July 12, 2018

(++++) BOWLED OVER


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

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

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

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

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

(++++) WORLDS FROM WORDS


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

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

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

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

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

(+++) CULTURAL VENEERS


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

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

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

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

(++++) WONDERFUL AND FRUSTRATING


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

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

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

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

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

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

(+++) HOW VOICES BLEND


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

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

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

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

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

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

July 05, 2018

(++++) JOKES AND JOKERS


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

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

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

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

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

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

(+++) CELEBRI-BOOKS


Zach King #1: My Magical Life. By Zach King. Illustrated by Beverly Arce. Harper. $18.99.

Zach King #2: The Magical Mix-Up. By Zach King. Illustrated by Beverly Arce. Harper. $18.99.

Twintuition #4: Double Cross. By Tia & Tamera Mowry. Harper. $16.99.

     Canadian politician Charlotte Whitton came up with an absolutely classic comment that turns out to have currency far beyond the context in which she made it: “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” The applicability goes far beyond gender, because it is all about expectations and the way in which perceivers – which would mean readers in the case of books – respond differently based on the reputation of the books’ authors. Celebrities (or their ghostwriters) turn this expectation to their advantage all the time: readers feel they “know” the authors (whom they have never met and to whom they will never have the slightest shred of importance) and therefore have a built-in tendency to enjoy material that they might not like so much if it came from an “unknown” individual. And this in turn lets celebrities (or their ghostwriters) get away with producing some mighty thin offerings that readers would likely find dull and/or formulaic if they came from “ordinary” writers. Thus, the reason readers ages 8-12 are supposed to be attracted to the first two books in the Zach King series is that there really is a Zach King, who is a twentysomething video maker with a following on various social-media platforms. And the books not only bear his name as author and use his name for their central character, but also come with an invitation to download a free app to go with them. The likelihood that anyone who does not know Zach King will want to read the Zach King books is minimal: they are aimed at fans, and their underlying assumption is that fans will put up with pretty much anything that is celebrified by its association with the real-world Zach King simply because he is a celebrity. Should a non-fan happen upon these books, he or she will likely be most attracted not by the writing but by Beverly Arce’s illustrations, which are full of vigor and use their anime inspiration in a variety of clever ways. But these are not graphic novels: the illustrations, although sometimes used to advance the story, are mostly not the primary reason for the books’ existence. What preteen Zach King fans are supposed to enjoy here is the narrative setup: 11-year-old Zach (the character) comes from an entire family that has magical powers. Why? Who knows? But these are not powers that can simply be used by their possessors – they must be mediated, channeled, through specific objects. Why? Who knows? So Zach’s father has a watch that he can use to turn back time, Zach’s younger sister has eyeglasses that she can use to become invisible, and so on through all sorts of cousins who have objects such as a magical thumb drive and magical deck of cards. Why? Who knows? But Zack has not found his specific magical object yet, and his parents worry that maybe he has been “skipped” and has no magical powers at all; and this worry makes them decide to stop home-schooling him and send him to Horace Greeley Middle School with ordinary kids. Why? Who knows? And the school setting brings Zack a best friend; a crush; a series of encounters with the school’s resident “mean girl” and her posse; repeated run-ins with the school’s stern principal; and some ambiguous evidence that he does have magical powers after all – the funniest example being the first one, in which Zach ends up inside a vending machine without most of his clothes. The real-world Zach King tosses in more and more challenges and sillinesses for the in-book Zach King to handle: in the first book, frogs and an alligator; in the second, a rival student from Australia and a herd of wild horses. Real-world Zach King does not appear to care, or need to care, that very little in the books’ plots hangs together. Thus, a major point in the first book is that the magic-doers’ magical objects work only for them, not for anybody else, except that in the second book, the whole plot revolves around the way it turns out that Zack can use other family members’ magical objects – although only in ways that make matters worse. After two books, the mystery of Zack’s particular magical powers remains unsolved, but presumably real-world Zack can spin out this issue for quite a while yet, since, after all, the fans for whom these books were clearly written will presumably continue to stick with them as long as real-world Zack remains a celebrity.

