December 29, 2011


Red Rascal’s War: A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     The superlatives for Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury keep on coming, mounting into a crescendo of absurdity as writers for highly respected publications compare the cartoonist to Tolstoy, Dickens and Trollope – all of which comparisons are included, hopefully tongue-in-cheek, in the latest Doonesbury collection. There is no doubt that Trudeau has elevated the comic-strip medium in some ways, extended it in others, and refined it in still others. But there is also no doubt, as Red Rascal’s War shows clearly, that Trudeau is not an especially deep or original thinker and does not create, or intend to create, characters indicative of the human condition and to whom readers are supposed to respond strongly and with deep emotion. Some readers do respond that way nevertheless, when Trudeau tugs the heartstrings a certain way or sets up situations that parallel those of a given group of real-world readers; but the reality is that Trudeau is a “cause” cartoonist who happens to have so many causes that he needs an exceptionally wide canvas on which to portray all of them – especially within the limitations of a daily strip that, by its nature, can explore only one snippet of one part of one element of the world on any given day.

     Doonesbury reads better in book form than as a daily strip, where things are generally in medias res and the uninitiated can easily be confused about who is doing what to whom, when and why. Red Rascal’s War is a particularly attractive presentation of the strip: every entry is in color, and the hardcover book is hefty, handsome and very well produced. The content, though, for better or worse, is the same that Trudeau has produced reliably for four decades: lots of commentary on the politics of the day (in ways that quickly become dated), interspersed with thoughts about war in general, human relationships in general, and the interconnection of the characters in the strip’s many threads in general. Red Rascal, for example, is the make-believe, super-heroic alter ego and wish fulfillment of Jeff Redfern, 27-year-old perpetual screwup who has ended up with the CIA in Afghanistan (along with Havoc, a recurring character from way back); Jeff’s dad, Rick Redfern, longtime Washington Post reporter, is now out of work and blogging. Jeff crosses paths with Melissa, who has re-upped after working through the severe psychological fallout of being raped while in service; Melissa has gone through treatment at the same place where BD, onetime football hero and an original Doonesbury cast member, is still trying to cope with the return to civilian life, where his loss of a leg in combat is the least of his issues. BD, football coach at Walden College, discusses the school with Toggle, who has a traumatic brain injury from his service and is also the highly improbable boyfriend of Alex Doonesbury, daughter of the strip’s nominal title character, Mike Doonesbury – while Mike’s mom worries about where the grandchildren are (or rather, why there aren’t any) and whether she would be better off dying as the nonexistent “death panels” would prefer.

     And so on, and on, and on. History often moves too fast for the topicality of Doonesbury – the whole “death panels” sequence, for one, seems quite outdated, and in general the overtly political strips (such as a number of them that assume former Alaska governor Sarah Palin is front-and-center in public consciousness) do not wear well at all. A few direct political barbs still seem to have currency, such as suggestions that President Obama is an unintentional master of cognitive dissonance (Trudeau is often accused of attacking only the political right wing, and while that is certainly his primary target, it is not his only one). But it is the interpersonal strips that stand up best, such as ones in which Alex runs into conflicts with Toggle’s mother and also with her own neuroses and sense of how high-maintenance she is. Trudeau’s art has become one of the best things about the strip, and it looks exceptionally good in Red Rascal’s War, with the individuation of characters handled with tremendous skill. But with Trudeau, it is never really the characters that matter, and this is why all the comparisons between him and great novelists of the past are so misguided. Trudeau designs, selects and modifies characters in order to make specific points, usually about issues of the day. Anything he reveals about the intricacies of the human spirit and human relationships is a sidelight, not the primary reason for his strip’s existence. Doonesbury is an extraordinary production in many ways, and the sheer overwhelming complexity of its world sets it well apart from any other comic strip ever produced. But it is scarcely a profound strip – and it does not have to be one. Trudeau is limning elements of the real world through creation of an alternative one that touches on reality so closely and so often that it is almost possible to confuse the two. Almost. But as Trudeau manipulates his characters on the vast chessboard he has designed, it is clear that he keeps the real world and the Doonesbury world just separate enough so he can use one to comment on the other. At his best, he does so pointedly and with considerable skill; and as Red Rascal’s War shows, he is at his best quite often these days.


Liesl & Po. By Lauren Oliver. Illustrated by Kei Acedera. Harper. $16.99.

The Magic Cake Shop. By Meika Hashimoto. Illustrations by Josée Masse. Random House. $15.99.

Hell Is for Real, Too. By “Skip Shmuley.” Illustrations by Leif Parsons. Plume. $13.

     By turns gentle, amusing, involving, comforting and scary, Lauren Oliver’s Liesl & Po is a wonderful story of magic, mystery and wonder. It starts with perhaps a few too many threads, but Oliver quickly pulls them together and shows their interrelationships, which then become the movers of the plot. There is Liesl, who desperately misses her father, who has just died – she was unable to say goodbye to him in the hospital because her stepmother would not allow her to go there. There is Po, a ghost who has noticed Liesl’s drawings from the Other Side and has also noticed that she has not done any for three days (since her father’s death); and who, when wondering why not, suddenly turns up in Liesl’s room – not to haunt her but to find out what is wrong. Po is accompanied by Bundle, a “shaggy thing [that] made a noise somewhere between a bark and a meow,” because on the Other Side, things blur, and Bundle is not quite a cat and not quite a dog…just as Po is not quite a girl and not quite a boy. There is also Will, who has seen Liesl at her window and, like Po, has been concerned about and interested in her – and who is an alchemist’s apprentice, charged with delivering an important box of magic that he manages to misplace in the midst of his errand, ending up instead with a box containing the ashes of Liesl’s recently deceased father. The improbability of the characters, the events affecting them, and the coincidences through which they meet and interact is substantial – but not at all relevant to the delights of the story. Liesl asks Po to search for her father on the Other Side so Liesl can say a proper goodbye, and Po thinks of all the reasons that is impossible: “People lost shapes quickly on the Other Side, and memories, too: They became blurry.” But he agrees to try to help, in return for a drawing, which Liesl makes him; and eventually, after Po does succeed in locating Mr. Morbower, Po learns – and helps Liesl learn – that something is very wrong with Liesl’s stepmother, Augusta. Indeed, as in many fairy tales, Augusta fits the “evil stepmother” role quite neatly; but here too, Oliver tells the story in a way that transcends cliché – helped by very fine illustrations by Kei Acedera, which make characters and settings alike come alive. Eventually Liesl finds herself shut in a room, all alone, without food, “trapped, with no possibility of escape,” until she comes up with the impossible idea of having Po take her out through the Other Side – in a scary scene that, in context, makes perfect sense. The eventual climax, in which multiple characters are shown to be other than what they seem, while others are reunited and some are separated and the whole mixture is stirred to perfection and served piping hot, is truly wonderful – and wonder-filled. Liesl & Po is one of those stories that, although written for eight-to-12-year-olds, can stay with young readers long after it is finished, gaining in meaning and impact over time.

