June 21, 2018

(++++) SIMPLY, FOR FUN


Chicken on Vacation. By Adam Lehrhaupt. Pictures by Shahar Kober. Harper. $4.99.

Mighty Truck on the Farm. By Chris Barton. Illustrated by Troy Cummings. Harper. $4.99.

Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur and the Sand Castle Contest. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Charles Grosvenor. Harper. $4.99.

Pinkalicious and the Pirates. By Victoria Kann. Harper. $4.99.

Haunted Halloween. By Sue Fliess. Illustrated by Jay Fleck. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

     Even the easiest-to-read books can be highly enjoyable for young children when they are put together as well as are most of the entries in the “I Can Read!” series. The easiest books in this series are called “My First” and are intended for adults to share with kids who are almost but not quite ready to read on their own. Then come the Level 1 books (“simple sentences for eager new readers”), which frequently use well-known characters from picture books and chapter books as their protagonists – making it possible for kids to learn reading with those characters and then follow their adventures in increasingly complicated books that are not part of this learning-to-read series. At their best, Level 1 “I Can Read!” books stand up very well in comparison to more-complex books with the same characters, giving their adventures in simplified form but carefully staying true to the characters’ personalities. Two good examples are Chicken on Vacation and Mighty Truck on the Farm. The chicken, Zoe, has a very vivid imagination and is always pulling her friend, Sam the pig, into improbable adventures in which reality never gets in the way of Zoe’s fantasizing. That is exactly what happens in Chicken on Vacation: Zoe tells Sam that they are going on a beach vacation, and also invites Pip the mouse along. But of course they do not really go to a beach: they simply wander around the farm. Zoe exclaims with excitement about seeing the ocean, but Sam points out that it is really just the farm’s pond. Zoe says the beach is right over there, but Sam correctly sees only dirt. Being a chicken, Zoe does not really swim, but she stands on the dock by the pond and tells Sam she is on a surfboard. And then she claims to find a treasure map, and the three friends search for a treasure that eventually turns out to be the pie that Zoe packed as a picnic treat. The whole book is good-humored, with Pip and Sam indulging Zoe’s fantasies and actively taking part in them. As for Mighty Truck on the Farm, the title character here is an old truck named Clarence who gained mighty powers when lightning struck a car wash: he becomes Mighty Truck when wet and reverts to everyday Clarence when dry. In this book, he hopes for a break from his mighty urban duties when his parents ask him to visit them on their farm. But it turns out they have just as many chores for him to do as he has been doing in the city – different ones, but they are still loads of work. So while his parents sleep, Clarence changes into Mighty Truck, gets all the chores done, then changes back by drying off – after which he finally gets a chance to rest, relax and do some fishing. These two books have short but interesting stories that neatly pave the way for the adventures that the book’s central characters have elsewhere. Kids who learn to read with these characters will likely want to find out more about them as their reading skills advance.

     Not all Level 1 books are quite this successful: some push the protagonists in directions that do not quite gel with other adventures. They can still serve as good early-reading material, however, and possibly get young children interested in trying out a few other books in which the same characters appear. The 1958 book Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff (1912-2004) has inspired a new series of almost-lookalike books that pay tribute to Hoff’s original idea of a museum-dwelling dinosaur befriended by a young boy. Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur and the Sand Castle Contest, a summertime series entry, does not quite read like a Hoff story and is not quite drawn like one, either. But 21st-century children are unlikely to know the original Hoff concept (although they will enjoy it if given the chance!) and may very well be carried away by this mild story of a day at the beach. Danny first uses the dinosaur to create a sure-to-win sand construction (covering the dinosaur with sand to create a “sand sea monster”), but when waves threaten to swamp all the other castle builders’ work, Danny has the dinosaur protect the shore from the water so the other kids’ constructions are saved – even though it means Danny does not win the contest. This is a bit more of a teachable moment than is really necessary, but the book is still enjoyable enough to work as a simple warm-weather tale. Similarly, Pinkalicious and the Pirates is a beach story involving the pink-loving title character; her brother, Peter; and Aqua, a friendly “merminnie” (miniature mermaid). And all that is just fine, but the plot turns on two supposedly scary pirates (whose ship, however, flies pink flags) having a dispute – giving Pinkalicious and Peter a chance to capture them by using Pinkalicious’ pink kite. Then it turns out that Captain Pinkbeard and his first mate are “good pirates” who were only arguing about the best color of sprinkles for their latest batch of freshly baked cookies. This is a very thin Pinkalicious story that is not entirely in line with her usual adventures – but, as with the Level 1 Danny-and-the-dinosaur book, it works for easy summertime reading and some modest enjoyment of the central character.

     Of course, no one says beach stories and other warm-weather tales are the only easy-to-read books for kids during the summer. In fact, some children may tire of the sameness of the variations on summertime activities in many simple books and want something a bit less seasonal. That could be something such as Haunted Halloween, a particularly pleasant board book celebrating a cooler time of year in highly amusing fashion. Some of the book’s pages are traditionally squared-off, while others are rounded – semicircular, for instance, or humped – so just turning the pages is enjoyable. The story tracks five kids walking in their nicely imagined costumes (the oversize Frankenstein-monster head is particularly well done) while the narrative is based on counting from one to 10. That means there are lines such as, “Two toads sleep./ Earthworms creep.” And: “Six snakes slide./ Spiders hide.” Each page very neatly shows the sort-of-spooky creatures in decidedly non-spooky guise – even the five ghosts are mostly seen smiling, as are most of the eight tiny gargoyles (which resemble adorable stuffed toys). Eventually the book gets to: “Ten small feet/ Trick-or-Treat,” and the five kids walk through a suitably sort-of-spooky-looking door to find a bunch of other children having a very happy Halloween party. As a counting book, a rhyming book, an easy-to-read book, and an alternative to all the beach-and-picnic books so common during summer, Happy Halloween is, simply, great fun.

(+++) SWEETNESS AND LIGHT


All of Us. By Carin Berger. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Running on Sunshine: How Does Solar Energy Work? By Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano. Illustrated by Giovana Medeiros. Harper. $17.99.

     Sweetness. Carin Berger’s All of Us is packed with it; in fact, that is its entire content. The book is simply an affirmation, accompanied by collage art intended to reinforce its message of love and togetherness – but including in the art, rather oddly, quite a few bits of typeset material with words much too big for young readers and wholly unrelated to the topic of the book: “customized recommendation,” “entrusted to manage,” “experienced advisors,” “America has great,” “half of invoice of a,” and many more…in several languages. Or are these non-child-focused, real-world words accidental? The book’s central message, shown through two large hands clasped across two pages, is, “We are stronger together,” the motto of the divisive and failed Hillary Clinton presidential campaign of 2016. Berger then goes on, “Hope and light will always prevail. For love wins. Love wins. Love will never fail.” And those words are spread among seven pages absolutely jam-packed with hearts and showing many, many intermingled people of all races and ethnicities – in fact, it is almost impossible to find two people of the same racial makeup and opposite genders (that is, heterosexual parents in the most-common pairings) hugging and touching among all those who are proclaiming “love wins.” So there is a very clear, very simple surface-level message in All of Us, and it is a beautiful and 100% politically correct one about complete inclusiveness for everybody at all times and under all circumstances, even “when the winds are wild and the path unclear” (words that appear near the start of the book with, interestingly, some of Berger’s most-attractive illustrations – which do not really reflect the mild negativity of the text). Perhaps very young children will not notice the typeset words within the collages – certainly pre-readers are unlikely to pay much attention to them – and perhaps All of Us has no sociopolitical subtext after all and is simply a very sweet paean to perfect love and inclusion of everybody within the whole “one world” family of humanity. Perhaps – but there have been numerous picture books with that same sweet and simple message, delivered in a straightforward and loving way without even the possibility of misinterpretation. All of Us is different, whether by design and intent or not. Parents will not want to read too much into it, but will also want to decide for themselves whether the book is really a straightforward assertion of universal oneness through love or whether there is something else, or something additional, going on here in the guise of sweetness.

