May 23, 2013
The Mighty Lalouche. By Matthew Olshan. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
The Man Who Was Poe. By Avi. Scholastic. $6.99.
The Inquisitor’s Apprentice II: The Watcher in the Shadows. By Chris Moriarty. Illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer. Harcourt. $16.99.
Touches of real history enliven these offbeat stories for different age groups – with two tales set in the 19th century and one in the early 20th. The Mighty Lalouche is based on the sport of French boxing, which was popular in the late 1800s and somewhat resembled modern kickboxing; and one of Sophie Blackall’s delightful illustrations is based on a photo (reproduced at the back of the book) of an electric race car from the early automotive age. The story itself – a wonderful concept by Matthew Olshan – is in the traditional “little guy makes good” mode, but is sufficiently offbeat in the telling and pictures so it is anything but formulaic. It is the tale of a small, slight postman named Lalouche who loses his job to automation (those odd-looking cars) and, desperate for money, signs up as a sparring partner for French boxers. He knows nothing of pugilism, much less the French style of the 1800s, but he soon proves to have so much talent and speed that he defeats all the huge, hulking fighters who expect to make short work of him – even those who bend the rules (and Lalouche’s body). Blackall’s illustrations really “pop” from the pages, their three-dimensional look resulting from her very clever process of assembling them in layers, then photographing them. The sense of perspective is overdone in an excellent way, and the characters’ sizes are just right: Lalouche is about the size of the trophies he wins, while his opponents are gigantic as well as very funny (their “biographies” are presented inside the front and back covers). Lalouche eventually retires undefeated and returns to his postal job when the automation attempt fails, and he gets a double happy ending: his job back and a new apartment with a gorgeous view of the Seine. Kids ages 4-8 will root for Lalouche from the start – likely knowing that he will win in the end, but not knowing how delightfully and in how many ways he, along with Olshan and Blackall, will triumph.
Avi’s The Man Who Was Poe is for older readers, ages 8-12, and was originally published in 1989. The new paperback edition offers a welcome chance to read (or re-read) this fascinating novel, in which Poe assumes the role of his famous detective character, C. Auguste Dupin, to help a young boy named Edmund whose sister has mysteriously disappeared. Avi peppers the book with reality: it takes place in 1848 in Providence, Rhode Island, where Poe did live for a time (as did Avi himself); it occurs while Poe is courting a character named Mrs. Whitman, a real woman whom the real Poe actually did court; and even the detail of Poe’s having a daguerreotype made – a scene that proves crucial to the plot – is taken from life, since Poe did have one made in 1848 in Providence at the establishment of Messrs. Masury and Hartshorn, the very place to which Poe and Edmund go in the book. The basic plot, of course, is entirely fictional, involving twins, international travel, stolen gold and a variety of nefarious doings; and the notion of Poe actually using what he called the “ratiocination” employed by his detective is rather far-fetched. But Avi interweaves reality and fiction skillfully through most of the book, even to having Poe perpetually in search of liquor and frequently besotted (in real life, it was because of his drinking that Mrs. Whitman refused him). The novel veers most strongly away from reality at its climax, which involves a boat chase; and there is one unexplained event – unusual for Avi – in which Edmund is “struck from behind” at a crucial moment but then apparently left alone by the evildoers so he can join in pursuing them. The book’s conceit, a clever one, is that Poe is trying to make Edmund’s story into a Poe story, which means it needs even more doom and death than has already occurred; and the similarity of Poe’s first name, Edgar, to that of Edmund, encourages Poe in this off-kilter attempt. Although not one of Avi’s very best books, The Man Who Was Poe stands well above typical preteen mystery adventures in its attention to detail, its sureness of pacing and the considerable interest that Avi brings both to the characters and to the setting.
The setting and details are among the major strengths of The Watcher in the Shadows as well – and this is a case where a sequel is actually superior to an original. Chris Moriarty here returns to the alternative history of New York City in the early 20th century that she began chronicling in The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, but while the earlier book’s fascinating concepts were presented somewhat haphazardly, and its high-quality illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer were sometimes at odds with the text, here Moriarty and Geyer really hit their stride. The result is a taut, well-told, finely paced and genuinely frightening mystery in which family bonds are crucial – even when they are severed – and the existence and use of magic are even more enigmatic than they were in the previous book. The primary cast of characters returns here, with poor Jewish protagonist Sacha Kessler and his blue-blood friend Lily Astral helping Inspector Maximillian Wolf try to root out the improper use of magic in criminal and sometimes deadly enterprises. The polyglot New York of the real world is retained and accentuated here, with Jewish, Italian, Chinese and Irish immigrants fighting for a foothold; and the twisting of real-world names and motivations is fleshed out more satisfactorily than before, with special attention to Lily’s family (Astral rather than Astor) and to the primary evildoer, James Pierpont Morgaunt (rather than Morgan). Wolf, a rather thin character in the first book, is far more fully developed here, as we learn more about him, including where he lives and what some of his fears are. Sacha, who can see others’ magic but cannot – yet – perform any himself, also becomes a more fleshed-out character, learning far more about himself through the mistakes he makes and through a terrible loss that his family suffers at the book’s climax. The strange creature called a dybbuk reappears, of course, and even this shadowy thing becomes more solid and interesting by the book’s end – no less malevolent, but malevolent in, perhaps, a different way (a puzzle to be worked out in a later book). And there is a considerable role this time for a woman who practically oozes evil but, at the same time, exercises considerable fascination on the reader as well as on the book’s other characters: Morgaunt’s librarian, Bella de Serpa, “one of the most talked-about women in New York,” around whom “rumors flocked…like art collectors around a priceless Renaissance Madonna,” although “none of the rumors were even remotely as interesting as Bella de Serpa herself.” What gets the plot moving here and makes it possible for readers who missed the earlier book to pick this one up and start with it, if they so desire, is a very strange murder: a famous vaudeville clarinetist called the Klezmer King is fried on stage, during a show, by his electric tuxedo. Gallows humor, yes, and there is a certain amount of it here to leaven what is essentially a serious and very fast-paced adventure. Sacha grows up quite a bit in this book: in a confrontation with gangster Meyer Minsky (rather than Lansky), in his ongoing and developing relationships with Lily and Inspector Wolf, and in his meeting in Chinatown with Shen – one of the best characters from the previous book, equally intriguing this time. The period elements of The Watcher in the Shadows are effectively integrated into the invented ones, and the book as a whole succeeds on multiple levels: as mystery, as a foray into magic, as a combination of real and alternative history, and as an offbeat coming-of-age novel. There will certainly be at least one more book to come in this series – this one’s ending makes that clear – and readers will be looking forward to it for their next trip back, or sideways, in time.
A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher. By Sue Halpern. Riverhead. $26.95.
The thing about the subtitle of Sue Halpern’s book is that one word is wrong: “unlikely.” There is nothing the slightest bit unlikely about learning elements of “the good life” from dogs, whose relationship with humans is unique and whose live-in-the-moment lifestyle is one to which we non-canines can well aspire. The book’s title sounds like the start of a joke, and may bring to mind an old and highly unethical suggestion: lock your dog and your spouse in a car trunk for a day, then open the trunk – which one is glad to see you? As unpleasant as that idea would be in reality, it encapsulates something about dogs: give them many, many unpleasant moments to live through, and they will make the best of them; and then, as soon as you give them a pleasant moment (the opened car trunk), they will live in that moment with enthusiasm. It is not that they lack memory but that they use it differently from the way people do – better, some would certainly argue.
Whether dogs learn more from us or we from them is a philosophical question whose answer, like most such, largely depends on the thinking of the questioner. Halpern’s book includes the ways in which she teaches her labradoodle, Pransky, as well as those in which Pransky teaches her, and what is most striking about the lessons is that while Pransky learns practical things – including how to get certified as a therapy dog – Halpern learns ones that do not seem to be “practical” in the same way but that are, in the long run, even more valuable. She learns how to be a better human being.