     The Magic Cake Shop is far more straightforward, but this (+++) book has many charms of its own. Meika Hashimoto’s debut novel, whose cartoonish illustrations by Josée Masse fit the story very well indeed, is about Emma Burblee, would-be baker, who is the child of the rich, highly attractive, spoiled and extremely self-centered Mr. and Mrs. Burblee. Experts at using their beauty to make even more money than they already have, the Burblees are just the sort of caricatures to whom adults as well as the book’s preteen audience will want to say “yuck.” Mr. Burblee, for instance, comments on the way he makes even more money through his Chic-Chic hat store than he already has: “The trick…is to make women feel rotten about themselves. Once you make them feel ugly, they’ll be desperate to buy anything that seems to make them instantly beautiful.” This is perhaps a little too close to home for the diet, lingerie and perfume industries, but here it is used to show just how different Emma is from her odious parents. Emma’s appearance is far too ordinary for the adult Burblees’ taste, and she refuses to “improve” her looks at beauty salons or through ear piercing, eyebrow plucking, teeth straightening or extensive makeup use. Emma also is developing a social conscience, a major no-no for her self-involved parents – and worst of all, she has “endless curiosity about food.” The Burblees have a cook, a really nasty piece of business named Mrs. Piffle, who makes sure everyone eats only low-calorie foods and forbids Emma to eat anything at all outside the home. Clearly this Cinderella tale is ripe for the intervention of someone magical, and that is just what it gets. After Emma rescues a beautiful dessert cookbook that her mother receives as a gift and promptly throws away, she starts baking, to the utter horror of her parents, to whom she proudly shows her first attempt – only to be told to get rid of “that hideous thing” and be prepared to eat only radishes when Mrs. Piffle is not around. The Burblees then send Emma to stay with highly unpleasant Uncle Simon for the summer, and while she is there, being called a “brat,” an “ignorant twit,” a “little pipsqueak” and a “detestable slug,” she meets Mr. Crackle, baker extraordinaire, and also makes some friends – Mrs. Dimple and Albie. The rest of the book involves nefarious plans by Uncle Simon, who is in cahoots with the equally evil Maximus Beedy in a scheme that would ruin Mr. Crackle; Emma’s determination to foil the scheme; and her discovery of just how magical Mr. Crackle’s shop is. This leads to amusing warnings, such as one about separating “the biddle hegs from the wibbly cobbleseed,” because “if they touch each other, they form a vapor that turns your head into a pumpkin.” And one about not using too much aurora borealis dust in a chocolate soufflé – one man who ate an over-dusted one “shrank to the size of a gingerbread man and floated out of the shop,” although feeding him rock candy eventually anchored him back on the ground. Food-based transformations turn out to be quite useful for undoing the nefarious plots of the nefarious plotters, and Emma ends up happily baking at Mr. Crackle’s shop – although Hashimoto seems to have forgotten that Emma’s parents will at some point return for her and make her life miserable again. Or perhaps the author has a sequel in mind….

     Hell Is for Real, Too is not a sequel but a parody – specifically of Heaven Is for Real, a million-selling book in which an evangelical pastor claims his son fell into a coma, went to Heaven and returned. Despite the “child” connection, this bit of sophomoric writing, a very thin paperback that costs about 10 cents a page, is intended for adults. Ones who enjoy silliness and/or have read Heaven Is for Real and wished someone would take the opposite tack will give the book a (++) rating, but others will find even that modest ranking to be generous. The pseudonymous Skip Shmuley, who is supposedly a TV comedy writer (which would explain the preponderance of the book’s humor, which focuses on sex, excrement and minor celebrities), dies after a botched vasectomy performed by “illegal immigrants from Canada,” is sent to Hell by Jesus (who talks to him in Spanish), and soon finds himself in a place where “the room temperature was approaching sixteen thousand degrees,” asking for “some SPF 6000.” Skip describes the various “rooms” of Hell, where reside child stars, parents who used “my child is student of the month” bumper stickers, bloggers, midlevel city officials, and so on. The quality of the writing and humor may be judged from the comment about “the special room for people with OCD. This room is unlocked, with a doorway that leads directly to a back stairway out of hell that goes straight into heaven. You’re free to leave at any time. Unfortunately no one is willing to touch the doorknob, nor can they get their feet positioned just right on the tiles in the foyer.” Occasional illustrations by Leif Parsons are in the same spirit. One, for example, illustrates the author’s discussion with Satan about passing gas in an elevator – showing one person standing upright and four others in various stages of collapse. Satan eventually decides to send Skip back to Earth to do three tasks: file an extension on Satan’s taxes; attend a theological debate about whether there is a Hell and tell the theologians that yes, there is; and “reveal to humanity the coming apocalypse.” The book lumbers on through all this (you wouldn’t think so short a book could lumber, but this one does), and eventually Skip explains “little-known facts about Hell,” such as the fact that not even Satan can get a steak cooked rare there; “things to do in Hell,” such as visiting a sports bar to watch “Asian amateur jai alai and major league soccer”; and the “most interesting people you’ll meet in Hell,” such as the Kardashian sisters (“well, just the ugly ones”) and “anyone who’s ever played Angry Birds.” If this sort of humor is your thing, you will enjoy this “middle-aged accountant’s astounding story of his trip to Hell and back.” If not, you may find the book to be Hell on Earth…well, no. It’s not bad enough to be worthy of such a lofty condemnation. Heck on Earth, perhaps.


User Unfriendly. By Vivian Vande Velde. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $6.95.

Heir Apparent. By Vivian Vande Velde. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $6.95.

Framed. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Even when they do not wear particularly well, Vivian Vande Velde’s novels about role-playing games gone wrong make enjoyable pastimes. The gaming universe has changed dramatically since User Unfriendly was published in 1991 and Heir Apparent in 2002, but new paperback editions of the books are enjoyable nonetheless, now reading as if they mix a certain amount of nostalgia with intricate plotting and some clever twists. User Unfriendly features eighth-grade hacker Arvin Ruzalli and six other teenagers in a fantasy-role-playing game that plugs directly into their brains – no computer interface required. One of the interesting angles here is that Arvin’s mom is in the game, too – not a very imaginable circumstance, perhaps, but one that produces a lot of the game’s twists, turns and humor. The humor helps, since there is darkness here as well: Arvin finds glitches in the game and issues involving his mom that seem to interfere with her ability to play. The book is all about the real and imaginary worlds intersecting in potentially deadly ways – just how deadly is not revealed until the last couple of pages – but it is not about character development or clear motivation, any more than video games themselves are. Readers willing just to accept Arvin and his friends at face value, or at their face value as game characters, will enjoy a roller-coaster ride filled with trolls, werewolves, giant rats and the other typical denizens of gaming circa 1991. In much the same way, readers who do not expect too much from Heir Apparent will have a good time with it. Here the protagonist is female: 14-year-old Giannine Bellisario. She is no hacker, but she is a determined game player – and a good thing, too. The company that makes the game here is the same one responsible for User Unfriendly: the fictitious Rasmussem Enterprises. This time, too, there is confluence and conflict involving the real and gaming worlds, but this time the setup is cleverer: when Giannine shows up to play the game, an anti-gaming group called Citizens to Protect Our Children is protesting the “satanism” of video games – and while Giannine plays, members of the group vandalize Rasmussem’s equipment. The result is that Giannine may die of “brain overload” in the real world if she is not successful at completing her quest in the virtual one. Never mind the fact that this is nonsense – the premise is a good one (and Vande Velde’s dislike of holier-than-thou anti-video-game crusaders is quite clear). Giannine is a gaming novice and repeatedly dies in the game, but of course not for real. In fact, she learns from her mistakes, as gamers are supposed to do, and eventually wins through to become the fantasy world’s new ruler, that being the game’s objective. As in her earlier book, Vande Velde creates some intriguing situations here, from a statue that is prone to chopping off people’s heads to a centipede-eating wizard. Heir Apparent is a better-written book than User Unfriendly, with a more interesting (if somewhat overly complex) story line and a better-developed central character. Giannine’s sarcastic sense of humor is a big plus. Neither of these gaming books is more than escapism, but both are escapism of a highly entertaining sort, even if details of the gaming worlds they portray are a decade or two old and not in line with today’s versions of virtual reality.

