April 30, 2009


My Bad: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Stop and Smell the Roses: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     Andrews McMeel “Treasury” collections are a great way to get a big dose of your favorite comic strips in larger-than-usual format – larger than you will find in most collections, and much larger than the increasingly diminutive size in which comics are being printed in what seem to be America’s rapidly vanishing newspapers. Strips whose art work is a big part of their charm, such as Zits and Mutts, do especially well in the oversize “Treasury” format, which strongly emphasizes the visual quality of the strips. In Zits, for example, the multiple piercings of Jeremy’s friend Pierce show up in all their oddly shaped glory in My Bad. The 12 poses in which Jim Borgman draws Jeremy’s girlfriend, Sara, dancing – contrasted with Jeremy standing stock-still on the dance floor – come through with great clarity here, as do Sara’s many expressions as she moves to the music. A Sunday sequence in which Borgman illustrates how much mental space Jeremy takes up in the mind of his mom, Connie, is hilarious – and poignant – in drawings that show the 15-year-old crawling out of his mother’s ear. But excellent drawing without top-notch writing does not make an outstanding comic strip, and Zits is outstanding. Jerry Scott (who also writes the differently but equally wonderful Baby Blues) comes up with dialogue that fits the parents-raising-teenager scenario perfectly. For example, Jeremy objects to a 10-minute wait for Connie to pick him up because “ten minutes is a larger percentage of life at my age than it is at yours.” Pierce finds out the high school has a dress code that he is not violating, and is upset because “I hate it when I inadvertently conform.” After the school year ends, Jeremy suggests to his mom, “This summer why don’t you assume that I’ll procrastinate and I’ll assume that you’re ticked off at me? That way, you won’t have to nag and I won’t have to wonder if I’m in trouble” – and Connie is worried because “that almost makes sense.” In fact, a lot of things in Zits almost make sense – both in the writing and in the often-surrealistic art. When Jeremy and Sara call each other names (“immature,” “chicken,” “pig” and so on), the dialogue has the ring of reality, and the drawings – which show the characters changing into whatever they are called – add hilarity. It is this sort of thing that makes Zits a treasure of a strip – even more so in “Treasury” format.

     Mutts is precious, too, in both senses of the word: valuable and almost a little too sweet. Patrick McDonnell both write and draws the strip, so it is clearly 100% what he wants it to be; and what he wants is the most animal-friendly comic around, involving not only domestic creatures but also wild ones (such as tigers and other endangered species) and semi-wild ones (suburban denizens such as squirrels). McDonnell’s art, with its clean lines and abundant white space, is something of a throwback, and it is clear from the cartoonist’s introductory Sunday panels – which often pay loving tribute to great comics and “high art” of the past – that this is exactly how he wants his comic to look. McDonnell frequently gives his central characters, Earl the dog and Mooch the cat, week-long or even longer adventures, although they are not very adventurous in a traditional sense – instead, they are explorations of topics from a variety of angles. In Stop and Smell the Roses, for example, Earl and Mooch try to figure out how to hibernate; quotations from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Evelyn Waugh and others are used as reflections on Valentine’s Day and the animal-human relationship; other quotations (from Albert Einstein, John Muir and others) are used to reflect on “Earth Days”; a beach vacation features the ever-irascible Crabby the crab; and so on. Mixed in with these multi-day sequences are single-day jokes, such as a Sunday strip in which Mooch gets an “arm extender” so he can reach items on high shelves and knock them off, and a weekday strip each of whose three panels represents one-third of a sofa over which one of Mooch’s alleged owners (one never really owns a cat) is climbing to search for the exercise DVD that Mooch has hidden. Other strips feature Mooch as “the Shphinx” that “sees all, knows all”; McDonnell’s regular “Shelter Stories” sequence that encourages adoption by having animals plead their case directly to comics readers; Bip and Bop, the squirrels who constantly bonk other characters with acorns; and plenty of warmth-filled lines, such as the perpetually chained-up but nevertheless sweet Guard Dog’s thought, “The chain’s around my neck, not my heart.” McDonnell lays things on a touch too thickly at times, but the strips that cloy are more than compensated for by the ones that amaze – such as a Sunday sequence of Earl and Mooch riding a toy car through all sorts of far-flung landscapes, ending up in what can only be Coconino County from George Herriman’s famed Krazy Kat. McDonnell knows his history, his art, his characters and his readers, making Stop and Smell the Roses a very worthwhile stopping point indeed.


A Garden of Opposites. By Nancy Davis. Schwartz & Wade. $10.99.

The Bug Book and Bug Bottle. By Hugh Danks, Ph.D. Workman. $13.95.

     A thoroughly charming way to teach young children the concept of words with opposite meanings, A Garden of Opposites uses familiar outdoor sights, plus drawings somewhat reminiscent of the work of Lois Ehlert, to showcase differences. “Short,” for example, is a squiggly bug that looks a bit like a slug, except with tiny legs, while “long” is a snake – same basic shape. “Big” is a huge green beetle, “small” a six-spotted ladybug. “Dull” is a trowel, “sharp” a pair of garden shears. Nancy Davis gives kids more chances to think things through than do many authors of “opposites” books. At the end, for example, a little girl stands in a garden, holding a jar that contains butterflies, and the word is “in.” It takes a moment’s thought to realize that the word refers to the insects in the jar. Fold out the full-page flap – the only flap in the book – and the word becomes “out,” as the girl releases the butterflies and runs happily through the grass as they fly away. That foldout also contains a challenge to find other opposites – a nice way to end a book that teaches an important concept and then gives young readers a chance to find out for themselves whether they have understood it.

     And speaking of bugs and gardens, The Bug Book and Bug Bottle is a delightful hands-on exploration tool for any budding entomologist (author Hugh Danks is one) – or just for kids who want a closer look at the innumerable insects that live all around us. The kit – packed in a sturdy, nicely designed, cylindrical plastic bottle – includes the bottle itself, a magnifying glass, a 110-page book with information on 47 common insects and suggestions on how to catch and care for them, a bug identification chart, and a small journal for taking notes on these denizens of the backyard. Well illustrated and packed with information, the kit explains exactly what bugs are and discusses their extreme importance to the environment. The instructions in the book are straightforward and easy to follow: “”Make the bug feel at home. Create a miniature habitat… Any bug found feeding on a leaf should be given the same kind of leaf.” There are, of course, admonitions to avoid bugs that can hurt you – there is a special symbol to show which ones those are. And there is interesting information on every insect mentioned. For example, “the leafhopper uses a sucking tube to feed on sugary plant juices, which pass rapidly through its body. The bug converts the sugar it doesn’t use into a sweet liquid called honeydew; it drops this liquid onto plant leaves, where ants and other insects eat it.” Danks shows kids where to find bugs beyond their yard, too: in fields, woods, at a pond and elsewhere. The identification chart is easy to carry (it folds neatly into the bottle or fits in a pocket), and its full-color pictures make it simple to use. The “bug journal,” with spaces to write about bugs and draw pictures of them, is a nice touch. And the bottle even has a measuring tool on top, in both inches and centimeters. The Bug Book and Bug Bottle is a clever, scientifically accurate and easy-to-use introductory guide to a large number of fascinating creatures – and a great thing to give children who are trying to figure out what to do outside during the spring and summer.


Genesis. By Bernard Beckett. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $20.

The Repossession Mambo. By Eric Garcia. Harper. $7.99.

     Brain adventures can, in the right hands, be far more exciting than body adventures, even in the SF field. Bernard Beckett’s Genesis is a book in which very little actually happens, except to a limited extent in flashbacks; yet it is a tremendously stimulating short novel that raises complex and profound questions about human beings, intelligence (artificial and otherwise), power and numerous other subjects. It is far and away a better book than the very good but much more typical chase-scene-filled The Repossession Mambo, although Eric Garcia’s novel would translate much more readily into a film (and will: a movie is already in the works).

