December 06, 2018

(++++) THEMES AND VARIATIONS


The Prince Problem. By Vivian Vande Velde. Scholastic. $16.99.

Bird & Squirrel #5: All Tangled Up. By James Burks. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.

     Some authors hit their stride and never leave it – or need to leave it. They find something they do well and, by virtue of doing it slightly differently time and time again, create an ongoing (and sometimes nearly unending) series of books that can capture readers at any point and keep them interested and entertained. Vivian Vande Velde manages to do this without actually producing “sequence” books. She simply returns, time and again, to fairy-tale tropes, twisting them just enough to keep them amusing and interesting for young readers while retaining enough of their original structure to imply (rather than state) that the background of all her books is essentially the same. This is all formulaic in a sense, but it does not feel formulaic, because Vande Velde rings just enough changes on the modified-fairy-tale formula each time to keep things both light and interesting. Vande Velde’s latest version of this approach, The Prince Problem, is frothy and fun and silly and overdone and thoroughly enjoyable, which is a pretty good set of adjectives to describe her work in general. The title is very slightly misleading, since there are actually two “prince problems” here, although if read as “the problem involving the ‘prince’ issue in general,” the title makes perfect sense. The primary prince here is named Telmund and is the typical youngest-son-with-great-potential – or wishes he could be. Unfortunately, he is merely the fourth of fifth children of the local king and queen, who inconveniently had a fifth child seven years after Telmund’s birth – leaving Telmund, at age 13, as little more than a glorified babysitter, unceasingly reading fairy tales in the hope of someday finding a way to be heroic. The princess here – of course there is one in a nearby kingdom – is intelligent, studious, determined Amelia, whose naïve fairy-tale-like parents very much want her to select a prince, any prince, to whom she can be betrothed, to protect their kingdom from being allied against their will with the odious Prince Sheridan, who covets their land because every Vande Velde story needs a dyed-in-the-wool bad guy. So Sheridan is one “prince problem” and Telmund, it turns out, is another, because while babysitting youngest brother Wilmar, who is making a major mess of the peasants’ and tradespeople’s goods at an open-air market, Telmund attracts the unwanted attention of a nearby witch. She thinks he is bullying Wilmar and decides to teach him a lesson. Knowing how such things go and unable to dissuade her, Telmund begs not to become a frog, so the witch gets clever (that is, Vande Velde gets clever) and Telmund is bespelled to become a different animal every other time he falls asleep. Thus, he sleeps and becomes a rat; sleeps and becomes himself; sleeps and becomes a rabbit; and so on. This is the sort of clever twist on fairy tales that makes Vande Velde’s books fun despite their underlying familiarity of plot. Will Amelia escape the depredations of Prince Sheridan? Will Telmund find a way to be the hero he wants to be, or at least a hero of some sort, and eventually throw off the transformation spell? Of course, the answer to both questions is “yes,” but the way Vande Velde merges the characters’ stories is what makes for the enjoyment here, along with wondering what sort of animal Telmund will change into next time. The humor can even be sly, as when Telmund awakens with feathers and thinks things are not so bad, since he can fly and explore things and help Amelia, who by this point he has decided to rescue after Prince Sheridan has her kidnapped – only to discover that he is a mere rooster and can barely get off the ground. The inevitable happy ending and friendship of Telmund and Amelia – which may grow into something more, even though she is two years older than he – detracts not a whit from the pleasure of watching that friendship develop despite numerous stumbles and pitfalls.

     James Burks takes a more-standard approach to creating variations on a theme in his Bird & Squirrel graphic novels: the books form an actual sequence rather than standing on their own. Of course, it is quite possible to read them independently, but anyone who does will miss out on some of the back story that is taken for granted in each new volume. The fifth of the books, Bird & Squirrel All Tangled Up, makes the characters’ personalities clear at the start, with happy-go-lucky Bird flying in loops while cautious and nervous Squirrel is having nightmares about protecting his daughter, Birdie (whose mom, Red, has gone off to help Grandmole; how Squirrel and Red got together is part of the back story that readers can only get if they read the previous book, On Fire). Squirrel is such a stick-in-the-mud that Birdie pleads to go with Red instead of staying home and being bored. But of course when Bird comes to visit, things get more interesting: Bird says it is a good day to go hunting Bigfeet (not “Bigfoot,” because “they have two feet, not one,” as Bird explains). Squirrel points out that Bigfeet do not exist, but is eventually roped into going along on the outing that Bird and Birdie want so much. The adventures here are generally quite mild – this is a graphic novel for readers just old enough to be interested in graphic novels – as Squirrel gradually loosens up and starts to enjoy things. Then, of course, something goes wrong, through an encounter with a gigantic spider – and it is Squirrel, with Birdie’s help, who saves the day after Bird’s adventurous nature leads to more problems than solutions. Birdie, after at one point saying she would rather have Bird as a dad than Squirrel, comes around to realizing that Squirrel is a better father. “I’m much better at being the fun uncle,” Bird says, accurately. And Squirrel tells Birdie, “I wasn’t doing you any favors by trying to protect you from everything.” Lessons learned and fun experienced, the three characters head back to Squirrel’s home for the return of Red and a cameo appearance by, yes, Bigfeet (or Bigfoot). The family-focused themes and the importance of balancing caution and adventure appear in all the Bird & Squirrel books, with Burks varying them enough to keep things interesting even while building each of the graphic novels on the same foundation of personality contrast between Bird and Squirrel. It is a formula, yes, but a winning one, with just enough variety to keep all the books enjoyable.

(+++) TEEN TIME (AGAIN)


A New Theory of Teenagers: Seven Transformational Strategies to Empower You and Your Teen. By Christa M. Santangelo, Ph.D. Seal Press. $14.99.

     Teenagers are essentially two-year-olds a decade or so later, requiring parents to allow them the same sort of exploration they were allowed around age two while the parents practice meditation to calm themselves, keeping a small part of their brain in “aware” mode to be sure teens’ wide-ranging search does not result in significant harm. That is essentially the “new theory” of California clinical psychologist Christa M. Santangelo, which is not really a very new theory at all. Santangelo herself knows this: A New Theory of Teenagers has more footnotes than typical books for general readership, as Santangelo is at pains to show how her ideas incorporate and build upon those of many others.

     Parents, understandably, will be most interested in what those ideas are and how exactly they work in practice. The “what” element is handled by Santangelo by dividing the book into seven “transformative strategy” chapters whose New Age-y titles are not, unfortunately, particularly helpful: “Endure Emotions,” “Enlarge the Lens,” “Don’t Grasp—Let Go,” Discover Profound Purpose,” “Contemplate Infinite Possibility,” “Heal Thyself,” and “Go Within.” Santangelo’s emphasis is on seeing conflict as a growth opportunity: the unending difficulties that are common between parents and teens, she argues, are the method by which teenagers form themselves into adults, and the job of parents is to accept the inevitability of those conflicts while being available when necessary to prevent or mitigate actual harm.

     This sounds good, but as in so many prescriptions and proscriptions, the devil is in the details. Santangelo has what is essentially a one-size-fits-all approach to the frustration, anger, unhappiness and trauma that parents sooften feel from teens’ words and actions: meditate. A very Californian approach to difficulty, meditation is scarcely the panacea that Santangelo thinks it is, but her emphasis on it is quite strong. Again and again, A New Theory of Teenagers comes back to it: “Even if you don’t believe in a higher power, I urge you to give this exercise a chance. …This is the home of your soul. There is no fear here – only peace. I want you to imagine that a Spirit is now in your midst. You feel the profound love of this Spirit. …Let the love of this Spirit touch you. It reaches your fear, your sadness, your sense of separation.”

     Those who find this guided approach and this style of writing congenial are the natural audience for Santangelo’s book. Others will find it superficial at best – doubly so because Santangelo is remiss in not showing exactly how her recommendations have actually worked in her clinical practice or could be expected to work in readers’ everyday, real-world life. For example, one of her many stories is about a woman she calls Lisa, who “drew the line at tattoos” because she was “the daughter of Holocaust survivors who were tattooed as part of the extermination process.” Lisa’s 17-year-old son “got a large image of his dog, face in a menacing growl, across his shoulder.” Santangelo says the tattoo “stood for his deep bond with his dog” and that “Lisa’s relationship to her family’s past was keeping her from being able to step back and let go appropriately.” Really? Santangelo apparently believes that one of the most horrific occurrences of modern times, which directly affected this family, should be downplayed for the sake of a teen’s “deep bond with his dog.” Or does she believe this? She states directly, “To be clear, I was not counseling Lisa to ‘accept the tattoo.’ Parents set the moral and behavioral directives.” But Santangelo never says what she did counsel Lisa to do, how she did recommend moral and behavioral directives be set, how she did help Lisa and her son reach across the abyss of the son’s tattoo. Again and again, Santangelo’s book frustrates in this manner: it lapses into generalities and platitudes when parents who pick it up are quite likely and quite rightly going to want specifics of what works, and what has worked in Santangelo’s experience. Saying that parents “need to allow your teen the space to become themselves [sic]” is simply not enough.

