Saturday, July 12, 2014

Strini Oregon Update, the Riverwest Garden Tour, and Coming Soon

Oregon Trail Update

On June 17, I announced that Lee Ann Garrison and I would leave Milwaukee for Corvallis, Oregon, where she will become the Director of the School of the Arts and Communications at Oregon State University.

Things have happened quickly since then. We listed our Milwaukee home on June 24 and visited Corvallis June 25-30 to look for a home there. Our house sold on June 26, and the next day we put in an offer on a home in Corvallis. Both deals have gone forward; we close in Milwaukee on July 30 and in Corvallis on August 6.

The Oregon Capitol Building
I found Corvallis in particular and Oregon in general to be heavenly. We visited the elegant Art Deco capitol building in Salem and the bustling fishing fleet town of Newport. Interstate 5 is well to the east of Corvallis; no freeways run anywhere near the glorious Oregon coast, which you reach by roads that wind through the coastal mountains and the deep forests and sunny meadows that blanket them.

Wineries are everywhere, and the food and wine culture is very high throughout the region. I look forward to writing about that as the new focus of this blog. (I will gather all the Milwaukee Arts Stories into a single, readily accessed archive and preserve it indefinitely.) The restaurants we visited in Corvallis were very good indeed and modestly priced.

The charming old downtown lies on a flat plain above the Willamette River, which flows north to join the Columbia River above Portland, about 100 miles above Corvallis. The pace of the town was casual in June, but will surely bustle more when the full complement of 27,000 OSU students return to school in the fall. That plain extends miles to the west, where the growing OSU main campus (est. 1868) extends from 11th Street to 35th Street. University agricultural and forestry research lands go far beyond that.

The city streets climb and wind into foothills to the northwest, where streets end when the land becomes too steep to build on. Many houses there nestle into tall timber. No two houses are quite the same, because the landforms dictate irregular lots and hillside building strategies. The long growing season, abundant rain and rich soil make just about every homeowner a serious gardener.

Corvallis spreads to the southwest along the curving course of the Marys River, a sizable tributary of the Willamette. More conventional subdivisions have popped up on more conventional lots on the flat ground near US Highway 20. Another string of steep hills rises around the Corvallis Country Club and its large golf course.



Those homes went up between the mid 1950s and about 1990. Ours dates to 1986, by far the newest of the five houses Lee Ann and I will have owned in our 38 years together. It's perched atop a little mountain,
on a pie-slice lot of maybe a third of an acre on a sharp curve in the little lane. You can't see it in the picture, but a wood-fenced grove of maybe 30 mature oaks is just off to the left of the house. We are in the city limits exactly 2.2 miles from the Memorial Union at the heart of the OSU campus. The clincher for us is the studio space for Lee Ann. The original owner built an annex off the attached garage as a workshop, complete with heat, power, good light and running water. Ideal for a painter.

Leaving Wisconsin Sale

We're starting to pack up for the long move, and we're shedding items we won't need. Some bookshelves, the solid oak kitchen table and chairs my parents bought a month after I was born in 1949, a sweet little half-size guitar suitable for beginner kids, at least one ladder, a snowblower, an electric lawn edger, a couple of sidewalk ice chippers, snow shovels, a nifty desk, books and plenty more all must go, and priced to sell. Email me if you want dibs on anything; tstrini@gmail.com.

Riverwest Garden Tour

Or you could drop by Sunday (July 13), as our house is a stop on the Riverwest Secret Garden Tour; I'll have some stuff out in the garage if you care to shop. Otherwise, just enjoy the last public showing of Lee Ann's exquisite Riverwest garden. Sign up for the tour right here.

Coming Soon to the Strini Blog

I'm not quite through writing about the arts in Milwaukee. I attended the press preview of the Postcards from America photo show at the Milwaukee Art Museum this week and will write that up over the weekend. I do hope to get to the Dancemakers Programs A and B July 24-26 at UWM. And at some point I will have to write that last column about all those music and dance concerts, all those plays, all those operas, all that art, and all those artists I've seen and known over all these years in Milwaukee.

I wouldn't want to leave without saying goodbye.

Oh, One More Thing: Even though I've been AWOL for a couple of weeks, the blog has continued to pile up good numbers. As of today, the page view count is 80,500. Thanks for dropping by, everyone.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Present Music: Ever So Humble

A lot went wrong with Home, Present Music's finale Saturday. Technical problems interrupted the evening a couple of times. A threat of rain forced the amateur groups, which were to provide atmospheric music in Catalano Square Park, into the Broadway Theatre Center.

The Rose Grace Gospel Choir. Angela Morgan photo for
Present Music.
The formal setting of the Cabot Theatre threw too much light on the musical amateurishness of the eight women singing in the Rose Grace Gospel Choir, a small group of young Urban Ecology Center leaders from the Sherman Park and Washington Park neighborhoods, and a pair of kids and their teacher from Carmen High School in Burnham Park.