     Genesis is the story of Anaximander, who has applied to admission to an extremely powerful and highly secretive organization called The Academy that stands at the pinnacle of her society. The book follows, hour by hour, her four-hour entrance examination, which consists of answering intense and probing questions posed by a three-member panel while presenting an extended thesis on her chosen subject. That subject is Adam Forde, a long-dead progenitor of the current society who, even though he died at age 19, made decisions with consequences that have continued to reverberate until Anaximander’s time. The nature of those decisions, the reasons Adam made them, and their importance, are revealed only gradually as Anaximander presents her arguments and analyses to The Academy, whose society was built on the ruins of one that attempted to implement in the real world Plato’s philosophy-based Republic from ancient Greece. Anaximander must explain to The Academy – and to readers – how that prior society worked and why it failed, and how Adam played a major role in its undoing. Then she must explain Adam’s punishment for what may or may not have been a crime: to interact on a 24-hour-a-day basis with a failed (or at least incomplete) experiment in artificial intelligence, a mobile being known as Art. Beckett, a genetics researcher as well as a novelist, knows exactly what he is doing in choosing names such as Adam and Art – and Anaximander, who in our world was a Greek philosopher with a strong belief that nature, like human societies, is ruled by laws, and that anything that disturbs the balance of nature does not last long. It is entirely in line with the real Anaximander’s teachings to discover that the fictional Republic of Genesis failed by disturbing the balance of nature. But what of the fictional Anaximander’s own society – one in which, by the way, her tutor is named Pericles? How does The Academy preserve it? Does it preserve it? And what was the true genesis of Anaximander’s society, and how does it relate to the differences and similarities between human and artificial intelligence? In fact, what exactly are those differences? These are disquieting questions, and Beckett’s answers (and refusals to answer) are more disquieting still. Genesis is an intense intellectual exercise that is not for the psychically or emotionally squeamish. So little seems to happen in it, in the sense of present-tense action; but so much of greater importance takes place that this is one of those novels that continue to resonate long after they are over.

     In contrast, The Repossession Mambo is nothing but action. It started as a short story and has also existed as a screenplay, and it is easy to see how it could become a slam-bang action film, maybe even (if well enough made) a cult classic along the lines of Blade Runner or Minority Report, both of which it strongly resembles. This is not a book that will stay with you after you finish it, but it is one of those thrill-a-minute rides that offer plenty of excitement while they endure. The “repo” here is not of cars but of bodily organs: the underlying assumption is that, in the near future, you can replace just about anything with a nearly indestructible artificial copy, provided you pay (and pay and pay and pay) for the replacement. Payment goes to an organization called the Credit Union, and if you balk or go broke or stop paying for any reason whatsoever, a Bio-Repo agent comes after you and cuts you open, pulls out the organ in question, and leaves you very dead. The book is the story of a top-notch Bio-Repo man named Remy, who has gone through five marriages, been knocked unconscious four times, is distanced (deservedly, as it turns out) from his one child (by his third wife), and is very good at what he does – until he finds himself a target for bio-repossession of his artiforg (artificial organ), his heart. “Let’s face it: Anyone who keeps knocking back the booze even after they’ve been fitted with an artiforg doesn’t deserve a whole lot of dignity in death,” opines Remy early on, in what passes for introspection. Later, when he is twelfth on the Hundred Most Wanted List and fleeing for his life, he gains no significant additional insight, although at one point he does say he has learned “to see color in a world that used to be so perfectly black-and-white.” But as Remy chronicles his life on the run (using an old manual typewriter, of all things), readers do learn more and more about the culture of Bio-Repo agents – not only the rough camaraderie but also the tremendous potential for abuse of trust, which in Remy’s case has to do with his best friend, Jake, who (in the tradition of many stories of this type) ends up being assigned to hunt Remy down. The twists and turns here are expertly done, although mostly to be expected; the novel gets a (+++) rating as a fast and furious read packed with considerable intensity – even though its plot and all its characters ultimately turn out to be forgettable.


The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens. By Malina Saval. Basic Books. $25.95.

The First Year: Autism Spectrum Disorders—An Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed Child. By Nancy D. Wiseman. Da Capo. $16.95.

     Ten boys in ten chapters. “Madolescence” as shorthand for “male adolescence.” Chapters called “The Mini-Adult,” “The Sheltered One,” “The Rich Kid” and “The Gay, Vegan, Hearing-Impaired Republican.” It is almost as if Malina Saval wants not to be taken seriously. But The Secret Lives of Boys is a very serious book indeed, and its content is much better than some of the excesses of its presentation. Saval profiles 10 boys ages 14 to 19, largely in their own words but with plenty of connecting copy and interpretation. The boys’ own comments are by far the most valuable thing here. “The Rich Kid,” 18-year-old Preston, was clinically depressed a couple of years ago and “started viewing myself as a tortured artist and I looked up to quote-unquote other tortured artists like David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Robin Williams, and Tom Cruise.” This is a much better and more interesting revelation than the oh-so-superior reaction of Saval, who has an MFA degree from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts: “That he considers Tom Cruise a ‘tortured artist’ could be the most curious discovery of my fact-finding mission on the secret lives of boys. I can do nothing to mask my visible disappointment.” But, see, this is not, or is not supposed to be, a book about Saval, and it is a much better book to the extent that she keeps out of it and lets the boys reveal what they choose to about themselves, their worldviews, their opinions, their fears and worries. Christopher, the 17-year-old “Gay, Vegan, Hearing-Impaired Republican,” comments, “I don’t have a lot of experience with people bashing me because I’m gay, and my hearing impairment might have something to do with that. Those who do approach me are those who wouldn’t be inclined to believe those misconceptions about deaf people anyway, so I get a ‘purer,’ if you will, crop of friends.” Aziz, a 17-year-old practicing Muslim whom Saval labels “The Average American Kid,” talks about the importance of fitting in: “If you want to avoid the stereotyping, you have to mesh as much as you can, but without losing your entire identity. This goes for everyone, regardless of religion. It’s a delicate balance. Also, if you want to be social, don’t go home at 2:30 after school. Join a club. Join a sports team. The key is to get involved. Tyrone, who at 19 is a father and has been to prison for drug possession, says, “I kind of fight myself a lot to change a lot of things. I’m sure there is a way out, but when you grew up seeing one thing, that’s kind of what you move towards.” The boys’ comments in The Secret Lives of Boys are far more revealing, interesting and sometimes even profound than Saval’s heavy-handed analysis and the predictable remarks by psychiatrists and other adults. It would be a mistake to think that Saval’s book provides good generalized insight into today’s teenagers – she has chosen her subjects far too carefully for that, as she tries to include one of every “type” she can while insisting that these boys are not “types” at all. But what is so good in this book is the chance to hear a variety of different teens, from a variety of different backgrounds, facing some similar challenges and many different ones, and handling them (for the most part) with much greater maturity and thoughtfulness than most media coverage of teenage boys would lead a reader to expect. Yes, the boys’ comments are edited and arranged by Saval, but enough comes through of these teens’ personalities to show that they are all seeking ways to handle the difficulties of their lives and to move past the tough times into what each hopes will be a better future – however defined.

