July 26, 2012
Saving the Ghost of the Mountain: An Expedition Among Snow Leopards in Mongolia. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Sandpiper. $7.99.
Frankenstein Takes the Cake. By Adam Rex. Sandpiper. $7.99.
These two reissues – of a serious book from 2009 and a super-silly one from 2008 – provide great opportunities to revisit and re-enjoy some wonderful writing and unusual viewpoints. Saving the Ghost of the Mountain is extraordinary for one reason in particular. Notice that the subtitle refers to an expedition among snow leopards. Yes, among – but not with them. These famously elusive animals were nowhere to be seen when the scientists profiled in this “Scientists in the Field” volume trekked through Mongolia looking for them. Oh yes, there was evidence that there were snow leopards around – and Sy Montgomery discusses tracking, scat and other ways of knowing that the big cats were somewhere out there, while Nic Bishop’s fine photos display what the expedition did find. The book is full of facts about snow leopards, too – and, for that matter, about other animals (a picture of a woman milking a yak is a highlight; there is a page about wild horses called takhi; there are a closeup of a desert hedgehog, and a photo of a herder driving his goats; and so on). There are indeed photos of snow leopards – just not ones taken during this expedition. Bishop says he was not disappointed to be unable to photograph or even see one, because the animals thus retain their mystery. And Montgomery explains her own challenges during the trip, including her insistence on adhering to her vegetarian diet in a land where, she admits, “vegetarianism makes no sense” (the Mongolians seemed remarkably accepting of her insistence on her very Western, esoteric approach to food – a testimony to their kindness and generosity). Most of the book is about the methods of hunting for snow leopards while driving around Mongolia in a “twelve-seat Russian-made Furgon – a van with a jeeplike chassis and two big gas tanks.” There are many delays, few roads and a great deal of dust (a significant challenge for Bishop). There are also some remarkable beauties, including the brightly colored doors of the one-room house called a ger, which can be taken apart quickly and moved from place to place (one page even explains how to put one up). Saving the Ghost of the Mountain is a fascinating story of an expedition deemed a success even without locating the animals the scientists are studying. “Being a snow leopard researcher doesn’t seem so glamorous anymore,” writes Montgomery at one point. “Tom [McCarthy, conservation director of the Seattle-based Snow Leopard Trust] has come to Mongolia to sniff for pee and search for poop.” Yet there is glamor of a sort in this failed-but-not-quite-failed quest – and a chance for young readers to understand a little more about snow leopards and about the scientists who search for and seek to protect an animal that they may never get to see in its natural habitat.
The natural habitat of Frankenstein is Humor Country, at least in the case of Adam Rex’s Frankenstein Takes the Cake. This is a monster-themed, wedding-oriented book featuring, among other things, a series of bad parodies of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Rex’s sense of humor is so warped that it practically turns in on itself, like an M.C. Escher drawing. From the inside front cover, in which various monsters confuse you, the reader, with Frankenstein’s creation, to the back cover, on which Poe’s famed raven says there’s nothing to see but the bar code, this is a book so far out there that it’s practically back here. Wherever “here” is. It’s the story of the wedding plans of Frankenstein’s monster and his bride, the complaints of the bride’s mother (“do you know how much it cost to get you boxed, embalmed, and buried?”), an announcement from the caterer, the flower girl’s scene (and she does make a scene), the vows written by the bride, and much more. “Much more” includes some of the Headless Horseman’s blog entries, little Medusa’s new glasses, a wonderful “Peanuts” parody featuring Dracula Jr., and…well, even more. The writing rolls in marvelous cadences: “Don’t say ‘steak’ to the vampires – they won’t understand./ They’ll just look for a sharp piece of wood in your hand.” The drawings are superb: funny and scary (but not too scary) and exaggerated and hilarious – oh, there are barely enough superlatives to cover all the delights of this entirely bizarre and completely wonderful bit of weirdness. Buy it for your family and choose your own enthusiastic adjectives. And remember to watch out for the days when “in disguise the dead arise/ to sell us magazines./ In ties and slacks/ they hand out tracts/ as fine, upstanding teens.”
Baby Faces. By Mallory Loehr. Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton. Random House. $7.99.
My Dad Is the Best Playground. By Luciana Navarro Powell. Robin Corey Books. $7.99.
Hide & Seek. By Il Sung Na. Knopf. $15.99.
Baby Listens. By Esther Wilkin. Illustrated by Eloise Wilkin. Golden Books. $3.99.