     What is irritating in A New Theory of Teenagers is this repeated contrast between statements that are well-considered and practical applications that are missing. “I have found that the first step toward learning how to let go while also guiding and staying connected to your teen is to know your fears.” That makes sense, as does the partial list of typical parental fears that Santangelo supplies. But it fits poorly with a statement such as, “Teens use minor, not harmful, moments of deception to create distance and their own space as a developmentally appropriate movement away from parents.” But a great many deceptions are far from “minor” and “not harmful,” and they are the ones with which parents need more help than to be told, “When you learn to accept and embrace painful feelings, then true transformation can occur.”

     The sixth of Santangelo’s chapters, “Heal Thyself,” is in many ways the core of this book. Here she urges “inviting the inner child to take form and speak” as “a handy tool to go back in time and talk about this place that often doesn’t get articulated but rather is repressed, denied, or acted out – often with your teen.” This is a valid psychoanalytic approach, but one that is virtually impossible to do without considerable therapeutic guidance. A glib statement that “this isn’t easy work” and another, a couple of pages later, saying that this “is slow, painstaking, yet ultimately deeply rewarding work” are ultimately valueless to readers of the book except insofar as they suggest that parents of teens – perhaps all parents of teens – need psychological therapy in order to help themselves and their children through the teenage years. Santangelo never says that outright, but that would indeed be a new theory, one going well beyond the facile notion of self-analysis mixed with meditation that is supposed to help parents cope with the extreme (scarcely minor) behaviors and activities of their teenaged children.

(+++) FROM GRIM AND GLOOMY TO GRAND AND GLORIOUS


Bound Gods #3: The Shattered Sun. By Rachel Dunne. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

Star Carrier, Book Eight: Bright Light. By Ian Douglas. Harper Voyager. $7.99.

     As Rachel Dunne’s dour, dismal Bound Gods fantasy trilogy moves to its conclusion and Ian Douglas’ SF trilogy-of-trilogies moves to its penultimate adventure, both authors stay true to the worlds and universes they have created and the characters and motivations that have moved the plots of these sequences – for better or worse. Dunne’s action-packed, often gruesome 500-page The Shattered Sun features the same unpleasant characters as In the Shadow of the Gods and The Bones of the Earth, the two prior novels, and forces readers to accept the notion that the less-awful characters are on the better of the two bad sides. Dunne’s interpretation of dark fantasy is very dark indeed, making it unusually suitable that the plot of The Shattered Sun involves the “Long Night,” a time of unending darkness ushered in by the evil Twins, long-imprisoned gods who – at the end of the previous book – returned to a measure of power by taking over the bodies of human twins. Twinning is crucial to the entire Bound Gods trilogy, explaining why infant twins have long been slaughtered without mercy (because they might eventually become vessels for the evil gods) and why two of the less-bad characters have long been in hiding under a cloud of desperation (because they are twins who have managed to grow up). The first two books of the trilogy involved attempts to revive – or prevent the revival of – the fallen gods Fratarro (obviously and rather strangely named from Latin frater, brother) and Sororra (soror, sister, with one twin god’s name having an “o” ending and one having an “a” for gender differentiation: the use of vaguely Latin names in a world that is supposed to be utterly unlike ours is a peculiarity of this trilogy). With the Twins’ re-emergence into what appears to be full power at the end of the second book, the third must involve a grand battle to defeat them, lest the world be plunged into the never-ending darkness that is the Twins’ preferred form of existence. Why? Well, Dunne never really says: the Twins’ sole motivation is to get back at their unseen “parent” gods, “father” Patharro and “mother” Metherra (again from Latin: pater and mater plus the respective “o” and “a” endings). Dunne distracts from the frivolity of the underlying motivation by focusing again and again on the depredations of the Twins and their followers on many characters, themselves included (some especially powerful Twins backers pierce their own eyes so they can share the darkness for which the Twins stand). The problem with The Shattered Sun and the whole Bound Gods trilogy is that the Twins’ opponents are just as brain-damaged and body-ruined as are their supporters. The antiheroic leader of the opposition, a former priest of the Twins named Joros, is a really nasty, vicious and duplicitous piece of work, and the people who follow him – all more or less unwillingly – are not much better, being deeply damaged in brain, body or both. The drug-addicted, mind-addled sorcerer Anddyr is one of the more-coherent and more-sympathetic characters, in contrast to now-grown sewer rat Rora, a supposedly first-rate fighter who, earlier in the trilogy, returns to her former haunts – where her “family” members mutilate her and nearly beat her to death in a very explicit way, resulting in her decision in The Shattered Sun to return to the same people again and yet again be nearly beaten to death in a very explicit way that also results in several of her companions being imprisoned and tortured. Add Scal, a mass murderer who silently stalks and kills pretty much anyone at pretty much any time, at the command of a deeply scarred and even more deeply vicious woman named Vatri, who is the self-proclaimed seer of the “parent” gods, and you have a pretty accurate picture of the “good” characters here. Eventually, since it is better for the sun to exist than to have the world plunged forever into night, the more-or-less-good guys win out over the less-or-more-bad ones, and Dunne produces a very slightly positive conclusion after suitably grand and gory battles, betrayals and general mayhem. Dunne actually writes well, but the Bound Gods trilogy is so downbeat and depressing that readers who have ground their way through it and who prefer anything other than the very darkest of dark fantasy will likely feel mostly relief when the whole thing lurches to its essentially foregone conclusion.

     There is also a certain amount of lurching going on in the Star Carrier thrice-trilogy as the eighth of the nine books arrives. Ian Douglas (one of the pen names of William H. Keith, Jr.) has been stringing plots and readers along for many, many pages with this interstellar/military/consciousness/religion/multiple-alien-encounters tale, in which humanity triumphs again and again when confronted with a growing series of supposedly superior races and technologies (the latter including its own AI and super-AI creations). Underlying the particular form of humanity that Douglas creates here is a series of religious wars that led to a decree called the White Covenant, under which public displays of religion were banned, as was proselytizing. Religious or pseudo-religious elements continue to peek and poke their way into Star Carrier, though, being intertwined with the whole notion of a higher consciousness, evolution, species that have developed along lines entirely different from that of humanity, and other typical (and typically overdone) SF tropes. At the center of the multiple plot lines is Trevor “Sandy” Gray, a longtime military leader and apparently a closet Christian (in the seventh book, Dark Mind, he mentally objects, at some length, to the celebration of the winter solstice rather than Christmas). Gray both depends on machine intelligence (as do pretty much all the characters here) and is skeptical of it and worried that it could endanger humanity; this is nothing unusual in SF or, for that matter, in real-world news stories. In Dark Mind, Gray took on a mission from a super-AI called Konstantin to investigate a star system that might have a super-advanced alien race that might help humanity fight a race of sentient bacteria that controls a wide variety of alien species. To investigate this system, Gray had to disobey orders from his superiors, a major no-no in military circles, but Gray did so because he is heroic and upstanding and an all-around good guy. The result was that Gray’s command of his starship – the America, no less – was taken away, and he has been left without the organizational, hierarchical moorings of his longtime military service. This, it turns out, is exactly what Konstantin (at least the Konstantin clone aboard the America) wanted, because without a starship to command, Gray can be sent in Bright Light on a mission to the remote star Deneb, where Konstantin will arrange for him to encounter yet another mysterious and immensely powerful alien civilization that may be able to prevent humanity from being wiped out again. Umm, no, that may again prevent humanity from being wiped out. Something like that. Anyway, the title Bright Light refers to an all-new artificial intelligence, although how far superior it can be to the virtually all-knowing (or at least all-manipulating) Konstantin is hard to determine. It is scarcely surprising that a series as extended as this one is packed with characters and plot lines, but Star Carrier at this point seems overextended and a trifle tired. Planet-sized brains not enough of an enemy for humans? How about minuscule bacteria? That sort of thing: Douglas seems to be reaching for greater and greater complexity and complication at the service of what is, foundationally, a rather simple premise under which superior alien races nearly destroy humanity repeatedly but are beaten back because humans, gosh darn it, just have so much pluck and such willingness to risk everything by doing stuff they don’t fully understand but that, by golly, actually works. It is a kind of country-bumpkin view of humanity, and it leaves Gray and the other Star Carrier characters seeming something less than vibrant, never mind intelligent. Still, readers who have stuck with the series so far will find Bright Light a solid advancement of the whole Star Carrier sequence and will surely be looking ahead to the coming final book. For that matter, readers who dipped into the series early – its first few books were its best – will also look forward to the coming last entry, if only because Douglas, who is nothing if not an adept writer, is likely to use it to provide a suitably uplifting finale.