     One boy in Saval’s book, 16-year-old Nicholas, called “The Troublemaker,” turns out to have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) with “signs” of ODD (oppositional defiant disorder). A diagnosis of this sort can follow a child throughout life, affecting his or her ability to get jobs and health care and resulting in a world in which the child is thought of as if the disease defines him or her. This is even truer when a child is diagnosed with autism or a related condition – the subject of the newest entry in The First Year series. Nancy D. Wiseman, founder and president of a nonprofit group called First Signs, Inc., that focuses on educating parents and professionals about early signs of autism and similar disorders, takes parents step by step through the difficulties associated with understanding autism and helping a child who has it. Wiseman clearly knows this subject inside out – perhaps too well for many parents, for whom even the hint of this diagnosis is likely to be frightening enough without all the detail that Wiseman provides. For example, Wiseman explains that it is important to rule out other possible diagnoses in order to be sure that a child does indeed have autism. She then lists 20 disorders to be ruled out, ranging from early-onset childhood bipolar disorder to Fragile X syndrome, Landau-Kleffner syndrome and selective mutism. Just reading the list and going to the book’s glossary to find out what the disorders are may prove overwhelming for worried parents. In another section, about obtaining services under the federally funded Early Intervention program for infants and toddlers with disabilities, Wiseman says “the process is quite simple” for obtaining help – and then gives a 14-point list of things that have to happen, several of which are acronym-heavy and complex. In reality, it is complex, time-consuming, difficult and potentially overwhelming to try to understand autism and related conditions, to accept this type of diagnosis for your child, to understand the lifelong implications for the child and the rest of the family, and to try to develop a treatment program. The complexity of Wiseman’s book is thus in large part a reflection of the complexity of the situation. Certainly it is helpful that she addresses such realities as the financial burden of caring for an autistic child – although the figure of “easily upwards of $70,000 a year” will likely only upset families even more than they already are. Likewise, her chart of treatments and goals is well-designed and carefully organized – but parents facing its subdivision into five categories with a total of 29 treatment elements, each with three goals, will likely cringe. Wiseman deserves great credit for pulling together so much information on such a difficult subject. Parents dealing with a child’s autism will find a great deal of highly useful information here. But this may not be the best place for parents facing such a diagnosis to go first, since the matter-of-fact, even clinical tone – while wholly appropriate for the information being disseminated – will likely to be off-putting to families already facing deep and severe distress.


Beethoven: Fidelio. Andrew Kennedy, Lisa Milne, Brindley Sherratt, Anja Kampe, Peter Coleman-Wright, Nathan Vale, Anthony Cleverton, Torsten Kerl, Henry Waddington; Glyndebourne Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder. Glyndebourne. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Wagner: Lohengrin. Kwangchul Youn, Johan Botha, Adrianne Pieczonka, Falk Struckmann, Petra Lang, Eike Wilm Schulte; Prague Chamber Choir, NDR Chorus, NDR Radio Choir Cologne and WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Profil. $50.99 (3 SACDs).

     In one of those ironies with which the operatic world is rife, the greatest surviving example of French rescue opera is in German. Beethoven’s Fidelio follows its formula closely, and in the wrong hands comes across as rigid: Leonore, disguised as Fidelio, is perfectly pure and the epitome of wifely duty; Florestan, imprisoned for boldly stating some never-identified beliefs that put him at odds with authority, is perfectly put-upon and a supremely devoted husband; Don Pizarro, Florestan’s enemy, is evil simply because he is evil; and Don Fernando represents mercy from the king because kings are supposed to be merciful. It takes really committed performers to break through these emotional straitjackets, and the new, live Glyndebourne recording is fortunate to have that sort of commitment at all levels. Anja Kampe brings fire and fervor to the role of Leonore/Fidelio – and also shows a touching vulnerability that is missing in other sopranos’ handling of the role, notably when she thinks she recognizes her chained and emaciated husband but is not quite sure. Torsten Kerl is appropriately distraught and subject to moments of alternating hope and fear as Florestan, although his voice is too strong to be that of a long-imprisoned, nearly starved victim (a flaw more in the role than in his handling of it). Henry Waddington is a forceful, upstanding Don Fernando, and Brindley Sherratt makes Rocco a far more human and humane jailer than in most productions – he is not merely following orders; he is trying to figure out why he must. The one significant weakness here is Peter Coleman-Wright’s portrayal of Don Pizarro, and this seems to be more a flaw in the recording than in his singing. There is something pinched in the audio when Coleman-Wright sings – his boasts and his hatred of Florestan sound as if they are being sung well but are curiously muffled, as if he is placed farther from the microphones than any other solo singer. Indeed, there are other recording oddities, such as sound effects that are much too loud for the music (knocking on a door during the overture, stage movements during the march in Act I). Nevertheless, this Fidelio packs an emotional punch, and the Glyndebourne Chorus is particularly good. Mark Elder has an excellent sense of pacing, making the opera into a unified whole rather than a series of episodes through well-chosen and well-contrasted tempos. And kudos to Glyndebourne for including the complete libretto, with translations into English, French and Italian side-by-side with the original German.

     The full libretto is included with the new Profil recording of Lohengrin, too, but it is arranged oddly: the entire German text is offered, followed later in the booklet by the entire English translation, and still later by a version in French. This makes following the opera’s progress line by line difficult if you are not fluent in German – but it is one of the few flaws in an otherwise excellent production, presented in really top-notch SACD sound. Lohengrin is a rescue opera in its own right, but formulaic it decidedly is not. There is considerable complexity in this story, even though Wagner was just 35 when he wrote it. It requires multiple levels of suspension of disbelief: the audience must, among other things, accept trial by combat as an accurate way to assess truth, and move willingly into a world in which perfect obedience and restraint are the only ways to ensure what has the potential to be an ideal marriage. Preventing Lohengrin from seeming a mere fairy tale is by no means easy, but Semyon Bychkov’s knowing conducting goes a long way toward doing so by letting the music sweep listeners inexorably into the story. And the singers really inhabit their roles. Adrianne Pieczonka manages to make Elsa simultaneously naïve and strong, even though she fails the ultimate test that Lohengrin poses. Johan Botha sings the title role with power and majesty – his ardor seems genuine, making his necessary abandonment of Elsa at the end all the more tragic. Petra Lang’s rich mezzo-soprano turns Ortrud into a force to be reckoned with, and it is scarcely surprising that Falk Struckmann as Friedrich is badgered and ultimately overwhelmed by his wife’s sheer power. Add a stately performance by Kwangchul Youn as King Henry and some powerfully declamatory singing by Eike Wilm Schulte as the King’s Herald, and the result is a Lohengrin that rarely flags throughout its three-and-a-half hours (it is, happily, presented uncut). Excellent choral work and fine playing by the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne abet the strong solo performances to produce an interpretation that effectively mixes Wagnerian power with a very human sense of pathos.


Janáček: Orchestral Suites from the Operas, Volume 2—Kát’a Kabanová; The Makropulos Affair. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Breiner. Naxos. $8.99.

D’Indy: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Symphony No. 2; Tableaux de voyage; Karadec. Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $18.99.

     These second volumes in series devoted to particular composers’ orchestral works continue and expand upon the promise of the first entries. Peter Breiner is in the midst of a three-volume set of orchestral suites he has assembled from Leoš Janáček’s operas, and here as in the first volume (which included Jenůfa and The Excursions of Mr. Brouček) he shows himself to be an adept arranger and a fine conductor of his countryman’s music. The suites this time are arranged a bit differently from those in the first volume. The one from the tragic Kát’a Kabanová more or less follows the action of the story, as did both suites in the earlier volume, although here Breiner’s choice of multiple excerpts that include the work’s ominous eight-note timpani strikes makes the suite even darker and more claustrophobic than the opera itself. This is a deliberate decision on Breiner’s part and is certainly not a flaw, but it gives the suite an intensity and strong focus that the somewhat more sprawling opera lacks. The suite from The Makropulos Affair is a bit more problematic, since here Breiner substantially deviates from the opera’s sequence in order to fashion a more dramatic work – and one which, incidentally, also emphasizes ominous timpani strokes, which the composer used frequently in his operas (but more sparingly than it would seem from the music Breiner selects). Listeners unfamiliar with The Makropulos Affair, and even many who know the opera, will not be bothered by Breiner’s decision here to create a suite with as much cohesion as this one has: it begins with a sense of glory for central character Emilia Marty (Elina Makropulos) in her long-ago days as an opera singer – a musical element that appears near the end of the opera, as a sort of flashback – and ends with a different sort of triumph when Emilia rejects a potion to extend her long life further and decides to die naturally. Thus, the suite both begins and ends with music from the opera’s conclusion, with various elements of the story sandwiched in between. Breiner’s approach to all these suites, which involves using originally vocal material converted into purely orchestral form, results in a kind of “opera without words” that effectively conveys much of the power of Janáček’s writing. The fine playing of the New Zealand Symphony adds to the suites’ effectiveness.