Even though children up to age three are almost always too young to read, they are not too young to appreciate books with pictures and stories to which they can relate. Simple, attractive board books are just right for this age group, and that is what Baby Faces and My Dad Is the Best Playground are. But they take different approaches to the board-book format. Baby Faces is a pull-tab book, featuring tabs that are sturdy enough so even young and not-too-nimble fingers can grasp and pull (or in one case push) them. The text is super-simple and nicely integrated with the tabs: “Baby’s eyes can wink and blink,” writes Mallory Loehr, and a baby with wide-open brown eyes blinks when the tab is pulled. Or “baby’s tongue is very pink,” and a tab pull leads a baby to stick out her tongue. Short (there are only five things that happen, ending with a sneeze), brightly colored, featuring Vanessa Brantley Newton’s pictures of big-eyed multiracial babies, this is a pleasant little book excursion for the youngest kids. Luciana Navarro Powell’s My Dad Is the Best Playground has no pull tabs but more of a story, featuring two super-happy toddlers and an equally happy-looking father who, despite being dressed for work (including fully buttoned-down shirt and tie), lets himself be used as a swing, a tunnel, monkey bars, a seesaw, even a trampoline (although he looks a bit dubious about that one). Dad and kids practically bounce off the pages with enthusiasm, as they all play at bucking bronco and merry-go-round and other very active games, before all three settle down for a snuggle, a story and “a gentle ride to bed.” Adults will suspect that the father is overdue for sleep himself, but kids will simply enjoy all the activity. There is plenty of it to enjoy.
Slightly older children, ages 2-5, will find Hide & Seek and Baby Listens fun – again, in somewhat different ways. Il Sung Na’s work is an in-the-jungle counting book in the context of the game of the title, with Elephant counting as the other animals run and hide – urged by Chameleon, who of course has his own special hiding abilities. The fun in the book comes from watching the animals trying to decide where to hide while Elephant counts: Giraffe looks for a suitably tall tree, Rhino chooses a rock that turns out to be Tortoise’s shell, and so on. The jungle foliage is multicolored here, not just green, and the animals sport brightly attractive colors as well. Elephant searches carefully and finds all of them – except Chameleon. So he gets the other animals to help in the search, but eventually they all give up, and it turns out that Chameleon is right where we saw him in the first place…but so well camouflaged that no one could spot him. The simple, pleasantly drawn story is quite appealing, and its counting elements are a bonus. As for Baby Listens, it is appealing in a different way. Esther Wilkin’s book dates to 1960 and shows its age a bit, both in the writing and in Eloise Wilkin’s illustrations of a very chubby baby hearing all the sounds of everyday life. From “TUM TUM TUM DEE DUM/ Baby’s beating on his drum” to “Baby rides his kiddie car/ SQUEAK SQUEAK SQUEAK,” from a buzzing bee to a cow that moos from the field next door while Baby sits playing with a kitten in the back yard, these are pleasant enough sounds that seem somewhat caught in a time warp in terms of the home’s decorations, the way Mommy is dressed, and other details. Baby Listens gets a (+++) rating for 21st-century kids: never intended as a slice of history, it now looks like one, a fact that somewhat distracts and detracts from the enjoyment of its essentially simple auditory message.
Final Victory: FDR’s Extraordinary World War II Presidential Campaign. By Stanley Weintraub. Da Capo. $26.
Readers who cannot get enough of political campaigning this year – and like to dream of an imagined time when presidential elections were supposedly conducted with more decorum than they are today – are the target audience for Final Victory, Stanley Weintraub’s story of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s run for his fourth term. In retrospect, it seems hard to imagine anyone replacing Roosevelt as World War II ground toward Allied victory in a time before the two-term limit on presidential service. But things were scarcely so clear-cut in 1943 and 1944, as Weintraub, a Penn State emeritus professor and frequent chronicler of World War II, points out. Roosevelt himself was not sure about running again, knowing that his health was failing; but there really was no one else, certainly no one in his party who would have dared to challenge him. On the Republican side, though, there was awareness of Democratic weakness on multiple levels: an ongoing and very costly war, serious economic dislocation caused in part by the large number of returning veterans, and the contrast between the aging Roosevelt and the dynamic young New York governor and party standard bearer, Thomas E. Dewey.