All would have been more charming in Catalano Square, but some of their charm made it indoors. The big audience took demonstrative delight in seeing and hearing the kids overcome their shyness and enjoy their moments. Inversely, the bold confidence of the Rose Grace ladies as they found their way through "Safe and Free," which they wrote collectively under Kurt Cowling's supervision, could only make you smile. All in all, it was like folk art: Maybe the perspective is off in that naive painting, but something about its blunt honesty and delight in the doing reach out even to a sophisticated viewer.

Those three collective efforts related obliquely to the highly sophisticated, 65-minute Shelter, a collaborative composition by David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, with a libretto by Deborah Artman. Artman's poems, ranging from fragmentary to elaborate, define each of the seven sections. Several of them take the form of litanies. (You can read it here.) The sections also tie to films by Bill Morrison and/or Laurie Olinder. Artistic director Kevin Stalheim, wearing a headset with cues to coordinate music with video, conducted three sopranos, string quartet, flute, oboe, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, piano, electric guitar, bass guitar and percussion.

Chelsie Propst, Jenny Gettel, Cheryl Bensman-Rowe
singing Shelter. Angela Morgan/Present Music.
The composers give no hint in the program as to who composed what. The music varies widely in its sounds, but maintains a rhapsodic mood throughout. You don't analyze this music as it goes by, you enter into its sometimes violent and sometimes calm dream states.

I kept thinking of Philip Glass' landmark Einstein on the Beach; Shelter could be its harmonically denser and somewhat less repetitive grandchild. The music throughout is not exactly tonal. The composers trade in dissonance and consonance less in terms of tension and release and more in terms of timbre. Seconds, sevenths and tritones and thirds, fourths and fifths fall on the ears as harmonic colors, not as components of chord progressions.

Colors of harmony, pitch and orchestration do create moods related to the libretto. For example, shrill winds sound alarms in "Is the Wind," and chattering brass, a chugging bass and driving percussion amplify the sense of urgency. The text asks three key questions in siting a home; the last is "Can I see my enemy?" Artman's litany for "American Home," Shelter's centerpiece, is a long list of everything you need, from 20 yards of concrete to 30 lighting fixtures, for a 2500-square-foot house. The music here percolates and turns very Philip Glass, recalling the "numbers" choruses from Einstein.

The orchestra dropped out entirely in my favorite section, "I Want to Live." Artman reduced the text to "I want to live where you live." Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, Jenny Gettel and Chelsie Propst -- who displayed sterling musicianship and beautiful voices throughout -- turned the words over again and again, changing their harmonic colors, cycling them through rhythms square and syncopated, spinning out a mantra that says everything that needs to be said about love.

Hearing Voices from the upper balcony of the Cabot Theatre.
Angela Morgan/Present Music.
The films -- some of them compilations of found footage of home movies and newsreels from the  1930s, 1940s, 50s and 60s -- are very much in tune with the music. (I wonder which came first?) Morrison's original films for "Is the Wind" and  "The Boy Sleeps" episodes are exquisite: Landscapes pass in a smooth side scroll that varies in speed but never in angle. A red desert gives way to a forest, with trees silhouetted at dusk. Night falls and houses and their lights stand out in the woods. We slow way down and a man takes a long time to open a sash window as we pass. The hyper-realism of it all and the intense awareness of the ordinary are very much the stuff of dreams.

Stalheim collaborated with Sharon Hansen's Milwaukee Choral Artists on vocal projects for years. Hansen has left town and MCA has disbanded, so the newly formed Present Music Hearing Voices made its debut Saturday. Bensman-Rowe, Gettel, Propst, Faith Danneil, Tom Leighton, Daniel O'Dea, Paul Rowe and Lee Stovall sang nifty arrangements of "Our House" (arr. Paula Foley Tillen), "Little Boxes" (Brian Myers) and "The Home Fire" (Nathan Wesselowski) in the first part of the evening. They also sang the a cappella Passacaglia by the fabulously talented Caroline Shaw. Vocalise gives way to a welter of spoken word which in turn gives way to wordless tone in this brief charmer, which turns in large part on the singers' ability to vary timbre from pure tone to the flattest nasality.

Sing it, Kevin. Angela Morgan/PM.
Violinists Eric Segnitz and Naha Greenholtz, violist Erin Pipal and cellist Adrien Zitoun played Bryce Dessner's Aheym. The piece, in one movement, accompanied Matthew Ritchie's video in which abstract floating shapes behave rather like schooling fish. The music contrasts sections of chunky chords spat out in rhythmic unison against watery, layered, interlocking ostinatos mostly in 5/8 time. Lots of imagination here, within a straightforward form of ABA1B1A2B2 etc.

Stalheim ended with his own fun mash-up of Dvořák ("Goin' Home," the "spiritual" back-formation from the New World symphony); a choral reprise of "Our House"; recorded sound effects and quotations from movies regarding the concept of home; wind players in the aisles; a radio account of a baseball player rounding third and going home; a wonderfully robust audience singalong of "Home, Sweet Home"; and Stalheim's debut as a blues-rock singer.

