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Arts Around Town: Muhlenberg composer reflects on farewell with concert

Blame it on Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. Rather, blame it on his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. It's a work that influenced then-22-year-old West Coast native Douglas Ovens' life path.

"I heard a recording of that piece one night... listened to it two more times and quit my job the next morning," recalled Ovens, who was a teacher's aide at a high school in Portland, Oregon, and a drummer in bars at night.

Ovens said he told his principal he had discovered he had to be a composer. Though he was playing professionally and did not know how to read music, Ovens said he stayed up nights at Denny's restaurants, memorizing the note names on music paper from his guitar lessons, preparing for the placement test for the theory sequence at Portland Community College, and eight years later, receiving his Ph.D. in composition.

"It's all Bartok's fault," he said.

Ovens' career at Muhlenberg College in Allentown will come to a halt at the end of the academic year, when he and his wife, the former Cindy Baker, return to their West Coast roots (Monterey). But not before Ovens, a professor of music, presents a "farewell" concert of chamber works on April 10 at 7:30 p.m., as part of Muhlenberg's Contemporary Music Festival in the Recital Hall of the Baker Center for the Arts. The event is free and open to the public.

Ovens will be joined on stage by Muhlenberg performance faculty members Tony Simons, clarinet; Audrey Simons, cello; Vincent Trovato, piano; Elizabeth Manus, piano; Alexandra Porter, soprano; James Thoma, percussion, and guest Julie Bougher, violin.

It was 28 years ago that Muhlenberg chose Ovens to conduct its wind ensemble and also its musicals for the theater department. He said it was made clear they wanted a composer and that was his primary focus. Lastly, they wanted someone who loved classroom teaching "and all of these things came together for me," he said. The fact that he ended up as music department chair for 18 years "was something of an ambush," he said, but he's glad he did it.

The Ovens were one of the first families my own family met when we relocated to Pennsylvania in 1988. The kids are all grown now and successful in their own careers. Mike Ovens is a lawyer in the public defender's office in Pittsburgh, and Tom Ovens works in finance and resides in Annapolis, Maryland. It was evident back then the passion Douglas Ovens had for composing and the classroom.

His musical contributions to the Lehigh Valley will long impact many of its arts organizations. He composed music for the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, and many Muhlenberg theater productions. Outside of the Lehigh Valley, his compositions reached the North/South Chamber Orchestra in New York City, Asheville Symphony in North Carolina, and several dance companies. He also has presented his music at festivals throughout the United States and in Japan, Scotland, Poland, Germany, Italy, Argentina, and Finland. His music has been performed by such notables as Idil Biret, Gary Burton, Max Lifchitz and the Talujon Percussion Quartet.

"Doug Ovens was one of the first people I met and worked with when I was appointed as the music director and conductor of the Allentown Symphony," said Diane Wittry. "The year before my arrival, the ASO had commissioned Doug to write a cello concerto for Fran Rowell, who was then the principal cellist of the orchestra. We premiered that piece the following season and I worked closely with Doug through that entire process. Over the years, I have worked with Doug many times and performed quite a few of his pieces with the Allentown Symphony. He is a consummate musician and composer, a great colleague, and someone who will be greatly missed in the Lehigh Valley."

Most recently, Ovens' "Visible Music" for Bertoia Sound Sculptures and Orchestra premiered with the Allentown Symphony and at the Allentown Art Museum this past November. His original score for Muhlenberg's theater production, "Ubu Roi/King Ubu," directed by faculty member Francine Roussel, premiered in February.

James Peck, a theater professor at Muhlenberg, said Ovens wrote the music for five plays that he (Peck) directed: Howard Barker's "The Possibilities;" Gao Xing Jian's "The Other Shore;" Sarah Ruhl's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando;" Marjorie Barkentin's "Ulysses in Nighttown" (an adaptation of the Circe chapter of James Joyce's novel, "Ulysses"), and Gertrude Stein's "Listen to Me." He also played live for three of the shows.

