October 11, 2018

(++++) SURREALITY


Tales from the Inner City. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $24.99.

     Not even the title of Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City is straightforward. The surface-level meaning, relating to the inner and often economically depressed portion of a metropolis, is clear enough; and yes, most of Tan’s two dozen tales are set in such an area, or at least make reference to one. But what Tan is really writing about is a city as he imagines it and asks readers to imagine it, a city that is “inner” in the sense that it exists only in the imagination from which Tan builds it, and comes to life – in a series of interactions between humans and animals – only when readers share, for a few moments, Tan’s inner-city experience.

     The target readership for this book is very difficult to pin down. Nominally aimed at young readers, Tales from the Inner City is packed with imagery and forms of expression that will be meaningless except to adults who have experienced their fair share of life’s ups and downs. The untitled chapters, each introduced by a silhouette of a creature that is central to it (with the silhouettes also constituting a table of contents at the start of the book), instantly immerse readers in a physically impossible world whose emotional underpinnings have the ring of truth – but only to those who have experienced them. Most chapters are quite short, making their points quickly and leaving readers to think about them – and about Tan’s exceptional illustrations – later. One three-pager that begins, “One afternoon the members of the board all turned into frogs,” requires instant understanding of what this sort of “board” is and how the corporate pecking order is upended when an unnamed secretary walks into the room and discovers the amphibians. The illustration of a boardroom table with elegant leather chairs around it, floor-to-ceiling windows through which smokestacks belching fumes are clearly visible, with a dozen green frogs next to the water glasses on the tabletop, is an encapsulation of the story that combines a touch of whimsy with a hint of the seriousness of economic decision-making. This makes sense only for an adult audience.

     An analogous theme pervades the three-page story that begins, “Where money gathers, so do pigeons,” which focuses on a skyscraper impossibly floating above a city’s financial district, exciting awe and curiosity among humans while pigeons simply see the entirely empty building as a place to roost. The concluding line, “No history of economics will ever record what pigeons already know – that they alone are the world’s greatest investment bankers,” is a wonderfully apt capstone to the tale, but one likely to be wholly unintelligible to younger readers.

     Some stories, however, straddle the worlds of adults and children. The four-page one that starts, “You will never escape the tiger,” draws on the notion of wearing a back-of-head mask to confuse the potential predator into not knowing which way you are facing. It deals with the “great weakness of humankind” that consists of being “very self-conscious, easily embarrassed,” and therefore unlikely to wear a back-of-head mask even in self-defense – but it also deals with those who defy the norms by accepting, even embracing, such mask-wearing. That is a resonant theme for multiple ages – and here Tan’s illustration is simply spectacular, showing a stalking, wise-eyed tiger in full color and with perfect proportions on the left of a two-page spread, while the right side (in black-and-white, like most of the illustrated pages) shows the silhouette of a woman leaping high, high above the ground, her limbs outstretched, her pose one of abandon and joy rather than fear.

     A few stories take a thoroughly childlike perspective and squeeze it surrealistically. One, a three-pager, starts, “You are two years old,” and is about horses that only a child can see “running along express lanes, rooftops, and overpasses, even along the jib of cranes and electrical wires strung high in the air,” horses that stand for all that existed long before the city did and in its early days, horses that lead the two-year-old to a lifelong love of the animals for reasons she will never quite fathom. Another tale, at 11 pages the book’s longest in terms of text, is about a ruined urban landscape in which urchins must fish in the sky, all water being nonexistent or hopelessly polluted – and what happens when one of them actually catches a “moonfish.”

     Then there are stories where the words are almost incidental to the art. One lasting only a single paragraph is about gigantic snails that suddenly appear in an urban landscape. The two-page picture of a pair of the snails, seen top an overpass beneath which a faceless man is strumming a guitar, is bizarre and haunting. The longest story of all, 38 pages, contains only a few words written in free verse, starting “Once we were strangers,” and is about the long, long relationship between humans and dogs, and the many changes it has undergone over the ages while remaining foundationally the same. Thirteen beautiful two-page illustrations are the core of the tale, showing humans progressing (if it is progress) from hunter-gatherer times to the modern world, while dogs are seen in many shapes, sizes and colors but remain fundamentally unchanged.

     It is unfortunate that textual errors interfere with the flow of several of the stories here. In a book as thoughtful and carefully arranged as Tales from the Inner City, editing mistakes loom larger than they would in a more-ordinary work. Among the verbal slips are “of the all the problems” (page 140), “it cast a very a long shadow” (page 141), “had build” (page 151), and “is a hard to erase from the mind” (page 197). There are also some vocabulary words here that are common enough in Australia, where Tan lives, but will make reading a bit difficult or off-putting elsewhere: “fossicking,” for example. Yet these flaws in Tales from the Inner City are minor ones beside its many beauties and accomplishments, not the least of which is the temporary creation, in the mind of the reader, of a multitude of impossibilities that exist strictly in inner space but whose outward resonance permeates the real world with dreams.

(+++) PHYSICIAN, HEAL THY COUNTRY


Dr. Benjamin Rush: The Founding Father Who Healed a Wounded Nation. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $28.

     Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence, and given enough time, Harlow Giles Unger may end up writing biographies of all of them. That would be a considerable service to those interested in the early years of the United States, although that group seems to be getting smaller as more and more people turn their backs on history in a search for whatever the next big thing may be in the future.

     While interest does remain in the Founding Fathers, though, Unger’s meticulous research about them is of considerable value, even when his writing is not at its best, as it is not in Dr. Benjamin Rush. Rush is well-known in modern medical circles and has been called “the father of American psychiatry” by the American Psychiatric Association – a considerable overstatement, really, but one that indicates the importance of Rush’s ongoing interest in the way mind and body interact and relate to each other in terms of both wellness and disease. Rush is also known in various sociopolitical groups for his contributions to prison reform, temperance and other causes, and for having several of his 13 children who followed in his wake in their own attempts to better the lives of those Americans who were often forgotten in grand political schemes and the excitement of establishing and defending a new nation: women, slaves, indentured laborers, prisoners, and the poor.

     But although it would be possible to argue that Rush was more “modern” in his embrace of the under-represented and often uncared-for elements of American society than were many other Founding Fathers, this is not what Unger does. Instead, he takes readers rather matter-of-factly through Rush’s life and accomplishments, showing his importance in fields as varied as geriatrics and veterinary medicine. The scope of Rush’s accomplishments in some areas comes through vividly: “Until Benjamin Rush put vast reforms in place,” Unger writes at one point, “the insane sat chained and manacled in dark cellars, wallowing in their own filth, subject to whipping by sadistic guards.” Rush insisted on better food and housing for the mentally ill, believing that their illnesses were illnesses, not some form of demonic possession or willful antisocial behavior. He had a similar attitude toward prisoners, believing in trying to rehabilitate them and teach them good work habits so they could eventually become contributing members of society.