(++++) WITH STRINGS ATTACHED


Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Rückert-Lieder; Kindertotenlieder. Kindra Scharich, mezzo-soprano; Alexander String Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violins; Paul Yarbrough, viola; Sandy Wilson, cello). Foghorn Classics. $16.99.

Brahms: Hungarian Dances. Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker, violin; Fabio Bidini, piano. Delos. $16.99.

     The idea of re-scoring Mahler for chamber forces is neither new nor entirely out of character for the composer’s music. In the 1920s, Mahler’s works were among those performed under the auspices of Arnold Schoenberg and other members of the Second Viennese School at their Society for Private Musical Performances, whose concept was to present large-scale modern works by both well-known and little-known composers, played by first-rate musicians – but only 12 to 20 of them, using arrangements made by Schoenberg himself or by members of his circle. The reason this works rather surprisingly well for Mahler is that, for all his demands for gigantic orchestral forces, Mahler very often used the instruments in chamber-music fashion: he needed a great number of them to allow the production of a wide variety of sonic combinations, not (or at least not always) to produce a sheer mass of weighty sound. Thus, the Foghorn Classics  release of string-quartet arrangements of three Mahler song cycles by Zakarias Grafilo, first violinist of the Alexander String Quartet, deserves to be seen (and heard) as a way to elucidate some of the music’s emotional and structural impact – employing forces different from those Mahler chose and therefore able to communicate in their own distinct way. There are, however, some pitfalls in arranging these particular cycles for string quartet, because of Mahler’s acknowledged brilliance in orchestration. In particular, one of the five Rückert-Lieder is scored by Mahler for no strings at all: Um Mitternacht calls only for woodwinds, brass, timpani, harp and piano. So transforming it into a work that is only for strings is, at the very least, a bold undertaking. Furthermore, one of the Kindertotenlieder – the midpoint of the five-song cycle, Wenn dein Mütterlein – uses no violins, making half of a string quartet potentially intrusive into the mood. This song too emphasizes woodwinds, although it does include some string parts. Grafilo’s sensitivity to Mahler actually comes through particularly well in this very piece, where he gives the extended English-horn solo to the viola, whose tone fits the material to fine effect. The reality is that all these quartet adaptations can and perhaps should be regarded as experiments in sonority and emotional communication, and if they are not entirely Mahlerian in the former of those ways, they are highly effective in the latter. Much credit for their expressive impact goes to mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, who is equally adept with the lilt of parts of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (usually sung by a male voice, in accordance with the texts, but aptly fitting a middle-range female voice); the quiet anguish of most of Kindertotenlieder; and the explosive beginning and middle of the latter cycle’s final song, In diesem Wetter. Scharich feels as well as sings the music, and varies her delivery of the texts to mostly excellent effect.  Only the Rückert-Lieder fall a bit short: Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen are both rather too matter-of-fact – particularly surprisingly in the case of the latter song, given Scharich’s sensitivity to that song’s emotions as expressed elsewhere. Most of the singing and emotion here, though, are first-rate, and the Alexander String Quartet is excellent throughout, supporting Scharich when called for, interacting with her when the music so requires, and providing contrast to her vocalizing when that is appropriate. Grafilo’s arrangements almost always lie well on the instruments (no small feat), and while listeners familiar with these song cycles will surely miss some of the many elegant and piquant touches that Mahler brought to them, anyone who loves and appreciates the music should easily hear the respect reflected both in the instrumentation here and in the singing. Certainly this is not the version of these song cycles to own, but certainly it is a version that is very much worth having.

     The violin-and-piano arrangements of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances have a much earlier provenance than Grafilo’s quartet arrangement of Mahler songs: the Brahms works were arranged during Brahms’ own lifetime, and very much with his approval, by violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim – in 1871 and 1880. Joachim was the great violinistic influence on Brahms, responsible for inspiring both Brahms’ Violin Concerto and his Double Concerto, and Joachim’s handling of the Hungarian Dances is a particularly happy melding of form with virtuosic function. This version of the 21 dances is very much a violinist’s dream (and, to some technical extent, nightmare): the piano is relegated to an almost wholly subsidiary role by Joachim (something Brahms, himself a fine pianist, would not likely have done). Yet without the piano providing the harmonic and rhythmic foundation of the dances, the violin would be unable to soar to the heights that Joachim wants – and what heights they are! Listening to Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker’s performance on a new Delos CD is a tremendously involving and exhilarating experience, likely to make anyone familiar with this music wonder why Joachim’s transcription is not heard more often. Part of the reason surely involves the diminution of the piano part – although Fabio Bidini scarcely seems to see himself in a lesser role, throwing himself into the music in full-partnership mode. It may be that this version of the Hungarian Dances simply requires so much abandonment, such intensity of expression in old-fashioned Romany (Gypsy) mode, that only a violinist capable of merging over-the-top musical emoting with impeccable technique can bring the work off with genuine élan. Höpcker is an ideal exponent of the material: she is never dismissive of its folk-music and popular elements (most of the dances were probably Brahms’ arrangements of tunes he had heard rather than ones he himself composed), but neither does she try to make the dances overly serious or, heaven forfend, somber. The Hungarian Dances are almost, in their way, proto-film music, overdone both in their emotional evocation (which is melodramatic rather than dramatic) and in their celebratory vivacity. The best-known dances, such as Nos. 1 and 5, sound fresh and new in the hands of Höpcker and Bidini, while the less-known ones come into their own both as individual pieces and in the overall context of the set of 21. Surely every classical-music lover needs to have these dances in both their orchestral and piano-four-hands versions, and surely they are already a staple of many people’s collections. But this wonderful recording of a version that is just as valid as Brahms’ own comes close to being a must-have for anyone who loves this music: relatively few people will have heard the Hungarian Dances this way before, which means few will realize just how much they have been missing by not knowing what Joachim put into the material and what Höpcker has now extracted from it.

November 29, 2018

(++++) WHEN 9 TO 5 SEEMS LIKE FOREVER


Cubicles That Make You Envy the Dead: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     What exactly keeps the newspaper business going these days can be rather hard to fathom, but part of the answer must be, “the comics pages.” These collections of daily bits of amusement and/or visual commentary and/or drama help balance the generalized awfulness found pretty much everywhere else in the traditional newspaper. And although it is certainly possible to read most newspaper comics online – and to read some comics that are actually created online, for Internet-only dissemination – the comic-strip medium originated in print and still seems to fit most comfortably there. To be sure, the reduction in comics’ printed size in recent years has made life extremely difficult for artists whose work shows painstaking detail, and the long tradition of four-panel daily strips has given way in many cases to three-panel ones to allow a smidgen of additional space per panel. Yet some strips have emerged that thrive under these far-less-than-ideal circumstances, and Scott Adams’ Dilbert, which appears in a remarkable 2,000 newspapers worldwide as well as online, is a kind of poster child for modern-strip success.

     Adams has drawn Dilbert for almost 30 years and, it can be argued, scarcely draws it better now than he did when he started the strip in 1989. But the quality of the art did not matter in the 1980s and matters very little now. The strip’s backgrounds may be blank most of the time and barely sketched the rest of the time, the characters’ poses may often be virtually identical from panel to panel, and the characters’ facial expressions may range from simple to nonexistent, but that too does not matter – because the strip, not long after its inception, found a perfect focus for Adams’ abilities: the workplace, specifically the Kafkaesque large-corporate workplace. It does not matter that Dilbert has no mouth (except in occasional times of more-extreme-than-usual stress) and that his eyes are invisible behind glasses, because his very facelessness reflects his role as a smart but soul-crushed member of the unappreciated workforce. It does not matter that Wally’s mouth usually consists of pursed lips and that he too has eyes invisible behind glasses, because he represents another common corporate type: the competent but useless employee whose main skill is work avoidance and who keeps his job because firing him would reduce the empire of his boss. And it does not matter that that boss, although he does have visible eyes and mouth, has no name and sports two tufts of hair that look suspiciously like devil’s horns – because a nameless boss just seems to go with faceless characters, and the boss does in fact bedevil his subordinates in a wide variety of soul-stealing ways (and, as longtime readers know, is in fact the brother of a sort-of-actual devil known as Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light).

