June 28, 2012
Team Cul de Sac: Cartoonists Draw the Line at Parkinson’s. Edited by Chris Sparks. Andrews McMeel. $29.99.
There is nothing new about cartoonists ardently espousing causes. Thomas Nast brought down the notorious Boss Tweed and his corrupt Tweed Ring with his single-panel cartoons in the 19th century; Walt Kelly took on McCarthyism in the 1950s, when so many in the creative community cowered before Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy’s assaults; Patrick McDonnell uses Mutts today to explore the plight of endangered animals and to argue, through “Shelter Stories” strips, for the importance of adoption. But cartoon explorations of diseases, and the use of cartoon art to raise awareness of those illnesses and money to fight them, are relatively new. Tom Batiuk of Funky Winkerbean has been a trailblazer in the field, with Lisa’s Story (2000) and Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe (2007) about breast cancer, and the bold step of having his strip’s title character featured in My Name Is Funky…and I’m an Alcoholic (2007). Even before these books, Batiuk and Chuck Ayers had created Safe Return Home (1998), using characters from the Crankshaft strip in a sensitive and moving exploration of Alzheimer’s disease.
It is in this honorable line that Team Cul de Sac, a creation of Web designer and comic aficionado Chris Sparks, belongs. Richard Thompson, creator of one of the best and most highly regarded comic strips of recent years, Cul de Sac, has Parkinson’s disease, although so far there is no evidence that the incurable neurodegenerative condition has affected his writing or drawing. Sparks’ idea was to enlist dozens of cartoonists to create art based on Thompson’s characters, assemble all the work into this book, and auction the original drawings and paintings online, with proceeds of the auction (plus some of the proceeds from sale of the book) to go to Parkinson’s research by being donated to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
The idea was not only a thoughtful one but also, as it turns out, an artistically fruitful one. The contributions range from the merely wonderful to the truly outstanding. Bill Amend (FoxTrot) shows four-year-old Alice and her eight-year-old brother, Petey, as FoxTrot characters. Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott (Zits) show Alice’s father’s tiny car, a recurring element of Cul de Sac, trying vainly to get past Jeremy Duncan’s gigantic sneakers, a recurring element of Zits. Children’s-book illustrator Stacy Curtis offers a portrait of Miss Bliss, who teaches Alice and her preschool friends at Blisshaven Academy. Greg Evans has the title character of Luann and Alice making catty comments to each other. Paul Gilligan has Poncho of Pooch Café trapped in the cage that usually houses Mr. Danders, the Cul de Sac guinea pig. Cathy Guisewite has her now-retired Cathy title character show up with chocolate at Alice’s family’s house. Rick Kirkman of Baby Blues shows how to create a comic-book character, using his character Wanda MacPherson and Thompson’s Petey as parallel examples. There are also contributions by fan Sandy Jarrell and eight-year-old Raymond Jarrell, by Lynn Johnston of For Better or For Worse, by Ron Ferdinand of Dennis the Menace, by Patrick McDonnell of Mutts, by Stephan Pastis of Pearls Before Swine, by Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury, by Lincoln Peirce of Big Nate, by Mark Tatulli of Liō, by Mort Walker of Beetle Bailey, by Jim Davis of Garfield, and even by the notoriously reclusive Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes – in all, works by illustrators and animators and editorial cartoonists and graphic-novel creators and comic-book artists and caricaturists. Single-panel works, drawings, paintings, multi-panel strips, works that pull Thompson’s characters into other worlds or introduce other worlds’ characters into his – everything is here, and just about all of it is marvelous. In fact, all of it is marvelous in terms of the spirit of pulling together, of helping Thompson and, through him, all those afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. And every purchaser of this book – may there be many! – is also contributing in his or her own way.
“Cause” cartooning always risks becoming heavy-handed, but the great cartoonists who do it manage to avoid coming on so strongly that they turn people off instead of on to the seriousness of their concerns. Thompson himself is never heavy-handed, and is in fact not a contributor to Team Cul de Sac except in his brief introduction and through the reprint in the book of a Washington Post profile about him that was published last year. But Thompson’s spirit is as much a part of this book as are his characters. It would be naïve to think that any collection of art, even one as well-intentioned and well-executed as this, will be enough to find a cure for a disease as serious as Parkinson’s. But it would be a mistake not to find this attempt absolutely wonderful, not only for its intentions but also for the truly wonderful riffs on Thompson’s unique comic contributions that Sparks and the many marvelous artists here have made possible, working as a team.
