August 22, 2019

(++++) NOPE!


Ginny Goblin Cannot Have a Monster for a Pet. By David Goodner. Pictures by Louis Thomas. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Hats Are Not for Cats! By Jacqueline K. Rayner. Clarion. $17.99.

     Absolutely not. There are just some things that characters in children’s books cannot have, cannot do, cannot wear. And the authors are determined to explain why. In fact, David Goodner is so determined to show what the ultra-adorable Ginny Goblin cannot do in her search for an appropriate pet that he brings readers along with Ginny on her quest: “Let’s take Ginny down to the beach.” “Let’s take Ginny out to the hills.” “Let’s take Ginny to the forest.” And so on. The problem is that ever-smiling Ginny – shown by Louis Thomas with two large, sharp, protruding lower teeth, huge head, and standard horns and goblin-green skin – goes to perfectly nice, safe, sweet locations only so she can search for some potential pets that are definitely not nice, safe or sweet. This all starts because Ginny has a habit of keeping goats in the house as pets, and goats are smelly and difficult – one is shown munching on Ginny’s unicorn’s tail. So the narrator and readers accompany Ginny on her search for something more suitable. At the beach, she gets into a Ginny-sized submarine and heads down, down, down in the water, worrying the narrator: “She is not allowed to find the great and terrible kraken.” But of course that monster is just what she does find. Nope! The narrator will have none of that! Then, in the hills, instead of cute and fluffy bunnies, Ginny finds her way to “the ancient misty mountains,” using “a magic map…to wake up a dragon and make him her pet.” Nope! No dragon! Head for the forest! No, no, not “the spooky, twisty part of the forest where all the trees are dead and the grass is scorched.” But that is just where Ginny goes – to catch a basilisk, yet another of the many monsters that she cannot, must not have for a pet. Eventually, Ginny takes a rocket from the space museum – something else the narrator says she is not allowed to do – and journeys to a place where she plans to “catch a space alien that spits acid.” Nope, nope, nope! “Ginny Goblin cannot have a monster for a pet!” So what can she have? Aww…how cute! “Ginny Goblin has a baby goat. Goats don’t crush things in their tentacles or set them on fire or petrify them or try to eat them.” What a great pet for Ginny!  Except…wait…just how and why did this pet quest start in the first place? Ginny Goblin Cannot Have a Monster for a Pet is one of those laugh-out-loud books in which the pitch-perfect narration and delightfully apt illustrations work so well together that it is hard to believe they come from two different people – everything just fits together exactly as it should.

     What is not fitting, at least according to a certain dog as described and illustrated by Jacqueline K. Rayner, is a hat-wearing cat. No, Hats Are Not for Cats! Why not? Well, Rayner’s dog never quite explains that, but is quite clear in stating: “Hats, you see, are for dogs. Like me.” They are certainly not for cats. No matter what sort of hat the cat tries on, it does not pass muster: “Not hats that are big/ or hats that are small./ Hats are not for cats at all.” Rayner’s rhyming text, reminiscent of that of Dr. Seuss, fits well with a story in which both the dog and the cat are drawn in shades of gray, while the hats re multicolored as well as multi-shaped. But they are not for cats: “Not pink or stripy or polka dot./ Dogs wear hats and cats do not!” So the dog proclaims, pointing to a wall-mounted drawing showing a happy dog wearing a hat next to a cat that is wearing one but has a big X through it. The fun here comes from the voiceless cat’s many attempts to come up with some sort of hat that the dog will agree makes sense for felines. But everything falls short, even a super-silly hat composed of fruit that the cat wears while riding a skateboard. Rayner has a great sense of the styles of the chapeaux and some wonderful ways of showing cat poses reflecting each hat of which the dog disapproves: “Not fine hats or flapper. /Not dashing and dapper!/ Not pirate or party!/ Not odd hats or arty!” So says the dog, as the cat cavorts about the page wearing everything from a 1920s-style purple feathered hat to one bedecked with skull and crossbones to a beret that apparently comes with two dripping paintbrushes for the cat to hold in its paws. Eventually the dog’s condemnation of cat hats gets so loud – shown by enormous letters – that the words cover a two-page spread and scare the cat right off the right side of the right-hand page: Hats Are Not for Cats! And so the dog is left alone, surrounded by unworn cat hats. But of course things do not, cannot end there. Back comes the cat, which now does speak, saying, “Hats – ARE for cats.” And a whole troupe of cats, of all sizes and now in all colors, shows up to wear all the various hats that the dog – now hatless – has said are not for cats. But the original cat, after leading the triumphally bedecked feline parade, comes back to the now-sad pup to devise a happy, catty, doggy ending for a thoroughly delightful book, as all the cats (and a few dogs that have now shown up) proclaim together, “Hats are for everyone!” Hats off to Rayner for this rambunctious romp!

(++++) WALL ART, WITH DATES


Calendars (wall for 2020): Farmer’s Market; It’s All Good; Heart and Brain. Universe/Andrews McMeel, $14.99 (Market); Andrews McMeel, $14.99 each (Good, Heart).

     One of the pleasures of wall calendars is their artistic enhancement of whatever wall they hang on: suddenly a bare space reflects your pictorial taste while also giving you an at-a-glance look at the month and at any notes you may have made or appointments you may have coming up. In fact, some wall calendars reflect your taste in, well, taste – such as Farmer’s Market, every page of which displays a mouth-watering display of homegrown or homemade goodies of one sort or another. The art here, by John Burgoyne, makes everything look absolutely scrumptious: a whole set of oranges and tangerines one month offers a brilliant splash of orange and similar colors, while a portrayal of cooking greens makes flat-leaf spinach, collards, curly kale and other green-colored vegetables appear delightfully appetizing. Everything here looks just delicious, with the art showing more-perfect fruits and vegetables than cooks are likely to encounter in real life – for example, a kind of idealization of summer squashes in one month, Latin American vegetables in another. The shapes and colors are genuinely artistic and beautifully arranged and juxtaposed, and the selection of items to put on display is very well done. One month, for example, features exotic mushrooms, including blewit, fairy ring, pioppini and others than may well be unfamiliar even to many cooks but that here look truly tantalizing; another month is called “rustic bread shapes” (after all, farmers’ markets sell more than produce!) and includes ciabatta, boule, baguette and others. What is particularly nice about Burgoyne’s prints is that you do not have to be a dedicated “foodie” to enjoy them: even if you do not care for, say, eggplants, the display of a dozen types of them in many different colors turns part of your wall into an art gallery. As for where to hang this calendar – well, the kitchen is an obvious place, but the shapes and colors will actually enhance any wall space in any room.

     The It’s All Good calendar by Thaneeya McArdle fits anywhere, too, but only if you find a place where both its art and its sentiments mesh with your décor. This is a positive-thinking, 16-month calendar that offers 13 homespun, upbeat sayings rendered in elaborate splashes of colors and shapes – the It’s All Good title itself for September-December 2019 and 12 sayings for the individual months of 2020. The loops, whorls, swirls and intensely bright colors will hark back to “flower power” art of the 1960s for some and will simply be a relentlessly bright-and-light approach for those who do not remember that time period (or do not remember it fondly). For those who do recall the Age of Aquarius, one month proclaims, “Love without Limits,” and another (bedecked with butterflies and flowers) urges, “Let Yourself Be FREE.” McArdle’s style is immediately recognizable on every calendar page, but McArdle – who was born in 1979 and therefore certainly does not remember the Sixties – keeps things varied and interesting by altering her mix of colors, her size and style of letters, and the shapes she uses to communicate her positive messages. “Start Where You Are,” for instance, has the four words running vertically from the top of the page within a ribbon or tube that extends beyond the page’s upper limit and past its lower margin – and while the ribbon/tube is mainly white inside, so the letters stand out, the rest of the illustration is a darker, multicolored, vibrant  mixture of flower petals, teardrops and similar shapes, and even a butterfly. In contrast, “Do What You Love” presents the four words prominently and rather starkly, mostly in italics, in shades of orange/red, against a dark brown background with blue and green stripes framing it to the left and right. Of course, this calendar is only for someone for whom the sentiments resonate – you will be looking at each of them for a month, after all, and at the It’s All Good phrase for four months if you start using the calendar at its earliest point. But who doesn’t need a little uplift? And why not get it each time you glance at a nearby wall? You can even create your own additional page to put up anywhere you like: the calendar includes a bonus black-and-white page by McArdle, without dates, offering the sentiment, “Love Blooms Here” – with flowers everywhere that can be colored exactly as you like, whenever in the year you choose.

