Review: CSO, visual elements star in artful balance of light, heavy themes

Review by Arthur Kaptainis 

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Rendon and Oge Agulue cross the stage as entries from pioneers’ diaries are read aloud and played out onstage, with crosses marking frequent deaths from cholera and measles.

North, South, East, West: All points of the compass have allure, but none stirs us from complacency as mercilessly as the last. As Chautauquans know, the theme last week was “The American West.” As we were reminded in the Amphitheater Saturday night, that theme has lost none of its power to lift our spirits and open our minds.

It would be easy and reasonably accurate to call Go West! a potpourri. There was music, opera, film, dance, drama, photography and recitation. The first half followed a broad chronology from the arrival of Columbus to the end of the Gold Rush. The second dealt, in order, with “Cowboys and Indians,” the “Environment,” the “Great Depression” and “Land’s End.”  But this was — as it had to be — an open and intuitive, rather than methodically, organized show. The West is about opportunity, not destiny.

I have been told that the creative team under Andrew Borba put Go West! together in short order. That deadline might have had something to do with its success.

Spontaneity does not preclude a high artistic level. Such was the caliber that I hate to mention anyone first. Perhaps I can indulge my bias as a music critic and declare at once that the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, under Timothy Muffitt, was the foundation of the evening. Music ranged from the familiar (Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” and Copland’s “Rodeo”) to the fresh (Ricky Ian Gordon’s 2007 opera The Grapes of Wrath) to the treacherous (Honegger’s heavy-metal portrayal of a locomotive, “Pacific 231”). It all came across as it might in a famous concert hall as played by a famous orchestra. No less remarkable were the balanced texture and superb intonation of the string quintet charged with playing selections by Christian Woehr (like Gordon, a composer whose work I want to hear again). Chautauquans are aware that they have terrific musicians on site. Forgive a visitor for being naïvely impressed.

Now that I have gotten that off my chest, I should turn to the visual elements. Some of the dance was in the expected hoedown mode but much of it was lyrical and even classical. One less-is-more highlight was the enchanting pas de deux performed by Anna Gerberich and Pete Leo Walker to a solo by the Cayuga flutist and flute maker Dan Hill.

This interlude spoke of reconciliation between settlers and indigenous people, an ideal we should never abandon — even if it seems painfully elusive to a Canadian.

The harder and darker sides of Western expansionism were not overlooked.

President Andrew Jackson (of Indian Removal Act fame) was cast as the heavy and did not disappoint. We saw historical images of industry, which these days inevitably create environmental overtones. John Steinbeck evoked the hardships of the Depression. Pioneer journals from the 19th century had contemporary impact. How poignant to hear (above Virgil Thomson’s music for the documentary film “The Plow that Broke the Plains”) how Daniel Sharp’s papa managed to “keep poor by hard work” and Lydia Allen Rudd’s matter-of-fact observation: “We passed a new made grave today.”

Still, this was an upbeat presentation, perhaps best embodied by Whitman’s poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!,” which was conveyed (like the other primary texts) with great enthusiasm by members of Chautauqua Theater Company. A cast of dozens performed big-hearted musical numbers (it would hard to imagine a more entertaining conclusion to the first half than “I’m On My Way” from Lerner & Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon) and full-costume opera (William Jennings Bryan’s speech from Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, transported from Norton Hall, made an even better impression in the Amp). In an amusing entr’acte we saw clips from Western-themed movies by Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers and Mae West, while a duo played Scott Joplin’s “Pineapple Rag” on appropriately off-color upright pianos.

All these tributaries flowed vigorously into the central thematic river. Toward the end, the producers of Go West! seemed to redouble the spirit of expansionism by invoking dizzying sequence of images from the 20th century — the Apollo program and the Muppets can be taken to represent the range — as emblems of the energy and enterprise that the West continues to represent in the American consciousness. Americans are Westerners, the show seemed to say, wherever they choose to live.

How to end all this exuberance? Just turn out the lights? Well, this would not do, so “Amazing Grace” was called in to disperse the assembled in a suitably contemplative mood. Is there any kind of event this hymn could not conclude with some propriety?

The final point that needs to be made is that Go West! was decidedly not a high-tech undertaking. No smoke, no lasers, no airborne acrobats, no nonsense. Two giant sheets made do for projections (supervised by Christopher Ash), and these conveyed images as crisply as might a high-definition screen. The crowd gasped when the Rockies rose during the explorations of Lewis and Clark. When you consider the lamentable effects of modern technology on the lively arts elsewhere — Tanglewood this summer has introduced smartphone “lawncasts” for patrons with contemporary attention spans — it might be said that Chautauqua, in its way, is at the cutting edge.

Arthur Kaptainis is a classical music critic from at The Gazette.