July 19, 2018

(++++) SUPER-SILLY


The Three Little Superpigs. By Claire Evans. Scholastic. $14.99.

     One way of reconsidering fairy tales and other familiar children’s stories is to assume that kids know them well already, so they can simply become background for entirely new books for which the originals are merely foundations. And one way to make those new books work well is to make them extensions of the originals – with additional elements that kids who do know the earlier versions will find incongruous and highly amusing. That is exactly what Claire Evans does in The Three Little Superpigs, originally published in Great Britain in 2016 and now available in a new U.S. edition. The book, after the inevitable “once upon a time” beginning, picks up exactly where modern versions of the story of the three little pigs end: the Big Bad Wolf is seen falling down the chimney of the pigs’ brick house “into a pan of boiling water!” But he is not roasted alive, as in the original story – most of the now-familiar children’s tales are considerably less gory than they were when first told or collected. All the quick background page says in Evans’ book is that the wolf was trapped by the pigs – and then he is seen being taken away to jail in a police vehicle (license plate FLPD 1 for “Fairyland Police Department 1”) as the pigs wave goodbye to him.

     The wolf, pigs and other denizens of Fairyland are rendered in Evans’ illustrations in a style that kids will immediately recognize from animated films in which characters are given something of a 3-D look. What happens to the pigs after the wolf’s capture is right in line with filmmakers’ reconsideration of fairy tales, too. The pigs are given dress-up outfits (two of which, unnecessarily, include masks) and medals saying SP1, SP2 and SP3 – the letters standing, of course, for Superpig. They are applauded by all sorts of Fairyland characters, including Pinocchio and happy dwarfs and a crown-wearing frog and a wizard and many more. And then they are seen cashing in on fame. No, not for money (that would be a touch too realistic!), but SP1 takes a selfie with Red Riding Hood, SP2 signs an autograph for the gingerbread boy, and SP3 is seen “fighting crime and stopping nursery rhyme bad guys” – specifically Goldilocks, who is led away as the three smiling bears look on.

     All this is mere scene-setting, though: the plot gets going, and gets increasingly silly, as the wolf is seen in his cell, reading books such as “How to Forge Keys” and “Bricklaying for Dummies,” after which bricks start mysteriously disappearing from all around Fairyland – leading the Superpigs to investigate using Sherlock-Holmes-style magnifying glasses and crime-scene tape. Then the Superpigs learn the wolf has escaped from prison, and they set out with binoculars, a Wolf Detector, and other equipment, to locate him – but he is too smart, or they are too dim, since Evans shows him in the Deep Dark Woods, only steps from where the Superpigs are fruitlessly searching. The search gets increasingly absurd in a police-station lineup where the wolf, dressed as an old lady but carrying a basket full of bricks and with his wolf face quite clearly visible, just cannot be spotted because he is “a master of disguise.”

     Eventually, though, the wolf’s nefarious plan must be revealed, and so it is: he uses one of those forged keys to get into the Superpigs’ houses, and when the pigs try to get away, they find themselves trapped behind a huge brick wall built by the wolf with the stolen bricks! Soon two of the Superpigs are neatly wrapped in pastry blankets, ready for dinner – the wolf’s dinner. But of course the third Superpig saves the day, having fortuitously just perfected “his jet pack invention,” which lets the pigs zoom over the wall: up, up, and away. “When pigs fly,” indeed – in fact, Evans has the Fairyland residents exclaim happily, “Wow, pigs really can fly!” And now the wolf is trapped behind his own high brick wall, so everyone – well, everyone but the wolf – is happy. “The end?” writes Evans with a question mark. Apparently not: the wolf is last seen reading another book, and who knows what will happen next? Young readers will enjoy trying to guess, whether or not Evans creates a sequel to The Three Little Superpigs. And even if there is no follow-up book, this one is sufficiently full of hijinks and hilarity to keep kids who know the original three-little-pigs story happy with this thoroughly ridiculous continuation.

(+++) PLEASURES AND PERILS OF WATER AND AIR


Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea. By Lynne Rae Perkins. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Gone to Drift. By Diana McCaulay. Harper. $16.99.

Float. By Laura Martin. Harper. $16.99.

     Sweet, well-meaning and oh so sincere, books such as Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea and Gone to Drift are water-centered and written to wring the occasional drip of water, in the form of a tear or two, from preteen readers. Lynne Rae Perkins’ novel is a notably quiet one, simply the story of a pleasant week’s beach vacation featuring mildly adventurous Alix Treffrey; her older and more-reserved sister, Jools; and their parents. There is no great drama here, only gentle discovery of the ocean for the first time, envisioned by Perkins as a series of small events with insightful cumulative effect – shown through Perkins’ pleasant black-and-white illustrations. Sand castles, long walks on the beach, the discovery of beach glass and indulging in crafts projects using it – these are the mildly memorable events that Alix and Jools experience. Not everything is sweetness and light: at one point, Alix gets temporarily separated from her parents, and at another she is nonplused when a giant june bug lands on her arm. But these minor inconveniences are quickly resolved, and the sisters move on to one small enjoyment after another. That, in fact, is Perkins’ point: the small things in life, cumulatively, are what matter and what make a vacation (and by implication other events in life) special. One must just stay open to the wonders of the everyday. For instance, the planned family visit to a wildlife refuge seems to Alix to be a “boring walk through deserted places” – until the girls get to see some raccoons and Alix has a chance to hold an injured falcon that is being rehabilitated. What is important, as Alix neatly sums things up at the end of the week, is that the vacation has turned out to be very different from what she and Jools expected – and that is a wonderful thing, because it has been so delightful in so many ways that Alix now anticipates amazing things continuing to happen to her. In truth, nothing in Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea is particularly amazing, but everything is gentle and nice and family-focused. This is the sort of book that parents would like their preteen daughters to read and enjoy. Some will.

     Darker and more intense, Diana McCaulay’s novel about her native Jamaica has a preteen boy protagonist rather than a preteen girl, and the story is significantly grittier: this is no tale of the deliciousness of a family beach trip. It is the story of 12-year-old Lloyd “Lloydie” Saunders and his much-loved grandfather, Maas Conrad, a fisherman who has gone to an area called Pedro Bank and has not returned. Lloyd’s parents seem unconcerned and preoccupied, his father with rum and his mother with selling the fish that Conrad catches. This is not an old-man-and-the-sea story so much as it is a standard-issue grandfather-and-grandson-bonding one, with Conrad’s personal history (which appears from time to time during the narrative of Lloyd’s search for him) revealing much about Jamaica and the changes the island is undergoing. It becomes apparent as Lloyd looks for his grandfather – by asking around Kingston and searching with the help of his friend, Dwight – that Conrad is shipwrecked and injured. Readers know this well before Lloyd’s search – which includes stowing away on a Coast Guard ship – leads him to some unpleasant truths. These involve dolphin poaching, and McCaulay is sure to trot out some marine biologists and references to the evils of greed and globalization: although this is a fairly quietly told story, it has a strong social agenda just beneath its surface. McCaulay’s use of patois dialogue gives the novel a sense of authenticity, and young readers interested in that rather unusual form of immersion into Jamaican life will find the story intriguing. But the eventual revelation that the depravity of Lloyd’s parents goes well beyond their uncaring relationship with both Lloyd and Conrad means this is scarcely a book for all tastes: it is a novel-length advocacy pamphlet (actually an expanded version of what was originally a short story) that immerses readers in economic and environmental issues. And it insists that those matters be seen strictly from a perspective that limits the book, which hints from time to time at the longstanding relationship of humans and the sea but which founders on the shoals of the lessons that McCaulay is determined to teach.