     Framed, also now available in paperback, is written almost purely for amusement, its supposedly serious elements taking a decided back seat to its funny ones. Originally published in 2010, Gordon Korman’s book is part of a series that also includes Swindle, Zoobreak and (most recently) Showoff. It helps to know the first two books, since they provide the background for this one, and Korman never really explains what happened before Framed to put Griffin Bing, the book’s protagonist, in the jam he is in almost from the first page. Griffin, a 12-year-old known as the Man with a Plan, is here accused of stealing a valuable Super Bowl ring from his school. The evidence against him is his retainer, found in the locked display case from which the ring was taken. Readers, of course, know that Griffin didn’t do it – he lost the retainer a few days before the theft. Nevertheless, he and his mom must appear before a judge, who puts Griffin under house arrest and orders him to attend an alternative-education center named after John F. Kennedy, which means its initials are JFK, which stand (in Griffin’s mind) for “Jail for Kids.” Griffin must therefore rely, as he did not to the same degree in the earlier books (and as the reader is supposed to know), on his friends: Savannah, Ben, Pitch and Melissa. The kids are characterized by what they do rather than as fully formed individuals: Melissa is shy and great with computers, for example, while Ben has narcolepsy and always carries a pet ferret that is trained to nip him if he starts to nod off. Griffin makes a new friend here – Shank – and the ferret is not the only important animal: Luthor, Savannah’s dog, plays a big role, and another animal proves to be the key to the mystery. The juvenile-delinquency theme is present but is handled rather lightly, the emphasis being more on friendship, enthusiasm and working together to help each other out. The last line of the book, “It was having the right friends,” sums up the message neatly. That is scarcely an unusual conclusion in a book for preteens, and Framed is scarcely a highly original novel. But it is pleasant and, in its way, uplifting – easy to read and enjoyable for what it is, as long as readers do not expect too much from it.


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Jane Henschel, mezzo-soprano; Gregory Kunde, tenor; Houston Symphony conducted by Hans Graf. Naxos. $9.99.

Jack Prelutsky and Lucas Richman: Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant; Jack Prelutsky and Camille Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals. Jack Prelutsky, narrator; San Diego Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jahja Ling. San Diego Symphony. $16.99.

Berlioz: Harold in Italy; Les Nuits d’Été; Le Roi de Thulé. Antoine Tamestit, viola; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble conducted by Marc Minkowski. Naïve. $16.99.

Shostakovich: New Babylon. Basel Sinfonietta conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     So many are the musical uses of the human voice that the sheer variety of vocal works is a wonder to behold – or rather to hear. Few pieces in music are as serious and intense as Das Lied von der Erde, which Mahler gave that title to avoid calling it his Symphony No. 9 – the superstitious composer worrying that a Ninth would be his final completed symphony, as it had been for Beethoven (and, ironically, as it turned out to be for Mahler after all, when he finally did give a symphony that number). Mahler called Das Lied von der Erde a “symphony for tenor and alto (or baritone) and orchestra,” although the very dark version with two male voices is rarely heard and the alto part is often taken by a mezzo-soprano – as it is in the new Naxos recording conducted by Hans Graf. The Houston Symphony is not one of the world’s top orchestras, but it plays quite well here, with rich tone and impressive sonority in all sections. This is clearly a work that Graf has studied and whose depths he has plumbed. Jane Henschel has a strong voice that fits this music well, despite Mahler’s intention of writing it for a deeper-voiced female soloist; and she is expressive and understanding, especially in the final, extended Der Abschied. Gregory Kunde is not quite as well attuned to this music – he does not seem to delve fully into its depths – but his voice is a good one, and he offers considerable enthusiasm if not always complete understanding of the darkness that pervades even the lighter songs. As a whole, this is an admirable performance, in which singers and orchestra alike generally rise above themselves to deliver what is mostly an impassioned reading.

     On the flip side of Das Lied von der Erde is Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, which treats vocal matters as casually as the Mahler work handles them portentously. Here the vocalizing is in the form of narration, with Jack Prelutsky reading all 17 poems from the children’s anthology that gives this piece its title, plus a concluding quatrain created especially for the music. The piece is a close collaboration between Prelutsky and composer Lucas Richman, with both clearly understanding the short attention span of children – at whom this work is aimed, just as surely as Mahler’s is intended for the most adult of audiences. Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant mixes accompanied poetry with extremely brief musical interludes (the shortest run just eight seconds and the longest runs 21). The music nicely supports the poetry, although it is really Prelutsky’s wordplay, including numerous portmanteau words, that shines in such snippets as “Here Comes a Panthermometer,” “The Eggbeaturkey” and “The Trumpetoos and Tubaboons.” This piece is created and presented entirely for fun, and seems to last a lot less than its half-hour duration – there is just so much going on, both verbally and in the music. The work is paired, perhaps inevitably, with Saint-Saëns’ ever-wonderful Carnival of the Animals, modified to accommodate Prelutsky’s way with words. Saint-Saëns’ piece, originally for a chamber group, was an amusing parody of and for musicians, but here it becomes a children’s delight akin to Prelutsky’s collaboration with Richman. Instead of flowing from one brief portrayal to another, the work becomes a series of musical illustrations of Prelutsky poems written especially to be heard in this context. The wordplay is nearly as prominent here as in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, and if the addition of the poetry to the music seems almost sacrilegious at times, that is purely an adult perspective – from the viewpoint of a child, especially one encountering Carnival of the Animals for the first time, the Prelutsky poetry makes the entry easy and highly enjoyable. An ebullient time is had by all the performers on this CD – conductor Jahja Ling, pianists Jon Kimura Parker and Orli Shaham, and the members of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra – with Prelutsky himself clearly relishing his role as master, or ringmaster, of the poetic ceremonies.