As many of you know, we're about to leave our Milwaukee home. I will miss Kevin and Present Music a great deal.

More Strini on Music.

Angela Morgan photo for Present Music.















Friday, June 20, 2014

Alchemist Theatre's "Oleanna" Cancelled Due to Cease & Desist Order

Press Release Issued Friday Afternoon from Alchemist Theatre:

It is with great sadness that we must announce the cancellation of our production of David Mamet’s Oleanna. We excitedly brought this story to the stage because even though it was written years ago, the unfortunate story that it tells is still relevant today. We auditioned for this show looking for the best talent, not looking for a gender. When Ben Parman auditioned we saw the reality that this relationship which is more about power is not gender specific but gender neutral. We stayed true to each of David Mamet’s powerful words and did not change the character of Carol but allowed the reality of gender and relationship fluidity to add to the impact of the story. We are so very proud of the result of both Ben and David Shapiro’s talent and Erin Eggers’ direction.

From the show’s  program:
A NOTE FROM THE DIRECTOR:
Oleanna was first produced a year after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. It is widely thought to be a direct reaction to the controversy. I think that framework is important, but the play is far deeper than a he-said she-said argument. It never moves in the direction you think it is going. David Mamet is a brilliant wordsmith and pushes his characters (and the actors portraying them) to uncomfortable places that challenge our concepts of right and wrong, political correctness, and action vs. intention. Both characters are flawed. Both make mistakes. In the end, are either of them justified? You decide.
A NOTE ON GENDER FLUID CASTING:
Let me first say that I did not decide to cast Carol as gender fluid to be shocking or controversial or to try to improve on Mr. Mamet’s script. I just really felt and feel that the character he has written is gender fluid. On any given day, in any given act, Carol might identify as female or male or both or neither.
From The Transgender Child by Stephanie A. Brill and Rachel Pepper: "Gender fluidity conveys a wider, more flexible range of gender expression, with personal appearance and behaviors that may even change from day to day. For some children, gender fluidity extends beyond behavior and interests, and actually serves to specifically define their gender identity. In other words, a child may feel they are a girl some days and a boy on others, or possibly feel that neither term describes them accurately."
It is also important to note that a person’s core identity is comprised of the following:
Gender Identity - your deep inner feeling of gender, regardless of anatomy
Style of behavior - your natural inclinations and expressions
Sexual orientation – to whom you are attracted
Let me next say that apart from that casting decision, not a single word or intention has been altered in the script. It is my hope that as soon as the play starts, neither character’s gender identity will not be a distraction. We intentionally did not release the name of the actor playing Carol in advance because we did not want to make the play about the casting. This is a play about words, and that is exactly on what we intend to focus.

Unfortunately, Dramatists Play Service, Inc. who represents David Mamet and who we obtained rights from disagreed and sent us a Cease & Desist letter today. Although we feel very strongly about our respectful and honest portrayal of Mr. Mamet’s work we also feel strongly about protecting his intellectual property rights.

Therefore we will be issuing full refunds and complimentary tickets to another Alchemist show to each ticket holder.

Thank you so much for your support and for allowing us to entertain you.

Erica Case & Aaron Kopec

Owners, Alchemist Theatre




In Oleanna, which Alchemist Theatre opened Thursday, David Mamet drops Carol, the sniveling, failing student, into the office of John, her windy and insecure professor of, oh, educational philosophy or some such course with room for idle, mock-revolutionary blather.

The entire play takes place in that office, which becomes like the cage in a death match.

John expresses sympathy, invites Carol to share her feelings, then cuts her off with his own endless commentaries. A ringing phone interrupts him, again and again, as his wife is trying to settle purchase of a new home. He's just passed tenure review, you see, and he's feeling prosperous.

John's a pompous ass, in a hipsterish sort of way, as played by David Sapiro. But Mamet wrote a level of sympathy into the role, and Sapiro gets that across. He means well, in the way of people who want to feel great about themselves for meaning well. He's blind to the utter pretense of what he imagines to be revolutionary theories about education. He just wants to love his wife and kid, buy a house, get tenure and spend the rest of his days pontificating before adoring students.

John's theories bewilder Carol, who bemoans her stupidity and dismisses John's efforts to buck her up. In that first scene, it's hard to argue with her own self-assessment. John must stop and explain to her the meaning of half the words in his only moderately high-falutin' vocabulary.

Carol becomes increasingly upset; John tries to calm and comfort her. Don't put that hand on her shoulder, John, don't do it... Of course he does it and goes on to offer to give Carol an A for the course if she'll return several times to work independently.

Carol returns, newly armed with the language of militant feminism. That hand on the shoulder was sexual harrassment. She's filed a complaint that could derail his tenure. One thing leads to another, and John tries to restrain Carol when she starts to leave and down the rabbit hole they tumble, into a toxic pit of personal pettiness mixed with gender and academic politics.