     The consistency with which these typecast characters stand up to scrutiny is shown anew with every Dilbert collection, including Cubicles That Make You Envy the Dead, the 46th numbered volume. Much of the genuinely wry commentary on office life and the world that encourages it comes at Dilbert rather than from him. Dogbert, Dilbert’s dog (who also has no mouth and eyes hidden behind glasses), is a frequent source, as when Dilbert is falsely accused of lying at work and Dogbert tells him, “I know you aren’t a liar” – which makes Dilbert feel better until Dogbert adds, “I see you as more of an idiot.” Short-time or infrequently seen characters also become commentary repositories, as when a new company app has “triggered a zombie apocalypse” by being so addictive – and when tested on Zimbu the monkey, leads Zimbu to say that he gets “a strong dopamine hit every time I click on it. Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” (Parallels to social-media apps are very much intentional.)  And at one point in the latest collection, the boss hires “a story-telling mothman,” who really does have an insect body, complete with wings and with antennae that look suspiciously like boss-style horns. The boss explains that the mothman “identifies the employees with the greatest workloads and wastes their time telling long stories,” and when Dilbert protests that the firm does not need a story-telling mothman, the boss asks, unarguably if you have any familiarity with big-company workforces, “Then why does every company have one?”

     And that is what has kept Dilbert in the front rank of comic strips for so many years: not the art, which is “suboptimal,” as Dilbert would (and sometimes does) say, but the way Adams taps into corporate culture day after day, creating characters who (objectively) cannot possibly exist in terms of appearance but who (also objectively) do exist in terms of how they think and what they do. Whether big-corporate life has gotten better since Dilbert started is purely a matter of opinion. What is a matter of certainty is that it has not gotten sufficiently better to stop Adams from continuing to mine what appears to be an unending lode (or load) of soul-crushing mediocrity and everyday dehumanizing behavior that is somehow just shy of preventing all productive work from stopping altogether.

(+++) VISUALIZE IT!


Insta Graphics: A Visual Guide to Your Universe. By Dan Green. Scholastic. $9.99.

What if You Had T. rex Teeth!? And Other Dinosaur Parts. By Sandra Markle. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.

     The place of the written word in our highly visual age is increasingly difficult to determine. One approach to preserving writing while accepting the apparently unending fascination with visuals is to create books in which the words are adjuncts to pictures – even when it is the words, not the pictures, that contain virtually all the information. That is Dan Green’s approach in Insta Graphics: A Visual Guide to Your Universe, whose title doubly emphasizes what people will see (“visual” and “graphics”) but whose actual content, much of it quite fascinating, lies in the verbiage that the title downplays to the point of omission. This is a six-section, visually striking book that, despite the title, is scarcely universal in any sense: it is a compendium of miscellaneous facts, a kind of “trivial pursuit” of reality, a book whose many pleasures of discovery are almost incidental to the way the highly visual, photographically rich pages look. This is not a “reference book” in any traditional sense, since the facts it presents are random, organized only in very general terms in sections called “Wacky World,” “To the Max,” “Super Senses,” “Pig Out,” “Supertech,” and “Dangerous and Deadly.” Nevertheless, many of the facts here are fascinating. Young readers may already know that the vast majority of Earth’s surface is covered by liquid water (71%), but are unlikely to be aware that temperature rises one degree Fahrenheit for every 70 feet of depth inside our planet. The fact that Everest is the world’s highest mountain is well-known, but the fact that the highest mountain in Europe is Elbrus is much less familiar. Readers aware that the blue whale is the largest animal on Earth, and indeed believed to be the largest animal that has ever lived, may not know that the strongest creature on the planet is the horned dung beetle, which can lift 1,141 times its own body weight. This is the way the entire book proceeds, mixing comparatively familiar information with decidedly abstruse facts. For example, the male silkworm moth can pick up the scent of a female a mile away; a mollusk called the West Indian fuzzy chiton has eye lenses made of limestone; muscles represent 31.56% of a human’s body weight, skin 7.81%, and the digestive tract 2.07%; worker bees travel the equivalent of two to three times around the world for each pound of honey they make; what is believed to have been the largest volcanic eruption of all time occurred under what is now Yellowstone Park; the most toxic natural substance is botulinum, made by bacteria – and used in Botox injections. There is a great deal more than this in Insta Graphics, with those pages that do not have bright and prominent photos having bright and prominent geometric shapes within which the information is presented in very short paragraphs. In one sense, the book represents a capitulation of words to pictures: certainly its basic appearance is a strongly visual one. In another sense, though, it represents a well-meaning attempt to continue to present and transmit information to young readers at a time when screens, smartphones and such have become their dominant method of perceiving and interacting with the world.

     There is also a strongly visual element to the long-running What if You Had… series by Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam. Here too there is interesting information accompanying the visuals that dominate the individual pages and the overall appearance of the books. The main attraction of these volumes, though, is not what they explain but how McWilliam creates fascinating and often bizarre hybrid creatures by visually attaching animal parts to children. The bizarre element is especially strong in the latest series entry, which also has the most-complicated title to date. All the earlier books refer to an animal something-or-other (feet, ears, nose, tail, etc.); ask What if You Had… the body part; and follow the question with both an exclamation point and a question mark. This time, though, the word “animal” is missing from the title, and the book does not simply substitute “dinosaur” to create What if You Had Dinosaur Parts!? Instead, apparently going for grossness, the title focuses on the always-reliable attraction of Tyrannosaurus rex, shows a huge-toothed hybrid boy-dinosaur with wide-open mouth on the cover, and throws in the after-title phrase And Other Dinosaur Parts to indicate that this is not simply a tooth or T. rex book. The whole thing is a bit awkward, and so is the book itself. A lot of the fun of these books involves showing how the possession of animals’ parts would simplify (or at least change) everyday childhood activities, but the mixture does not work here as well as in earlier volumes. For instance, one entry is about the vicious Velociraptor and the frightening sharp toes and serrated teeth it used to catch and devour prey – that is the informational part of the entry. On the facing page, the notion of a girl using those “sickle-tipped toes” for the innocent and mundane purpose of opening birthday presents seems just a bit too far over-the-top. Similarly, a page on the head crest of Parasaurolophus, apparently used to amplify sounds so they could be heard at long distances, is informationally interesting; but the facing page, suggesting that such a crest would somehow help a girl “lead the school marching band,” is weak. The hybrid drawings are even odder here than in earlier series entries, and the factual material is presented as simply and straightforwardly as always – and both those elements of the book are pluses. But the imaginary way that dinosaur parts would enhance children’s daily lives today are just not as interesting as are the imagined uses of animal eyes, ears, tails and so forth in other books from this series. Still, kids who have enjoyed earlier Markle/McWilliam creations will find things somewhat amusing as well as somewhat informative here. And certainly the book provides further evidence, if any is needed, about the emphasis on strictly visual elements in books that try to interest today’s young readers in the material that is contained in the words.

(++++) COMPOSERS IN DEVELOPMENT


Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Funeral Song; Jeu de Cartes; Concerto in D “Basel”; Agon. Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg conducted by Gustavo Gimeno. PentaTone. $33.99 (2 SACDs).

Haydn: Symphony Nos. 49 (“La Passione”) and 87; Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364. Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers; Aisslinn Nosky, violin; Max Mandel, viola. CORO. $18.99.

Franz Schreker: Vorspiel zu einem Drama; The Birthday of the Infanta—Suite; Romantische Suite. Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.