     In a way, wall calendars represent a merger of the practical (the neatly laid out dates, each with space for little notes) and the emotional (the art that appears above the dates and sometimes below them as well). You might say that wall calendars are a combination of brain and heart – but you don’t have to say that, because Nick Seluk has said it for you in his Heart and Brain wall calendar. Seluk has one of the cleverest comic-strip ideas of recent times, the sort of notion that you look at and wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It seems obvious but has never been put together this way before: the ongoing conflict between the human heart (emotion-driven, seeking pleasure before anything else, doing whatever is necessary to obtain immediate gratification) and the human brain (planning for the future, figuring things out logically, keeping the impulse-driven heart under control to the extent possible). Actually, in Seluk’s concept, these are not exactly human organs: they belong to “the awkward Yeti,” a blue-furred, anxiety-packed humanoid character about whom it is not necessary to know anything in order to appreciate the Heart and Brain dynamic. What Seluk has done so well with these characters is to keep them true to their clichéd roles while giving them, well, character of their own. They are constantly at odds but are, after all, in the same body, and therefore have no choice but to come to some sort of rapprochement, however unwillingly. Seluk actually peoples his Heart and Brain comics with other organs as well (which means that “peoples” is scarcely the right word), and this calendar shows that in one illustration: the lungs hand a ball labeled “O2” to Heart, who exclaims, “I love it! I’m going to share it with EVERYONE!” And of course that is just what real, honest-to-goodness hearts do by pumping oxygenated blood through the entire body. Clever! So is the rest of this calendar, which features a large heart-and-brain illustration atop each month; a four-panel sequence above September-December 2019, this being another 16-month calendar; and a multi-panel strip running along the bottom of each page for the year 2020 beneath the month’s dates. Occasional character illustrations within the date grid enliven the proceedings further. There is something endearing as well as silly about everything Seluk does with these characters, starting with their appearance: Heart looks sort of like a heart, is red, has huge eyes, and is almost always accompanied by a butterfly that stands, in part, for his flightiness; Brain looks sort of like a brain, is pink, and has no visible eyes, instead wearing glasses with square-to-slightly-rectangular frames. Sometimes these characters get along, as in the December illustration showing them ice skating, with Heart exuberantly pulling Brain into the air as the butterfly hovers between them. But more often, the two have conflicts that every human with a heart and brain will recognize. Heart makes a bad decision and reminds Brain that Brain is supposed to stop him when he is wrong – but when Brain tries, Heart exclaims, “I’m never wrong!” Heart tries to get Brain to pay attention to a large pile of green balls labeled “good,” but Brain is fixated on a single black ball labeled “bad.” With a mess everywhere, Brain tells Heart that chores cannot be put off forever, to which Heart replies, “I have to try!” The amusement of the Heart and Brain calendar is tinged with just enough wisdom and silliness to make this a great choice for any possessor of a heart, brain, and sense of humor – a combination that will surely help anyone get through 2020 or any other year.

(++++) WHAT PIANOS CAN DO


Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 17 and 24. Orli Shaham, piano; St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson. Canary Classics. $16.

Lachlan Skipworth: Piano Trio; Piano Quartet; Clarinet Quintet; Intercurrent; The Night Sky Fall. Akiko Miyazawa, violin; Aleksandar Madžar, Emily Green-Armytage and James Guan, piano; Ashley William Smith, clarinet and bass clarinet; Anna Pokorny, Jon Tooby and Umberto Clerici, cello; Bella Hristova, clarinet; Kate Sullivan, violin; Ben Caddy, viola; Louise Devenish, marimba and psalterphone. Navona. $14.99.

Bill Whitley: Then Elephant Speaks; The Circles, 2017; The Circles, 2010. Elena Talarico and Bill Whitley, piano; Lucia Foti, harp; Stefano Grasso, vibes; Francesco Zago, electric guitars and electronics. Ravello. $14.99.

     There are endless ways to interpret Mozart, endless reasons for doing so, and endless explanations of why one interpretation or another “works” or does not. The reality is that all interpretations “work” if they interest, intrigue, move, engage, attract the audience; in that sense, whether they are academically correct, historically informed, careful to play what the composer expected to hear or more concerned with being heard in a modern setting by contemporary audiences, is largely irrelevant to their “rightness.” This is important to remember at a time when ongoing arguments about piano type, orchestra size, recording venue and more seem never-ending when it comes to music from before the 20th century (and even some from the 20th century). Mozart’s music, like Bach’s, communicates effectively, often brilliantly, whether or not played in the way Mozart played it himself or expected others to play it. Academics can argue whatever points they will, but what ultimately matters is whether performers have something valuable to say, to communicate to listeners, and have found an effective way of bringing it forth. What is striking about the Orli Shaham/David Robertson collaboration in two well-known Mozart piano concertos, on the Canary Classics label, is how well it communicates feelings and expressions that seem “Mozartean” even though there is nothing historically accurate about the recording at all. The orchestra is too large for Mozart’s time, the piano far too big and resonant, the cadenzas not at all in Mozart’s style (especially in the first movement of Concerto No. 24), and Shaham’s playing is far too focused on the emotionally expressive passages of the music – not only in the enormously powerful No. 24 but also in the slow movement of No. 17. Purists will not care for what Shaham and Robertson have done here, although they will (or at least should) appreciate the consistency of these interpretations and the excellent support that the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra accords Shaham. But as a reaching-out CD, as a deeply felt production that connects beautifully and meaningfully with an audience 230-plus years after these concertos were written, the recording is absolutely first-rate. Shaham and Robertson clearly have deep feelings for Mozart that they know how to translate into feelings to be shared with an at-home audience. It is extraordinarily difficult to listen to this recording without giving it full attention: it insists that what it has to say is more important than anything else that may be in a listener’s environment while the disc plays. This is by no means always the case with recorded music, or even with recorded Mozart, which can descend into mere prettiness without the counterbalancing pathos that is one of the signposts of Mozart’s genius. It would be facile and rather silly to say that Shaham and Robertson “channel” Mozart; better to say that they understand Mozart with a thoroughness that allows his music to flow through them and through these performances in a way that connects directly with an audience that, objectively, is immeasurably different  from any for which Mozart wrote or could have written. The way Shaham shapes each individual variation of the finale of Concerto No. 17, the considerable  drama of the coda of that movement, the unbridled intensity Shaham insists on presenting from the start of Concerto No. 24, the almost unbearable heights to which she takes that intensity in the finale of the latter concerto – these and many other touches illuminate aspects of Mozart that have always been there in the score (and of which, to be sure, other performers have also been cognizant), but that Shaham and Robertson connect with tremendous skill in performances that are fully and beautifully integrated from start to finish. This is not “correct” Mozart in the historical sense, but it is hard to escape the feeling that it is very much correct in its effects, its meaning, and its emotional impact. The ultimate test of performances for most listeners is not whether they are historically accurate but whether they are convincing – and these certainly are.