They talk and talk and talk as the play goes on and communicate less and less and less. They cannot agree on the meaning of the most ordinary terms. Carol thinks -- or at least her "group" has told her that she thinks -- that John has wielded brutal patriarchal power over her. John has no idea what she's talking about, since he has never felt anything other than utterly powerless in his entire life.

So what seems to be a play about gender issues, politically correct behavior and the absurdities of academic life becomes a play about words: About what happens when words become unmoored from meaning, and what happens to us when the words we've relied upon to describe ourselves in our own minds lose their meaning. Who are we then?

As if all that isn't complex enough, director Erin Nicole Eggers cast a male, Ben Parman, as Carol. For some time, it's hard to tell whether Eggers' gender-fluid casting means to place Carol as transgendered, as transvestite or simply as a man playing a woman, in the straightforward way of a mezzo singing a male treble role in opera or male dancers playing the Stepsisters in Cinderella.
But Parman's costume and make-up just make a nod in that direction. They do not disguise his maleness.

His maleness makes a difference in this play. For starters, Parman stands a head taller than Sapiro, which automatically alters the power balance in a play with physical as well as psychological and verbal conflict. How credible is that crucial rape accusation, to us or to the offstage police, if Carol is both male and bigger than the accused?

This occurred to me only as I left the theater, not while the play was in progress. Parman, a very good actor, sold the physical scenes very well. And legal sticking points aside, the gender confusion his presence brings to the role lines up surprisingly well with Mamet's text, which Eggers did not alter.

Near the end of the first scene, after endless halting, incomplete sentences from Carol and endless boring disquisitions from John, the two characters seem to be nearing some point of human contact.
John is finally ready to listen. Carol begins to reveal the source of her difficulties with life in general and academic pursuits in particular; she says she's ready to tell her "secret." But before she can reveal it, the phone rings again, John answers it, and the moment is lost.

Carol never gets to share her secret with John. But in this particular production at the Alchemist Theatre, we have a pretty good idea of what that secret might be.

Run Cancelled Due to Legal Issues. See Press Release Above.

More Tom Strini on Theater in general.
More Strini on Mamet in particular.






Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Oregon Trail: One More Adventure

Oregon State University, Corvallis, has announced that Lee Ann Garrison, a long-time art professor and administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, will become director of OSU's School of Arts and Communication, effective in August. She will oversee the visual art, music, theater, communications and new media departments.

Lee Ann and I posing with our pet stove, Maury.
As many of you know, Lee Ann and I have been married since 1976. I go where she goes, for love first but for  more than love. Oregon State is an institution on the rise in a progressive state that values and funds education. I'm sure that she will accomplish great things at OSU and I want to help her do that. I am very proud of her.

Of course this means that the 2013-2014 Milwaukee arts season, which more or less ends with the June 21 Present Music program, will be the 32nd and last that I will cover as a critic. I will have more to say about what I've seen and heard and the remarkable people I've known during my Milwaukee tenure. But just now, I'm not feeling so nostalgic.

Just now, I'm looking to the future. Corvallis is a college town of about 60,000, situated on the Willamette River 40 miles north of Eugene and 84 miles south of Portland. I will do what I can to contribute to the arts scene there, but I have no intention of writing 250 stories a year and reviewing shows every weekend. I intend to have a real social life for the first time in decades.

I look forward to teaching at OSU, probably one course a semester, but that is still to be worked out. I like teaching and I'm good at it, and I can teach a variety of courses. But during my four years as senior editor at Third Coast Daily and the last nine months maintaining this blog, I've learned a good deal about social media, content marketing and marketing in general. My summer stint at Northwoods Strategic Web Solutions is proving to be a great education in that direction as well, and I intend to pursue this interesting work in Oregon.

Our house, is a very very very nice house.
I will keep up the blog and might write an arts review here and there, but I'm more inclined to change the focus to food and wine. I'm a good cook, and I understand that a serious foodie culture thrives in Oregon. Over 300 wineries dot the Willamette River Valley around Corvallis. I see myself visiting wineries, getting to know vintners, restaurateurs and chefs and sharing their stories and flavors on the blog. The 132-mile Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway meanders through the heart of Oregon pinot noir country. I can't wait to make that ride and tell you all about it at this very blog.

I might get back into coaching soccer and baseball, and the idea of hiking and camping along the mountain trails that wind the 40 miles to the Pacific appeals to me a lot. I will definitely get my guitar chops back up and write more songs. I want to have some fun.

In the meantime I will continue to cover the Milwaukee arts scene to the extent that it exists in June and July and to the extent that I can manage it amid selling our house and moving 2500 miles.

So if you're wondering, yes! You can still buy an ad at Tom Strini Writes -- act now, before it's too late!

You can also buy one of the sweetest houses in Riverwest on one of the best blocks in Riverwest. I would like to see our house and its gardens, which we have labored over so lovingly, go to a caring owner. If you're interested, you all know where to find me.