     The style of composers inevitably changes over time in accordance with the changes in their lives, reputations, expectations, and interests in taking their music in new directions. But these changes can be either subtle or substantial. Two composers for whom they were substantial were Stravinsky and Haydn: Stravinsky’s style changed so much over his career that there almost seem to be multiple Stravinskys, while Haydn’s developed so substantially that he became a bridge from the Baroque era to the edge of the Romantic. Occasionally, a recording will explicitly or implicitly show just how extensive a composer’s progress (or at least change) turned out to be. That is the case with an excellent new two-SACD PentaTone Stravinsky recording featuring the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg conducted by Gustavo Gimeno. Stravinsky lived to be nearly 89 (from 1882 to 1971) and had a remarkable 70-year career, during which he absorbed and worked within styles and techniques ranging from 19th-century Russian nationalism (learned from his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov) to neoclassicism (with which Stravinsky is especially closely identified) to serialism (to which Stravinsky came late in life, handling it in his own distinct way). Bits of several Stravinskys are in evidence under Gimeno’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic direction. The earliest work here, Funeral Song, is not only redolent of Rimsky-Korsakov but is also a tribute to him: it was composed after the older composer’s death in 1908 and first played in January 1909. It was then lost for a century, eventually rediscovered, and first played in modern times as recently as 2016. An attractive work that gives instrument after instrument its chance to pay its respects to Rimsky-Korsakov, Funeral Song is a piece that in no way presages The Rite of Spring, written in 1911-12 and given its still-notorious first performance in 1913. Gimeno gives the primitivism and rhythmic vitality of this piece its full due while never losing sight of its origin as a ballet: this is a danceable version of The Rite of Spring as well as one that works nicely as a concert presentation. Stravinsky’s neoclassicism actually has its roots prior to The Rite of Spring, in Petrushka (1911), but he developed it fully only in later years, and certainly it is abundantly clear in Jeu de Cartes (1937). The balletic elements remain in the forefront in this reading – creation of ballets is one thing Stravinsky did throughout his compositional life – but the sparer scoring and greater transparency of orchestral parts clearly show Jeu de Cartes to date from one of the later Stravinsky styles. A decade after the ballet, Stravinsky remained in largely neoclassical mode with his Concerto in D “Basel” (1946). Although created as a concerto for string orchestra, the short (12-minute) work has elements of divertimento about it, along with overall neoclassical poise and a kind of rhythmic accentuation that stayed with Stravinsky throughout his oeuvre. Matters certainly did change in some ways, though, by the time of Agon (1957, but begin as early as 1953). Yes, it is a ballet, and it includes Stravinsky’s first use of strict twelve-tone technique, but it combines the nod to Schoenberg with a look back many centuries, to dances such as the Saraband and Gaillarde, managing to cram 16 separate sections into less than 22 minutes – a Webernesque miniaturization process, and in fact some of the use of thematic fragmentation is actually reminiscent of Webern. The performances of all five works in this release are very well done, thoughtfully presented and stylishly played, and the two discs, taken together, create a fascinating portrait of quite a few of Stravinsky’s multifaceted compositional approaches.

     The latest recording of Haydn symphonies by the splendid Handel and Haydn Society period orchestra is also, in its own way, a portrait of the development of Haydn’s style, even though it contains only two works by Haydn. The contrasts between the Symphonies Nos. 49 and 87 are, however, so many, that this CORO disc becomes a fascinating exploration-in-miniature of the way Haydn’s style changed over time. Separated by some 20 years, the two symphonies are worlds apart in approach and effects. No. 49 is so emphatically in F minor that all four movements are in the home key, with just a flicker of major-key writing in the third movement’s trio. It is the last Haydn symphony written in Sonata da chiesa style, with the slow movement placed first instead of second. It is a deeply serious work, called “La Passione” even in Haydn’s lifetime (although not so named by the composer), possibly first performed at a church service where Christ’s Passion was the center of attention. Wide leaps, intense expressiveness, and virtuosic demands on a small orchestra combine to make this an exceptionally moving and unusually intense symphony even within Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period, of which it is one of the very best representatives, in some ways the best. No. 87 is as different a work as can be, created for a significantly larger orchestra and written in a sunny A major. Amusingly, this recording’s booklet notes include one writer saying that this was the first-written of the six “Paris” symphonies and another stating that it was written last. What matters, though, is simply its position as one of that symphonic group, which cemented Haydn’s international reputation and brought him considerable celebratory acclaim (as well as a considerable amount of money). Harry Christophers does not vary his orchestra’s size for the two symphonies, but he handles the works with so sure a sense of sectional balance and overall style that No. 87 sounds as if a larger ensemble is playing it. And the work’s ebullience comes through with abundant clarity, along with the precision and excellence of its construction. Haydn certainly developed a great deal in the years between these two symphonies – but it is worth pointing out that each of the works is equally impressive and equally effective, albeit in a very different way. Christophers has been including Mozart violin concertos with his Haydn symphonic releases, providing an intriguing contrast between the two composers, and on this CD he presents the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, for violin and viola – a wonderful work by any estimation. Aisslinn Nosky, concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society, is joined as soloist by violist Max Mandel, with whom she has played for more than two decades – and it shows in the remarkably easy, good-natured give-and-take between the solo instruments as well as the consummate skill and sensitivity to period style of both solo players. This is an altogether lovely disc, its program seeming somewhat arbitrary on the surface but proving, on closer examination, to be exceptionally well-thought-out both in terms of giving listeners the experience of two very different Haydn symphonies and in offering some wonderful Mozart that separates the Haydn works on the CD while placing them beautifully in context from a musical standpoint.

     The context of the music of Franz Schreker (1878-1934) is quite different, and the extent to which Schreker’s style evolved over the 20-year period of the works on a new Naxos CD is debatable. Once deemed as important an opera composer as Richard Strauss, Schreker fell into obscurity even as Strauss’ reputation was cemented and soared. From the standpoint of musical development, it is easy to see why: Strauss’ style changed significantly between that of his early, famous tone poems and that of his final opera, Capriccio (1942). Yet Strauss (1864-1949) was scarcely a slavish follower of the many musical changes that occurred during his long life. Schreker, on the other hand, seems to have remained firmly with late Romanticism in terms of musical style and emotional communication – with the result that his works, although very well-constructed and often quite engaging to hear, do not really stand out stylistically from those of other composers of the era (including those of Strauss that date to the same time period). All this is hindsight, though, and a bit unfair to Schreker, whose works – thanks to the tireless devotion of JoAnn Falletta to the rediscovery of interesting, neglected repertoire – show considerable skill in orchestration and, often, a fine flair for the dramatic. “Often” is not “always”: Vorspiel zu einem Drama (1914), an expanded version of the overture to Schreker’s lurid opera Die Gezeichneten (which was not performed complete until 1918), is rather shapeless and surface-level impressionistic. However, the work is filled with beauty and lyricism that make it certainly worth hearing, and Falletta does quite a good job of holding it together with greater cogency than one might expect. The protagonist of Die Gezeichneten is hunchbacked and deformed, and Schreker evokes considerable sympathy for him in the opera, at least for a time. A similar protagonist, an ugly dwarf, lies at the heart of the pantomime The Birthday of the Infanta (1923); indeed, his death of a broken heart (when he realizes that the haughty princess does not love him and has been laughing at rather than with him) is the climax of the music and of the Oscar Wilde story on which the theatrical production is based. Here as in Vorspiel zu einem Drama, Schreker combines lush orchestration with emotionally affecting lyricism, especially in the last few pieces of the 10-movement suite. Yet there is little significant musical development between this work and the richly scored, conservatively harmonized Romantische Suite (1903): over a 20-year period, Schreker’s style solidified without changing in any significant way. Falletta makes about as good a case for these works as they are likely to receive, thanks not only to her sure-handed orchestral direction but also to the absolutely first-rate playing of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (more often listed as Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin). This is a world-class ensemble whose tonal richness and exceptional sectional balance fit Schreker’s music beautifully, giving listeners who enjoy late-Romantic music multiple opportunities to bask in Schreker’s expressive richness.

(++++) THREE, TWO, ONE


Classical String Trios, Volume 2—Music by J.C. Bach, Carlo Antonio Campioni, Haydn, Johann Ignaz Klausek, François-Joseph Gossec, Jean-Baptiste Sébastien Bréval, and Vivaldi. The Vivaldi Project (Elizabeth Field, violin; Allison Edberg Nyquist, violin and viola; Stephanie Vial, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Kaija Saariaho: Tocar; Cloud Trio; Light and Matter; Aure; Graal théâtre. Jennifer Koh, violin; Nicolas Hodges, piano; Hsin-Yun Huang, viola; Wilhelmina Smith and Anssi Karttunen, cello; Curtis 20/21 Ensemble conducted by Conner Gray Covington. Cedille. $12.

Campbell Ross: Concertante; Sonata for Solo Guitar; Variations 2 (on “Norwegian Wood”); Variations 3 (on “World without Love”); Ariel Dirié: Morning; Mesurando y Dalias; Diez Estudios; Gerardo Dirié: Si un Dia el Olvido…; Evening. Campbell Ross, guitar; Lachlan Symons, bass; James Whiting, drums and percussion; Benjamin Greaves, violin; Matthew Ryan, viola; Ngaio Toombes, cello. Ravello. $14.99 (2 CDs).