A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home could easily be an exercise in treacle, and it does get rather sticky at times, but by and large, the book is an adventure in which human and dog play equal but differing roles. Halpern and Pransky spend Tuesdays visiting the residents of a public nursing home, encountering pretty much all the amusing and heartbreaking events that a reader will expect, interacting and bonding with the residents in a variety of ways, with Pransky’s instinctive compassion frequently getting the better of Halpern’s more-measured concern. Halpern arranges the book according to the seven virtues as enumerated in Catholicism: love, hope, faith, prudence, justice, fortitude and restraint. The organizing device is convenient but unnecessary, since many of the events in the book fit more than one category. Some, though, fit in only one place: it makes perfect sense for Halpern to place her leash training of Pransky under “Restraint,” with Pransky resisting not out of orneriness but from over-enthusiasm. Halpern does know why this sort of training is crucial: “While to the untrained eye a nursing home may be a hotbed of lassitude, almost everything that goes on there is an accident waiting to happen – people moving slowly, pushing walkers; people breathing with oxygen, tethered to a tank; people undergoing physical therapy in the hallways; people with bad backs who want to bend over to pet your dog – and to whatever extent possible, you want to know that your dog knows how to behave, and that it will listen to you and instantly obey your commands.”
Yes, Pransky and Halpern get certified (or there would be no book), and soon they are paying nursing-home visits that Pransky, being a dog, thoroughly enjoys. Halpern, being a human, finds them making her contemplative: “Did God or religion or faith – whatever that was – become more present and more important when you lived – not to put too fine a point on it – in the shadow of death?” And it is not just the mortality of the nursing-home patients that Halpern thinks about – she contemplates dogs’ lifespans, too, in one of her most affecting passages: “The thing about dogs – the worst thing about dogs – is that they are always dying. Even when they live relatively long lives, those lives are too short…The cratering loss experienced when a dog dies is different from the cratering loss experienced when other loved ones die because the whole relationship, at its core, is about nothing but mutual trust, a trust that is elemental, direct, and uncomplicated. The death of a dog feels like a failure. It feels like goodness itself has been extinguished.” Set against this thought are comments like the one Halpern makes about one of the nursing-home residents: “Even if Clyde did not look at his tomato plants and think, consciously, ‘Here is the cycle of life,’ growing tomatoes gave him a stake in the future, which is how hope prospers. This was a useful thought to hold onto when Clyde began to fade.” The scene that follows this observation is heartrending – as are a number of scenes in the book – but in context, it is not overdone.
Halpern does a particularly good job of balancing the emotional elements of A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home with the practicalities of the experiences that she and Pransky share. “Love was what she did at County, it was what she dispensed and what she engendered. This all came naturally, but once we stepped into County, it was also her job. For my therapy dog, specifically, as for therapy dogs in general, giving and receiving love was as much a vocation as herding was to a border collie. …This was not because she loved unconditionally, but because she loved nonjudgmentally.” And there we have, ultimately, the thinking – and feeling – at the heart of this book, and at the heart of human-canine interactions in general. “In my mind, Pransky’s love was like excess battery capacity that would dissipate if it wasn’t used, but could be shared with others who needed a boost. Once we had been at County for a while, though, I realized I was wrong about this. My dog did not have extra love to give away. Rather, she had the ability to find, tap, and release the reserves in the people she met there.” So it is for this therapy dog and her person, in a story that has something therapeutic in it for dog lovers and other humans everywhere.
How to Talk Minnesotan. By Howard Mohr. Penguin. $15.
The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age. By the Writers of SciLance. Edited by Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis. Da Capo. $17.50.
Instruction manuals can be lighthearted, even frivolous, or super-serious. Here we have one of each. Howard Mohr’s 1987 book, How to Talk Minnesotan, has now been “revised for the 21st century,” which seems a bit odd in light of the fact that the book finds Minnesota largely living in the 19th. Updated or not, the book is filled with the kind of humor usually described as “homespun,” not in the Mark Twain sense but in the Prairie Home Companion sense – no surprise, since Mohr used to write for the show. “If winning is your main goal in Minnesota games of chance, you may win, but you certainly will not be taken as a Minnesotan if you make too big a deal out of it.” “Being too direct in Minnesota is a common mistake made by visitors.” “One natural response to a controversial statement in Minnesota is to end the discussion by saying that’s different.” “Nearly 50 percent of Minnesota conversations are conducted through the side window of a car or pickup while leaning on the fender or hood, 30 percent are conducted over a little lunch at the kitchen table, 15 percent in a rowboat, and the remaining 5 percent take place in movie theaters during the movie. According to a recent study.” The whole book is full of talk like this, except for the portions explaining how to talk like this. The writing is too good-humored to be insulting, too mild to get anyone’s back up (much less the back of anyone from Minnesota), and too low-key to be much fun for anyone who is not a fan of Prairie Home Companion and similar fare. There are chapters on “Lutefisk,” “Oh, for and Heckuva Deal,” “What to Say When Someone Shows You His Smartphone,” “Wyoming, Golf, and the Law, Minnesota-Style,” “Though, Groves, Seniors, and Poker Parties,” and so on. The chapter titles are pithier (the middle letters there are th) than the chapters themselves, which is to say that Mohr tends to take a while getting to the point, which is to say that there is a lot of Mohr-ian Minnesotan in the writing about Minnesota here. Updates on the 1987 edition of the book are scattered throughout, for example regarding romance and marriage: “In 2012 courting in Minnesota by e-mail, by Facebook, and even (though rather rare) by Twitter has a particular fascination for Minnesota men especially, because not one of these media has direct physical contact as a factor in finding a potential love of one’s life, and heck, that sure saves a lot trouble of the kind you can imagine if you had to be there right in person and think of something to say, or be expected to hug or something, or go to a fancy restaurant.” Clearly neither Mohr nor Minnesota has progressed significantly, except in superficial ways, since 1987, and clearly that will make not one whit of difference to anyone wishing to connect with his or her roots, real or imagined, in the Gopher State.
On the other side of the seriousness scale, the 35 members of an online science writers’ group called SciLance offer information on how to work effectively within their field in The Science Writers’ Handbook, which is about as soberly written a book as anyone could want. That leads to an issue not addressed in the book: one reason much science writing is nearly unreadable is that it pays far more attention to accuracy than to comprehensibility. Many other matters, though, are addressed here. The book is divided into three parts called “The Skilled Science Writer,” “The Sane Science Writer” and “The Solvent Science Writer,” the idea being to help readers learn the basic skills of the field, figure out how to be productive in balancing work and the rest of life, and then actually make a living on a freelance science writer’s income. Probably most people considering science writing should check out the final section first to find out about contracts, health insurance, fellowships, social networks and other elements of solvency with which would-be science writers need to be comfortable if they are going to try to make a living in the field. Since each chapter within the three sections is written by a different person, the tone of the book varies quite a bit; and to the extent that the experiences discussed are personal ones, those vary a lot, too. Thus, Emma Marris discusses creating a book about science and offers the subhead, “Writing the Damn Thing,” under which she says, “After the Sturm und Drang of seeking a book contract, it can come as rather a shock that once one is secured you actually have to write the book.” And the reader must decide whether that statement is applicable to him or her – along with such followup remarks as one about the “distraction from book writing [of] the social media and self-branding that seems to take an increasingly large share of writers’ time these days.” Marris also warns that, with a first book, “Your fear-generating apparatus is not yet tuned to the scale of a book, so The Fear may arrive just a little late.” Nor is this the only appearance of capital-F Fear. Andreas von Bubnoff, for instance, brings it up at the very start of a chapter called “Getting the Story, and Getting It Right,” with the comment, “Once you have landed that assignment and have a deadline, you may start to feel what we call ‘The Fear’: That this time, you won’t make it.” If issues of taxes and retirement savings – also covered in the book, albeit in brief – are not scary enough to turn readers away from science writing, perhaps The Fear will be. It is actually a bit difficult to be sure whether the SciLance writers want to bring new people into the science-writing fold or intimidate potential competitors. A good way to decide whether the whole science-writing area appeals to you is to look at the “SciLance says” bullet points at the end of chapters and see whether they make you want to read a chapter in detail or run the other way. “Don’t expect the same level of productivity that you had pre-kids,” says a bullet point at the end of “Children and Deadlines.” “Use envy to show what you want. If you envy a friend’s book, for example, get to work on your stalled book proposal” – this, at the end of the chapter called “Beyond Compare.” “There is no one set of ethical guidelines for science writing or journalism. Each must find his or her own path,” is a comment at the conclusion of “The Ethical Science Writer.” “Figure out how much human interaction you need and want, and plan your work schedule accordingly,” is a bullet point at the end of “The Loneliness of the Science Writer.” If these and similar remarks make you feel that science writing is dismal, dull and frustrating, then The Science Writers’ Handbook will at least have shown that the field is not for you – and indeed, freelance writing in general may be unappealing, since much that this book discusses is equally applicable to other forms of freelancing. If, on the other hand, reading the bullet points makes you feel enthusiastic about plunging headlong into the chapters themselves and getting details on what the everyday lives of science writers (at least the ones contributing to this book) are like, then you will find The Science Writers’ Handbook a useful and even uplifting guide to creating and selling journalistic reports on the many scientific advances of modern times and their impact on people’s everyday lives.