     Poetic in a much more serious and adult way, Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’Été gets a beautifully controlled and warm performance from Anne Sofie von Otter and Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble under Marc Minkowski. A sensitive conductor with a special interest in French music, Minkowski emphasizes the differing musical and emotional character of each of these summer-night songs by Théophile Gautier, while von Otter shows their common elements of love, loss and longing. This is a moving and highly effective rendition from start to finish. Harold in Italy is outstanding, too, as Minkowski takes every opportunity to bring out Berlioz’ coloristic orchestral effects while pacing each of the four movements carefully and shaping the work as a whole with considerable understanding. Violist Antoine Tamestit fits wonderfully into Minkowski’s approach, offering virtuosity when called for but generally allowing himself to be treated as “first among equals” in the orchestra rather than as a towering soloist. The result is a modest viola performance that fits carefully into a well-thought-out conception of Harold in Italy as a whole – and one with an exceptionally dramatic finale. The disc concludes a touch oddly with Le Roi de Thulé, Marguerite’s rather peculiar entrance song from La Damnation de Faust. The song’s Gothic elements fit the overall world of Faust but seem a trifle strange in the mouth of Marguerite, especially as an entrance song. The underlying melancholy comes through clearly as von Otter sings, and Minkowski again provides just the right kind of nuanced accompaniment.

     Nuance is largely absent from Shostakovich’s film music, including that for New Babylon, a 1929 film about the love between a shopgirl and a soldier, set against the backdrop of the radical Paris Commune of 1871 – a congenial subject for Soviet authorities. Here the human voice is notable by its absence: this is a silent movie, its emotions communicated through the visuals and through Shostakovich’s music. Or at least that was the plan. In reality, Soviet censors made several cuts in the film just a few weeks before its opening, and Shostakovich’s score was jettisoned – either because it no longer matched the film or because it was perhaps a bit too musically radical for the authorities. In either case, the result is that the mixture of marches, carnival music, can-cans and surging rhythmic passages had to wait until now to be reassembled in reasonably complete form for this world première recording. Mark Fitz-Gerald presents the full hour-and-a-half of music on two CDs, and there are certainly enough elements of wit and dissonance here to worry the good grey bureaucrats of early Soviet times. But there is also plenty of connective tissue and a lot of less-than-inspired musical “fill.” Without visual images – which, after all, this music was designed to supplement, not replace – the New Babylon music seems to go on too long and often at too uninspired a level. This release gets a (+++) rating: it is very well played by the Basel Sinfonietta, and the music is certainly worth hearing as a Shostakovich rarity, but the whole thing is a bit too much of music that is a bit too far below the composer’s best works to be considered more than a curiosity.


Copland: Sextet for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet; Peter Schickele: Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano; Libby Larsen: Rodeo Queen of Heaven; Peter Lieuwen: Gulfstream. enhaké (Wonkak Kim, clarinet; M. Brent Williams, violin; Jayoung Kim, cello; Eun-Hee Park, piano); Corinne Stillwell, violin; Pamela Ryan, viola. Naxos. $9.99.

Mohammed Fairouz: Chamber Music. Katie Reimer, James Orleans, Jonathan Engle, Maarten Stragier, Vasko Dukovski, Ra Young Ahn, Michael Couper, Claire Cutting, Thomas Fleming, Lydian String Quartet. Sono Luminus. $16.99.

Thierry Lancino: Requiem. Heidi Grant Murphy, soprano; Nora Gubisch, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Skelton, tenor; Nicolas Courjal, bass; Chœur de Radio France and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Eliahu Inbal. Naxos. $9.99.

Rautavaara: Works for Children’s Choir. Tapiola Choir and Tapiola Youth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pasi Hyökki. Ondine. $16.99.

     Modern composers’ treatment of small-ensemble and choral writing often builds on the past differently from moderns’ handling of orchestral works. A new recording by the ensemble called enhaké (which spells its name with a small first letter) is in effect a 55-minute survey of different chamber-music approaches during three-quarters of a century. Copland’s Sextet, which started out as his Symphony No. 2, dates to 1937 and is a fine example of his forays into “serious” music (as opposed to the more “popular” works for which he is better known). In three well-contrasted movements, the piece is filled with effective melodies and Copland’s usual sure-handed writing, which partakes of 20th-century extensions of classical approaches but never abandons older harmonic and rhythmic elements entirely. Peter Schickele also has a strong sense of classical proportion and structure, and his 1982 quartet – for the unusual combination of clarinet, violin, cello and piano – is well assembled and clearly shows influences from jazz and folk music. But it does not have quite the wit and spirit that Schickele displays in his parodistic compositions by “PDQ Bach,” as if the composer is deliberately trying to keep his entertainment life and his serious classical-music works separate. The quartet’s finale, marked “quite fast, dancing,” is its most engaging movement. The other works on this CD are shorter and from the 21st century. Libby Larsen’s Rodeo Queen of Heaven (2010), inspired by a painting of a Madonna with a gun, is rhythmically attractive, while Peter Lieuwen’s Gulfstream (2007) is more graceful and flowing, as seems appropriate in a nature-focused work. All the composers are comfortable with chamber-music writing, although only Copland’s Sextet seems worthy of frequent rehearings.

     Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz is skilled in chamber music, too, as evidenced by a highly varied disc containing six of his works for various instrumental combinations. The most interesting thing about this music is the way Fairouz (born 1985) handles very different instruments with apparent ease – although his works lie more easily on some than on others. Litany for solo double bass with wind quartet is an intriguing experiment in sonority; Four Critical Models for alto saxophone and violin presents a dialogue with philosophical overtones, perhaps biting off a bit more than it can musically chew; Piano Miniatures 1-6 are very short solo-piano works of varying moods; Lamentation and Satire for string quartet offers a fairly straightforward contrast between its two movements; Three Novelettes for piano and alto saxophone have an experimental feeling to them, as shown by movements marked “Cadenzas,” “Serenade” and “Dance Montage”; and Airs for guitar, perhaps the work most closely attuned to classical models, concludes with a toccata that clearly shows Fairouz’ understanding of traditional forms – and his way of bending them. In a number of places, Fairouz pays homage to Eastern music and contrasts it with Western classical forms, harmonies and designs, with the result that there is a certain element of exoticism to these works as well as a sense that they use their instrumental complements effectively.

     Modern composers for chorus generally seem to have absorbed the lessons of the past equally well, and they too put old forms at the service of new types of expression and expressiveness. The 2009 Requiem by Thierry Lancino (born 1954) is a very large-scale work, lasting an hour and a quarter, and it incorporates four soloists as well as a chorus and full orchestra. It is certainly recognizable as having the elements of a traditional Requiem, but it contains additional ones as well, and it puts all its segments at the service of emotions that go beyond the traditionally sacred. From its lengthy opening Prologue – a movement not found in traditional requiem masses – to its final “Dona eis requiem,” which fits more comfortably with the religious tradition of a mass for the dead, Lancino’s work incorporates traditional Christian elements as well as ones that Christians would consider pagan. Rather than being a work in which the performers aid the audience in mourning for the dead, and provide reassurance through standardized religious formulations, this is a ceremonial study of human mortality in general, an exploration of life, death and time, a work that is willing to pose eternal questions without claiming to have all the answers – even though requiem masses traditionally claim just that. The complex libretto by Pascal Quignard (born 1948) is in three languages – French, Latin and Greek – and although it is not included with the CD, Naxos makes it available online. And a good thing, too, because the words here are not mere recitations of well-known phrases, repeated again and again in various guises so as to provide comfort to those who have lost dear ones. Instead, the words are a story of sorts, a tale of what it means to be human. Partaking of several religious traditions, they ask the audience to consider what it means to know that all of us will die someday and not be sure what comfort, if any, we will find afterwards. Lancino’s Requiem is a powerful work and a difficult one on several levels – not especially easy to listen to or to think about. It is a piece that challenges rather than reassures the audience, and in so doing shows the power of modern choral composition within a more-or-less traditional form.