     It is the piano’s percussive elements rather than its expressive ones that tend to be most thoroughly explored by many 21st-century composers, often in contexts that would mystify Mozart and may well mystify many of the people who garner meaning from Mozart’s approach to the instrument and to music in general. In a (+++) release from Navona of the music of Lachlan Skipworth, an Australian composer originally trained as a clarinetist, the piano might seem logically to be a focus of the Piano Trio and Piano Quartet, but in fact it is something of an also-ran among the other instruments in these works and throughout the disc. The reason is that all the Western instruments he writes for are much less meaningful to Skipworth than the shakuhachi, a five-hole bamboo flute – blown into at the end, not transversely – that Skipworth studied for three years in Japan. Although the shakuhachi does not itself appear in any of the music on this disc, the tonal world of the instruments is redolent of Japanese sensibilities, and even the treatment of the clarinet seems informed by Skipworth’s experiences in Japan. Indeed, Skipworth is at pains to try to re-create Japanese musical experiences and sounds using Western instruments, with the result that he builds these pieces from strange-to-Western-ideas rhythmic (and non-rhythmic) groupings, mathematical principles of the sort that underlie the work of many modern Western composers who have become dissatisfied with the traditional tools and sounds of Western music, and so on. His interest seems to be primarily in using the form of pieces for shakuhachi without employing the instrument itself. The result, pleasingly for some listeners but certainly not for all, is a set of pieces in which the basic sound is at least vaguely familiar, while the structural elements are either outré or appear absent altogether. Subsumed within the soundworld of Japanese-style music but limited in performance by the strictures of design of Western instruments, the performers on this CD all work hard to convey Skipworth’s “audio vision.” But the extent to which they succeed is hard to determine. The reason is that it is difficult to know just what Skipworth wants an audience to absorb from his music – as opposed to what he wants to put into it. He clearly wants to duplicate and expand upon some of the musical and spiritual feelings evoked in him by his time in Japan and his studies there. But what does this bring to the audience? For instance, iIf Skipworth uses a somewhat aleatoric principle that he calls floating time to try to make performers respond intuitively, rather than at the composer’s direction, to each other, then he is inventing (not exactly “composing”) music that will be different each time it is played – as is always the case with “chance” music. But what about the audience? Is its response left to chance as well, or is Skipworth seeking something more specific? That question is not answered by any piece on this CD. Clearly the sheer sound of these pieces is preeminent in Skipworth’s thinking, which is why he even invented one of the instruments heard on this recording: the psalterphone, a set of metal rectangular tubes. And certainly listeners who enjoy modern sounds for their own sake – athematic, arrhythmic, unmelodic, uneven in tempo and loudness – may be intrigued by Skipworth’s pieces and their unusual melding of Western and Japanese elements. However, it is obvious that Skipworth is not reaching out to a wide audience but to the cognoscenti, however defined.

     A (+++) Ravello disc featuring music by Bill Whitley takes a somewhat more conventional approach to the piano and other instruments, at least part of the time. It also incorporates electronic sounds of various sorts, in the way that many contemporary composers do, setting acoustic instruments against enhanced ones or against actual electronics. Whitley’s music is not the same each time it is heard, but unlike Skipworth’s, this is not because it is filled with chance elements – instead, it is because Whitley offers the music in different mixes and therefore uses it to produce different effects. Then Elephant Speaks in its first iteration here features quiet and basically conventional piano sounds for the first half, before other instruments enter; the pacing is deliberate and the mood quiet and even wistful. The remixed version leans far more heavily on vibes and electric guitars, producing a more otherworldly sound in which there are many echoes of the first version but the context has changed throughout. The Circles, 2017, in its first version, again features a moderately paced, mostly traditionally harmonized piano part, with clear but relatively modest contributions by electronics. The second version of the same piece makes the electronics far more prominent, to the point that the piano sounds as if it is accompanying them rather than the other way around. Aurally much less pleasing, this second version has a more overtly “modern” sound to it as it keeps the electronics front and center. And there is a third version of the same piece – which Whitley wrote seven years earlier than the first two. This is The Circles, 2010, in which the piano is the only instrument present, offering the basics of what would become the more-elaborate works from 2017. Whitley plays this 2010 version himself. This disc provides some interesting insight into the thinking and methods of a contemporary composer, but here as in the Skipworth CD, it is worth asking what the audience is supposed to receive from and then take away from hearing the material. The Whitley disc includes 17 minutes of the two versions of Then Elephant Speaks and 12 of the three versions of The Circles, so listeners get 29 minutes’ worth of five pieces that are really two pieces played and mixed in different ways. Is the result worthwhile? As an audio experiment, it certainly has its moments, and those who enjoy dissecting modern compositional techniques will find the different versions of these works interesting to compare. But listeners without that strong intellectual interest in deciphering Whitley’s musical/electronic thinking will likely find the not-quite-half-hour of material on this disc to be quite a bit more than enough.

(+++) BOTH OVERDONE AND UNDERDONE


Lehár: Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow). Iurii Samoilov, Marlis Petersen, Barnaby Rea, Kateryna Kasper, Martin Mitterrutzner, Theo Lebow, Michael Porter, Gordon Bintner; Chor der Oper Frankfurt and Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester conducted by Joana Mallwitz. Oehms. $28.99 (2 CDs).

     There really should be no apology necessary for operettas, especially ones such as Franz Lehár’s most famous, Die lustige Witwe. But modern opera companies persist in trying to find reasons that it is still all right to stage works such as this – as if, somehow, the operetta genre is less worthy of preservation than that of opera, simply because operettas are generally (but scarcely always) lighter in tone and often involve spoken dialogue rather than recitatives and…well, this is all nonsense, since there are plenty of operas that are fluffier than almost any operetta (Il Barbiere di Siviglia) and plenty of operas that are really stage plays with music and without recitatives (Carmen as Bizet originally conceived it). The notion that there is something inherently déclassé about operetta nevertheless persists, more because of the genre’s reputation for escapism and frivolity that because of any inherent lesser worth. Some operettas, like some operas, deserve to be taken at face value and staged accordingly, and Die lustige Witwe is among them. But presenters persist in looking for ways to make them somehow “more respectable” and thus allegedly more acceptable to modern audiences.

     So the Frankfurt Opera’s 2018 presentation of Die lustige Witwe, preserved in a live recording on the Oehms label, treats Lehár’s work as a play within a play, a venerable approach when trying to take a “meta” view of a work and tell the audience that they and the performers are too worldly and knowledgeable to accept the piece if it is simply offered as the composer intended. CDs do not include visuals, of course, but the 16 pages of photos in the middle of the booklet included with this release show the staging clearly, including the cameras on stage supposedly shooting the whole story for a visual presentation. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and it is a common approach for maintaining audience distance from the characters in the original work. But why do that in Die lustige Witwe? It makes no dramatic sense: the operetta’s principal couple is as modern as can be – onetime lovers separated by circumstance and family issues, and so wounded that she marries a much older man who conveniently dies before the drama starts, while he throws himself into work, drink, and a series of meaningless affairs. And the second couple, if coached and played properly, is damaged in its own way: Camille and Valencienne have an affair despite her being married to a prominent man, but she realizes that they have no future together and he very reluctantly accepts the necessity of parting after proclaiming his deep and genuine love (which she will no longer experience) in the wonderful Wie eine Rosenknospe. Valencienne’s crucial notation on her fan, “I am a respectable woman,” is less a statement of fact than one of determination for the future and resignation to her marital fate – and that makes its importance in the operetta’s denouement all the more bittersweet.

     Virtually none of this comes through in the Frankfurt production. What it offers is basically a “party piece,” which is indeed a legitimate way to stage Die lustige Witwe but which undermines its emotional heft. In this approach, the first act is built around an embassy party, the second around Hanna’s “Pontevedro party” with its celebrated Vilja song, and the third around the party that Hanna stages with the grisettes of Maxim’s so she can prove to Danilo that she truly loves him and get him to admit his feelings to her as well as himself. But take all the posing inherent to partygoing and run it through the notion of everything on stage being acted for the benefit of cameras shooting it for some future purpose, and you make Die lustige Witwe less than it can be and less than Lehár intended it to be.