D’Indy: Orchestral Works, Volume 5—Symphonie sur un Chant montagnard français; Prelude to Act I of “Fervaal”; Saugefleurie; Médée. Louis Lortie, piano; Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $18.99.
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1-6, 8 and 9. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Lorin Maazel. BR Klassik. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Weill: Zaubernacht. Arte Ensemble with Ania Vegry, soprano. CPO. $16.99.
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano; Burkhard Fritz, tenor; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Amsterdam, conducted by Marc Albrecht. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
The fifth excellent volume in Chandos’ survey of the orchestral music of Vincent d’Indy provides an unusually clear picture of this composer’s maturation – and, quite unintentionally, gives some hints as to why his music, as well-made as it is, has not retained as much popularity as that of d’Indy’s contemporaries Debussy and Ravel. The earliest work here, Saugefleurie, dates to 1884, when d’Indy was 33, and shows the clear influence of Wagner – whose works meant a great deal to d’Indy until he found his own voice. But the piece, an orchestral suite portraying the doomed love of a fairy for a prince and based on a thoroughly Romantic and rather naïve poem by Robert de Bonnières that Chandos helpfully includes with the CD, lacks both Wagner’s drama and his sense of impending doom. It is nicely put together and transparently orchestrated, but in all is rather pale. Two years later, d’Indy composed what was once a frequently played work: Symphonie sur un Chant montagnard français (“Symphony on a French mountain air”). But this piece has not retained the popularity of two other French symphonies of the same decade: Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” and Franck’s in D minor. A likely reason is that d’Indy’s symphony, although cleverly constructed from a lovely and authentic folk melody, is comparatively monochromatic and offers minimal drama except in a short section of the finale. This is atmospheric and pleasant music that makes a strong impression when played as well as it is by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra under Rumon Gamba – and with Louis Lortie handling the obbligato piano part both skillfully and unobtrusively. But the symphony simply does not have the contrasts of mood and tempo that those of Saint-Saëns and Franck possess. D’Indy’s music had moved to a more-mature phase by the time he composed his first opera, Fervaal, completed in 1895, and extracted a suite from his music for Catulle Mendès’ drama Médée in 1898. By that time, d’Indy’s version of Impressionism had fully taken hold, with the quiet and atmospheric opera prelude ably portraying the sleeping title character without hinting in any way at the drama and heartbreak that are to come in the plot. Similarly, the story of Medea and Jason, as intense as any from mythic times, is smoothed over in d’Indy’s music, with sections labeled Lent et calme, Très lent (three times) and Plus lent pulling the music into a near-dreamlike state that is at odds with the drama and horror of the story. D’Indy’s tone painting is at its best in scenes of gentleness and pastoral relaxation, but that alone is not enough to sustain his longer-form music or, apparently, make it attractive to concertgoers on a continuing basis.
All the music of Schubert, on the other hand, is very attractive indeed – tuneful, often bright, and beautifully flowing. With Schubert, who lived to be only 31, it is very difficult indeed to say which works are those of youth and which are more mature; and the high quality of his music throughout his life makes the task even harder. But certainly when it comes to symphonies, it is clear that the final two – the “Unfinished” and “Great C Major” – are on a different level from that of the earlier ones. Schubert actually left quite a few symphonies unfinished, and even completed one in short score (No. 7) that is almost never heard and that is responsible for the famed two-movement B minor work sometimes being called “No. 7” and sometimes “No. 8.” Lorin Maazel and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks went through the traditional Schubert cycle at a series of live performances in Munich in 2001, and it is those readings that BR Klassik has now made available. Maazel proves to have an excellent way with these works, allowing the first six plenty of lightness and vivacity while giving the “Unfinished” and “Great C Major” considerably greater weight and stature. The early symphonies are far from “throwaways” in this cycle – for example, No. 1 is delivered with a fair amount of pomp, while No. 2 is presented with an almost flirtatious lightness that is very enjoyable indeed. And Maazel allows for the pathos of No. 4 while never attempting to have it live up to its rather inappropriate title of “Tragic”; in fact, the speedy finale is notably buoyant. For the “Unfinished,” Maazel does a fine job distinguishing the melodic lines and harmonies of the two movements while keeping their tempos as close to each other as Schubert rather disconcertingly intended (the first movement is Allegro moderato, the second Andante con moto, which is not all that different). And in the “Great C Major,” whose length – famously described by Schumann as “celestial” – can all too easily lead to discursive performances that sound overly drawn out, Maazel keeps the music moving smartly in the outer movements and Scherzo while allowing the Andante con moto (the same tempo designation as in the “Unfinished”) plenty of room to breathe and expand. Unfortunately, here and elsewhere in these performances, Maazel eschews the exposition repeats that Schubert wanted and that would give all the symphonies the proper scale – a now-outmoded approach common decades ago but much rarer, thank goodness, in the 21st century. There are also some miscalculations in this set, such as too-slow trios in several symphonies’ third movements and a finale of No. 6 that is much too fast (the tempo marking is Allegro moderato, not Allegro molto). Still, the orchestra plays all these works splendidly, and the set as a whole showcases the skill and beauty that Schubert, both in youth and in his far-too-truncated maturity, brought to the symphonic form.
A century after Schubert, although lives tended to be longer, many composers continued to die young. Kurt Weill was one, living to be only 50. Weill’s first stage work, composed when the composer was 22, was a children’s pantomime called Zaubernacht. The first-ever recording of the work in Weill’s original orchestration – which was rediscovered only in 2006 – is now available from CPO, and it is a real treat for anyone interested in Weill’s early cabaret-style Weimar Republic music. The work is in 25 short sections that take place between midnight and 6:00 a.m., a time when toys awaken and lead their own lives. They wake up at the behest of the Toy Fairy, whose “awakening” song is nicely sung by Ania Vegry; a concluding song returning the toys to sleep has not been rediscovered. In any case, the remainder of Zaubernacht is purely instrumental, scored by Weill for a very small ensemble of string quartet, double bass, flute, bassoon, piano and percussion – the percussion being particularly prominent and important in differentiating sections designed for the various toys. This is occasional music, although Weill later turned parts of it into a work for symphony orchestra known as Quodlibet, his Op. 9. The music is light and lighthearted, filled with attractive effects, and in some elements clearly looks ahead to The Threepenny Opera and other works of Weill’s maturity – for instance in a section called Anmutig bewegt (“graceful moves”) and in a short funeral march (there are marches, waltzes and other forms here). The Arte Ensemble handles Zaubernacht with grace and style, not trying to make it more significant than it was intended to be, but allowing its rather naïve (although sometimes rhythmically tricky) passages to flow clearly and cleanly. This is not major or mature Weill, but it is interesting for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is that it was during casting for Zaubernacht that Weill first saw Lotte Lenya (who, however, could not see him in his position behind the piano in the orchestra pit).
Gustav Mahler also died at 50 – seven weeks before his 51st birthday – but left a far larger imprimatur on classical music than Weill did. Das Lied von der Erde is very much a work of Mahler’s maturity, having been composed in 1908-09, after the Eighth Symphony, at the most deeply depressing time of Mahler’s life: his oldest daughter had just died, he had buckled to intense pressure and relinquished his position as director of the court opera, and he had been given the diagnosis of a heart ailment that would soon kill him. As personal in expression as Zaubernacht is impersonal, as intense as Weill’s work is light, as adult in focus as the Weill pantomime is child-oriented, Das Lied von der Erde would be nearly unbearable to hear had Mahler not worked his own Zauber (magic) on the music to create a piece that speaks strongly to the transient human condition but that holds out, at its conclusion, a promise of some (admittedly undefined) eternity. Written for two voices (tenor and alto or baritone, although the paired male voices are rarely used), Das Lied von der Erde is really a melding of three voices: those of the soloists and that of the orchestra, which propels the work, comments on the vocal lines, and presents a crucial non-vocal transition midway through the final Der Abschied (in somewhat the same way that the orchestra alone introduces the second part of the Eighth Symphony). The new PentaTone SACD of Das Lied von der Erde has particularly high-quality sound and really fine playing by the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Amsterdam, under Marc Albrecht. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote sings her three songs, which make up three-quarters of the total work, with fine, deep tone and strong expressiveness. Unfortunately, tenor Burkhard Fritz is not at the same level: he has difficulty projecting over the sound of the orchestra at times, especially in the opening Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, and his voice occasionally sounds strained. Yet he too sings with emotional involvement, and that goes a long way toward making this very dark and very mature work as effective as it can be, with a depth earned through suffering and, in Mahler’s case, a style so advanced and personal that Das Lied von der Erde proved unique: it is one of those pieces whose form no other composer has copied.