     New Zealanders playing Czech music and the Iceland Symphony beautifully handling some very French works – orchestras are nothing if not international in orientation these days. Conductors, too: Rumon Gamba is British, but his feeling for Vincent d’Indy’s music is strong and intuitive. Last year’s first volume of Gamba’s survey of d’Indy’s orchestral works included Jour d’été à la montagne, La Forêt enchantée and Souvenirs, showing d’Indy both in his musical maturity and in his earlier phase, when he was heavily influenced by Wagner. In the second d’Indy volume the whole orientation is Romantic, with the latest work here – Symphony No. 2 in B-flat – dating to 1903, but being constructed very strongly on mid-to-late-19th-century lines. This is a big symphony and a very well-made one, with a huge number of tempo changes within movements (d’Indy was a stickler for such things) and considerable use of leitmotif-like mottos that recur and are developed skillfully. The symphony often sounds darker and more sinister than its B-flat major tonality would indicate, thanks in part to d’Indy’s choice of instrumentation – the melancholy solo viola in the third movement, for example. This is not a forward-looking work – d’Indy was as conservative musically as he was in his strict Catholic theology – but rather is a strong assertion of the importance of maintaining structural ideals in the face of the rise of Impressionism and other post-Romantic trends. Gamba takes the work at face value – it is not, in the final analysis, argumentative – and presents it with a pleasing mixture of fervor and dignity. He does very well with the two earlier, smaller works on this CD, too. Tableaux de voyage is an 1892 arrangement for orchestra of six pieces from a 13-piece set for piano that d’Indy wrote in 1889. Largely solemn in mood, the work expresses d’Indy’s feelings during hikes through Germany’s Black Forest and Tyrol regions. The sound here is sometimes simple, notably in a Schubertian trumpet melody in a section called “La Poste,” but d’Indy’s frequent forays into minor keys, and his sophistication in repeatedly recalling earlier themes during later sections, give the work a level of gravitas. This is notably lacking in Karadec, a lovely little suite for small orchestra that d’Indy composed in 1890 based on his music for a play by André Alexandre. By turns martial, gentle and jaunty, and always melodious, Karadec provides a fine encore-like conclusion to a CD that otherwise leans toward d’Indy’s serious side – and will make listeners eager to hear more of the music of this underperformed composer.

April 23, 2009


Pajama Mamas. By Kate Spohn. Random House. $4.99.

Momnesia: A Humorous Guide to Surviving Your Post-Baby Brain. By Shannon Payette Seip & Adrienne Hedger. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

The Wonderful Man. By Edward Monkton. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

I See Stupid People and They Are Getting on My Last Nerve! By Cheryl Caldwell. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     A revelation: when board books grow up, they become…gift books! Short, small-format books for the youngest children that convey basic emotions and information become short, small-format, easy-to-read books that convey expressions of concern and a little humor to lighten the toils of everyday adult life.

     If you doubt this, start with the lovely Pajama Mamas board book by Kate Spohn to get an idea of the basics of this form of expression. Here are mothers and babies in matching or complementary bedtime clothing, with very simple six-word statements for each mom-and-baby pair. For example, one right-hand page says, “Strum strum Mama,” opposite a picture of a mother playing a guitar; open the right-hand page – the entire page is a flap – and you see baby smilingly sleeping, with the words, “Hum hum baby.” Another right-hand page says, “Happy hug Mama,” opposite a picture of a mom in flowered pajamas holding a baby whose nightcap sprouts antennae; again, open the flap that is the right-hand page, and there is blissful baby with the words, “Happy bug baby.” This is a gentle and lovely little bedtime book for ages 2-4.

     But how about a book for the moms? Well, that’s where the grown-up version of a board book comes in, in the form of Shannon Payette Seip and Adrienne Hedger’s Momnesia. There’s a lot more text here than in a board book for babies, but not too much, because women with momnesia wouldn’t be able to follow all those words – so allege the authors. In fact, when “a mommy with momnesia attempts to explain momnesia,” she rouses herself from exhaustion only long enough to get distracted from the topic. The authors, whose previous work was a humorous book about breastfeeding, remind moms that even if a baby has taken “your brain, your milk, and all your time,” at least he or she hasn’t taken the hairdresser’s phone number, Internet connection or extra-strength Tylenol (but just wait until that baby gets older!). Unfortunately, Seip and Hedger point out that babies do not take your credit-card debt, upper-leg cellulite or premature gray hairs. Throughout this little book, using bright colors, engaging design and amusing illustrations (as any good board book should), the authors offer ideas about “what to do if you start crying in public for no logical reason,” “times when it’s good to be in a fog,” and “times not to fall asleep,” and they provide multi-cartoon-panel looks at nights and mornings in Mommyland, plus a couple of pages of “proof you were once smart.” No flaps here, but women with momnesia would probably just tear them out anyway, then wonder where they came from.

     Even closer in appearance to board books for adults – they are just about the same size as most board books for kids – are The Wonderful Man and I See Stupid People. The first of these could make a good companion for (or antidote to) Momnesia. It is the latest little gift book from “Edward Monkton” – pen name of British poet Giles Andreae – and includes his usual mixture of uplift and fairy-tale silliness. The man of the title is just an ordinary male, not a with-it singer or built-up beach bum or wealthy limousine owner with “a ladyfriend with overly large BREASTS and overly tight outfits.” The ordinary man is one thing those other people are not, though: he is nice, and that includes being nice to the very people who are not nice to him. And so he is rejected, reviled and abandoned by the world – just kidding! This is a Monkton book! What happens is that “small WISPS” of the ordinary man’s niceness – that is, NICENESS – spread “like seeds in the wind” and cause “twinges of NICENESS” in the impressive-but-not-nice people, who become so happy with their changed natures that they call the ordinary man “The WONDERFUL Man.” Hey…it’s a fairy tale. It will be a little too one-dimensional and silly to please either ordinary or impressive men, but it’s cute enough and well-meaning enough for a (+++) rating.

     I See Stupid People gets a (+++) rating as well. It is an often-clever rant about the office and work in general, with delightfully ragged illustrations, but Cheryl Caldwell does not seem to realize how cliché-ridden her writing frequently is: “”How can I miss you if you won’t go away?” “I’ll help you out. Which way did you come in?” Luckily, not all her writing is like that. “You inquire about [co-workers’] lives: So when’s the Wizard going to get back to you about that brain?” “Some people are like Slinkies – not really good for much, but you can’t help but smile when you see one tumble down the stairs.” On balance, I See Stupid People is childish and petulant and sometimes very funny – sort of an anti-board book, or a testament to how inadequate the niceness of children’s board books can be for adults confronted with the everyday pressures that grown-ups face.


Down, Down, Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

What’s Inside? Fascinating Structures Around the World. By Giles Laroche. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

     Here are some real-world journeys that are every bit as fascinating and surprising as most fictional ones. Down, Down, Down proceeds exactly as its title indicates: Steve Jenkins starts with a view of Earth from space, then drops to a level just above the Pacific Ocean, and then – after showing what sorts of sea creatures live near the surface (and even move into the air occasionally), he begins the long journey to the deepest spot in the ocean, almost 36,000 feet down. Near the surface, where “the water is warm and brightly lit by the sun,” we encounter familiar-looking sea creatures, accurately portrayed in Jenkins’ drawings. By a depth of 33 feet, sunlight is fading and water pressure increasing, but still the dwellers are familiar: tuna, sailfish, sea turtles and more. At 10 times that depth, though, light is far less and water pressure is 10 times what it is at the surface; here, soft, fluid-filled animals such as jellyfish thrive. Go down twice again as far, to 660 feet, and “there is not enough light for plants to survive – only animals live below this depth,” a surprising revelation for anyone who thinks of plant and animal life as inextricably intertwined. And now the denizens get stranger – this is where the goblin shark and snipe eel are found. And down, down, down readers go, encountering ever-weirder creatures as the waters become darker and the pressure vastly more intense. “Nine out of ten animals that live below the sunlit layer of the ocean are bioluminescent,” Jenkins explains – a fascinating statistic, and just one of many here. The deeper we explore, the more peculiar sea life is: the huge-mouthed pelican eel, the deep-sea jellyfish that resembles a flying saucer, the female hairy angler with a glowing lure at the end of a stalk that sticks out from her head, the small but huge-toothed loosejaw stoplight fish, and many others. Then we reach the weird layer of ooze 13,000 feet below the surface, called the abyssal plain – as strange a place as any imagined planet in science fiction, yet it is right here on Earth. And there is still more, for even in the deepest part of the ocean, an area still virtually unexplored, there is known to be life. This is a truly extraordinary tale, scientifically accurate yet as fascinating as a work of fiction, and with five pages of additional details on the animals portrayed in the book at the end – for young readers captivated by this amazing visit to the world far beneath our feet.