Extreme Cosmos: A Guided Tour of the Fastest, Brightest, Hottest, Heaviest, Oldest, and Most Amazing Aspects of Our Universe. By Bryan Gaensler, Ph.D. Perigee. $16.
We live in a weirdly improbable universe. A science-fiction story once imagined an object whose shape was defined by pi being equal to 3 – an utter impossibility whose consequences would be quite unimaginable, since there is no way we can conceive of any such object or figure out how it could appear in our universe, where pi is an irrational number just a bit larger than 3.14. That teeny-tiny difference, between 3 and 3.14-plus, is literally enough to define a universe. So what are some things that can occur in ours – and, in fact, do, no matter how strange and unlikely they seem? University of Sydney astronomer Bryan Gaensler discusses quite a few of them in Extreme Cosmos – including, for instance, a neutron star that is the roundest object known and another that rotates 716 times per second.
Gaensler’s 10 chapters deal with extremes of temperature, light, time, size, speed, mass, sound, electricity and magnetism, gravity, and density. Such concepts as speed, size, gravity, mass, time and light may quickly come to readers’ minds when thinking about the universe – but sound? Yes: “The deepest note yet identified belongs to a galaxy cluster, a conglomeration of several hundred galaxies and hot gas…often nicknamed the ‘Perseus Cluster’ because of its location in that constellation.” But what does it mean to produce the deepest note known, and how do we know that is what this galaxy cluster does? Understanding that requires knowing a bit about what sound is and how it is produced, and Gaensler explains the basics clearly and entertainingly, using the mundane examples of an underground subway train approaching a station and an airplane breaking the sound barrier to jump off into matters that are similar in space (the process of sound production is the same) and ones that are different (the speed of sound is space is “22,000 miles per hour, about 30 times faster than the speed of sound in Earth’s atmosphere”).
The chapter on extremes of time starts by explaining why children ask “are we there yet?” and moves into a discussion of the metallicity of a star, “the cosmic clock that allows us to search for the oldest stars.” This chapter includes an explanation of why SDSS J1029 is considered the oldest known star and just why “the sky is a time machine.” Elsewhere, the discussion of size not only includes the gigantism of the universe itself and of certain objects in it but also explains about “a variety of particles that have no size at all” and the fact that the size of an electron “must be less than 0.0000000000000000004% of an inch.” The chapter on electricity and magnetism moves from the surprising statement that “planets, stars, and even entire galaxies are all magnetic” to a consideration of the “marvelous detective story” that led to the discovery of “an extremely rare species of neutron star known as ‘magnetars’” – the strongest magnets in the universe.
And so it goes, from chapter to fascinating chapter, from an explanation of “autosomal dominant compelling helio-ophthalmic outburst” (the tendency to sneeze when one’s eyes experience bright sunlight) to a discussion of why it is not weakened gravity that causes astronauts to float when aboard the International Space Station. What Gaensler does particularly well is relate everyday concepts and experiences to extremely-difficult-to-imagine ones, and present his comparisons and analyses in easy-to-follow language with a minimum of jargon and math and as much levity as possible (for example, one heading in the chapter on density is “Great balls of pasta”; another in the same chapter is “Bubbles of nothing”). Extreme Cosmos does not attempt to provide any sort of strong scientific grounding in what makes the universe tick, nor does it ask readers to know large amounts of math, physics or astronomy to understand the phenomena it describes. What it does, and does exceptionally well, is to use an investigation of extreme phenomena to shed light on the far-less-extreme ones within which we live, producing a greater appreciation of the work that astronomers do in exploring complex phenomena while helping readers understand one reason these scientists do what they do: from a sense of awe and wonder, which Gaensler generously shares with everyone who tours the cosmos with him.
Jascha Heifetz Plays Great Violin Concertos: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Sibelius, Bruch No. 1 and Scottish Fantasy, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev No. 2, Vieuxtemps No. 5, Rózsa, Mozart Nos. 4 and 5 and Sinfonia concertante, Glazunov, Brahms Double, Bach for Two Violins (BWV 1043), Vivaldi for Violin and Cello (RV 547). RCA. $19.99 (6 CDs).
Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky—The Ballets: L’Oiseau de feu, Scherzo à la Russe, Scherzo fantastique, Feu d’artifice, Petrushka, Le Sacre de printemps, Les Noces, Renard, Histoire du Soldat—Suite, Apollon musagète, Agon, Jeu de cartes, Scènes de ballet, Bluebird Pas-de-deux, Le Baiser de la fée, Pulcinella, Orpheus, Concert Suites from Petrushka, Pulcinella and L’Oiseau de feu. Sony. $20.99 (7 CDs).
