August 30, 2012
Those Darn Squirrels Fly South. By Adam Rubin. Illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Clarion. $16.99.
I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More! By Karen Beaumont. Illustrated by David Catrow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $11.99.
Unanswerable question: who is sillier in kids’ books, the animal characters or the human ones? In Adam Rubin’s Those Darn Squirrels series, it is always a tie, and the third book – after Those Darn Squirrels and Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next Door – confirms the equality of Rubin’s absurdity. And that of illustrator Daniel Salmieri, too: he goes all-out to make the bug-eyed but thoughtful squirrels, their weird but effective inventions, and the irascible but good-hearted Old Man Fookwire all equally ridiculous-looking. In Those Darn Squirrels Fly South, this means coming up with all sorts of designs for the squirrels’ flying machines, which they build because they want to know where birds go when they fly south for the winter. The squirrels “built gyro-copters from pinecones” and “gliders from leaves” and even “a zeppelin from an old shopping bag.” And if you think that sounds ridiculous, wait until you see the contraptions fly – not only those three but also, among others, a winged soda-pop bottle apparently propelled by expelling the shaken-up soda. The squirrels are exhausted when they finally get to the southern beach on which the floogle bird they have been following lands (although somehow there is still plenty of soda left in that bottle). But once landed, the squirrels relax and have a great time – except that, by this stage of the series, they actually miss Old Man Fookwire, whom they call (collect) from a handy pay phone, and who decides that he could do with a bit of warmth himself. So he takes the tarp off his sports car: “He’d bought it in 1957 and had driven it only twice.” And he drives all the way south at a nice, steady 12 miles an hour, on a one-lane road, leading a many-miles-long parade of other motorists whose reactions to him are about what you would expect. Then Fookwire and the squirrels have a great vacation and a much quicker trip back home – because this time the squirrels do the driving. Fookwire’s occasional exclamations about “those darn squirrels” carry a lot less weight in this book than in the earlier ones: he and they have developed an amused and affectionate relationship to replace his original curmudgeonly response to their behavior. And there is no reason to try to figure out who wins the “sillier” award here – the real winners are young readers following all the antics.
And speaking of antics: the traditional song, “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More,” becomes the basis of some extremely silly ones indeed – thanks to Karen Beaumont’s altered words and David Catrow’s side-splittingly funny illustrations – in the lap-size board book, I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More! It opens with two pages of absolutely riotous color all over every surface in a house – walls, floor, ceiling – as a little boy’s mother (who is about the only unpainted thing around, other than the family dog) looks on in extreme disapproval and, on the next page, has the budding artist (and the dog) firmly plunked into a bathtub that is overflowing with messy multiple colors. After the boy’s bath, Mama puts the paints on the top shelf of a closet, and the whole scene is now black-and-white: “I ain’t gonna paint no more, no more,/ I ain’t gonna paint no more.” But things don’t stay uncolorful for long, as the boy (helped by the dog) creates a tower from boxes, a chair and a bowling ball and gets the paints down: “That’s what I say…/ but there ain’t no way/ that I ain’t gonna paint no more.” Well, you can guess where this is going, but not how hilariously it is going there. The boy (whose expressions are really priceless) uses red to paint his head; then, what the heck, his neck; and “there ain’t no harm” if he paints his arm; and he uses black to paint his back; and the pictures and contortions and colorful mess (now including a much-painted dog) get wilder and wilder until, quite predictably, Mama discovers what is going on – and boy and dog end up right back in that gigantic bathtub, with paint everywhere on the tub, walls, floor, and even in the water. The unending absurdity and sheer joy of mess-making pervade this book from start to finish, and even parents who would scarcely approve of kids doing anything remotely like what the little boy does here will likely find themselves singing along with the silly rhymes and thoroughly enjoying the increasingly colorful spectacle. And then finding better places to hide the paint.
Curses and Blessings for All Occasions. By Bradley Trevor Greive. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Super Grammar. By Tony Preciado. Illustrated by Rhode Montijo. Scholastic. $8.99.
Everyone who buys gift books knows what Bradley Trevor Greive does. John Cleese puts it succinctly on the back of Curses and Blessings for All Occasions: Greive “has amassed vast piles of cash putting saccharine comments under photos of cute-looking animals.” Well, yes, there is that. But Greive’s comments are genuinely funny, and in his latest book he proves that he can make them not only under photos of cute-looking animals but also next to those photos and above them. Oh, and the animals need not be cute – and the photos can be digitally manipulated! Greive is clearly moving into new territory here. But he remains firmly in his comfort zone, and that of readers, in one way: through cleverness. There are 33 blessings and 33 curses in Curses and Blessings for All Occasions, on facing pages, and they really are, well, different. “May your French kissing be awarded three Michelin stars” is the blessing on one page (above a picture of creatures with exceptionally long red tongues, suitably entwined); the curse on the opposite page reads, “May your tubes of toothpaste and hemorrhoid cream appear identical in poor light,” with the unfortunately cursed sea creature thinking “My tongue is numb” while a much smaller animal, strategically placed in the rear, is thinking, “Spearmint?” Nor is everything here scatological. One curse reads, “May your life begin and end with diaper rash” (downcast animal with rear end artificially reddened), while the blessing on the facing page says, “May you be reunited with your lost socks in the afterlife” (animal skeleton in socks). Then there are the two snails offered with the blessing, “May your carpet burns attract the quiet admiration of your peers,” facing a winged hippo with a devilish expression for the curse, “May a bomber formation of incontinent geese fly over your sunroof.” Greive will surely amass additional vast piles of cash with Curses and Blessings for All Occasions, but the book does leave one intriguing question unanswered: for whom, exactly, would you buy it?
There is no question about who will benefit from Super Grammar: anyone who is grammatically challenged and enjoys graphic novels, comics and superheroes. Nominally written for young readers, Tony Preciado’s book also works as a quick refresher course for high-school and college students and even for adults. Like ABC’s famous Schoolhouse Rock animations, Super Grammar works by combining two formats: instruction and entertainment. Thanks to Preciado’s clear, straightforward explanations of grammar and Rhode Montijo’s excellent illustrations – he really does have superhero anatomy down pat – the book is fun as well as informative. For example, The Predicate (woman wearing thigh-high boots and a cape as part of her super costume) works with The Subject (caped crusader in red, with long blue cape) to form complete sentences, such as “The cat burglar is stealing cats” (bad guy in dark purple putting bewildered-looking cartoon cats in a sack). The Verb (she is mostly in red, trailing a lightning bolt to represent activity) can “express a state of action,” as in the sentence, “The mutant insects destroy entire cities” (featuring three-eyed flying things that project evil green rays). Arrayed against the superheroic types is “The Sabotage Squad” of grammar villains: “So, citizen, never make the mistake of underestimating he trickery of the sabotage squad, because when it comes to breaking the rules of grammar – there’s nobody worse.” Here you will find, for example, The Comma Splice, another thigh-high-boots woman, dressed in gray with black boots and gloves and creating improperly joined sentences such as “They need help, I must fly to the rescue” (a sentence requiring a semicolon rather than a comma). Actually, this particular supervillain is especially insidious, since many readers will think it is correct to write, “I can’t believe it, he’s breaking loose” instead of putting a period after “it” and creating two sentences. The “super examples” in the book are both helpful and amusing – and the illustrations are clever, showing the supervillain triumphant when something is wrong and looking frustrated when it is corrected. Super Grammar itself is not quite perfect –supervillains seem to sneak in and win sometimes. For example, “The Prickly Pair are causing trouble” features two cactus-spiky bad guys popping a child’s balloon, but the verb number is wrong: in American English, it should be “is causing trouble,” with “pair” (singular) as the antecedent (British English has different rules for collective nouns). These missteps are small and infrequent, though. As a whole, Super Grammar really is a super guide to good writing and appropriate word use, and its offbeat characters – such as a four-armed bad guy who cracks safes with ease and a purse snatcher, dressed as a skunk, who releases foul odors – make learning parts of speech a super experience.