But do find me soon. In August, we'll embark on a new adventure, and it's a long way to Corvallis, Oregon.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Optimist Theatre: "Winter's Tale" on a Summer Night

Tom Reed and Beth Mulkerron as Leontes and Hermione.
Michelle Owczarski photo for Optimist Theatre.
The Optimist Theatre tells Shakespeare's convoluted fable, The Winter's Tale, with remarkable clarity at a brisk tempo. The comedy is touching and beautiful in this rendition, but director M.L. Cogar and a cohesive, focused cast don't overlook its dark side.

That resides principally in Tom Reed's Leontes, king of Sicily. He sees his pregnant wife exchanging pleasantries with his oldest, best friend, Polixenes, king of Bohemia, and turns extravagantly and insanely jealous. Reed plays it big, beyond all bounds. Good choice, as Leontes' murderous intent toward Polixenes and fury toward his innocent wife are utterly unjustified and the object of horrified astonishment to everyone at court.

Leontes comes to his senses only after the death of his son and the apparent death of the queen he has wrongly accused of adultery. Reed seems to shrink into himself, and he scales Leontes' penitence in exact inverse proportion to his rage. He made me think of those people who go on murderous rampages and then cannot explain their uncharacteristic behavior and speak of it as "all a dream." The shrinkage allows us a measure of sympathy for for the character, without which the play could not stand as comedy -- the misogyny and violence of it would be unforgivable.

Final redemption for Leontes does not arrive until the end of the play, when he discovers his will was doubly thwarted: That his infant daughter was not killed, as he instructed, and grown into a virtuous young woman; and that his wife returns miraculously to life (or has been in hiding all these 16 years).

Queen Hermione, apparently aware of the years of grief and self-hatred Leontes has suffered, forgives him, in as heroic an act as any committed on any battlefield.

Beth Mulkerron, as Hermione, embodies courage and wins our complete sympathy. During the trial for adultery, her body, recently delivered of a daughter while in prison, begins to fail under Leontes' vicious hectoring. But her determined face and powers of argument remain steadfast, clear, potent. What an actress' face Mulkerron possesses. Her big features play magnificently, and she knows how to use that expressive mouth and big, beautiful eyes to the most finely shaded emotional effect. It may have been Eric Appleton's excellent lighting or perhaps make-up, but all the blood seemed to drain from that face at the terrible news of her baby daughter's abandonment in the wilds of Bohemia came up at the trial.

Mulkerron's work as Hermione would have been enough to make this a great performance. But she returned as Autolycus, the comic thief and con man, in Act 2. Hermione was all about holding a noble line in place. Autolycus is all about moving lithely, like a weasel, and Mulkerron excelled at that as well. What virtuosity!

Mary B. Kababik, as Paulina, roots herself weightily in the stage and looks Leontes right in the eye. Kababik makes herself formidable. Shakespeare labels Paulina simply as the wife of Antigones, but her actions and courage make her something more. Costumer Ellen Kozak gave her a staff and elaborate headdress; Optimist has made some sort of priestess of her, and that works on every level. This Paulina owns undefined but palpable power, which explains Leontes' reluctance to cross her.

Eric Appleton photo
Mark Corkins, as the wronged Polixenes, plays up the nobility. But his vexatious response to the possibility of his princely son marrying a shepherd's daughter riles him up irrationally. Corkins shows a bit of a mirror image to Leontes in that respect, which makes the two characters even more interesting.

I've emphasized the moral weight of this show, but Shakespeare also fills it with low comedy. Mulkerron, in her Autolycus guise, and Jeff Ircink as the Shepherd and Brian Miracle as his Clown offspring, got a lot of laughs. There is romance, too, and Allie Babich and Ethan Hall put stars in the eyes and the loveliest poetry on the tongues of young lovers Perdita and Florizel.

Finally, I wish to commend the setting and the way the entire cast and production team dealt with it. This Shakespeare in the Park production takes place out of doors, at Selig-Joseph-Folz Amphitheatre in Alice Bertschy Kadish Park. That's just south and down the slope from North Avenue, as it winds around Reservoir Park. The setting, above Commerce Street and the Milwaukee River with Downtown in the background, is enchanting. But once the play begins, you won't notice it. The play will be the thing.

The Winter's Tale runs again June 19, 20, 21, 22; 26, 27, 28 and 29with "curtain" time at 8 p.m. But you must arrive earlier than that for a highly recommended close-in seat. All seats are free, but the company enforces a protocol for claiming them.

The Cast
Leontes - Tom Reed*
Hermione/Autolycus - Beth Mulkerron*
Perdita - Allie Babich
Polixenes - Mark Corkins*
Florizel - Ethan Hall
Camillo - Emmit Morgans
Paulina - Mary B. Kababik
Shepherd - Jeffrey James Ircink
Antigonus - Ron Scot Fry
Clown - Brian Miracle
Mamillius - Ashley Jordan
Cleomenes - Beth Monhollen
Emilia - Genessee Spridco
Dion - James Carrington
Mopsa - Liz Fraglia

with The Ensemble: James Carrington, Margaret Casey, Liz Fraglia, Ashley Jordan, Cassondra Gresl, and Linda C. Loving
AND Susan Scot Fry as the Bear

M.L. Cogar directed.
*Indicates member of Actor's Equity Association

Saturday, June 14, 2014

MSO: Friendly, Touching Patriotic Pops

Jeff Tyzik
You have to like Jeff Tyzik, conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony's Patriotic Pops program this weekend.