     There are amazements on the surface of Earth, too, and Giles Laroche explores some of them in What’s Inside? Laroche shows the outside of places both well-known (King Tut’s tomb, the Parthenon) and less familiar (the arched Puerta del Sol, through which one enters Toledo, Spain). And these are not merely monuments: Laroche takes readers inside a Shaker dairy barn in Massachusetts, a circus tent, and the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia, in each case not only showcasing the structure but also discussing the people who built it and the ones who use it today. So we learn that in the ship-shaped Georgia Aquarium, built in landlocked Atlanta, visitors can walk along a 100-foot-long glass tunnel that makes them feel as if they are under the sea. We discover that the Sydney Opera House, that Australian city’s most distinctive landmark, took 12 years to build because of the complexity of architect John Utzon’s design. We find out that the castle of Segovia, where Queen Isabella once lived, is the model for the castle at Disneyland. We discover that the temple of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza, Mexico, has four stairways, each with 91 steps – which, added to the single step at the top, makes a total of 365, the number of days in a year. Packed with pleasantly presented information and accurately rendered drawings, and offering an illustrated glossary of architectural terms at the end, What’s Inside? provides a fascinating journey through some remarkable buildings and places. An insider’s guide, you might say.


Rued Langgaard: Symphonies Nos. 1-16 (including two versions of No. 5); Drapa (On the Death of Edvard Grieg); Sphinx; Hvidbjerg-Drapa; Danmarks Radio; Res absùrda!? Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish National Choir and Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Dacapo. $69.99 (7 SACDs).

     Ostracized by the Danish musical establishment, unappreciated by audiences elsewhere in Europe even when his works could get a hearing, his career derailed by World War I after a promising symphonic debut performance in Berlin in 1913, Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) spent essentially his whole career as an outsider. He brought part of this on himself, clinging defiantly to a largely Romantic view of music in which tonality remained important and music represented a reaching for something extramusical and somehow purer and finer. But much of what happened to Langgaard was a function of rapid changes in 20th-century tastes and expectations rather than a commentary on the quality of his music. The evidence for this lies in Langgaard’s 17 symphonies, which are numbered 1-16 and which include a piano concerto and a six-minute work. Langgaard’s musical language may have been largely tonal, but his approach to the word “symphony” most emphatically was not.

     Between 1998 and 2008, Thomas Dausgaard recorded all the Langgaard symphonies and a few of his shorter orchestral works, and the totality of this production is now available as a boxed set. This will likely be a limited-interest issue, but it deserves to be more than that. For Langgaard, although he certainly has flaws, was an important 20th-century symphonist. His works have all the variety of the symphonies of Shostakovich – and are just as lacking in obvious musical progression from start to finish (in contrast to those of, say, Mahler). And Langgaard pushed the boundaries of symphonic form so far as to make listeners question the very definition of the word “symphony,” and thus to wonder about the importance of this major musical form in the 20th century and beyond.

     The longest of Langgaard’s symphonies is his first, which runs a full hour and dates to 1908-11 – it was completed when the composer was just 17. Subtitled “Klippepastoraler” (“Mountain Pastorals”), it feels in part like an extended tone poem (think of Richard Strauss’ slightly later “Alpine Symphony”) and in part like a series of five interconnected tone poems. This symphony is somewhat overinflated and overlong. The first and longest movement, subtitled “Surf and Glimpses of Sun,” would stand well on its own as a Lisztian portrait in music, but the symphony as a whole is really quite a lot to absorb, and with all its Sturm und Drang (more Sturm than Drang, actually), it is an impressive but not particularly involving work.

     Symphony No. 2, “Vårbrud” (“Awakening of Spring”), is here performed in its 1912-4 version (Langgaard revised it in 1933). A somewhat more modest and collected work than No. 1, it includes a soprano solo (here, Inger Dam-Jensen) singing the poem “Spring Sounds” by Emil Rittershaus in the third movement. This is one of those naïve “purity of nature” poems popular in the 19th century, set in a way that nicely caps this three-movement work.

     Symphony No. 3, “Ungdomsbrus – La melodia” (“The Flush of Youth”), is also in three movements; and it is really a piano concerto (the soloist here is Per Salo). Written in 1915-16 and revised between 1925 and 1933, this piece makes the pianist “first among equals” rather than a soloist dominating the musical discourse. It is well structured and contains interesting elements, such as the brief use of a wordless chorus in the finale; but it is less “symphonic” than, say, Brahms’ First Piano Concerto.

     Symphony No. 4, “Løvfald” (“Fall”), moves in a new direction, being in 13 movements – none longer than three minutes and two shorter than 60 seconds. Written in 1916 and revised in 1920, it is essentially a tone poem, with such section titles as “Glimpses of Sun,” “Thunder” and “Sunday Morning Bells” – and finishes with a movement marked “Forbi!” (“Over!”). This is Langgaard’s first self-referential and oddly titled movement but scarcely his last.

     Symphony No. 5 exists in two very different versions, being in this way akin to Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 4. Both of Langgaard’s “Nos. 5” were written in 1917-18; the first version was revised in 1926, the second in 1920 and again in 1931. The first version carries no subtitle, but the second has two: “Steppenatur” (“Steppe Landscape”) and “Sommersagnsdrama” (“Summer Legend Drama”). Langgaard seemed unsure just what he wanted from this symphony (or these symphonies). Both share some thematic material, but the four-movement first version develops it much less extensively than does the five-movement second version – although neither version runs as much as 20 minutes.

     Symphony No. 6, “Det Himmelrivende” (“The Heaven-Rending”), written in 1919-20 and revised in 1928-30, is in a single extended movement in theme-and-variations form, with the theme presented in two versions and then varied several times, including as a toccata and a fugue. By this time, Langgaard has clearly pushed the bounds of symphonic form beyond anything previously recognizable as being a “symphony,” although his language has remained largely tonal.

     The language itself starts to change with Symphony No. 7, although it is a mistake to read this work as a bright line of demarcation, since Langgaard revised so many earlier works after writing No. 7 in 1926 (there is also a revised version of this symphony, dating to 1932, but the 1926 version is played here). This work has no subtitle and is in the traditional four symphonic movements, although the movements bear some odd tempo indications (the finale is marked “Fastoso allegro”). Here Langgaard starts to assert the musical primacy of the Romantic ideal, creating a work that seems more backward-looking (assertively so) than anything since No. 1.

     Symphony No. 8, “Minder ved Amalienborg” (“Memories at Amalienborg”), is Langgaard’s second to use vocals: a tenor solo (here, Lars Petersen) and chorus. It was written in 1926-28 and revised in 1929-34. Although not a long work – it runs under 20 minutes – it is a very magisterial one, with words (in the third movement, not the concluding fourth) referring to a passage in the Book of Revelation.

     Symphony No. 9, “Fra Dronning Dagmars By” (“From Queen Dagmar’s City”), came only after a long hiatus during which Langgaard revised his symphonies but created no new ones. It dates to 1942 and combines elements of traditional symphonic structure (four movements with standard tempo indications) with ones of tone poems (each movement represents a scene involving the city of Ribe).