     A much lighter and frothier book whose title refers not to water but to air, Laura Martin’s Float is intended as a romp with some serious elements – and has a kind of old-fashioned camp-novel feeling that will charm some readers while likely seeming simplistic and unrealistic to others. Some of the lack of realism is quite intentional: Camp Outlier, where the book is set, is for boys who have been labeled RISKs. The acronym stands for “Recurring Incidents of the Strange Kind” and involves preteens whose uncontrollable and poorly understood powers range from spontaneous combustion to accidental invisibility to X-ray vision to time travel – this last being at the center of the book’s rather fragmented plot. The underlying, entirely unsurprising theme is one of camaraderie and acceptance, of finding others like oneself and working together on each other’s behalf. Emerson, the 12-year-old protagonist, has a tendency to float unless he wears weighted shoes and a vest to keep himself on the ground; hence the novel’s title. He and the other boys are taken to (or herded into) Camp Outlier by the government, which has the usual slightly sinister but essentially protective role common in books of this sort. The story focuses on Emerson and the other boys in Red Maple cabin, and in particular on time traveler Murphy – who, the boys discover, is doomed to disappear forever unless they can do something. Do what? That is the question here, and the central element of the boys’ bonding. Well, that is one such element, the other being a rather embarrassing (and distinctly archaic-seeming) scene in which older campers force the boys to wear dresses and makeup as an initiation – a scene that Martin brings back repeatedly as a joke that, in the year 2018, may not come across as particularly funny. Float is intended as lighthearted fun, and it is just that some of the time, as in the pranks played at the camp and the exploration of the boys’ peculiar powers that come out of nowhere. The serious “save Murphy” element fits uneasily with the otherwise rather whimsical storytelling, though, and the book as a whole has a kind of cobbled-together feeling that keeps it from being as enjoyable as Martin clearly wants it to be.

(+++) TIME AND TIME AGAIN


Time Tracers 1: The Stolen Summers. By Annabeth Bondor-Stone & Connor White. Harper. $16.99.

     It was apparently too much to hope for. Annabeth Bondor-Stone and Connor White are the coauthors of a couple of delightfully daffy books for preteens, called Shivers! That’s as in “shiver me timbers,” and the central character is a boy pirate whose family is filled with the usual dashing piratical derring-do and dastardly doings but who, for his part, wants nothing to do with pirate stuff and in fact is deathly afraid of water. And of dry land, for that matter. And of snails. And pizza. And pretty much everything else. Shivers’ misadventures are so utterly ridiculous, and the character is so endearingly absurd, that it is obvious that Bondor-Stone and White have some real talent for creating comedic preteen adventures. Young readers should definitely get their hands on Shivers! Those who do will have high hopes for the authors’ new series.

     Unfortunately, the Time Tracers sequence, on the basis of its first entry, is so ordinary, formulaic and unamusingly silly that The Stolen Summers would be a (++) book if Bondor-Stone and White didn’t rate a third (+) simply out of a hopefully not forlorn hope that they will recover their cleverness and ebullience for the next book in the group.

     Not even the series’ dull and confusing title works well. How about Time Thieves? That is what the book is about. How about Time Trackers? It is also about people who track the time thieves. But Time Tracers? The book misfires literally from its cover.  About that cover: it shows a startled-looking preteen gazing at his watch (do lots of preteens still wear watches?) while surrounded by a horde of ugly buglies that have buggy-looking heads but clawlike, sort-of-handlike appendages plus human feet. Um, what? As it happens, this is not how the bad guys are described in the book, but yes, the baddies are bugs of some sort (actually various sorts), and apparently there are numerous types of them, so maybe one of them looks like the ones on the front cover? They are also on the back cover – which features a guy driving a bus into the horde of bug-uglies while a sort-of-ninja, black-clad woman fighter is using one bug thing as a club to smash other bug things.

     The bug things, see, are invisible time suckers (why not call the book Time Suckers?). And what they do is suck the fun out of life. Yes, they consume fun, which is why time seems to fly when you are having fun – the fun part gets stolen by these things, which live on it. They are, like, everywhere, and the organization of the book’s title, the Time Tracers, is charged with tracing them. Well, not exactly – the group is charged with stopping them. How about Time Stoppers?

     Anyway, into this mess comes class clown and all-around fun-seeker Taj Carter, who turns out to be the Worm. Yes, the Worm turns. Because, see, being the Worm is a good thing. It seems that Taj, and only Taj, can restore lost time (which looks like grains of sand – yes, the sand-in-an-hourglass cliché) when the Time Tracers recover it from the evil bug baddies. And this is especially important at the moment (Moments in Time?) because the bugs have been stealing much more time than usual, for reasons unknown, and all the people in Taj’s town are going to be rendered brain-dead, or more brain-dead than they already are, if Taj does not come into his powers soon and use them for all that is good and right and, um, timely. This even includes bringing the dead back to life. But only the good dead. No zombies here (Time Shamblers?).

     Yes, this is another only-a-kid-can-save-the-world book. And it is an unusually drippy one. For instance, preteen adventures usually give the protagonist buddies with whom to interact – and with whom readers can identify if for some reason they are not taken with the primary character (which would be understandable here: Taj has precious little personality and a tendency to do the wrong, frequently dumb thing more often than not). Well, Bondor-Stone and White do give Taj a couple of buds named Jen and Lucas – who do absolutely nothing in the entire story and appear only at the very start and the very end. Preteen adventures usually reach out for some sort of pathos or difficulty in the protagonist’s family, both to explain certain character motivations and to make the central character less unidimensional. Thus, Taj has a little sister who had a congenital heart-valve problem and needed two surgeries as an infant. And she shows up briefly at the book’s start and briefly at its conclusion, and not at all anywhere else, and the relationship between her and Taj goes nowhere and might as well not exist. Taj’s only interactions are with adults, including the two pictured on the book’s back cover, and that is simply weird in a novel for preteens. The adventure elements of the book are thoroughly stereotypical, the bad-guy bug mastermind is right out of central casting, the few attempts at humor invariably fall flat, and the only certainty here is that the bad bugs will not feed on the experiences of young readers who encounter this book, since there is so little fun to be had in it.  Time to Go? Maybe – to go and read Shivers!

(++++) FOR FUN – SERIOUSLY


Mozart: Der Schauspieldirektor; Salieri: Prima la musica e poi le parole. Eva Mei, Patricia Petibon, Markus Schäfer, Oliver Widmer, Werner Schneyder, Manfred Hemm, Melba Ramos; Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Belvedere. $20.99 (2 CDs).

Holst: The Planets; Elgar: Serenade for String Orchestra. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. SWR Music. $8.99.

Dvořák: Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 and Op. 72 (complete).SWR Rundfunkorchester Kaiserslautern conducted by Jiří Stárek. SWR Music. $8.99.

Ragtime in Washington—Music of Scott Joplin, Henry Lodge, George Gershwin/Will Donaldson, Thomas Benjamin, William Albright, William Bolcom, John Musto, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bob Zurke. Michael Adcock, piano. Centaur. $16.

