of lust. In the midst of this storm, Francesca tenderly recounts how she and Paolo fell in love. Rendered in Dante’s delicately rhymed three-line stanzas (terza rima), Francesca’s story so moves Dante that when she finishes speaking, he writes that he faints from emotion.

Tchaikovsky’s 1876 fantasy on the Francesca theme alternates lyrical moments (props to the soaring phrasing by Chautauqua’s principal clarinetist Eli Eban) with thunderous tutti passages that depict the netherworld’s storms as well as the storms of sexual passion. Milanov drew on his enormous range of communicative gestures to pull out of the orchestra sweeping, singing phrases that built to a final climactic accelerando, and was answered by cheers from the audience. It was an auspicious beginning.

In the world of classical music, one of the most bizarre characters has to be violinist and composer, Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840), who played so brilliantly, he was rumored to have sold his soul to Satan. Paganini’s abilities on the violin — he also played the viola and guitar — were the stuff of legend, and he invented new ways of playing the instrument in his 24 Caprices that bedevil violinists to the present day. A tall, spectrally thin man, Paganini brought some audience members to shrieks with the physicality of his performances — think of Mick Jagger crossed with a young Elvis. In recent years, much has been written about the theory — which was referenced by Chautauqua’s resident musicologist David Levy in his excellent pre-concert lecture in the Hall of Christ — that Paganini had Marfan syndrome, and was double-jointed, accounting perhaps for some of his unusual dexterity.

Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk took the stage for the fiendish, knuckle-breaking challenge of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 43. Like Paganini, Rachmaninoff was a virtuoso performer, one of the great pianists of his century, so the keyboard technical challenges are abundant.

Gavrylyuk, who also serves as the Heintzelman Family Artistic Advisor and artist-in-residence for the Chautauqua School of Music Piano Program, delivered an electrifying interpretation with propulsive energy, cascades of notes transformed into sheer veils and gigantic Rachmaninoff chords that demand not only power but astute voicing. Better known outside of the United States, Gavrylyuk is on track for a stellar international career. Milanov kept the orchestra with him every step of the way, with plaintive solo violin work by acting concertmaster Vahn Armstrong.

Theme and variations are playful forms that show off the inventiveness of the composer. Early on, Rachmaninoff gives us a wink with hints of the Dies Irae — the often-quoted Gregorian chant that summons up images of death — to allude to Paganini’s demonic reputation.

Most famously in this work, at the apogee comes a most exquisite tune (I hear it in my mind’s ear as I write these words), a tune you would recognize. Tchaikovsky invented it, or discovered it, when he inverted Paganini’s theme and recognized it as a stunner. He treats it with a full-out sobbing rendition in the orchestra and then lets the piano caress it alone, just once, before the next variation begins. A lesser composer than Tchaikovsky would have brought the hit tune back at the end, but instead, it gains all the more poignancy for its brief but spectacular, singular appearance. Milanov drove his orchestra through the final variations that pound out the Dies Irae to the shattering conclusion, with the tiny tail of a piano flourish at the very end that always brings a laugh from the audience. Wit indeed. The loudest cheering of the night came for Gavrylyuk, a favorite at Chautauqua.

At intermission, some of the audience filtered away, unfortunately missing one of the rare opportunities to hear Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony from 1939. On the surface, this extremely unusual work has nothing whatsoever to do with Hell. There are no infernos, no hellish storms, no Dies Irae, and no souls sold to the devil — or are there?

Throughout his early life, Shostakovich (1906-1975) suffered from the vicissitudes of the dictator Stalin, living in an atmosphere of terror that most of us (I hope) have never experienced and can scarcely imagine. Unfortunately for Russian artists, Stalin took a great interest in them and their work. A word misspoken or misunderstood, a work of art deemed “too formal” or “not socialist realism,” could land one on the wrong side of history — or in the gulag. Or shot. The midnight knock at the door: Such things happened under Stalin, when it is estimated that more than a million Russians died in the gulags over 20 years; others died uncounted.

In 1934, Shostakovich had written an opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, that got him denounced by the Communist Party after an anonymous article appeared, perhaps written by Stalin himself. Shostakovich managed to redeem himself by composing, as his Fifth Symphony, a triumphant celebration of Soviet might. For his next symphony, he announced he would use poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s paean, “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin,” and would convey “spring, joy, youth.” On the surface, this plan sounded like a surefire way to further ingratiate himself to Stalin. But when it comes to Shostakovich — his music or his life story — the surface is always a betrayal.