     Light. Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano here offers a Level 2 book in the “Let’s Read and Find Out” science series – this level is for primary-grade students and intended to go a bit beyond the basics of the series’ Level 1 books. The topic of Running on Sunshine is clear and is handled, in its own way, almost as simply as the topic of love and inclusiveness is managed in All of Us. The opening of DeCristofano’s book, abetted by well-constructed illustrations by Giovana Medeiros, sets the tone nicely by changing something very big and overwhelming (the gigantic size of the sun and how it produces energy) into something graspable and easy to relate to everyday life (the way sunbeams strike and influence green plants, fruits and more). Then DeCristofano shows a solar panel and explains what happens when a sunbeam hits it, and the book is well on its way. DeCristofano explains how solar energy has been used to power the around-the-world flight of a special airplane, how solar-panel-equipped cars have raced across Australia, how solar panels can help rescue workers stay in touch from remote places, and more. All this is interesting, even exciting – and then DeCristofano explains how solar energy works by contrasting it with energy produced by conventional means. Here, though, the book starts to go just a bit awry: it is not wrong but is incomplete, even for readers at this level. Because of traditional energy use, DeCristofano says, “rain does not fall where it’s expected,” while “cold snaps and heat waves sizzle like never before. Yikes! …We need to use energy without making the air dirty.” Well, all right: this is a straightforward assertion of human-caused climate change, simplistic but in line with most scientific thinking today. But where the book’s problematic issue comes up is a bit later, in the comment that “there are some tricky things about using solar energy.” DeCristofano mentions rainy and cloudy days, nighttime, and snow blocking solar panels as real-world issues, and talks about storage systems and cutting-edge technologies beyond those of the planes and cars mentioned earlier. But she never mentions, even in passing, the gigantic issue facing widespread adoption of solar energy, which is the need to move it from areas where it is collected and stored to areas where, because of weather and geography, it can be used but cannot be reliably produced. Moving energy, however it may be generated, requires gigantic investment in infrastructure and requires construction of vast power grids that frequently are met with vocal opposition from the same people who stridently advocate alternative energy. With wind energy, for example, many of the same people and groups strongly pushing for wind farms have rallied against – and blocked – wind-farm construction in areas where the farms might interfere with people’s pristine views and/or harm birds. There has been similar not-in-my-back-yard hypocrisy associated with solar energy – which can only be collected by using a lot of space (DeCristofano at one point acknowledges this, just in passing: “It would take a whole lot of space to hold the batteries for a whole town’s electricity”). A simple comment that a big problem with solar energy is the need to build very extensive transportation networks to move it from place to place would have made Running on Sunshine a more-useful instructional book. But it might have made it a less inspirational one, and its purpose does seem to be as much to generate enthusiasm among young readers as to give them real-world information on solar power. The book is a pleasant and upbeat introduction to its topic, but young readers – and adults reading the material with them – will have to go elsewhere to understand why the subject of solar energy tends to generate as much heat as light.

(+++) DOGGONE IT!


Scout: National Hero. By Jennifer Li Shotz. Harper. $17.99 (hardcover); $12.99 (perfect binding).

Under Dogs. By Andrius Burba. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     In the three-book Hero series and in Max: Best Friend. Hero. Marine., complete with periods within the title, Jennifer Li Shotz celebrates canine courage and canine-kid connections repeatedly, if formulaically. And now she has a new angle on the same topic, with Scout: National Hero as the start of a new sequence about, um, canine courage and canine-kid connections. Really, it is hard to argue about such well-meaning books, whose themes show the interwoven lives of dogs and the people to whom they become attached and whom they are able to help in a variety of perilous situations. But what all Shotz’ books have in common, Scout included, is that the dogs have far more personality than the humans and are always doing more-interesting things than the people are. In Scout, 12-year-old Matt lives with his military family, his mother running a National Guard unit while his father is deployed in a war zone overseas, and of course there is plenty of heart-tugging and wistfulness in the scene of Matt’s 12th birthday party, which his father attends via technology and has to leave abruptly because he has “got a situation.” Also in the human cast is Matt’s 17-year-old sister, Bridget, whose main reason for being is to cramp Matt’s developing style and to need rescuing when a flash flood hits the Nevada town to which the family has recently been transferred. It is the flood that provides the book’s climax by giving both Matt and the dog, Scout, a chance to prove themselves – which Scout needs to do because he is an absolutely first-rate rescue dog when he wants to be, but does not always want to be, so Matt’s mom is going to have send him back where he came from if he cannot become better-trained and more consistently obedient. Readers will know from the start that this is not going to happen, so the only question is how Scout is going to prevent it from happening. The flood is the answer. As for the humans here, Matt’s primary personality trait is impulsiveness that verges on self-destructiveness, because, see, he keeps trying to prove himself to the kids in all the new towns where his family has to move, and his definition of proving himself involves doing dangerous and stupid things so – well, so what? That is never very clear and is not the point of the book, anyway. What matters is the budding relationship between Scout and Matt – who, predictably, is the only person who realizes Scout’s quality and understands that this dog is, if anything, too intelligent to obey all commands blindly. The book’s subtitle will presumably be shown to be meaningful later in the series, because Scout’s heroism here – in rescuing Bridget after first figuring out (intelligence, remember?) how to free a baby trapped in a partly submerged car and unable to release the harness holding her car seat in place – is strictly on the local level. But there is surely more to come. And it seems, miraculously and without explanation, that Matt and his family will actually be able to stay in Nevada, even though staying in one place has never been possible before. And this will give Matt a chance to develop friendships with the preteens he meets and interacts with in this first series book, especially Dev and Amaiya. They should all get along very well: none of them has a differentiated personality. Nor do they need one: this is a book about a dog star. And that is a Sirius…err, serious matter.

     Decidedly unserious are the pictures in photographer Andrius Burba’s Under Dogs, which are exceptionally amusing and are flawed only because when you have seen them once, there is little reason to go back to the book and see them again: this is an almost perfect example of a gift book that a gift-giver need not feel guilty about thumbing through before handing it to the intended recipient. That recipient needs to be a dog lover with a somewhat skewed sense of humor – certainly Burba’s appears to be a little off-kilter. The book contains nothing but photos of dogs taken from below – presumably the pups are standing or lying on a piece of glass or plastic that, hopefully, is comfortable enough so their expressions are indicative of relaxation rather than panic. It is a little hard to be sure in some of the photos, but the view-from-underneath concept is amusing and apparently harmless enough to give Burba the benefit of the doubt. Aside from the photos, there is nothing in the book except a statement of the breed of each dog photographed. Some of these pictures are genuinely funny: there is a German spitz that is nothing but four paws completely surrounded by puffy white fur, and a Yorkshire terrier whose paws are barely visible at all because of its extensive coat (and where exactly is its head?). On the other hand, the Thai ridgeback, with rear legs splayed and muzzle pointed straight down toward the camera, looks distinctly uncomfortable, as do the Basenji and golden retriever, both of which seems to be trying to keep their balance (what exactly are they on top of?). There is a shih tzu here that looks like an alien teddy bear (is that a single eye up top?), and a dachshund that seems to have not only an exceptionally long body but also a highly extended turtle-style neck. Some breeds are shown more than once: Burba seems to favor Chihuahuas and Yorkies. And yes, a couple of mutts are included. The point of the book is to be quite pointless: there is no lesson here, no grand theme, and, really, no significance at all. That is why the book, as much fun as it is to look through once, has little staying power: it is ultimately not about much of anything. It is certainly enjoyable in its own way, though. And a gift-giver can even suggest that the gift recipient handle it very gently and re-gift it, so its small delights can be passed along again and again.