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet—excerpts; Schumann/Liszt: Widmung; Gershwin/Wild: Seven Virtuoso Etudes; Bizet/Horowitz: Variations on a Theme from “Carmen”; Saint-Saëns/Godowsky: The Swan from “Carnival of the Animals.” Michael Adcock, piano. Centaur. $16.
     Classical music is sometimes referred to as “serious” music, and certainly a great deal of it is very serious indeed; and virtually everything identifiable as “classical” tends to be more serious than works of pop culture. But the “serious” label has the unfortunate side effect of making people who are not entirely familiar with classical music reluctant to listen to it – there is enough seriousness in the world and in life, the argument goes, and who needs more of it when seeking entertainment? Something mindless, frothy and altogether unimportant is a far better alternative! Well, classical music is scarcely mindless, but the fact that it is carefully constructed should not and does not prevent much of it from being outright fun. Yes, there may be a serious subtext (although not always!); but there are many works to which it is possible, even preferable, to listen simply for the out-and-out pleasure they bring. And that brings us to the non-contest between Salieri and Mozart in the year 1786, when each wrote a piece for a musical extravaganza staged (by imperial order, no less) at Schönbrunn palace. The underlying seriousness here had to do with comparisons between Italian opera (Salieri’s venue) and the German Singspiel (Mozart’s field for the purpose of this engagement). The result was two witty and frequently hilarious one-act works – originally performed by orchestras stationed at opposite ends of the same very large room. Both works were parodies of the theatrical and operatic practices of their time: Salieri drew heavily on a then-popular opera seria by Giuseppe Sarti, while Mozart focused on the inevitable competition between two would-be prima donna singers. These two short theatrical pieces are rarely heard nowadays – their parodistic nature, unfortunately, makes them captives of their own time to a great degree, preventing modern audiences from getting many of the jokes and references. And they are almost never performed together. But they were in 2002 at the Salzburg Festival, by Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and that performance is now available as a for-fun-only Belvedere release. It really is just for fun, although German speakers get all the words in the enclosed booklet (English speakers get only a translation of Mozart’s material, while Salieri’s is translated only into Italian). What is heard here is not exactly what audiences heard in1786: Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (that is, The Impresario) was almost all talk and was larded throughout with specific contemporary references that have almost all been excised and replaced here by ones more comprehensible to a modern audience. And so what? The music of both these works is absolutely delightful, and that is the point of this release. Salieri’s underlying topic, whether “First the music and then the words” makes sense in operatic composition, is a serious one that Richard Strauss contemplated in much the same way more than a century and a half later – in his final opera, Capriccio. And Mozart’s foundational concern, that artists should do their best at all times but should not hog the limelight or diminish their compatriots, is equally timeless and seems, if anything, even more apt today. But the character interplay and music used to explore and elucidate these matters is joyous, intelligent, witty and thoroughly delightful – and the singing and playing are simply wonderful to sit back and bask in. From a serious standpoint, this is a welcome chance to hear some less-known music that tackles topics of continuing interest and importance. But a serious standpoint is scarcely necessary for the pure enjoyment that this release provides.

     There is also pure enjoyment in some of the super-bargain-priced releases from Southwest German Radio on the recently created SWR Music label. This is not to diminish the underlying care and seriousness of the interpretations but to point out that some of the music being made available on these discs is of a type that invites listeners to sit back and enjoy, not to engage their critical faculties or mental energy to the extent that so much classical music does. The exceptionally fine Roger Norrington-led performance of Holst’s The Planets is a perfect case in point. The reading really is outstanding and can be analyzed, if one wishes, to figure out why: for instance, “Venus, the Bringer of Piece” here is beautifully done and is not the comedown that it usually is after the drama of “Mars, the Bringer of War,” and the handling of “Uranus, the Magician” is superb. But for most listeners, it will be enough simply to relax and delight in the wonderful playing of the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR and the excellent orchestration by Holst (to which Norrington is especially sensitive). It helps to remember that this massive suite is all about astrology, not astronomy, and that it is thus an invitation to suspend one’s disbelief and simply luxuriate in the sound of it all. And the pairing of The Planets with Elgar’s short, warm and thoroughly lovely Serenade for String Orchestra is a highly effective one: the Elgar has the effect of a post-prandial period of pure relaxation, its strings-only instrumentation a pronounced and very pleasant contrast to Holst’s use of a very large orchestra.

     Pure pleasures abound as well in Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances as played by the SWR Rundfunkorchester Kaiserslautern under Jiří Stárek. Like the Holst/Elgar CD, whose performances date to 2001, this one dates back a few years, to 2000 and 2001. But here too the enjoyment is scarcely time-bound. The ebullience of the faster dances, the homey folksiness of the slower ones, and the wonderful contrasts among the eight dances within each set and between the Op. 46 and Op. 72 sets as a whole are among the matters to enjoy here. Yes, it is possible to examine and listen to the dances, individually and collectively, in a serious way; in particular, the Op. 72 ones look to forms well beyond the purely Czech ones of the Op. 46 dances. But what Stárek’s performances communicate so well is that this is dance music, certainly brought into the concert hall by the composer but retaining throughout (even more in Op. 46 than in Op 72) the flavor of the outdoors, of the countryside, of 19th-century rural life in general. There is no reason to do anything but enjoy this music. Exploring its provenance is certainly an option for those who wish to do so, and studying its place within Dvořák’s oeuvre is certainly possible (and interesting); but the sheer delight of the dances is what comes through most clearly in these performances, and experiencing that enjoyment is more than enough reason to own the CD and listen to it – repeatedly.

     Sheer delight is also the primary reason to hear two new Centaur discs featuring pianist Michael Adcock. Yes, Adcock is a serious and seriously talented performer, and yes, that is abundantly clear in the music he plays on these CDs. But he is also clearly a pianist who revels in what he is doing and enjoys the chance to present music with exuberance as well as sensitivity. The CD called “Ragtime in Washington” (actually recorded outside the nation’s capital, in Frederick, Maryland, but why quibble?) offers a generous hour-and-a-quarter of fast and slow, original and imitative, ragtime and almost-ragtime pieces that range from the 100% authentic (Scott Joplin’s Bethena, The Easy Winners, Palm Leaf Rag and Solace) to the interpretative (Scott Joplin’s Victory by William Albright) to the amusingly, gently sarcastic (Thomas Benjamin’s That Old Second-Viennese-School Rag). The Joplin pieces and the one here by Jelly Roll Morton, Grandpa’s Spells, have inherent character quite different from that of the other pieces on the disc, although Red Pepper Rag by Henry Lodge (1885-1933) and Old Tom-Cat on the Keys by Bob Zurke (1912-1944) share somewhat similar sensibilities. Anyone who thinks “ragtime” (however defined) refers to music that all sounds essentially the same need only compare the works by Joplin, Lodge and Zurke to the four here by William Bolcom: Incinerator Rag, The Brooklyn Dodge, Last Rag and Fields of Flowers. The different handling of rhythm and harmony is fascinating – but it is also something more serious to consider than is really necessary when hearing these pieces. The ultimate point of “Ragtime in Washington” is out-and-out enjoyment, and that is what the CD provides, thanks to Adcock’s abundant skill with and involvement in the material. In addition to the pieces already mentioned, the disc contains Rialto Ripples by George Gershwin and Will Donaldson (1891-1954); Albright’s Sleepwalker’s Shuffle; and John Musto’s Recollections and In Stride. Listeners will have their favorites, and should: the pieces, most of them quite short, are very different in sense and sound. But every one of them has its pleasures, and that is just what listeners can and should notice above all: it is fun to hear this material.

     The fun is somewhat more rarefied, although not more attenuated, on Adcock’s other new CD, which features keyboard transcriptions of two extended works and three much shorter ones. Here Adcock has a chance, which he happily accepts, to showcase his sheer virtuosity while also displaying considerable sensitivity of tone, phrasing and emotional connection. The longest piece here, a set of 10 excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, is the most variegated and the most challenging in terms of requiring the pianist to convey multiple contrasting but complementary moods. Adcock handles it with warmth mixed with piquancy, contrasting the dramatic portions with the emotive ones to fine effect. And listeners need not know Prokofiev’s ballet to enjoy the performance: Adcock pulls the audience into the music and lets the shifting moods of the material speak for themselves. Things are lighter and brighter in Seven Virtuoso Etudes, in which pianist Earl Wild develops and then strings together a series of George Gershwin’s wonderful melodies, among them “The Man I Love,” “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm.” Adcock has just the right touch for this material: light and swinging and thoroughly in command of the complexities that Wild brings to melodies that are essentially simple and straightforward – indeed, almost pop-music-like, making them all the easier for listeners to accept and enjoy at face value. The remaining pieces here are short, one of them (the Schumann/Liszt Widmung) functioning as an interlude between the two extended works, the other two offered at the CD’s conclusion. Interestingly, Adcock places the Bizet/Horowitz Carmen variations, which would seem an ideal encore, before the Saint-Saëns/Godowsky The Swan, thereby ending the recital – and it does feel like an intimate-venue recital – on a quieter, softer note than might be expected. It is an intriguing decision, one that nicely complements Adcock’s performing skill and his sensitivity to the many moods of the works he plays and the many forms of pleasure they deliver to those who hear them.