     The fact that the Twintuition books are strictly for celebrity-obsessed preteens is even more explicit, since the cover specifically gives the authors’ names as “TV Stars Tia & Tamera Mowry.” The final book in the tetralogy, Double Cross, simply carries on where matters were led by the first three: Double Vision, Double Trouble and Double Dare. Caitlyn and Cassie Lockwood, identical twins, are super-close sisters who share even more than sisters typically do in books of this kind: they share intermittent visions, specifically visions of the future – a future that, however, they are sometimes able to change, especially if it means helping people who would otherwise be hurt and making sure that potential bad events do not occur. It is hard to imagine many eight-to-12-year-olds being taken in by so transparent a “do good all the time but you can’t change just anything” plot; but, again, the target audience here is not an age group but a celebrity-watching group that happens to lie within a specific age range. The fourth book of the series brings the twins back to San Antonio, their home town, on a class field trip, but of course this is not a simple, happy homecoming: one of their friends, Lavender Adams, soon disappears, apparently kidnapped, and the twins’ capital-S Sight not only shows them bits of what will or may happen to Lavender but also reveals things they never expected – notably scenes of a man who is being held captive and who just might be their father, who is supposedly dead. People in these books are amazingly accepting of Caitlyn’s and Cassie’s Sight almost all the time, as when a character named Steve asks, “Y’all can change the future?” and the girls simply respond, “Sometimes. But usually it’s to stop something bad from happening – like Mom losing her job, or Lavender’s dog getting hit by a car, or Emily getting hurt…” And everyone just kind of goes with all this because, well, why not? There turns out to be a mystery here involving a key chain that may be the, umm, key to – well, lots of things. And Granny L (Grandmother Lockwood) is a key to using the girls’ visions as well. In fact, Granny L knows how this whole thing works: “The idea is that energy is stored in these talismans. Objects he [the twins’ father] and other Lockwoods were touching during the visions.” Well, that certainly explains everything. By the time one of the twins tells the other, “It still sounds a little crazy,” it actually sounds a lot crazy, but consistency and believability are scarcely the point here, as the other twin knows: “Oh, it’s totally wackadoodle. …That doesn’t mean it’s not true, though.” Of course not. And of course everything eventually works out just fine for the twins and their mom and, yes, their long-lost dad, whose multi-year disappearance turns out to have been caused by a plot element so silly and laughably hole-filled (although supposed to be taken very seriously) that the only possible reason to believe it would be because the book was written by celebrities whose writings a reader desperately wants to believe, as if doing so will somehow bring the reader closer to the celebrities. And anyone who believes that is, of course, precisely the right audience for Twintuition #4: Double Cross.

(+++) TRENDY TASTES


Tahini and Turmeric: 101 Middle Eastern Classics—Made Irresistibly Vegan. By Vicky Cohen and Ruth Fox. Da Capo. $24.99.

     There is always room for another food fad. While some people pursue food-limiting diets and others take legitimate health concerns to extremes (such as urging gluten elimination for people with no sensitivity to gluten), still others look to expand and enrich their chosen dietary approaches and food interests. That is what sisters Vicky Cohen and Ruth Fox, both committed vegans of Middle Eastern ancestry, try to do in Tahini and Turmeric. The authors say these are vegan variants of recipes they remember from childhood, but what will really matter to the vegans who are the target market for the book is how easy the foods are to prepare and how good they taste.

     Vegetarian and vegan food has become a great deal tastier in recent years, and the skillful use of spices and other flavorings is one reason. There is quite a bit of that in this book. “Mini Spinach Pies with Pine Nuts and Dried Cherries,” for example, include sweet onion, allspice and everyday salt; “Belgian Endive Salad with Pomegranate and Pumpkin Seeds” calls on “Maple Mustard Vinaigrette” – which is a recipe itself – for its flavoring; “Roasted Cauliflower with Green Tahini” uses cilantro, dill, lemon juice, and agave nectar or pure maple syrup. As usual in cookbooks, particularly specialty ones like this, there are bounteous illustrations showing how dishes ought to look when prepared according to the recipes. The pictures serve not only as temptations to try out the dishes but also as guides to what the finished products will (one hopes) look like.

     As for the specific types of foods on display, they are divided into sections called “Day Starters and Brunch Nosh,” “Appetite Teasers,” “Body Warmers,” “Big-Enough-to-Share Salads,” “Dressings and Condiments,” “Kicked-Up Rice,” “The Main Event,” “Fresh from the Oven,” and “Sweet Endings.” For those interested in trying some less-than-familiar Middle Eastern flavors but not fully committed to vegan eating, “Fresh from the Oven” is the best place to start. It includes “Savory Sesame and Nigella Seed Fingers,” “Sweet Challah Rolls,” “Abuelita’s Savory Bourekas,” and other attractive breads. But cooks and bakers need to be sure they have on hand all the ingredients needed for the recipes – which, in the case of the bourekas (to cite one example among many), include raw cashews, nutritional yeast, coconut oil, canned pure pumpkin or butternut squash puree, as well as unsweetened dairy milk and some more-standard items such as baking powder, salt and all-purpose flour.