(++++) INSTRUMENTAL COMMUNICATION


Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra; Kodály: Concerto for Orchestra. Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Jakub Hrůša. PentaTone. $15.99 (SACD).

Monica Houghton: Andean Suite; The Twelve Causes from the Circle of Becoming; Wilderness Portraits—Three Places in Nevada; Stay, Shadow; Three Songs without Words; Epigram; Corpo Sonoro; Sky Signs. Navona. $14.99.

Simon Andrews: Violin Dialogues I and II; And that moment when the bird sings; For the earth is hollow and I have touched the sky; My dove, my coney; The heart has narrow banks; Abiquiu Trio. Navona. $14.99.

     Although they were friends, fellow gatherers of folk music, and fellow ethnomusicologists, Bartók and Kodály by and large wrote very different works – but their interests came together when each created a work called Concerto for Orchestra. Both were after the same thing: virtuoso treatment of all instruments and sections of the orchestra, exploring individual and sectional communicative potential through writing that required performers to give their best at all times. But beyond that, the works are very different, with Kodály’s essentially being a 20th-century update of the Baroque concerto grosso, while Bartók’s much longer work is closer to a symphony, both structurally and in terms of its emotional progress. Each work is in five movements, although in Kodály’s case this is more a matter of being in five sections that are played straight through, giving the effect of a single movement. Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra has the overall feeling of an extended dance with folk elements, an impression reinforced by the work’s repeated alternation of slow and fast sections, much as occurs in many folk dances of Hungary and elsewhere. There is a feeling of small groups of instruments being played against the overall orchestra in concertino vs. ripieno style, and there is considerable use of counterpoint – which reinforces the impression that this is in some ways a much-updated Baroque work. Nevertheless, Kodály’s concerto, which dates to 1939-40, is nowhere near as popular as Bartók’s, which is slightly later (1944). Bartók’s five broadly conceived movements, with their very strong virtuosic elements, their memorable themes, and their overall sense of progress from darkness into light, are captivating – and Bartók’s absorption of Hungarian folk music into the overall symphonic structure proves neater than Kodály’s folk-music elements. A very fine new PentaTone recording of the two concertos, featuring the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Jakub Hrůša, provides a good opportunity to compare and contrast the works, both of which are played with great enthusiasm and considerable sensitivity to their ethnic roots. Kodály’s concerto comes through here as a very serious work, Bartók’s as one that allows humor (for instance, in the form of quotations from other composers’ music) to help leaven its basically serious progress. The orchestra’s virtuosity is evident throughout both pieces, and if Hrůša’s excellent sense of style serves to showcase the reasons for Bartók’s music’s enduring popularity, it also offers listeners a chance to hear Kodály’s concerto given its due as an equally well-constructed work, if a somewhat more distanced and therefore not as emotionally compelling a piece. This is a pairing that would be welcome more often if performances would always be at this level: the significant similarities and even stronger differences between these two concertos are quite fascinating to consider and explore.

     The communication involves smaller groups of instruments – and, sometimes, voices – on two new (+++) CDs from Navona, one featuring the music of Monica Houghton and the other focusing on works by Simon Andrews. Much of Houghton’s music, like that of Bartók and Kodály, has folk influences and impressionistically reflects Houghton’s travels, although not so directly as do the works of the Impressionists. Much of her writing is tonal, but she incorporates various contemporary attitudes and techniques, including the use of non-Western material. The nicely varied, four-movement Andean Suite, for cello (Dmitri Atapine) and piano (Hyeyeon Park), includes impressions of and folk tunes from Peru. The Twelve Causes from the Circle of Becoming, for solo piano (James Winn), intended as a musical reflection of paintings relating to the Tibetan Buddhist Wheel of Life, has something of a “New Age-y” feeling about it, contrasting with dissonant moments. Two trios – Wilderness Portraits: Three Places in Nevada, for violin (Stephanie Sant Ambrogio), cello (Atapine), and piano (Winn), and Sky Signs, for violin (Stephen Warner), piano (Carolyn Gadiel Warner), and saxophone (James Umble) – mostly offer episodes of quiet drifting, sounding more like background music than portrayals of or reactions to specific parts of the natural world. Epigram, for standard quartet scoring (Takako Masame and Sae Shiragami, violins; Lisa Boyko, viola; Linda Atherton, cello) is intended as a response to and commentary on Beethoven’s last quartet. However, it is a stretch to relate Houghton’s unprepared-for (and thus modern-sounding) dissonances, use of harmonics, and unexpected instrumental entries into even vaguely Beethovenian thinking. The three remaining works on this disc are inspired by poetry, but two are strictly instrumental. They are Three Songs without Words for flute (Mary Kay Robinson) and guitar (Don Better), which has a rather minimalist sound because the quiet juxtaposition of the instruments; and Corpo Sonoro for piano (Halida Dinova), a somewhat more substantial four-movement work whose pervasive stop-and-start motion wears thin rather quickly. And then there is one piece that goes beyond the instrumental by including voice: Stay, Shadow, for soprano (Sandra Simon), flute (Robinson), viola (Lynne Ramsey), and piano (Alijca Basinska). This is a setting of a sonnet in Spanish by 17th-century poet and composer Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, and it includes some music attributed to her as well as her words. Like much of the music on this disc, the work is rather evanescent, the instruments tending to float serenely and quietly while the singer declaims the words. The eight works here are collectively a generous helping of Houghton’s music – the CD runs more than an hour – and will please listeners already enamored of her compositional style. Those not familiar with her music may, however, find a certain similarity of blandness among many of the compositions.

     The Andrews CD also offers a fair sampling of that composer’s music – here too, about an hour of material. There are two pieces here using voice: My dove, my coney for soprano (Celeste Godin), oboe (Andrew Price), cello (Aron Zelkowicz), and piano (Andrews himself), and The heart has narrow banks for soprano (Godin) with piano (Andrews). The first of these sets a poem by W.H. Auden, the second one by Emily Dickinson. Both settings use a kind of Sprechstimme that has the primary effect of erasing the tremendous differences of thought and sensibility between the two poems, with the Dickinson setting’s acerbity seeming particularly at odds with the words. The remaining material here communicates strictly with instruments. Violin Dialogues I and II (with Joanna Kurkowicz on violin and Andrews on piano) has one section with the instruments in conflict and eventually coming together, followed by one in which they seem basically in accord – but calling the back-and-forth conversational, in traditional chamber-music style, would be quite a stretch. This is an extended work, lasting more than 16 minutes, that does not really have enough to say to sustain its length. Half that length and more musically and instrumentally interesting, And that moment when the bird sings is written for clarinet (Doris Hall-Gulati), two violins (Gregory Vitale and Christine Vitale), viola (Kenneth Stalberg), and cello (Aron Zelkowicz) – with Andrews conducting the chamber group. The composer’s combinatorial prowess is the most intriguing element here: the various sounds of the instruments (including some that push the limits of ranges, in typically contemporary fashion) are interesting to hear, even if the musical material itself is thin. The four contrasting movements of For the earth is hollow and I have touched the sky, for violin (Michael Jamanis), cello (Sara Male), and piano (Xun Pan), offer some pleasant contrasts not only of sound but also of tempo, although some of the gestures – such as the chordal piano opening of the second movement and the brutal pizzicati at the start of the third – are overdone and rather clichéd. The CD ends with a somewhat impressionistic work, Abiquiu Trio for clarinet (Doris Hall-Gulati), violin (Simon Maurer) and piano (Pan). But although inspired by scenes in New Mexico, this work is nothing like a Houghton piece such as Andean Suite. Instead, Andrews uses impressions gleaned from his visit to explore his own inner responses, doing so especially effectively in the very slow and broad opening of the second movement. Like Houghton, Andrews is a composer of some skill whose work is inevitably well-crafted and will be of considerable interest to audiences already familiar with his style or ones interested in hearing some of the instrumental methods through which contemporary composers continue to seek their own forms of expressiveness.