     But as modern-sounding as some of Rush’s ideas may have been, others were, understandably, mired in the beliefs and the science of his time (1746-1813). For instance, he found an association between yellow fever and stagnant water – but did not realize that the disease vector was water-breeding mosquitoes. He insisted on cleanliness in medical practice and good hygiene and sanitation in everyday life, at a time when none of these was taken for granted – but he firmly believed in the longstanding practices of bleeding and purging to cure a variety of diseases. So he was in some ways a man ahead of his times and in some ways a man of his times; and saying so in a book is perfectly acceptable.

     What Unger tends to minimize, though, is Rush’s life as politician and statesman – the area most likely to draw readers to a biography that is, after all, not intended to be read primarily by the medical profession. Rush’s thinking, for example, was instrumental in the development of Thomas Paine’s highly influential Common Sense, but little is made of that fact or, indeed, of the importance and wide impact of Paine’s pamphlet. Rush’s political leadership in Pennsylvania is discussed but given rather short shrift, and some of his genuine political accomplishments – such as getting former presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to re-engage with each other after years of bitter enmity – come across as less significant than they were in the independent nation’s early years, even though the rapprochement of Adams and Jefferson is an important element justifying Unger’s book’s subtitle about healing a wounded nation.

     As usual in Unger’s books, the research is careful and based to the extent possible on primary sources. And there are copious notes at the end, along with no fewer than four appendices. Even here, though, there is a sense of something not balanced quite as elegantly as it could be: the first three appendices list many of Rush’s writings and medical observations, but the fourth appendix – a “confidential document President Jefferson shared with Benjamin Rush, M.D.” – is the really interesting one. It offers Jefferson’s comparison of the doctrines of Jesus with those of others, and despite its brevity provides considerable insight into Jefferson’s views of Jews, Greek philosophers and others. As a document shedding light on the Deism-flavored Christianity of the Founding Fathers, it is far too interesting to be relegated to the role of a near-throaway appendix.

     Actually, Rush himself is far too interesting and, arguably, far too significant to be left in the relative obscurity that he now occupies. Unger’s book is not sufficiently engaging to turn Rush into a truly prominent Founding Father, but it has enough elements of interest to encourage readers seeking a better-rounded view of American history to give him more than a passing thought.

(+++) DISCOVERIES


Finding Esme. By Suzanne Crowley. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

So Done. By Paula Chase. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     The notion of “finding oneself” is so commonplace in novels for preteens as to be endemic. In the case of Suzanne Crowley’s Finding Esme, it is through finding something else that the protagonist is supposed to learn just who she is and where she belongs. That protagonist, 12-year-old Esme McCauley, has been unhappily disaffected for three months, ever since her much-loved grandfather, Paps, died of a heart attack while riding his tractor on the family farm, at a place called Solace Hill. Esme is sure Paps has been trying to tell her something about the location ever since his death. Since she has apparently inherited from her grandmother, Bee, the ability to locate things by using a witching stick, Esme searches the area where Paps died and, lo and behold, finds a cache of dinosaur bones. The spot is easy to find, since the tractor Paps was riding has not been moved for three months; why it has taken Esme that long to do her search is never quite clear. Nor is it ever clear why she hesitates to tell anyone what she has found: the family farm is about to go into foreclosure, and it would be logical that anything Esme could find that might help would be something with which she would want to help. In any case, she cannot tell her father about the discovery, because he ran off three years ago; she cannot tell her mother, June Rain, who does nothing these days but sit on the couch; and she cannot even tell Bee, who is too busy selling honey and peaches to keep the farm going to find time to move the tractor, much less listen to Esme. All of this strains credulity, and the names that are supposed to be meaningful (Bee, June Rain, Solace) are as irritating as the cuteness that various townspeople exhibit whenever they show up in the story. It is left to Esme’s friend Finch, who discovers Esme’s find and tells a paleontologist about the bones, to get the plot moving in the direction of saving the farm and family. Crowley sets the story in 1972, for no particular reason, and the references to the time period will not likely have any meaning for the target audience of 21st-century preteens. The strongest element of Finding Esme is Esme herself: she is a pleasant protagonist with a realistic-sounding voice, despite the flaws in developing and explaining her motivations. But her character alone cannot and does not carry the book particularly successfully, in the absence of better secondary characters and a more fully formed story arc.

     The setting is emphatically today, complete with emoji-filled text messages, and the setting is urban rather than rural, in Paula Chase’s So Done. Here the focus is on finding out what friendship really means and how it changes and survives as young people grow. The young people here, who are both 13 even though the book’s target age range is 8-12, are longtime best friends Metai (Tai) Johnson and Jamila (Mila) Phillips. The book is told, as books of this sort so often are, in chapters alternating between the protagonists. The girls have been together since they were toddlers growing up in a typically gritty low-income housing project. Now they still have a love of dance in common, and are both looking forward to an audition for a distinguished program for talented fine-arts students. But how much else do they still have in common? That is the core issue of the novel. The girls’ personalities have, it seems, always been opposite: Mila is quiet and laid-back, looking forward to getting out of the city, and she feels free after spending a summer in the suburbs with her Aunt Jaq and older sister; Tai, on the other hand, loves the urban energy of their longtime neighborhood and is happy there. Tai has been eagerly awaiting Mila’s return to the city because Tai and her crush, Roland, have grown closer over the summer and Tai wants Mila to share the enthusiasm. But there is distance between the two girls when they re-engage, possibly because of a mysterious incident at Tai’s house that makes Mila afraid to go there. So the book progresses through the standard concerns of uncertain friendship, growing-up questions, untold secrets, and friends moving in different directions – all while being as with-it as possible in exploring African-American speech patterns, hairstyles, and even preoccupations with longtime nicknames that will not go away (Mila no longer wants to be called Bean). So Done is aimed squarely at African-American preteen girl readers, who will likely find at least some elements of it appealing. But beneath the trappings of language, hair and references to tough street life, the book’s story is an entirely familiar one that never goes in any unexpected direction.

(+++) INTRIGUE-ING


Crown of Shards #1: Kill the Queen. By Jennifer Estep. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

     Enter here, for the umpteenth time, into a world of sword and sorcery, a faux medieval world where royal courts hold forth in splendor even as the courtiers and the royals they serve plot the demise of those holding the power they crave – and sometimes bring that demise about. Enter a world where it is impossible to know whom to trust, where potential benefactors have their own motives for helping or appearing to help, a world where one’s worth is based on something that one cannot control – until a brave protagonist shows that one can follow and even create one’s own destiny through determination, grit, force of will, and a little help from a playground prophecy.

     Ah yes, you have been here before. Many, many times. Jennifer Estep has one new angle for the more-than-thrice-told tale that opens the Crown of Shards sequence, and it is actually a rather good one – and about the only element that raises this genre potboiler very slightly above others (but only very slightly). What Estep does is to people the book almost entirely with women, allowing the flourishing of female friendship and guidance to drive the martial plot and the at-court machinations as well. Casting women in roles more often filled by men in fantasies like this would be a more-effective concept if the women’s personalities and their attitudes toward power differed substantially from those of men in other series, resulting in a world with materially changed motivations from those that are typical in books of this type. However, the reason the casting of women throughout makes only a slight difference in the interest level of Kill the Queen is that the women Estep creates are just as venal, self-centered, manipulative, power-hungry, skilled in fighting and attracted to it, as are men in other, very similar books. Cardboard characters are cardboard, whatever their gender.