     Symphony No. 10, “Hin Torden-bolig” (“Yon Hall of Thunder”), fits the “tone poem” designation even more clearly, being written as a single extended movement and sounding quite a bit like a work by Richard Strauss. It dates to 1944-45 and looks back in some ways to Nos. 6 and 9, while in other ways developing Langgaard’s commitment to tonality and the Romantic ideal of music “standing for” something “beyond” music even further. It was written at the same time as the genuinely strange Symphony No. 11, “Ixion,” which is Langgaard’s shortest symphony (running just six minutes) and is monothematic – a puzzling work that Langgaard may have labeled “symphony” in part to show just how far he felt he could (and needed to) push the form.

     Even stranger, and not much longer (seven minutes), is Langgaard’s first post-World War II symphony, No. 12, “Hélsingeborg,” which dates to 1946. There are no fewer than 12 tempo indications in this short work, and many of them use exclamation points to emphasize an outlook that is somewhere between surrealistic and just plain weird: “Fornemt!” (“In a distinguished manner!”) and “Som trivielle dommedagsbasuner!” (“Like trivial last trumpets!”), for example. The final section – amid musical language that is still largely Romantic, although increasingly absurdist – is marked “Amok! En komponist eksploderer” (“Amok! A composer explodes”).

     After this, Symphony No. 13, “Undertro” (“Belief in Wonders”), seems almost conventional. Dating to 1946-47, it is another work in essentially a single extended movement, although it has seven clearly denoted sections and the overall feeling of acceleration almost throughout (four movements contain the word “hurtigt” [“fast”] in one form or another).

     Symphony No. 14, “Morgenen” (“The Morning”), is another vocal work, and Langgaard actually designated it “Suite for choir and orchestra” even though he also called it a symphony. Written partly in 1947-48 and completed in 1951, it is in seven movements with such titles as “De trætte står op til livet” (“The tired get up for life”) and “‘Farmænd’ farer til kontoret” (“‘Dads’ rush to the office”). Its portrayal of modern life and its accompanying angst is set against words from the Bible and, in the final movement, Langgaard’s own ironic exclamation, “Long live beauty!”

     Symphony No. 15, “Søstormen” (“The Sea Storm”), was started in 1937 but not completed until 1949. It contains a short, very effective and surprisingly lyrical Scherzo, but its Adagio funebre slow movement is more Romantic in form than in substance. However, the final movement is quite impressive. This symphony is for bass-baritone solo (here, Johan Reuter), male chorus and orchestra, and the finale is an effective tone painting of a poem called “Stormy Night” by Thøger Larsen.

     Symphony No. 16 is called “Syndflod af Sol” (“Sun Deluge”) and was seen by Langgaard as summing up his life’s work; he wrote it in 1950-51. Like No. 15, it has a very short and effective scherzo and a significantly longer but not completely gripping slow movement, here labeled Elegi (“Elegy”). This is a somewhat scattered work, incorporating a variety of techniques and looking back at some of Langgaard’s earlier pieces – perhaps less a summation than a revisiting of some of the journeys on which the composer went.

     The Dacapo boxed set also includes a few shorter Langgaard works that in some cases are more effective than his longer-form ones. Drapa (an Old Norse poem of homage) and the tone poem Sphinx, both of whose final versions date to 1913, are atmospheric and show a strong command of orchestral color. The remaining works all date to 1948 and have not been recorded before. Danmarks Radio, a short series of fanfares, is nothing much, but Hvidbjerg-Drapa, for choir, organ and orchestra, is highly impressive. It recalls a 13th-century murder in a church in Jutland and is both grand and emotionally impressive – all within three minutes.

     And then we have the most “modern” (or modernistic) work of all: Res absùrda!? for choir and orchestra. The words of the title are repeated, again and again, faster and faster, as the orchestra sends out a series of yawps in accompaniment. The piece seems self-referentially to comment on some of Langgaard’s own excesses in symphonic compression and odd titling, but it is also an indictment of technique for its own sake, and a critique of composers who avowedly turned their backs on the Romanticism that Langgaard continued to embrace. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to think about other mid-20th-century composers using elements of its approach seriously.

     These recordings are uniformly excellent in both sound and performance, arguing very strongly that Langgaard’s music – which is not always easily approachable, despite its largely tonal language – deserves to be much more widely known. The only disappointment here is the very sketchy enclosed booklet, which does not even discuss all the symphonies; does not explain the meanings of any of the works’ titles, which are by no means always easily correlated with the music; and does not even provide biographies of all the vocal soloists. It is extraordinarily poorly done – but not poorly enough to detract significantly from the wonderful job that Dausgaard and his musicians have done with Langgaard’s music itself.


Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: Suite from “I gioielli della Madonna”; Prelude and Intermezzo from “I quattro rusteghi”; Suite-Concertante for Bassoon and Orchestra; Overture and Intermezzo from “Il segreto di Susanna”; Overture and Intermezzo from “L’amore medico”; Intermezzo and Ritornello from “Il Campiello”; Overture from “La dama boba.” Karen Geoghegan, bassoon; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $18.99.

Franz Schmidt: Symphony No. 1; Introduction, Interlude and Carnival Music from “Notre Dame.” Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vassily Sinaisky. Naxos. $8.99.

Daron Hagen: Shining Brow. Robert Orth, baritone; Brenda Harris, soprano; Robert Frankenberry, tenor; Matthew Curran, bass-baritone; Elaine Valby, mezzo-soprano; Gilda Lyons, soprano; Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, the Italian-born composer whose works for many years were more successful in Germany than in his home country, remains best known today for his lighthearted romp, Il segreto di Susanna, a period piece (1909) in which Susanna’s husband suspects she has a secret lover but her actual secret is that she has picked up the then-scandalous habit of cigarette smoking. But the bright and bustling music of this one-act comedy is far from representative of Wolf-Ferrari’s 14 operas. Nor is the work for which this composer is most notorious: I gioielli della Madonna (1911), his sole venture into verismo, which includes everything from an on-stage orgy scene to love between a brother and his (adopted) sister. As it happens, the four-movement suite from I gioielli della Madonna that the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda plays with such spirit on the new Chandos Wolf-Ferrari CD shows the composer’s fluency with melody, his knack for beauty and his distinctly Rossinian roots. But there is more to Wolf-Ferrari than these two operas, and this disc provides an unusual chance to hear music from some of his other works. It turns out that tunefulness, limpid orchestration and hummable melodies are characteristics shown by Wolf-Ferrari throughout his career, as early as I quattro rusteghi (1906) and as late as La dama boba (1939, based on a Spanish play and with its title in Spanish). A few of the operatic excerpts here also show the composer’s skill at writing for solo instruments: the Intermezzo from Il segreto di Susanna showcases John Bradbury’s fine clarinet playing, while the one from L’amore medico has lovely solo cello work by Peter Dixon. And then there is the one non-operatic work here, the Suite-Concertante for Bassoon and Orchestra, which gives Karen Geoghegan ample opportunity to show herself highly expressive in the first movement and quite jaunty in the remaining three. The cumulative effect of this CD is to show that Wolf-Ferrari’s melodic inventiveness was substantial and is worth hearing more frequently.

     Franz Schmidt was a far less prolific composer than Wolf-Ferrari, and he wrote only two operas, Notre Dame (based on the Victor Hugo novel) and Fredigundis. The Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Vassily Sinaisky plays three excerpts from Act I of Notre Dame with intensity and depth on the new Naxos CD of Schmidt’s music. Notre Dame dates to 1904-6, three decades before Schmidt’s huge oratorio, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln, but already in this opera the composer is showing his mastery of large orchestral forces and his ability to produce telling effects – notably, in these excerpts, with the harp. This music ties clearly back to that of Wagner, but already displays signs of originality in structure. Schmidt’s first symphony (he wrote four) also ties back: written in 1899, it sounds more like a mid-19th-century work than like one written on the eve of a new century. It is nevertheless an impressive achievement, with fine writing for all sections of the orchestra, a generally upbeat mood, and a particularly interesting scherzo marked Schnell und leicht. Although the work breaks no new harmonic ground, it shows Schmidt’s early mastery of large forces – he was 25 when he wrote the symphony – and indicates that a release of Schmidt’s later symphonic works would be most welcome.