     The period-instrument string trio, The Vivaldi Project, actually includes a bit of Vivaldi on its second MSR Classics release devoted to trios of and around the Classical era. That does not make this recording better or worse than the previous one, which omitted Vivaldi: this CD is equally delightful in its exploration of hitherto almost completely unknown repertoire. For that matter, several of the composers heard on the disc are also almost completely unknown: J.C. Bach, Haydn and Vivaldi are familiar names, and works by François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) are heard every now and then, but very few listeners will likely be familiar with Carlo Antonio Campioni (1720-1788), Johann Ignaz Klausek (c. 1720-c. 1775), or Jean-Baptiste Sébastien Bréval (1753-1823). The dates of the composers are worth noting: all were contemporaries of Leopold and/or Wolfgang Mozart, and in the case of Gossec and Bréval, their lives extended as late as that of Beethoven. But the trios heard here are redolent of earlier sensibilities, being light, beautifully balanced, unchallenging to the ear, and exceptionally pleasant as a kind of 18th-century background music. Vivaldi’s Sonata da Camera, Op. 1, No. 2 is the earliest work here, dating to 1705, and uses two melody instruments plus “violone o cembalo,” as would be expected in what is essentially a Baroque form. J.C. Bach’s Sonata in G for two violins and basso dates to the late 1750s, as does Haydn’s Divertimento in D for the same instruments. The remaining four works, though, are later, and serve as testimony to the ubiquity of the string trio as a kind of occasional music for many occasions. Even when these works are in minor keys, they have at most a mild melancholy about them, a slight sense of wistfulness rather than any real depth. Campioni’s 1762 Sonata in G minor and Klausek’s 1769 Trio in B-flat minor are the two minor-key works here. The latest piece, and the one that most thoroughly engages the cello with the two higher strings, is the intriguingly titled Trio Concertant et Diologué in B-Flat, Op. 27, No. 4 by Bréval, which dates to about 1786. It is a touch unfair to think about what Haydn, Mozart, and the Mannheim composers were doing in the mid-1780s, when listening to these slight and uniformly pleasant pieces. Clearly the purpose of these trios was to serve as a kind of salon music, performed for royal households and in some cases by amateur musicians of those households. The melodies of all the works flow easily, naturally and pleasantly, the harmonies are carefully managed to intrigue the ear in easy-to-grasp ways, and the interplay among the instruments – especially the violin and viola – is managed with care and sensitivity. The Vivaldi Project, whose three members play with consummate skill throughout this disc, can spin out its rediscovery of trios of this era for quite some time if it so chooses: there are several thousand such works, most of them entirely unknown today. Additional volumes like this and the first one would be most welcome: there is nothing profound about any of these works, but in their generally simple beauty and largely uncomplicated forms, they offer some very welcome musical respite from the rigors and complexities of everyday life today – just as they did from the very different, but no doubt equally stressful, mundanities of the 18th century.

     Modern sensibilities are, of course, very different from those of centuries past, even when the matters stimulating them are similar. Thus, it is no surprise that a work such as Cloud Trio (2009) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (born 1952) manages the violin, viola and cello in thoroughly contemporary ways. Saariaho has in fact stated directly that her handling of the cello differs substantially from its use in the Classical era, with her emphasis on the instrument’s highest register and on producing sound through techniques that stretch listeners’ ears as well as performers’ fingers. The question is whether Saariaho’s approach is simply technically motivated or whether it is put at the service of enhanced audience communication, and this question will have different answers in the minds (and ears) of different listeners. Certainly the instruments in Cloud Trio shift and change sonically through all four movements, but whether in so doing they pull listeners effectively into the ongoing metamorphosis of clouds is another matter. Similar questions about intended and actual effects are raised in a trio for different instruments – violin, cello and piano – called Light and Matter, which dates to 2014 and receives its world première recording on the new Cedille CD featuring violinist Jennifer Koh. Here as in Cloud Trio, Saariaho appears concerned with changing musical textures by varying the relationship among the three players and also having them employ techniques that extend the usual sound of their instruments. Light and Matter seems somewhat more abstruse than Cloud Trio, though, and its musical connection to its title is less apparent. Also on this disc are two works in which Saariaho employs two instruments rather than three. Tocar (2010) is for violin and piano and, despite its title, gives little sense of “touching” between the instruments, their themes or their sounds. Aure (2011), whose title refers to a gentle breeze, is heard here in its first recording in a version for violin and cello – it was initially written for violin and viola – and carries rather a lot of freight for a six-minute piece. Originally written for the 95th birthday of composer Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), the piece is built around a motive by Dutilleux and draws not only on that music but also on Anne Frank’s diary, to which the Dutilleux work made reference. It is a rarefied work that is likely to be fully intelligible and emotionally communicative only to listeners who know its background and its referents. The last and longest work on the CD, an actual violin concerto, is called Graal théâtre and dates to 1994. The title is taken from a novel by Jacques Roubaud (born 1932), and the piece is filled with expressions of pain that are put forth through often-painful-to-hear contemporary compositional techniques. Its two movements, “Delicato” and “Impetuoso,” are by no means as reflective of their respective titles as a listener might expect, and the work as a whole makes its points repeatedly and seems quite unwilling to let them go no matter how often they have been emphasized. It is a difficult work both to play and to listen to. It is certainly possible to appreciate Koh’s considerable skill with the solo part, and the very fine support she receives from the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble under Conner Gray Covington, without necessarily finding the music either intellectually or emotionally particularly satisfying. This is a (+++) CD that is filled with committed performances of music that will please existing fans of Saariaho but that will not necessarily engage the thoughts or feelings or anyone unfamiliar with this composer’s techniques and her forms of expressiveness.

     Saariaho is far from the only contemporary composer for whom two or three instruments are not always enough to communicate with an audience. Guitarist Campbell Ross requires a small chamber group for Concertante, the opening work on a (+++) Ravello release offering two CDs for the price of one. The piece is for guitar, jazz trio and strings, and it is a melodious and nicely paced, if not especially original-sounding, blend of jazz, blues and classical elements, with some Latin touches thrown in as well. Ross writes quite well for his own instrument and plays it with considerable enthusiasm – indeed, the most affecting and effective parts of Concertante are those in which Ross plays solo or is well out in front of the remaining performers. The balance of the first disc in this release is for Ross alone. Sonata contains four movements that put the guitar and guitarist through a great many paces. The second and most melodious movement is designated “homage to Franz Schubert,” and while it sounds not at all like anything by the earlier composer, it has enough quiet beauty to be vaguely reminiscent of some of his work. Also on this disc are two sets of guitar-solo variations on Beatles tunes. These are homages rather than representations of what Lennon and McCartney created or variations upon it. Indeed, they come across somewhat like variations on homages, with Ross taking off from and paying tribute to the original songs, then creating improvisatory elements based on his initial spinoff. The second disc offers a series of works for guitar and percussion by Ariel Dirié (1960-2010) and Gerardo Dirié (born 1956). The most interestingly varied material here appears in A. Dirié’s Diez Estudios, which draw both on classical models (“Con Brio” sounds positively Baroque) and on Latin dance forms (two of the 10 movements are labeled “Tango”). The Dirié works are all previously unrecorded, and will be of considerable interest to guitarists as well as listeners who enjoy guitar music. The material on both CDs is largely consonant rather than dissonant, the G. Dirié pieces being exceptions; the rhythms throughout the pieces are generally clear; and the somewhat superficial feelings underlying the music are nicely brought out by Ross, who is a very fine and sensitive performer. This is a considerable amount of guitar music to digest in a single sitting: hearing it a few tracks at a time will be the best approach for anyone interested in the communicative power of a single instrument whose expressive capabilities are well-explored here.

November 21, 2018

(++++) IN SEARCH OF CUDDLES


I Need a Hug. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.

You Are My Sunshine. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.

I Love Classical Music: My First Sound Book. By Marion Billet. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $9.99.