June 14, 2018

(++++) DELIGHTS OF EVERYDAY LIFE


New Shoes. By Chris Raschka. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Good Night, Little Monsters. By Kara LaReau. Illustrated by Brian Won. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.

     For the youngest children, from pre-readers to early readers, it can be a special delight to find themselves – or kids very much like themselves – in books, dealing with exactly the same issues of everyday life that young kids experience. Chris Raschka takes this situation to a logical and charming extreme in New Shoes, a book with which any shoe-wearing child can identify – since Raschka never shows the child at all. The entire book consists of pictures of a child’s legs and feet, plus an adult hand or arm here and there. And the story is simplicity itself. It starts when “Mommy is going to put my shoes on me,” and that is just what she does – but the child discovers that the shoes “have a hole here” (pointing to one edge), “and a hole here” (pointing to the sole). This is actually fun: “I can put my finger in. Hee-hee!” But it also means it is time for new shoes – so child and mother head for the shoe store, where “a man takes off my old shoes” and measures the child’s feet, discovering that they “are bigger than before!” Then it is time to look at possible replacement shoes, try some on to find ones that are comfortable, and head home – all part of one of those mundane adventures that really are adventures for children doing them for the first time, or one of the first times. Not surprisingly, the child is so excited by his new shoes that he wants “to show Emma,” his friend (the child himself is unnamed). And he does so – and when he does, Raschka offers pictures of the feet and shoes of two children. The watercolor-and-gouache illustrations, very simple in appearance and pleasantly rounded, fit the story quite well, and while Raschka never reveals definitively whether the child who gets new shoes is a boy or a girl, he does use the visual medium cleverly to show that the book’s central character has white skin, while his friend, Emma, is African-American. There is no particular message to that except one of inclusivity – but the inclusiveness nicely complements the underlying theme of New Shoes, which is that kids of all sorts have small adventures like this one all the time, and inevitably want to share them with friends.

     And how does one turn bedtime, a standard nightly event, into something amusing and enjoyable for young book readers and pre-readers? Kara LaReau has a highly amusing idea: show all the kids getting ready for bed as various types of monsters – harmless ones – and have text in which their monster moms and diabolical dads wish them good night and a good rest. Thanks to deliciously silly Brian Won illustrations, Good Night, Little Monsters is a monstrously enjoyable board book. For example, it begins, “Good night, Frankenbaby./ Lay down your green head./ Let’s loosen your bolts/ and tuck you in bed.” And little Frankenbaby, sporting a big smile and proudly displaying his two teeth, is seen sitting quietly while a grown-up arm holding a screwdriver reaches toward him, preparing to loosen one of the two bolts in his neck. And so the whole book goes, with “precious zombie” having a bedtime snack, “dear vampire” hanging upside-down from the shower-curtain rod while preparing to brush her teeth, little “Loch Nessie” cuddled in the lake between two large versions whose heads and bodies form the shape of a heart, and so forth. There is a “bed-tomb story” for “mummy honey,” a howled lullaby for “darling wolfboy,” a big cuddle for “little Bigfoot,” and some bed bouncing for two “gleeful goblins.” And then, at the very end of the book, all the little monsters pack themselves into a tent by a campfire and doze off, with Loch Nessie’s tail sticking all the way through and out of the tent, the wolfboy sleeping on top rather than inside, and the child vampire hanging upside-down from a nearby tree branch. It is a monstrously peaceful scene that is just the thing for parents to show their own little monsters at bedtime – a great example of turning a case of the “nothing special” of getting ready to sleep into something very special indeed.

(++++) THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING IN EARNEST


College Admission 101: Simple Answers to Tough Questions about College Admissions and Financial Aid. By Robert Franek. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $12.99.

     If you have to lie, do it with sincerity. That would seem to be solid, basic advice to college-bound students now that college is increasingly being seen the way high school used to be: as the necessary foundation of whatever career one may wish to have. Robert Franek is not quite so cynically plainspoken about college admissions, but he offers plenty of smart and substantial answers to questions that students and families are likely to be asking about the admissions process in College Admission 101. The very first question is the underlying one for a great many families nowadays: “Is a college degree worth the cost of tuition?” And of course Franek answers with a resounding “yes,” since otherwise there would be no book. But families need to understand that “the cost of tuition” is only a small part of the overall cost of college: room and board are separate matters, often costing as much as tuition itself, and there are psychological and experiential costs associated with college as well – ones that some students and parents learn can outweigh the financial ones. Franek does not try to deal with the totality of college costs, direct and indirect, but he does a very fine job of helping students and parents negotiate the practical decision-making that goes into college admission and the options available to get into an appropriate school and afford to attend it.

     Franek starts by stating that there is no “best” college, only a school that is the best fit for each individual student – an oft-repeated truism, yes, but one worth asserting again and again. He then offers, in tables and boxes – a design characteristic of this book from start to finish – information on salaries of graduates of various schools, and responses to a survey asking the biggest benefit of college. There is no surprise there: the largest group of respondents, 42%, say the major benefit is “potentially better job and higher income,” the notion of students becoming “well-rounded” or “better people” having long since been eclipsed by more-pragmatic matters. Only 26% say “the education” is the biggest benefit. This should immediately disabuse families of any traditional notions about college, if they still have any.

     By organizing College Admission 101 as a series of questions and answers, Franek makes it easy for readers of the book – perhaps “users” would be a better term – to zero in on specific issues that matter to them. Want to know what criteria to use when choosing a college? There is a question for that, with a seven-page, carefully considered answer. To how many schools should a student apply? Here the answer essentially boils down to a single paragraph. In other words, Franek wisely devotes more time to questions requiring greater thought and analysis, and less to ones that are, in the long run (and sometimes the short run), of less significance. Along the way, he also tosses in deadpan statistics that readers/users of College Admission 101 may find amusingly enlightening: 50% of parents say they would prefer that a child attend a school fewer than 250 miles from home, while 68% of students say they want to be more than 250 miles away.

     Franek really does cover just about all the basics of college application and admission, although not always in depth. He deals with researching schools, types of standardized tests, how admissions officers look at extracurricular activities (hint: as a matter of considerable importance), financial aid and the inevitable FAFSA form, the Common Application, the importance of the application essay (including a very useful five suggestions to make the essay as appealing as possible), how admissions offices actually function, and more. Franek certainly knows his stuff, having worked in this field for 20-plus years – and equally important, he knows how to communicate some difficult and even frustrating truths in a plainspoken way. Thus, “While it’s true that it looks better to take difficult classes and not always get sky high grades than to take easy classes and always excel, a high overall GPA is crucial.” This may not be reassuring to students, but it is honest.