     Like Schmidt, American composer Daron Hagen (born 1961 in Milwaukee) has four symphonies to his credit; but unlike Schmidt, he has a strong operatic focus, with four of his six operas set to libretti by Paul Muldoon. The first of these, Shining Brow (1992), is now available on CD for the first time, and it is a considerable achievement. The title is the English translation of the Welsh Taliesin, the name of one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous and ill-starred houses, and the opera is a set of scenes about Wright, two of the women in his life, and his relationship with Taliesin and with the architectural establishment. Hagen is essentially a tonal composer, but Shining Brow is also filled with polytonality (reflecting the interrelationship of principal characters) and a variety of 20th-century techniques (reflecting their emotional state). It is an impressive if, oddly, a rather dry opera, considering its emotionally explosive content. Part of it involves the estrangement of Wright (Robert Orth) from Louis Sullivan (Robert Frankenberry), an establishment-architecture figure. Even more of it involves Wright’s initially passionate affair with an early feminist, Mamah Cheney (Brenda Harris), whose husband, Edwin (Matthew Curran) will not grant her a divorce – just as Wright’s wife, Catherine (Elaine Valby) will not set Wright free (they had been married 20 years and had six children when the affair with Mamah Cheney began). Hagen’s opera jumps from scene to scene as Wright meets Mamah Cheney, designs Taliesen, “elopes” to Europe with Mamah (who becomes increasingly dissatisfied with their relationship, in scenes that parallel Sullivan’s dissatisfaction with Wright on a professional level), and eventually returns to the United States and a completed Taliesen. Then the opera plunges into tragedy as Taliesin is destroyed by fire, Mamah and her two children are killed, and four other people also die – an event that really happened in 1914 when a hatchet-wielding employee committed mass murder and arson, then killed himself. This is certainly tragedy at an operatic level, but it fits a trifle uneasily into Shining Brow, since the work’s episodic structure never really prepares the audience for what is going to happen – and the tragedy itself, in the opera as in real life, seems to have no direct connection with Wright’s personal or professional activities. On balance, Shining Brow is an often-effective opera that it is good to have on CD – JoAnn Falletta keeps everything moving smartly, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra handle their roles with strength and even passion. This Naxos set is a worthwhile purchase for anyone curious about one direction that American opera is now taking.


Toscanini: In His Own Words. A film by Larry Weinstein. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

Martha Argerich Plays Mozart – Live from Tokyo. Opus Arte DVD. $29.99.

Amor, Vida de Mi Vida: Zarzuelas with Plácido Domingo and Ana María Martínez. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

     Performers today generally are quite public about what they do – not just during concerts but between them. Whether through self-aggrandizement or a desire to bring additional attention to the music they offer to the public, they appear on TV and the Internet, make lots of recordings, grant plenty of interviews and generally put themselves as well as their performances “out there” for the world. There are certainly exceptions – Sviatoslav Richter comes immediately to mind – but in general, the idea of an unassuming superstar performer is something of a contradiction in terms. But this was not so in earlier days, and Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) was an exemplar of those times. Aristocratic and autocratic on the podium, Toscanini was famous (or notorious) for letting his interpretations stand on their own. He was not known to be introspective – he left no diaries or journals – and he did not grant interviews. So for those who remember Toscanini and were influenced by him, Larry Weinstein’s film, Toscanini: In His Own Words, is a 70-minute gem. The key to it is secretly recorded conversations of Toscanini speaking with his children and friends in the last three years of his life – 150 hours of private talks recorded by the conductor’s son, Walter. To say that Toscanini would have disapproved of this is a vast understatement – he would have been horrified and likely in a towering rage. But 50 years after the conductor’s death, the recordings were made available to Weinstein and his film coauthor, Harvey Sachs. That is the good news. The bad news is that these were audio recordings only, and the film itself is strictly a reenactment (and thus an interpretation) of Toscanini’s thoughts on music, family, love and his own early career. With Barry Jackson as Arturo Toscanini and Joseph Long as Walter Toscanini, Weinstein’s film has a sense of family intimacy that is as false as any reenactment must inevitably be; and because Toscanini’s comments are on a wide variety of subjects, the film itself is a once-over-lightly of the maestro’s thoughts rather than an in-depth study of them. So if this is a gem for Toscanini fans because of its underlying content, it is at best semi-precious for those less familiar with the great conductor or those hoping for greater insight into his performances.

     The live recording of Martha Argerich’s concert on January 27, 2005, at Sumida Triphony Hall in Tokyo, is more typical of what today’s audiences have come to expect to see from performers. This was one of three concerts that Argerich gave to honor the memory of her teacher, Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000). In fact, in addition to Argerich herself, Gulda’s sons, Paul and Rico, also perform as pianists – in Mozart’s Concerto for Three Pianos, K. 242. This 1776 concerto, often called “Lodron” because it was commissioned by Countess Antonia Lodron to be played with her two daughters, Aloysia and Giuseppa, is a work suitable for talented amateurs – and one often used for special multiple-piano occasions such as this Argerich concert. It sounds fine here, and it is enjoyable to watch the three pianists (and the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Christian Arming); but the DVD format adds little on a strictly musical level to the performance. The same is true for Argerich’s performance of Piano Concerto No. 20, the orchestra’s handling of the brief Symphony No. 32, and the rest of the music here, which includes one non-Mozart element that sticks out like a sore thumb: the third movement of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, in which Argerich is joined by violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Gautier Capuçon. The performances are all fine, and Argerich’s tribute to Gulda is certainly heartfelt, but there is nothing very special about the DVD except that it gives Argerich fans a chance to see as well as hear her at one particular concert.

     There is something special about Amor, Vida de Mi Vida, even though this is also a “fan” DVD. This 2007 Salzburg Festival performance came about when tenor Rolando Villazón became ill and could not perform with his frequent vocal partner, soprano Ana María Martínez. And who stepped in to save that evening’s concert? None other than Plácido Domingo, who despite his association with traditional opera is also a strong supporter of the Spanish zarzuela – indeed, he was born in Madrid to parents who were zarzuela performers. Domingo was 66 at the time of this performance, and although his voice retains considerable beauty, it is not quite the finely lyrical instrument that it once was. But that scarcely mattered to the Salzburg audience and will surely not matter to the Domingo (and Martínez) fans who will be most attracted to this DVD. Those who are unfamiliar with zarzuela music will not recognize the names of many of the composers here (Federico Cheuca, Reveriano Soutullo Otero, Pablo Sorozábal and others), nor will they know the names of the works from which the arias are taken (El bateo, Los claveles, Don Gil de Alcalá, La marchenera, and so forth). But anyone seeing and hearing this DVD will enjoy the high spirits of the music and the singers, as well as the excellent support from the Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg under Jesús López Cobos. Actually, it is the orchestra that performs the best-known music here: excerpts from Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo and El sombrero de tres picos. And it is a non-zarzuela encore that is one of the high points on the DVD: “Lippen schweigen,” the famous waltz from Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow. A number of the zarzuela arias tend to blend together, although in a generally very pleasant (and often sensuous) way. So although this is a DVD for fans of the two singers and of zarzuelas, it is a particularly enjoyable offering, even though, at 101 minutes, it does provide something of an overdose of short musical excerpts.

April 16, 2009


Bow-Wow’s Colorful Life; Bow-Wow 12 Months Running. By Mark Newgarden & Megan Montague Cash. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $4.99 each.