     Aaron Blabey has a knack for creating surface-level-unlovable characters that are, just beneath the surface, entirely adorable. And that is just what he does in I Need a Hug, which actually dates originally to Australian publication in 2015 but is just delightful just about anytime. The story is a super-simple one about an exceedingly prickly porcupine with enormous eyes (a frequent trademark of Blabey’s characters). As the book’s title says, all the porcupine wants is to be hugged. So he asks all his friends, or apparent friends. He tells a rabbit named Lou that he needs a hug, but Lou flees “those spikes” and tells the porcupine, “Get away from me! Shoo!” He asks a deer (or is it a moose?) named Ken to cuddle him, but Ken runs off as quickly as possible to get away from “that prickly thing.” He asks a bear named Joe – surely a really big, heavily fur-coated animal will hug him – but Joe says no. In fact, he says it four times: “No No NO NO!” Poor porcupine! He laments his unhugged fate – but then looks up and sees all three animals running toward him and happily exclaims, “You’ve all changed your mind!” Umm…no such luck. They run right past him – fleeing a bright green snake (with eyes just as huge as the porcupine’s) who says, “All I did was ask for a kiss.” Well, this must be the beginning of a beautiful (if rather strange) friendship: the snake wraps itself carefully around the porcupine, gently holding down the prickly quills, as the porcupine gives the snake a big hug, and the book ends with the two friends smiling happily, eyes closed, enjoying the cuddling they both asked for unsuccessfully. Blabey further enlivens the book by having the inside front cover pages filled with all the negative comments made by the animals: “Shoo!” “Help!” “Get away!” “Spikes!” “Prickles!” And so on. But the inside back cover pages are filled with words that do not appear in the story but clearly result from it: “Hugs!” “Aww!” “Lovely!” “Ooh!” “Cuddles!” “Kisses!” And so on – a happy after-the-ending ending.

     Sandra Magsamen’s board books are inevitably cuddleable from start to finish, and You Are My Sunshine is no exception. These sweet little books always contain something interactive for parents and very young children to enjoy together. In this case, the “something” is a finger puppet shaped like a bright yellow, smiling sun surrounded by bright orange rays, shining forth from the center of every page thanks to the clever way it is bound tightly into the back of the book and integrated artistically (and artfully) into the words. For several pages, those words are the familiar ones of the song, “You are my sunshine,” illustrated charmingly with the clouds and hearts and sweet little animals that Magsamen regularly scatters around her books. The page showing two heart-surrounded skunks carrying bright yellow umbrellas because “skies are gray” (and it is raining a bit) is especially delightful: apparently this is only a sun shower, anyway, since the finger-puppet sun sticks into the page just beneath the clouds and raindrops. After including some of the song’s lyrics, Magsamen switches to her own text, promising to “give you lots of hugs and kisses every day,” with a final page that simply overflows with adorable little hearts and practically guarantees that a happy child and doting parent will be hugging each other enthusiastically. It is all fun, sweet, and mildly musical.

     There is more music – not a lot of it, but plenty for a very young child – in Marion Billet’s I Love Classical Music: My First Sound Book, which is one of a number of board books in the My First Sound Book series. What is bound into the back of this book is not a puppet but a music-generating chip: the back of the book is a single boxlike assembly that is as thick as all the narrative pages put together. Within that back-of-book box is a pink, battery-powered, batteries-included music player with a switch that an adult simply clicks one way or the other to turn playback on or off. When turned on, this little digital music box plays six excerpts from particularly pleasant and upbeat classical music by six important composers. And Billet illustrates each piece with considerable charm. First is the Turkish March from Mozart’s Piano Sonata, K. 331 – with five fez-wearing, hand-holding (or paw-holding) tigers zipping across the page. Then there is a bit of the “Spring” violin sonata from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, with kids invited to “look at the flowers and bugs spring to life!” And the characters are all smiling happily as they do so. Next is an especially well-done blend of music and drawing: Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky March with a line of five happy, big-eyed ants marching from left to right. Then there is a bit of Schubert’s “Trout” quintet, in which the piano creates rippling-water sounds as kids look at a fish leaping out of the water toward a rather alarmed-looking dragonfly that may, if it is not careful, become a meal. The fifth piece is “Dance of the Mirlitons” (small, kazoo-like instruments) from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, featuring prominent flutes, with two cartoon mouse ballet performers twirling. Finally, there is a boy rabbit below a balcony, serenading a girl rabbit above him, to the music of the “La Campanella” theme from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2. The excerpts may well be enough to entice young children to want to hear more of the music – and the book includes, at the back, a complete list of the pieces and the specific recordings heard here. There are also six find-the-objects puzzles, simple ones, that will encourage very young book-and-music lovers to use their eyes as well as their ears to get the most enjoyment possible from a book whose musical content is absolutely worth holding snugly in a boy’s or girl’s heart.

(+++) ADDING TO A KNOWN QUANTITY


Heartstone. By Elle Katharine White. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

Heartstone #2: Dragonshadow. By Elle Katharine White. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

     There is something about Jane Austen’s 1813 Pride and Prejudice that inspires rapturous devotion on the one hand and unending temptations toward parodies and mashups on the other. Take, for example, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), whose author, Seth Grahame-Smith, aptly summed up the reason he found the project irresistible: “You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there.” All he needed was a sprinkling of the undead to create a thoroughly contemporary bit of ridiculousness (which, for better or worse, sold well and was made into a movie).

     Elle Katharine White is far more respectful of Austen and of Pride and Prejudice than this, but her basic take on the story – fierce independence + dashing heroism + militia of a sort – is exactly the same. It just happens that these militia members ride dragons (talking ones, no less) and that the threats against the good guys come in the form of gryphons, mysterious strangers and such. The first book in White’s Heartstone sequence actually adheres rather more closely to the Pride and Prejudice model than a straightforward description of its fantasy-world plot might lead one to expect. There are echoes of the British Regency period original in names such as Arle and Merybourne Manor, and there are the inevitable multiple daughters (four, not the five in Austen’s novel) whose mother seeks to elevate the family status by finding a suitable husband for at least one of them, and there are episodes of wit and wordplay that somewhat soften the outright sword-and-sorcery battle scenes – which, however, are part and parcel of the plot. The first Heartstone novel lays out the characters and their basic relationships in Austen-ish style. The Darcy-analogs are the Daireds, and they are the dragon riders who defend the country. The Bennet analogs are the Bentaines, and they are commoners in this highly stratified fantasy world, employed by one of the landowners: the four young women are daughters of Moira Bentaine, wife of the clerk of Merybourne. White has little trouble bringing the primary characters together: Darcy and his riders are hired to destroy troublesome gryphons at Merybourne. The basic relationships here will be thrice-familiar to Pride and Prejudice fans: second daughter Aliza, who has a strong streak of pragmatism, initially cares little for Alastair Daired, although of course he is very handsome and dashing and, as a bonus, his dragon, Akarra, is very friendly. But Aliza’s sister Angelina finds herself quite charmed by Cedric Brysney, Daired’s close friend. The relationships blossom, not without Austen-ish back-and-forth issues, despite the ever-present danger of the gryphons and the arrival at Merybourne of an enemy of Daired – who comes with the requisite mysterious stranger bearing a dire warning. The mixture of relationship-building, misunderstanding, and monster-fighting (this world has not only gryphons but also direwolves, lamias, banshees, and lindworms) is rather surprisingly engaging, even though there are some frustrating omissions in the world-building: how, when and why did people and sentient dragons pair up for monster-fighting? The first Heartstone book can actually be enjoyed even without knowing Pride and Prejudice, but the intended audience is clearly Austen fanciers seeking an offbeat but respectful expansion and reinterpretation of the beloved novel.

     The first book concludes with the semi-apocalyptic Battle of North Fields and with Aliza and Alastair united in marriage, to the surprise of absolutely no one who knows Austen or who has followed the characters’ byplay. The sequel, Dragonshadow, could easily have been a rather sappy romance focusing on the newlyweds and on issues raised somewhat obliquely in the first book, such as class distinctions. But White takes Dragonshadow in a different direction, one that moves farther from the Austen model and more toward rather traditional sword and sorcery. The result is that Pride and Prejudice fans will likely prefer the first book, while others will gravitate more to the second, which can be read reasonably successfully without knowing the first. The second book does indeed begin with the newlyweds’ honeymoon, but it is quickly cut short when news comes of a mysterious something that is killing innocent creatures, including humans, in the northern part of Arle. Alastair and Akarra must ride to the rescue, of course – the Riders are essentially anti-monster mercenaries, after all – but Aliza refuses to stay behind, even though she is not a dragon rider. So the three (two humans and dragon) head through the dangerous Wilds (all fantasy worlds have an area with that name, or a mighty close version of it), fighting off various nefarious attacks, and Aliza learns to ride Akarra, and soon the heroic trio reaches a vaguely Scottish landscape with its own cast of magical creatures (selkies, centaurs and the like). Then the mystery of the events affecting the Lake Meera region must be unraveled, and Aliza takes the initiative in doing so as Alastair does his usual derring-do in ridding the area of various bad things (though he is somewhat limited by the fact that he is recovering from an earlier injury, making Aliza’s role all the more central). The contrast between the slowed-down Alastair and the quick-witted Aliza is nicely done, and the interactions among characters are well-handled, without drawing as directly on Pride and Prejudice as the first series entry did. This is either a strength or a weakness, depending on how closely one wishes for parallels between White’s series and Austen’s novel. In Dragonshadow, White moves beyond her original model in significant ways, starting to develop her characters within their own world and with fewer references to the one from which they originally sprang. This makes the book a more straightforward heroic fantasy than its predecessor but may also help it reach out to fantasy readers in general rather than primarily to fantasy enthusiasts who also happen to be devoted fans of Pride and Prejudice.