     Cohen and Fox begin their book with a chapter called “The Middle Eastern Pantry” that is supposed to make it easy to stock up on the essentials needed for the recipes they present. This is helpful – but will also be challenging for anyone with only a casual interest in trying the recipes, and especially for such a person who is not a vegan. Baharat, bulgur wheat, chickpea flour, harissa (chili paste), kataifi, orange blossom water, pomegranate molasses, wheat berries and other listed pantry items will not be easy for many people to find – and it makes sense to buy them only if you intend to make a great many of the recipes in Tahini and Turmeric. Furthermore, anyone who wants to try some of these recipes needs to be prepared for how complex some of them are, and how time-consuming a number of them can be. To be sure, more-ordinary recipes can take plenty of time as well, but these Middle Eastern ones require a level of care and focus that may make some of them difficult for people who are not already familiar with food of this type. Tahini and Turmeric is best for people who are strict vegans – which means a lot of the seemingly exotic ingredients will likely be on hand already – and who are primarily looking to experiment with some flavors that likely go beyond the everyday ones that they usually produce in the kitchen.

(++++) SYMPHONIC DEVELOPMENTS


Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2. Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Smetana: Festive Symphony; The Bartered Bride—Overture and Dances. Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Darrell Ang. Naxos. $12.99.

Schubert: Symphony No. 9, “Great”; Die Zauberharfe—Overture. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. SWR Music. $8.99.

John Robertson: Symphony No. 1; Suite for Orchestra; Variations for Small Orchestra. Janàček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $14.99.

     Symphonies have served their composers, as well as audiences, in many ways over the years – and continue to do so even today. Rachmaninoff’s Second was in many ways a “recovery” piece after the disastrous reception given his First Symphony and the subsequent mental breakdown that left him unable to compose for a time. It has become easily the most popular of his three symphonies, and the live recording on Signum Classics of a performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy shows why. This is a work of intensity and high drama throughout, with soaring themes, sweeping climaxes, and instance after instance of the more-Romantic-than-Romanticism themes for which Rachmaninoff is justly renowned or reviled, depending on one’s individual reaction. The extended deep brooding quality of the Largo introduction to the first movement sets the tone for the entire work, and Ashkenazy gives it plenty of time to spin out and settle in the audience’s ears. The pacing of this entire movement is strong and stately, but Ashkenazy is as attentive to the movement’s lyricism – especially the lovely cello theme – as to its drama. It is interesting that Rachmaninoff ends the movement more gently than most of it would lead listeners to expect – and in so doing makes the renewed drama of the Scherzo all the more effective. Again, Ashkenazy shows a fine sense of proportion here, both in the intense main section and in the contrasting middle one, which is not exactly a “trio” but does offer a bit of respite. And then Ashkenazy lets the marvelous Adagio flow with unceasing warmth tinged with melancholy, the famous clarinet melody permeating the music and seeming to go on without stopping, a fascinating achievement for a movement that, analytically, is in sonata form. Then, much as the Scherzo bursts out after the comparatively gentle end of the first movement, Rachmaninoff produces the strongest possible contrast between the third movement and finale, whose march-like opening instantly sweeps away all inwardness and emotional fervor. If the swooning elements of the third movement are not to all tastes because they are so over-the-top, the same may be said of the equal-but-opposite intensity of this finale, with its cymbal clashes, brass fanfares and huge crescendo after a downward scale. Ashkenazy wisely decides to take the movement at face value, without trying to make it seem especially profound, which it is not. It is, however, thrilling and involving for listeners willing to let themselves be absorbed into its sound world, which Ashkenazy evokes with consummate skill and which the Philharmonia players bring to a vividly colored conclusion that clearly underlines the reasons for this symphony’s popularity.