Mayakovsky had been one of the most famous poets in Russia and tapped the young Shostakovich years before to provide some stage music. But the poet had his own political problems. He was a futurist: Stalin disapproved. The poet died by suicide in 1930, and afterward, and still to this day, there are arguments that it was actually an assassination.

So, for whatever reason, the symphony Shostakovich wrote was not as announced. There is no Mayakovsky poem, no chorus. Instead, it begins with a Largo that takes up more than half the work. Somber and based on minor third and diminished seventh motifs, its thickly orchestrated passages give way to moments when one instrument — piccolo, flute or English horn — are virtually isolated. It is impossible to hear this effect without thinking of the way Stalinist terror could isolate and silence individual voices. The composer finishes with two shorter movements: an Allegro and then a Presto that, for all their energy and verve, are underpinned with the bitter irony that mark this great composer’s work. There are various kinds of hell — and perhaps this symphony describes one of them.

Milanov and the orchestra members turned in an unforgettable performance — the strings bearing down on the lacerating passages, outstanding solo turns from the woodwinds and brass and percussion providing what sometimes sounded like an alarm. Milanov whipped up a galloping finale that propelled the audience to its feet and, after a sustained ovation, out into the safe and peaceful darkness of the charming streets of Chautauqua.

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.

Nashville Ballet, Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra collaboration: match made in Amphitheater heaven

  • Members of Nashville Ballet perform "The Ben Folds Project: Concerto" with Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, in the Amphitheater. RILEY ROBINSON /STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

For its debut at the Amphitheater Saturday night, the Nashville Ballet teamed up with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra for an evening of ballet set to orchestral works from Mozart, Aaron Copland, Hershy Kay and relative newcomer to classical composition, multiplatinum selling singer-songwriter Ben Folds.

Co-commissioned by Nashville Ballet, the Nashville Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra, Folds’ 25-minute Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in three movements was performed crisply and with feeling by pianist Joel Ayau and the CSO under the baton of Grant Cooper. The music was a vibrant partner to Nashville Ballet Artistic Director Paul Vasterling’s expansive and stylized neo-classical choreography for the aptly titled ballet, “The Ben Folds Project: Concerto.”

Premiered in 2014 and reprised at the Kennedy Center in 2017, “Concerto” was the largest of the four works on the program with 21 dancers. It began with Ayau and his grand piano on stage and the CSO in the Amphitheater’s pit as eight male/female couples costumed all in black swept over the stage. With the feel of classic Broadway or Hollywood production number, the delectable wave of dancing appeared inspired by Fold’s zestful music.

Coming to the forefront in the first portion of the ballet was first-year company dancer Owen Thorne, who played leading man to a string of female partners in short pas de deux. With each pas de deux, Vasterling beautifully framed the soloist couple with various groupings of corps dancers in their shadow. The effect was as grand as Ayau’s piano. In one sequence, the corps dancers, inching their way across the stage behind the lead couple, formed a chain of overlapping arms that shifted along the chain as they moved.

The ballet and the score’s second movement shifted gears visually and sonically as dancer Kayla Rowser, costumed in a white leotard, took over the spotlight from Thorne and became the center of attraction for two male dancers in teal, who lifted her in the air, twisting and turning her about. Also framed nicely by various configurations of corps dancers, Rowser was the picture of grace and beauty, exerting a quiet command in her dancing. Her performance left you wanting much more, and it was a pity this was the only ballet we were to see her in.

The ballet’s final section took another musical tact, and the dancing followed it brilliantly. Folds, who said of his creation, “The notion of a piano concerto written by a rock musician in this century is so completely out of step that I had to do it,” did a not-so-surprisingly bang-up job with the distinctive concerto, and the ballet proved a highly entertaining opener.

Next, came a 10-minute excerpt from George Balanchine’s slice of Americana, “Western Symphony” (1954). Evoking a theatrical view of the old West, complete with cowboys and saloon dance hall girls, the ballet had the flavor of dance associated with that era infused into a classical framework. The excerpt, taken from the ballet’s opening “Allegro” section, featured upper level student dancers from Chautauqua School of Dance in the ballet’s corps roles.

The Americana theme continued in Vasterling’s “Appalachian Spring” (2017) that followed. Set to the suite version of Aaron Copland’s Pulitzer Prize-winning composition made famous by choreographer Martha Graham in her 1944 ballet of the same name, Vasterling created a heartfelt and beautifully crafted work that was distinctive, yet paid homage to Graham’s original.

Employing a mix of neo-classical ballet infused with movements associated with the Graham work, the 25-minute ballet was danced fabulously by nine of Nashville’s dancers, led by 10-year company member Katie Vasilopoulos. It began with her dancing a hopeful solo full of spins and leaps to the quiet opening section of the score that conjured up the feel of a new day dawning around her. While Vasilopoulos was dancing, five men and three women costumed in mid-19th century American prairie-inspired costumes and carrying Shaker-style chairs began to move like a wagon train, circling around her.