     What saves the production and makes this two-CD set worth hearing is the quality of the singing and orchestral playing. Iurii Samoilov as Danilo and Marlis Petersen as Hanna are vocally well-matched and handle their arias with skill (although their dialogue tends to be stilted rather than passionate). Barnaby Rea makes a suitably blustery Baron Mirko Zeta, while Kateryna Kasper is a tender Valencienne and Martin Mitterrutzner a reasonably effective Camille – although their relationship is downplayed by having their homespun wishes (Ein trautes Zimmerlein) sung by Danilo and Hanna instead. This was actually done at the operetta’s première, but then the duet was in the third act and carried a different meaning – here it is placed in the first act, as usual when sung by Camille and Valencienne, but it is given to the first couple rather than the second and is sung before Danilo’s entrance aria, which makes no sense whatsoever.

     Joana Mallwitz is a conductor to watch, and hear, in this repertoire: from the first bars of Die lustige Witwe, she leads the production with heady, headlong pacing and superb attention to orchestral detail, bringing out the richness of Lehár’s scoring to a greater extent than most conductors do. She does tend to rush some of the faster music instead of giving Lehár’s wonderful melodies time to breathe their magic, but by and large, she has a strong sense of the beauties of this score. The Frankfurt musicians are absolutely top-notch, and Mallwitz keeps her expectations of them at the highest possible level – with the result that they deliver a first-class performance.

     The overall CD packaging, on the other hand, is third-class. There is a 68-page booklet that includes, in addition to the portfolio of stage photos and other scattered pictures, five pages promoting other Oehms releases, and 26 pages of information on the performers, including extended listings of the accomplishments of singers whose roles are barely visible or audible in Die lustige Witwe. There is no libretto and no link to a place to find it online, and even though the dialogue here is both abridged and altered, none of it is given in the booklet (even in German, much less in translation); and, again, there is no indication of anywhere to find it online. As for the actual story, that is tossed off in a three-page summary, while the music and its innovative elements are barely discussed at all. The result is a presentation that makes the importance and continued popularity of Die lustige Witwe incomprehensible. This is a very fine performance for listeners who speak German and already know this work well, and thus will welcome a chance to hear a good cast present it, in the main, effectively. But it could have been so much more. And it should have been – both the composer and this operetta deserve better than they are given here.

August 15, 2019

(++++) SUPERFICIAL BUT SUPER ENJOYABLE


Just Like Us! Crocs. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.

Earth by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.

Dinosaurs by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.

     No one is ever likely to accuse the long-running Just Like Us! series by Bridget Heos and David Clark of profundity. These short factual books, by combining photography with Clark’s art work, are designed to engage children in nature by pointing out ways in which various animals – and even plants – are a lot like humans, despite the many other ways in which they are quite different. The “a lot like us” concept is, of course, just a hook to get kids interested: those things can’t possibly be much like us, can they? The books’ appeal lies in a response of “you’d be surprised!” And so it is in the latest series entry, which is about crocodilians – not only crocodiles but also alligators, caimans, gharials and muggers, those last being a particular type of crocodile. With their elongated heads, big teeth, and long tails, crocodilians are excellent subjects for caricature, and Clark takes advantage of all their characteristics in his drawings, while the photos throughout the book show how these powerful reptilian water predators really look (for one thing, they are not nearly as big-eyed and bug-eyed as Clark makes them!). Heos does her usual fine job of finding things that these critters have more-or-less in common with humans: they have multiple ways to communicate with each other, from bellowing to making a slapping noise by clamping their mouths shut on the water’s surface; they protect their young, with both mothers and (sometimes) fathers taking care of the little ones; and they love spending time in the sun. The specifics of the comparisons, of course, show how different crocodilians are from humans rather than how similar they are: that sun-basking, for instance, is used by crocodilians to adjust their body heat, since these animals are “ectothermic, or cold-blooded” – kudos to Heos for using both the correct scientific term and the more-common but less-accurate popular one. Heos does her usual good job of mixing interesting facts with the compared-to-us information: again using sun-basking as an example, she points out that because crocodilians do not sweat, they keep their mouths open while sunning so the air can cool them enough to stabilize their body temperature. This neatly explains the very commonly seen pictures in which on-shore crocodilians have their mouths wide open. The lineage of crocodilians is a long one, far longer than the measly one of human beings: Heos points out that modern crocodilians are directly descended from ones that survived the worldwide catastrophe that nearly wiped out the dinosaurs. By the end of Crocs, young readers will likely conclude that crocodilians are not really very much like us after all – but the real point here is not to emphasize similarities that, to the extent that they exist, are very much surface-level. The point is to get kids interested in delving more deeply into the topic – and the fine bibliography at the back of the book provides a number of good places to start doing just that.

     Steve Jenkins’ books of infographics – diagrams, charts and graphs – are no more in-depth than the Heos/Clark series, but they too communicate a good deal of interesting factual information in an appealing, easy-to-grasp form. Books such as Earth by the Numbers and Dinosaurs by the Numbers fit well into our video-focused age by being visually striking, very easy to look at (all the illustrations “pop” against plain white backgrounds), and just informative enough to provide the basics on various subjects and point children toward sources with more-in-depth material (the bibliographies of Jenkins’ books are short, but the sources are well-chosen). Earth by the Numbers contains some material that will likely be genuinely surprising both to young readers and to parents. For instance, it is well-known that most of Earth’s surface is covered by water, and Jenkins shows that visually, but his next visual shows that fresh (drinkable) water represents only a tiny, tiny portion of all the water on Earth, and the visual after that shows that of the very small amount of potable water worldwide, the vast, vast majority is either underground or frozen. Parents and children alike may pause to consider the implication of this – one of many times in Earth by the Numbers that Jenkins visually displays evidence of the fragility of our world and our place in it, without ever saying directly just how delicate our existence is. Earth by the Numbers also includes an explanation of the reason that Mount Everest is Earth’s highest mountain but not its tallest: that distinction goes to Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which is more than 4,000 feet larger in vertical measurement but which has its base deep under the ocean and is therefore highest but not tallest. There are some excellent explanations of natural processes here: “A speedy glacier moves about as fast as a snail crawls.” And there are some genuinely surprising facts: the driest place on Earth is the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, where no rain has fallen for thousands of years. (Chile’s Atacama Desert, which gets about one-twelfth of an inch annually, earns an honorable mention.) And just like Heos and Clark, Jenkins includes a timeline in Earth by the Numbers – starting with our planet’s formation in the unimaginably distant past of 4.5 billion years ago and proceeding to the comparatively recent first appearance of dinosaurs (235 million years ago) and to and beyond the time 66 million years ago when “an asteroid hits the earth and wipes out the dinosaurs.”

     Jenkins’ statement on dinosaurs in Earth by the Numbers is not quite correct, though, and he is well aware of that, as shown in Dinosaurs by the Numbers, which says at the very start that “about 66 million years ago, almost all of them vanished.” That “almost” is important, not so much because crocodilians are still around – they did survive the end of the dinosaur age, but they are not dinosaurs – but because birds are everywhere today. “Birds are living dinosaurs!” exclaims Jenkins, and this is just one of the intriguing pieces of information in Dinosaurs by the Numbers – although it is one that parents and even some children may have heard already. Still, the infographics format of Jenkins’ book makes the facts visually interesting: Jenkins shows a dinosaur skeleton that looks much like the skeleton of a modern bird, and he gives a size comparison among that feathered dinosaur, a modern pigeon, and a human hand. The ability to put things in perspective – whether through timelines or illustrations – is a strength of Jenkins’ books. His creative timeline for “when did the dinosaurs live?” is made up of circles, each representing a million years, and therefore shows in a very striking way just how long the age of dinosaurs lasted and just how short the age of humans has been (humans get just two circles, and that includes going back to the very earliest forms identifiable as human, not the much-more-recent start of Homo sapiens). The scale drawings comparing dinosaurs with modern-day animals also show size in a visually compelling way, including one illustration indicating that the largest dinosaur discovered to date, Patagotitan, was a bit longer than a modern blue whale but definitely less hefty: the blue whale remains the largest animal Earth has ever seen. Dinosaurs by the Numbers includes intriguing comparisons, examples being one of the skulls of extinct and modern creatures, and one of the speed of dinosaurs and that of modern animals – with an explanation of how scientists figure such things out. A two-page “dinosaur facts” presentation after the infographics is a useful feature of Dinosaurs by the Numbers, giving more details on specific dinosaurs and showing how to pronounce the animals’ scientific names. Jenkins’ presentations in his infographics books are not always 100% accurate: the “wipes out the dinosaurs” remark in Earth by the Numbers is one example of this, and another, in Dinosaurs by the Numbers, is his definition of reptiles as “a group of egg-laying animals with scaly skin” – many reptiles give birth to live young (and some dinosaurs may have, too). Nevertheless, Jenkins’ attractively designed, easy-to-look-through books can be a fine foundation for families that want an introduction to some difficult and complex topics – and these books, like those of Heos and Clark, may well inspire parents and children alike to move on to the many more-thorough studies that can be found elsewhere.