     The most-cardboardy of all, really paper-thin, is Vasilia, heir to the throne of the kingdom of Bellona. She is the chief villain of Kill the Queen, and about as villainous as a villainess can be. Her slaughter not only of her mother, Queen Cordelia, but also of the entire royal court, which sets the story in motion, is every bit as blood-soaked as epic-fantasy readers will want; maybe even a touch more so. Of course, in a plot like this, one member of the royal family must survive through a combination of pluck and sheer inconspicuousness, and thus the 17th person in line for the throne, Lady Everleigh Violet Winter Blair, not only escapes the massacre (killing four trained guards in the process) but also does so while carrying proof of Vasilia’s evil deeds and general evil (although who exactly will care about that in an absolute monarchy is a bit uncertain).

     Everleigh is a lowly member of the royal family because rank in Bellona depends on magical ability, and Everleigh has none – well, a heightened sense of smell, but that is not much (which of course means it will become important as the book progresses). At court, before the massacre, Everleigh was assigned minor, inconsequential tasks, such as baking desserts and learning formal dances (and – surprise! – those abilities will also prove crucial to her eventual success). After her narrow escape from Vasilia’s depredations, which are so over-the-top that readers will practically hear the evil usurper cackle with glee amid the bloodshed, Everleigh manages – within 24 hours – to locate and find shelter with the most prestigious gladiator group in Bellona, where she assumes the name of Evie and immediately begins learning to fight (although she has been shown to be pretty good at that already) while concealing her identity from anyone who might be able to help her (logical motivation is not Evie’s strong point, or Estep’s).

     Eventually, after plenty of mostly predictable twists and turns, Evie’s true identity is revealed, just in time for her to save many lives – not through her newly honed fighting abilities but through her court-polished ability to dance. Umm, yes. It also turns out that Evie is not so much unmagical as she is resistant to magic, and that in itself is a potent ability that, of course, is overlooked until it becomes crucially important. And so, after the saving-through-dance scene, the strong-willed, paranoid and immensely evil Vasilia allows the well-armed gladiators into her presence so Evie can gain the birthright that was foretold by a playground rhyme about “frosted crowns made of icy shards.” The plot is so strained and malformed that even fans of this sort of fantasy may find themselves groaning at times as Estep forces it into shape with heavy-handed authorial authority. But the mostly female cast is a plus, the fight scenes are well-paced and suitably exciting, and there is even a hint of romance that may become more germane in the next book of the series. Kill the Queen is almost wholly unoriginal, but readers who enjoy its genre will be pleased to find the novel so firmly rooted in typicality.

(+++) PIANO, SOLO AND PAIRED


Chopin: Mazurkas—Op. 41; in A Minor, KK IIb/5; in A Minor, KK IIb/4; Op. 50; Op. 56; Op. 59; Op. 63; in A Minor, Op. 67, No. 4; in G Minor, Op. 67, No. 2; in F Minor, Op. Posth. Todd Crow, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Piano Music of Eric Satie, Zoran Hristić, Svetislav Božić, Marta Brankovich, Fredrick Kaufman, and Clint Mansell. Marta Brankovich, piano. Navona. $14.99.

French Music for Oboe and Piano by Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Charles Koechlin, Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Ravel, and Gilles Silvestrini. Lumina Duo (Merideth Hite Estevez, oboe & English horn; Jani Parsons, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Music for Trombone and Piano by Johannes Brahms, Daniela Candillari, Ástor Piazzolla, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Carlos Salzedo, and Georg Christoph Wagenseil. Steven Menard, trombone; Yoko Yamada, piano; with Timothy Higgins, trombone;
Christopher Davis, bass trombone; Brian Magnus, cello. MSR Classics. $12.95.

American Music for Violin and Piano by Norman Dello Joio, William Bolcom, John Adams and Paul Schoenfeld. Blue Violet Duo (Kate Carter, violin; Louise Chan, piano). Blue Violet. $20.

     Chopin’s piano music admits of so many interpretations that practically any well-considered performance has something new to say. Todd Crow’s handling of the late mazurkas on an MSR Classics disc says that this music can be played with refined sensitivity, even a slight air of coolness, avoiding the Romantic excess to which it invites some performers – but without ever becoming cold or distanced. Crow applies considerable care to each of the works; some accept it better than others do. Op. 4, No. 4, for example, sounds somewhat stilted and tentative, but the A Minor, KK IIb/5, which is dedicated to Émile Gaillard, sounds just right in similar treatment, thanks to the care with which Crow handles the sixteenth-note rests. Both the Gaillard mazurka and the A Minor, KK IIb/4 (Notre Temps) are slow-paced here, to good effect, but Op. 56, No. 3, in C Minor, is very slow, and although it flows well, listeners familiar with the music will likely find parts of it almost plodding. On the other hand, Op. 59, No. 2, in A-flat, is well-paced but could use more expressiveness – while No. 1 from the same group, another of the many mazurkas in A Minor, comes through with effective counterpoint. The CD has its share of interpretative ups and downs, but certainly more of the former than the latter. The overall impression is one of thoughtful handling in well-considered readings that, even when they are not quite convincing emotionally, show Crow’s sensitivity to the music and the care he has taken to convey the elements of it that he deems central to its effects.

     The emotion is much more the heart-on-sleeve type on a new Navona CD featuring Marta Brankovich playing her own music and that of others. Only Satie’s Trois Gnossienes will likely be familiar to most listeners, and Brankovich handles their melancholy with more delicacy than is exhibited elsewhere on the disc. The two works here by Brankovich herself, Victory and War, reflect events in her homeland of Serbia, are inspired by melodies from there, and are as intense and dramatic as their titles indicate – in fact, the titles could be reversed and the pieces’ effect would be much the same. Brankovich, like many contemporary composers, tries to meld traditional Western esthetics with other musical elements, with mixed success. Zoran Hristić does something similar in his cluster-filled Toccata, while Svetislav Božić’s Lyric of Athos tries to blend Orthodox chant with dissonance. Also here are two works by Fredrick Kaufman, whom Brankovich calls her mentor and musical inspiration. Metamorphosis is a fairly standard mixture of multiple stylistic elements, from fugue to jazz. It is well-made, but less interesting than Yin and Yang, which uses two pianos (Kemal Gekić plays the second one) to highlight the differences and commonalities between the two states of the title – all within a context that deems the piano most definitely a percussion instrument. The final work on the CD is Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell, created for a 2000 film called Requiem for a Dream. In the manner of much film music, it is somewhat overdone and overdrawn, but in its slow and deep melancholy, it is reflective of – although scarcely superior to – Satie’s Trois Gnossienes. Brankovich throws herself into all the music with intensity and enthusiasm that border on the emotionally overwrought. The result is a program that feels as if it lasts longer than its actual 50 minutes.