In Vasterling’s program notes on the ballet, he describes his inspiration for the ballet coming from a friend who observed “the irony that a work of art that is considered so quintessential Americana was created by a woman (Martha Graham), a gay Jewish man (Aaron Copland) and a Japanese designer (Isamu Noguchi)” — three people that may have been considered (and may in some way still be) considered “the other” in American society.

Vasterling used that notion of “the other” that was reflected in the personality traits of the characters in the ballet, with Vasilopoulos as a sort of motherly figure to them and representing the larger ideals of freedom, hopefulness and acceptance associated with America. Her performance in the role was emotional and captivating throughout.

Each in the cast was featured in small, meaty solos and duets revealing individuals that were exuberant in their hopes, sometimes awkward in their differences and, in the case of two men, longing in their desires for one another.

In the end, the ballet proved a worthy reinterpretation of Copland’s music, delivering a message of unbounded optimism for the future that remains uniquely American.

For the program’s final work, Americana gave way to European farce in the form of Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián’s modern masterwork “Sechs Tänze” (Six Dances). Premiered in 1986 (coincidently the same year Nashville Ballet was founded) and set to Mozart’s Six German Dances, K. 571, the ballet was representative of the Rococo period of Mozart in its costumes and mannerisms, albeit taken outlandishly over-the-top.

Powdered wigs for the four shirtless men, towering teased hair for the four women and white face clown makeup for all added to the spectacle of this zany and risqué work that played out at times like an old episode of “The Benny Hill Show.” Slapstick humor, priceless facial expressions and several brilliantly unusual methods for the dancers to move about the stage, such as bouncing along in a prone position, sent the audience into laughter.

Of particular note was the performance of dancer Mollie Sansone, whose plucky and sometimes spitfire personality in the work saw her deliciously being pursued by two men, only to have them abandon her to don gown-like rolling black dress forms (the same forms that would famously reappear in Kylián’s 1991 masterpiece “Petit Mort”) and her shooting them an “I’m not having that” face.

“Sechs Tänze” ’s comedic thrill ride came to its climax with the dancers shaking out clouds of wig powder, and while a shower of soap bubbles rained down on them from above as they feigned humility, the audience rose to give them a well-deserved standing ovation.

Fabulously, Nashville Ballet and the CSO’s program was everything it was cracked up to be and more.

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.

No power? No problem.



Guest violinist Joan Kwuon performs the Prokofiev G minor Violin Concerto with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

John Chacona | Guest Reviewer

Weird night last night.

I should have known that something was amiss at Chautauqua when I found a parking space at the bottom of the lot close to the exit. Paradoxically, the failure of a transformer earlier in the day and the resultant loss of electrical power increased the noise level on the grounds as gasoline-powered generators chugged away.

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra chugged away, too, in a truncated concert in a semi-darkened Amphitheater last night, but the lack of power wasn’t a consequence of the transformer as much as it was of the heat.

Musicians are mortal like the rest of us, and nobody likes to work outside when temperatures are in the mid-90s. Moreover, in hot weather, instruments are hard to keep in tune. Humidity is an enemy, too. So the climatic deck was stacked against the CSO yesterday.

After President Tom Becker made an announcement about the power outage (in a polo shirt and shorts!), Marty Merkley told the slightly thin crowd (many had left to seek food as well as air conditioning) that the program would be shortened so that symphony patrons might find their way home before dark.

The initial movement of the Prokofiev G minor Violin Concerto and the first three movements of the Dvořák Symphony No. 8 were sacrificed, a decision that was both vexatious and merciful.

Under the circumstances, it seems unfair to offer a review in the normal sense of the term. Does a restaurant critic judge a restaurant solely on the amuse bouche and the dessert?

So I’ll report on what I heard, namely that the CSO players, under conductor Christopher Seaman’s direction, delivered a tidy and sonorous account of the “Meistersinger” overture, with the strings sounding surprisingly rich and well-tuned.

The Prokofiev began with the slow movement, and though it’s not unusual to play individual movements of works in certain settings, starting a work in the middle is rather like reading a book beginning with chapter four. One can get a sense of the author’s style, but not the message. I think the orchestra was a little unnerved, too, as some of the ensemble work was a bit tentative.

Was violinist Joan Kwuon’s small tone a function of the heat, the change in program or was it anomalous? It’s impossible to know, but my heart went out to her in what had to be a thankless assignment, and certainly not the one for which she prepared. The closing pages of the brilliant finale arrived with more relief than triumph.