     What College Admission 101 does not include is some of the most controversial material relating to the real-world, non-idealized admissions process: favoritism for less-qualified children of alumni, preferences accorded based on race in the name of “diversity” or “making up for past societal wrongs,” and so forth. Some of these matters have become increasingly important in the admissions process in recent years, and a forthright discussion of them would have been welcome – even if the conclusion had simply been that there is nothing a student can do about, say, his or her racial or ethnic background. College Admission 101 can thus be faulted for making the same erroneous assumption that most college textbooks about economics continue to make: assuming that decisions are made rationally and in a balanced way. This is no truer of deciding which person to admit to a specific school than it is of figuring out whether an Apple or Android phone is “better.” Still, to the extent that the college-admission process is rational and explainable, College Admission 101 is a first-rate guide to it, from someone who clearly knows the ins and outs of the field as well as the ups and downs experienced by all those (parents as well as students) who are trying to negotiate it in the hope of eventually landing a better job – and maybe even learning a thing or two.

(+++) THE BIOLOGY OF UNFAITHFULNESS


Infidelity: Why Men and Women Cheat. By Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, M.D. Da Capo. $26.

     Sex gives pleasure. Genetically, some people have higher pleasure needs than others. Those people are more likely to seek sex with someone other than the person to whom they are married or otherwise committed. End of book.

     Well, no. More like “start of book.” Yes, Kenneth Paul Rosenberg clearly states that “affairs of the heart and journeys of sexual desire overtake the reward centers of the brain. New sex and love clouds or subverts the frontal lobes’ decision-making abilities, and these biological, evolutionarily adaptive processes are hard to surmount.” But there is more here. Rosenberg fills 266 pages with examples, discussions, research reports and analyses of the reasons people cheat, the consequences when they do, and ways (he says) to mitigate those consequences. Rosenberg certainly has the credentials to present all this: he is an addiction psychiatrist and sex-addiction counselor with more than two decades of experience. And he writes well.

     Nevertheless, there is something rather unsatisfying about Infidelity. It is not the research, such as the findings about dopamine and the brain’s pleasure centers, including studies showing that some people really do have a genetic predisposition toward greater needs for pleasure and therefore may be more likely to cheat on a partner if that partner cannot provide the level of stimulation the genetically inclined person needs. Actually, a good deal of the science will be familiar to people who keep an eye on studies of human behavior, but not everyone does this, and having the research collected in one place and presented cogently is a big plus for Infidelity.

     The minus comes from the fact that every book analyzing human behavior and seeking to help people change and improve it falls into two basic sections: descriptive and prescriptive. Rosenberg’s is no exception. And while it is quite strong (if sometimes rather obvious) on the descriptive side, it is much less useful on the prescriptive side – the “what to do if this happens to you” portion. The prescriptive material is not neatly gathered at the end of the book but is presented throughout, and the comparative weakness of this material pulls down the overall effectiveness of the book’s communication.

     Thus, at one point Rosenberg writes that for a cheated spouse or partner who learns of an affair, “Sleep is difficult. The quiet darkness of night invites images of the affair, which you may have gleaned through texts and emails or your own imagination, replaying over and over through your mind.” This seems pretty obvious, despite Rosenberg’s attempt to present the feelings empathetically. He then goes on to tell cheaters not to “gaslight” their partners, meaning not to “deny and undermine your spouse’s sense of reality in order to gain power in the relationship or win an argument. …Not only will that approach fail, but it’s also a crappy way to treat someone – especially someone to whom you’ve pledged your love.” Um, well, yes. And Rosenberg then continues further, in a section called “What Do We Tell Other People?” Here he gets to prescriptive matters immediately: “My prescription – Chill! – involves pausing before you take steps that might cause further damage.” Again – um, well, yes.

     Again and again, Rosenberg says things that sound good and sound right, that showcase his experience of dealing with infidelity and explain how people (cheaters and cheated) respond to it, that indicate he knows how infidelity can wreck some relationships while eventually strengthening others that have been repaired and have grown as a result of the trauma. And Rosenberg certainly understands that in contemporary life, attitudes toward sex – and emotional attachment – have been changing, not least because of technology: “With so many choices available at the swipe of a thumb, this app [Bumble] likely stimulates its users’ brain’s reward centers, instilling in them the hope that the next swipe will be better than the last. But what is ‘best’ anyway?”

     The difficulty with Infidelity seems primarily to be that its prescriptive elements make sense and appear to have a good chance of success only within a therapeutic context. That is, Rosenberg is able to detail approaches that have worked for the patients he has seen, but trying to apply those approaches – such as that exclamatory “Chill!” – without the assistance of a trained professional is substantially more difficult than Rosenberg makes it out to be, if not out-and-out impossible. In the swirl of emotions, recriminations, anger and uncertainty likely to occur as a result of infidelity, the intercession of a neutral third party seems crucial to putting a damaged relationship back on an even keel. Not that all relationships involving infidelity are damaged: Rosenberg discusses a decades-married couple, two people in their 50s, who agreed to open their marriage, with positive results. “Through their consensual nonmonogamy they not only became closer but also began having hot sex with each other again. The long-married couple became more affectionate. …Both partners thought the experience helped the marriage.” But these two people assert that what they did was not infidelity, because each knew what the other was doing and they “had rules” and “were very thoughtful.” So this unconventional approach to sex with someone other than one’s spouse or long-term partner is a bit misleadingly included in a book called Infidelity, except insofar as readers may interpret any sex outside marriage or a committed relationship as meriting the book’s title.

     Rosenberg has a great deal of scientific and interpersonal knowledge on the topic of sexual function and dysfunction, and in Infidelity he does well when explaining why cheating (however it may be defined) happens and what its results can be. But when it comes to discussing ways in which individuals, on their own, can handle those results or change them from something negative to something positive, or at least neutral, Infidelity falls short. The ultimate take-home message from the book is that coping with cheating on one’s own is extremely difficult, so it is important, if one commits or discovers infidelity, to track down and work with an experienced professional who can guide you through your options and potential responses – that is, to track down and work with Rosenberg, or someone very much like him.

(++++) HIGHLY PERSONALIZED


Bruckner: Symphony No. 5. Altomonte Orchester St. Florian conducted by Rémy Ballot. Gramola. $34.99 (2 SACDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden conducted by Kirill Kondrashin. SWR Classic. $12.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