There is something of a cottage industry – more than a cottage industry, in fact – in the re-release of classical recordings from the many decades in which physical media (78-rpm and 33-rpm records, open-reel tape, audiocassettes, etc.) dominated listener experiences of music. Many of these older analog performances are exceptionally fine, featuring musicians equal to or better than any playing today, and advances in sound reproduction have made it possible to clean up and improve the sometimes-pinched audio for an era in which digital recordings with very full sonic characteristics have become the norm. Companies such as Brilliant Classics, ICA and Newton Classics have assembled entire catalogues of re-releases that range from the merely interesting to the really splendid, and other companies have delved into their vaults to find worthy older recordings that modern listeners may still find worthwhile.
No company has more depth in its archives than Sony, and its decision to produce a line of well-priced boxed sets of outstanding re-releases of older recordings is a particularly welcome one. Like other boxes of similar types, these are bare-bones productions, containing no liner notes or information about the music or artists other than movement timings and data about when each recording was made. But the recordings themselves are so worthy, and in some cases so historically important, that they are highly valuable to have in any form. The six-CD set of performances by Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) is a perfect example. The Lithuanian-born violinist was one of the greatest violin virtuosi of all time, with absolutely astonishing technique whose precision was unequaled and whose intense tone quality was distinctive among performers of his generation, and indeed those of earlier and later ages. Heifetz was so good that he made even the most difficult concertos seem like études, tossing off the complexities of Brahms or Sibelius as if they could be handled by a three-year-old (which Heifetz was when he started playing the violin). There was a light, shimmering quality to his playing that was entirely consistent in all works – and was the sole significant weakness in his performances, since it tended to make Mozart sound rather too much like Bruch or Prokofiev. He also tended to overshadow the conductors with whom he worked, and indeed ended up making recordings with some second-tier maestros rather than more-forceful ones.
But although his playing can be nitpicked, it was magnificent, and hearing it is a genuinely uplifting and thoroughly remarkable experience. Nearly every piece in the Heifetz retrospective on the RCA label is at the pinnacle of available versions of the music. There is a poised, elegant Beethoven with the Boston Symphony and Charles Munch, from 1955; a tremendously exciting Tchaikovsky with the Chicago Symphony and Fritz Reiner, from 1957; a stately and surprisingly transparent Brahms, also with Reiner, from 1955; a dramatic Sibelius from 1959 that remains unsurpassed even though here the Chicago Symphony’s conductor, Walter Hendl, is a touch timid; a sweeping Bruch No. 1 with the New Symphony Orchestra of London and Sir Malcolm Sargent from 1962, not the best accompaniment but a highly involving performance nevertheless; and a simply splendid Mendelssohn, from 1959, again with Munch and the Boston Symphony. Even the lesser concertos here – such as Vieuxtemps No. 5 (1961: Sargent again) and Rózsa (1956: Hendl conducting the Dallas Symphony) – have a high level of interest simply because Heifetz’ playing is so good that it elevates the works to as high a plane as they are capable of attaining. The Mozart concertos are less satisfactory – Heifetz was scarcely steeped in Mozartean style – but the Sinfonia concertante, with William Primrose on viola (1956: Izler Solomon conducting the RCA Victor Symphony), is a joy even if it is not particularly idiomatic. Likewise, two pairings of Heifetz with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky – the Brahms Double Concerto (1960: Alfred Wallenstein conducting the RCA Victor Symphony) and Vivaldi RV 547 (1964, with an unidentified chamber orchestra) – provide a remarkable chance to hear the interplay between two of the 20th century’s very best virtuosi, and are highly worthwhile on that basis even if the performances themselves have less-than-optimal accompaniment and (in the case of the Vivaldi) are not fully in touch with the music’s character. All these recordings have been very well remastered, and the sound is more than adequate even though, understandably, it is not up to the best modern standards. Having seven hours of Heifetz performances available in this boxed set is a great pleasure on all levels.