Of course, everyone knows how the race turned out, and many know that it was highly lopsided: 432 electoral votes for Roosevelt to 99 for Dewey, with Roosevelt winning 32 of what were then 48 states. The popular vote was somewhat closer than in Roosevelt’s earlier victories, but nowhere near as close as it has been in more-recent presidential contests. Still, Weintraub treats the outcome almost as an afterthought, if not as a foregone conclusion. His interest is in the intricacies of a campaign more than 65 years ago, and in the personalities who shaped that battle, including not only the candidates themselves but also such figures as General Douglas MacArthur and Democratic National Chairman Robert Hannegan.
Weintraub is careful not to draw too many parallels between Roosevelt’s bid for a fourth term and the presidential election of 2012, but he is certainly aware of ways in which the 1944 election has resonance with later ones. For example, just as there were questions about Dan Quayle’s fitness to serve if George H.W. Bush should die in office, Weintraub points out that “almost every Dewey speech included lines that a vote for FDR would make Harry Truman, an untalented tool of party bosses, president.” And the Chicago Tribune, coming up with some economic doggerel in support of Dewey and his running mate, Ohio Governor John Bricker, put this on its front page: “Back to work quicker/ with Dewey and Bricker.” Also, treading lightly in international affairs was as much a matter of course during World War II as it is today: the Soviet Union had occupied Poland, but Roosevelt specifically had his ambassador in Moscow tell Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov that “the Polish-Soviet question must not become an issue” in Roosevelt’s campaign.
Parallels aside, though, Final Victory is ultimately about a very different time, very different candidates, and very different national and international circumstances. Similarities are surface-level and more apparent than real – a flaw in the book, which never quite seems to know whether it wants to interest readers by showing how some things never change or by focusing on the unique elements of the 1944 race. Weintraub does a good job of using primary sources and of humanizing grand events of the day whenever possible: “In Nancy, France, Sergeant Sam Kramer of Ithaca, New York, in the Fourth Armored Division of Patton’s Third Army, voted for FDR as ‘the better man,’ recalling that ‘90% of our company’ voted for Roosevelt after a GI from Rome, Georgia, explained how to apply for, and fill out, a ballot.” Scattered photos and contemporary cartoons contribute to the ambiance of the book, along with comments such as, “While Nazi Germany looked on warily, Tokyo radio took sides” (for Dewey, which undoubtedly helped Roosevelt).
Roosevelt’s eloquence continues to stand in contrast to the comparative intellectual dullness of most modern presidential contenders, as when Roosevelt mentions two speeches in which Dewey claimed the New Deal was coming under Communist control and, on another day, that removing Roosevelt would end “the threat of monarchy” in the United States. Roosevelt’s rejoinder: “Now really, which is it, communism or monarchy? I do not think we could have both in this country, even if we wanted either, which we do not.” Yet Roosevelt was as capable of pettiness and manipulation as anyone else – to the point of refusing to mention Dewey by name when attacking him, and referring to Dewey as “a son of a bitch” after Dewey conceded the election. Roosevelt’s final term lasted only 83 days – not quite as short as William Henry Harrison’s presidency (which endured for only 30), but short enough to be a mere footnote to history if the circumstances of the time and the words of historians such as Weintraub did not continue to stir up notions of its importance. In fact, its most significant element, to which Weintraub barely alludes, may have been that it paved the way for Harry Truman to assume the presidency that he could almost certainly not have won on his own…and to end World War II, then usher in a period of postwar prosperity on which many people today look back more fondly than they do on Roosevelt’s final presidential campaign.
Busoni: Eine Lustspielouvertüre; Gesang vom Reigen der Geister; Rondò arlecchinesco; Clarinet Concertino; Divertimento for flute and small orchestra; Tanzwalzer. Giammarco Casani, clarinet; Laura Minguzzi, flute; Gianluca Terranova, tenor; Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.
Saint-Saëns: Fantasie for Violin and Harp; Martinů: Chamber Music No. 2; Matan Porat: Night Horses; Debussy: Sonata for Cello and Piano; Bartók: Contrasts. Israeli Chamber Project (Tibi Cziger, clarinet; Itamar Zorman, violin; Shmuel Katz, viola; Michal Korman, cello; Sivan Megan, harp; Assaff Weisman, piano). Azica. $16.99.
Marty Regan: Selected Works for Japanese Instruments, Volume 2. Navona. $16.99.
Gheorghe Costinescu: Jubilus; Pantomime. Ensemble Sospeso (Lucy Shelton, soprano; Brian McWhorter, trumpet; David Rozenblatt, percussive body sounds; Gheorghe Costinescu and Rand Steiger, conductors). Ravello DVD. $24.99.