"Working with Doug has been one of the principal artistic pleasures of my life these last 10 years or so," Peck shared. "He has an uncanny ability to listen to my thoughts about a character or a moment, and to find a way to articulate that idea musically in a way that captures and extends what I've said. His scores create a whole sonic world for the play. Each idea makes sense in its moment, but in addition, all the musical cues taken en masse develop a sophisticated aural texture that expands the work's emotional palate. And he's a joy to work with – supremely gifted, of course, but also one of the smartest, funniest, and most down-to-earth people I know. Just a blast... I will miss Doug terribly."

Ovens said the thing that has stayed constant in his musical life is that he writes the music that he loves and likes music that is different from what he has heard before.

"I like my music to seem to ask questions at least as often as it proposes answers," he explained. "I take the position that if I like it, there is a good possibility some other human might like it, too."

As for memorable Muhlenberg moments, Ovens said he has had many students who were individually fascinating.

"Some were musically very gifted and many were simply excited to continue to develop as musicians while at Muhlenberg and pursuing other career goals," he said.

He got to host some of the most notable musicians of his time, including vibes virtuoso Gary Burton, composer George Crumb, "and work with truly inspiring colleagues," citing jazz bassist Charles Fambrough.

What has changed from when he first started teaching?

"Everything has changed," Ovens stressed. "... Today, musicians must be entrepreneurs. Many of the old structures that provided a path for people in the past are gone. Everyone has to make their own way but, having said that, there are actually more opportunities for composers today than at any other time. I remember being told as a young composer how hard it was to get American orchestras to play music by American composers. I have been able to write for orchestras about 10 times! That is a tremendous gift for a composer... The technology world (gaming, etc) has also provided a whole new world of options for this generation of musicians."

For further info: muhlenberg.edu


 

ARTS ROUNDUP

Genesius Theatre in Reading is up to it again with Genesius kids in the forefront – this time with "The Music Man Kids," based on Meredith Willson's six-time, Tony Award-winning musical comedy. The production opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and runs through Saturday.

Book, music and lyrics are by Willson, based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey. Fast-talking traveling salesman and master showman Harold Hill rolls into town with "seventy-six trombones" in tow. He can con the people of River City, Iowa, into supporting his 'boys' band,' but can he plan to skip town when he falls for upright, uptight Marian, the town librarian?

The cast includes Berks County kids ranging in age from 6 to 12, and with many of the guy roles being played by older females, "kind of reverse Shakespearean," according to L J Fecho, Genesius' artistic director.

Director is Simmon Fecho, with music directed by Dara Himes, choreography by Caitlin Whelan, and stage management by Ashley Calderon.

Cast members include Gretchen Himlin as Harold Hill; Ellen Rochlin as Marian Paroo; Sophia Ottinger as Mrs. Paroo; Sydney Maher as Winthrop Paroo; Hazel Sensenig as Amaryllis; Brindley Kobularcik as Alma Hix; Riley Mattes as Charlie Cowell; Montana Kindlick as Marcellus Washburn; Sedona Loose as Mayor Shinn; Madelyn Suppa as Eulalie Shinn; Marlee Fraser as Zaneeta Shinn, and Kaylee Gall as Gracie Shinn.

Genesius Theatre is located at 153 North 10th Street, Reading.

For further info: genesiusdifference.org

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Touchstone Theatre ensemble member Christopher Shorr has a story to tell with the world premiere of his original musical satire, "Dictators 4 Dummies," also directed by him and set to run at Touchstone's black box theater on the south side of Bethlehem, April 5-15.

Shorr conceived of an open-ended artistic project back in 2014 titled "The Fascist Playbook," following a conversation with a Hungarian colleague about the rise of fascism in her country. All the warning signs that she shared seemed so obvious, Shorr recalled, wondering why people didn't recognize what was happening. He started turning the project into a musical for an American audience.