Snakes. By Nic Bishop. Scholastic. $17.99.
100 Deadliest Things on the Planet. By Anna Claybourne. Scholastic. $7.99.
My Turtle and Me. By Owen Bernstein. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $9.99.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2013. Scholastic. $16.99.
Reptiles continue to be more fascinating to most people between book covers than in real life. Nature photographer Nic Bishop’s latest book, simply entitled Snakes, shows why. Bishop – whose previous volumes are about lizards, frogs, spiders, marsupials, and butterflies and moths – takes wonderful pictures that show animals’ characteristics very clearly, in extreme close-up. From astonishing views of an egg-eating snake swallowing a meal and a hognose snake pretending to be dead to fool predators, to a foldout of a Mojave rattlesnake and a beautiful close view of an infant Honduran milk snake emerging from its egg, Bishop captures snakes’ colors and distinguishing characteristics with a precision that would make any herpetologist (a scientist who studies snakes) proud. To increase the impact of his photos, Bishop blows almost all of them up substantially: a rainbow boa is shown twice actual size, a feathered bush viper three times actual size, a parrot snake four times actual size – in a particularly striking pose that appears on the book’s cover as well as inside. The book is simply beautiful to look at, and its simple recitation of facts is mostly well done, as in the remarks that snakes prefer not to be noticed by people and that even venomous ones prefer not to use their deadly weaponry. Bishop gets details right that other authors sometimes miss, such as the fact that snakes do not hibernate but brumate (a state of being much less active than normal – but not asleep, as in hibernation). And he mentions in the text that snakes can be beautiful, in addition to showing readers their beauty visually. On the other hand, he describes snakes as cold-blooded rather than ectothermic (their blood is not cold; their body temperature depends on external rather than internal forces); and he shows a disproportionate number of venomous snakes, presumably because so many have such striking appearances – even though only about 11% of all snake species are venomous, and few of those have venom strong enough to harm humans. Bishop’s Snakes is best looked at as…well, a book to look at, with striking, gorgeous photography of fascinating animals, and with just enough text to encourage young readers to get more-detailed information elsewhere.
Snakes make appearances in 100 Deadliest Things on the Planet, too, and here of course the entire focus is on venomous ones (although the reticulated python, a constrictor, merits an entry as well). The Indian cobra, boomslang, mamba, Russell’s viper and other venomous snakes appear in this book, with “deadly danger” ratings of two to four skull-and-crossbones graphics. The deadliest snakes, though, are two Australian species that are little known elsewhere: both the Australian brown snake and the inland taipan get “deadly danger” ratings of five, the former because it bites so many people and the latter because it has the deadliest venom of any land snake. But the venom of the beaked sea snake – another “five” danger rating – may be even stronger, and a single bite injects enough to kill 50 people. Obviously 100 Deadliest Things on the Planet is not bedtime reading. And snakes and other reptiles are not even the creatures mentioned most often here. A “five” danger rating goes to the hippopotamus, a plant eater with a notoriously bad temper – and teeth long enough so it can bite a person in half; a “four” goes to the bull shark, which is deadlier than the great white (which gets a “three”) but not as deadly as the puffer fish, whose poison is so strong that the fish gets a “five.” And then there is the blue-ringed octopus (another “five”), whose venom is strong enough to kill 20 people. Readers may be especially interested, or frightened, to learn that the deadliest creature on the planet (based on the number of people it kills each year) is the mosquito – the malaria it spreads claims a million lives annually, and is only one of the diseases it carries. In fact, there are numerous fascinating stories here, all of them short and easy to understand, and all accompanied by excellent photographs. One of the most curious: the castor bean plant’s seeds contain the deadliest natural poison on Earth, but castor bean plants are popular in gardens because of their beauty, and their deadly beans, properly processed, are used to make – among other things – chocolate.
Young readers ready for some relaxation at this point will find it in an attractive board book about the reptile that most people like best. Owen Bernstein’s My Turtle and Me is a sweet and simple story about a little boy and his pet toy turtle, who goes along with him everywhere, from the slide to the sandbox to car rides to story time to bed. The book is cleverly designed, with a turtle-shell-shaped cutout in the upper right of each page, through which a green plastic turtle-shell light protrudes. The shell (around which Bernstein draws the turtle’s head and limbs) lights up when pressed, so when kids read such sentences as “my turtle brightens up when we ride side by side” and “my turtle glimmers when we hug,” they can take part in the book’s action by pressing the light-up shell. The book is based on a toy called “Twilight Turtle,” but it does not read like a product promotion or tie-in – although parents will find out on the back cover that the toy is the source of Bernstein’s turtle drawings, and they can of course buy it if their budding herpetologists decide that they want even more turtle tales.
There are few reptiles in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2013, although one leopard gecko does appear by virtue of stowing away in an eBay package. But as in each year’s edition of this book, there are plenty of other creatures, odd and surprising and weird – the weirdest, as usual, being human beings (who, come to think of it, should also appear in the 100 Deadliest Things book, but don’t). Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2013 offers photos and short explanatory paragraphs in six sections, with titles from “Out of This World” to “One in a Million.” The material tends to get repetitious after a while and is generally sort of silly, so the book gets a (+++) rating. But taken a little bit at a time, it can be enjoyable: a woman in her 40s has dressed only in pink for 25 years and dyes her dog pink with beet juice; a duck-shaped boat contains two beds, a kitchenette and a sauna; a chimpanzee bottle-feeds tiger cubs at a zoo; a woodpecker is photographed asleep on a branch; a man pushes an orange along the ground with his nose – for a mile; scientists develop a cell phone as thin and flexible as a sheet of paper; urinals in Tokyo are linked to video-game screens; a boy born without collarbones can touch his shoulders together in front of his chest; and so on. There are still a few black-and-white photographic holdovers from the earlier days of Believe It or Not, when the concept was closer to a written version of the old carnival sideshow or “freak show.” But most entries for 2013 are quite recent – and quite trivial. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2013 is definitely more enjoyable in small doses than in larger ones.
Cheesie Mack #2: Cheesie Mack Is Cool in a Duel. By Steve Cotler. Illustrated by Adam McCawley. Random House. $15.99.