     Less emotionally challenging but vocally just as musically interesting – indeed, in some ways more so – the pieces for children’s choir on a new CD of works by Einojuhani Rautavaara were written over a quarter of a century and draw on a wide variety of texts and ideas. Indeed, there is a mass here, not a requiem but a Children’s Mass for children’s choir and string orchestra (1973); and this is a much shorter and more straightforward work than the expansive creation of the much younger Lancino. In fact, Rautavaara (born 1928) continues to mix the rhapsodic with the overtly modern in many of his pieces, but these works for children’s voices are more declamatory and less experimental than some of his other music. The composer draws upon a biblical text for Love Never Dies (1983), on traditional words for Lorulei (1979), and on the works of Federico García Lorca for the Suite de Lorca (1973). These are all short pieces, as are The Carpenter’s Son (1975) and Waltz of the Innocents (1973/1982). But Rautavaara also creates longer and more substantial choral music for children to sing, including not only the Mass but also the two other works on this CD, which are deeper than the shorter pieces and on the dark side. The philosophical Wenn sich die Welt auftut (“When the World Opens”) dates to 1996, while Marjatta the Lowly Maiden was written in 1977 and is nothing less than a one-act mystery play: the title character becomes pregnant after eating a lingonberry and gives birth to a son – and thus this story from the Kalevala reflects a different view of a Christ-like birth from the traditional one, and stands in contrast to the Mass heard elsewhere on the CD. Rautavaara’s music is not for all tastes, but he is certainly a master of choral composition, and for those who appreciate his style, this CD’s mixture of topics and moods – from the humorous nursery rhymes to the solemn religious works to the philosophical pieces – will prove highly attractive.

December 22, 2011


Bumble-Ardy. By Maurice Sendak. Michael di Capua/HarperCollins. $17.95.

Every Thing On It. By Shel Silverstein. Harper. $19.99.

     The sheer joy of watching a master at work, of seeing and reading something created with apparent effortlessness by someone so thoroughly versed in his craft that words and pictures seem almost to flow in and of themselves, is one of the great pleasures of books like these. They may not be masterworks, but they are clearly works by two masters – and masterfully done. Bumble-Ardy is a sort of Where the Wild Things Are with pigs, and is the first book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak since 1981. Sendak, who is now 83, has lost none of his way with words – or, more importantly here, with pictures. The story is about the pig of the book’s title, who went through eight birthdays with no parties because “his immediate family frowned on fun.” Then things changed: “But when Bumble was eight/ (Oh, pig knuckled fate!)/ His immediate family gorged and gained weight./ And got ate.” So Bumble is adopted by Aunt Adeline, who has no problem at all with a birthday party for Bumble, age nine. But Aunt Adeline’s sweetness is not enough for Bumble, who decides to ask “some grubby swine/ To come for birthday cake and brine” while his aunt is out of the house. And the swine – looking as bizarre in their way as the Wild Things – come in costumes, with masks and bonnets and multilingual good wishes and banners and strange gifts and a huge thirst for Aunt Adeline’s “home-brewed brine.” The party quickly gets odder and odder, with few or no words on the pages showing all the strange goings-on – the whole thing looks like an Alice in Wonderland scene, or rather several scenes. But then Aunt Adeline comes home and finds “a mob of swilling swine,” and she begins “to shriek and shake and whine,” and throws all the miscreants out. “Okay Smarty you’ve had your party! But never again!” says the furious aunt. And the tearful Bumble replies, “I promise! I swear! I won’t ever turn ten!” But who could stay mad at birthday-deprived Bumble? Not Aunt Adeline, at least not for long; and everything ends happily in a book whose words will be absorbed quickly by young readers, but whose wonderful illustrations will have them returning again and again to pick out more and more of Sendak’s amazing detail and offbeat humor.

     Offbeat humor was also the stock in trade of Shel Silverstein (1930-1999), but Silverstein’s words and illustrations were generally equal attractions in his work. Every Thing On It is a collection of never-before-published Silverstein gems, including an illustrated title poem explaining and showing what could happen if you were to order a hot dog “with everything on it.” The sly Silverstein humor is everywhere here, as in “The Lovetobutcants,” which starts: “I have a disease called/ The ‘lovetobutcants’ –/ I think it’s time I told it./ I’d love to help with that garbage can/ But my fingers just can’t hold it./ Hand me a bag of groceries and/ My wrists just turn to jelly./ Cuttin’ grass and hedges/ Gives me flutters of the belly.” There are also several appearances of pelicans. In “The Ball Game,” we meet one who “yawned/ And swallowed the ball by mistake.” In “The Romance,” one marries an elephant. In “Love Is Grand But…” Miz’ Pelican carries the narrator everywhere, but drops him when she spies a fish, because “‘Love is grand,/ But lunch, my dear, is lunch.’” There are plenty of other animals here, too. One of the most amusing illustrations is for “The Scientist and the Hippopotamus,” in which the former is attempting to swallow the latter – whole. Animals tend to get the better of people in these poems. For example, in “A Mouse in the House,” Uncle Ben manages to destroy his entire house while searching for the small rodent; and in “How Hungry Is Polly?” the little girl says she could eat a horse, leading “Ol’ Dobbin, grazin’ nearby” to explain all the things he has done for people and to remark that he is so hungry, he could eat a child. An occasional poem hits genuinely serious and thoughtful themes, such as “The Clock Man,” which is worth quoting in full: “‘How much will you pay for an extra day?’/ The clock man asked the child./ ‘Not one penny,’ the answer came,/ ‘For my days are as many as smiles.’/ ‘How much will you pay for an extra day?’/ He asked when the child was grown./ ‘Maybe a dollar or maybe less,/ For I’ve plenty of days of my own.’/ ‘How much will you pay for an extra day?’/ He asked when the time came to die./ ‘All of the pearls in all of the seas,/ And all of the stars in the sky.’” This is one of the remarkable things about Silverstein: he inserts nuggets of genuine wisdom into poetry whose simplicity belies its substance. Of course, he does not do this too often – he is equally adept at making fun of scientific research, in a poem called “Investigating” in which Professor Shore is described (and seen in the accompanying illustration) looking up toward an elephant’s rear while trying to figure out how its tail is attached. The result is predictable, but left to the reader’s imagination. And that – imagination – is what Silverstein had to such a wonderful degree, and what Sendak still has; and that is why these books deserve more than praise – they deserve to become much-loved, much-read parts of family libraries, now and for years to come.


The Really Awful Musicians. By John Manders. Clarion. $16.99.

I’ll Be Dead by the Time You Read This: The Existential Life of Animals. By Romeo Alaeff. Plume. $10.