Among composers seeking musical sounds beyond the ordinary, Ferruccio Busoni stands out not only because he straddled the Italian/German music divide but also because of his synesthesia – a mixing of senses in which, for example, he could “see” a particular musical note in a specific color. Busoni’s music often seems to reach beyond traditional forms even while using them, and it frequently has a somewhat exotic sound even when employing standard orchestral forces. A pacifist – he refused to perform in countries that participated in World War I – he was also a musical philosopher, predicting a future in which music would be open to more sounds than the conventional ones, and frequently striving in his own works to open listeners’ ears. The unusual treatment that Busoni often provided to supposedly straightforward forms and instruments meant that his works fell into disfavor for decades after his death in 1924, and they are scarcely universally popular even today. But listeners who want to explore Busoni’s worldview, and the music he created within it, will find the new Naxos CD by Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia to be a variegated and well-played sampling. Busoni seems to try on different musical personalities in these six works. The earliest, Eine Lustspielouvertüre (“Comedy Overture”), dates to 1897 and has more lightness and instrumental clarity than do many of Busoni’s later works. Gesang vom Reigen der Geister (“Song of the Spirit Dance”), from 1915, is delicate, harmonically forward-looking and redolent of traces of mysticism. Rondò arlecchinesco, also from 1915, is much more straightforward and humorous in a witty rather than broad way, and has unusual scoring that features a vocalise for tenor. The Clarinet Concertino (1918) is carefully organized and adheres fairly closely to classical forms, while the Divertimento for flute and small orchestra (1920) takes formal constraints much less seriously and is, indeed, diverting. So is Tanzwalzer, which also dates to 1920 but which has the flavor of a throwback to the Vienna of the Strauss family – it is actually dedicated to the memory of Johann Strauss Jr., although Busoni’s tunefulness is clearly filtered through a very different sensibility.
The boundaries pushed back by the Israeli Chamber Project are of a different sort. An unusual chamber group in which strings, winds, harp and piano all take part, the ensemble in its first recording offers works as they were written, others in arrangements and one written for it – displaying considerable versatility in repertoire. Saint-Saëns’ lovely Fantasie for Violin and Harp gets eloquent and smooth treatment, only to be followed by the much more angular Chamber Music No. 2 by Bohuslav Martinů – the only work on this Azica CD featuring all six performers. Matan Porat’s Night Horses was written for this ensemble, although only four instruments take part in it: clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The work has some dynamism and some interesting treatment of the instruments, although it is not the sort of piece that really stays with a listener long after the performance. Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, though, does have staying power, sounding almost haunting as played here in an arrangement by Sivan Megan for cello and harp – with Megan herself on harp and Michal Korman on cello. The CD concludes with Bartók’s Contrasts, and here the three participating musicians (on clarinet, violin and piano) really go to town, emphasizing the vitality of the music and its frequent rhythmic changes. The overall mixture of music is actually rather odd – the CD is interesting primarily as an introduction to some top-notch young chamber players who may perhaps, in future releases, offer programs in which the works are somewhat better integrated with each other or are contrasted in careful ways rather than, as here, feeling as if they were selected primarily to highlight the musicians rather than the music.
The boundaries breached by Marty Regan are clear ones: those between Western and Japanese music. Regan is deeply imbued with the culture of Japan, has studied with prominent Japanese composer Minoru Miki, and has translated Miki’s book on composing for Japanese instruments. Listening to Regan’s works requires entry into a sound world with which aficionados of Western music generally have little familiarity. The instruments, scales and compositional principles of Japanese music are quite different from those in Western works. The word “exotic” comes to mind, but it is not really the right one, because there is nothing deliberately “exotic” in Regan’s many dozens of compositions for Japanese instruments. Indeed, they are respectful of Japanese musical traditions and appear to have much the same flow as works by composers born and trained in Japan. There are six works on Navona’s new Regan CD: Flamefox (2007) for a quartet of shakuhachi (a Japanese flute traditionally made of bamboo); Dragoneyes (2006) for shakuhachi, shamisen (a three-stringed instrument somewhat resembling a banjo), and 21-string koto (Japan’s national instrument, which has movable bridges and is plucked); In the Night Sky (2010) for shakuhachi, 21-string koto and percussion; Magic Mirror (2008) for shamisen, hichiriki (a double-reed flute), ryūteki (a bamboo transverse flute), shō (a wind instrument made of bamboo pipes), shinobue (a transverse flute with a high-pitched sound), and shakuhachi; Voyage (2008) for shakuhachi and string quartet; and Devil’s Bridge (2008) for shamisen and biwa (a type of lute). In terms of sound, Magic Mirror, with its subtly different wind instruments, and Voyage, with its juxtaposition of Japanese and Western elements, are particularly interesting. In fact, all the music here stretches Western ears, and 70 minutes of it is rather a lot for a single sitting – listeners interested in experimenting with some unfamiliar sonorities may want to hear the pieces one at a time over a couple of days.