     The piano’s expressiveness is much more subtly conveyed in the works on a new MSR Classics disc featuring Merideth Hite Estevez and Jani Parsons. This is French oboe-and-piano music, mostly of the 20th century, and that implies delicacy and Impressionism, which are certainly in good supply even though this too is a short CD (48 minutes). A highlight here is the David Walter transcription for oboe and piano of Ravel’s Sonatine: the performance is all light and elegance, with the oboe’s expressiveness in the first movement particularly engaging. More dramatic and less well-known, Charles Koechlin’s Au Loin – Chant pour Cor Anglais et Piano contrasts well with the Ravel, which it precedes on the disc. The Ravel is also strongly contrasted with the piece that follows it: Six Études pour Hautbois, written in 1997 by Gilles Silvestrini (born 1961). Directly inspired by Impressionist paintings, the work goes well beyond musical Impressionism to delve into contemporary composers’ interest in pushing traditional instruments beyond their usual sonic boundaries. Although very well-played, it seems somewhat more concerned with creating technical demands on the performers than on connecting expressively with listeners. The remaining works here are all essentially encores. They are Fauré’s Après un Rêve, dating to 1877 and the oldest work here; Debussy’s very early Beau Soir, from the same time period (1880); and Messiaen’s Vocalise-Étude (1935), in which the wordless “voice” of the oboe hovers enticingly just beyond the communication of anything specific. The final piece on the CD is the only one beside Koechlin’s to feature the English horn. It is Charles Young’s transcription of the Adagio assai from Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, and it sounds in this arrangement with just the right combination of warmth and melancholy.

     Yet another short MSR Classics CD, this one running 47 minutes, combines the piano with a different wind instrument, the trombone – and although the bold brassiness of this instrument is its most salient characteristic most of the time, this disc bears the title Cantabile for a reason. Its aim is to showcase the considerable expressive warmth of which the trombone is capable, presenting the instrument not only as a deeper member of the brass choir but also as a nuanced, tonally elegant instrument that, in the right hands, can convey a wide range of feelings. Steven Menard’s hands are certainly the right ones: in collaboration with pianist Yoko Yamada, he shows again and again just how pure the trombone’s sound can be and just how well it can communicate a wide range of feelings. Menard’s own arrangement of Four Songs by Rachmaninoff is a high point of the recording: in general, the clarinet may better match the vocal range of many songs, but this arrangement shows that the trombone’s sonorousness can stand in for the voice’s expressive qualities to excellent effect. An arrangement by Verne Reynolds of Three Vocal Duets by Brahms confirms the same impression: here Menard is joined by Timothy Higgins, and together they produce interwoven instrumental warmth that is every bit as emotionally involving in its way as was the original vocal scoring of these three unrelated songs (Op. 28/3, Op. 20/2 and Op. 75/3). The other especially interesting work here is the Concerto for Trombone by Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-1777), obviously a work of much more modest scale than the considerably later one by Rimsky-Korsakov, but a piece whose two movements, lasting only eight-and-a-half minutes, contain a great deal of charm – and show that the trombone’s expressive possibilities were already being explored, however tentatively, in Mozart’s time. The remaining pieces here have more of a feeling of being encores, even though one of them is the first work on the disc: Pièce Concertante, Op. 27, by Carlos Salzedo (1885-1961). Also here is Balkanika by Daniela Candillari (born 1979), which takes two trombones – Menard’s plus Christopher Davis’ bass trombone – through some thoroughly contemporary paces. And there is a surprisingly effective, almost endearing arrangement by Anthony Wise of Oblivion by Ástor Piazzolla: it involves both Menard’s trombone and Brian Magnus’ cello in a double dose of warmth, showing that the trombone not only can sway emotions but also, under the right circumstances, knows how to dance.

     There is also a considerable amount of dancelike material on a new CD featuring the Blue Violet Duo. Four Souvenirs for Violin and Piano (1990) by Paul Schoenfeld (born 1947) is all about dance: its movements are titled “Samba,” “Tango,” “Tin Pan Alley,” and “Square Dance,” and Schoenfeld takes the dances pretty much at face value. The second movement may not have the natural swing of, say, a Piazzolla tango, but “Tin Pan Alley” has a neat popular-music feeling about it, and “Square Dance” has more-than-faint echoes of Copland. Variations and Capriccio (1948) by Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008) presents strongly accented rhythms of a sort that would fit a dance motif nicely, and a pleasant melodic flow that violinist Kate Carter and pianist Louise Chan handle with smooth and well-balanced give-and-take. Road Movies (1995) by John Adams (born 1947) also contains a minimal amount of the feeling of dance within Adams’ usual minimalist musical approach. This is clearest in the last of its three movements, “‘40% Swing,’” whose title’s inclusion of quotation marks points to the reality that 60% of the movement is something that is not swing – something more akin to the first two movements’ typically (for Adams) contemplative approach. Those movements, “Relaxed Groove” and “Meditative,” are more in line with what listeners familiar with Adams will expect. On the other hand, listeners who know the music of William Bolcom (born 1938) will find a pleasant surprise here: his Second Sonata for Violin and Piano (1978), which is not among his better-known works, is the most interesting piece on the disc. Its four movements bear evocative subtitles that actually reflect what Bolcom writes, which is not the case with many composers who favor titles that have little obvious connection with their music. “Summer Dreams” indeed sounds warm and dreamy, with Carter and Chen reveling in a level of lyricism that proves quite compatible with uncertain tonality. “Brutal, Fast” is a two-minute tour de force that gives both performers plenty of opportunity to show off, while Adagio is every bit as evocative as might be expected from a movement featuring that old-style tempo indication. The real surprise here is the finale, “In Memory of Joe Venuti,” the one movement whose title requires explanation: Venuti (1903-1978) was the earliest performer to use a violin in jazz and was also influential in swing. Bolcom does not so much channel Venuti as pay tribute to him in a jazz-imbued movement filled with harmonics, slides, bouncy rhythms, and unexpected interruptions of the musical flow. The movement is both virtuosic and fun, and although Carter gets most of the good stuff in it, Chen complements her so well that the movement – like the CD as a whole – has the flavor of genuine and very accomplished musical partnership.

October 04, 2018

(++++) ROADS LESS TRAVELED


Eliza: The Story of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. By Margaret McNamara. Artwork by Esmé Shapiro. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Unstinky. By Andy Rash. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.