Ballpark Mysteries 5: The All-Star Joker. By David A Kelly. Illustrated by Mark Meyers. Random House. $4.99.
Calendar Mysteries: #7—July Jitters; #8—August Acrobat. By Ron Roy. Illustrated by John Steven Gurney. Random House. $4.99 each.
Horse Diaries #9: Tennessee Rose. By Jane Kendall. Illustrated by Astrid Sheckels. Random House. $6.99.
Once characters and/or plot lines become popular in kids’ books, it is a fair bet that they will come back again and again. And again. Series that appeal to young readers give kids the experience of familiarity and parents the confidence that they can buy works that their children are likely to enjoy, having had fun with them before. The second Cheesie Mack book fits right into this pattern, with 11-year-old Ronald “Cheesie” Mack and his friend, Georgie Sinkoff, returning for an adventure at a summer camp in Maine. Expecting to be the oldest Little Guy campers, the two friends are dismayed when they are put with the Big Guys instead – meaning they are on the bottom of the ladder in their cabin. Cheesie’s arch enemy, Kevin Welch, is in the same cabin, and without being able to fight Kevin physically, Cheesie hatches the idea of beating him with brain power – through a “cool duel” in which each will do cool things, with other campers voting who is cooler. It’s a pretty preposterous premise, and gets sillier as the “duel” progresses, with frequent asides in which Cheesie reminds readers to check him out on the Web. For example: “Most snakes lay eggs, but garter snakes are born alive because the mother’s eggs hatch inside her body. (I learned a lot about garter snakes from [counselor Ronald] Lindermann later in the summer. If you like or hate snakes, there’s more about them on my website.)” The snakes become part of the duel, as does a wall-mounted toilet, as do several other exceptionally odd things, none of which is as strange (or unbelievable) as the duel’s outcome itself. The book is lighthearted (and rather lightheaded) from start to finish, but readers who enjoyed its predecessor, Cheesie Mack Is Not a Genius or Anything, will certainly like it – which is the whole point.
The point of the Ballpark Mysteries series is to reach out to both boy and girl baseball lovers through mild mysteries involving a boy-and-girl detective team, Mike and Kate. The All-Star Joker involves a new friend, Sandy, whose father, Josh Robinson, is an all-star catcher – and is being accused of playing practical jokes on other players. Mike and Kate are sure Josh is being framed, as Andy says he is. A little snooping and some false leads later, and it turns out that the practical jokes can be traced to someone trying to make sure that Josh gets pulled from the game so a different player can get more time on the field and a better contract. It is all ludicrous, and the actual amount of baseball involved is minimal, but baseball fans ages 6-9 who already enjoy the simple plots and easy sentences of the Ballpark Mysteries will find this one as good as the others.
Kids in the same age group who prefer suburban mysteries to ones with a baseball orientation are the target readers of Calendar Mysteries, in which four friends – Bradley, Brian, Nate and Lucy – have mild adventures and bonding experiences. July Is for Jitters is about an Independence Day parade in which pets are dressed in costumes, and the person whose pet is considered best-dressed becomes mayor of the town for a day. But the kids’ pony and dog mysteriously disappear just before the parade. The disappearance turns out not to be a petnapping but a simple misunderstanding, and everything, of course, ends happily, even though Brian, who really wanted to be mayor for a day, doesn’t get his wish. And so readers move on to August Is for Acrobat, in which the kids help a traveling circus get cleaned up and set up to perform in their town, Green Lawn. The circus is looking for new acts, and particularly wants an acrobat – and finds one, in the person of a masked trapeze artist whose identity is this book’s small mystery. The solution here has to do with the family that runs the circus, the desire of that family’s two kids (who become friends with Bradley, Brian, Nate and Lucy) to do something other than keep going town to town in the family business, and a performance that miraculously convinces the circus parents to go along with what their children have in mind. As in all these books, family values trump plot coherence, and the mysteries are not terribly mysterious – but everything is so wholesome and good-humored that the books have a certain apple-cheeked small-town appeal.
The subjects of the Horse Diaries books, which are told from the horses’ point of view and intended for readers ages 8-12, are considerably more serious. Each of these books takes place in a different historical period and features a different type of horse. Tennessee Rose, ninth in the series, is “told” by a Tennessee Walking Horse living in Alabama – in 1856 when the book starts. The location and date make it clear from the beginning that this will be a story about slavery, the Civil War, and the notion of freedom for horses and humans alike. And that is exactly what the book is, focusing both on the horse and on Levi, the slave boy who is her groom. Jane Kendall, who also wrote the fourth book in this series, Maestoso Petra, takes Rose into the early days of the war as a horse ridden by a Confederate captain, then has the captain die in battle so Rose can go off on her own, find Levi and eventually get to the Union lines with him – so they can both fight for the North. The story is a simple one, told (as always) from a triumphalist Union perspective – the winners do write the history books, even fictional ones connected only loosely to historical events. But Tennessee Rose is a solid entry in the Horse Diaries series because of its focus on the horse’s perspective and because of its appendix about the distinctive characteristics of the Tennessee Walking Horse. This series is aimed mainly at horse-loving preteen girls, and that readership will be pleased to add Tennessee Rose to the eight earlier volumes.
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5; Brahms: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel; Waltzes, Op. 39; Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25. Leon Fleisher, piano; The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell. Sony. $20.98 (5 CDs).
Mozart: Piano Concertos (complete); Rondos for Piano and Orchestra, K. 382 and K. 386. Murray Perahia, piano and conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. Sony. $35.98 (12 CDs).
As Sony continues to delve deeper into its exceptional catalogue of great performances of great music, it comes up with some re-releases that almost any lover of classical music will want to have, no matter how many other performances of the works he or she may already own. These two outstanding piano collections are perfect examples. Leon Fleisher’s performances of the Beethoven and Brahms concertos, recorded in the late 1950s and early 1960s – before Fleisher lost the use of his right hand to focal dystonia, returning to two-handed recording only in 2004 – have long been considered ne plus ultra, and this re-release shows that they deserve to be. Fleisher’s recording of the “Emperor” concerto is often referred to as legendary, and there really has been nothing else like it, before or since. The scale, the spirit, and the absolutely perfect accompaniment of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra – an ensemble that was, under Szell, one of the greatest orchestras in the world – make this a performance unlike any other. It never grows old – the mark of a true classic. And the other Beethoven concertos are marvelous, too. The first and second have an ebullient lightness that is positively Mozartean – as is clear from the wonderful performance of Mozart’s Concerto No. 25, also included here. Szell had a knack for making the Cleveland Orchestra sound like a perfect chamber ensemble in Mozart’s music, and this sonic miracle is abundantly on display here. Concerto No. 3 is a transitional work in this recording, looking both back and forward – an immensely exciting approach that no one else ever quite brought off. And No. 4 simply glows, with superb give-and-take between Fleisher and the orchestra.