The boundary-blurring on a new DVD of works by Gheorghe Costinescu occurs on multiple levels. This is a case in which a DVD definitely puts music across better than a CD would, because the music is only part of Costinescu’s conception. Another part is gestures – used extensively in Pantomime. And another is sound that comes from unexpected places – “percussive body sounds,” not traditional percussion, in Jubilus, which is written for those sounds plus soprano and trumpet (an instrumental combination every bit as unusual as anything in Marty Regan’s music). Pantomime uses a more traditional instrumental mix – a chamber orchestra – but it uses the musicians in unusual ways, having them produce a wide variety of moods that are inspired by or reflected in pantomimed gesturing. Pantomime fits loosely within category of ballet, but Jubilus is hard to characterize. Both works are imaginative, but not compelling enough so most people will believe they warrant repeated viewings and listenings. And the two works together last only 36 minutes – the balance of this 97-minute DVD is a series of discussions of the scores and a lengthy interview with Costinescu from 2005 (three years after these live performances were recorded). So this is really a super-specialized item, the focus far more on the composer than on his compositions (the interview with him lasts longer than the two performances put together). Costinescu is a prominent Romanian-born composer who now, at age 77, has received numerous awards and has something of an international following. But only his strongly committed fans will likely want this particular balance of his music and his words.
Alan Hovhaness: Symphonies Nos. 1 (“Exile”) and 50 (“Mount Saint Helens”); Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints. Ron Johnson, marimba; Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwartz. Naxos. $9.99.
Peter Mennin: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 7 (“Variation-Symphony”); Moby Dick—Concertato for Orchestra. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.
Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 3; Cross Lane Fair. Mark Jordan, Northumbrian pipes; Rob Lea, bodhran; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Maxwell Davies. Naxos. $9.99.
The symphonic form, altered and reinterpreted and thought dead and repeatedly resurrected and reinterpreted and remade in every possible way, continues to attract composers worldwide – including ones whose “symphonies” bear very little resemblance to the works in the form as used in the Classical and Romantic eras. Some composers, though, have found ways to make the symphony their own even while maintaining ties to what the work used to be. Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) is one such, and a very prolific symphonist he was. He wrote 67 numbered symphonies between 1926 and 1992, plus others that remain in manuscript, and may well have destroyed still others when he burned hundreds of his early works. Hovhaness was initially influenced by the music of American composers and by music from Armenia (his father was Armenian); later he became highly interested in the traditional music of nations such as India, Japan and South Korea. Like many 20th-century American composers, he was accretive; but he also developed a sound of his own, largely through his assimilation of non-Western works. His First Symphony, which dates to 1926 but was revised in 1970, has the title “Exile” in commemoration of the fleeing of Armenians before the Ottoman Turks after World War I – an event still producing controversy and deeply conflicting feelings today. Expressive and passionate, this symphony blends grace with intensity. A different tradition, that of Japan, infuses Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints, which prominently features a xylophone or marimba in a work of considerable charm. In contrast, Symphony No. 50 is intended to evoke both the violence of nature (commemorating the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980) and its majesty. This work strives somewhat unconvincingly toward mysticism and a feeling of meaningfulness underlying the event that brought it into being, but it is effectively orchestrated – as Hovhaness’ music usually is – and has some elements of real power. The Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz plays the music with clarity and skill, if perhaps a little less comfort in the Armenian- and Japanese-influenced works than in the “Mount Saint Helens” symphony.