(++++) SECOND THOUGHTS


Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Anja Harteros, soprano; Bernarda Fink, alto; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.

Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. LPO. $12.99.

Smetana: Die Moldau; Stravinsky: Five Movements from “Petrushka”; Khachaturian: Adagio from “Spartacus”; Prokofiev: Three Waltzes, Op. 96; Ravel: La Valse; Shostakovich: Waltz No. 2 from “Suite for Variety Orchestra.” François-Xavier Poizat, piano. Ars Produktion. $19.99 (SACD).

     Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection,” is the first to show him producing the exceptionally grand scale in which all his later symphonies except the Fourth would be written. It is his first symphony with vocal elements and his first to attempt to explore in depth the meaning of his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism – a change necessitated by his career ambitions, but one that clearly resonated deeply with him on a spiritual level. But this symphony of firsts for Mahler was also a symphony of seconds, not only as his second work so designated but also as his second foray into the specific territory explored with such intensity in his First: the gigantic funeral march of the first movement of the “Resurrection” was, for Mahler, the laying to rest of the hero around whom the First was built. This was also Mahler’s second in-depth use of Wunderhorn songs in a symphonic context: among other things, the third movement of the “Resurrection” is an instrumental version of the rather cynical “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes.” A conductor aware of the firsts and seconds that are joined in this monumental work can produce a splendid performance if given the right singers and orchestra, and Mariss Jansons is quite clearly just such a conductor. This live recording – of a performance from 2011 that for some reason is only now being made available – is excellent in every way: dramatic, emotionally moving, and intense and thoroughly involving from start to finish. Jansons has what feels like an intuitive sense of pace for the entire work, although in reality it surely results from close study of the score: the many tempo changes flow with absolute naturalness, and the complex dynamics within the movements sound as if they could scarcely be played any other way. Bernarda Fink is a splendid alto soloist, bringing strong emotion as well as musicality to the fourth movement – although BR Klassik’s failure to include texts with the CD is an irritant, despite the ready availability of the words online. In the finale, most of which is not choral, Jansons manages to make the extended instrumental beginning a time of high drama and deep spiritual unease, after which the quiet choral entry has just the right touch of wonder and amazement to go with Klopstock’s words (which, again, are unfortunately not provided, but can be found online). Anja Harteros is as sensitive and involved in her solos as Fink is in hers, and the result is a thoroughly convincing and very meaningful performance in which the excellence of the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is all the more appreciated for being expected: these are simply some of the best musicians in the world. So overwhelming is the end of the symphony’s finale that it seems to look ahead directly to the conclusion of the even more gigantic Eighth, wherein Mahler uses even larger forces to study and celebrate life after death. Jansons’ “Resurrection” is a performance to treasure and is worth owning even for listeners who already have multiple versions of this symphony.

     Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are not much earlier than Mahler’s first works in the form: Mahler’s First was first performed in 1889, four years before Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, and the “Resurrection” was first heard in 1895. But the scale of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies is far more modest and traditional than that of Mahler’s symphonic works; and in his earlier symphonies, Tchaikovsky was still finding his way from Russian nationalism to a kind of cosmopolitan composition to which he added wonderful elements of his country even as he stretched traditional symphonic bounds – in ways quite different from those that Mahler came to use. Tchaikovsky’s supremely tuneful First Symphony has some structural inelegances that also troubled the composer when he created his Second, known as the “Little Russian” because of its use of Ukrainian folk tunes at a time when Ukraine was often referred to as “Little Russia.” Tchaikovsky was sufficiently dissatisfied with his second symphonic effort – despite the fact that it was quite successful when first performed, in 1873 – to revise it considerably from 1879 to 1880, creating the version almost always heard today. Vladimir Jurowski leads an especially effective live performance (from 2016) of this symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, released on the orchestra’s own label. The symphony has several unusual elements that contrast with Tchaikovsky’s First. For one thing, despite its minor key (C minor), it is altogether brighter than the First (in G minor). Also, the Second lacks a slow movement: a rather sweet march that in some ways looks ahead to The Nutcracker takes its place. And the folk elements of the Second, which appear in all movements except the third, are pronounced and are handled with considerable aplomb. Jurowski paces the work very well, allowing its delicacies of orchestration to shine through and its abundance of lively tunes and strong rhythms to flower. The conclusion of the symphony is truly rousing, as evidenced by the audience’s justifiably enthusiastic reaction. The Second is paired on this release with Tchaikovsky’s Third, in a different live performance from 2016 (and, oddly, without any audience reaction at the end). The Third is Tchaikovsky’s only major-key symphony (D major) and his only one in five movements. It was written and first performed in 1875, between the two versions of the Second, and in some ways is a step back from the “Little Russian” – at least when compared to the Second’s later version. Parts of the Third do not quite coalesce: the very serious opening and the much lighter main section of the first movement, for example, and the rather foursquare fugue midway through the finale. And although the Third is called “Polish” for the Tempo di polacca marking of its finale, it does not particularly partake of any national character – even its “Russianness” is less than that of the first two symphonies. Nevertheless, in the hands of a sufficiently skilled and committed conductor, the Third is a pleasure to hear: it is the most balletic of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and in some ways the least inward-looking and least self-conscious. Jurowski clearly knows this: his performance flows beautifully and often sounds actually danceable, and while he allows some of the slightly overdone emotionalism of the central Andante elegiaco to come through, for the most part he keeps the excesses of the score reined in and, as a result, produces a performance in which the orchestra’s excellent playing is front-and-center and provides the music with clarity, form and considerable elegance.

     Pianist François-Xavier Poizat’s second foray for Ars Produktion into piano arrangements of well-known orchestral works – the first came out in 2013 – offers some intriguing sound and excellent playing, even though not all the music comes across equally well on the piano. The first and last works on the SACD show this quite clearly. It opens with Smetana’s Die Moldau as arranged by Heinrich von Kàan-Albést, whose arrangements did a great deal to popularize the works of Smetana, Dvořák and other Czech Romantic composers. There is considerable virtuosity required throughout this piece, starting with hand-crossings at the very beginning, and there is undoubted excitement in the continuous rippling effects representing water in one hand while various themes are developed above and below them in the other. But the arrangement as a whole is on the pale side – a bit watered-down, one might say. In particular, when the river flows past the old castle of Vyšehrad near the end and then disappears beyond, the sense of grandeur of the orchestral version is missing; and the final bars, as Poizat plays them, feel rather rushed. On the other hand, the disc ends with a Shostakovich waltz from Suite for Variety Orchestra, arranged by Florian Noack, and this is a gem: light, lilting, tuneful, and altogether winning as an encore. The four works sandwiched between these two are a bit of a mixed bag stylistically and in terms of their arrangements. All receive first-rate, highly virtuosic treatment from Poizat, although the pieces’ stylistic distinctions are not always handled very sensitively: Poizat tends to play all the music in pretty much the same way, which works very well for some works and less so for others. Poizat seems most comfortable with the Russian and Russia-area pieces – not only the Shostakovich waltz but also the works by Stravinsky (arranged by Theodor Szántó), Khachaturian (arranged by Matthew Cameron), and Prokofiev. The rhythmic flow of all these pieces is well-handled, and Poizat shows in the Prokofiev, as in the Shostakovich, that he has a good feeling for three-quarter time. On the other hand, Ravel’s La Valse (arranged by Alexander Ghindin) comes across less well: this is not simply a waltz, even though Ravel saw it as a homage to the Strauss waltzes of the mid-19th century, and Poizat is not quite as sensitive as might be desired to Ravel’s impressionistic deviations from the strict dance form. Some of the shortcomings on the disc may be due to the arrangements rather than to the performer: certainly Poizat’s virtuosity leaves nothing to be desired. It may simply be the fact that these pieces are so well-known in orchestral guise that piano arrangements, even when skillfully done, fall a bit short. But if Poizat does not make a compelling case for hearing these works on the piano, he certainly does make one for his own considerable abilities at the keyboard.