His 90-minute dark comedy explores the common tactics of authoritarian regimes and the importance of resisting the rise of would-be dictators.

"It seems like every day, we see stories in the news from all around the world about limitations of freedom, consolidation of power, anti-immigrant policies... and too often these things are wrapped up in a kind of vitriolic nationalism," Shorr said. "We've seen it before. It's a dangerous path."

According to Shorr, the play's action immerses the audience in the fictional "Tyrants of Tomorrow Telethon," a fundraiser for young would-be despots, and with dictatorial celebrity guests. He said the moral interwoven throughout the biting satire is a warning about the dangers of complacency: dictators win only when we play along.

"Dictators 4 Dummies" is recommended for high-school-aged audiences and older. The show contains some profanity, coarse humor, comic violence, and references to the atrocities of war.

A brief post-performance talkback with the playwright and cast will be held following Friday and Saturday performances. Also, "Fig," described as "a hyper-local, super-social magazine all about Bethlehem," will host a First Friday pre-show party on April 6 from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

For further info: touchstone.org

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Longtime Lafayette College art professor Ed Kerns may never eat octopus again, and he's all right with that. For years, he’s been exploring levels of consciousness and using layers of paint to create an abstract understanding of awareness. His "Octopus Meditations" exhibition, opening April 7 at 6 p.m., at Brick and Mortar Gallery, 1247 Simon Boulevard, Suite N101, Easton, is another manifestation of his perception of consciousness. The show runs until May 12.

Paintings from the series have been selected by the biology department for permanent display in the $75 million Rockwell Integrated Sciences Center on the college campus in Easton.

Kerns was inspired by computer engineer Bernardo Kastrup's article about levels of consciousness, Sy Montgomery's book, "The Soul of an Octopus," the topic of physical arrangement, and numerous collaborations with neuroscientists and biologists.

"I wondered what octopus consciousness might look like," Kerns said. "It's sort of a silly question, but it's really about a synthetic idea that a person in a meditative state might reflect on. They are brilliant. They have nine brains and an integrated network, which presupposes a different kind of awareness or consciousness. Humans have a central processing unit with the brain and neurons intimately connected with our body."

For further info: brickandmortargallery.com

***

New York's Bedlam theater group performs George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" and Shakespeare's "Hamlet" beginning at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, at the new Weiss Theater at Buck Hall at the Williams Center for the Performing Arts, North Third and Snyder streets, Lafayette College in Easton.

Directed by Eric Tucker, the 50-some characters of "Saint Joan" and "Hamlet" will be brought to life by actors Aubie Merrylees, Aundria Brown, Kahlil Garcia, and Sam Massaro.

"Saint Joan" will be presented Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; "Hamlet" on Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m.

For further info: williamscenter.lafayette.edu

***

A night of choral music and storytelling from India, South Africa, The Philippines, Venezuela, Nigeria, Australia and Estonia is in store for April 6 and 7 at 8 p.m., at the Zoellner Arts Center at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, when the Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre teams with the Lehigh University Choir, Glee Club and Dolce for "Tell Me A Story." Music will be directed by Steven Sametz; associate director is Sun Min Lee.

"All cultures tell their stories through music," said Sametz, director of Lehigh's Choral Arts and founding director of its Choral Union, and Choral Composers' Forum. He also is artistic director of the professional a cappella ensemble, The Princeton Singers.

"We are happy to bring stories as from the Mi'kmaq indigenous people of Newfoundland, to the stone circles of the Welsh, to the histories of the San People of South Africa," Sametz said.

The featured work, written with Arati Shah-Yukich, and accompanied by Indian ensemble, is a retelling of the Nasimha story from the Hindu tradition, which will feature a 40-foot puppet of Vishnu, rising from smoke and flames, created by Doug Roysdon of the Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre.

For further info: zoellnerartscenter.org

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