There are eight hours of music in the seven-CD Stravinsky release, and this box on Sony’s own label is also a joy to have. Whether Stravinsky (1882-1971) was the best possible interpreter of his own music is certainly arguable: The Peter Principle, which famously argued that people are promoted to their level of incompetence, even suggested that Stravinsky never reached that level as a composer but finally attained it as a conductor. Certainly there are conductors who brought more fire, intensity and analytical precision to Stravinsky’s ballets than did the composer himself – Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez come immediately to mind – but there is no doubt that Stravinsky’s own readings have tremendous structural care and an understanding of the nuances of the music that leads to these recordings deservedly being labeled authentic. Stravinsky did not leave behind recordings of all his ballet music – the Danses concertantes are missing – but this set is nevertheless highly valuable for the performances themselves as well as for the insight the recordings provide into how Stravinsky saw his works from the podium. Petrushka and Le Sacre du printemps get more-straightforward readings here than elsewhere, coming across as more balletic and less like extended tone poems – an interesting approach, if one somewhat lacking in the high drama of other readings. But Pulcinella is beautifully balanced, its roots in the 18th century quite clear; and the less-often-heard scores, such as Renard, Apollon musagète and Agon, come off quite well indeed, although there are no texts provided or offered online for the works that include vocal sections. Most of the recordings were made with the Columbia Symphony or Columbia Chamber Ensemble, but Stravinsky did work with other groups as well: the CBC Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and Chicago Symphony all appear here. The sound is variable and not, in truth, as good as in the Heifetz set: the remastering seems to have robbed it of some of its depth and richness, which were evident on the LPs on which these performances first appeared. The earliest recording here, of Agon, dates to 1957, the year the ballet was written; the latest, of the Firebird suite, was made in 1967. The time compression within a single decade means the performances are a very good summation of Stravinsky’s thinking about his ballet music toward the end of his life, and good examples of his podium abilities as well. As a historical document, this Stravinsky set is unmatched and a must-have for fans of the composer – even though many people will likely want to supplement Stravinsky’s own versions of his ballets with ones made by other conductors.
Berlioz: Herminie; Les Nuits d’été; Ravel: Shéhérazade. Véronique Gens, soprano; Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire conducted by John Axelrod. Ondine. $16.99.
Delius: A Mass of Life; Prelude and Idyll. Janice Watson, soprano; Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano; Andrew Kennedy, tenor; Alan Opie, baritone; Bach Choir and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Hill. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).
René Clausen: Choral Works. Kansas City Chorale conducted by Charles Bruffy. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Adolphus Hailstork: Symphony No. 1; Three Spirituals; An American Port of Call; Fanfare on Amazing Grace; Whitman’s Journey—1. Launch Out on Endless Seas. Kevin Deas, baritone; Virginia Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.
The beauties of which voices are capable, singly or together, have intrigued and inspired composers for many centuries – likely for as long as there has been music, which is a very long time indeed. The beauty of Véronique Gens’ soprano is immediately apparent in her new recording of Berlioz and Ravel – repertoire with which she has not been closely associated, since she is known mainly for her work with Baroque music and Mozart. But she acquits herself beautifully here, her rich, expressive voice and faultless pronunciation making all three works on this Ondine CD as emotionally and musically involving as they can be. Herminie is the secular cantata for which Berlioz famously failed to win the Prix de Rome in 1828. The Premier Grand Prix that year went to Guillaume Despréaux, a composer of so little note that although his birth year is known (1803), his year of death is not (he mainly composed for the musical theater of his time). And the Deuxième Grand Prix in 1828 went to the almost equally obscure Pierre-Julien Nargeot (1799-1891). Under the circumstances, it is scarcely surprising that Berlioz’ Herminie has stolid elements, as befits a work written to order and according to rigid specifications; but it also has considerable beauty, to which Gens is quite sensitive. And its first movement presents what would later become the idée fixe in the Symphonie Fantastique of 1830. Les Nuits d’été is even later (1841) and represents fully mature Berlioz – although, interestingly, the version for soprano and orchestra was not created until 1856 (the work was originally for baritone, contralto or mezzo-soprano with piano, although it is very rarely performed that way nowadays). Four of the six songs in the cycle are on the slow and dreamy side, and Gens’ expressiveness is fully on display in them – but she also does a commendable job with the two liveliest songs, Villanelle and L’île inconnue. Ravel’s Shéhérazade is of course a much later work (1903), but the sensibilities of the three Tristan Klingsor poems have much in common with those of the Berlioz works, and Gens handles this music with the same sensitivity and vocal beauty that she brings to the earlier compositions. The Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire under John Axelrod provides supple and idiomatic backup throughout, making this a CD filled with delights.