     Famous conductors of the past were well-known for putting their personal imprimatur on the works they led, sometimes subsuming the composers’ intentions within the conductors’ own worldview. Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, Leonard Bernstein – these names and others call up specific styles, specific approaches to music that go beyond the more-standardized (if often exceptionally well-played) versions of music conducted by most of today’s orchestra leaders. But there are exceptions to standardization, even today, often when a particular conductor has a special interest in and affinity for the works of one composer and leads them with an unusual degree of insight. This is the case with Rémy Ballot and Bruckner: all the symphonies released to date as Gramola SACD recordings are utterly unlike performances by anyone else, so distinctive as to be instantly recognizable. Ballot’s Bruckner sequence is emerging at a snail’s pace, one symphony per year, and in an exceptionally strange order that clearly reflects the conductor’s personal preferences: No. 3 was released first, then No. 8, No. 9, and No. 6. And now we have Ballot’s version of No. 5, which is every bit as distinguished and distinctive as the others – and requires every bit as great a rethinking (and re-feeling) of the work on the part of listeners. Bruckner’s Fifth is by any measure a strange symphony, a highly contrapuntal work with the composer’s only slow first-movement introduction and his only Scherzo in sonata form. It is also a work whose climax is reserved for the very end of the finale, literally the last minute or so, with everything that comes before building to the monumental conclusion – an extraordinary challenge to conductors. This helps explain the long-discredited rewrite by conductor Franz Schalk, used at the work’s first performance in 1894: Schalk reorchestrated the symphony to sound more Wagnerian, significantly truncated the sprawling last movement, and added triangle, cymbals and an offstage brass band to the conclusion to make it abundantly clear that here was the climax toward which the work was building all along. Wrongheaded Schalk may have been, but understandably so: this is a very difficult work to absorb in the terms intended by Bruckner. Ballot has certainly absorbed it, though. All Ballot’s readings are expansive to a point that would approach bloat if they were not so beautifully handled, so sensitive to every nuance of each score, so carefully balanced and paced. Ballot’s Bruckner Fifth runs a remarkable 88 minutes. This is a symphony that typically lasts 70 to 75 minutes, and in one notable recent recording (by Mario Venzago, another conductor with a highly personalized view of this composer) zips by in 60. But Ballot’s reading never plods and never feels stretched. Instead, from the pizzicato opening to the monumental conclusion, the work sounds as if it is being assembled, brick by brick and stone by stone, like a skyward-mounting cathedral eventually topped by a spire that reaches for the heavens. That is in fact not a bad image for this work, which the deeply religious Bruckner informally called his “Fantastic” symphony. Ballot appears to have thought the work through in reverse order, fully comprehending the fugal, multithemed finale that ends with a splendid chorale in which the first movement’s first theme returns to conclude the piece. Everything that Ballot does builds, as it should, to this climactic moment: the majesty with which the whole symphony opens, the extended second movement whose thematic material returns almost verbatim (although of course at different speed) in that unusual Scherzo, and then the complex and elaborate finale – which opens in the same way and at the same tempo as the first movement, then broadens the work’s canvas dramatically for nearly half an hour before returning to its first-movement roots. The Altomonte Orchester St. Florian plays with unerring attentiveness for Ballot, who insists on the importance of Buckner’s inner voices even as he elegantly frames and juxtaposes the primary themes. Listening to Ballot’s Bruckner Fifth requires absorption into a different sense of time from what is typical in hearing symphonies: Ballot has the work envelop listeners, to such an extent that only when the audience breaks into applause at the end is it clear that this is a recording of a live performance – everything has been whisper-quiet throughout, and that quietude, physical and emotional and psychological, is exactly what Ballot requires for full appreciation of his interpretation. Once again he here delivers an extraordinary listening experience that connects those who hear it with Bruckner’s ethos in a way that stands out quite clearly from that of any other contemporary Bruckner conductor.

     Unlike Ballot and Bruckner, Kirill Kondrashin and Mahler do not seem inextricably intertwined. But Kondrashin’s 1981 performance of Mahler’s Sixth, now available as an SWR Classic release, nevertheless offers some highly personal moments that showcase Kondrashin’s particular skill with this music. This is a very late Kondrashin recording, dating to the last year of the conductor’s life: he lived from 1914 to 1981. Kondrashin has been somewhat underrated ever since, being primarily known for his accompaniment of Glenn Gould in the pianist’s spectacular reading of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. In fact, Kondrashin was a versatile and well-rounded maestro whose readings inevitably included carefully calibrated touches that helped listeners absorb the music in new ways. That is certainly the case with this Mahler Sixth. Already in Mahler’s lifetime, this symphony was being called the “Tragic,” but in Kondrashin’s view, it would more appropriately be designated the “Dramatic.” It is the underlying drama of the work, from its first-movement march through to the three hammer blows of fate in the finale (all of which Kondrashin includes, although some conductors omit the third), that Kondrashin emphasizes. In so doing, he affirms the symphony’s structure as being best with the Scherzo placed second. Mahler could never quite make up his mind whether this movement should come second (thus tending to expand a mood already set in the opening movement) or third (thereby introducing and adding to the already-extended finale). Kondrashin’s placement of the Scherzo second makes this sequence of movements seem definitive: here the first and second movements together are not much longer than the finale alone, lending the work an arch-like balance with the Andante moderato third movement as its central point. Kondrashin’s performance is scarcely lacking in emotion – his handling of the gorgeous second theme of the first movement is especially notable – but he does not try to bring out any Tchaikovsky-like pathos in the symphony and, indeed, does not appear to find anything like that in it. There is a stateliness, a sturdiness in this Mahler Sixth, a kind of Ein Heldenleben quality that, however, concludes with the heroic figure overcome by the tribulations of life – almost literally hammered down by fate. The remastered analog recording of the Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden is not quite as warm and full as listeners may wish, but the orchestra’s playing is first-rate, and the comparative coolness of the sound actually adds to Kondrashin’s dramatic-but-not-deeply-tragic approach to the music. Although this is unlikely to be most listeners’ first choice as a recording of Mahler’s Sixth, it is an interesting and very worthy performance that many lovers of this music will want to own for the insights it offers into the symphony itself and into Kondrashin as a conductor.

     The sound quality is far better on a new BIS SACD featuring Mahler’s Sixth performed by the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä. Indeed, this recording is something of a sonic spectacular: the single disc contains Vänskä’s full 87-minute performance, which may be a record length for a compact disc – they are usually limited to 80 minutes or just a tad more, after which quality deteriorates noticeably. Not so here: there is not even a smidgen of quality loss, which is quite an accomplishment for the engineers and may set a new standard for the release of Mahler’s works – which are often just a bit over what has been considered to be the 80-minute limit. Sound quality aside, though, it is reasonable to wonder why Vänskä’s recording is so drawn-out as to need this special treatment – for example, Kondrashin’s runs just over 68 minutes, although that is admittedly on the faster-than-usual side for a performance of Mahler’s Sixth. It is the sheer length of Vänskä’s interpretation in which there lies one aspect, by no means the only one, of personalization in this recording. It is worth remembering that while Mahler famously told Sibelius that a symphony should include the whole world, what Mahler’s symphonies really contain – collectively if not individually – is “the whole Mahler.” A sense of the expansiveness of Mahler’s personality, the heights he sought to scale and the tragedies he experienced, is what Vänskä seems to be trying to convey in his very broad reading of the Sixth. This means that Vänskä looks at the symphony not in the context of the rather happy time when Mahler wrote it (1903-04) but in terms of the composer’s overall life, particularly the later years – in which a series of personal and professional tragedies steadily ground him down. This is clear from the very outset of Vänskä’s reading, in a first movement that sounds a great deal like a “dead march” akin to that in Mahler’s Fifth. The music slogs along, its brass calls and dissonances strongly emphasized, with the peaceful scene symbolized by the cowbells midway through the movement seeming more like a naïve wish for a childlike heaven (along the lines of the Fourth) than like a temporary Alpine respite from the movement’s conflicts. Indeed, Vänskä almost stops the music entirely here – a curious decision that is as personal an approach as possible, and that makes the resumption of the martial music quite startling. Vänskä then places the slow movement second, an approach whose difficulty this performance shows quite clearly: the slow pace of the first movement means the Andante moderato provides no respite from what has come before but rather presents the continuation of a very similar pulse. The playing is very beautiful, but any contrast of mood with the first movement is largely absent: by the end of this movement, Vänskä’s Sixth seems already to have stretched, if not to infinity, then certainly to a great extent. Structured this way, Mahler’s Sixth splits into two parts: the first and second movements have a very similar feeling, as do the third and fourth. Vänskä retains his slow tempos throughout, however, and this renders parts of the Scherzo flaccid rather than heavy (Wuchtig is Mahler’s designation). All these decisions converge in a final movement in which there are some very fine elements, including an opening that is more intense than anything offered earlier by Vänskä; some questionable choices, such as the omission of the third hammer blow – an approach admittedly taken by many conductors, but one that limits the narrative power of the symphony, especially in a performance such as this one; and some matters that simply do not work, such as Vänskä’s slowdowns to the point of sclerosis, which vitiate the power of other portions of the movement. A highly personal interpretation of a highly personal symphony, Vänskä’s (+++) Mahler Sixth is no more likely to be most listeners’ first choice of a recording than is Kondrashin’s version – for very different reasons. What these two distinctive and highly dissimilar readings show is just how personal Mahler’s music, like Bruckner’s, inherently is, and just how many ways conductors’ own personalities can be brought to bear in presenting the material to audiences.