     Smetana’s sole symphony, in contrast, has never attained a significant place in concert halls or recordings, even though it was a work of considerable importance to its composer and was intended to have equal significance to the audiences of its time (1854). Unfortunately for Smetana, the work ran afoul of geopolitics: nearly the entire symphony is based on the Austrian imperial hymn, originally written by Haydn and continuing its stately use right into the 20th century until its pre-emption by the Nazis. Three of the symphony’s four movements are built around this well-known theme, and the work itself was intended to celebrate the then-thought-likely possibility of Emperor Franz Joseph becoming King of Bohemia. Unfortunately for Smetana, this made the symphony into an occasional work whose reason for being soon passed, as Czech nationalism turned against the notion of expanded imperial power. As a result, the only part of the symphony that was heard very much during the composer’s lifetime was the Scherzo, the sole movement without any reference to the imperial theme. The new Naxos recording of the symphony in a performance by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Darrell Ang offers an unusual opportunity to hear the whole Festive Symphony, which repays its title through its bright C major key and a sense of upbeat positivism (if scarcely overdone celebration) throughout. Ang is a rather pedestrian conductor – there would likely be more to the symphony under someone better attuned to its nuances – but the straightforward performance here does give a sense of the mood in which the work was written and the hopes that the work was intended to showcase. The recording pairs the symphony with some can’t-miss music from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride: the wonderful, scurrying Overture, the polka from Act I, the furiant from Act II, and the Dance of the Comedians from Act III. These excerpts stand as near-perfect adaptations of the folk-music idiom to the opera stage, having all the verve and spirit of the material on which Smetana drew to create them while being arranged and orchestrated to perfection for theatrical display. Again, Ang is not the ideal conductor for this music, in particular allowing the Overture to drag a bit and almost get away from the strings on a couple of occasions (a rarity for this very fine orchestra). But there is enough spirit and uplift in the performance, and so much that is bright in the music itself, that the CD becomes a very worthwhile opportunity for listeners to contrast one of Smetana’s less-known works, in all its seriousness, with some of his most-frequently-heard and most-joyous music.

     Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C is a far more significant work than Smetana’s Festive Symphony in the same key, and the standards for excellence in performing the Schubert are very high indeed. It would be reasonable to expect a top-notch reading of this symphony, which Schumann described as having “heavenly length,” from the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. But the SWR Music release of a recording dating to 2001 – part of a new series of bargain-priced archival recordings – is a disappointment that barely achieves a (+++) rating. Norrington makes a common but surprising miscalculation in pacing the symphony too quickly: the whole thing runs barely 51 minutes even with the repeat of the first-movement exposition (which some conductors, very unwisely, omit). The whole thing feels rushed: there is nothing expansive or stately here. The title “Great” is actually used to distinguish this symphony from Schubert’s Sixth, also in C, but the word is taken as well to refer to the Ninth’s expansiveness and grandeur. It lacks both of those here. The orchestra plays well for Norrington, who was its principal conductor at the time of this performance, and certainly Norrington presents the work with consistency: once he picks his tempos, he minimizes rubato and stays with them almost throughout every movement, and the relationship among the movements in terms of their speed is carefully considered. But the whole symphony never has a chance to breathe: Schubert’s long-spun-out themes sound truncated, his pastoral elegance is trivialized, and the headlong finale makes it sound as if Norrington and the orchestra just want to get the whole thing over with as soon as possible. The opposite approach, in which one dwells within Schubert’s expansive symphonic world for a much-extended time, would have been far more effective here. Norrington does  a better job with the overture to Die Zauberharfe, which is better known as the Rosamunde overture (Schubert reused the music in a new context). This 2002 performance is elegant and just piquant enough to give the music a suitably airy touch. But its effective 10 minutes do not compensate for the less-than-stellar handling of the symphony.

      A new (+++) Navona release of the music of John Robertson (born 1943) shows that symphonies continue to retain their importance and communicative potential even for contemporary composers. In this case, though, the music itself is less than compelling despite a sensitive and well-balanced performance by the Janàček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Robertson’s Symphony No. 1 is a three-movement work (the movements are simply labeled I, II and III) that spends most of its time trying on various styles and musical approaches, from the pointed to the lyrical, the Romantic to the modernistic, the traditionally organized to the somewhat experimental (the latter exemplified by an extended violin solo that opens the finale, as if the work suddenly turned into a violin concerto, complete with cadenza). The orchestration is nicely handled and the overall work is firm in construction, but there is nothing particularly unusual or involving in it. The Suite for Orchestra comes across somewhat better, its four unrelated movements being primarily tonal and generally reflective of the four distinct forms or expressions given in their titles: Fanfare, Waltz, Elegy and March. Within those titles, though, the music is not particularly distinguished: March has fanfare-like elements, for instance, and although Waltz is in three-quarter time, it is not particularly tuneful or danceable (assuming it is intended to be). In fact, the most effective piece on this disc is Variations for Small Orchestra, Robertson’s first major work. It takes a rather traditional view of what the variation form means – the basic, graceful theme remains recognizable almost throughout – and goes through six thematic metamorphoses that give the orchestra plenty of opportunities to shine and provide listeners with an intriguing aural maze to follow. There is even a waltz that comes across better than does the one in the Suite for Orchestra. The finale of Variations for Small Orchestra wraps things up neatly by recalling bits of several variations and then bringing trumpets front-and-center: this is a piece that shows that traditional forms beyond that of the symphony can retain their potency even today, in the hands of composers who can find new ways to use them.