     Increasingly, books for young readers are exploring the outsiders, the unknowns, the people and circumstances that have not been included in traditional histories and narratives – sometimes to rehabilitate people to whom history has been less than kind, sometimes to draw attention to ones whom history has ignored. There is a special push nowadays to tell the stories of women who were historically important but who are far less known than men of the same time, including ones who did many of the same things. The inclusionary impulse can sometimes, because of political correctness, be taken to absurd lengths, as happened recently when astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell was awarded $3 million for her role in discovering pulsars, and it was widely reported as a 50-years-later righting of a wrong in which the Nobel Prize had been given to a man in her lab rather than to her – when in fact what happened was that Nobel rules forbade giving the prize to a student, which is what Burnell was at the time; gender had absolutely nothing to do with the award. On the other hand, sometimes paying attention to previously under-noticed historical characters does feel like redressing a balance, as in the case of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. Like other women of her time, she was quite deliberately self-effacing and saw her role as the promotion and assistance of her husband, Alexander Hamilton, who by all accounts adored her. But in the 21st century, the notion of being a great man’s modest helper is no longer deemed attractive, especially when someone has genuine accomplishments of her own – as Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton did. Hence we have Eliza, a nicely written bit of hagiography in which Alexander Hamilton gets little more than a couple of passing references and the focus is determinedly on his wife/widow. One remarkable thing about Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was her longevity: she lived from 1757 until 1854, a 97-year-span that would be exceptional even today and was nothing short of extraordinary in her own time. And what Margaret McNamara shows in Eliza is that Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton accomplished a great deal in her long life in addition to what she did to preserve Alexander Hamilton’s writings and thoughts. She founded a school to teach children whose parents could not afford to have their children educated, in a time before the United States had public schools. And she co-founded the first orphanage in New York State and New York City, an institution that still exists under a different name and with a somewhat altered purpose. She also knew all 14 U.S. presidents who held the office during her lifetime – although McNamara’s notions of how Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton felt about some of them are speculative. Eliza is structured as an imagined letter being written in the last year of her life by Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton to her yet-unborn great-great-granddaughter, and although it is written in modern American English, it tries to come across with some degree of period authenticity – an effort in which it is aided by illustrative paintings in which Esmé Shapiro reflects some of the art of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton’s time. The final two pages of the book, in which McNamara discusses the reality underlying the “docudrama” format of Eliza, and in so doing presents far more facts and far more context than would fit into the main narrative, are even more fascinating than the book’s basic story – but will appeal more to adults and to older children than to the young readers for whom this picture book is intended. Eliza is in fact quite a substantial work for a picture book, packed with interesting information and beautiful illustrations and shining a light on a genuinely notable historical American figure whose accomplishments were many and would surely have drawn much more attention had she not lived in a time when women’s roles were quite different from those of today.

     Purely fictional, far lighter in tone, and a great deal sillier, Andy Rash’s Unstinky is nevertheless similar to Eliza in one important way: it too focuses on someone who is not like others of the same type and whose accomplishments never get the focus and attention they deserve, because they simply do not fit into the strictures of society. That Rash’s book’s protagonist, Bud, is a stinkbug, makes the whole story amusing – but does not obscure the serious underlying message about finding out who and what you really are, and what you are good at, and then celebrating whatever that may be instead of trying to hide it out of fear of being judged “different” or “not like everyone else.” Bud is clearly a stinkbug: like the other ones in this story, he has legs and arms that look like boots and long gloves, respectively, and he has a shield-shaped body divided into sections – those are the features that characterize all the otherwise-different-looking stinkbugs Rash portrays. Bud’s problem is that he doesn’t stink enough, especially when compared with fellow stinkbugs named P.U. Bottoms, Lord Stinkington, and The Fumigator. While those bugs produce malodorous emissions galore, Bud puts out smells such as those of pine trees, fresh-baked bread and flowers. Especially flowers. The more Bud practices by stomping, waving, wiggling and waggling his body around, the more types of flowery smells he makes – nothing stinky at all. In fact, his flower smells are so sweet that they attract the attention of “a confused bee” named April, to whom Bud confesses his unalterable unstinkiness. April, of course, thinks Bud’s smells are just fine, so she invites him to a dance at the beehive, and soon enough – after many misgivings on the part of the other bees, who fear they are about to suffer through major stinking – Bud produces such a lovely flower smell that the queen bee herself declares he will always be a welcome guest. Being a nice-guy bug, Bud tries to show the other stinkbugs how his dancing will let them produce pleasant smells – just as they tried to help him find a way to be stinkier. But Bud’s efforts backfire, just as the other stinkbugs’ did when they tried to help him: the other bugs emit even worse smells after Bud has spent time teaching them. So, in the end, everyone accepts a different role in this buggy environment: those who can, stink, while those who can’t, don’t. And a suitably smelly time is had by all, with everyone learning to do what he is good at even if that is not in line with tradition or socio-entomological expectations.

(++++) SIGNPOSTS TOWARD A SOCIETAL SHIFT


The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics. Edited by Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey. Palgrave Macmillan. $180.

     The shutdown of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The proliferation of no-kill animal shelters. The freeing of chimpanzees used for medical research. The push to create more-humane living conditions for laboratory mice and rats. A South Korean court ruling that killing dogs for food is illegal. The burgeoning role of animal ethics in human thinking, certainly in the developed world, is evidence of a fundamental alteration in the way animals are viewed and the way humans – who are, after all, animals – see themselves within the panoply of some eight million species that collectively populate Earth.

     Yet even in the developed world, nonhuman animals are accorded no more status than that of property. Attempts to leave funds for beloved companions’ care in a person’s will or trust always fail: property cannot inherit, so funds must be left to a human caretaker who agrees to use them for animal care – but the agreement is unenforceable. Horses have their times of triumph in races – despite some misgivings about training them – but in countries including China, Mexico, Russia, Italy, and Kazakhstan, horse meat is a dietary staple; and 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand is believed to have been slaughtered for food, most likely pet food.

     These few examples – there are many more – serve to show the complexity of trying to develop an ethical philosophy regarding the interrelationship of humans and nonhuman animals. It is to explore this difficult and very complicated subject that The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics is designed. A thick (600-page), comprehensive, thoughtful reference volume that is intended to stay on library, academic and veterinary bookshelves for many years – hence its price – the book is subdivided into four sections that, collectively, consider the relationship between humans and nonhuman animals from a very large number of perspectives. “The Ethics of Control,” “The Ethics of Captivity,” “The Ethics of Killing,” and “The Ethics of Causing Suffering” – these are the broad section titles within which 30 international authors and scholars of very high standing examine animal-ethics issues from a multitude of perspectives.

     For example, although ethics need not require religion, there is certainly overlap, and this leads to an essay such as “Killing Animals – Permitted by God?” Unsurprisingly in what is essentially an academic approach to the subject – the author, Kurt Remele, D. Theol., is an associate professor of ethics and social thought in the department of Catholic theology at Karl-Franzens-University in Graz, Austria – the narrative voice is a measured one that pays close attention to Scripture, as when discussing Genesis 9:3: “[O]ne does justice to this text (‘Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you’) only when it is seen as occasioned by specific historical circumstances and experiences. It must be taken not as the authoritative, final, eternal, and incontestable verdict of God for all times and all places, but rather as a situational concession of God, both to human frailty and to the apparent scarcity of edible vegetation after the Flood.”

     Other essays raise situational questions without direct regard to religious texts. For instance, Max Elder, a student of philosophy and animal ethics at Oxford University, states in “Fishing for Trouble: The Ethics of Recreational Angling,” that there “are obvious differences between mammals and fish, even by their very definition. However, the important question is whether these differences are morally relevant differences.” This neatly encapsulates the underlying philosophical foundation on which The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics rests. Not coincidentally, the handbook’s ties to the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics are strong: Andrew Linzey, Ph.D., is its director, and Clair Linzey its deputy director. But for all the intellectual heft that an Oxford University association brings to the handbook, the work’s emphasis is intended to be pragmatic – it is no coincidence that the book’s title includes the work practical. Thus, Faith Bjalobok, Ph.D., a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, writes of “Our Moral Duties to Ill and Aging Companion Animals,” while Lori Marino, Ph.D., a neuroscientist who is founder and executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy in Utah, discusses “The Marine Mammal Captivity Issue: Time for a Paradigm Shift.”