(++++) SOME UNANTICIPATED SOUNDS


Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Sergei Gorchakov); Prokofiev: Cinderella—Selections. Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. FWSO Live. $20.

Sergei Bortkiewicz: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3. Stefan Doniga, piano; Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Porcelijn. Piano Classics. $20.99.

Christopher Keyes: An Inescapable Entanglement; Diego Vega: Red Rock; Ferdinand De Sena: Deciphered Reverence; Willem van Twillert: Branches of Singularity; Andrew Schultz: Symphony No. 2, “Ghosts of Reason.” Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.

Coro del Mundo: Music of L. Peter Deutsch, Conrado Monier, Adalberto Álvarez, Guido López Gavilán, José Antonio Méndez, Electo Rosell, Rafael Hernández, Cynthia Folio, J. A. Kawarsky, Michael Murray, and Meira Warshauer. Ansonica. $14.99.

     Sometimes listeners only think they know what they will be getting when they pick up a new CD. Most people who know orchestral versions of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition are really familiar with one specific such version, the 1923 one made by Ravel. It is justifiably enormously popular, filled with French coloration of the time and cognizant of the many Russian expatriate musicians then working in France. Even though it is based on a score of Pictures that contains some errors, even though it omits one of the reappearances of the Promenade from Mussorgsky’s piano original, even though it changes the composer’s approach to some of the material – for instance, turning Bydlo into a crescendo-and-diminuendo piece, which is not what Mussorgsky intended – it is so firmly established in orchestral repertoire, and so sonically attractive, that it is often thought of as the orchestral Pictures. But it is not: there have been quite a few such versions, and conductor Leonard Slatkin has even made a point of performing a “compiled” Pictures with orchestrations by everyone from Leopold Stokowski to Vladimir Ashkenazy to Sir Henry Wood. And some conductors find qualities in non-Ravel versions of Pictures that justify playing them in their entirety. One such is Miguel Harth-Bedoya, whose new recording with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra highlights the very high quality of an ensemble that is not usually mentioned among the best in the U.S. It may not be at the very, very highest level, but on the basis of the new live recording on the orchestra’s own label, this is a group that is certainly coming into the upper ranks of U.S. orchestras and delivering considerable pleasure to audiences while doing so. The orchestra plays with enthusiasm, follows Harth-Bedoya very well, and has a particularly strong string section – a good thing, since the version of Pictures on this CD, by Sergei Gorchakov (1905-1976), is in large measure quite string-focused and needs first-rate strings to have its full effect. It gets that effect here. Gorchakov, clearly sensitive to the intent of his countryman in the original piano version of Pictures, restores elements that Ravel left out and tries for greater authenticity in the ones that Ravel included, such as the aforementioned Bydlo. Gorchakov follows Ravel’s lead in some ways, but with a twist, as by using a muted trumpet to represent the troubadour in Il vecchio castello, where Ravel chose a saxophone. On the other hand, Gorchakov does use a saxophone in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, where it was Ravel who used a muted trumpet. These and other choices are matters of taste, and it is scarcely possible (or useful) to say that one orchestral version is “better” than another. What is possible to say is that Gorchakov’s approach, although often somewhat bombastic, is quite well-thought-out and performed very well indeed by the Fort Worth musicians. Harth-Bedoya is not only an adept conductor but also a musically thoughtful one, as shown both in the version of Pictures he chooses and in the excerpts from Prokofiev’s Cinderella that fill out the CD. Prokofiev himself made suites of this ballet’s music – no fewer than three of them – but in doing so he was seeking musical coherence and contrast, not narrative consistency. Harth-Bedoya takes a different approach, returning to the original ballet music and choosing selections that, taken as a whole, tell the entire story, so familiar from Charles Perrault’s original tale and its many adaptations. As a result, listeners to this disc hear 13 ballet excerpts that collectively provide the entire story as Prokofiev intended it to be staged. Once again, the question of whether Harth-Bedoya’s approach or that of the composer in his own suites is “better” is not a useful one: Harth-Bedoya simply handles the musical material differently from the way Prokofiev did in the suites, and his excerpts produce a satisfyingly convincing musical narrative that, like his Gorchakov version of Pictures, makes for an interesting and meaningful musical experience that goes beyond what audiences familiar with this material would normally expect.

     Audiences would have no idea of what to expect if told they were going to be hearing music by Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952), since almost nobody nowadays is familiar with his music. But what is really unanticipated in the new Piano Classics recording of Bortkiewicz’ second and third piano concertos is how clearly the music fits into the Russian musical mode of, among other, Mussorgsky and Gorchakov. In fact, to be precise, these concertos are in what might be called the “expansive Russian mode,” specifically represented by Rachmaninoff – of whose concertos they are reminiscent to an exceptional degree. Bortkiewicz wrote three piano concertos, but the first is lost and presumed destroyed. The second, which dates to 1923, is one of the famous concertos for left hand only commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein – who liked this Bortkiewicz work very much. The reasons are immediately apparent in the excellent performance by Stefan Doniga and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under David Porcelijn. The concerto is a wonderful display piece, but it is also a work of substance and even of some formal cleverness: its slow movement is included within its first movement and becomes the emotional linchpin of the movement and of the whole work. And within that slow movement – or, perhaps more accurately, extended slow section – Bortkiewicz takes a page from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2, creating chamber-music-like sections in which the piano interacts with solo instruments from the orchestra. The result is a complex and multifaceted movement (or combination of movements) that Bortkiewicz wisely chooses not to follow with anything else on the same level: he concludes the concerto with a straightforward dance containing folk-music-like elements. The third concerto, first heard in 1927, bears the title Per aspera ad astra, “through adversity to the stars,” possibly reflecting Bortkiewicz’ own very difficult life during and after the Bolshevik Revolution. The title makes the concerto’s structure plain: it starts darkly in C minor and eventually wins its way, after considerable technical and emotional difficulty, to C major. And here as in the second concerto, Bortkiewicz offers themes distinctly reminiscent of Rachmaninoff’s: long, fluid melodic lines of great beauty, with a piano part of exceptional difficulty that seems never to stop flowing from one idea to the next. These concertos are so strongly conceived and so well-crafted that listeners will likely wonder why they, and their composer, are so poorly known today. As fine as these performances are, they provide the answer to that question: Bortkiewicz comes across as derivative, working wholly in late-Romantic style and sounding somewhat too much like Rachmaninoff – his work is just not very distinctive. It is, however, very beautiful, and very challenging for a pianist. Even if Bortkiewicz is unlikely to get a full-scale revival, he is certainly deserving of an occasional hearing, and listeners who enjoy Russian music in general, late-Romantic style in particular, and Rachmaninoff-like piano works specifically, will surely take this Bortkiewicz disc to their hearts.