(++++) THE MEANINGS OF “MODERN”


John Williams: Movie Music. Dallas Winds conducted by Jerry Junkin. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).

Villa-Lobos: Chôro No. 7; Ginastera: Pampeana No. 2; Webern: Ach Jüngen Lieder; Alicia Terzian: Yagua Ya Yuca; Les Yeux Fertiles; Berio: O King; Boulez: Dérive; Franz Schreker: Der Wind. Grupo Encuentros conducted by Alicia Terzian. Navona. $14.99.

Scott Barton: Breeding in Pieces; Eroding Mountains; Opus Palladianum—Voice and Drums; Effusion; For Steps That Grow When Climbed; Carried by Currents; Through the Rain. Scott Barton, guitar and vocals. Ravello. $14.99.

     Modernity depends, by definition, on the time at which the word is used. Consider the Handel and Haydn Society, the third-oldest musical organization in the United States, founded in 1815 with the express purpose of presenting both older music (Handel) and modern works (Haydn). The notion seems quaint nowadays, but really is not: so many works deemed “modern” in their time are now part of the standard repertoire or even considered old-fashioned, even sometimes deemed passé. Furthermore, in the 20th and 21st centuries, as composers have drawn on wider and wider spheres of influence to produce their works – and more and more venues through which to communicate them – music may sound “modern” in a great variety of ways, depending on how and why it is composed in addition to the date of its creation. In a sense, for example, all movie music is modern, since film as an entertainment medium is essentially a 20th-century phenomenon, with music absolutely integral to its effects since the days of silent movies and continuing right through to today – although the use and importance of music have changed substantially. John Williams (born 1932) is one of the grand masters of movie music, a field that has also attracted such notables as Prokofiev and Shostakovich – for whom, however, film and other theater music were sidelights. For Williams, during his six-decade career, movie music has been the main event, and many of the films with which he is associated have become classics of the genre: in the 1970s and 1980s alone were The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, 1941, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – the list goes on and on. And on. Williams has produced concert music as well, but it is for his film pieces that he is best known – those, plus some of his TV work, such as the Olympic Fanfare and Theme that he wrote for the 1984 Summer Olympics and that opens a very fine, very upbeat new Reference Recordings SACD featuring the Dallas Winds under Jerry Junkin. The 13 works here, all arranged for wind band, show how Williams uses modern compositional techniques (primarily of rhythm and harmony) while producing easy-to-listen-to, generally upbeat movie material that fulfills its primary function of supporting the visual action while at the same time carrying the film audience along effectively from scene to scene. There is nothing deeply emotional on this release, and little of that sort in Williams’ film music as a whole: swelling violins and discordant electronics convey love, warmth, fear and the like quite well enough on the big screen, and these are not Williams specialties. What Williams produces is music that sweeps the audience into alternative worlds and pulls them along beautifully from place to place. The Dallas Winds pick up on all the nuances of this material – which, to be sure, is not especially nuanced – and deliver performance after performance that will have listeners sitting up in their seats when they are not marching around in time to the music or their memories of the movies. Included here are The Cowboys—Overture, the march from Superman, excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, “With Malice Toward None” from Lincoln, the main title from Star Wars, the Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back, “Scherzo for X Wings” from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, “The Jedi Steps” and the finale from that same film, the theme from J.F.K., “Adventures on Earth” from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the march from 1941, and, in conclusion, The Star-Spangled Banner – which Williams did not write, of course, but which in its bright and upbeat mood fits everything else on the disc beautifully (and never mind that it originated as an 18th-century British drinking song). There is nothing deep or particularly thoughtful in any of the Williams music heard here: it is all escapist fare, as are most of the films for which Williams wrote this material. And although the music is quite clearly tonal, it is also quite clearly modern in its approach and in the way it evokes the emotional uplift called for by the film directors with whom Williams has worked so successfully for so many years.

     The slippery nature of being modern is especially clear from a new (+++) Navona CD featuring Grupo Encuentros under the direction of its founder, Alicia Terzian. Actually, although the disc is new, the performances date to 2008, making them a decade less “modern” than if they had just been done. But the recording date is not what makes it interesting to consider just what modernity in music means; nor is it the CD’s title, “40 Years of Contemporary Music,” although that too will show modernity to be a slippery concept at best and will make listeners think about just what “modern” means in different time periods. It is the mixture of music and of composers that really raises the question of what it means to be “modern” in music, and whether that designation is even of value in considering how to perform pieces and how to respond to them. Thus, the first two tracks juxtapose a 1924 work by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos with one from 1950 by Argentine’s Alberto Ginastera. These two pieces, of almost identical length, are both examples of classical music making use of folk and native sounds and forms by adapting them to the concert hall: Villa-Lobos uses Amerindian material plus some drawn from the polka and waltz, while Ginastera adapts an actual Argentine folk melody within a work of considerable virtuosity. Villa-Lobos writes for chamber ensemble (Fabio Mazzitelli, flute; Ruben Albornoz, oboe; Matias Tchicourel, clarinet; Maria Noel Luzzardo, saxophone; Ernesto Imsand, bassoon; Sergio Polizzi, violin; Carlos Nozzi, cello), while Ginastera uses only cello (Nozzi) and piano (Claudio Espector), but the contrasts between their pieces have more to do with their treatment of the themes than with the performing instruments. The rest of the CD is somewhat less focused than this. Anton Webern’s Ach Jüngen Lieder includes eight songs, seven of them very short, sung by mezzo-soprano Marta Blanco, with Espector on piano. They date to 1899-1903, before Webern became a true enfant terrible of the Second Viennese School, although their miniaturization does look ahead to his later work. There are two works here by Argentinian composer Alicia Terzian (born 1934): Yagua Ya Yuca (1992) for percussion (Arauco Yepes) and Les Yeux Fertiles (1997) for mezzo-soprano (Blanco), flute (Mazzitelli), clarinet (Tchicourel), piano (Espector), violin (Polizzi), and cello (Nozzi). The first of these is an intriguing representation of a dance from a lost Argentine culture. The second is more self-consciously “modern,” combining bits of poems by Paul Eluard into new poems and relying on ample use of microtones and a requirement that the musicians both play and sing. Luciano Berio’s O King contains only the word “King,” referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. – it dates to the year of King’s assassination, 1968, and is for mezzo-soprano (Blanco), flute (Mazzitelli), clarinet (Tchicourel), piano (Espector), violin (Polizzi), and cello (Nozzi). The work is a very “modern” musical obituary and tribute, and contrasts in some intriguing ways with the next piece on the CD, which is a tribute of a different sort. This is Pierre Boulez’ Dérive, which Boulez dedicated to William Glock on his retirement from the Bath Festival. The title refers to the drifting of a boat in the wind, but this is also a work derived from six chords that are manipulated in fairly typical “modern” ways. The piece dates to 1984 and is for piano (Espector) with flute (Mazzitelli), clarinet (Tchicourel), violin (Polizzi), cello (Nozzi), and percussion (Yepes). Finally on the CD, there is a “contemporary” work more than a century old, Der Wind by Franz Schreker. It dates to 1909 and is for violin (Polizzi), cello (Nozzi), clarinet (Tchicourel), horn (Gaston Frosio), and piano (Espector). The piece is “modern” for its time entirely by intention, combining elements of Impressionism, Schoenbergian expressionism, and intended (and now largely obscure) links to Symbolism. Although well-crafted, it is a work that does not wear particularly well by its own modernistic standards – it seems rather dated, in much the same way that self-consciously “modern” music appears to be when it is tied too closely to a particular time period or set of precepts.