     The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics is more important for laying out a series of moral and ethical questions than for answering them in any definitive way. The book is not easy reading, being intensely academic in its proliferation of footnotes and being filled, even clogged, with bibliographical material and references. It also contains some stylistic oddities, such as removing standard impersonal references to animals through the pronouns “it” and “that” and instead using “he,” “she,” “who” and “whom” – an unnecessary bit of anthropomorphic alteration presumably intended to make the connection between human and nonhuman animals clearer, but in practice a rather affected and effete-sounding approach. Nevertheless, the importance of this book far outweighs some inelegance in its presentation. Indeed, for the academic community, the style will not be off-putting, but to the extent that non-academics are to be influenced by the essays here, they will have to wade through some authorial and/or editor-driven expressiveness that is not as congenial or collegial as it could be.

     The issues raised, though, are extremely important. The section titled “The Ethics of Causing Suffering” is particularly telling and its contents particularly well-argued. Kay Peggs, Ph.D., editor of the section and a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, sets the tone clearly with the simple essay title, “Animal Suffering Matters.” Within that chapter, she notes that the “anthropocentric notion of suffering is not just a matter of philosophical debate; it has very real consequences for the lives of billions of nonhuman animals because these principles of moral worth are rooted in and inform the law.” Darren Sean Calley, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in the School of Law at the University of Essex, then weighs in with “Human Duties, Animal Suffering, and Animal Rights: A Legal Reevaluation,” discussing the animals-as-property argument and the advantages of a duty-based rather than rights-based approach to treatment of nonhumans. Mark J. Estren, Ph.D., a psychologist, herpetologist and reptile educator, in “The Ethics of Preservation: Where Psychology and Conservation Collide,” delves more deeply into the motivations underlying both legal and everyday human responses to nonhuman animals, showing the deep-seated human traits that drive our treatment of other animals, both philosophically and experientially – and suggests ways in which the barriers to empathy resulting from human perception can be altered, if not overcome.

     These and many other essays in The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics have multiple concerns in common: the development of a more-ethical approach to human-nonhuman interactions; the creation of a moral/ethical framework within which decisions relating to those interactions may be made more thoughtfully and less offhandedly; and the practical steps that individuals and societies can take to produce a more ethical and thus more satisfactory structure within which human and nonhuman animals alike can assume their rightful places. The goal of societal transformation will not be accomplished by The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics: the sort of foundational rethinking called for in the book, and the practical implementation of that rethinking, will take considerable time and effort. But a social movement must start somewhere, and that of a careful, logical and consistent form of improved animal ethics starts with this book. The Palgrave Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics deserves to be on the shelves of every individual and every organization concerned with the way in which human beings and nonhuman beings relate to each other on the planet that we all share.

(++++) COMICS OF TODAY AND YESTERDAY


Big Nate Goes Bananas! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

The Agony House. By Cherie Priest. Illustrated by Tara O’Connor. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $18.99.

     Nate Wright has now been 11 or 12 years old, and in sixth grade, for more than 25 years, but his trials and tribulations show no sign of ending anytime soon. Good thing, too: Lincoln Peirce’s long-running strip remains one of the freshest and most character-driven comics around, and the collections of it show again and again that Peirce has lost none of his talent for wringing amusement out of Nate’s everyday life. That includes interactions with all the usual suspects in Nate’s world in Big Nate Goes Bananas! There is social-studies teacher Mrs. Godfrey, Nate’s primary adult nemesis, who is going to be absent for a while, having her gallbladder removed – with her substitute being intense-workouts-are-all-that-matter Coach John, Nate’s other adult nemesis. Nate never manages to get the better of Mrs. Godfrey, a well-developed character whose problems with Nate arise from her perception that he is talented and scholastically able but simply terminally lazy. However, Nate does get back at Coach John on the school’s Prank Day, in a hilarious sequence of “This Is Your Life” strips that are cringeworthy even for someone as narrow-minded and dull as Coach John. Nate’s friend Teddy tells Nate, “This is some of your best work,” and readers will agree. Yes, Nate does have his moments. But his primary sixth-grade nemesis, Gina, has hers, too, as when she complains to Mrs. Godfrey that Nate is exhaling noisily and making it hard for her to concentrate, so Mrs. Godfrey says, “Nate, stop breathing.” Among the other interacting-with-Nate characters are his feckless and clueless father; his older sister, Ellen; the neighbor’s dog, Spitsy, who constantly drools and always wears an Elizabethan collar and who has, in effect, become Nate’s dog; sweet and naïve Chad, who here shows himself capable of a surprising amount of annoyance under certain circumstances; Nate’s crush, Jenny, who wants nothing to do with him and is paired with Artur, whose constant niceness and multiple talents drive Nate crazy (well, crazier); and – more prominently in this collection than earlier ones – Nate’s Uncle Ted, a ne’er-do-well middle-aged nonentity who lives with Nate’s grandparents and is lazy, video-game-obsessed, and so completely incompetent in the basics of adult life that Nate is delighted when his father comes home from a trip during which Uncle Ted has been staying with Nate. Throw in appearances by School Picture Guy (dressed as a pirate to advertise a beach-community mini-golf attraction) and brainy, book-reading neighbor Peter, whose mother wants him to go outside to play and thinks Nate is just the kid to get him interested in exercise, and you have a recipe for enjoyment no matter which way Nate turns – and no matter which pages readers of Big Nate Goes Bananas! turn to.

     Big Nate is a thoroughly modern comic strip in many ways, despite the timeless quality of some of its characters and interactions. Comics of another sort and an earlier era are central to Cheri Priest’s intriguing (+++) novel, The Agony House, in which Tara O’Connor’s illustrations play a significant part. The book’s characters and basic plot are nothing special: family decides to restore run-down house that turns out to be haunted, requiring intelligent preteen girl and her friends (new and old) to track down a mystery and let the ghosts rest so the life of the still-living can go on. However, the nature of the mystery and the route to its solution are quite interesting: they lead through a long-ago time in the world of comics, a time in the early 1950s when the imposition of strict censorship through the Comics Code of America (CCA) destroyed many of the greatest comic books ever created (such as the E.C. line, whose horror comics are still chilling today) and forced many great cartoonists out of the business or into the production of formulaic pabulum. In The Agony House, protagonist Denise Farber discovers, in the attic, an old, unpublished comic book featuring a female crime fighter named Lucida Might. This – thanks to the knowledge and the help of a standard-issue nerdy neighbor – eventually, after many twists and turns, leads to the discovery of who is haunting the house and why. But although the outcome of the book and many of its plot points are straightforward, the method of getting from start to finish is highly creative. Lucida Might’s eyes stare intensely from the book’s front cover, above a picture showing a modern person, presumably Denise, standing beside a car and facing the boarded-up, menacing-looking house of the title. Remove the wraparound cover and look at the actual cover of the book, and there is Lucida’s full face, above a pleasant-looking version of the same house, with Lucida herself standing beside a sports car and gazing at the building. This interaction of the real, modern world with the fictional comic-book world of the 1950s is what lends The Agony House its primary interest. And Priest does not assume that readers will think to take off the wraparound cover to see the Lucida scene on the cover itself: the same scene appears as an illustration within the narrative, as part of the many comic-book sequences that are included throughout and that advance the story cleverly while keeping its mysteries intact. As it happens, the foundational mystery, which involves one person assuming the identity of another, is never satisfactorily resolved: the “why” is missing. But the ghost-story elements are neatly handled, and the foray into the era of CCA censorship gives this book an intriguing element of pop-culture history that is rarely explored in modern fiction – and that may give preteen readers pause as they encounter contemporary demands for censorship of various ideas and viewpoints.