     Contemporary composers often seem to create sound worlds not to reach an audience’s emotions but for shock or surprise value, or at least “differentness,” however defined. The first work on a new Navona CD, Christopher Keyes’ An Inescapable Entanglement, is an example of this approach. This is more or less a piano concerto, although it bears little resemblance to anything by Bortkiewicz or other composers who use the instrument in conventional ways. The key elements here involve spatial orientation and amplification: microphones are placed just above the piano’s strings, eight loudspeakers are placed behind and to the sides of the area where the audience sits, and Keyes uses digital signal processing to expand and enhance the effects of the piano (played by Lucie Kaucká) and orchestra. The work is actually more accessible, jazzy and even Copland-esque than might be expected from its design, which blends minimalism with older concepts of concertos and uses the piano mostly in obbligato fashion rather than as primus inter pares. The piece is, however, more clever than emotionally trenchant. The remaining works on this (+++) anthology disc are generally more conventional in sonic approach. Diego Vega’s Red Rock is an impressionistic symphonic poem using modified sonata form to portray a trip through a scenic canyon landscape. Ferdinando De Sena’s Deciphered Reverence is a more inward-focused symphonic-poem/fantasia whose use of whole-orchestra and instrumental-section color is intended to reflect multiple moods but comes across as rather disjointed and feels over-long (although the piece runs only 10 minutes). Branches of Singularity by Willem van Twillert offers eight very short movements in differing styles that turn the work into a pastiche containing everything from faux Baroque material to film music, resulting in a moderately pleasant concoction without any particular meaning. Andrew Schultz’s Symphony No. 2, “Ghosts of Reason,” is a much more ambitious work, whose single movement includes considerable quiet and spaciousness that turns rather flaccid after a while. There is little forward motion in the music until the last two of its 21 minutes, when it finally seems to strive for affirmation beyond bleakness. It is a long time to wait for a sense of the positive. As for the performances here, the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra is increasingly becoming a go-to ensemble for contemporary music of all types, and acquits itself particularly well on this CD: Petr Vronský handles issues of sectional balance, frequent rhythmic changes and a wide variety of dynamic contrasts very well indeed. The disc is nevertheless one of those that, because the works are essentially unrelated, may appeal in part to listeners with a general interest in contemporary orchestral music, but is unlikely to be attractive as a whole to more than a very small audience.

     The attractions of a new Ansonica CD bearing the title Coro del Mundo (“Choir of the World”) lie primarily in the sheer sonic variety of its 18 tracks. The unexpected blending and contrast of instrumental sounds with vocal performances by the ensembles Vocal Luna and Schola Cantorum Coralina lies at the heart of this (+++) disc, which will appeal in large part to listeners interested in the continuing musical and cultural thaw between the United States and Cuba – all the tracks were recorded in Havana in November 2017. As befits a project of this type, both U.S. and Cuban composers are represented, and the individual pieces – many heard in arrangements rather than their original scoring – include the sounds of dumbek (a goblet-shaped drum), sleigh bells, other percussion, double bass, clarinet, saxophone and piano in various permutations and combinations. Music sung a cappella appears here as well. It is hard not to see some rather self-indulgent political motivation behind some of the works here, such as Dance to the Revolution by L. Peter Deutsch (although the words Deutsch sets are those of Emma Goldman, who was actually an anarchist rather than someone whose revolutionary thoughts would be welcome in Cuba); and Sacred Rights, Sacred Song, by J.A. Kawarsky, and We Are Dreamers by Meira Warshauer, both of them focusing on Israel and Judaism (although, again, parallels with life in Cuba are less than apparent). Shorn of its sociopolitical elements, Coro del Mundo is a celebration of a certain instrumental and vocal sound that carries, in varied form, through the entire CD. Aural surprises emerge enjoyably from time to time, such as the wordless exclamations in Canto del Bongó by Conrado Monier and in Guido López-Gavilán’s Qué Rico É! The disc is essentially an audio sampler of works in a Cuban context, whether created by American or Cuban composers. It is testimony to the lessening of the decades-long chill between Cuba and the U.S., and also indicative of the vibrancy of the current Cuban musical scene, at least insofar as can be determined through the sessions where these works were recorded. Strictly musically, the material is on the thin side, the pieces often being interesting to hear once and in the main short enough to be heard again from time to time. However, nothing here stands out individually as a work of any particular significance: the disc is more a snapshot of a musical working-together at a particular moment in time than it is a CD with significant staying power based on the quality or meaningfulness of its content.

June 07, 2018

(++++) NURSING A RHYME


Jack B. Ninja. By Tim McCanna. Illustrated by Stephen Savage. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Just when it seems that nursery rhymes are no longer much fun for today’s young people, along comes Tim McCanna with a brand-new take on the old “Jack be nimble” rhyme – one that, accompanied by delightfully off-kilter drawings by Stephen Savage, shows there is still plenty of life in those old bits of nonsense. Actually, nursery rhymes were generally very well-disguised social comments, dating to a time when criticism of the powers-that-be could result in penalties up to and including death – so people whose names are long lost found ways of making fun of and critiquing feudal society through rhymes that only seemed to mean nothing. Nowadays, though, the nonsensical elements are all that anyone pays attention to, and in all the excitement of our video-saturated, technologically savvy age, who has time for that sort of wordplay?

     Well, McCanna and Savage certainly do, and so will kids lucky enough to add this picture book to their collection. The book starts with a small, completely round-headed ninja, his eyes the only part of him that is visible, peeking out from behind vaguely Oriental architecture – and then the narrative itself begins, on the next page: “Jack B. Ninja! Jack, be quick!/ Jack, jump over the bamboo stick!” That is just what Jack does, running toward – where? He is on “a secret mission” amid pagodas, atop walls and roofs in a place where faceless, spear-carrying guards march past in formation. What exactly is the mission? It involves getting past the guards, and then, “Jack B. Ninja keeps his cool./ Dips into the garden pool.” And he swims to the shore, then quietly sneaks into “a bandit cave” to find a “stolen treasure chest.”

     There is plenty more excitement to come: a trip wire drops Jack into a trap, and the bandits are after him – he needs to use his grappling hook and rope to escape. But there is something rather unthreatening about the three bandits: Jack jumps on their heads, from one to the next to the third, until he grasps the rope and flees – with the bandits watching from a rooftop as Jack “brings the prize to Ninja Master.” But – oh, no! The bandits pursue Jack, and there is about to be a big fight, when…everything changes. And that is the delight of Jack B. Ninja: it starts as a stylized adventure story but eventually becomes a wonderful family celebration. Of what? It turns out that the whole dress-up activity is in recognition of Jack’s birthday – with, sure enough, a suitable cake: “Jack B. Ninja flips and kicks./ Cartwheels over the candlesticks.” And everybody celebrates, then heads home over the rooftops to leave behind one slice of cake that remains visible just as the sun comes up.

     Gently surreal, warmly amusing and just silly enough to keep young readers and pre-readers interested, Jack B. Ninja keeps the cadence of the “Jack be nimble” nursery rhyme, preserves some elements of the original (such as those candlesticks near the end), and offers wonderfully cartoony illustrations that bounce all the ninja moves and ninja determination all over the book’s pages. A short, simple and thoroughly amusing retelling/reorientation of the even shorter “Jack be nimble” original, Jack B. Ninja is enough fun so that it may inspire parents to grab a book of original nursery rhymes and see whether contemporary children can in fact be captivated by these very old “nonsense” stories to the same extent that the parents themselves surely were when they were kids.