     For analogous reasons, it is unlikely that the works on a new (+++) Ravello CD of the music of Scott Barton will have much longevity. Barton is very much a composer of or in the moment: these pieces, which use traditional instruments plus electronics (a sure sign of seeking the “modern” nowadays), contain the usual contemporary bows to multiple genres and forms, but do not break any new ground or presuppose any particular inclination toward non-superficial communication with listeners. Breeding in Pieces (2009) and Through the Rain (2017) are for guitar, which Barton himself plays; Opus Palladianum—Voice and Drums (2013) requires voice, which Barton himself supplies. There are some purely electroacoustic works here: Effusion (2016) and For Steps That Grow When Climbed (revised 2011). And there are two pieces for multiple instruments: Eroding Mountains (2014) for narrator (Art Cohen), voice (Barton), and piano (Aurie Hsu), and Carried by Currents (2017) for flute (Anthea Kechley), oboe (Elizabeth England), clarinet (Amy Advocat), and bassoon (Gregory Newton). The intertwining of electronic material with sounds produced by traditional instruments is done skillfully, and the inclusion in some pieces of sounds reminiscent of rock music and psychedelic experience makes portions of several works intermittently interesting. There are also signs of rather wry humor here from time to time, notably in the contrast between the smooth narration of Eroding Mountains and the dissonant pizzicati that accompany and compete with the words. The moods here tend to be fleeting and neither considered nor developed in depth: just as a listener starts to feel as if he or she has fastened on a particular theme or emotion, Barton goes in an entirely different direction. And while this is a thoroughly “modern” approach to music in the way it pushes and pulls the audience hither and yon, it does not produce a very satisfactory auditory experience. Barton’s works here sound a great deal like many other consciously and self-consciously “modern” ones, encased in their techniques and contemporaneity in a way that leaves them trapped in the amber of their own time.

July 12, 2018

(++++) BOWLED OVER


Fruit Bowl. By Mark Hoffmann. Knopf. $17.99.

     One of the cleverest educational picture books in some time, and one whose subtext about inclusion and exclusion is itself worth thinking about, Mark Hoffmann’s Fruit Bowl is above all a lot of fun to look at: the illustrations, of fruits and vegetables with expressive eyes and entirely-appropriate-to-the-situation appearances, are what will draw pre-readers and early readers (ages 3-7) to the book. But there is much more to it, and that “much more” is what will bring adults to Fruit Bowl to read it to or with young children.

     The basic setup is a standard one that could happen in any home (well, any home with talking produce). After a shopping trip, the fruits need to be placed in a bowl on the counter and the vegetables need to go in the refrigerator. An unseen child asks the fruits how they are all doing and gets a chorus of replies: “Peachy keen,” “All good,” “Awesome,” and so forth. And all the fruits climb up a little ladder into their bowl as the child talks to them: “Looking good, lime!” And up the ladder comes the tomato as well – only to be turned away and told to go to the refrigerator, despite his protestation, “But I am a fruit.” No, says the child, and the apple comments, “You’re being kind of saucy,” while the banana remarks, “You’ll have to split.”

     The tomato is determined: reading a book, he exclaims that he can prove he is a fruit, and he starts talking to the residents of the fruit bowl about what makes them fruits in the first place. This is the educational element of Hoffmann’s book, presented simply and elegantly: fruits start out as flowers, and they have seeds inside – and, sure enough, that describes the tomato. The taste of fruit is not an issue, the tomato explains when told he is not sweet: after all, cranberries are not sweet, and no one claims they are not fruits. Still unconvinced, the kitchen denizens all go on a search for Old Man Produce to get a definitive answer. They eventually discover the shriveled senior, who gives a rather silly and inconclusive speech but, when asked directly if the tomato is a fruit, replies yes. So the tomato heads for the fruit bowl on the counter – and, umm, it turns out that there are “other vegetables that are fruits in disguise” as well. And that starts a parade from the refrigerator to the countertop bowl, featuring a green pepper, an eggplant, a squash, and other happy-go-lucky characters that are used as vegetables in most homes but that are really, by definition, fruits. In fact, this part of Fruit Bowl is likely to be at least as big a surprise to parents as to children.

     The book ends with all the fruits, the ones traditionally known that way and the ones traditionally thought of as vegetables, snuggled together in the bowl on the counter, while the vegetables inside the refrigerator peek out of the crisper where they are kept and ask, “Why don’t we get our own bowl?” That is a perfectly reasonable question – one that can lead parents to talk with kids about the right way to store and preserve food, whether or not specific produce items are biologically fruits or vegetables. In fact, Fruit Bowl can open a whole set of fascinating discussions and explorations for parents and children. Really, does it matter if something is “officially” a fruit or vegetable, or is it all just a labeling issue and one of traditional use that counts? It would be nice if parents could give kids a single, simple way to tell the difference between fruits and vegetables, such as the “fruits contain seeds” statement that is part of the tomato’s reasoning. But alas, things really are not that simple, since strawberries’ seeds are on the outside, blueberries come from flowers but do not contain seeds, and grapes do not stop being fruits just because they can be bred to be seedless. A little research is clearly in order after consumption of the tasty lessons of Fruit Bowl. And the book itself is delicious enough to encourage further exploration.

(++++) WORLDS FROM WORDS


Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders. By Neil Gaiman. William Morrow. $16.99.

     The new edition of Neil Gaiman’s 2007 short-story-and-poetry collection, Fragile Things, has appeared for a strictly commercial reason – as a movie tie-in – but is worth celebrating despite any crassly financial rationale for bringing it out. That is because it offers another chance, or a first chance, for readers to explore a whole set (31!) of examples of Gaiman’s ever-enlarging and ever-vivid imaginary settings and characters. Yes, one story, running all of 15 pages, is “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” and yes, that story is being made into a film, and now that that is clear, readers can look at the rest of the 360 pages of the book and discover all sorts of wonders and delights – exploring them for the first time if they missed the book’s original appearance, or wandering through them and re-enjoying them if they first read the book more than a decade ago.

     Gaiman wears well. He also wears various forms of communication well: The Graveyard Book became an excellent two-volume graphic novel, Coraline an intriguing movie, and Gaiman himself produces nonfiction and his own graphic novels (the Sandman series) as well as traditional-looking books in both long form and short. Actually, Fragile Things is only one collection of its type. There are also Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions (1998) and Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (2015). So Fragile Things is the midpoint of these collections to date – which matters very little in terms of its contents, which range, like all Gaiman’s writings, from the sensitive to the horrific, from the chilling to the warm, from the wonderful and wonder-filled to the mundane, or apparently mundane.

     Really, nothing is ordinary in Gaiman’s worlds. He is quite capable of deceptive gentleness that barely covers pathos, as in the boy-meets-ghost story “October in the Chair,” and of utterly bizarre juxtapositions, as in the Doyle-meets-Lovecraft “A Study in Emerald.” He can write extremely short pieces, such as the 12 stories contained within “Strange Little Girls” and the one-page “In the End,” although he does not handle brevity in the captivatingly ironic manner of Fredric Brown. Gaiman is equally effective at novella length, as in “The Monarch of the Glen.” He intelligently, introspectively and engagingly reconsiders fairy tales, as in “Locks” and “Inventing Aladdin,” and the Narnia novels, as in “The Problem of Susan.” He does not possess the verbal-contortionist abilities and genuinely strange sensibilities of R.A. Lafferty, whom he admires, but when he writes a sort-of-Lafferty story such as “Sunbird,” he crafts something that is not Lafferty but could not have existed without him. Gaiman’s poetry is not very good and, for that matter, not very poetic, but is worth reading when it appears in Fragile Things because it provides some punctuation points and connective tissue among the prose narratives – which were originally published in a wide variety of places, but which come across as having an overarching if hard-to-pin-down theme as Gaiman has arranged them for this collection.