It was a pity that the Dvořák G major Symphony had to take the hit, because this is supremely outdoor music, and summer music, too. Full of juicy Bohemian folk melodies and the composer’s amiability of utterance, it would have been nice to hear all of it.

Conductor Seaman gave the downbeat before both his feet hit the podium surface, and it was off to the races. The finale was played very fast, with principal flutist Richard Sherman puffing hard to keep up. Not that it didn’t work — sort of. Standing alone, the movement was an undiscovered Slavonic Dance, an encore piece to the half-hour or so concert that preceded it. Like I said, it was a strange night.

By the time you read this — not by candlelight, as Becker warned of the tragic potential of candles and open windows — power should have been restored, but the heat is a more intractable problem than is electricity, and the CSO has a hugely ambitious program on Saturday, with two sets of soloists and a chorus. It may be the highlight of the season. Let’s hope that it may be heard under ideal conditions.

John Chacona is a freelance writer for the Erie Times-News.

New Strohl exhibit gives viewers ‘blue heavenly time’

no thumb


Four “Thistle Bottles” of different shades of blue by Carrie Gustafson, on display as part of the “Out of the Blue” exhibition at Strohl Art Center. Photo by Megan Tan.

Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer

Blue: Wavelength 440-490 nm; frequency 680-610 THz; ranging from navy blue to cyan as one of the primary colors. And there are other truths, other ways of seeing and being blue.

Another truth is that Judy Barie, director of galleries for Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution and curator at Strohl Art Center, caught a notion and decided to riff on. She calls her exhibition of paintings, drawings, prints, ceramics and glass works, “Out of the Blue,” and it continues through Aug. 23.

And this is, in part, her rhapsody; call it blue on blue.

“We eat blue cheese, wear blue jeans, sing the blues, dress our baby boys in blue, work blue collar jobs, talk a blue streak, accept blue ribbons, laugh till we are blue in the face, and we forever strive to capture the perfect blue sky,” she writes in an introductory panel.

Now, we all know that there are too many more blue-streak familiar quotations and bluesy puns and amusing symbolic meanings for blue. It wouldn’t be funny at all if we all were to share our blue books. Fortunately, Ms. Barie only asked eight artists to create blue work for the show. But if you like the color — and the statistics say that chances are it is your favorite color — you’ll have a blue heavenly time on Wythe Avenue.

On the other hand, if you prefer pink, blame it on the Korean artist Moon Beom. He was the inspiration for the show, and it is easy to see why. Barie saw his recent show in Kim Foster Gallery in New York City and was inspired by Beom’s otherworldly use of the color, an excess nothing short of alternative realities.

The viewer won’t miss the point. Barie has installed Beom’s large 5-by-4 painting, “Possible Worlds 846,” on the direct line of sight from the Strohl Main Gallery entrance, and it extravagantly announces itself from a sumptuous grounding in the elegant pigment of ultramarine blue. Beom slivers out of the blue a silver-lined creation, like the idea of waters splashing out of the dark void, roiling, misting for the first time into this place of the canvas, a new world, a new possibility.

That is a birthing call if ever there was one, and Barie was paying attention and doctored the idea along. There are other paintings by Beom, who would be the star of the show, which are like blueprints of a speculative imagination. And he is not alone.

Clayton Merrell, who has taught and shown with the faculty of the Chautauqua School of Art, also will be known. And he is included here in blue with his exciting, generative abstractions — fundamental ideas fit out in Talmudic proportions: ruptures of nature for a big bang Creation event blasting out of the sky, or the waves of the Flood streaming across the frame, or the charged particles of a divine presence, like a necklace of wonder in the sky, a rapture manifest above a farmer’s field.

Merrell and Beom play the major chords. Melinda Hackett, in smaller scale, conceives a biomorphic splendor based in blue, or so highlighted, and delights with visions usually reserved for cellular pleasures, here magnified into a painterly reality. In concert, Amanda Knowles’s screen prints envision blue-lined swirls of energy, design overlays, multiple forces wheeling out a make-believe, with smaller cousin images, papers stitched into a mixed media of artful propositions: What if we pie-chart a space like this? How might we put it all together, after all, even in blue?

And then along comes Ron Porter, driving big trucks into blue skies, our only psycho-realist happily reflecting clouds from the trucks’ shinning surfaces, and then — amazement — a truck taking off: a truck lifting off into the sky, having had enough with this actuality business: announcing the freedom of going airborne, just one stop short of abstraction, blue as a truly uplifting experience.

