POWERS_Keith.jpg

Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Appreciating artists. 2016 on the North Shore, a retrospective.

Appreciating artists. 2016 on the North Shore, a retrospective.

 Dusan Tynek Dance Theatre, at Barker's Quarry, Aug. 2016. Photograph Leslie Bartlett.

Dusan Tynek Dance Theatre, at Barker's Quarry, Aug. 2016. Photograph Leslie Bartlett.

It’s never far away. Not from sight-lines, and not out of mind. Who among us hasn’t taken a previously unexplored diversion in Dogtown, or driven out to the Back Shore—just because—or stopped along Pebble Beach or at Folly Cove just to revel in the latest color of the ocean?

The holidays are a period for reflection and nostalgia, and also for retreat. Retreat into nature seems the most comforting and secure place in challenging times, and on Cape Ann we are surrounded by wonders to observe. But if we are ever inclined to forget it, our artists are there to remind us.

Perhaps every year features art work and performances that regale us with thoughts and insights about the natural world, but in 2016 this seemed more predominant than usual. In February, an insightfully curated show, “Nest,” filled Gloucester’s Trident Gallery. An accompanying show, “For the Birds,” at the Cultural Center of Rocky Neck, complemented the theme. Careful not to prettify any notions we might have about our avian residents, or where and how they live, the exhibitions mixed beauty, danger, and drama.

Nature and the surreal make for fruitful artistic explorations: our wildest imaginings begin with a natural setting, real but mysterious, rooted in the possible but suggesting the absurd, incongruous or mystical. 

The paintings of Leah Piepgras, shown this past spring in “Kalpa,” another small but influential exhibition in Salem State’s Winfisky Gallery, placed human figures in questioning or awakening situations, natural beauty being only a small part of their appeal. 

How much is human nature a part of nature—real, or surreal? The actors at Salem State’s theater department work hard, and present intense productions no matter what they undertake, but this fall’s “Master and Margarita,” directed by Peter Sampieri, stood out among multiple successes in regional theater. 

Creating context and harmony for Mikhail Bulgakov’s outlandish political satire—its setting, ruthlessly oppressive 1960s Soviet Russia, being simultaneously foreign and familiar—the players almost gleefully explored betrayal, corruption, despair and disgust.

Musically, any performance in Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center, with its multistory glass window creating a backdrop of the sea, touches on the natural world. And annually it seems we must qualify any choice of a stand-out performance with the same proviso: dozens of world-class musicians grace the Rockport Music stage each year.

Most notable for this listener was the spotlight commission of the summer chamber festival, Elena Ruehr’s piano quintet “The Worlds Revolve,” her musical investigation into T. S. Eliot’s fourth Prelude (“His soul stretched tight across the skies”).

Blending her love for Eliot’s images, and her own childhood remembrances of the Lake Michigan shoreline (“these gigantic smokestacks that had been long abandoned on a shore, and are overgrown by nature now,” she said), Ruehr made lyrical use of the talents of the Borromeo String Quartet and pianist Donald Berman.

Exhibitions by Ruth Mordecai (a summer show at Trident, beautifully furthering her own mythos and artistic vocabulary), energetic acrylics by Sandra Douglas in Lanesville’s Flatrocks Gallery, a much-needed retrospective of William Meyerowitz’s work in Endicott’s tucked-away Heftler Gallery, and even the airy Childe Hassam exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum, as summery and insubstantial as it was, were all natural signposts, guiding us through the year.

But the grandest intersection of art and nature happens out in the woods each summer, with the ongoing Quarry Dance series, presented by Windhover and featuring the Dusan Tynek Dance Theatre. 

This year’s performances, at Barker’s Quarry in Lanesville, held deeper significance for everyone involved. The January passing of Windhover founder Ina Hahn, whose intellect and vision made Quarry Dance happen, along with dozens of others profound artistic experiences over the course of many seasons, made everyone alert not only to the beauty in living things, but the passing of cherished ones.

Windhover takes a deep breath now, before moving ahead with ambitions to build a new indoor dance space and revitalize its programs, under Ina Hahn’s daughter Lisa, who assumes the role of executive director. An extended visit from the Paul Taylor 2 company, planned for this summer, is a step in that direction.

If we need to make an artistic wish list, let us all imagine this future, much of which is already in place: Robust dance offerings on the Windhover campus; continued performance wonders from Rockport Music; the extended growth of major galleries (and the Cape Ann Museum) in downtown Gloucester; and—we’re wishing here, after all—a much needed physical rejuvenation of the Gloucester Stage Company space, matching the artistic rejuvenation that has already taken place under Robert Walsh and Jeff Zinn.

Deep thanks to all those artists who graced Cape Ann’s stages, galleries and theaters this year. Acknowledging your work, observing and also participating in a small way, makes this column a weekly delight.

 

From the GateHouse North Shore papers, published Dec. 23, 2016.

The unfamiliar. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ken-David Masur conducting, Thursday evening, 5 Jan. 2017

The unfamiliar. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ken-David Masur conducting, Thursday evening, 5 Jan. 2017

Challenges: The Dover Quartet, in Rockport, Dec. 9, 2016

Challenges: The Dover Quartet, in Rockport, Dec. 9, 2016