Wagner: Complete Piano Works. Dario Bonuccelli, piano. Dynamic. $22.99 (2 CDs).
Wagner: Complete Piano Works. Pier Paolo Vincenzi, piano. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).
It is scarcely a surprise that the bicentenary of Richard Wagner’s birth has led to an upsurge in recordings of his works, including consideration or reconsideration of elements of Wagner’s music to which attention is rarely paid – such as his forays into occasional music and the symphony, and his earliest operas. Thus, the appearance on CD of Wagner’s piano music is only to be expected. But the appearance of two nearly simultaneous releases of his complete piano works – both by young Italian pianists – is something of a surprise, and as it turns out, a very pleasant one.
Both Dario Bonuccelli (born 1985) and Pier Paolo Vincenzi (born 1980) turn out to have plenty of technique and a sound stylistic understanding of this music. And the performances by both show the same thing: although Wagner wrote two large-scale piano sonatas and a Fantasia of similar extent (it lasts half an hour), it is in his smaller-scale works that more-personal elements of the composer come through. A few of these smaller pieces are salon music or thank-you notes to patrons, but several – especially those dedicated to or intended for Mathilde Wesendonck, one of the great loves of Wagner’s life and the inspiration for some of his greatest works (including Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) – display aspects of Wagner’s personality in ways that are both revelatory and charming.
There turns out to be no definitive reason to opt for one of these two-CD sets over the other. Bonuccelli’s readings tend to be slightly more dramatic than Vincenzi’s and are often, although not always, somewhat slower and more stately. Vincenzi’s have greater transparency and often feature a pleasantly light touch that is in keeping with the music but is not something one would usually associate with Wagner. Individual works may go one way or the other: Bonuccelli has a stronger grasp of the dramatic portions of the Fantasia, for example, but Vincenzi does a better job with a Polonaise in which Bonuccelli can be annoyingly heard tapping his foot throughout – a habit he also has elsewhere, but thankfully much less intrusively. Still, neither performer is consistently stronger than the other. The sound quality of the pianos does differ: Vincenzi plays a clear-sounding Fazioli, while Bonuccelli’s instrument, which is not identified, has a darker, richer tone. The sequence of works differs between the two sets, but not in a way that favors one over the other. The releases do handle the fugue that Wagner wrote for his Große Sonate, Op. 4, but then dropped, differently: Bonuccelli offers it as a separate piece, a sort of appendix, while Vincenzi plays the entire third movement of the sonata two ways – once with the fugue and once without it. The sound quality of the CDs is comparable, despite the fact that the Dynamic set costs nearly twice as much as the Brilliant Classics one – perhaps a deciding factor for some listeners. The fact is that no one will go wrong with either of these releases.
But why own either one? The reason, of course, is the music; and that takes us back to what Wagner’s output for the piano shows about the composer. Wagner was not a very good pianist, a fact that is easy to forget in light of Liszt’s pianistic brilliance in his many Wagner transcriptions and arrangements. But Wagner was quite capable of creating solid, large-scale sonatas, including a four-movement one in B-flat in 1831 and the three-movement Große Sonate in A a year later. Both are derivative – the former has some of the spirit of Haydn and Mozart; the latter contains echoes of late Beethoven, and its finale sounds a great deal like Weber – but both are well-constructed and effective in their own ways. The Fantasia, like the first sonata, dates to 1831, and Wagner seems more comfortable with its freer form than with the restrictions inherent in sonata construction – the work’s alternation of recitative-like and dramatic passages is particularly effective. Yet it is the much shorter, one-movement Wesendonck sonata, with the very personal title Eine Sonate für das Album von Frau M.W., that is Wagner’s most effective extended piano work, with a winning mixture of emotion and structural design that incorporates references both to Tannhäuser and to Tristan.
Wagner’s remaining, shorter piano works are sometimes out-and-out trifles – one is a 40-second-long polka, for example, and another is a polonaise for piano four hands that ups the number of Italian pianists in these releases to four (Bonuccelli is joined by Marco Vincenzi – presumably no relation to Pier Paolo Vincenzi, who is joined by Federica Ferrati). But pleasantries abound in the shorter works, and so does some profundity, as in Schluß zum Vorspiel von Tristan und Isolde, another piece Wagner wrote for and dedicated to Mathilde Wesendonck. And one of the intriguing differences between these two recordings has to do with a minute-and-a-half piece simply called Elegie – a work whose intensity and harmonic boldness belie its length. The booklet notes to the Bonuccelli release give the work’s date as 1881, which would make it Wagner’s last piece; but those to Vincenzi’s recording, which are by the pianist himself, give the date of the Elegie as 1859 and say it “was for a long time erroneously thought to be Wagner’s last composition.” Without getting into the arguments about this piece’s provenance, it is worth noting that in this case, the performances by Bonuccelli and Vincenzi are exactly the same length – evidence, perhaps, that the communicative power of Wagner’s piano music is more important than academic and musicological discussions of the ways in which these pieces fit within the composer’s life and oeuvre.
Steven R. Gerber: Piano Music—Three Little Duets; Two Intermezzi; Piano Sonata; Duo in Three Movements; Voices; Variations for Piano; Cocktail Music (Song without Words). Steven R. Gerber, piano; Gregory Fulkerson, violin, and Jennifer Rinehart, piano (Duo). Albany Records. $15.99.
An unnecessarily cute title, “(Mostly) Solo Piano Music,” is one of the few missteps on a new Albany Records release that is a Steven Gerber production on multiple levels: he is composer, performer and even annotator. Gerber is unusual among modern composers, if not unique, in his forthright acknowledgment of multiple sources and influences upon his music – which, however, rarely sounds like any of them. Gerber’s piano works range from the atonal to the sort-of-tonal, with his newer and more-tonal pieces often being more interestingly constructed although no less thorny to perform (or, for that matter, to listen to: they are only sort of tonal). Thus, Three Little Duets (2011), for which Gerber cites Bach and Milton Babbitt as models, also have in their lineage Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16, K. 545, and Beethoven’s Sonatinas, Op. 49, Nos. 1 and 2: all are works intended “for beginners” (Mozart’s words), or at least as teaching aids. Gerber’s three pieces, each lasting less than a minute, are “duets” in the sense that each is in two voices with one note per hand – no chords. Within their short and somewhat unchallenging format, though, they are expressive and interestingly antiphonal: Gerber tends to prefer antiphony to contrapuntal writing.
He also tends to dislike the typical start-and-stop technique of much modern music, as he specifically says in his notes about Two Intermezzi (1984-85) – the first of which uses that very technique (as, for that matter, does the Scherzo of the Piano Sonata). This first intermezzo does have a purpose to its hesitancy, sounding as if it is starting to go somewhere, then holding back, then starting in a different direction, and finally, without ever moving forward fully, erupting with a climax – an overall structure that is somewhat Ivesian, although not in this case intended humorously. The second intermezzo, called “Homage,” pays tribute – to an extent – to Stravinsky and Copland, but really has its own style, which includes a winning combination and contrast of staccato and legato.
Copland gets overt credit in the first movement of the Piano Sonata (1980-82), which is called “Fantasy: Homage to Copland.” However, this is not the popular Copland of Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, but the less-known Copland who created a series of more-difficult and darker works that have never attained widespread popularity but are much admired by performers and composers. This movement is succeeded by the short stop-and-start scherzo – Gerber cites Elliott Carter as an influence here, but again, there is nothing imitative in the music. The third movement of the sonata, “Variations on a Ground,” is a passacaglia that Gerber describes as “rather tonal” but that listeners will never confuse with the work of, say, Bach. It is slow and somewhat thoughtful in effect, its conclusion being particularly warm and more emotive than much of Gerber’s piano music.