Fleisher’s Brahms concertos are splendid as well. No. 1 is gigantic – this is another performance often referred to, rightly, as legendary – with Szell here showing just how full-throated and broad a sound he could get from the Cleveland players, and with Fleisher’s expansiveness and drama unmatched anywhere. No. 2 is a touch less stratospheric (it was recorded in 1962, No. 1 in 1958), but this is still one of the best performances available: stately, grand and heartfelt. And Fleisher shows off both his technique and his splendid musicianship in the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel and the Waltzes, Op. 39. The sound is quite good for its time, and the remastering is very high-quality. This would be a set to cherish at any price. At the low one at which it is available, it is an absolute must-have.
Murray Perahia’s Mozart cycle is not Olympian in the same way as Fleisher’s Beethoven and Brahms – for one thing, the sound in this remastering, although generally very fine, is not as good as in the Fleisher set: some listeners will find certain portions of it piercing or even tinny, even though the original recordings themselves were made considerably later than Fleisher’s, in the 1970s and 1980s. For another thing, Perahia makes no attempt to use historical instruments or performance practices – these are modern-instrument recordings all the way. And for a third thing, Concerto No. 7 for Three Pianos is here given in a two-piano version (which, however, is by Mozart himself, and in which Perahia is very ably joined by Radu Lupu, who also partners Perahia in No. 10 for Two Pianos).
But in the overall context of this beautifully proportioned and very well played Mozart cycle, all the criticisms seem like nitpicks. Perahia is graceful, committed, intensely pianistic and very strongly in tune (no pun intended) with Mozart’s music, and his conducting of the English Chamber Orchestra is just right, whether the ensemble is simply providing fullness and backup (as in many of the early concertos) or is a true partner in intensity and enjoyment (as in most of the late ones). Perahia’s Mozart is generally straightforward and without significant frills, but it is not cold or reserved: his involvement is palpable – or, rather, audible – but never overshadows the music. There is drama where appropriate (Nos. 9, 20 and 24, for instance), but it is never overwrought or overly Romantic. There is plenty of lightness, but nothing that sounds trivial, even in the first four concertos, which are pastiches made by Mozart from other composers’ works. And Perahia does gentle lyricism especially well, as in Nos. 12 and 19. No. 25 provides a fascinating contrast with the Fleisher recording: Perahia makes the first movement slower and weightier and the third movement more expansive; each reading has plenty of charm and power, but their overall effects are quite different in very pleasant ways. Sony is to be commended for making Perahia’s Mozart cycle a 12-disc set, which means the concertos are offered in numbered order, with each starting and finishing on the same CD – there is no irritating carryover of movements at all. Like Sony’s other re-releases of classic performances, including the Fleisher box, this one contains no booklet, liner notes or information other than timings and recording dates. But what it does contain is a plethora of splendid music-making by a top-notch pianist and excellent chamber ensemble. Listeners looking for a Mozart concerto cycle can scarcely do better than this one – it is a pleasure from the first note to the last.
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 16 (version for string orchestra); Haydn: Missa in Tempore Belli. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Beethoven) and Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Haydn) conducted by Leonard Bernstein. C Major DVD. $24.99.
Nobuyuki Tsujii Live at Carnegie Hall. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.
How to Get Out of the Cage: A Year with John Cage. A film by Frank Scheffer. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.
Music in the Air: A History of Classical Music on Television. A film by Reiner E. Moritz. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.
The value of classical-music DVDs, as opposed to CDs or SACDs, varies quite a bit, and depends on such factors as whether the focus is on the music or the performers – and whether the DVDs show performances or are films about classical music or musicians. As a general rule, video versions of performances are nothing special: the sound is no better than on CDs or SACDs, and in fact is often worse; and while there is certainly a visual element to attending a concert, it is very different from the visual element of watching a DVD, where the viewer’s eyes are forced to go wherever the director wishes – a frequently frustrating experience, since the director and not the viewer decides when to watch the conductor, when to look at the full orchestra, and when to pay attention to individual sections or solo players. This is why two new DVDs featuring Leonard Bernstein and pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii are less than fully satisfying. Nevertheless, these visual records will be of considerable interest to some people, if scarcely all – because of the artists, not the repertoire. Bernstein was one of the most involved and dramatic of all conductors (too much so, according to some of his critics): again and again, he throws himself unreservedly into the music, frequently making moves so athletic that one wonders if he will fall off the podium. It is common for him to be sweating profusely well before a piece concludes, and to look exhausted when it is over: he was quite the showman, and watching him on video is an intriguing experience. Nevertheless, Bernstein was usually not as his best in more-reserved music such as that of Haydn (although, surprisingly, he did turn in some superb performances of Haydn symphonies – just not consistently). It is intriguing to watch Bernstein conduct Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” (this recording dates to 1984), and the work is certainly well-played and beautifully sung: the soloists, all quite fine, are soprano Judith Blegen, contralto Brigitte Fassbaender, tenor Claes H. Ahnsjö and bass Hans Sotin. The performance is large-scale, emotive and not particularly idiomatic, but it is certainly heartfelt. And the string-orchestra version of Beethoven’s final quartet (op. 135) is fascinating: recorded in 1989, less than a year before Bernstein’s death, the performance features the wonderfully lush strings of the Vienna Philharmonic and an interpretation that showcases both the music’s emotionalism and its still-surprising modernity. This DVD has much to recommend it, even though it remains a specialty item.
As for the Carnegie Hall recital by Nobuyuki Tsujii: the recording of the Japanese pianist’s performance of November 10, 2011 is notable for giving audiences a chance to hear the co-winner of the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition – and to discover how little his physical handicap (he has been blind from birth) means in the context of his musicianship. Tsujii’s recital is a highly varied one, including Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata, some Liszt (the Rigoletto paraphrase is particularly impressive), Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a Chopin Prelude, plus a work by John Musto, Tsujii’s own arrangement of Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” and a piece entirely by the young pianist himself: Elegy for the Victims of the Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011. The Liszt and Mussorgsky come off better than the Beethoven, and Tsujii’s Elegy is heartfelt music but is scarcely very original – but the focus here, as in the Bernstein DVD, is more on the performer than on the works. Everything is beautifully played, if not always with tremendous subtlety (that is likely to come in time, as it has for other young piano virtuosi); and for those seeking an uplifting affirmation of the ability of someone with an apparent handicap to rise to Olympian heights through talent and determination, this DVD will certainly fill the bill. Again, it is a specialty item, but it is also a special one.
The relevance of DVD release is different in the case of How to Get Out of the Cage and Music in the Air: these are films and, as such, are inherently visual – they make sense only when presented in a visual medium. The questions about them revolve around their subject matter. John Cage (1912-1992) was an influential composer and music theorist – but also considered something of an “anti-composer” by many, and with considerable justification, since his notion of expanding the world of sound involved “preparing” pianos so they would not sound like pianos and, most famously, creating a piece called 4’33” in which the performer does nothing but listen to the audience. A mixture of bad-boy Dadaism with serious musical thought, Cage’s work is unlikely ever to be mainstream, but his way of thinking, especially his use of aleatoric techniques, has been highly influential in academic circles and among other composers. Frank Scheffer’s 16-millimeter, 56-minute film is a mixture of narrative, interview material, locations related to Cage’s life and work, and musical performances – a treat for Cage fans (or fanatics) but of limited interest to anyone else. Of more-general interest may be the five experimental films included as bonus material, totaling a generous 92 minutes. In these, Scheffer either creates a film based on Cage’s ideas (as in Wagner’s Ring, from 1987) or creates one on his own, using Cage’s music and chance techniques as formative influences (as in Ryoanji, from 2011). Like Cage’s music and theorizing, Scheffer’s experimental Cage-focused films will be immediate turnoffs to some, fascinating exercises to others, vapid self-indulgences to still others. Those wanting to get a sense of Cage and his influence, for better or worse, will certainly find the DVD highly intriguing.