(+++) A PLENITUDE OF PIANISM


Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; David Finko: Fantasia on a Medieval Russian Theme; Sonata No. 1, “Solomon Mikhoels”; Sonata No. 2; Sonata No. 3; Richard Brodhead: Sonata Notturna—Piano Sonata No. 2; Una Carta de Buenos Aires—Tango Sonatina for Piano. Clipper Erickson, piano. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Nicholas Vines: Terraformation; Uncanny Valley—Variations & Theme for Pianoforte; Indie Ditties—Twelve Scapes for Piano. Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, piano. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Michael Arnowitt: Sweet Spontaneous—14 Jazz Compositions. Michael Arnowitt, piano; ImproVisions Jazz. Big Round Records. $14.99 (2 CDs).

     Anyone seeking a plethora of piano performance, perhaps even something of a surfeit, will find considerable pleasure in one or more of three new two-CD sets being offered by Navona and Big Round Records at the price of a single disc. The music on these recordings is all over the map geographically, structurally, and in terms of form and time period. The most interesting combination of material is on the recording by Clipper Erickson, which features the thoroughgoing pleasure of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as its major work and combines it with material by David Finko (born 1936) and Richard Brodhead (born 1947). Erickson offers a pull-out-all-the-stops version of Pictures, in which “Gnomus” scurries unusually menacingly, the old castle is mist-enshrouded and spooky, the chicks are so light that they seem to be trying to fly, Baba Yaga’s fowl-legged hut does seem to fly (in a manner both clumsy and threatening), and The Great Gate of Kiev stands magisterially over all. This piano performance is as colorful as many of the orchestral versions in which Pictures is more commonly heard. Finko’s Fantasia on a Medieval Russian Theme fits well with the Mussorgsky – indeed, the earlier composer used the same theme in Khovanshchina. The fantasia is an extended work, with portions of very considerable virtuosity and a suitably dour overall feeling. Finko’s three sonatas, from 1964, 1998 and 2009, take matters in different directions. The first is closest in mood and approach to the Fantasia and to Mussorgsky. The second is considerably more gestural and rather obvious in its attempt to portray suffering and struggle through frequent rhythmic and harmonic contrasts. The third is short and in a single movement (each of the others is in four), and uses the stop-and-start technique of the second sonata in the service of what sounds like a more abstract and self-consciously contemporary approach to the piano. The two Brodhead works, each in a single movement, come from a different sound world, one whose fit with that of Mussorgsky and Finko is not immediately apparent. Sonata Notturna seems to paint both the quiet of night and some of the fears it can bring, but it is not particularly cohesive or especially convincing: Erickson handles it with a gentle touch that seems to work better in some sections than it does in others. And the sonatina Una Carta de Buenos Aires, which is basically and probably inevitably a tango, comes from a difficult-to-determine place, being not especially Argentinian in sound or influence: it is a vaguely mysterious work whose silences loom importantly over its sounds and whose overall impression is a scattered and only vaguely dancelike one. It is, however, like everything else in this release, played very well indeed.