Gerber recorded the first set of works on this CD in 2011, and quite well, too. Duo in Three Movements (1981-84) is an earlier performance, from 1986, featuring Gregory Fulkerson and Jennifer Rinehart, and its scale is larger than that of the solo-piano pieces – even beyond that of the sonata. Duo clearly partakes of many of Gerber’s stylistic preferences, notably including his greater interest in having the instruments throw themes back and forth conversationally than in blending or overlaying them. Gerber cites Bartók and Robert Parris as having influenced this work, but as so often in his music, the piece does not really sound like the cited sources. The concluding “Variations” movement is particularly effective – Gerber uses the variation form repeatedly in his music, and often in a very personal way that may lead listeners to consider exactly what is being varied. Indeed, Variations for Piano (1969-70), which Gerber describes as “my least favorite work on this CD,” brings the “variation question” to the fore in an intriguing way. It is the oldest recording here, dating to 1979, and Gerber says he included it “partly because the performance represents one of the rare times when I have been totally satisfied with my own playing.” Be that as it may, the work has some fascinating elements whose interest level Gerber himself perhaps underestimates. Listeners are accustomed to thinking of variations as being on a theme, which means that there is a basic melody whose changing pitches give it shape and are then altered in ways recognizable to the ear until, in the strictest variation form, the initial theme is restated at the conclusion. But a theme – any theme, tonal or atonal – has components beyond pitch, such as duration and dynamics, and it these non-pitch elements that are varied here. The piece is perhaps too much of an intellectual exercise to be fully gripping, but its treatment of the whole variation concept makes it worthy of repeated hearings.
The two remaining works on the CD are also among those recorded in 2011. Voices (1975-76) is a 12-tone work that uses the fugal concept of three or four voices in the service of a sort of fantasy. It is a bit brittle, but its quiet middle section is attractive. And Cocktail Music (Song without Words) (1989, revised 2005-08) is a very pleasant encore, quite different from anything else on the CD and, for once, actually sounding like the sources that Gerber cites for it – in this case, Satie and Debussy. Gerber says he and others have tried unsuccessfully to create lyrics for this brief foray into salon music, but it does not really need words: it is pleasant, and pleasantly unexpected, just as it is. This CD as a whole shows multiple sides of Gerber and provides evidence that he is a fine advocate of his own works, not only as their creator but also in performing and even in writing about them – an altogether impressive combination.
May 16, 2013
Bluebird. By Bob Staake. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
A short, wordless, beautifully presented, bittersweet tale, Bob Staake’s Bluebird tackles some big issues in a wonderfully sensitive way – despite one glaring oversight that kids who become emotionally involved in the highly affecting story are likely to notice. The book, created primarily in shades of grey, features round-headed, stylized children portrayed in a style that is quite recognizably Staake’s. One child in particular draws Staake’s and the reader’s attention: he is lonely, isolated, walking with his eyes cast down and excluded from the happy games of the other kids. There is no way to know why; this is just the way things are – and a way that many sensitive children feel. The boy is laughed at in school and clearly isolated and bullied, for whatever reason or for no reason at all.
The urban landscape of the story is almost all right angles, as if accentuating the unforgiving nature of the world around this lonely boy. But a spark of color appears in the form of the bluebird of the title, colored a very rich blue indeed and trailing a lighter blue streak while flying here and there. Soon boy and bird are interacting, not unrealistically but in a way that could really happen, with the boy coming close to the bird but not too close, feeding it some cookie crumbs, smiling and laughing and enjoying its presence even as he finds himself isolated from yet another group of kids playing soccer on the street. At that point, things become less realistic but more heartwarming, as the bluebird seems to realize what is going on and actually flies to the boy and perches on his shoulder. The two go to the park – a stylized Central Park, in New York City – and have a lovely time playing with a small boat on a lake; the boy even makes a couple of sort-of-friends there.
But then boy and bird encounter three bullies, and what the nasty kids do even horrifies those boys themselves – leading to a tragic outcome that moves the story all the way into fairy-tale territory, as the boy is suddenly surrounded by many brightly colored birds, none of them blue, and the birds carry him skyward to a genuinely moving conclusion that will resonate with kids and adults long after they finish paging through the book.
This is beautiful work on almost all levels, both as storytelling and as art; and it is a very moving tale indeed. But it does have what might be called a Wizard of Oz fallacy. In the movie version of that story, which also contrasts grey (actually sepia) with bright color, Dorothy overcomes all obstacles and disposes of the Wicked Witch of the West, returning happily to her home at last – but the movie never resolves the incident that propelled Dorothy to Oz in the first place: the viciousness of nasty neighbor and landowner Almira Gulch, who becomes the witch in Oz. Miss Gulch has arranged for Toto to be destroyed, remember? So what is going to happen to Toto and Dorothy after the movie’s happy ending? There is no way to know – just as there is no way to know what will happen next to Staake’s sad, bullied little boy when he no longer has the bluebird around to cheer him up and help him connect with a more-pleasant, less-grey world. We can hope for the best for him, as we do for Dorothy and Toto, but it is just that: a hope, scarcely a certainty. And yes, kids will notice, as generations of them have noticed the narrative flaw (or omission, if you prefer) in the famous 1939 film.
Still, Bluebird is so beautifully drawn and so lovingly told that the book will linger in family members’ thoughts far longer than more-elaborate books usually do. This bird is scarcely the proverbial bluebird of happiness – there is too much grey in Staake’s world for anything so simplistic, and in this way Staake’s New York parallels L. Frank Baum’s original vision of Kansas as well as the one transferred to the movie screen. But what Staake does offer is a bluebird of possibility, and in the real world, that is about the most that any child, or adult, can hope to find.
Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood. By Drew Magary. Gotham Books. $25.
Learning to Listen: A Life Caring for Children. By T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. Da Capo. $24.99.
Read the title of this article two ways. The second word could be a plural noun; hence “family issues.” Or it could be a verb; hence “family is important.” And thus it helps to read these two books in very different ways as well. Both are first-person, experiential works, but Drew Magary’s is designed primarily descriptively and with a great deal of humor, while T. Berry Brazelton’s is far more prescriptive and serious.
Magary writes in a punchy, tell-it-all style that never varies, whether he is making notes about drunk driving and a child urinating in a hot tub or discussing a life-or-death situation in a hospital. Magary thinks four-letter words are cool, and he uses them incessantly. So one has to admire the comparatively mild bonding-with-his-daughter scene in which the two exchange “butt” jokes at bath time rather than ones using stronger language. In fact, his agreeing to stop those jokes – at his wife’s insistence – shows more maturity, even if unwillingly, than most of the rest of what he writes about. Magary overdoes pretty much everything: when his wife is sound asleep, he says, “She was down like a gunshot victim” – just one of many tasteless and inappropriate remarks in Someone Could Get Hurt. Yet the book is often a pleasure to read, if only because Magary seems so clueless about just how clueless he is, or was. “You’re supposed to leave a baby in a crib alone, with no other accoutrements around, because it can roll into things like pillows and suffocate. If I propped her up on a pillow, she might die. Then again, I was very, very tired. I propped her up on a pillow.” Magary is very much into pop culture – in fact, most of his writing is for publications and Web sites that promote pop culture as if it means something – so he is given to such comments as, “All the little girls grabbed at the dresses like [sic] it was the first night of eliminations on The Bachelor, and my daughter followed suit.” He also has a kneejerk anti-corporate bias, except of course when he desperately needs something made by a corporation, and he often manages to combine tastelessness with a rant within a page or so, as when there is a possible issue of flat head syndrome involving his son: “I kept running my hands along the boy’s head, checking for imperfections as if I were a Third Reich phrenologist. …When your child is in danger of having a flat head, you quickly learn that the money-grubbing executives at Big Helmet have gone to great lengths to make baby helmets seem like a normal, even fashionable thing.” But then, as if accidentally slipping into sensitivity, he actually comes up with an occasional touch of insight: “We live in an age of remarkable sensitivity, where other parents go to great lengths to appear tolerant and accepting of ALL children, not merely their own. But deep down, we’re just as judgmental and catty a species as we were decades ago. The patina of niceness almost makes it worse.” This nearly inadvertent thoughtfulness is displayed to its greatest and most affecting extent at the end of the book, when Magary’s third child is born and is at risk of dying – and is placed in the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. This chapter, which immediately follows one filled with slapstick about making a “masterpizza” at home, finally shows that Magary is a real human being who is not always putting on a “how cool I am” act. “I cried and I could see the tears dripping down onto the plastic [of the isolette], obscuring my view. That’s all you can do when your baby is in the NICU. You cry and you cry and you don’t stop crying until the child is finally home. …I knew he had to be in the NICU for a long time – weeks, months, perhaps even half a year. He would die otherwise. Still, I wanted him out of this horrible place. If I could just get him home to his crib, to his mother and brother and sister, then everything would be fine. I knew it.” Magary’s honesty here, which keeps reemerging even when he dons his “coolness” again in his dealings with the doctors and nurses, makes up for a very great deal of the superficiality in which he wallows elsewhere. The result is that Someone Could Get Hurt becomes, at the end, a real, affecting and memorable narrative that overcomes much of the snarkiness of earlier chapters by showing that even in the 21st century, real families with real emotions and real crises – and real love – find ways to bond and grow together.