The audience for Music in the Air is harder to pin down. A well-made 85-minute film created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Austria-based International Music + Media Centre, the movie certainly works in its intended capacity. But it is rather odd as both a musical and an entertainment work. It features a cast of important musical figures – composers Igor Stravinsky and Francis Poulenc, composer/conductors Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein, conductors Herbert von Karajan and Arturo Toscanini, the Three Tenors, and many more artists – but they are all seen in mere snippets, not extensively enough to involve viewers in the music or give a real sense of their individual contributions to the field. Certainly some of the historic footage is fascinating – including the first TV images ever on a regular broadcasting service (BBC, 1936). But these images are scarcely enough to sustain the narrative for almost an hour and a half. Reiner E. Moritz has made a film for people interested in how music has been produced for television for more than half a century – and it is more a film about television than one about music. As a documentary about how TV has changed, with its coverage of music as an example of (in particular) its enormous technical advancements in the past half-century, Music in the Air is quite interesting. But it is interesting primarily to people who work in television or are fascinated by the medium, its potentials and its long-term development. In a curious way, despite the film’s title and the long list of prominent musical figures who appear in it, Music in the Air is about music only in the most incidental way.
August 23, 2012
First Mothers. By Beverly Gherman. Illustrated by Julie Downing. Clarion. $17.99.
A Song for My Sister. By Lesley Simpson. Illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss. Random House. $16.99.
The cleverest and most unusual book for young people to have come out of the current silly season in the American election process so far, First Mothers takes an angle on the presidency that is genuinely new, highly interesting and will be as intriguing for adults as for the young readers for whom Beverly Gherman wrote the book. This is the story of the mothers of presidents, from Mary Ball Washington to Stanley Ann Dunham (mother of Barack Obama). A few of these women are well-known to history, such as Abigail Smith Adams (mother of John Quincy Adams) and Nancy Hanks Lincoln (mother of Abraham Lincoln, the only president with two mothers in this book – the other being his stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, who “had a wonderful sense of humor” and laughed for an hour at one of Abe’s pranks). These are fascinating short biographies, including each woman’s birth and death dates, the birth dates of their presidential sons, and imagined comments by some of the women upon others. Julie Downing’s illustrations get the period costumes right and do a good job with facial features when those are known. The most amusing pictures show Maria Van Buren, Elizabeth Bassett Harrison, Mary Armistead Tyler and Jane Knox Polk in similar frames, looking very different, doing different things and commenting to and about each other. The tales of these mothers encapsulate and personalize American history in a way that the better-known tales of the presidents themselves never quite do. Betty Hutchinson Jackson, for example, got her son, Andrew, released from British captivity and then spent eight months nursing him back to health – then cared for other prisoners, caught cholera from one of them, and died. Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt, mother of Theodore, had brothers who fought for the South in the Civil War and sent them care packages – but her husband supported the North. Martha Young Truman, Harry’s mother, was a crack shot. No one knows the birth date or death date of Elizabeth Jones Monroe, James’ mother. Rebekah Baines Johnson taught her son, Lyndon, the alphabet when he was two, and made him recite poetry when he was three. Anna Kendrick Pierce, mother of Franklin, deliberately shocked her Puritan neighbors by wearing bright colors and skirts that showed her ankles. These are wonderful stories about women whose lives were in many (but not all) ways typical of their times – and whose varied roles in raising the men who would become United States Presidents are fascinating to discover.
The family is a modern and more ordinary one in A Song for My Sister, but this book too is filled with charm. Lesley Simpson’s story is a simple one about a Jewish family with a new baby that just will not stop crying – much to the annoyance of her almost-seven-year-old sister, Mira, who narrates the tale. The baby has no name, since Jewish tradition assigns one on the eighth day after birth. The story revolves around the naming and around Mira’s attempts to get the baby to stop crying – or at least to get herself away from the incessant noise: “I slept in the tree house. I put underwear in my ears.” Mira suggests using the baby as a siren on a police car, or maybe naming her Thunder, and by the time of the naming ceremony, all family members – and the friends invited as witnesses – are pretty much at wits’ end as the baby screams incessantly. Until…well, look at the book title! When Mira’s turn at the ceremony arrives, she decides to sing to the baby, and lo and behold, the little one stops crying and gurgles happily along with the music, as all the people (and the family dog, Klezmer) look on with joy and, one assumes, considerable relief. And so the baby is named Shira, which means “song” and which rhymes with Mira, and the two girls bond, agreeing that they will “always sing duets. Sister songs.” This is a simple story of a tradition that many readers may find unfamiliar, but the family’s warmth – nicely communicated both through Simpson’s writing and by Tatjana Mai-Wyss’ attractive illustrations – comes through clearly no matter what a reader’s family beliefs may be.
2013 Calendars: Wall—Origami Sculpture; Fold Your Own Zombie; Advent—Peanuts. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each (Origami; Zombie); Universe/Andrews McMeel. $9.99 (Peanuts).
Star Wars Origami: 36 Amazing Paper-Folding Projects from a Galaxy Far, Far Away. By Chris Alexander. Workman. $16.95.
There is always a certain amount of participatory involvement in calendars – after all, you have to tear off a page for each date when using a page-a-day one, turn the pages to plan weeks and months in advance for desktop types, and flip up a page each month for wall calendars. But some calendars go beyond that minimal amount of participation – way beyond. The Origami Sculpture wall calendar for 2013 brings a touch of artistic delight to home, office or anywhere you hang it. Every month starts out looking like an interesting geometric display and turns into something more: a three-dimensional sculpture, created in 20 or so folding steps by following detailed directions that are provided for each creation. Some of the steps take a little getting used to, and the whole origami process may be a trifle unfamiliar, so the calendar comes with 20 practice sheets of folding paper to give sculptors plenty of opportunities to get things right – and plenty of ways to get them wrong without harming the monthly sculptures themselves. Everyone will have different favorites in the Origami Sculpture calendar, based not only on difficulty but also on how the sculptures look when finished. The horse (September), for example, is a little on the abstract side, but the turtle (April) and hummingbird (May) are quite real-looking and definitely winners. Other denizens of this origami zoo are a bird, goldfish, rabbit, butterfly, bee, snail, lizard, elephant and frog – and many calendar pages are colored so that the animal sculptures look even better (the bee is yellow and black, for example, and the frog is green – although the elephant, it should be noted, is purple). This is a calendar for budding artists and for lovers of the unusual in their wall hangings.