Tyzik, a modest and good-natured fellow with an endearingly corny sense of humor, had the orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and the audience very much on his side at Friday's opener. And beyond being a nice guy, he's a fine musician -- a solid, clear conductor and terrific arranger.

This early Fourth of July program of course opened with his own bold arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner," which the large crowd sang heartily, and of course ended with John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," which prompted the audience clap along vigorously, both with Tyzik's encouragement.

In between, Tyzik offered some satisfying not-so-obvious choices. I hadn't realized that the march from Monty Python's Flying Circus was in fact Sousa's "Liberty Bell." If you remove it from vintage British absurd humor, you can hear it as one of Sousa's more suave and urbane marches.

He put the chorus to good use in Aaron Copland's suite of four Old American Songs, nostalgic but unsentimental settings of "Zion's Wall," "Shall We Gather at the River," "Simple Gifts" and "Ching-A-Ringa-Ring-Ching-Chaw," a minstrel tune in which the voice is meant to imitate the sound of the banjo.

The chorus also sang the opening chorale of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. A chorus in that piece? That was a complete novelty to me. I did a little digging and have concluded that Tyzik dusted off the arrangement that American conductor Igor Buketoff created in the 1960s for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. It's really pretty cool, and Tyzik was very sophisticated with phrasing and tempos.

The orchestra, attentive and energetic as always, gave Tyzik everything he asked throughout the evening. The players did especially well with John Williams' challenging Liberty Fanfare, written a few years ago for the re-dedication ceremony following the refurbishment of the Statue of Liberty.

Williams' earnest, quiet "Hymn to the Fallen" from his score for Saving Private Ryan followed Tyzik's smartly orchestrated medley of the five service anthems. Tyzik asked veterans in the crowd to stand as the Army, Coast Guard, Marine, Air Force and Navy themes passed in parade. Most of the vets were Vietnam era, with maybe a few Korean War veterans in the mix. Something about the way they stood and the expressions on their faces made this a most touching and emotionally complicated exercise.

The audience, like the orchestra, responded well to Tyzik's cues. We joined in neatly when he turned and prompted us to sing "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "America," "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "America the Beautiful" in a medley. And we whistled competently through the Colonel Bogey March, after Tyzik related an amusing and informative story about the source of that earwormy bit of music.

The highlight of the concert was another oddity, the charming "Maid of the Mist" by H.L. Clarke. Clarke was was the Sousa band's crackerjack first cornetist, and this is one of the showpieces he wrote as a vehicle for displaying his prowess.

Mark Niehaus, the MSO's former principal trumpeter and now its president and executive director, got his cornet out of storage and ripped through the solo part. Not another orchestra exec in the country could pull off such a feat.

Nice going, Mark.

The Patriotic Pops concerts are the MSO's last of the 2013-14 season. Catch the orchestra at Uihlein Hall at 8 p.m. Saturday or 2:30 p.m. Sunday, June 14-15, or you have to wait until September to hear it play. Tickets and further info at the MSO website, or call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

More Tom Strini on Music.

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Kandinsky at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866 – 1944) On White II (Auf Weiss II), 1923
Oil on canvas 41 5/16 × 38 9/16 in. Centre Georges Pompidou,
Musée national d'art moderne, Paris. Gift of Mrs. Nina Kandinsky in 1976
AM 1976-855 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/ Georges Meguerditchian / Dist.RMN-GP
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Guest Blog on Kandinsky by Lee Ann Garrison


Wassily Kandinsky, currently the subject of a visually stunning and intellectually stimulating show at the Milwaukee Art Museum, didn’t set out to be an artist.

In 1885, at the age of 19, he enrolled as a law student at Moscow University. Seven years later, while continuing work on his dissertation, he was appointed associate professor in the Law Department. In 1895, Kandinsky became the manager of a printing factory in Moscow. Later that year, at age 30, he turned down an offer to become president of the university, abruptly abandoned his doctoral dissertation in law and moved to Munich to study painting.

At the press preview tour for Kandinsky: A Retrospective, chief curator Brady Roberts told the story of the abrupt turn in Kandinsky's career path. His epiphanies came in the form of a Wagner opera heard at the Bolshoi and an encounter with one of Monet’s Haystack paintings. Kandinsky didn't recognize the haystack in the picture; he saw only color and form.

Abstraction! Eureka!

This exhibition retraces Kandinsky journey of aesthetic discovery as the artist developed his thinking, encountered various influences and worked within various circles of artists.

Roberts co-curated the show with Angela Lampe of the Centre Pompidou, home of most of the works in this show. At the press tour, they engaged a small group of arts writers with bits of Kandinsky biography and insights into his  work.