If Magary is hyperkinetic, Brazelton is sober, even staid. Readers of Brazelton’s previous books will be somewhat taken aback by Learning to Listen, because it is not a book giving advice about children, except indirectly. It is, instead, an autobiography, and a suitably modest and outwardly focused one, at that. Brazelton’s plainspoken style is as much a part of this book as it is of all his others, starting on the very first page when he talks about the “three distinct social classes” in Waco, Texas, when he was born there in 1918: “White people owned and ran everything. Black people did all of the domestic work, and Mexican Americans did the rest.” Most of the book is about the child-related discoveries that Brazelton has made throughout his life, largely by keeping his eyes and ears open and by not getting locked into traditional ways of thinking. To the extent that personal pride is expressed in Learning to Listen, it comes in Brazelton’s repeated comments on the ways in which he was an outsider: a subhead in one chapter called “Troublemaking in the Delivery Room,” for example, and an entire chapter called “Bucking the System.” Brazelton comes across as a knowledge sponge, learning everywhere he goes and from everything he sees. A fascinating chapter called “Listening to Other Cultures,” for instance, includes a dramatic scene highlighting a difficult birth among Mayans in southern Mexico – in which Brazelton’s recommendations were not effective, but the actions of a native midwife were. Rather than bemoan the situation as primitive and risk-filled, which it certainly was, Brazelton modestly remarks on his own failure and the midwife’s success: “It seemed a miracle of psychosomatic medicine and of the role of belief in their culture. My suggestions had no effect. It was another lesson in respecting different cultural beliefs and practices.” Yet Brazelton is no wide-eyed innocent about this – he is a very keen observer. In the same section, for example, he discusses counting the number of breast feedings of babies he observed in southern Mexico – 80 to 90 a day. “In the United States, mothers generally wait until the baby’s crying activity rouses him thoroughly. Then, she feeds him – reinforcing him for his own active participation. The goal of the Mayan mother was that of having a quiet, docile baby. She was protecting his low motor activity and high degree of sensitivity to stimuli from the first. These goals are completely different.” This is fascinating material, if not as directly instructive as readers have come to expect Brazelton’s books to be. Yet there is a great deal of useful information in Learning to Listen, as Brazelton describes the evolution in the 1970s of his famous Touchpoints “map of behavioral and emotional development” and explains that the map “is designed to reassure parents that regressions lead to predictable spurts in development and that they can navigate them with the resources they can find within themselves, their communities, and their cultures.” Brazelton’s stories of his experiences outside the United States – not only in Mexico but also in Caracas, New Delhi, South Africa, Sydney, Hong Kong and elsewhere – show that his Touchpoints and other discoveries and approaches are not unique to one country or culture but have applicability worldwide. By the end of Learning to Listen, readers will realize that there are two equally valid ways to read the book’s subtitle: A Life Caring for Children as in “a life taking care of children” and, equally correctly, as in “a life caring about children.” The two ways together sum up a great deal of what is special about T. Berry Brazelton.
Made by Dad: 67 Blueprints for Making Cool Stuff. By Scott Bedford. Workman. $18.95.
Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round: A “Cul de Sac” Book. By Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Ten Little Dinosaurs. By Pattie Schnetzler. Illustrated by Jim Harris. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Plenty of books are purely for fun, designed entirely to show how enjoyable it is to be a kid – although if a little something instructional happens to slip in, well, so much the better. Thus, the projects in Made by Dad are pure enjoyment when completed, but doing them as father-and-child endeavors (which, by the way, could just as well be mother-and-child, the book’s title aside) creates bonding time and learning opportunities and….errr….a fair number of chances for disappointment. You see, even though Scott Bedford subtitles the book, “Projects You Can Build For (and with) Your Kids,” that is not entirely accurate. The ones labeled “easy” will be fine for just about anyone, but there are plenty of things here that really should not be attempted by anybody who is less than handy with tools and art supplies (considerable drawing is frequently recommended, although there is a workaround for it). The book’s title refers to “Blueprints” for a reason: each project is shown in finished form at the start and then broken down, blueprint-style, into step-by-step instructions that parents may well be able to follow. The projects are not arranged by difficulty level but by topic: “Dangerous Décor,” “Home Hacks,” “Suspect Science,” “Geeky Gadgets,” “Covert Creations,” “Arty Party” and “Playful Parenting” (that last title being one that actually applies to all the sections). Individual project names are part of the fun here: “Claw-Through-the-Wall Picture,” “Spaghetti & Marshmallow Eiffel Tower,” “Teddy Through the Center of the Earth,” “Snail Soup Decoy,” “Saber-Toothed Spiders,” “Jelly Bean Reward Rocket” and many more – 67 in all, just as the book’s title says. The project names, though, do not explain the difficulty levels; for those, you have to turn to the first page of each project. “Alien Abduction Mobile” is “tricky,” for example, while “Sitting on Eggshells” is “medium,” “Sword Transformer” is “easy,” and “Balloon Ballast Balancing Act” is (gulp) “challenging.” Parents would be well-advised to leave the more-difficult projects alone until they have done some of the simpler ones and made sure that the kids enjoy them. As for the art workaround, Bedford helpfully provides a 47-page appendix with templates of things that need to be drawn for the various projects, even though he says, “I wholeheartedly encourage you to draw your own elements (or get the kids to do it!).” So the artistic part of Made by Dad need not be a barrier to anyone whose skills in that area are less than Bedford’s. The actual project assemblage, though, may be a bigger deal than Bedford suggests. For the “medium” difficulty “No Place Like Home Twister,” for example, required materials include craft knife, cutting mat, medium-sized corrugated cardboard box, ruler, pencil, white medium-weight cardstock, paper glue, felt-tip markers, toilet-paper tube, hot glue gun, glue sticks, drafting compass, long cardboard tube, scissors, large clear plastic bags or sheets (such as dry-cleaning bags), clear tape, stirring sticks and mounting putty. Got all that? If not, be sure to assemble everything – for any project here – before trying to build an item. Everything that Bedford calls for is needed to get things done; attempting shortcuts is not a good idea. Made by Dad is a great book for handy, workshop-type fathers (or mothers) whose kids really enjoy hands-on crafts projects and are not frustrated by a certain level of complexity, which even the easiest concepts here include. The finished products tend to be both clever and amusing, and the experience of making them together can be great for parent-child bonding if both parent and child can be patient and meticulous – and if neither is easily frustrated in the event that things do not go quite as smoothly as these “blueprints” say they will.
Things do not always go smoothly for the Otterloop family, a wonderful suburban creation by cartoonist Richard Thompson. But the bumps in the road of everyday life encountered by four-year-old Alice, eight-year-old Petey, and their frequently bemused but always well-meaning parents, are what make the Cul de Sac comic strip such a treasure. Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round is a standard-book-size collection of more-or-less random selections from the strip, with sequences originally printed on weekdays shown here in black and white and Sunday strips in color. It is more an introductory book than anything else: Andrews McMeel places it in its “Amp! Comics for Kids” line and presumably intends it for young readers not already familiar with the Otterloop antics in newspapers. “What’s a newspaper?” some young readers may ask. Well, Thompson has an answer for that, sort of, since he sometimes deals with newspapers and comics in his comics – as in one Sunday strip in which Petey explains to Alice that comics are “a mighty, yet dying art form,” while Alice is unable to understand that a multi-panel sequential strip with a cat in it is supposed to be about the same cat at different times, not different cats doing different things. Thompson’s tweaking of himself and other cartoonists is more for adults than kids, but most of Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round will provide equal enjoyment to children and adults. There are the talks with Mr. Danders, the guinea pig who is the pet at Alice’s preschool and who tells the kids how under-appreciated he feels; Petey’s determination to advance in the world rankings of picky eaters, and his concern that “strange babies keep attacking me”; Alice’s mom’s impossible holiday sweaters and her dad’s impossibly tiny car, which at one point ends up in Alice’s sandbox as a toy; the many oddities of Alice’s friend Dill, who looks through mail slots “as a community service” and hopes to marry Alice if she ever stops grabbing his toys; and much more. Thompson brilliantly channels – or remembers – the way young children perceive and absorb the world, and his dialogue captures childhood moments that readers young and old will probably remember even if they never happened. There is, for instance, Alice’s foray under a restaurant table to retrieve a dropped crayon, and her comment that she has entered “a world where everything is sticky.” And then there is her remark about Petey’s dislike of sledding: “I call it ‘keeping Mom’s expectations low’ and I’m all for it.” Readers new to Cul de Sac will be every bit as charmed by Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round as will ones who already know the strip and are simply rediscovering it through this collection of selected snippets.