The Giant Jam Sandwich. Story and pictures by John Vernon Lord, with verses by Janet Burroway. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

     The youngest children deserve the special attention they get from publishers – after all, the younger they are when they start enjoying books, the longer their relationship with publishers’ future volumes will be. Add to this understandable (and understated) commercial motivation the simple fact that well-done board books can be excellent ways to introduce kids to all sorts of concepts, and you have a potentially wonderful melding of form and substance. But it is only potential – until authors such as Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash come along. Newgarden and Cash’s silent but always expressive canine, Bow-Wow, has consistently amusing and interesting adventures that fit perfectly into board books. Bow-Wow’s Colorful Life, about colors, and Bow-Wow 12 Months Running, about the months of the year, are delightful mixtures of whimsy and education – as entertaining for parents as for young children. The key to both books is repetition-with-a-difference – the repetition itself helping learning and the difference keeping things interesting for both adults and kids. Bow-Wow’s Colorful Life starts with our intrepid dog following someone who is walking in socks, and sniffing determinedly at the foot covering. When the person, seen only from the ankle down, sits, Bow-Wow pulls off a sock (“Red!” says the single word on the page) – revealing another sock underneath. Bow-Wow pulls that one off: “Orange!” And so on, through yellow, green, blue and purple, until finally a foot is revealed – which Bow-Wow appreciatively licks. In Bow-Wow 12 Months Running, the title explains everything: the dog, startled by a man blowing a New Year’s noisemaker, runs from page to page, with the name of a month at the top of each page and some very clever drawings. Snow is falling on Bow-Wow in January; by February only his ears and tail tip can be seen; in May he demurely pees (maybe she, from the position of his or her hindquarters), causing flowers to grow; in August, the whole page is red and we see a hot, panting dog in the midst of the “dog days” of summer; and so on. As always, there is an amusing surprise at the end of the book: someone else with a New Year’s noisemaker – this time a baby, whose antics finally bring Bow-Wow to a stop. The bright colors, simple but effective drawings, and well-thought-out story lines make these new Bow-Wow board books, like earlier ones, a real family treat. They certainly have the wow factor – or, if you prefer, the Bow-Wow factor.

     The Giant Jam Sandwich comes to board-book format differently but is, in its own way, just as much fun. John Vernon Lord’s book, originally published back in 1972, was distinguished not only for its gently absurd story (which involves using a giant jam sandwich to trap wasps that have been disturbing the peace of a town called Itching Down) but also for its detailed art. The art does not translate perfectly to reduced board-book size, especially when formerly full-page illustrations from a larger edition are turned into half-page ones in this smaller format. Nevertheless, the sheer exuberant absurdity of the tale comes through very well here, and a few of the illustrations – notably the one showing a giant loaf of bread taking up almost a whole page – work just as well as they ever did. The fun here will come as parents read the amusing rhymes with which Janet Burroway presents Lord’s story (“A truck drew up and dumped out butter,/ And they spread it out with a flap and a flutter./ Spoons and spades! Slap and slam!/ And they did the same with the strawberry jam”) while kids pore over every little detail of the drawings: the individually crafted townsfolk, their many different expressions, the details of tree branches and thatched roofs, the bricks of the old mill where the giant loaf is baked, and much more. The Giant Jam Sandwich will appeal to slightly older children than the Bow-Wow books will; and by the time kids are ready to read the jam tale by themselves, they should, with any luck, be ready to start reading some simple non-board books – gateways to a lifetime of learning and adventure. And if that’s not a wow factor, what is?


If You Weren’t a Hedgehog…If I Weren’t a Hemophiliac… By Andrew Weldon. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

F Minus: This Can’t Be Legal. By Tony Carrillo. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Brevity 4. By Guy Endore-Kaiser and Rodd Perry. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Suture Self: A Book of Medical Cartoons. By Leo Cullum. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     There is something particularly pithy – that’s p-i-T-H-y – about single-panel cartoons. Often thought of as the province of editorial cartoonists (although some of those nowadays work in multiple panels), the single-panel comic does indeed date back hundreds of years as an editorial device. But as entertainment, it also has a long history, all the way back to Richard Outcault’s “Yellow Kid,” a turn-of-the-last-century Alfred E. Newman prototype who made his observations via writing on his Zippy-like garment. Nowadays, single-panel cartooning is flourishing for both good and not-so-good reasons. On the positive side, single panels make their point quickly and, when well done, provoke an instant guffaw (or at least a chuckle). On the negative side, newspapers – whose ongoing shrinkage of space for cartoons has almost reached the point at which the papers will have to start giving out magnifying glasses to readers of the comics – can fit several different single-panel offerings in the space needed for just one multi-panel strip.

     Thank goodness there are so many good single-panel cartoonists out there, operating in blissful ignorance of the economic pressures facing their field – or at least not letting those pressures pinch their senses of humor. Good single-panel cartoons can be found worldwide: A. Weldon’s delightfully weird book, If You Weren’t a Hedgehog…If I Weren’t a Hemophiliac… comes from Australia. Weldon’s skewed worldview translates to this side of the Pacific quite well, despite an occasional “too right” or a reference to “biros” (pens, that is). A ditzy woman asks a man who is missing one arm and one leg whether he has recently lost weight; a pirate mistakenly wanders into a Pilates group; a doctor tells a drug-addicted patient that methadone is also known as “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Heroin”; two desert-island castaways think "Gilligan’s Island” is a reality show; a product called “There, There Absorbent Shoulder Pads” is recommended for guys who often have women crying on their shoulders; and so on. Weldon’s drawings fit his oddly skewed view of life exceptionally well, as he manages to capture everything from the expression of a woman from “Bourgeoisie sans Frontieres” (goal: clean, bottled mineral water for Africa) to those of two “starving economists reduced to eating pie graphs.” This is humor that is decidedly off the beaten path.

     F Minus and Brevity have their share of weirdness, too. These are distinctly American strips, but their peculiarities would also likely cross borders quite well. For example, in Brevity 4, Guy & Rodd (as they sign themselves) present a king objecting to the attentions of the paparazzi (painters); a “comic mom” tells her kids that the world isn’t always black and white – specifically, not on Sundays; ants hesitate to eat mayonnaise at a picnic because it has been out in the hot sun for a while; an insecure comedian does his act at a hyena enclosure; a fashion designer explains that for his latest line, he bought clothes at Target and changed the labels. You get the idea, or rather the ideas – mostly presented in only a few words (hence the Brevity title) and with drawings that are just peculiar enough to reflect the underlying strangeness of the thoughts. The F Minus drawings are more consistent in style, and this strip is a bit of an oddity in that its single panel takes up as much room as a multi-panel strip – so much for space saving at newspapers. Tony Carrillo’s strip is worth the space it needs, though, because his panel layouts are clean, without wasted space, and he thinks horizontally in terms of character and word placement. He thinks peculiarly, too: instead of sleepwalking, a boss indulges in “sleep firing”; the final exam at a karate studio is a woman with a bat; a mismatched couple tries to decide whether to name the baby Colin Timothy or Earthlove Rainflower; the devils in Hell make up their minds to uninstall the fire extinguishers; vegetarian zombies march through fields demanding grains; artificial turf comes with plastic bugs – this is the way the world really almost is.

     And then there’s the world of The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker, where single-panel cartooning meets esoterica. But not all New Yorker cartoons are abstruse or strongly oriented toward the denizens of a certain big city. Leo Cullum’s medical cartoons strike the funnybone almost every time. Cullum’s style is immediately recognizable – all those long-nosed, lumpy men, plus an occasional cow or lion. And he certainly has his finger (or some other part of his body) on the wonders of modern medicine. One man in a bar to another: “I’m taking my Viagra with Prozac. If it doesn’t work I don’t care.” Pediatrician dressed in “child-friendly” getup to patient: “Of course I’m a real doctor. Would I be sticking you with this big needle if I were a clown?” Doctor to patient: “You have a generic illness. Generic drugs should work fine.” Doctor to man with a lightbulb head: “You’ve got moths.” Mouse to lion with thorn in its paw: “I’d like to help, but you’re in a different HMO.” This is humor that’s a bit highbrow without being self-consciously snooty – and with a whole book of Cullum’s cartoons, you don’t have to say you buy The New Yorker for the articles.