     Actually, it may not be so hard to find a theme, or meta-theme: Gaiman’s stories are all about stories, about storytelling, about the art and importance of using stories to communicate from generation to generation and era to era, about the marvels that can be made with the simple (apparently simple) tools to which Gaiman himself pays tribute: the 26 shapes that we collectively call the alphabet, a smattering of commas and periods and question marks and such, and a soupçon (or, in Gaiman’s case, a heaping helping) of imagination and thoughtfulness. Whether his topic is punk and the 1970s (which is where “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” comes in) or the now-classic film The Matrix (“Goliath,” written before the movie came out, on the basis of reading its screenplay), Gaiman picks and pokes at the edges and interstices of topics until he finds the places where something weird peeks out – or can be inserted. The stories in Fragile Things date to various times and are written in a variety of styles, but their sensibilities are recognizably Gaiman’s, and that is what makes the reappearance of this collection just as welcome in 2018 as its original publication was in 2007.

(+++) CULTURAL VENEERS


The Frame-Up. By Wendy McLeod MacKnight. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Midnight in the Piazza. By Tiffany Parks. Harper. $16.99.

     In their attempts to break away from the usual formulaic adventures told in preteen novels, authors have found a variety of directions in which to turn. When they happen to look to artistic matters (a rare occurrence), their books become noteworthy even if the underlying plots are straightforward and nothing particularly special. Thus, the most interesting parts of Wendy McLeod MacKnight’s The Frame-Up are about art. The 12-year-old protagonist is named Sargent Singer, in honor of the painter John Singer Sargent. Most of what happens in the book is fairly formulaic: Sargent Singer visits his divorced father, from whom he is estranged, at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in New Brunswick, Canada, which the father runs. As the book progresses, father and son get past initial awkwardness and difficulties relating to their family situation to move toward a rapprochement. There is nothing unusual in this. There is also little out of the ordinary about the plot of disappearing art and art forgery: books such as Chasing Vermeer have dealt with similar topics before, and better. And the bad guys here turn out to be stereotypical villains. But for all the familiarity and ordinariness of much of the book, it has one element that makes it worthwhile: the notion that art is alive. This is not exactly new – it was integral to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, for example – but MacKnight uses the conceit in some interesting ways. Sargent accidentally discovers that a 13-year-old girl in William Orpen’s 1915 painting, Mona Dunn, is alive, when she sticks out her tongue. That painting is real – reproductions of it and other art works relevant to the story are included in an insert in The Frame-Up. In the book, Sargent discovers that Mona and other painted people can move about within paintings and between them, visiting each other and exploring the various artists’ landscapes. Sargent and Mona share similar pre-adolescent loneliness despite their separation by a century and into two worlds, and they soon become friends, co-explorers of the outdoors, and joint solvers of the mystery of the nefarious bad guys. The asexual boy-girl “buddy” relationship is a mainstay of preteen novels, but this one has some genuinely clever elements and is nicely constructed by MacKnight. The book is also packed with information about art: concepts, specific works, techniques and critiques. For some readers, this will slow things down, and certainly The Frame-Up proceeds at what is basically a leisurely pace. But preteens who want speed in their plotting are not MacKnight’s target audience: this is a more-thoughtful book in which the ordinary broken-family elements, the standard defeat-the-usual-bad-guys strands, are less important (or at least no more important) than the discoveries of the wonders and surprises of the art world. Those may carry over for some readers into real life, even without the likelihood that they will be able to interact and solve mysteries with characters from paintings.

     The mystery involves art of a different sort in a different location in Tiffany Parks’ Midnight in the Piazza, but here too the setting and the material related to the artistic elements of the story are more interesting than the human interactions and, for that matter, more so than the human characters themselves. Here the protagonist is 13-year-old Beatrice Archer, who has unwillingly moved to Italy: her father has taken a professorship job to lead the history department at the American Academy in Rome. Beatrice soon discovers that the Eternal City – where Parks herself lives as an expat – has charms of all sorts, not the least of them being the Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) in the Piazza Mattei. Beatrice’s window overlooks the fountain (which, like the Orpen painting in MacKnight’s book, is real); and one night, she sees someone steal the bronze turtles that give the fountain its name and replace them with copies. Her father, the usual feckless-adult type who does not seem to be much of a historian or have much curiosity about Beatrice’s story, simply dismisses it and her – so she platonically befriends a local bilingual boy named Marco (Beatrice speaks no Italian) and works with him to find out what is going on. Beatrice is soon drawn into the legend of the fountain and the history of the Mattei family that commissioned it. In particular, she learns about Duchess Caterina, who found solace from her harsh life in her diary, which Beatrice discovers. Caterina Mattei really lived (from 1486 to 1547), and as a result, Beatrice’s search takes on an aura of plausibility (despite some irritatingly unlikely coincidences). Parks also includes art history in Midnight in the Piazza, and the numerous footnoted Italian phrases help add to readers’ sense of in some way being there with Beatrice and Marco as they look into the modern-day mystery. Parks is clearly enamored of Rome, its architecture and history, and her passages about the city make it come alive in ways that the rather dull central characters never do. As with MacKnight’s book, Parks’ novel is one that will be of most interest to preteens looking for something beyond the formulaic stories usually created for their age group – and, indeed, willing to look past the ordinary elements of Midnight in the Piazza and enjoy the artistic material that sets the book part from so many others.

(++++) WONDERFUL AND FRUSTRATING


Rameau: Le Temple de la Gloire—original 1745 version. Marc Labonnette and Philippe-Nicolas Martin, baritones; Camille Ortiz, Gabrielle Philiponet, Chantal Santon-Jeffery and Tonia D’Amelio, sopranos; Artavazd Sargsyan and Aaron Sheehan, hautes-contre (countertenors); Philharmonia Baroque Chorale and Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Philharmonia Baroque. $30 (2 CDs).

     Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was the multimedia master of his day, and thanks to a steady supply of funding from the Bourbon court in France, was able again and again to indulge his taste – and the taste of French royalty – for spectacular musical-theatrical productions that were part opera, part ballet, and part virtually unclassifiable entertainment mixing a wide variety of instruments, vocal parts and special effects.  Rameau’s influence was formative for later French opera: while Italian composers focused on the voice and Germans more on the orchestra, French opera sought and generally achieved a nearly equal balance of vocal and instrumental material, so that an opera by, say, Berlioz, has a completely different sound and emphasis from one by Verdi or Wagner.

     In truth, the differences were already pronounced in Rameau’s own time, when the primary competition for a work such as Le Temple de la Gloire – which is officially deemed an opera-ballet – was in the form of Italian opera seria, although “competition” is not exactly the right word for works composed for entirely different audiences in completely different countries. With historical hindsight, though, the differing approaches are quite clear: for example, the French emphasis on careful and correct pronunciation of all words in the libretto, a notable feature of later French opera, is already present in Rameau – and contrasts strongly with the Italian approach of advancing the story through recitative and using elaborately varied da capo arias for generic responses and emotional expressions (thus making it possible for composers such as Handel to reuse material intact in entirely different contexts).

     Le Temple de la Gloire has a libretto by none other than Voltaire, and Rameau was scrupulous in setting the words so they and their philosophical/instructional message would be abundantly clear to the court audience. It was because of that audience, specifically the court of Louis XV, that this work has been known for some time only in its revised and somewhat censored 1746 edition rather than its original one from 1745. Now, though, the original version of Le Temple de la Gloire has received a marvelous and thoroughly engaging set of performances by the Philharmonia Baroque Chorale and Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan – and live recordings of those performances, from April 2017, have been used to produce an absolutely first-rate two-CD release, a world première recording, on the orchestra’s own label.