Too placid? A little on the sweet side? Prefer something with greater pop-culture sensibility and a more outré attitude? Well, all right – then try the Fold Your Own Zombie wall calendar. The structure of this one is different from that of the origami calendar: instead of the months themselves turning into zombies, the zombie parts (so to speak) are in a pocket at the back of the calendar. Just punch…err, punch out the pieces, put them together, and you can assemble a cheerleader zombie for February, a homemaker zombie for June, a baseball-player zombie for July, a speechmaking zombie for August – ah yes, 12 different zombies, all suitably gruesome (but not too gruesome) and all ready to zombify your kitchen, bedroom, cubicle, office or anywhere else that isn’t horrifying enough already. The whole thing(s) is (are) in good fun, and Fold Your Own Zombie is certain to be talk-provoking if not necessarily thought-provoking – it may be especially useful in an office environment, to keep co-workers sufficiently off-balance so they route the difficult assignments to someone else.
And what would be the opposite of zombie gruesomeness? Peanuts wholesomeness, of course. And what could be a more appropriate use of Charles Schulz’s beloved characters than an Advent calendar? All it takes for a warm and wonderful lead-in to Christmas is the opening, one by one, of this perpetual calendar’s 24 flaps, each revealing a different single-panel Peanuts scene: Charlie Brown ice skating, Snoopy and Woodstock sledding in Snoopy’s supper dish, Lucy walking past Snoopy’s dog house, Spike (Snoopy’s desert-dwelling brother) hanging ornaments on a cactus, and so on. When the flaps are closed, there is a traditional Peanuts Christmas scene, with Charlie and Sally Brown, Snoopy and Woodstock, and Lucy and Linus, all in the snow with a decorated tree in the background. Every year, Peanuts seems more and more like a remnant of an earlier and more-innocent era in comics, but this is the sort of relic that is precious and that retains – and even gains – value over time. This Advent calendar will serve as a warm and wonderful reminder of Schulz’s classic strip each winter – a Christmas tradition that any family can start anytime and continue year after year.
And speaking of things that persist year after year: the Star Wars franchise is 35 years old now, and interest in it shows little sign of abating even though the original high enthusiasm for the first movie trilogy was subsequently undermined by the inferior second trilogy and then by a series of altered re-releases. It is arguable whether George Lucas squandered the enormous love and good will that Star Wars brought him by his subsequent handling of the films and their many, many spinoffs in various media; but what is not debatable is that Star Wars continues to attract interest from everyone from its initial fans to people who were not yet born when the first movie appeared. And at least some of those fans – ages nine and above – will likely be enthusiastic about Star Wars Origami, which proves, if further proof were necessary, that the Force is with Lucas’ concept in ever-growing areas. Unlike Origami Sculpture or the zombie-folding calendar, but like the Peanuts Advent calendar, this thick and heavy book is timeless, as Star Wars itself appears to be. After an introduction on origami basics, Chris Alexander presents three dozen paper-folding activities that include all the usual suspects: Yoda, Jabba the Hutt, C-3PO, R2-D2, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and so on. There are also some less-expected creations: Eta-2 Jedi Starfighter, Taun We, Slave I, General Grievous. Each project is introduced with a movie still and a short explanation or biography, and readers who want more on the Star Wars universe will enjoy the trivia quizzes sprinkled throughout the book. But the main point here, of course, is the origami, which ranges from the simple to the very difficult. In fact, caution is advised: the sequence in the book is random and does not lead from easier to harder projects – there is a separate section, “Projects by Level of Difficulty,” that is a must-read. The completed projects are of highly variable appeal. The spaceships and battle equipment tend to come out very well, the characters less so (R2-D2 is particularly disappointing, although Luke looks better than expected). Even experienced origami artists would do well to read the introductory material here to familiarize or re-familiarize themselves with the various folds and the types of bases (preliminary and waterbomb). The book is nicely set up, and the 72 sheets of folding paper bound into the back are enough to do all the projects – although not enough to allow errors. So first-time folders may want to practice with some of those spare sheets from the Origami Sculpture calendar. Assuming, of course, that they intend to spend a great deal of time, in 2013 and the rest of 2012, sculpting paper.
How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? By Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.
How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? By Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.
Dinosaurs! A Prehistoric Touch-and-Feel Adventure! By Jeffrey Burton. Illustrated by John Bendall-Brunello. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $14.99.
The inimitable dinosaur-themed behavior books of Jane Yolen and Mark Teague get distinct seasonal twists with How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? and How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? The books’ format is so standardized at this point that it risks becoming formulaic, and in fact the approach treads the “formula” line rather more closely in this pair of entries than in the past, since Yolen’s text is almost exactly parallel in these two entries. In the Christmas book, for example, the dinosaur (a Gigantoraptor, of all things) “gives his grandparents big Christmas Eve wishes,” while in the Chanukah entry, he (a Camarasaurus) “gives Bubbie and Zaida big Chanukah wishes.” Of course, the underlying assumption of these books is that families will buy one or the other, not both; and in the spirit of trying to equate Christian and Jewish winter holidays (which are not really equivalent in the respective religions, but are handled as if they are in secular society), it makes sense to have texts that match as closely as possible. But actually, it is what does not match in the two books that makes them particularly delightful: Teague, who goes farther and farther afield in search of authentic dinosaurs to interpret for these books, has an entirely different cast of characters for these two volumes. For Christmas, a misbehaving Suchomimus rips open presents at the wrong time, a Guanlong eats Santa’s cookies, and – in an especially clever touch – the correctly behaving dino singing Christmas carols has his identity, Einiosaurus, written on the cover of his carol book. For Chanukah, it is a misbehaving dino that writes his own name on all the gift cards: Ichtyostega. And a Nyctosaurus grabs all the dreidels so no one else gets to play. But a Dracorex, behaving properly, goes to bed at the right time and sleeps peacefully, clutching a teddy bear. The basic idea of these books is as clever as always: using dinosaurs, realistically drawn and very brightly colored, as stand-ins for kids, demonstrating both bad manners and correct behavior. If Yolen’s texts have lost some of their creativity, Teague’s art has lost none of it, and these two new books will be seasonal delights for any families that celebrate the holidays that the books present so winningly.
There is nothing seasonal about Dinosaurs! A Prehistoric Touch-and-Feel Adventure! This oversize board book uses dinos in a different way. Aimed at the very youngest children, Jeffrey Burton’s book goes out of its way to avoid being scary, showing all the dinosaurs – herbivores and carnivores alike – getting along very well together, and all having human expressions, gestures and even proportions. A Tyrannosaurs Rex, for example, has unrealistically long arms and is shown throwing them wide in a very childlike way, undercutting any possible worry about a text that says “sharp teeth chomp!” – which goes with a slider that makes the dino’s mouth open and close. The interactivity here includes several flaps to fold out (doing so reveals more of the text as well as additional pictures), a wheel to turn (making stars appear and disappear), feathers and bumpy scales to feel, and one 3-D foldout that may startle the youngest children the first time it opens but that will bring shrieks of delight thereafter. John Bendall-Brunello sometimes goes a bit overboard in humanizing the dinos – it is hard to accept a text that says “beware!” when everyone is smiling at everyone else. But for very young kids, this dinosaur hunt will be a lot of fun in any season – and for slightly older ones, the names of all the dinosaurs pictured (given as part of the final foldout) will be enjoyable to learn.
Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person about Sex. By Deborah Roffman. Da Capo. $14.99.
Diary of a Parent Trainer. By Jenny Smith. Delacorte Press. $12.99.
Information-packed but stylistically irritating, Talk to Me First is a thoughtful, chatty, intelligent discussion of human sexuality – not just sexual issues to be discussed between kids and parents, but sexuality from birth to adulthood, gender issues in everyday life, and more. Its primary flaw is the way sex educator Deborah Roffman puts the information across: she is so determined to make her comments non-threatening that she incessantly lapses into parentheses and irritating stylistic quirks that interfere with her underlying seriousness of purpose. She writes, “Install a virtual bug zapper of your own that’s hypersensitive to the word ‘tween.’” And: “So you pick up your eight-year-old son…” (why the “so”?). She calls a section “Back to the Teakettle” and begins it: “You know the drill. Repeat after me, five times: sex, oral sex, anal sex, sexual pleasure, S and M, ‘queef’ (sound created by an air pocket in the vagina during intercourse), fart, tingly, pulsing, condom, nipples, orgasm, erection, ejaculation, clitoris, labia, stimulation, semen, erotic. Just words, right? You can’t be a go-to person if you can’t say them.” And again and again, she uses parentheses just because she seems to enjoy them: “If girls (and boys) were to make up new rules…” “(Teenage sex sells – beware what you read.)” “Like Superman in a phone booth (what’s a phone booth?)…” “If they (and we) adjust well…” “They will date (although the exact form will vary greatly from teenager to teenager, community to community, and school to school)…” “Fifth-grade ‘relationships’ are very short-lived (except for two of my friends from grade school who’ve been together almost continuously ever since).” The overly cute style, undoubtedly intended to keep readers comfortable with the subject matter, rapidly becomes off-putting, and that is a shame, since Roffman is so good when she addresses subjects forthrightly and without the need to “cute-ify” them: “Within the space of ten seconds – because that’s how long ejaculation takes – [sexual intercourse] has the power to accomplish not one but three of the most powerful things there are, all at the same time: (1) create new life; (2) potentially take life away; and (3) change any number of people’s lives forever.” Interestingly, Roffman juxtaposes statements like this – about the tremendous power of sex and sexuality – with ones designed to make sex seem like no big deal, or rather like just an integral part of everyday life. One of her best chapters, “Affirmation: Our Children as Sexual Beings,” opens by stating that people are sexual from birth – and explaining that the statement has nothing to do with what adults usually think of as “sexuality.” Roffman points out that the sexual system is present and demonstrably functioning in newborns and even in utero: “Each day or night, at ninety-minute intervals during the brain’s natural sleep cycle, starting before birth, penises become erect…and in females, the vaginal walls release sexual lubricating fluid.” Roffman’s point is not exactly to demystify sex – it is to show parents that it is ever-present in kids of any and all ages, and can therefore be discussed with children anytime, provided that the talks are done in age-appropriate ways (of which she gives numerous helpful examples). Roffman’s analyses are frequently very intelligent and clever, as when she objects to a Family Guy episode not because of its language, sexual elements and treatment of the mother, but because of “the underlying assumption in the show, and often in our society, that boys, by nature, are bad.” It is fair to ask about this book, “So Where Am I Headed with All of This?” – an actual chapter subheading – because Roffman throws out so many thoughts and ideas in so many ways. Where everything turns out to be heading is toward a final chapter called “Practice Makes Proficient: Let’s Go Fishing” (there’s that irritating style again), in which Roffman offers a series of scenarios involving kids of both genders and various ages, then asks readers the same four self-evaluative questions about each one. Parents who have absorbed the information in Talk to Me First will presumably be able to handle these slices of reality with directness and without embarrassment; if not, they will presumably need to go back and reread parts of the book. Roffman’s point is that for parents to be “go-to” people for their kids, they first have to be able to go to themselves for answers to difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions. But, she argues, the questions should not be unanswered or unanswerable – and that is a fine message to take away from this book, even if it sometimes has to be pried away from the work’s less-than-endearing style.
Roffman’s book will scarcely be the first one causing parents to wish that kids came with an operating manual. Children undoubtedly have the same wishes about their parents – so Jenny Smith has written one. Yes, Diary of a Parent Trainer, despite the tongue planted firmly in cheek, is a book in which 13-year-old Katie Sutton offers other teens a user’s manual for parents – everything needed to “achieve optimum performance from your Grown-Up or Grown-Ups, undertake straightforward maintenance and repairs, [and] ensure smooth operation, in most situations.” Watch that “in most situations” phrase, though, since Katie soon finds herself dealing with a situation that her user manual doesn’t quite cover. From the standpoint of the novel, this is both inevitable and something of a shame, since it nearly turns the book into just another “Mom is dating someone and I need to break them up” piece of fluff. “Stuart’s not a creep or a monster,” Katie writes, but “it’s just wrong. Mum seeing someone.” Juxtaposing these very ordinary comments – Katie’s mother is a widow – with ones about “operating” adults does lead to some funny observations. “Your Grown-Up is nonreturnable. The manufacturer accepts no liability for their many faults. As they are probably, by now, slightly worn around the edges and past their best, if not seriously damaged, don’t even think of trying to get your money back. You cannot upgrade your Grown-Up. There are no refunds and no exchanges.” The book is also enlivened with time stamps, warnings (“when one Grown-Up goes into Reckless Mode, it can cause others to do the same”), and “Sad but True Fact” observations, sometimes followed by a “Useful Hint” or two: “It’s a horrible fact of life, but Grown-Ups snog too. They take something that is perfectly acceptable in young and attractive people and turn it into a disturbing and tragic act. …If you find it hard to obliterate the image of the kissing incident from your mind, try to replace it with another more pleasant image – like trench warfare.” Katie enlists help from her sister, Mandy, and brother, Jack, to get rid of Stuart, but Jack kind of likes Stuart, and Katie soon finds that her prescriptions for managing parents aren’t quite working out. Not that she doesn’t try to be observant and attentive: “When a Grown-Up goes into Sad Mode, it is usually because of something that has happened. …There are lots of clever things you can try, like mode-switching and the Distraction Technique or a great big sloppy cuddle…” It takes more than 250 pages for Katie to realize that Stuart is “not someone who was wanting to take our mum away from us” but “just another human being trying to get by in the world.” Unfortunately, by the time Katie has this revelation, her plan to get rid of Stuart is working all too well. So there is an inevitable breakup and an equally inevitable getting-back-together, and everything eventually ends happily (at Christmas, no less) – all of which is unsurprising and also a bit of a shame, since the sappy standardization of the book’s plot progress interferes with its genuinely creative “user’s manual” approach. Despite everything, though, Diary of a Parent Trainer is fun, and it is just offbeat enough to stand out from the many books that are similarly plotted but lack an equally interesting foundational premise.
