The Zen of Zoellner: a 20th anniversary A-to-Z tour of an arts center, a forum, a laboratory and a sanctuary
By Geoff Gehman ’89 M.A.
I’ve always thought of Zoellner as a colossal cultural cruise ship. Anchored in a single harbor, it sails spectators to ports and portals around the world, across the centuries and through styles, genres and idioms. It’s a vessel for tango and tap dancers, Japanese drummers and marching banders, Yiddish actors and rappers, Taiwanese acrobats and Russian ballet skaters, Tony Bennett and Suzanne Farrell and James Earl Jones and Queen Latifah and Lily Tomlin and Yo-Yo Ma and…
I’ve covered 19 seasons of Zoellner events for The Morning Call, ICON magazine and four divisions of Lehigh, including Zoellner itself. I’ve written about everything from acoustics to a Christmas City edition of “A Prairie Home Companion” to the xenophobia of an installation about genocide. In honor of the center’s 20th season I’ve put together an alphabetic cruise on an intergalactic ocean liner.
A: Baker Hall’s acoustics were fine-tuned by the late George Izenour, the Edison of theatrical systems design. One of his tests was a blank shotgun shell triggered by a string pulled by Jeffrey Milet, a now-retired Lehigh theatre professor, one of Izenour’s former students and a collegiate competitive skeet shooter. The blast reverberated 1.9 seconds, Izenour’s ideal length.
B: Bill Gladstone ’51 celebrated the 50th anniversary of his Lehigh class with an exhibit of baseball artifacts collected with his wife Mildred. Items ranged from an 1850 ball made of lemon peel to a stained-glass window from a parochial school to a glove that caught the last out of the 1955 World Series, when the Gladstones’ beloved Brooklyn Dodgers finally defeated their nemesis, the New York Yankees. Gladstone, a Brooklyn native, owns a minor-league baseball team and is a longtime board member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
C: Zoellner is the center of Lehigh’s composing conservatory. Groups on and off campus have premiered works by Eugene Albulescu, David Diggs, Paul Salerni, Steven Sametz and Bill Warfield, all Lehigh teachers who lead university ensembles. Sametz supervises the Summer Choral Composers’ Forum, a 12-year-old laboratory for new pieces. A March summit featured a Lehigh woodwind quintet christening numbers by Salerni, Heather Gilligan ’96, Mike D’Ambrosio ’96, Tae Sakamoto ’02 and John Heiss ’60. On Nov 4-5 singers with Lehigh Choral Arts will debut resident artist Reena Esmail’s “I Rise: Women in Song,” which commemorates 45 years of female students at Lehigh.
D: A rich tradition of family duos will continue in a Feb. 12 recital by harpist Andrea Wittchen and her harpist daughter Samantha, who have spent 20 years as Duo Nouveau. They’ll join Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Ravi and Anoushka Shankar and two duos of Salernis—pianist Paul, percussionist Miles and violinist Domenic. On March 4 Domenic will play a new work by his dad with his new group, the Dali Quartet.
E: Kristen Chenoweth was an emergency replacement for an ill Katherine McPhee, the original star of Zoellner’s 2012 gala. The Lehigh benefit was Chenoweth’s first public performance since fracturing her skull while shooting the TV series “The Good Wife.” She provided plenty of razzamatazz, even razzing the judges who named her second runnerup of the 1992 Miss Pennsylvania Pageant.
F: The 2004 exhibit “Howard’s Brain” enshrined the Rev. Howard Finster, the fabled self-taught artist and self-ordained preacher who enshrined Jesus, Elvis and spaceships in his role as “God’s flashing red light.”
G: Zoellner’s guest artists have included eight drumming ensembles, 10 pioneer jazz fusionists, a dozen acrobatic acts; classical orchestras from a dozen countries, two dozen styles of dance and winners of 90 Tonys and 183 Grammys.
H: Zoellner has been a hip-hop haven for the likes of Russell Simmons’ “Def Jam Poetry on Broadway” and “gEner8-tion Txt,” a year-long urban-culture lab created by 15 students and Kashi Johnson ’93, associate professor of theatre. Johnson also directed a 13-day hip-hop theater festival titled “Say word!”
I: The Flying Karamazov Brothers and the National Acrobats of Taiwan are among the many illusionists who defied gravity and logic in Bethlehem. On April 21 The Illusionists, stars of the hit Broadway revue, will read minds, levitate and escape a watery death.
J: James Earl Jones christened the Diamond Theater in 1997 by reading an unproduced, unscheduled monologue dictated by a suicidal Ernest Hemingway. He also talked shop with Lehigh students preparing August Wilson’s “Fences,” a play that earned Jones a Tony as a towering patriarch.
K: Launched in 1997, the Kenner Lecture on Cultural Understanding and Tolerance has attracted such luminaries as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Bill Bradley, the pro basketball player turned senator. Endowed by Jeffrey L. Kenner ’65, the series continues with a Feb. 7 speech by peace activist Arun Gandhi, Mahatma’s grandson.