Carrie Gustafson and Adam Kenney then propose the range of blues in thin-necked glassware and blown glass that is etched and silvered, while Melinda Bernard creates an echo in ceramics for experiences off the wall. And there you have it: worthy of a blue-blood.

An opening reception was held Tuesday evening. Guess what? With a blues band.

Anthony Bannon is the Ron and Donna Fielding Director of George Eastman House, the International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, NY.

Harth-Bedoya, Gerhardt combine for a crowd-pleasing evening

no thumb


Alban Gerhardt performs Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33, under the baton of Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

John Chacona | Guest Reviewer

The buzz around the young conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya is that he’s in the running to succeed the departed Stefan Sanderling as the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s music director.

On paper, he’s a compelling candidate: young, full of energy and with a growing list of high-profile gigs (a protégé of Esa-Pekka Salonen, he was at Tanglewood last weekend). Harth-Bedoya looks great in a cowboy hat (check out his website), has a million-dollar smile and a crisp podium manner that projects confidence and energy. Like his mentor, he gets an admirably clear, focused sound from the orchestra — a necessity in the French music that made up two-thirds of his concert on Thursday evening, Bastille Day.

Clarity is the prize in the music of Maurice Ravel, perhaps the most French of composers. But it’s only won by not falling headlong into the voluptuousness of his dazzling orchestration. The “Rapsodie Espagnole” further seduces with local color (authentic, too: Ravel’s mother was Basque). It’s easy to overdo this, and one might expect the Peruvian-born Harth-Bedoya to assert his authority in music with a Spanish accent. To his credit, he did not, leading a performance of understatement and orderliness (also authentic; the composer’s father was a Swiss engineer) — perhaps a bit too meticulous, though the closing Feria, marked assez anime, danced.

The Camille Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33 is a young man’s piece, written when the composer was a comparative boy of 37 (he would live just short of half a century longer), and in the young German-born New Yorker Alban Gerhardt, it found a persuasive advocate. Gerhardt, who has a wide-eyed and expressive face, played the music with the proper measure of respect and fire, digging into the chewy opening theme with ardor. He could be graceful, too. Gerhardt made the little mock minuet of a slow movement, lovingly shaped by Harth-Bedoya, into a lyric arioso.

And he took some chances, interpolating octaves into one of the flashier moments in the closing Allegro. Why not? The Saint-Saëns is not exactly a monument of probity. Showing off is the point, and Gerhardt managed to do so without sounding vulgar or flippant. He made a strong case for the work and seemed to enjoy himself doing so.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 “Scheherazade” is by now so familiar as to be inconsequential, but listen closer and you hear strange snippets of Russian folk tunes and advanced, sometimes startling, turns of harmony. Stravinsky learned more from Rimsky-Korsakov than he would admit.  Harth-Bedoya’s admirable clarity of orchestral texture brought all of this out. Like Ravel’s “Rapsodie,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s four-movement symphonic suite can seduce with color, but the trick is for the conductor to be an Impressionist, not a Fauvist. This Harth-Bedoya largely did, though even he succumbed to the IMAX sensory density of Rimsky-Korsakov’s climaxes, which made an appropriately grand noise. And in the opening movement, he did something I’ve never heard: make the piece sound almost German. His tightly argued and impressively controlled approach transformed Rimsky-Korsakov into a Slavic Richard Wagner.

Harth-Bedoya’s tempo was quite plastic, and he gave his players wide interpretive latitude in the numerous instrumentals that adorn “Scheherazade’s” glittering, Fabergé-egg surface. This is a good way to win the hearts of your musicians — and perhaps ultimately, a job. The audience seemed to like it, too.

It would be nice for whoever is named the new CSO music director to have section players as distinguished as Emmanuelle Boisvert. For 23 years, Boisvert had been concertmaster with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra before she fled the turmoil there less than two months ago to join the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Her presence at the back of the first violins was as notable an example of luxury casting as the venerable shed ever may have seen.

John Chacona is a freelance writer for the Erie Times-News.

1 2 3
Page 2 of 3

Warning: Cannot assign an empty string to a string offset in /homepages/40/d631699921/htdocs/clickandbuilds/TheChautauquanDaily/wp-includes/class.wp-scripts.php on line 492

Warning: Cannot assign an empty string to a string offset in /homepages/40/d631699921/htdocs/clickandbuilds/TheChautauquanDaily/wp-includes/class.wp-scripts.php on line 492

Warning: Cannot assign an empty string to a string offset in /homepages/40/d631699921/htdocs/clickandbuilds/TheChautauquanDaily/wp-includes/class.wp-scripts.php on line 492