     From start to finish, this is marvelous entertainment. Rameau was a master of orchestration who had at his disposal some absolutely top-notch players, notably of woodwinds – which are far more prominent in Le Temple de la Gloire than in non-French music of Rameau’s time. The work’s overture includes two piccolos along with oboes, trumpets, horns and bassoons, and has a central section prominently featuring two flutes. The first scene of the opera-ballet, its prologue, opens with a bassoon duet in dialogue with violins playing descending scales – a kind of tone painting of the cave of Envy, where the whole production begins. Later there is an unsurprising touch through the inclusion of a scene of shepherds and shepherdesses, but with the surprising inclusion of bagpipes – actually the musette de cour, whose sound, initially unexpected, fits the action perfectly. The plot of Le Temple de la Gloire, or rather the lesson it was created to teach, has to do with the proper route to glory for rulers. Voltaire makes it clear that brutal conquest will not do, nor will indulgence of the senses through Dionysian revels: it is only magnanimous decision-making in the name of peace and prosperity that makes a ruler deserving of entry into Le Temple de la Gloire. So this is a “message” opera, or opera-ballet, and is intended strictly for rulers by divine right. But it is not for the words, however skillfully Voltaire crafted them to serve his purpose, that listeners will engage with this lovely recording. It is the sheer variety of instrumentation that stands out most clearly, including the absence of the harpsichord (thus focusing the audience’s attention elsewhere, notably on the winds) and the cleverness of presentation (divided violas, for example, are prominent). The words, of course, do matter, and are sung by soloists and chorus alike with sensitivity to historical performance practice plus a penchant for characterization – there really is personality delineation here among the priests and priestesses, Romans, Bacchantes, Muses, demons and others who pervade the production.

     And that is where the frustration of what is otherwise a splendid release comes in. Rameau’s theatricality and understanding of spectacle were very pronounced, and Le Temple de la Gloire really does have multimedia elements that range from special sound effects to frequent scene changes to unpredictable alterations of solos, duets, choruses, dances and more. This is a work that cries out to be seen, one that suffers greatly when it is only heard on a CD release – no matter how fine. Everything is part of the overall effect of Le Temple de la Gloire, including costumes and staging and all the visual appurtenances with which a supremely wealthy ancien régime court could afford to lavish its entertainments. The music is marvelous, the performance under McGegan is absolutely top-level from the first note to the last, and having the original version of Le Temple de la Gloire available in any form at all is a tremendous treat. But again and again, as one type of music gives way to another, a listener is going to miss the visual elements that originally tied this whole sprawling work together, giving it coherence that, on a strictly musical basis, it lacks (albeit by intent). There are marvels to be heard here, and marvels to be seen, but only the former are available in CD form, and the latter will be sorely missed by anyone captivated and enraptured by what Rameau and Voltaire created in Le Temple de la Gloire.

(+++) HOW VOICES BLEND


Otmar Mácha: Silesian Yodel-Songs; The Replies of Silesian Songs; Moravian Folk Songs; Hejsa, Hejsa; Flows the Water; The Moravian Gate; Proverbia; Fortuna; Hymnus. Jitro Czech Girls Choir conducted by Jiří Skopal. Navona. $14.99.

William Bolcom: Three Cabaret Songs; David Kechley: Waking the Sparrows—Five Haiku Songs; William Neil: Out of Darkness into Light; Andrew York: Open the River; Jing Jing Luo: A Song of Unending Sorrow. Duo Sureño (Nancy King, soprano; Robert Nathanson, guitar). Ravello. $14.99.

Ingrid Stölzel: The Gorgeous Nothings; here there; Soul Journey—Three Whitman Songs; With Eyes Open; The Road Is All. Navona. $14.99.

     The splendidly controlled sound of the Jitro Czech Girls Choir conducted by Jiří Skopal, who has managed the group since 1977, is the main attraction of a new Navona release featuring music created or arranged by Otmar Mácha and presented in groupings reflective of the sources from which the music is drawn. The performances are mostly a cappella and reflect the skillful blending of the young voices in the choir. This is primarily a CD for people interested in smoothly vocalized but, in the main, not especially meaningful vocal material. Thus, the five Silesian Yodel Songs are simply impressions of shepherds and shepherdesses calling to each other across valleys, while The Replies of Silesian Songs, less strongly projected and more delicate in sound, paint various pastoral scenes in gentle vocal colors or retell old stories, including one about the capture of a robber and one about a sparrow marrying a cow. Occasional piano accompaniment provides additional sonic underpinning to several songs, including some of the Moravian Folk Songs that, again, are about pastoral concerns and the innocence of young love. In addition to the grouped songs, there are three individual ones offered here: Hejsa, Hejsa; Flows the Water; and The Moravian Gate. These explore pathos of several kinds with vocal sounds that are uniformly smooth and attractive. Proverbia includes three Latin proverbs, one thanking the Muse, one warning against a changeable woman and one wishing long life and prosperity. Fortuna is Latin, too, a wish for good luck in which the single word of the title is repeated dozens of times – it is the only word sung here. The most interesting work on the CD from the perspective of sound is the final one, Hymnus, which melds the choir with kettledrum and organ, instruments whose introductory material, much of it dissonant, goes on for a minute and a half before any voices enter; and when they do, their rather sweet uplift contrasts with the instrumentation and eventually pulls it into the choir’s orbit and toward an assertively positive conclusion. The CD is a specialty item, to be sure, but a very fine-sounding one that will please listeners interested in the distinctive sounds of massed girls’ voices and in the history and musical attractions of Czech folk melodies.

     The sound is mostly considerably quieter and more personal on a new Ravello release featuring Duo Sureño (Nancy King and Robert Nathanson) performing a variety of contemporary art songs for the unusual mixture of soprano and guitar. The Michael Lorimer arrangements of Three Cabaret Songs by William Bolcom (born 1938) are especially interesting, taking some of the edge away from the music and replacing it with warmth and intimacy. Waking the Sparrows by David Kechley (born 1947) is also intriguing, exploring both the lyrical and dramatic capability of voice and guitar and using haiku in their original Japanese or, in some cases, in a mixture of Japanese with English. The remaining material here is of somewhat less interest, which is unfortunate because the longest offering by far is Out of Darkness into Light by William Neil (born 1954). This is an overextended 24-minute exploration of the theme of renewal that relies heavily on digital acoustics (produced by the composer) and also includes, in addition to soprano and guitar, violin (Danijela Žeželj-Gualdi), saxophones (Laurent Estoppey), and bassoon and contrabassoon (Helena Kopchick Spencer). It is one of those works that goes out of its way to sound ultra-modern and in so doing mostly draws attention to the ways in which much contemporary music sounds a great deal like other contemporary music – the whole production is just too extended and too self-consciously redolent of the no-longer-original sounds of digital acoustics to be involving or effectively communicative. The much shorter Open the River by Andrew York (born 1958), which also includes Žeželj-Gualdi on violin, is also too self-important to put across much translatable feeling: York uses the same poem twice in different settings, structuring the presentation carefully in one of those technical arrangements that are primarily of interest to fellow composers but add little to the experience of an audience. In contrast, A Song of Unending Sorrow by Jing Jing Luo (born 1952) – which, like the Bolcom and Kechley works, uses only soprano and guitar – is lyrical, touching and moving in its presentation of the tragic story of an ancient Chinese emperor’s love for a beautiful concubine. His love was so strong that it led him to neglect affairs of state, so the army killed the concubine to force the emperor to do his duties – after which he died of a broken heart. This is a love story that speaks to today’s listeners from a time more than a millennium in the past and that crosses social and cultural boundaries, and the setting for soprano and guitar puts it across movingly and with real emotional impact.