Music from the Eton Choirbook. Tonus Peregrinus conducted by Antony Pitts. Naxos. $9.99.
The Guerra Manuscript, Volume 2. Juan Sancho, tenor; Ars Atlántica conducted by Manuel Vilas. Naxos. $9.99.
20. musica intima. ATMA Classique. $7.99.
Mary Ann Joyce-Walter: Cantata for the Children of Terezin; Aceldama. Oxnaya Oleskaya, soprano; Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra and King Singers of Kiev. Ravello. $16.99.
Robert Stern: Shofar—An Oratorio in Four Parts; Ronald Perera: Why I Wake Early—Eight Poems of Mary Oliver for Mixed Chorus, String Quartet and Piano. Coro Allegro. Navona. $13.99.
With the exception of the now-obsolete castrato, human vocal ranges have remained largely unchanged for the 500-plus years in which Western music has been written in forms that remain known and recognizable today. The subject matter has certainly changed and evolved, and there is of course a degree of tonal and performance freedom in 20th- and 21st-century music that goes beyond what was available (or sought) in earlier works. But the desirable qualities of the human voice remain as they have been for centuries: purity, accuracy, high tonal quality, and the ability to subsume oneself into the lyrics. Music from the Eton Choirbook has all these characteristics in excellent performances of five-century-old works taken from a manuscript found in Eton College Chapel. The composers are little known today, if at all: Walter Lambe, Richard Davy, John Browne, Hugh Kellyk, Robert Wylkynson and William, Monk of Stratford. And the works, one and all, are on religious themes that are presented with restrained intensity and a deep sense of belief, from Davy’s St. Matthew Passion to Browne’s Stabat Mater and Kellyk’s Magnificat, which here receives its première recording. But what gives this Naxos CD its communicative power, even in our more-secular time, is the tonal richness and beautiful ensemble work of Tonus Peregrinus under Antony Pitts. Written for a much earlier age, these pieces continue to have a good deal to say to ours.
The works in the Guerra Manuscript are not quite as old as those in the Eton Choirbook, dating to the second half of the 17th century. And these pieces are, in the main, avowedly secular: there are more than 100 of them, primarily songs on various worldly topics, most of them anonymous. There is nothing defiantly risqué, satirical or irreverent here – that is, nothing similar to the songs in the 254-poem Benediktbeuern manuscript that inspired Carl Orff to write Carmina Burana. Instead, there are songs of an absent lover (Amante ausente y triste), of a present one (Dichoso yo que adoro), of youth (Yo joven), of beauty (Suma belleza), of the outdoors (Frescos airecillos), and occasionally of faith (Manda la piedad divina). Tenor Juan Sancho brings a sure sense of style and an appropriate level of understated emotion to these works on the second Naxos CD devoted to this manuscript. Eligio Luis Quinteiro on baroque guitars and Manual Vilas on Spanish baroque harp help Ars Atlántica provide just the right instrumental backdrop, and Manuel Vilas – who transcribed all the songs – directs with sensitivity. These works seem in some ways more exotic than those from the Eton Choirbook, whose texts at least are familiar from much other religious music. And like the sacred music from Eton, the mostly secular songs from the Guerra Manuscript have things to say to today’s listeners, if we will only pay attention.
Similarly, the varied works on a new musica intima CD with the simple title 20 speak well to a modern audience – and in fact speak in more languages than the Latin of the Eton Choirbook or the Spanish of the Guerra Manuscript. This disc is a 20-year retrospective for the ensemble – hence the title – and includes English, French and Inuit works as well as some in Latin. This group is Canadian and is known for championing contemporary Canadian music, but the pieces heard here are from a variety of time periods and are written in a variety of musical styles, from Benjamin Britten’s Jesus, as thou art our saviour to arrangements of the popular songs Shenandoah and Loch Lomond. Indeed, all the arrangements, often by members of musica intima, are attractive, ranging from the straightforward to the complex, and the singing throughout is knowing and beautifully integrated. The pieces heard here are excerpted from five earlier ATMA Classique releases, whose identifying catalogue numbers are provided for the benefit of listeners who may want to hear more works that are similar to certain of those presented on this disc. The attractiveness of this compilation is not thematic – the pieces have little relationship to one another – but aural: the singing is just wonderful to hear.
The singing is fine on Ravello’s new CD of music by Mary Ann Joyce-Walter, too, but few listeners will want this disc primarily because of the quality of the performances. This is a “cause” CD with a focus on some of the horrors of the 20th and 21st centuries and a sense of their historical resonance. The main work, Cantata for the Children of Terezin, uses poems written by children incarcerated in the Terezin (Theresienstedt) concentration camp in Czechoslovakia during World War II. Joyce-Walter’s music is on the obvious side, contrasting the predominantly innocent words of the nine poems with the known fate of the many Jews imprisoned at the camp and then transported to death camps such as Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka. The intense pathos of the underlying story – a necessity for full understanding and knowledgeable response to Joyce-Walter’s music – contrasts with the naïveté and beauty of poems such as “A Little Mouse” and “Someday.” The poetry is heartrending, the music is supportive of the theme, and the overall effect is certainly emotional, but not in any particularly unexpected ways. The same is true of Aceldama, a broader meditation on human suffering, whose title refers to the potter's field near Jerusalem bought with the 30 pieces of silver that Judas had been paid for betraying Christ. The focus here is on 21st-century atrocities rather than those of the 20th century, but the work’s message is much the same: suffering and horror on such a large scale are incomprehensible, understandable only through a look at a microcosm such as individual stories or the poetry of doomed children. Joyce-Walter’s works are well-intentioned and well-performed here, but neither they nor their dour subject matter will be immediately appealing to listeners other than those already dedicated to ensuring that the atrocities of recent times are memorialized in ways designed to guarantee that they and their victims will not be forgotten.
The new Navona CD by Coro Allegro is a “cause” project, too: the Boston-based ensemble draws its members from the LGBT community and supporters. But if the darkness of Joyce-Walter’s music is underlying and perpetual, the works by Massachusetts composers Robert Stern (born 1934) and Ronald Perera (born 1941) are structured to begin in light, move into dark, then emerge into a kind of positive affirmation. Stern’s Shofar is a four-part oratorio inspired by the four calls of the shofar, a ram’s horn used in Jewish ceremonies; Perera’s Why I Wake Early uses eight poems by Mary Oliver (born 1935) to portray the mood of a day that begins and ends early (“Morning at Great Pond” at the start, the title poem at the conclusion) and delves into more-solemn moods in the middle. Stern’s work is more intense and dramatic, Perera’s more pastoral and contained. Neither breaks any particularly new compositional ground, but both are well-constructed and moving, although Stern’s tends to lay its emotions on rather thickly and at perhaps too much length – Perera’s greater delicacy hits emotional notes more effectively. The performances are quite well done, nicely evoking the spirit of both pieces, and although it is true that neither work here will likely make a listener sit up and take notice of any highly innovative vocal approaches, it is also true that neither will disappoint listeners primarily interested in the beauties that modern composers, treating modern-day themes, continue to pull from the same vocal ranges that their predecessors employed for the last five centuries and more.