(++++) INSPIRING, OR NOT


Calendars (page-a-day for 2020): Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff; Church Signs; Turn Your Smile Upside Down; Shakespearean Insults. Andrews McMeel. $15.99 each.

     Inspiration comes in many forms, and it seems as if most of them can be incorporated into calendars. The page-a-day format lends itself particularly well to the notion of giving yourself a little pick-me-up daily and then keeping it at the front of your mind (by keeping it at the front of your desk or kitchen counter) for 24 hours, then turning to yet another little nugget of wisdom. Certain inspirational calendars are perennials, turning up year after year and being just as appealing in, say, 2020, as in any other year. The specifics shown change, of course, but the basic nature of each calendar, the way each of them offers something upbeat to make daily life a bit easier or more pleasant or more worth thinking about, remains the same. The result is that there is something very comforting about the everyday homespun thinking of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and the short and often amusing offerings in Church Signs. The advice in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff is always on the serious side and takes a bit of time to read and absorb. For instance, “When you stop sweating the small stuff about money, everyone benefits. You’ll feel better, and, what’s more, you’ll probably make more money, too. Any success we enjoy is despite our worry, not because of it! Worry and excessive stress are distractions that keep us from our dreams and from our greatest potential. So as we discover ways to worry less, to ‘not sweat it,’ we ignite that capacity within us.” That is a fair amount to read for a single day’s entry, and is typical of what this calendar offers: nothing epigrammatic, just life advice that takes some time to absorb and is worth glancing at repeatedly during the day to provoke additional thought on whatever that day’s topic may be. Another example: “Learning to be satisfied doesn’t mean you can’t, don’t, or shouldn’t ever want more than you have, only that your happiness isn’t contingent on it. You can learn to be happy with what you have by becoming more present-moment-oriented, by not focusing so much on what you want.” The commentary in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff has continuity – each day’s words, although complete in themselves, also tie into the words of previous and/or following days – so the self-help aspect of this calendar builds throughout the year, encouraging ongoing thinking about who you are, what you have, and where you are going.

     In contrast, Church Signs is as pithy as would be expected for actual church-sign sayings that are meant to be read and absorbed quickly by drivers zipping past places of worship in their cars. Grabbing attention for spiritual and philosophical thoughts – not all of them directly religious – requires figuring out what to say in a few words that will have value and will stay with passersby. Of course, keeping the calendar nearby means you have plenty of time to read and re-read each day’s entry, but these “little sayings to help you on your way” (the calendar’s subtitle) are still meant to be absorbed quickly, then considered at more length when you have time and inclination. The spiritual connotations are sometimes overt here: “No amount of darkness can hide a spark of light.” And they are sometimes definitely worth thinking about: “God doesn’t give you patience, only the opportunity to practice it.” But some of the sayings are quite secular: “An open mind does not always require an open mouth,” and “Every storm runs out of rain eventually,” and “Love is making somebody else’s problem your problem.” A few of the Church Signs entries are to-the-point versions of the sorts of comments to be found in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: “You can have few possessions and still have immeasurable wealth,” and “May the best of your today be the worst of your tomorrows.” But most of the items in Church Signs are designed more for uplift than for traditional self-help: “Freedom is not the right to do as we please, but the opportunity to do what is right.” Not everyone will necessarily find every entry in Church Signs congenial – or every page of any other page-a-day calendar, for that matter – but one of the nice things about these calendar designs is that there is always something new on the next page, and if you do not care for one entry, you may well find that you like the next one a great deal.

     Of course, if you find the whole notion of uplift in calendars such as Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and Church Signs unappealing, then you probably need an anti-inspirational page-a-day calendar. Oh yes, there are those around, too. Just as epigrammatic as Church Signs but considerably more devilish, Turn Your Smile Upside Down is packed with cynicism and negative thinking. “Your fortune cookie is empty. And stale.” So says one entry here – think about it (or, maybe, don’t). “Before you judge me, try walking a mile in my shoes so I can be a mile away from you,” says one page, in a negative spin on the notion of understanding people by putting yourself in their place. “Your workouts aren’t working,” says one bit of discouragement, and “If you succeed, it is only because others have failed more spectacularly,” says another. The relentlessly downbeat – if wry and sarcastic – nature of Turn Your Smile Upside Down continues through the entire year. “Life is just endless anxiety occasionally interrupted by moments of forgetting to have anxiety,” one page states, while another offers a heaping helping of self-doubt: “Has anyone ever really been happy to see you?” As for relationship advice, here that comes in statements such as, “A good partner is someone who hates the same things as you.” True, a little of this goes a long way, and some of it will be a definite turnoff because of the periodic use of four-letter words. But as with the positive-thinking calendars, this negative-thinking one provides just a single thought (or admonition or criticism) each day, which makes its occasional misfires more bearable. Besides, if you hate what you read in Turn Your Smile Upside Down, you are simply fitting the mood of the whole calendar.

     There is a certain amount of creativity in Turn Your Smile Upside Down, to be sure, but for really creative negativism, there is absolutely no substitute for the Bard of Avon, as is abundantly clear in the 2020 version of Shakespearean Insults. Shakespeare was not above writing some really nasty things (and some really profane ones, too: there is even a book called Filthy Shakespeare). It is worth learning or refreshing your memory of Shakespearean English to get the full flavor of the entries in Shakespearean Insults, because in his bid to appeal both to the gentry and to the many lower-class people who attended his plays instead of the nearby bear-baiting and similar entertainments, Shakespeare came up time and again with perfect putdowns. There is the famous one spoken by Hamlet after the prince accidentally kills Polonius, thinking and hoping that he has killed King Claudius: “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell. I took thee for thy better.” There is the description of one character by another in The Taming of the Shrew: “A whoreson, beetle-headed, flap-eared knave!” There is the wish from Henry VI, Part 2: “Mischance and sorrow go along with you!” There is a comment from Titus Andronicus that would never make it onto a church sign: “If there be devils, would I were a devil/ To live and burn in everlasting fire,/ So I might have your company in hell,/ But to torment you with my bitter tongue!” A bit of knowledge of Elizabethan vocabulary helps in conveying the full flavor of some of the comments here, such as, from Twelfth Night, “An ass-head and a coxcomb, and a knave,/ a thin-faced knave, a gull!” But others are every bit as clear in the 21st century as in the 16th and 17th, such as, from Troilus and Cressida: “He has not so much brain as ear wax.” Shakespeare anticipated so much that some of the words in Shakespearean Insults could well appear in Turn Your Smile Upside Down, such as these from As You Like It: “Let’s meet as little as we can.” But on the whole, Shakespearean Insults offers far better language, far meatier thoughts, and far more piercing negative comments than anything to be found in modern-English attempts at snarky humor. The point, though, is that if you do choose to add a little of the snide and sarcastic to your day throughout 2020, you have a number of different ways to do so, whether your tastes run to the language of today or to those of 400-plus years ago.

(++++) OUT OF THEIR ELEMENT?