And for kids too young to read Thompson’s comics and perhaps disinclined to take part in Bedford’s projects, but still looking for something amusing and offbeat and looking more like a crafts item than a traditional book, there is Ten Little Dinosaurs by Pattie Schnetzler and Jim Harris. This is a variation on the traditional counting-down-from-10-to-one rhyme, and probably the first time that rhyme has ever included words such as Pachycephalosaurus and Saurolophus. It also contains floating, swirling, bright-green “googly eyes” mounted to the front of the board book and appearing within the face of every dinosaur on every page – and even within the face of the archeologist who, at the end, points out that, alas, all the dinosaurs are extinct. That small bit of scientific accuracy aside, this little book is a romp, showing dinos doing very modern things: bouncing on a bed, riding a tricycle, rafting down a river, and so on. And they get into trouble with each thing they do, resulting in lines such as, “”No more feather-heads jumping off a peak” and “No more big mouths watching baseball.” The rhyme scheme is not perfect, so parents planning to read the book aloud may want to read it to themselves first so they can make the poetry flow well – especially with all those names of dinos in it. And parents also need to know about one oddity before they read the book – the result of confused communication between Schnetzler and Harris. On one page, dinosaurs – Tyrannosaurs, no less – are seen “munching on a mooth.” Schnetzler invented that word to get a rhyme for “tooth,” intending “mooth” to mean “moose.” But Harris did not want to show dinosaurs eating a moose in a book intended to appeal to very young children, so he drew what looks like a gigantic strawberry. This makes absolutely no sense, especially since Tyrannosaurus Rex was a carnivore, but parents – now forewarned – can make a joke out of the whole thing, and appear wise as well as skilled in rhymed reading as they go through this clever and inventive little book.
Troubletwisters, Book Three: The Mystery. By Garth Nix and Sean Williams. Scholastic. $16.99.
The Flame in the Mist. By Kit Grindstaff. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
“In Portland, nothing ever seems to make sense,” would be a laughable line if one were talking about, say, Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon. But it is a perfectly sensible statement when talking about the Portland of the Troubletwisters series, where in fact very little does make sense – and when things turn out to make too much sense, all it takes is a little clouding of one’s memory to prevent a person from connecting the dots. The Troubletwisters protagonists are twins Jack and Jaide Shield, and they are, yes, a shield between good and evil, and just in case there is any uncertainty about that, the force they fight again and again is actually called The Evil. They get much help from others with powers (“Gifts”) similar to theirs, notably Grandma X – yes, she is really called that – plus assists at times from ordinary people such as their school friend, Tara, whose memory, however, must be suppressed because….well, just because. “After The Evil had been vanquished [temporarily, in the previous book of this series], one of Grandma X’s fellow Wardens, a big-haired man named Aleksandr, had used his Gift to cloud Tara’s memory of everything that had happened to her.” And so we are now in the third Troubletwisters saga, a book that moves along expertly thanks to the pacing talents of Garth Nix and Sean Williams but that is nevertheless, really, a little silly when it comes to such things as plot coherence. This series entry has to do with an old castle in Portland and the old man who lives there and then dies there mysteriously – of course “mysteriously” – so that Jack and Jaide have to search the house for a treasure that The Evil wants and that they must find first. But it happens that they do not know what the treasure is or what it looks like, and that certainly complicates things. In fact, complications abound here – Nix and Williams are good at pulling them out of every narrative corner. They are not so good at keeping their writing believable – it often seems on the verge of being unintentionally funny: “If Ari suspected that there was a giant, vulnerable bird cooped up, who knew what he might get up to?” “Jack shook his head, remembering kamikaze insects that had been drawn toward him, only to die upon touching his skin.” There are some intentionally funny passages, too, but by and large, The Mystery is an adventure, complete with a talking death mask, issues involving the twins’ mother and father (as well as Grandma X), a painting of a woman in yellow, characters named Rodeo Dave and Zebediah, a macaw that talks in nautical phrases, and a meaningless quatrain that – as usual with meaningless quatrains in books like this – turns out to be very important indeed. The twins eventually figure out what they are looking for, and find it, and then things get really complicated as The Evil reemerges in a way that surprises Jack and Jaide but probably will not surprise readers – it is a pretty obvious twist. A revelation about the generalized importance of twins in the Troubletwisters world is the main plot advance here, given that the defeat of The Evil – yet again – is scarcely unexpected. The Troubletwisters series is light reading, despite its occasional moments of drama, and preteens who enjoyed the first two books will not be disappointed in this third entry.
The Flame in the Mist is a more-intense good-vs.-evil story, and is something of a rarity in modern preteen fantasy adventures because it is a standalone novel rather than the first of a series (although it is certainly possible that future books could be set in the same world if this one is successful). This is Kit Grindstaff’s debut novel, and it is a remarkably sure-handed one in navigating the largely familiar territory of sort-of-alternative sort-of-history. Set in a land that somewhat resembles medieval England, the book is the story of Jemma Agromond, who somehow knows she is not really an Agromond, that being the name belonging to a vicious family that rules Anglavia and keeps the land shrouded in mist, and in which the mother wears a perfume called Eau de Magot. Jemma’s red hair is an obvious symbol of fire or light to burn away the mist, eventually, and there is never the slightest doubt about how evil the Agromonds are: an early scene has them using a death chant to evoke a spirit that will keep light away and force everyone to live in darkness. So the book’s theme is quite explicit and straightforward from the start. So are many of the accoutrements of Jemma’s adventures: ghosts, an ancient prophecy that she must fulfill, a mysterious book, a close friend and helper, and animal companions. Actually, the animals are not typical for a story such as this: they are rats – golden ones, to be sure, and telepathic, but still, they are rats, and as such are rarely cast in heroic roles. This casting-against-type may be why they turn out to be some of the strongest and most interesting characters in the book (weasels, on the other hand, are decidedly evil here). Despite the sort-of-medieval setting, the dialogue here is entirely modern, with some attempt to set “country” characters apart by giving them a kind of “rural-speak.” For example: “Been watchin’ yer fer years, haven’t I, while you was doin’ yer fetchin’ an’ carryin’ in the kitchen an’ stables. You never saw me, ’cause I kep’ hid to make sure you wouldn’t.” The speech of all the characters can be awkward, with passages such as, “‘Me no kill,’ he said, ‘only find what fall off crag.’” And many elements of the book are far from surprising, such as Jemma’s discoveries about her real family, including the fact that she has (or had) a brother, and the way Jemma’s dreams reveal reality to her. Grindstaff’s authorial inexperience shows from time to time, as in a scene during a wide-ranging search by multiple people in which the only two characters with information important to Jemma happen to stop precisely within earshot of her current hiding place and happen to discuss exactly what she needs to know to advance the plot. There is also a hilariously inapt scene in which Jemma discovers news clippings (which are barely plausible), one of which contains a thoroughly incongruous reference to “a family spokesperson” (so silly in this “medievalism and magic” context as to be laugh-out-loud ridiculous). In general, Grindstaff seems less interested in reaching beyond her novel’s genre than in exploring it thoroughly – which means that The Flame in the Mist will be of interest to young readers who enjoy fantasy adventures in a sort-of-medieval setting but will scarcely attract others. The light-vs.-dark theme is at times overdone: “Here, we call [today] Sunday, in honor of the sun, the bringer of light and life. ‘Mord’ is everything opposite to that: darkness, and death. Before Mordrake Agromond, there was no Mord-day. Only Sunday. We have always refused to call it otherwise.” And the final confrontation, which Grindstaff handles well, has the inevitable effect of setting something mystical and light against something mystical and dark, with the light, of course, finally triumphant. The ending of The Flame in the Mist is no surprise, and neither are many of the individual events in it, but because the book as a whole has a well-told story and some attractive characters, both human and animal, genre fans will certainly enjoy it.
Wolf: Italian Serenade; Puccini: Crisantemi; Verdi: Quartet; Turina: La oración del torero; Piazzolla: Four, for Tango; Paganini: Capricci, Op. 1, Nos. 6 and 24. Brodsky Quartet (Daniel Rowland and Ian Belton, violins; Paul Cassidy, viola; Jacqueline Thomas, cello). Chandos. $18.99.