In Munich, a major art center at the time, Kandinsky studied painting and propelled himself through all the new exciting art movements percolating through Europe: Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Pointillism, Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism.

Poster for the First Phalanx Exhibition, 1901, lithograph,
19 5/8"x26 5/16." Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national
d'art moderne, Paris
He absorbed the curvilinear abstraction and flat patterning of Jugendstil (Youth Style), the German sibling of the French Art Nouveau decorative arts style. He created an Art Nouveau-style poster for the first exhibition by the Phalanx group of artists in Munich in 1901. Kandinsky was also the group's president.

He painted small, sketch-like naturalistic landscapes with a palette knife. He tried his hand at the Pointillist technique after seeing paintings by Paul Signac. He drew on Russian Icons and medieval imagery to create symbolic scenes complete with knights. He saw paintings by the Fauves on a visit to Paris and absorbed their sense of color.

His enthusiastic approach to his new profession drew young artists into his circle in Munich. The result is the remarkable early 20th century group called Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider), an association of painters centered in Murnau, a town about 60 miles southwest of Munich. The Blue Riders included Kandinsky, Gabrielle Münter (Kandinsky's love interest in his German years), Marianne von Werefkin, Franz Marc, August Macke and Alexej von Jawlensky.

Cover of the 1912 Blue Rider Almanac
They were “art students finding their voice,” according to Lampe, and though Kandinsky was the newest in terms of his time spent studying art, he became a natural leader. They shared an interest in abstracted forms and full intensity colors, which they felt had spiritual values that could counter the corruption and materialism running rampant in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. They studied Theosophy. Rare editions of The Blue Rider Almanac, with Kandinsky’s study for the cover image, and Concerning the Spiritual in Art (still in print today) are on view at MAM.

 The Pompidou’s Kandinsky collection was a gift from the artist's wife of works he retained until the end. Many of the paintings and works on paper in the MAM are making their U.S. debuts. MAM can make particular sense of the Kandinsky works from the Murnau period, as the museum's Peg Bradley collection includes a strong cohort of paintings by Münter, Macke and Jawlensky. And the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis loaned Marc's fabulous The Large Blue Horses.



Gabriele Münter (German, 1877–1962), Boating, 1910,
Oil on canvas, 49 1/4 × 29 in. (125.1 × 73.66 cm), Gift of
                 Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley. Milwaukee Art Museum M1977.128. Photographer credit: Efraim Lev-er© Artists Rights Society
New York / ADAGP, Paris.
Standing figure is Kandinsky.
Blue horses were a frequent motif of both Kandinsky, as he moved from representation to abstraction, and Marc,who used animals as symbols of rebirth.

An entire room of Blue Rider paintings at the Milwaukee Art Museum presents a breathtaking art-historical moment. The artists conceived them together amid philosophical discussions about the nature of art. You can see the dialog among them going on in these works, which have been scattered around the world for decades and will likely never again be viewed together and in context.

As we leave the Blue Riders, we enter a gallery filled with Kandinsky’s studies and paintings. He is now clearly grounded in abstraction and thoughtfully balancing the intuitive and the analytical in Fragment I for Composition VII, Composition VII, (The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), and Small Pleasures, (Guggenheim, NYC), all from 1913, and Painting with a Red Spot, 1914. 

The titles are important to Kandinsky.  In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he explains his three categories:  Impressions are based on direct observation; Improvisations are spontaneous, coming from the unconscious; and Compositions are expressions “of a slowly formed inner feeling, which comes to utterance only after long maturing.”
Wassily Kandinsky, (Russian, 1866 – 1944)
Painting with a Red Mark (Bild mit rotem Fleck), 1914.
Oil on canvas, 51 3/16 × 51 3/16 in.
Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne, Paris
Gift of Mrs. Nina Kandinsky in 1976 AM 1976-853
© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/ Adam Rzepka / Dist.RMN-GP
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 stops this cold.  Kandinsky is forced to leave Germany and his group of painters to return to Russia.

The next gallery has a different feel altogether: black ink drawings against a gray wall, small watercolors on paper.  One wall hosts a series of small realistic paintings that serenely show a happier time. His new Russian wife, Nina (who left the bulk of his artistic estate to the Pompidou in the 1980s) is pregnant with their child. His paintings recount colorful landscapes, a church steeple against a bright blue sky with pink clouds.

This is just before the Russian Revolution and Russians had hopes of a new society led by artists.  His Painting on Light Ground, 1916, and In Grey, 1919, “finished a dramatic period” and create a transition from Russia back to Germany and his next life at the Bauhaus. 