Gounod: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Beethoven: Variations on themes by Grétry, Paisiello, Righini, and Winter; Piano Sonata in C, WoO 51; Waltzes, WoO 84 and 85. Larry Weng, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

     What “everybody knows” about composers is often just wrong enough to be misleading. Everybody knows that Charles Gounod was an opera composer, and everybody knows that Beethoven was a grand and broad thinker in all his compositions, be they symphonies, string quartets, or piano concertos or sonatas. But the focus on what “everybody knows” has the effect of leaving intriguing portions of composers’ work neglected, unexplored, even dismissed out of hand because they could not possibly be worth hearing – they are just not in keeping with what “everybody knows” is worth listening to. This is a real shame, because it brings the risk of a hidebound “standard repertoire” beyond which listeners hesitate to go lest they be challenged or, more likely, disappointed to find out that what they have long thought about a composer is not quite right after all. It is also a shame because it leaves some fascinating music insufficiently heard – such as the two completed symphonies by Gounod. Dating to the mid-1850s, when Gounod was by no means an inexperienced composer (he was born in 1818), the symphonies are not only worth hearing in themselves but also interestingly reflective of Gounod’s predilection for operatic treatment of the orchestra. A new Chandos recording featuring the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier brings the works’ dramatic and, yes, operatic elements to the fore, and in so doing makes these symphonies more substantial than they might otherwise seem to be. This does not mean Gounod’s symphonies are substantial: nearly three decades after Beethoven’s death, they hark back in most structural ways to the Classical era despite using Romantic-era harmonies. The first, in D, clearly shows Gounod’s debt to Haydn, whom the later composer much admired – in fact, the third movement, although marked Scherzo, is really a minuet, and it uses a Haydn “surprise” characteristic by starting its second half in what sounds like the wrong key. This movement and the symphony as a whole are actually more in French than Austrian style, but some of the key progressions are evidence of Beethoven’s influence. Graceful and lyrical, the symphony has some characteristic Gounod touches, such as considerable use of the bassoon and a concern for establishing the sort of drama that was to appear at much greater length in his operas – here, notably, at the symphony’s very beginning. The second symphony, significantly longer than the first (36 minutes vs. 26), is more Beethovenian than Haydnesque, although here the pleasantly undulating Larghetto possesses pastoral elements more evocative of the French countryside than of anything Germanic. Again the bassoon is prominent, and again the symphony – in E-flat – contains elements of drama; even more, it proffers greater seriousness than does Gounod’s First, although the finale lightens matters up significantly. It would be a mistake to think of these symphonies as musical indiscretions of some sort, as wanderings from the operatic way that was Gounod’s great strength: Gounod continued to be interested in symphonies throughout his life, and an eight-minute fragment of a third symphony still exists – written some 35 years after his two complete works in the form. Certainly Gounod was not a major symphonist; but equally certainly, his Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 are deserving of the sort of elegant, poised interpretations they receive from Tortelier and the Iceland ensemble, and are worthy of being heard from time to time strictly on their own merits.

     Whether some of the minor music of Beethoven deserves more-frequent revival is a somewhat different matter. Were the pieces played by Larry Weng on a new Naxos CD not by Beethoven, they would surely be dismissed as inconsequential, perhaps as something even less than “salon music.” But they are by Beethoven and, for that reason, provide an interesting counterbalance to the image of him as always deep, powerful and heaven-storming in his creations. To be sure, most lovers of classical music do know that Beethoven did not develop his very intense and highly personal style, which would usher in the Romantic era, until his encroaching deafness ended his career as a piano virtuoso. Well, it was during that early career as a pianist that he wrote almost every work played by Weng – works that were intended to showcase a pianist’s abilities by creating pleasant-sounding and sometimes highly virtuosic variations on popular tunes of the day. This explains the skill and undeniable care lavished by Beethoven in 1795 on his eight variations on a theme from André Grétry’s Richard Coeur-de-lion that was one of the best-known arias of its time. It explains the seven variations from 1799 on a theme from Peter Winter’s then-popular Das unterbrochene Opferfest, and the nine from 1794 on an aria from La molinara by Giovanni Paisiello – who is now remembered primarily because he was the first to write an opera called Il barbiere di Siviglia, causing consternation both for Mozart (who wrote The Marriage of Figaro partly to avoid issues with Paisiello’s supporters) and for Rossini. And Beethoven’s variation sets on Grétry, Winter and Paisiello, all together, are only about the length of his 24 variations from 1790-91 on an arietta called Venni amore by Vincenzo Righini – a set whose average variation length is just one minute. All these variations show Beethoven’s skill both as composer and as pianist (although his technique at this time of his life is said to have been rougher and less nuanced than it later became). The variations are filled with different moods, tempos, dramatic moments, lyricism, warmth and out-and-out prettiness – that last being a characteristic in short supply in later and more-familiar Beethoven. Weng seems really to have enjoyed unearthing these little gems, which may be semi-precious rather than precious but which are, after all, by Beethoven, and which shed light on a time of his life about which most listeners may know little. And Weng plays three other unusual Beethoven works here as well: a partial sonata, featuring a complete first movement and a second one finished after Beethoven’s death by Ferdinand Ries, dating to 1794 but not published until 1830, three years after the composer’s death; and two waltzes – yes, waltzes! – written by Beethoven late in life (1824 and 1825). There is not much to the waltzes, one of which runs about two minutes and the other of which lasts just 36 seconds in Weng’s performance. But how many Beethoven lovers will ever have heard them before? Nothing here is great music, but it is all music by a great composer – and hearing it actually helps humanize Beethoven by proving that even a monumental genius had a side that could be light, playful, even trivial. Nothing that Weng plays here will add to Beethoven’s reputation, but certainly nothing will diminish it, either, and listeners will be charmed to find out that the well-known Rage Over a Lost Penny rondo was not a one-off in Beethoven’s oeuvre. Indeed, the sense of fun throughout this CD is a pleasing balance for the image of Beethoven as always being stodgy, scowling and super-serious.

(++++) FIVE AND FIVE-PLUS


Brahms: String Quintets Nos. 1 and 2. New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello); Maria Lambros, viola. Naxos. $12.99.

Jan Järvlepp: Woodwind Quintet; Ferdinando DeSena: Sonorous Earth—Quintet for Low Winds; David MacDonald: Stumpery; Craig Peaslee: Dirge & Second Line; Kenneth A. Kuhn: Variations on a Commoner Theme, No. 1. Arcadian Winds (Vanessa Holroyd, flute and alto flute; Jennifer Slowick, oboe and English horn; Rane Moore, clarinet and bass clarinet; Clark Matthews, French horn; Janet Underhill, bassoon and contrabassoon). Navona. $14.99.

Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings; Dvořák: Serenade for Strings. Archi di Santa Cecilia conducted by Luigi Piovano. Arcana. $18.99.

Alla Elana Cohen: Music for Chamber Orchestra and Chamber Ensembles. Ravello. $14.99 (2 CDs).

     Quartets tend to be more-common instrumental combinations in chamber music than quintets, with the result that quintets start off with a comparatively greater expectation of sonic exploration and higher aims for expressive potential. Among the composers fully aware of the significant additional expressiveness made possible by one added instrument were Mozart and Brahms, both of whom wrote string quintets using two violas – resulting in a richer, warmer sound than in their quartets, but one that never risks becoming muddy or gloomy (Brahms also wrote two string sextets, taking matters even further). Brahms’ two quintets are very different in structure and effect, requiring performers who can probe their intricacies in distinct ways while retaining an overall sense of Brahms’ stylistic characteristics. The members of the New Zealand String Quartet, with the addition of violist Maria Lambros, understand these works’ needs exceptionally well and play the quintets on a new Naxos CD with the warmth and density that both require – neatly highlighting both their similarities and their differences. Brahms’ music is often described as “autumnal,” and this adjective fits Quintet No. 2 – which, inexplicably, is placed first on the CD – very well indeed. This was the last chamber work Brahms wrote before discovering and becoming enchanted by the chamber-music potential of the clarinet, which figured in all his chamber music afterwards (one piece being his Clarinet Quintet). String Quintet No. 2 is a large-scale work with near-symphonic scope in parts (the first movement actually originated with Brahms’ sketches for a fifth symphony). It is a generally inward-looking piece that treats the five instruments, at times, as a kind of miniature orchestra, requiring full sound from the performers at the same time as clarity of individual lines. There is little that “cuts loose” here until the Presto conclusion of the last movement: the quintet is serious throughout, although not stolid, and these performers understand the distinction clearly. Quintet No. 1, written eight years earlier (1882), is an altogether sunnier work, in three movements rather than four – although the central Grave ed appassionato essentially contains a Scherzo in the middle. Brahms is almost never ebullient, but in Quintet No. 1 he is often good-humored, and the work as a whole is much less tightly knit than the latter quintet – which means performers have to hold things together in section after section while still moving the quintet toward a sense of unity that it achieves only in the finale. The skill with which these chamber players handle the two very different Brahms quintets makes this disc a particularly enjoyable one.