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans. By Kadir Nelson. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $19.99.

     There are words aplenty in these three books, but it is their pictures that are their main draw: all three authors are primarily artists, and all build their books upon visualizations that are designed not only to pull readers in but also to leave a lasting impression in a way that goes well beyond the texts. The most amusing of the books is The Really Awful Musicians, which takes its cues partly from “The Bremen Town Musicians” of the Brothers Grimm and partly from the development of musical notation in the eighth century, at the court of Charlemagne. John Manders unites these disparate themes through vibrant and often hilarious art: he was the first president of the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators and has illustrated more than 30 children’s books. The story is thin, but the pictures make it a rollicking one. The tale is about a king who becomes so fed up with the awful sounds of the royal musicians that he feeds them to the royal crocodiles, which look a lot like Captain Hook’s nemesis in the Disney version of Peter Pan. The king decides to have mimes at his court instead – and keep the crocodiles well fed on any other musicians in the kingdom. This poses a quandary for Piffaro the piper, Espresso the lutenist, Serena the tiny and quiet harpist, Fortissimo the sackbut player and Lugubrio of the contrabass recorder. Meeting along the road and riding on a cart pulled by a horse called – what else? – Charlemagne, the musicians create an infernal din until the horse can stand it no longer and invents musical notation to help everyone play harmoniously. The king overhears the musicians playing elegantly together (the horse is the conductor), changes his mind about music, and everyone lives happily ever after – except the mimes, who get fed to the crocodiles (offstage). A tale filled with charm and a certain amount of historical accuracy to go with its fairy-tale elements, The Really Awful Musicians is enlivened throughout by wonderfully cartoony drawings that nevertheless portray the old musical instruments accurately. Manders’ artistry extends to the text, too: the sound of each instrument is shown in a different type style and assigned different words, from the “deedlediddledoodle” of the mandolin (which comes out in a long string of “notes” and wraps around the pages) to the “woompoompoomp” of the sackbut (with the words getting larger and bolder as Fortissimo blasts away). The whole book is a visual treat.

     “Treat” may be pushing it when it comes to describing I’ll Be Dead by the Time You Read This, but this book too combines human and animal elements in a work with serious overtones that are decidedly art-focused. Romeo Alaeff studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and has worked in animation for children’s TV shows; he also studied math and biomechanical engineering. He works in photography and other media as well as drawing, and many of the drawings in this book are based on his own animal photographs. What I’ll Be Dead by the Time You Read This does is juxtapose the carefully rendered animal pictures with comments made by humans, which Alaeff has jotted down over the years. The words are in themselves clichéd and generally about relationships: “You don’t love me as much as I love you,” “I don’t know how to let go,” “I just read your mind.” What makes the book interesting is Alaeff’s choice of particular creatures to go with particular words. A dodo says, “Life goes on.” An egg says, “I don’t want to wind up alone.” A goldfish remarks, “I’m afraid of dying.” A butterfly says, “I enjoy being the victim.” A scorpion comments, “No one thinks I’m funny.” The animals are not anthropomorphized in appearance: the text simply appears above or next to the realistic pictures. The results are often surprising, often amusing and sometimes puzzling. For example, a rhinoceros says, “I’ve really let myself go,” while on the next page, a spider comments, “I regret following my heart,” and a few pages later, a crab remarks, “I need to get out of my own way.” All the pictures are beautifully done and worth looking at again and again; the choice of texts is less successful, sometimes working very well but sometimes seeming merely capricious. I’ll Be Dead by the Time You Read This is of course not, despite its subtitle, about “the existential life of animals,” but about the generally superficial self-awareness of humans – to which Alaeff draws attention, often to very good effect, through his animal art.

     The art-focused subject is at least equally serious in Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul. An oversize, beautifully produced work packed with photography-like oil paintings, the book encapsulates the African-American experience through short chapters such as “Abolition,” “Cowboys and Indians,” “Black Innovation” and “Jim Crow’s A-Dying.” The stories told here are familiar ones; it is the paintings that are special: Nelson has won Caldecott and Coretta Scott King awards, been exhibited internationally, and is the cover artist for the posthumous Michael Jackson album, Michael. The narration, by an invented grandmother-like figure, has a singsong quality that some will find authentic and others cloying, as in this discussion of the bus boycott, led by Martin Luther King Jr., that followed the jailing of Rosa Parks: “Dr. King knew that if black folks held to the boycott and did not fight back with violence but with a peaceful protest, they would be victorious. …Without any shouting, shooting, fighting, or fussing, black folks had won a major battle for equality through nonviolent demonstrations. Glory, hallelujah! Oh, how we celebrated all over the country! It was a sweet and wonderful victory. There would be setbacks and victories to come in the very near future, but we savored this one for quite some time, honey.” Whatever readers may think of the prose, they will be captivated, and drawn into the story, by the art. The palpably atmospheric picture of a young woman teaching her father to read at the start of the chapter called “Reconstruction,” the hagiographic portraits of Booker T. Washington and Joe Louis Barrow, the two-page spreads of a Big Band and of strikers – these and Nelson’s other portrayals of events in the lives of African-Americans make this history come alive in ways that the words themselves do not. Heart and Soul is a book into which Nelson has clearly poured his heart and soul, which shine through his portrayals of events of the distant and not-so-distant past.


Sammy Keyes and the Night of Skulls. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Knopf. $15.99.

The Poisons of Caux, Book Three: The Shepherd of Weeds. By Susannah Applebaum. Knopf. $16.99.

Rumors from the Boys’ Room: A Blogtastic! Novel. By Rose Cooper. Delacorte Press. $12.99.

The Lily Pond. By Annika Thor. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     The Sammy Keyes mysteries are by now so well-established – the new novel is the 14th in the series – that Sammy’s name on the cover is all readers will need to see in order to develop an instant attachment to the latest book. Sammy Keyes and the Night of Skulls is not one of the best entries in the sequence, being both overdone and rather obvious, but that will not prevent fans from enjoying it. And Wendelin Van Draanen is, as usual, adept at pacing things well and covering any plot holes with cleverness and surprises. This is a Halloween-focused tale, which is one of the reasons its plot is rather obvious: Sammy and her friends are dressed as zombies, and they cut through a graveyard, and of course something bad happens there (they get chased by a shovel-equipped man), and after some other unpleasant events, they all decide to head home and gorge on candy. But something ominous turns up along with their treats. So Sammy – with friends helping, or at least tagging along – soon becomes involved with gravediggers, embalmers, undertakers and other Halloween-ish types. “This was not good. Not good at all.” Well, of course not, especially with such characters as Dusty Mike around: “He’s definitely strange. And more than a little creepy.” And speaking of strange, here Sammy finds out about the Day of Skulls, information on which comes with a computer animation of a skull “wearing a little red and blue knit cap that has side flaps” and having “a burning cigarette clamped between the teeth.” The point here is that everything is creepy, which is a pretty unsurprising thing for everything to be in a story centered on Halloween; hence the comparative obviousness of the plot. It does have twists, though. “What also kept scrambling through my head was how often I had misjudged people,” Sammy thinks at one point; and she and her friends have been misjudged, too. There is, thank goodness, some of the trademark humor of this series from time to time, as when one of Sammy’s friends tries to alert the 911 operator to a serious problem by saying, “There’s crazy people burying people at the graveyard.” And of course Sammy eventually discovers that cemeteries need not be frightening and can even be places “where I appreciate life.” So the ending, at least, is not scary at all.