Wassily Kandinsky, (Russian, 1866 – 1944) design for the “Juryfreie” exhibition,
Wall A (Entwurf für das Wandbild in der Juryfreien Kunstschau: Wand A)
, 1922.
Gouache on black paper 13 11/16 × 23 5/8 in. Centre Georges Pompidou,
Musée national d'art moderne, Paris. Gift of Mrs. Nina Kandinsky in 1976
AM 1976-889. © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/ Georges Meguerditchian / Dist.RMN-GP
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.ion
In July 1922, Kandinsky, recently appointed to a Bauhaus Master of the Wall Painting Workshop, received a commission to produce designs for a set of wall murals to line the octagonal entrance hall for a new building.  It was never built, and the murals (painted by Bauhaus students) were destroyed.  At MAM, the small, precise studies for the murals are presented as framed artworks along with photos of Kandinsky supervising Bauhaus students as they painted the murals.

His widow, Nina Kandinsky, had the murals reconstructed for the Pompidou Center when it was built in 1977. During the press tour, as we were imagining seeing the full-scale reconstruction, we turned a corner and peered into the next room: Voila! The entrance hall, remade in Milwaukee. The Pompidou shipped the 20-foot canvases rolled up. Museum staff had to build the octagonal structure, re-stretch the canvases and mount them seamlessly into place. Worth it -- the experience is magical. You walk into a Kandinsky painting. The black walls with bold colors take us from Kandinsky’s earlier biomorphic work through his geometric style in one smooth transition.

Angela Lampe explained that teaching at the Bauhaus inspired Kandinsky to push himself.  Kandinsky believed teaching made him think about what he was doing during the act of creating.  That rang true. I am a painter and often think about how teaching art relates to the way I think about painting. That very act of analyzing art, as part of the creative process is why many of us love to teach. We work intuitively in our studios, yet when we teach we must clearly explain how to make art and how to think about art. The gift in return is the way that articulation informs what we do and pushes us to expand our own intuitive decisions.

Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866 – 1944) Yellow-Red-Blue (Gelb-Rot-Blau), 1925.
Oil on canvas, 50 3/8 × 79 5/16 in. Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris
Gift of Mrs. Nina Kandinsky in 1976 AM 1976-856
© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/ Philippe Migeat  / Dist.RMN-GP
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
From 1922-1933, Kandinsky lived and taught at the Bauhaus with an extraordinary group of artists under the direction of architect Walter Gropius. Kandinsky thrived in this setting. The first issue of the publication Bauhaus was dedicated to Kandinsky. He found success exhibiting his paintings, which took on more geometric edge in the Bauhaus atmosphere.

The Bauhaus was established under the auspices of the provincial government in Weimar. But in 1925, the Bauhaus was forced to leave Weimar and the school moved to Dessau and into a new avant-garde building designed by Gropius. The school's focus turned from the spiritual to art and industry. It flourished until the Nazis forced it to close in 1932.  Kandinsky joined the masters and students in Berlin where they tried and failed to reestablish the school.  The Bauhaus closed for good in 1933.  Kandinsky realized he could no longer teach and work in Germany, so he and Nina moved to Paris on the advice of his friend Marcel Duchamp. 

Kandinsky wrote to Alfred Barr that he loved the diffuse light in Paris.  The gallery walls in this part of the exhibit are pale sky blue.


Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866 – 1944)
Last Watercolor (Dernière aquarelle), 1944
Watercolor, India ink, and pencil on paper
10 1/16 × 13 5/8 in. Centre Georges Pompidou,
Musée national d’art moderne, Paris
Bequest of Mrs. Nina Kandinsky in 1981 AM 81-65-166
© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/ Philippe Migeat / Dist.RMN-GP
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
According to Lampe, Kandinsky's move to Paris and staying there during the war were calculated and strategic moves. Although occupied by the Nazi’s at the time, Paris was still the capital of the modern art world. Kandinsky felt it was an opportunity to sell work and important to his career. This did not turn out quite the way he hoped. He and Nina were Russian and felt isolated. He was an older generation than the artists in favor, Picasso, Miro, and Matisse.

He began to concentrate on his biomorphic approach. He read scientific books to confirm his stance and to promote abstract art. In Paris, his palette turned more pastel, and he began to once again explore his Russian roots as memories came back to him at the end of his life. In 1938, he created Colorful Ensemble as an Easter present for Nina. The painting recalls jeweled Russian Faberge Eggs. 

In June 1942, Kandinsky painted Last Watercolor, Reciprocal Accord and Delicate Tensions, his last large paintings. Kandinsky died in Paris in 1944 at the age of 78.

The depth and breadth of this show, the art-historical context and its way of explicating Kandinsky artistic thinking make Kandinsky: A Retrospective. It gives us the history of 20th-century art through the lens of one of its best painters. Beyond all that, the paintings are a wonder to behold.
Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866 – 1944) Reciprocal Accord (Accord réciproque), 1942.
Oil and Ripolin on canvas 44 7/8 × 57 1/2 in. Centre Georges Pompidou,
Musée national d'art moderne, Paris. Gift of Mrs. Nina Kandinsky in 1976
AM 1976-863 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/ Georges Meguerditchian / Dist.RMN-GP
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Lee Ann Garrison is a professor of art at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a painter and a color theorist. She is also director of UWM's Design Research Institute and currently serves as interim associate dean of both the Lubar School of Business and the Zilber School of Public Health.