     A Navona CD of quintets – for woodwinds rather than strings – is highly enjoyable as well, and is one of those rare anthology discs on which all the composers’ pieces will likely be appealing to listeners who find that they enjoy any of them. The five contemporary composers heard here all write with skill for varying woodwind ensembles, and all have a fine sense of the capabilities – from virtuosic to humorous – of these instrumental groups. Jan Järvlepp’s three-movement Woodwind Quintet starts with a light and bouncy air about it, continues with something more sonorous and serious, and concludes with an athematic movement that neatly reflects its title, “Pyrotechnics.” Ferdinando DeSena’s Sonorous Earth uses lower-pitched wind instruments than are generally heard in ensemble: alto flute, English horn, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon – plus the more-standard French horn. The result is a work with very interesting sounds, almost harmonium-like at some times and often distinctively dark-hued. David MacDonald’s Stumpery is intended to reflect the intertwining roots of trees, but whether or not listeners perceive it as doing so, it is certainly a piece in which the various winds’ sonorities reach for, extend into and ultimately twine around each other in very intriguing ways. It does drag a bit, though. Dirge & Second Line by Craig Peaslee does not: an in memoriam piece intended to reflect some of the sounds of New Orleans jazz processions, it moves along at a deliberate pace for a while before bopping into a much-more-upbeat section of the sort for which New Orleans “jazz funerals” are known. Even more fun than this is Kenneth A. Kuhn’s Variations on a Commoner Theme, No. 1, which is a delight from start to finish. Kuhn’s idea is to create one of those “commoner” (not “more common” but the opposite of “noble”) themes and then have it strive, through a set of variations, to assert its underlying nobility. This is silly in exactly the right musical way: the theme is catchy but not especially distinguished, and the variations are all over the place in speed, accentuation and emotional impact (or lack thereof). Finally, and this is really well done, Kuhn takes this ordinary-sounding set of notes and creates a triumphant final variation that really does have a “noble” sound – success at last for the “commoner” and a thoroughgoing delight not only for listeners but also, it seems, for the Arcadian Winds players, who handle everything on the disc with first-rate style but seem to have reserved a fillip of additional enthusiasm for Kuhn’s work. To be ruthlessly pragmatic, this cannot be the case, since these pieces were recorded at different times and Kuhn’s was not the last, but so infectious is Variations on a Commoner Theme, No. 1, that it creates an uplifting conclusion for this entire delightful CD.

     There is, of course, no particular reason for composers of chamber music to stop at an ensemble of five – or six, seven, eight or nine. At some point, though, chamber pieces start to shade over into the realm of works for chamber orchestra, which in their turn usually exist on a broader canvas than smaller-ensemble pieces and proffer a more-substantial sound world – although not necessarily more-complex ideas. The 24-member Archi di Santa Cecilia ensemble provides an interesting example on a new Arcana recording of the string serenades by Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. This is a (+++) CD that is filled with both charms and disappointment. The charms are, first, those of the serenades themselves, which are abundantly packed with beauty for its own sake and a sunniness that, although frequent in Dvořák’s music, is much less often heard in Tchaikovsky’s; and, second, those of hearing expert ensemble playing by highly talented musicians who are surely of soloist quality but who here go out of their way to subsume their individuality into a finely honed group. The disappointment lies in what conductor Luigi Piovano does with all the skilled musicianship at his disposal. All the notes are in place here, but the spirit of the works is lacking: these are expert but unidiomatic performances. In fact, although the Dvořák and Tchaikovsky serenades have some superficial similarities and date to roughly the same time (1875 and 1880, respectively), their sound worlds are as different as can be. But here they sound as if they were composed, well, not by the same composer, but by two much closer in temperament than Dvořák and Tchaikovsky were. The similar sound of the two works’ waltz movements makes this particularly clear: the waltzes both sound rather dreamy and placid, with neither the more-upbeat nature of Dvořák’s nor the slight melancholy of Tchaikovsky’s ever becoming clear. It is a pleasure to have these two highly pleasurable works together on a CD as well-played as this one, but this is nevertheless a (+++) release because of its failure to highlight the substantial differences between the pieces as well as their charming similarities.

     A new (+++) two-CD Ravello set of music by Alla Elana Cohen mixes chamber-orchestra pieces with ones for much smaller groupings – and there is even a string quartet called Three Tableau Noir taken from a chamber opera. Here are a six-movement Partita for chamber orchestra, another chamber-orchestra piece called Inner Temple, plus two works called Prophecies for the same size-ensemble; the string quartet and a quartet called Querying the Silence for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano; a different Inner Temple for cello and piano; and a different Querying the Silence for oboe and cello. The confusing titling is one element that is a bit off-putting here, although the titles do have a purpose: Cohen collects her works in “volumes” and “series” according to what she is trying to communicate, so, for example, the oboe-and-cello Querying the Silence is Volume 1, Series 9, while the identically titled piece for piano and winds is Volume 1, Series 8, with both works having the same philosophical underpinning of trying “to listen to the echo of one’s own words and one’s own thoughts.” All this is well and good – although it could be argued that music in general helps people focus on their own words and thoughts, or distract them from both. But it seems unlikely that most listeners will plod through the 90 minutes of Cohen’s music on these two CDs seeking the specific forms of self-enlightenment to which she wants the works to be devoted. There is certainly cleverness here, notably in Cohen’s Partita, which has touches of humor throughout amid movements with titles such as “Stumbling Sarabande” and “Crazy Courante” – and not even a passing reference to Baroque style, despite those titles. There is some clever orchestration here as well, notably in percussion, but after a while, the piece seems to exist mainly to draw attention to that cleverness and becomes rather overdone. This is a descriptor for most of the music here, in fact: because Cohen writes atonally and with little interest in melody (except in snippets), the main distinctions among the works lie in their instrumentation rather than their musical content in terms of the notes that are played. The oboe-and-cello pieces have clarity that some of the larger-ensemble works lack, but the traditional conversational element of chamber music is always absent, as Cohen creates soundscapes in which the instrumentalists relate to each other only incidentally. In the larger-ensemble pieces, the sound often verges on being actually unpleasant, no doubt deliberately (and in service to the philosophical foundations of the music), but to the detriment of listenability. There is some ethereality to the piano-and-winds quartet that sets it apart from the rest of the music here, and this work’s comparative serenity also contrasts with the mood of most of the other music. But taking all this material as a whole, it is all so similar in sound and approach that listeners who are not already fans of Cohen’s work will likely decide that when you have heard a little of this chamber-and-beyond writing, you have heard it all, or at least enough of it.

August 08, 2019

(++++) CHOOSE YOUR ANIMALIA


Calendars (wall for 2020): A Year of Snarky Cats; Peanuts. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.

     Companion animals, at least the felines and canines that come most readily to most people's minds in connection with the word “pet,” tend to be thought of as either snarky or sweet. And each individual's choice of a companion animal says something about his or her own snarkiness, sweetness, or aspiration to one or the other.