     There are plenty of scares in The Poisons of Caux, the trilogy by Susannah Applebaum whose conclusion, The Shepherd of Weeds, finally brings together Caux and its sisterland, Pimcaux. Following The Hollow Bettle and The Tasters Guild, this conclusion involves fulfillment of the prophecy that has driven the trilogy from the beginning. It is Ivy, the Noble Child, who here must defeat her father and the Guild – with the help of an army of scarecrows and some of the birds of Caux. If all this sounds both complex and rather hackneyed (every protagonist in adventure novels seems to have some sort of prophecy to fulfill), that is a pretty fair summation of the book. Applebaum, though, tells the story well, with a good sense of pacing and enough of a feeling of danger to keep readers involved throughout. The book’s sections are introduced by elements of the prophecy – Sparrowhawk fragment, Corvid fragment and Chimney Swift fragment, for example. And each fragment comes to make sense in the pages that follow it. For example, the Moorhen fragment reads, “Long lament, take wing/ Whosoever speaks to the Trees/ Speaks to the King,” and leads to an important chapter in which one character comments that “the true nature of plants is awakening,” and to a section where readers learn that “in the hierarchy of birds, it is the crow who wears the crown.” As usual in fantasies, this one includes loss and death and turmoil through to the end – but at the end, as Ivy stands hand in hand with Rowan, it is clear that all the trouble and hardship has paved the way for a much better future. This is scarcely an unexpected ending, but it is quite a satisfying one despite its predictability.

     Rumors from the Boys’ Room is not a part of a series or a trilogy – at least, not exactly. It is a second book done in the style of Rose Cooper’s Gossip from the Girls’ Room, which means it looks like a notebook (lined pages) filled with cartoony drawings by narrator Sofia Becker, a sixth-grader who fully intends to post some of her “innermost private thoughts” on her soon-to-be-popular blog. The whole thing seems quite a bit like Jim Benton’s Dear Dumb Diary series, which in many ways it resembles – for instance, when Sofia objects to the existence of Mia St. Claire, “the most annoying girl in all of Middlebrooke Middle School,” whose “hair smells like fresh strawberries” and who “has the ability to cast spells on boys and make them like her.” Sofia has a BFF, Nona Bows, who in turn has pet issues, as when she says sadly that her dog died and Sofia comments, “Nona doesn’t HAVE a dog. I tell her this since she seems to have forgotten.” Sofia herself has issues with school projects and parents and all the usual stuff sixth-graders have issues with, and she shares her thoughts on these things (well, some of these things) on “The best blog in the world. Ever.” Which she signs “The Blogtastic Blogger.” And which gets her comments such as, “Hey, knucklehead! Don’t you know anything?” Which lead to comments from adult advisors such as, “Tone it down. Watch it with the name-calling and yelling.” The fun here is not so much in the plot and the ins and outs of middle-school relationships – all those are pretty straightforward. Some of the drawings, though, are fun – such as the “milk hose” that Sofia imagines after her mother, who is pregnant and has heartburn, says milk helps but water makes it worse. And the ups and downs of the blog are amusing enough to keep middle-schoolers interested: the book is easy to read, mildly amusing throughout, and will be followed by Secrets from the Sleeping Bag in the not-too-distant future.

     A much more serious “companion book” – actually the second in a four-book sequence – The Lily Pond is set during World War II, and continues the story of Stephie Steiner that began in A Faraway Island. Annika Thor draws on some of her own experiences for this story of a girl who, with her younger sister, Nellie, has escaped from Nazi-occupied Vienna and is living on a rugged Swedish island. The first book was about adjustment; this second one is about education, friendship and young love. Stephie’s foster parents will allow her to leave the island to go to school on the mainland, in Göteborg (where Thor was born and raised). Stephie looks forward both to the greater cultural possibilities of the city and to living there in proximity to a boy named Sven, son of lodgers who had rented her foster parents’ island home during the summer. Stephie is smitten with Sven, who is five years older and does not hesitate to express anti-Hitler sentiments – at a time when Nazi ideology is spreading, even in Sweden. Stephie also remains worried about her parents, who have stayed behind in Vienna; Nellie misses them too, saying, “‘I’m going to pray to God to arrange for them to come here.’” But things are not that simple – certainly not for Jewish families like Stephie’s and Nellie’s. In one letter from her father, Stephie reads that “life has become more and more unbearable, and everyone who has a way is trying to get out of Vienna,” but her parents do not have a way – at least not yet. Then a way opens up – then it closes – and Stephie, at a distance and totally unable to do anything, is emotionally tugged back and forth by family issues while also trying to navigate her newfound attraction to a boy. That too goes wrong; and so does something significant in school; and Sophie finds she needs friends and others on whom she can rely more than ever. Then it turns out that she has them – so even though the situation is bleak in many ways, with winter weather reflecting Sophie’s own internal worries, there are glimmers of hope here and there. The Lily Pond is not a standalone book – it is really a continuation of A Faraway Island – and its subject matter may not be congenial for young readers today unless they have an interest in semi-autobiographical historical novels. But the book is well and sensitively written, and those already gripped by what happened to Sophie in the earlier novel will be equally intrigued by the developments in her life that are detailed in this one.


Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra; Julius Conus: Violin Concerto; Anton Arensky: Violin Concerto. Sergey Ostrovsky, violin; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling. Naxos. $9.99.

Stravinsky: Violin Concerto; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6. Peter Rybar, violin; Winterthur Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Sternberg. Pierian. $18.99.

Music for a Time of War: Ives—The Unanswered Question; John Adams—The Wound-Dresser; Britten—Sinfonia da Requiem; Vaughan Williams—Symphony No. 4. The Oregon Symphony conducted by Carlos Kalmar. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

John Neumeier and Lera Auerbach: The Little Mermaid. San Francisco Ballet conducted by Martin West. C Major. $29.99 (2 DVDs).

     The pervasive influence of Tchaikovsky, even many decades after his death, comes through clearly in a new Naxos CD that features violinist Sergey Ostrovsky in his first solo recording. Ostrovsky, concertmaster of L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, offers three works from Tchaikovsky’s own time (Arensky’s concerto dates to 1891) and thereafter (the Conus concerto dates to 1898, the Weinberg concertino to 1948). Only Weinberg’s work, which here receives its world première recording, shows elements of modernity, but they are muted in a piece cast in traditional three-movement form and filled with yearning and wistfulness. Weinberg (1919-1996) is sometimes referred to as the third great Soviet composer of his time, after Shostakovich (to whom he was close) and Prokofiev; but this concertino, although well-made and filled with grace, is not highly distinctive. Ostrovsky nevertheless plumbs what depths it has, showing it to be a primarily expressive work with occasional outbursts of fervor. The Bournemouth Symphony under Thomas Sanderling sounds rather thin in the accompaniment: lusher strings and more forceful conducting would have made for a more-distinguished performance. The concertos by Arensky (1861-1906) and Conus (1869-1942) are also pleasant enough, if scarcely dramatic – once again, they preponderantly come across as pleasant, moody pieces with warm but not highly original themes. Both these concertos are single-movement works in multiple sections, along the well-established lines of Liszt’s piano concertos, and both show skill in orchestration and thematic creation – notably in the Tempo di valse section of the Arensky, which has genuinely lovely flow. As in the Weinberg concerto, Ostrovsky’s playing is top-notch and highly committed to the music; also as there, the orchestral backing is a trifle pale. It is nevertheless a pleasure to hear these works, which are now seldom performed, and to have a fine violinist’s first solo recording that includes only unfamiliar material.