     The two works that use voice on a new Navona CD featuring the music of Ingrid Stölzel (born 1971) also offer some well-conceived blendings of the vocal and instrumental. The Gorgeous Nothings (2016) turns fragments of uncompleted Emily Dickinson poems into a five-movement what-might-have-been mini-cycle featuring soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson accompanied by flute (Anne Gnojek), oboe (Margaret Marco), and piano (Ellen Sommer). The use of wind instruments is particularly effective in bringing out some of the poet’s not-fully-formed thoughts, with the fourth piece, “The Little Sentences,” being an especially well-conceived presentation of both musical and verbal fragmentation. Soul Journey—Three Whitman Songs (2014) is for mezzo-soprano (Phyllis Pancella) and piano (Sommer), and its three settings of poems from Leaves of Grass last significantly longer than the five songs based on Dickinson’s fragments. The piano accompaniment here tends to be spare, and the vocal settings are less involving, despite their obvious earnestness – although the second piece, “I Swear I Think,” with its lightly skipping accompaniment at the opening, is attractive. The issue here is that Stölzel is trying to communicate a weighty subject, a soul journey, but her presentation is rather straightforward and does not convey a real sense of the depth of what Whitman is trying to put across. The two vocal works on this disc are complemented by three instrumental ones that show Stölzel to have some skill at blending and contrast when the voice is not involved. Violin (Véronique Martin) and piano (Sommer) are the instruments in here there (2006; the title has no capital letters). This is a work in which the two performers seem to change places periodically in terms of which instrument leads and which follows, reflecting the notion that what is here and what is there is a matter of perspective rather than an absolute. With Eyes Open (2015) is for alto saxophone (Keith Bohm) and piano (Sommer) and is a drifting, quiet piece that could serve as background music in a nightclub. It is based on an earlier Stölzel work for flute, guitar, vibraphone and piano; in this version, the saxophone dominates and is a source, primarily, of smoothness. Also on the CD is The Road Is All (2007) for piano trio (Anne-Marie Brown, violin; Lawrence Figg, cello; Robert Pherigo, piano). The ways in which the instruments blend – or fail to do so – lie at the heart of this piece, in which the three all seem to be on different roads, or on the same road in different places or at different speeds, except when they occasionally meet and appear to be heading in the same direction, if not necessarily toward the same goal. The occasional merger of the three instrumental voices comes across as rather unexpected when it happens, as the work – which at 12 minutes goes on for some time after it has already made all its points – eventually fades out with only the piano apparently reaching journey’s end.

July 05, 2018

(++++) JOKES AND JOKERS


Funny Kid #2: Stand Up. By Matt Stanton. Harper. $12.99.

Laugh-Out-Loud A+ Jokes for Kids. By Rob Elliott. Harper. $4.99.

Amelia Bedelia 12: Amelia Bedelia Digs In. By Herman Parish. Pictures by Lynne Avril. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $15.99.

     Matt Stanton is showing in his Funny Kid series for ages 8-12 that he can actually take things in somewhat different directions from book to book. The first volume introduced Max Walbert, the Funny Kid of the title, who wants no more than to be class clown and, in that book, maybe class president as well. Much of the first book involved Max’s problems with a horrible teacher named Mr. Armstrong – who eventually got what he deserved – and with a super-smart classmate named Abby Purcell. In the second book, Mr. Armstrong is gone, but Abby is still very much there, and still a thorn in Max’s side – until, near the end, she actually shows some evidence of appreciating Max’s admittedly difficult-to-appreciate charm. Also returning in the second book are Max’s best friend, Hugo, and Max’s duck, Duck. But the plot this time is quite different: it revolves around a school talent show that Max is determined to win because he is, after all, the Funny Kid. But at the pre-show rehearsal, he is upstaged – and unnerved – by the appearance of a clown named Tumbles, who makes Max so nervous and makes such a mess of Max’s jokes that Max finds himself designated the Un-Funny Kid and allowed into the talent show only because the judges feel sorry for him. Things get rapidly more complicated because of a separate plot in which Max’s grandfather, whose personality is distinctly unpleasant, disappears from the nursing home where he lives – to the joy of the other residents – and, it seems, may have been kidnapped. Or maybe not: there is something distinctly suspicious about the ransom note. And who should be investigating the possible kidnapping but Abby Purcell’s mom, who is a police officer? The various plot strands really work quite well together and eventually are tied up into a funny bundle very neatly indeed. And Stanton’s illustrations, of which there are many throughout the book, are really delightful: his two-pager of an explosively angry Max (after Tumbles spoils his Funny Kid act) is hilarious. Oh – and yet another plot element, in which the inept and feckless Hugo becomes Max’s “life coach,” also ties wonderfully into everything and even becomes slightly touching. Funny Kid turns out to be about more than a Funny Kid.

     For aspiring Funny Kids in their own schools, Rob Elliott has produced another of his innumerable thin Laugh-Out-Loud paperbacks, this one school-focused and titled Laugh-Out-Loud A+ Jokes for Kids. Like the other books in this (+++) series, this one offers little that is genuinely funny but does contain various jokes that may bring a smidgen of laughter, or at least a chuckle or two, to some children in the target age range of 6-10 (especially toward the younger part of the range). “Why did the teacher fall in love with her boots? She said they were sole-mates.” And: “How do clams call their parents after school? They use their shell phones.” Also: “How did the cows get to school? On a com-moo-ter train.” And: “Why was the chicken late for school? She didn’t hear the alarm cluck.” And then: “What do you put in your lunchbox for a field trip to the desert? Sand-wiches.” There are also plenty of knock-knock jokes: “Abbott” becomes “Abbott time you finished all your homework,” and “Russian” is “I’m Russian to get to school on time,” and “Honeydew” leads to “Honeydew you know it’s time for school?” There is really nothing special in the jokes, and even less in the illustrations, which make no attempt to be amusing: one shows a stack of books, another has a lunch bag and an apple, a third is of a globe, and so forth. Young readers who can put across lots of these jokes in a genuinely amusing way would certainly need a great sense of timing to do so – and really would deserve to be called Funny Kids.

     Some kids are funny because of what they do rather than because of any jokes they tell or stand-up routines they perform. That is the case with young Amelia Bedelia, whose mild adventures continue to be chronicled from time to time by Herman Parish, nephew of Amelia Bedelia creator Peggy Parish (1927-1988). Herman Parish has now produced his 12th book featuring a young Amelia Bedelia rather than the adult one invented by his aunt; and as in all 11 previous Herman Parish books, the illustrations are by Lynne Avril, who has developed a consistent look for young Amelia and who carries it through with small pictures of her and her adventures on practically every page. Peggy Parish’s still-amusing concept was of a cook and household servant who takes language very literally – for instance, tell her to “change the towels” and she might tear them into strips, splash paint on them or cut holes in them, since all those things would change them. Amelia’s long-suffering employers, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, figure out how to communicate with her through trial and error, and put up with all the misunderstandings because Amelia is a superb cook and baker who can always make things right with a tasty treat at the end of a story. Herman Parish keeps things more modest and somewhat sweeter in his books about young Amelia, who already has the good nature she will show in adulthood without being quite as scattered or mistake-prone as she will become. She does already make good cookies. But her adventures in these (+++) books revolve more around her own family and everyday friendships than anything else – and Amelia Bedelia Digs In is no exception. Amelia has a new best friend named Alice, and the girls are going to the beach together, which means they will both be trying to learn how to surf and will both be involved in the sort of treasure-map-and-pirate-booty adventure that seems to befall pretty much everyone in the 6-10 age range – in books, anyway. The verbal misunderstandings here are quite mild, and it is surprising that Amelia’s parents never quite catch on to them: “‘Isn’t it fun to hit the beach at dawn?’ sked her father. ‘It was until the beach hit back,’ said Amelia Bedelia,” who has been knocked down by a wave. These Amelia-as-a-child books are never more than mildly amusing, but they are pleasantly written, easy to read, and may even get some children interested in checking out the better-developed adult Amelia Bedelia in the original Peggy Parish books.