The pleasures are more rarefied in Naxos’ two-CD set of Delius' A Mass of Life and Prelude and Idyll. Delius himself is something of an acquired taste, the subtle beauties of his scoring tending to make many of his poetic works sound almost monochromatic. A Mass of Life is a very extended piece, lasting more than an hour and a half, and is in many ways the antithesis of a traditional Latin Mass, taking as its text a series of passages from Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. The Mass dates to 1905 but incorporates a revised version of “Midnight Song,” also taken Nietzsche’s work, which Delius had written in 1898. Delius is primarily known for his smaller-scale music, and A Mass of Life is his largest concert work – and is, in truth, a bit much to take in a single setting, although that is how it was designed to be heard. David Hill leads the work with sensitivity and the sort of slow, meandering flow that is typical of Delius, but A Mass of Life is not a piece that will likely generate great enthusiasm for itself or its composer; as a result, this release gets a (+++) rating. The Mass is joined here by a later work, Prelude and Idyll (1932), which originated in the discarded music for an opera called Margot la rouge but was changed by Delius into a purely orchestral, somewhat meandering piece about the transience of life and love.
“Life and Breath” is the title of a new Chandos CD of choral works by René Clausen (born 1953), and this too is a (+++) release that will be an acquired taste for many listeners. There is a mass here, too, the first one Clausen has written: Mass for Double Choir (2011), a much more traditional work than Delius’ in many ways, using the title “Mass” in its more-accepted organized-religion sense and here receiving its première recording. In five movements and featuring two soprano soloists (Sarah Tannehill and Pamela Williamson), Clausen’s Mass breaks little new compositional ground but does show the continuing power that this old affirmation of faith retains over at least some contemporary composers. The other works here draw in a similar way on traditional religious themes, some of which go back to Bach or even beyond: All that hath life and breath, praise ye the Lord (1978), O magnum mysterium (2009), Magnificat (1988), Prayer (2009, a gently dissonant work featuring words of Mother Teresa), O vos omnes (1986) and Set me as a Seal (1989, in which discussions between God and humans occur from both points of view). Two works based on William Blake’s poems and written in 2009, The Tyger and The Lamb, are somewhat less traditionally religious, but all the works on this CD – all of which are performed quite well by the Kansas City Chorale under Charles Bruffy – tend to blend together, since their themes and the underlying primarily-tonal structure that Clausen favors in his compositions are so similar. A disc including a few of his secular works, such as Jabberwocky or Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, would make for more-interesting listening, although those of a traditional religious orientation will find much that is meaningful on this CD.
Walt Whitman considered life from a humanist and transcendentalist rather than traditionally religious perspective, with the result that his works became the basis of music by such kindred spirits as Charles Ives and Ralph Vaughan Williams – and even Howard Hanson, who came at life from a somewhat different direction but, like Vaughan Williams, called one of his works “A Sea Symphony” and based it on Whitman’s texts. Adolphus Hailstork (born 1941) uses some of those texts, too, in Whitman’s Journey—1. Launch Out on Endless Seas, part of an all-Hailstork (++++) CD on Naxos. Hailstork’s communication is forthright and vivid, and he interprets “endless seas” more metaphorically than did Vaughan Williams and Hanson, looking at life itself as a sea and one’s life progress as a journey. Written in 2005, Whitman’s Journey has hymnlike qualities and an overall hopeful outlook. The other pieces on this CD are orchestral but no less effectively communicative. Symphony No. 1 (1988) alternates bright and lyrical sections to good effect within a traditional four-movement structure and a modest time span (21 minutes). Three Spirituals (2005) were originally written for organ but sound just fine in orchestral guise, thanks in part to the sheer familiarity of the tunes: “Everytime I Feel the Spirit,” “Kum Ba Yah” and “Oh Freedom.” Fanfare on Amazing Grace (2003) also uses a well-known spiritual as the basis for a nicely balanced orchestral arrangement. And on the entirely secular side, An American Port of Call (1985) neatly evokes the bustling busy-ness of Norfolk, Virginia. Hailstork has written many works for the Virginia Symphony, which plays his music with all the verve and color it deserves – and with a sure sense of familiarity. JoAnn Falletta, a longtime and strong advocate of less-known music with the Buffalo Philharmonic, is also Music Director of the Virginia Symphony, which she leads with a firm and knowing hand and from which she extracts nicely balanced sound. The directness of expression of Hailstork’s music, coupled with the considerable skill with which he composes it, make this CD a pleasure in both its choral and orchestral offerings.