(+++) WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN


The Washington Decree. By Jussi Adler-Olsen. Translated by Steve Schein. Dutton. $28.

     In the year 1935, with the novels that brought him fame and a Nobel Prize already written and published – Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry – Sinclair Lewis seized on the rising tide of fascism and dictatorship in Europe, and the rise in the United States of controversial Louisiana politician Huey Long as a potential challenger to Franklin Roosevelt, and imagined a U.S.A. in which the depravities and social dislocation of the Old World could emerge and thrive in the New upon the election of a determined populist with many axes to grind. The result was It Can’t Happen Here, a novel that became a 1936 play of the same title (by Lewis and John C. Moffitt) and that had considerable resonance in 1930s America – even though Long was assassinated just before the book’s publication.

     Fast-forward 70 years, and in 2006, noted Danish crime writer Jussi Adler-Olsen decides to go beyond his successful and well-known Department Q series to produce a hefty (almost 600-page) standalone novel about the depravities and social dislocation that could emerge in the United States upon the election of a determined populist with many axes to grind. Fast forward another dozen years and the book, translated as The Washington Decree, seems (or is feared to be) oddly prescient in the era of a dysfunctional presidency in which the chief executive is widely reviled both within and outside his own party.

     Under current circumstances, the fact that so many plot points of The Washington Decree are arrant nonsense, showing that Adler-Olsen has as little understanding of U.S. government and culture as most Americans have of the Danish versions, may go unnoticed by readers eager to fan their internal flames of hatred of the Trump administration. But putting all that heavy breathing aside, The Washington Decree is a formulaically written (assuming it is well-translated) disappointment because of its stock characters, constant authorial interference in its standardized plot, and plodding pacing.

     Lewis, no fan of American exceptionalism or political excess, built It Can’t Happen Here around a journalist named Doremus Jessup who was caught between the forces of fascistic “corporatist” government and the then-in-vogue Communist theories opposing them. Jessup’s character kept the narrative grounded and gave readers, at least those who could handle Lewis’ rather unstylish writing, a sense of the larger issues playing out in the novel.

     Adler-Olsen makes a pass at creating a central character, but ends up with an unfocused narrative that spends too much time dealing with too many others. The intended protagonist is Dorothy “Doggie” Rogers, a staff attorney in the administration of President Bruce Jansen. Doggie’s casting is part of the overly complex setup of The Washington Decree. Jansen has had not one but two wives murdered in very public ways, the first stabbed to death in China and the second shot dead on election night. The man suspected of arranging the second killing is a political opponent and hotel magnate named Bud Curtis – and Doggie, a longtime Jansen staffer, is Curtis’ daughter. So she has a personal reason – proving her father’s innocence while balancing family matters against her carefully built, decades-long career – to become involved in the various plot shenanigans as the United States is changed dramatically.

     Just what is going on in the country? No less than a complete, nearly overnight transformation. The Internet is eliminated (apparently this has no discernible effect on the economy, the stock market, or much of anything). National surveillance of the entire population is immediately and seamlessly instituted by a super-competent domestic spying apparatus. Ammunition is banned (apparently no one of consequence has stockpiled much of it). Then guns are successfully banned, too (well, more-or-less successfully). Let’s see…what else? News media are shut down. President Jansen’s Cabinet supports everything he does. And unicorns fill the sky. Well, not that last one – but it is no more improbable and no sillier than everything that does happen in The Washington Decree.

     Adler-Olsen’s insistence on a Cabinet moving in lockstep with a clearly insane President – apparently largely because many Cabinet members have suffered violence in their own lives – is one absurdity. All the matters involving guns and ammunition are, collectively, another. The idea that Doggie has to move quickly in whatever she does because the death penalty for her father is going to be carried out post-haste is another. The concept of real-world executive orders and existing agencies being used for totalitarian purposes becomes laughable when Adler-Olsen, seeking a veneer of plausibility, gives examples of them at the back of the book, after the end of the narrative, and it turns out that he sees one prime-mover agency in all the crackdowns, deadly in its abilities and efficiency, to be the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Yes, FEMA, the ruthlessly efficient bureaucracy that so brilliantly managed and coordinated the response to, say, Hurricane Katrina.

     The Washington Decree would have worked better as sarcasm and black comedy than as a thriller; in fact, It Can’t Happen Here had satirical elements that rendered its more-absurd elements tolerable, if not believable. But unlike Lewis, Adler-Olsen insists that his dark vision be taken seriously and as a cautionary tale. And it is, but not in the way he intends. It is cautionary for any author who is trying to use the trappings of a society with which he is deeply unfamiliar to show, without humor as a leavening device, the extremes to which that society has the potential to descend.

     As the body count mounts in The Washington Decree, readers will find the viewpoint flailing about, the focus sometimes on Doggie, sometimes on a presidential press secretary with the unlikely name of Wesley Barefoot, sometimes on a standard-issue journalist (yes, another journalist, and another character with an unlikely name) called John Bugatti, sometimes elsewhere. The lack of focus is part of a broad-brush approach to genuinely serious issues in which Adler-Olsen vitiates the potential power of his dystopian tale by letting its steam escape through too many plot holes. The issues of power, control and violence, of a government run amok, are worrisome, and that alone may be enough for some readers of The Washington Decree. Certainly the book is more up-to-date than It Can’t Happen Here – which, incidentally, Adler-Olsen never acknowledges as a source – and certainly Lewis’ novel suffers from clunkiness of its own. On balance, though, The Washington Decree, in its overreaching without really understanding its topic, proves to be its own worst enemy: a farce masquerading as a just-possible nightmare.

(+++) MASSED AND SINGLE VOICES


Gordon Getty: Choral Works. Netherlands Radio Choir and Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Alexander Kastalsky: Memory Eternal to the Fallen Heroes; Doors of Thy Mercy; From My Youth; Blessed Are They. The Clarion Choir conducted by Steven Fox. Naxos. $12.99.

Songs from Chicago: Music of Ernst Bacon, Florence Price, John Alden Carpenter, Margaret Bonds, and Louis Campbell-Tipton. Thomas Hampson, baritone; Kuang-Hao Huang, piano. Cedille. $16.

Kamyar Mohajer: Five Songs, Based on Poetry of Hafez; Prelude; Reng; String Quartet; Ballade in C. Navona. $14.99.