     As with the animals, so with calendars featuring the animals. There is certainly no doubt as to how Dan DiPaolo thinks about cats: the word “snarky” is right there in the title of his 2020 wall calendar. And cats do have a well-deserved reputation for tolerating humans rather than engaging fully with their Homo sapiens companions. On the other hand, cats do not have a reputation for wearing purple sunglasses and sipping from a mug that bears the words, “I’m a lot of work,” which is how the cat on the front of the 2020 A Year of Snarky Cats calendar appears. Early purchasers of the calendar get plenty of time to form a special bond with this particular DiPaolo cat, since this is a 16-month calendar (September 2019-December 2020) and the front-cover cat adorns the page showing all four months of 2019 that the calendar displays. Humans who eventually tire of being stared down by this particular cat may be eager to turn to the January display even before the start of the new year, just to get some relief – which, however, is not forthcoming: it features a slit-eyed reclining cat glancing off to one side, beneath the words, “I’ll just be over here, judging you. So be nice.” Wow – a full year of cat condemnation! Who could possibly want anything more? Well, cat owners – and perhaps a few people who want to be reminded of the reasons they do not own cats – will find plenty to enjoy, or at least put up with, in A Year of Snarky Cats. Each month features a different DiPaolo drawing and different words that cat fanciers (and probably cats themselves) will find very apt indeed. These range from February’s forward-facing, yellow-eyed white cat saying, “Nope, not today,” to December’s Santa-hat-wearing-but-sly-looking black feline commenting, “I chase stuff that twinkles.” Cat owners will find plenty here at which to chuckle or to which to respond with a wry laugh, including one remark that pretty well sums up the entire human-feline relationship, at least where possessions are concerned: “What’s yours is actually mine. How many times do we need to go over this?”

     We tend to think of dogs as being nicer than cats, or at least more accommodating. But surface-level fawning may conceal a rich and varied interior life, as readers of Peanuts learned time and again when Snoopy would refer to owner Charlie Brown only as “the round-headed kid” but had no trouble figuring out whether, on a given day, to battle the Red Baron, transform himself into Joe Cool, perch vulture-like in a tree, take a few turns on the ice (doing either hockey or figure skating), run for political office, or otherwise behave in a distinctly non-beagle-like manner (at least as far as humans know). During the half century in which Charles Schulz created Peanuts, Snoopy’s character grew and changed and managed to become both more and less doglike at the same time – just one of the remarkable elements of this strip, which is 70 years young as of 2020 and continues to delight readers even though Schulz died in 2000 at the age of 77. Snoopy’s extensive fantasy life is only mildly present in the 2020 Peanuts wall calendar, with Snoopy appearing just five times in the 13 large illustrations (13 because this too is a 16-month calendar covering the last third of 2019 and the entirety of 2020). What is especially interesting about this particular calendar is that it shows how well Schulz, whose dialogue was always exceptional, could communicate entirely without words. The large illustrations here are silent, leaving it up to Peanuts lovers to fill in, remember, misremember, or make up the dialogue. One panel shows Snoopy and Charlie Brown, both wearing winter hats, looking off to the right and staring at – what? Snoopy is holding a hockey stick, if that helps. Another shows Snoopy holding his water dish upside-down above his head – which means the dish is empty – while Woodstock sits nearby on the ground, looking even more befuddled than usual because – why? Was he just now under the dish, or in it, or what? The meaning of some panels is clear enough: the only one with letters in it, a sound rather than a word (“BONK!”), shows Schroeder pulling his piano away from Lucy, who is flipped upside-down and has obviously just made one of her usual over-affectionate comments or has managed to insult Beethoven. And some panels need no explanation whatsoever, such as the one for December that shows Snoopy reclining in his famous pose atop his doghouse, which is bedecked with Christmas lights. Snoopy is not much like a real dog – he was, in the early days of Peanuts, but Schulz moved him further and further from “dogness” over time, and in so doing accentuated some canine features while giving Snoopy a personality all his own. The thing is, just as cat lovers and people who know just why they are not cat lovers can enjoy DiPaolo’s snarky cats, so dog lovers and people who are canine-deprived can enjoy Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang. Either of these calendars makes a delightful wall hanging for late 2019 and all of 2020. And of course those who are undecided between cats and dogs – or who prefer, say, axolotls – can get both the DiPaolo and Schulz illustrations and hang them in different rooms. Or in the same room, facing each other in suitably competitive spirit.

(++++) CAT AS CAT CAN


Fearless Felines: 30 True Tales of Courageous Cats. By Kimberlie Hamilton. Scholastic. $9.99.

     Think of an animal that helps humans in many ways, in times of war as well as peace, that assists and inspires and is beloved far and wide, and you probably won’t think of a cat. As delightful as they are in many ways and for many people, cats have a well-earned reputation for being self-willed, standoffish and often downright indifferent to the humans among whom they live.

     Like other generalizations, this one contains enough truth so that the book Fearless Felines will likely come as something of a surprise – even to cat lovers. Kimberlie Hamilton actually offers far more than 30 stories about helpful and, yes, courageous cats, because in addition to the 30 full-page profiles of specific felines, she includes page after page listing other cats that also did remarkable things of one sort or another. And some really are remarkable. For example, a cat named Oscar, who lives in a New England nursing home, has an uncanny but apparently not uncatty ability to know when someone there is about to pass on. Far from frightening people, Oscar appears to soothe their last hours – although, as Hamilton points out, no one knows quite how Oscar knows what he knows. Hamilton follows the story of Oscar with a couple of pages on genuinely spooky cats, such as one that used to haunt the basement of the United States Capitol and another that is still seen from time to time at a hotel in Arkansas.

     The stories here – illustrated in multiple styles by 16 different artists – take place in many times and many countries. There is the “theater cat” named Beerbohm, who once lived behind the scenes on London’s West End and famously appeared in the limelight at least once during every show’s run – always at a completely unpredictable time. There is a cat named Sam who, during World War II, survived the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck, was adopted by the crew of a British ship, survived the sinking of that ship, was taken aboard an aircraft carrier, lived through the torpedoing of that ship as well, and finally – after three shipwrecks in a single year – was moved to land and became the governor of Gibraltar’s chief mouser. Nor was Sam the only politically connected cat: one named Humphrey actually bore the official designation of “Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” and ended up serving three British prime ministers.

     There are also cultural cats profiled in Fearless Felines, and while “fearless” may be an overstatement for them, their stories are certainly interesting. A Philadelphia cat named Nora spontaneously started playing the piano at her home one day and was soon the subject of some of those notorious online cat videos that seem to have sprung up everywhere, but – this is what makes her special – actually inspired a human composer to write a piece called CATcerto that is acknowledged as the first piano concerto ever composed for a cat. And then there is Polar Bear, the stray cat adopted by writer Cleveland Amory that inspired him to write the well-known book, The Cat Who Came for Christmas. And for a story of a different type, Hamilton tells about a Canadian cat named Snowball, whose hair was found at a murder scene and used, through genetic testing, to catch the killer – the first time animal DNA was ever used in a criminal-court trial.

     Hamilton mixes these stories with snippets of information on all sorts of feline accomplishments: the largest known litter of cats was 19, born to a cat in Britain; two cats in Thailand had a 500-guest wedding that cost $24,000; the loudest cat purr ever recorded came in at 86.3 decibels; the oldest known cat was a Texas feline named Creme Puff, who lived to be 38 years and three days old; and so on. There are also a few cat questions here, asking why cats hate getting wet (not all cats do, but many find wet, heavy fur uncomfortable) and why cats love catnip (no one knows, and not all cats find it enticing). And there are fascinating facts in Fearless Felines: Napoleon and Julius Caesar were afraid of cats; cats face more danger when falling from a low place than from a high one; adult cats meow only to communicate with humans; some cat hairballs are the size of baseballs; cats have just 473 taste buds, while humans have 9,000. But the point here is not so much to collect tidbits of factual information on cats in general as it is to learn a bit about 30-plus specific cats and the sometimes surprising and unexpected ways in which they have helped (or at least interacted intriguingly with) humans. And “fur” readers who want to find out even more about these and other fearless (or feckless) felines, Hamilton helpfully provides, at the back of the book, some suggestions for “Furr-ther Reading.”