     The playing is the primary attraction of a genuinely strangely titled and odd-looking recording featuring music by Nicholas Vines as interpreted by Ryan MacEvoy McCullough. The release’s official title is Hipster Zombies from Mars: Piano Music for a Post-Ironic Age, and the package does indeed show prototypically skeletal and blood-dripping undead creatures mixed with a couple of robots on a cartoonish Red Planet background with a habitat dome in the distance. Some of the music actually connects to this intentionally bizarre scene: Terraformation is a four-movement suite inspired by the Kim Stanley Robinson novel Red Mars. Vines makes a few passes at traditional suite form here, including a double canon, passacaglia and rondo-sonata among the movements, but the sound of the work is nothing special or unusual – rapid figurations, plenty of tone clusters, and sections that do not so much progress as they, to misquote slightly the king in Alice in Wonderland,begin at the beginning, go on till the end, and then stop.” More interesting conceptually and more in tune (so to speak) with Vines’ musical approach is Uncanny Valley: Variations & Theme for Pianoforte, whose title refers to the point at which a near-human figure (robotic or computer-generated) is just enough like a person, but just enough unlike one, to generate deep discomfort in a human viewing it. The work is in seven representational sections played without pause, and one sequence of them has its own tie-in to the peculiar overall title of the release: this is “A Corpse, a Zombie, a Bunraku Puppet.” The work progresses from “An Industrial Robot,” with suitable “industrial-ish” taps and bangs, through more and more human-like portrayals, finally reaching “A Healthy Person,” the “theme” of the whole exercise (toward which the “variations” have been pointing). The extraneous sounds from the prepared piano and the overall experimental nature of Uncanny Valley make the work seem longer than it is, but if it never quite gels into a healthy-person presentation, it at least offers some interesting sounds as it attempts to do so. The sounds are also interesting during Indie Ditties: Twelve Scapes for Piano, essentially “soundscapes” (and maybe “landscapes” and “escapes” as well) designed to comment on modern self-described hipsters through the use of various pop-music and non-Western elements as well as some relatively straightforward compositional ones. The pervasive “look how clever I am” elements of this suite are intended ironically by Vines but in fact seem to reflect his own self-image as well as that of the “hipsters” he portrays and often skewers. Movements have titles such as “Bad Appletude,” “HRH Prince Albert,” “…my love is like a dead, dead pose…” (with ellipses on both ends), “skinny, skinny jeans” (no capitals), and “Microbrew IV.” Exactly what sounds the titles are supposed to evoke is never especially clear, as if Vines created music and then found a title to fit it instead of coming up with a concept and then developing its musical illustration. McCullough certainly throws himself into the material with enthusiasm: the rapidity of changes of mood, texture, rhythm and harmony in this music could easily derail a pianist less committed to Vines’ ideas, but McCullough handles everything with surety and style. The 12 pieces collectively take almost an hour to perform, and while each has a detailed program (or, rather, seeks to display a specific scene or personality), there is an underlying sameness to Vines’ approach that results in the cycle sounding not exactly repetitious but as if many things in the later movements have already been put on display in the earlier ones. Pianists interested in challenging contemporary music, and listeners intrigued by extended suite-like piano compositions, are the audiences most likely to find this unusual release congenial.

     The release featuring compositions by Michael Arnowitt contains even more music than do the others considered here: over two hours of material. The recording offers straightforward jazz material, some purely instrumental and some featuring vocals by Shirley Crabbe; there is also one track, The Crossing, whose title comes from a Langston Hughes poem, and one called Ascent that features Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” (both poems read by Therisa Rogers) as part of the performance. Although the overall sound is recognizably that of a standard jazz ensemble, some of the influences on Arnowitt’s music are unusual: Bulgarian Hoedown combines American elements with some from Bulgaria, Shapka Swing takes its title from a Bulgarian hat and uses some of that nation’s folk rhythms, and Syria-us includes Syrian rhythms and scales along with American harmonies. For all the varied sources and influences of this music, though, most of it has a very similar sound, which listeners may deem Arnowitt’s style or may simply find to be quite common in works focused on jazz instruments and compositional methods. The syncopations of Migratory Mood, the descending bass of Pirouette and Third Shift, the funk of Street Strut – all these are pleasantly familiar. And all have been done many times before, even though Arnowitt does his best to put a personal stamp on the material and does a good job, along with the musicians of the ensemble ImproVisions Jazz, of presenting everything with fine playing and a well-polished veneer. The generous length of the release will give listeners who enjoy music of this type considerable pleasure, mostly of a relaxed and laid-back sort. Those more inclined to sample jazz than to immerse themselves fully and extensively in it will do better to listen to a track or two and then set the recording aside for a while, coming back to it at a later time for more of the same, or what is almost the same.

June 28, 2018

(++++) DREAM ON


Smiley’s Dream Book. By Jeff Smith. Color by Tom Gaapt. Graphix/Scholastic. $17.99.

How to Be a Lion. By Ed Vere. Doubleday. $17.99.