Kenneth Fuchs: String Quartet No. 5, “American”; Falling Canons—Seven Movements for Piano; Falling Trio. Delray String Quartet (Mei Mei Luo and Tomas Cotik, violins; Richard Fleischman, viola; Claudio Jaffé, cello); Christopher O’Riley, piano; Trio21 (Jeffrey Biegel, piano; Kinga Augustyn, violin; Robert deMaine, cello). Naxos. $9.99.
Jörg Widmann: Violin Concerto; Antiphon for Orchestral Groups; Insel der Sirenen for Solo Violin and 19 Strings. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding. Ondine. $16.99.
Vagn Holmboe: Concerto for Viola; Concerto No. 2 for Violin; Concerto for Orchestra. Lars Anders Tomter, viola; Erik Heide, violin; Norrköping Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).
Ernest John Moeran: Cello Concerto; Serenade in G; Lonely Waters; Whythorne’s Shadow. Guy Johnston, cello; Rebecca Coffey, soprano; Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.
The very varied works on these fine CDs – some familiar, many quite unfamiliar – showcase the contrasting communicative power of small (chamber) groups with that of soloists set against larger (orchestral) ensembles. The new Brodsky Quartet CD for Chandos, entitled “In the South” in an attempt to establish connection among pieces that are really very different in tone, style and intent, is a beautifully played, warm and heartfelt hour-plus of music that speaks sometimes to its composers’ strengths and sometimes to byways in their thinking. Hugo Wolf’s well-known Italian Serenade is lovely here and seems all too short, while Astor Piazzolla’s Four, for Tango, one of his better-known works, nicely blends the dance with a grander canvas. Joaquín Turina’s La oración del torero is less-known but is quite effective here in its singing style and emotive gestures, while the première recording of string-quartet versions of two famous Paganini Capricci (arranged by violist Paul Cassidy) is every bit as much a showcase as one could wish – and the music sounds deeper and more involving, less surface-level virtuosic than in the original solo-violin version. And then there are the instrumental pieces by opera composers who barely tipped their creativity into the quartet medium: Puccini’s lovely Crisantemi, whose evocative expressiveness will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the composer’s operas, and Verdi’s early and very effectively structured Quartet – the longest piece on this CD – which does not sound like the composer’s operatic productions but which shows he had considerable skill as a craftsman, if not perhaps very much creative individuality, in purely instrumental music. The CD as a whole is very pleasant if not particularly challenging listening, especially notable for the Brodsky’s Quartet’s expressive and beautifully balanced playing.
The music of Kenneth Fuchs (born 1956) is considerably more modern, of course, but Fuchs is so expert a composer that even the more-challenging aspects of his work – for both players and listeners – seem to flow logically from his concepts rather than to be created out of a misplaced sense of “necessary modernity.” Two of the works on the new Naxos CD trace to the same source: Fuchs’ Falling Man, written for baritone and orchestra in the aftermath of the September 11, 2011 terrorist mass murders in New York City. Falling Canons takes the main theme of Falling Man through a series of elegant and rigorous movements for solo piano, which Christopher O’Riley handles with sensitivity and just the right amount of virtuoso display – which is to say, not too much. Falling Trio uses the same principal theme for a one-movement work that, like Falling Canons, has seven parts – in this case, seven variations, all of them expertly developed and very well played by Trio21. As for String Quartet No. 5, “American,” it is a larger-scale work than either of the others, but resembles them in one key way: it too is based on a single theme, which Fuchs adapts, arranges, tosses about and develops in a series of clever and often elegant ways through four movements lasting nearly half an hour. The Delray String Quartet plays the work with verve and considerable sensitivity, and this CD as a whole shows why Fuchs’ music is some of the most popular worldwide among performers and audiences interested in modern American composers.
There is a mixture of chamber-like and full-orchestra music by Jörg Widmann (born 1973) on what Ondine says is the first CD release devoted entirely to this composer’s works. Widmann, a clarinetist, has written some interesting chamber music in a series of string quartets, one of which includes a soprano voice, and some unusual orchestral music that interrelates vocal forms and orchestral ensembles. The pieces on this CD, though, are more straightforward, and although they are well-constructed, they suffer from a common contrivance among modern composers in being somewhat self-consciously accretive and sonically experimental. The Violin Concerto (2007) is the most traditional piece here, and the longest, and it stands up quite well in its genre, thanks in large part to the intensity and enthusiasm with which it is performed by Christian Tetzlaff and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding. Widmann shows that he has a firm command of orchestral forces and a good sense of ways to balance soloist against orchestra, highlighting one or the other. But the concerto, although not devoid of ideas, is not exactly brimming over with them, either – it is interesting enough, but not particularly memorable. Insel der Sirenen (1997) is more intriguing: it too sets the solo violin against an ensemble, but the smaller instrumental grouping here, and the fact that it consists entirely of strings, combine to inspire Widmann to greater creativity both thematically and in the sound of the instruments – what could be monochromatic comes across as quite nicely varied, and this piece, which lasts just 12 minutes, does not overstay its welcome. The third work on this CD, Antiphon (2007/08), shows how well Widmann can balance orchestral elements and instrumental sections, playing them off against each other or combining them in interesting ways. A sort of short concerto for orchestra (lasting about 19 minutes), Antiphon is formulaic in some ways but hangs together well as a whole, requiring skill in performance reflecting Widmann’s care in constructing it.
The Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) wrote an even shorter Concerto for Orchestra, which lasts just 13 minutes and was never even performed before being recorded for Dacapo’s new SACD of Holmboe’s music. A very youthful work, dating to 1929, it is heavy on brass and percussion and is not particularly distinctive harmonically or thematically, nor does it point clearly toward Holmboe’s mature style; it is thus more a curiosity than a substantial addition to the repertoire. It does show, however, that even at this age, Holmboe had the ability to produce effective orchestral music that would sound good while giving performers something of a workout. For that reason alone, it is an attractive work to hear. The much more significant pieces on this SACD have far greater depth and are considerably more mature, although – oddly enough – neither has been recorded before: Concerto No. 2 for Violin dates to 1979 and Concerto for Viola to 1992. Holmboe went through a wide variety of influences in his compositional life, from Sibelius and Bartók to Nielsen, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, and was particularly distinguished as a symphonist, producing 13 symphonies between 1927 and 1994. The second of his violin concertos was written more than 40 years after the first, and it is notably free of experimental or modernistic tendencies, being primarily tonal and influenced by folk music, as are many of Holmboe’s works. Erik Heide plays it with relish, and gets fine support from the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra under Dima Slobodeniouk. The ensemble does a first-rate job backing up Lars Anders Tomter as well, and Tomter handles the viola concerto with real flair. It is probably inevitable to see any 20th-century concerto for this instrument through the lens of the two preeminent ones – by Bartók and Walton – and while Holmboe’s does not quite measure up to those, it does take advantage of the viola’s warmth and singing abilities, coupled with its virtuosic potential, to showcase the instrument effectively. Holmboe is a composer who is not particularly well-known outside Scandinavia but whose musical acquaintance is well worth making.
So is that of the Anglo-Irish Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950), another composer strongly influenced by folk music, whose flair for melodic invention and firm handling of scoring produced some particularly interesting works in the mid-20th century. Naxos’ new CD features a warm, singing rendition of the Cello Concerto of 1945, with lovely playing by Guy Johnston and excellent support from the Ulster Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta – who is proving highly adept at conducting orchestras worldwide. This concerto, inspired by Moeran’s not-always-happy marriage to cellist Peers Coetmore, is expressive without being overly sentimental, virtuosic without being overbearing, and deserves more-frequent performance. So does Serenade in G, heard here in the original, eight-movement version from 1948. A work that recalls Baroque suites in its sequencing of dance movements, including some distinctly old-fashioned ones, the serenade is very well scored and somewhat weightier than its title might indicate. Also on the CD are two touching and emotive pieces from 1931: Lonely Waters, a rhapsody in which the orchestra is joined at the end, to fine effect, by lines of melancholy poetry sung by soprano Rebekah Coffey, and Whythorne’s Shadow, which reaches back even beyond the Baroque, to Elizabethan madrigals, for a short and warm fantasy. Moeran was deemed rather old-fashioned in his time because of his folk-music interests and some superficial musical parallels to Delius, Ireland and Vaughan Williams, but his music bears re-hearing and reconsideration for its fine structure and warmly lyrical qualities – which Falletta’s performances fully explore.