L: Lehigh ensembles born in Zoellner include Lehigh Choral Arts, the Lehigh University Philharmonic Orchestra, the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra and the women’s choir Dolce. Programs born in the center include Curtain Warmers, the “Notations” writers series and onstage cabarets
M: For 13 years members of the Lehigh community have been helping musicians at nearby Broughal Middle School by donating instrumental lessons, used instruments and tickets to university concerts. Lehigh volunteers have started classical ensembles at Broughal, helped triple the size of the school’s marching band and created careers for themselves in social work and service.
N: For 13 summers Zoellner hosted the North East Art Rock Festival, (NEARFest), a Mardi Gras-meets-Woodstock spectacle that drew capacity crowds for such seminal progressive rock bands as the Nektar, Renaissance and the Strawbs.
O: O is the sign of a circle, which was completed by a 2016 production of August Wilson’s play “Gem of the Ocean.” It was directed by veteran Wilson actor Akin Babatunde in his role as the first Theodore U. Horger ’61 Artist-in-Residence for the Performing and Visual Arts. Babatunde, who teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas, was recommended for the residency by a former protégé, Darius Omar Williams, assistant professor of theatre and Africana studies and a star of “Gem of the Ocean.”
P: The Christmas-in-the-Christmas City edition of “A Prairie Home Companion” was broadcast live with carols sung by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and a guitarist playing antique instruments from the Martin Guitar Museum. Host Garrison Keillor, who has performed in Zoellner three times, described Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnaces as an “intergalactic battleship.”
Q: Touchstone Theatre’s “Don Quixote of Bethlehem,” a bilingual production with more than 160 performers, began its procession around South Bethlehem in the Zoellner courtyard. Touchstone’s newest processional production, “Jakopa’s Punch,” will debut during “Cirque It!,” a July 14-16 festival of circus arts presented with Zoellner and ArtsQuest, the entertainment/education nonprofit that runs Musikfest and SteelStacks.
R: Zoellner hosted a 2010 reunion for Lehigh’s Mustard and Cheese Drama Society, which for 125 years has been the theatre program’s service-and-support group. More than 20 former members from as far back as the Class of 1955 came from as far as California to watch improvisations, scan scrapbooks and swap stories about staging plays before and after co-education. They celebrated the camaraderie of running one of the oldest theater clubs on an American campus, the only one named after an old-fashioned snack.
S: Deborah Sacarakis is Zoellner’s Swiss Army Knife. The center’s artistic director books seasons of programs, her Lehigh duty for nearly 40 years. She’s been a stalwart singer for Lehigh Choral Arts. She also wrote a poem for the ballet “Small Steps, Tiny Revolutions,” which was premiered in 2012 by the RIOULT dance company. Choreographer Pascal Rioult based elements on pictures that elementary schoolers drew after reading Sacarakis’ “Don’t Go Too Far.”
T: “The Bridge: A Journey Through Illness,” a 2004 exhibit about the insides and outsides of sickness, featured a poem chalked on a black floor by a fictional woman acutely aware of her dying. All the words were white with the exception of “I am molecules breaking apart,” which were as red as blood drops on a tombstone.
U: Ronald Ulrich ’66, chairman emeritus of the university’s board of trustees, celebrated Zoellner’s 10th anniversary by brokering a concert by the New York Philharmonic, which he served as a board member. Ulrich, who raised money for the building of Zoellner, particularly enjoyed a work by Beethoven, his favorite composer.
V: Zoellner has hosted a host of exceptional violinists, including three generations of famous classical players: Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell. This season’s violinists range from music professor Michael Jorgensen, who will perform Brahms sonatas on March 26, to design professor Amy Forsyth, whose Sept. 29 program is inspired by a Zoellner exhibit that “remixes” the legacy of the pioneering botanist John Bartram (1699-1777), who discovered and introduced the rhododendron to North America.
W: Bill Warfield, founding director of the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra, has supervised tributes to pioneers from Weather Report to Stevie Wonder. In 2014 the trumpeter led the first gig by his International Core-Tet, which featured a saxophonist from Denmark and a guitarist and an organist from Czechoslovakia. The combo was funded by a two-year, $20,000 New Directions fellowship from Lehigh’s College of Arts and Sciences.
X: X is the sign for crossroads, which was represented by “Holocaust Project: Darkness into Light,” a partnership between visual artist Judy Chicago and her husband, photographer Donald Woodman. A tapestry weaving anti-Semitism with feminism starred in an art gallery installation that anchored Lehigh’s 2000 semester-long study of “representing” genocide.
Y: Youngsters are educated and engaged every year by low-to-no-cost school shows. This season’s youthful attractions include a March 19 performance of Tout A Trac’s “Alice in Wonderland,” a mask-and-puppet spectacle with a special sensory-friendly performance.
Z: The Zen of Zoellner was personified last September when Bill George ’73, founding ensemble member of Touchstone Theatre, performed a new solo play where he riffed off a Lehigh exhibit of photographs of South Bethlehem over 150 years, a salute to the university’s sesquicentennial. Directed by Augustine Ripa, a founder of Lehigh’s theatre program and a frequent George collaborator, the show included images of Taylor Stadium, which was demolished to make way for Zoellner.