     Jeff Smith’s Bone universe continues to expand with Smith’s first picture book for young readers, Smiley’s Dream Book. Smith developed the Bone world and characters in comic books, and when Scholastic picked up the nine novels of the main sequence, the publisher created an entirely new division called Graphix to publish Bone. Just as Graphix has now grown far beyond the Bone series – which itself includes three supplementary graphic novels and an illustrated-novel trilogy called Quest for the Spark – so Bone has grown into the picture-book area with Smith’s latest work. The tall, thin, childlike and rather simple-minded Bone cousin, Smiley, is a natural as the protagonist of this very simple story. Frequently seen with his tongue hanging out, as on the cover and title page here (among other pages), Smiley introduces young readers to a basic counting book while walking through the woods and seeing birds singing. These are not ordinary birds: some wear hats or scarves. And as Smiley says when more and more birds appear and he loses count, “I guess there are a lot of birds singing.” Smiley sees them up close, because he flaps his arms while counting and actually flies among the avian singers, leading to a wonderful two-page wordless drawing of Smiley, arms spread, eyes closed, smiling broadly as a whole flock of birds in shades of purple (a fine choice by color artist Tom Gaapt) circles around him. All the gaiety is interrupted after a few more wordless pages, though: a hawk attacks the flock with a very loud, “KAW!” But despite the hawk’s maneuverability, it does not reckon with Smiley: just before the predator can catch a bird that wears a stocking cap, Smiley comes between it and its intended prey, scaring the hawk away and leading all the birds to crowd happily around Smiley. And then Smiley begins counting them again, starting at 10 and going down this time, until he eventually floats gently to the ground – and wakes up, realizing “it was a dream the whole time!” So Smiley happily returns to his woodland nap, although the final-page drawing of a top-hat-wearing bird that has been seen several times leaves readers to wonder just how much of a dream the experience really was, and how much of it was the sort of offbeat Bone reality that makes Smith’s books such a pleasure to read (and see). Fans of the original Bone series get a bonus here: the back flap of the book cover is a Smith self-portrait that includes the other two Bone cousins and the Great Red Dragon. And removing the protective book cover reveals that the actual front and back covers of the book differ from what the overlay shows – with the back being a full-page picture of the argumentative and irascible Phoney Bone looking out at readers and asking, “HEY! When do I get my own book?” Maybe next time?

     There is also something dreamy, in a kind of dream landscape, in Ed Vere’s How to Be a Lion. But this is not a book written for amusement or to take young readers on an adventure. It is a message book that seeks to deliver its comments on lifestyle acceptance and the power of words through a simple, direct and charming story. The protagonists are Leonard the Lion and his best friend, Marianne – who is a duck. This sort of friendship is simply not done among lions, as Vere explains emphatically and as three other lions tell Leonard in no uncertain terms. But even before those other lions show up – indeed, before Marianne appears – Vere explains that Leonard is a different sort of lion, a sweet-tempered one who likes to walk “to his thinking hill,” where “sometimes he daydreams” or “hums quietly and plays with words…making them into poems.” Yes, Leonard is a poet – and that turns out to be what he has in common with Marianne when she shows up one day. Soon the two are spending lots of time together, talking and playing and going for walks and reading poetry books (Leonard’s carries the title of the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken). But then the fierce lions show up and demand that Leonard be fierce, too – which he does not want to be. So he and Marianne think long and hard about what to do and how to communicate their feelings – and eventually come up with a jointly written poem whose core lines are, “Let nobody say/ just one way is true./ There are so many ways/ that you can be you.” And this statement of (and plea for) tolerance turns out to be magical, immediately leaving the three fierce lions looking open-eyed and thoughtful; one is already staring happily and decidedly un-fiercely at two butterflies flying by. So everything is sweetness and light, poetry is triumphant, and the message that all ways of and approaches to life are equally good is communicated with gentle finality. If only real life were as simple as this! But of course Vere wants it to be this simple, and hopes that by presenting this material so adorably (the drawings are real charmers), he will inspire young readers to be themselves in any way they choose – and to let other people be themselves, too. The flaw, of course, is that readers who are human versions of the initially fierce lions are not likely to read this book or, if they do, are not likely to be convinced by it. But tolerance has to start somewhere, and if Vere can get it started with a few very young children through this good-natured and delicate little fable, then who knows what will happen as those children grow and interact with the fierce beings they are sure to encounter?