     An earlier concertmaster of L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Peter Rybar (1913-2002), is featured on a new recording from the nonprofit Pierian label, giving an absolutely wonderful performance of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. This CD is the first in a series called “The Sternberg Collection,” which will feature performances by the now-92-year-old maestro. Sternberg is a fine conductor who never attained “superstar” status but whose musicianship and skill both as orchestra director and teacher have long been known and appreciated. He stepped in at the last minute to conduct the concert where the Stravinsky concerto was recorded live: Stravinsky himself was supposed to direct, but became ill. This was in 1954 – and therein lies a dilemma for potential purchasers of this CD. Rybar’s playing is excellent, his handling of Stravinsky’s angular rhythms and the constant flux of the concerto being top-notch from start to finish. And Sternberg provides first-class accompaniment with the very good if not quite first-class Winterthur Symphony Orchestra. The sound, however, is 57 years old – and shows it. There is no fullness and little sense of presence, and the squashing that was inevitable in monophonic recordings is pronounced here. Therefore, despite the high quality of the performance, this is a CD for the enthusiast rather than the general listener. It is even more so because of the other work on the concert and therefore on the disc: Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” symphony, which gets a perfectly adequate but scarcely inspired reading. Well played and well paced – but lacking in rhythmic lilt in the second movement and sufficient drama in the third – the symphony sounds all right but not nearly as moving as it can. Given all the fine performances of this symphony that are available, there is really no reason to opt for this one – unless a listener intends to become a collector of Sternberg memorabilia.

     The target audience for an eclectic SACD called Music for a Time of War is also likely to be limited – and not only because the title is a mischaracterization of half the works on the disc. Only two pieces here, John Adams’ The Wound-Dresser and Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, speak clearly, distinctly and movingly of wartime. The Adams is particularly well performed, with baritone Sanford Sylvan intoning Walt Whitman’s words with just the right blend of forthright and withheld emotion, and Jun Iwasaki contributing fine solo-violin elements. Adams’ setting is strongly reminiscent of some of the songs of Charles Ives, not in an obviously imitative way but in its use of quintessentially American poetry with an accompaniment that adds to the words’ effect in ways that are more subtle than dramatic. The piece on this disc that is actually by Ives, though, fares less well than the Adams. The Unanswered Question has become perhaps Ives’ most-performed work, and it remains a splendid existential miniature with some remarkable sound painting (the “background of the universe” created by the strings has been imitated countless times). Jeffrey Work’s solo trumpet, though, is somewhat too quiescent here, and the snide commentary to which the woodwinds eventually descend is altogether too smooth. And this 1906 piece is scarcely “for a time of war” except in some very general sense. Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem is also less dramatic than it can be – even the explosive opening on timpani seems overly subdued. Carlos Kalmar seems to have a rather urbane view of this work, taking away from it some of the obvious tone-painting (for example, by downplaying the radio signals in the second movement) while emphasizing the eventual triumph of the finale. This is a justifiable approach to the music, but not a very involving one. Nor does Kalmar seem particularly involved in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 – another non-war-related piece, despite its forcefulness. This symphony, which dates mostly to 1931 (although it was not completely finished until 1935), is, in the best performances, craggy and menacing and snarling with power. Here it is simply too tame. The Oregon Symphony plays it well, but not very idiomatically – in fact, the orchestra plays Britten and Vaughan Williams as if they wrote music in the same style, which they decidedly did not. There is nothing really wrong with Music for a Time of War, except for the misleading title, but it is not ultimately a very successful disc either in terms of the performances or on the basis of uncovering some sort of relationship among the four pieces recorded here.

     The thematic underpinning of choreographer John Neumeier’s reinterpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is, on the other hand, very clear indeed. The new two-DVD release of the San Francisco Ballet’s performance of Neumeier’s visualization – which includes unsettling, frequently dissonant music by Russian composer Lera Auerbach – is entirely concerned with the notion of being a “fish out of water.” Literally, in the case of the title character; figuratively, by extension, in the case of everyone in the audience who has ever felt that he or she somehow does not “fit in” in some way. Ballets are usually identified by their composers, but this one is Neumeier’s show more than Auerbach’s: Neumeier created the sets and costumes as well as the choreography, and the music is only part of a whole that is more theatrical than most ballets and more imbued with spectacle. It is easy to forget that Andersen’s original story was at most bittersweet, eventually providing the mermaid with release only through the comfort of organized religion (a frequent theme in Andersen) and promising her a better post-life future through her adherence to God’s precepts. Later versions of the story, certainly including Disney’s film but not limited to it, excised the religious elements and downplayed the pain and fear that the unnamed mermaid experiences when giving up her watery home in a vain attempt to obtain love from a human who does not love her in return. It is the pain and fear that Neumeier restores and emphasizes, even over-emphasizes, in this production. For example, there is nothing pretty about the transformation scene: the orchestra plays violent chords as the sea witch (Davit Karapetyan) yanks off the fluid blue costume of the mermaid (Yuan Yuan Tan) and leaves her almost naked, shivering and contorted. Angular movements and stark lighting, mostly in blue and white, keep the production unsettling. So does the introduction of a new character, the Poet (Lloyd Riggins), inspired by Andersen himself. This is not a particularly happy idea – it confuses the story and creates layers that obscure rather than emphasize its points. But it is an integral part of Neumeier’s overall conception – which also includes choreography with Japanese and Balinese influences that quite deliberately look strange to an audience accustomed to traditional Western ballet. The sets are dramatic, to the point of sometimes distracting the audience from the dancers; and there are elements in the production that seem to make little sense and have little bearing on the story, such as a group of dancers at the back of the stage. The roles of the prince (Tiit Helimets) and princess (Sara Van Patten) are well performed but not especially compelling. Emphatically not for children and equally emphatically not for all ballet lovers (or Andersen lovers), Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid is visually exciting, choreographically somewhat muddled, and thematically even more depressing than Andersen’s original tale: what little buoyancy Neumeier offers at the end seems scarcely sufficient for all that the mermaid has endured. The two-DVD set of the San Francisco performance is well made, and viewers interested in behind-the-scenes looks at the production and the people involved in it will enjoy the bonus material, which lasts more than half an hour. However, lovers of Andersen’s rather dour, straitlaced but ultimately uplifting original will be better served by rereading it than by wallowing in Neumeier’s very dark reinterpretation.