     Although Gordon Getty’s commitment to traditional tonality is scarcely unique among contemporary composers, the depth of expressiveness that he extracts from his vocal music – in operas as well as songs – is unusual, and is heightened by his sparing use of atonal elements in a soundscape that remains for the most part firmly tonal. The Getty choral works on a new PentaTone SACD, which are quite well-sung by the Netherlands Radio Choir and are played with sensitive involvement by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, show just how firmly Getty (born 1933) remains in the grip of tonality for expressive purposes. And they show how well Getty continues to use musical means that many contemporary composers deem irremediably old-fashioned for the very fine (and, yes, old-fashioned) purpose of connecting with modern audiences through expressive presentation of poetry of the past. There are three of Getty’s own works on this disc, but the balance of the material comes from poets who are, in the main, well-known – and whose works have been set many times before. They are Lord Byron, Ernest Christopher Dowson, John Keats, John Masefield, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Sara Teasdale. Getty’s handling of Cynara by Dowson – probably the least-known of the group – contrasts interestingly with the setting of the same poem, for baritone and orchestra, by Delius. The earlier composer emphasized the ethereality of the poem, which famously contains the line, “gone with the wind,” and Delius’ setting may also be taken to refer to the brief life of the poet, who died at age 32 in 1900. Getty’s choral setting, in contrast, makes the words more emphatic and leaves the tone painting to the instruments. That approach is, in fact, a common technique of Getty, reflected in the care with which he varies the orchestration of the pieces here. The Old Man in the Night, for example, is an elaborate and extended work that calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, harp, celesta, strings and two percussionists, while The Old Man in the Morning (which is much shorter and follows immediately on this disc) requires only English horn, harp and strings. All the settings here are handled with sensitivity by James Gaffigan, who allows Getty considerable expressiveness without a descent into the maudlin – an approach that works particularly well in Getty’s arrangement of the traditional Shenandoah, which here has longing approaching pathos but does not feel overdone. The determinedly old-fashioned feeling of Getty’s choral works gives them an increased sense of connection with the time in which the words were written, and even Getty’s own poems seem to speak as much of the past as of the present in which they are, no pun intended, presented.

     If Getty’s work is tied to no specific time, that of Alexander Kastalsky on a new Naxos CD is linked to a very specific one. Kastalsky (1856-1926) was a student of Tchaikovsky and Taneyev, and his compositions were in the field of church music, for which he is still remembered in Russia even though he is little-known elsewhere. Memory Eternal to the Fallen Heroes (1917) is a memorial to those who died fighting in World War I, and its history is a touch complex: originally for chorus and organ, it was enlarged by Kastalsky into a full-scale Requiem for chorus and orchestra and intended in that form for concert performance. Then the composer created an a cappella version, the one heard here, which was designed for use in Russian Orthodox churches. Indeed, the work as a whole follows the structure of an Orthodox memorial service, and its sincerity is never in doubt in the performance by the Clarion Choir under Steve Fox. The chorus is a small one, with only 28 members, but this world première recording has fullness of sound that befits the solemnity of the music (which was recorded in a church). Memory Eternal is complemented by three short religious works composed earlier by Kastalsky, and these too are world première recordings: Doors of Thy Mercy (1897), From My Youth (1905), and Blessed Are They (1900). This is a narrow-interest disc of well-sung choral music from a specific tradition and a specific time period, interesting in particular for Kastalsky’s incorporation of ancient chants into Memory Eternal and for his solid use of traditional polyphonic techniques.

     The main interest in a very well-sung Cedille recording called Songs from Chicago is in the varying ways in which different composers with Chicago connections set words by the same poets. The fluidity and careful enunciation of baritone Thomas Hampson, and the well-modulated backup pianism of Kuang-Hao Huang, combine to bring out both the similarities and the differences in the settings of Walt Whitman’s words by Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) and Louis Campbell-Tipton (1877-1921) – the latter considerably more acerbic than the expansive and warm settings by the later-born composer. Also here are three different treatments of Langston Hughes poems, by Florence Price (1888-1953), John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951), and Margaret Bonds (1913-1972). Price uses rippling piano accompaniments to complement the words; Carpenter plays words and music against each other in contrasting rhythms and colors; Bonds prefers piano introductions that set a scene and mood before the words even begin – an approach that is particularly effective in the darkly moody opening to The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Although the CD primarily uses the words of Whitman and Hughes, it concludes with Carpenter’s setting of poems by Rabindranath Tagore – six poems with music, plus readings as introduction and epilogue. There is a pleasant simplicity and naïveté to these poems’ expressiveness, even in On the day when death will knock at thy door, and Carpenter’s gentle accompaniments accentuate the emotions as effectively as they do Hughes’, albeit in very different style. Hampson’s rich voice and careful attention to pronouncing the words clearly without ever appearing to declaim or lose the sense of poetry produce performances that will captivate and enchant listeners whose musical taste runs to art songs – with or without a connection to any particular time period or geographical location.

     The voice is that of a soprano (Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai) and the type of poetry very different on a new Navona CD featuring music by Kamyar Mohajer. Five Songs, Based on Poetry of Hafez (2014), sung in Persian and using words by a 13th-century poet who is well-known in what is now Iran, sound exotic in Western terms and are filled with references to music, nature, and, in particular, wine – which appears to be partly the everyday beverage and partly symbolic. Karolina Rojahn’s piano opens the songs with mood-setting that somewhat resembles that of Bonds in her Hughes songs, but Mohajer handles the words quite differently, sometimes having them sung with no accompaniment at all, sometimes presenting them with piano accompaniment that appears largely unrelated to the words’ flow and even interferes with it. The remainder of this disc is instrumental and will be of greatest interest to listeners seeking an understanding, through music, of some of the cultural imperatives and beliefs of ancient Persia and modern Iran. Mohajer greatly respects Bach, so here is a Prelude (2013) for violin (Kay Stern), viola (Susan Freier), and cello (Stephen Harrison). He has a strong sense of traditional Persian dance rhythms, and brings them into play in Reng (2008/2017) for wind quintet (Jeannine Dennis, flute; Alayne Gyetvai, oboe; Taylor Jordan, clarinet; Margarite Waddell, French horn; Nathaniel Echols, bassoon). He is also comfortable bringing limited Persian sensibilities to Western forms, whether for solo piano (Rojahn) in Ballade in C (2013) or in a String Quartet (2012) that is essentially classical in its four-movement structure (Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violins; Paul Yarbrough, viola; Sandy Wilson, cello). The non-vocal material here is considerably more conventional than Five Songs, using the instruments in traditional ways and expressing emotions in a manner that will be quite familiar to most Western listeners: the quartet, for example, presents repeated contrasts between slower and emotionally darker sections and lighter, speedier material. Many contemporary composers combine Western musical traditions with material drawn from other cultures, but usually within the same pieces. Mohajer, on the other hand, seems to straddle cultures by remaining almost entirely in one for some pieces, then moving almost all the way to another for other works. The approach is unusual, and the result is that listening to this disc is an experience of moving between very different sound worlds rather than trying to absorb individual works that attempt to combine disparate effects.