Schwarz and his players also do a generally fine job with the very different symphonies of Peter Mennin (1923-1983). Like the Hovhaness CD, this is a re-release of a Delos International recording: the Hovhaness performances date to 1990-92, the Mennin ones to 1994-95. Both discs show the commitment of Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony to works by American composers – Mennin being one whose style developed primarily in the 1930s and 1940s. His Symphony No. 3 is highly rhythmic, rather bold and brassy, and quite energetic in its outer movements – but with a central Andante moderato that sounds like an extended song without words. The one-movement Symphony No. 7 bears its title of “Variation-Symphony” well, being essentially an extended set of contrasts among various sections of the orchestra as well as a lengthy group of variations on a theme. Moby Dick is a more emotional work, intended to evoke not so much the sea, the quest of Captain Ahab and the doom of the Pequod as the impact that Herman Melville’s book has on the reader. In all three pieces, Mennin shows himself to be an effective tone-painter and skilled craftsman, although the overall emotive ability of his music is somewhat limited – the orchestration is lush enough, but the feelings it evokes are on the thin side.
Another symphonic re-release, this one from “across the pond” in England, shows yet a third 20th-century composer wrestling with new ways of handling symphonic form. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Third Symphony and Cross Lane Fair were originally recorded in 1994-95 and released by Collins Classics. The symphony, written in 1983, harks back to architectural principles of the Renaissance in its construction, but listeners will more likely hear in it the influence of Ralph Vaughan Williams: it combines a tonal painting of the sea with reproductions of birdsong and an overall contrast between the forces of Nature and the attempt by humans to impose order on them through careful proportion and elegant design. A long and somewhat over-ambitious work (it runs nearly an hour), the symphony produces an overall impression of expansiveness and time stretching toward infinity, with prominent Lento and Adagio passages in its very lengthy first and fourth movements – each of which is longer than the two middle movements put together. Despite the broad reach of the music, the third movement, interestingly marked scorrevole e bisbigliando (“smoothly and whispering”), has some of the work’s most effective writing. Cross Lane Fair, which dates to 1994, is a much lighter piece that uses only a chamber orchestra – augmented by Northumbrian pipes and the Irish drum called the bodhran. This work’s sound is comparatively exotic, and its mood upbeat throughout, as befits music inspired by memories of a fair that the composer went to when he was a child. Short transitional sections, reminiscent structurally of those in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, separate pieces that represent the fairground as a whole and such exotic features as a bearded lady, five-legged sheep and juggler. Bright and forthright, Cross Lane Fair makes an effective contrast to the altogether darker and more meditative Third Symphony – and both performances here are as definitive as can be.
July 19, 2012
The Book of Blood: From Legends and Leeches to Vampires and Veins. By H.P. Newquist. Houghton Mifflin. $17.99.
H.P. Newquist starts his explanation about the truths, myths and legends of blood in a decidedly odd way – with a statement that “the sight of blood from a wound causes many people to feel faint,” as the caption of a picture showing a person’s injured hand literally dripping blood. Great way to frighten off some readers! But those who are not scared by this peculiar beginning, or can overcome the queasiness it may cause, are in for a well-written overview of blood of all sorts, amply illustrated with photos, drawings, diagrams, movie stills and more.
Newquist asks, “What does blood actually do?” And he comments that “we’re fortunate to be living in an age where we can answer that question.” Thus begins a short survey of old ideas about blood, ancient immortals involved with it (including the Mesopotamian Lamashtu, who sucked blood from mothers and their newborns, and the Hindu Kali, who defeated her enemies and then drank their blood). Mummies, statues, stained-glass windows and other illustrations show the importance of blood in many traditions. Illustrations of the personality types believed to be represented by the body’s “four humors” – one of which was blood – are especially intriguing. Then Newquist moves on to consider bloodletting (the practice of removing blood from the body to try to “bleed out” an illness), and along the way explains that in addition to scientists who are well-known today, there were others whose important discoveries are almost unremembered: Michael Servetus, for example, who in the 16th century became the first European to figure out how blood flowed in the body – and Ibn al-Nafis, who made the same discovery three centuries earlier, in Egypt. Early blood transfusion, the development of the microscope, blood typing and other matters lead to a simplified but very well-done explanation of how the body makes blood, where it flows and how it is used by specific organs. Then Newquist discusses wounds and diseases and how the body heals itself – including a description of the five primary types of white blood cells and what functions each has. Illustrations of blood components are intermingled with some photos that, like that first one of the wounded hand, may not be for everyone, such as a picture of the opened skull of a person with meningitis – showing how that disease lets blood and bacteria enter the brain.
Three-quarters of The Book of Blood focuses on human blood and human discoveries, but in some ways the remaining one-quarter of the book is even more fascinating. Here Newquist explores blood in other creatures, revealing some truly amazing facts. He points out, for example, that reptiles are not truly “cold-blooded” but that one creature is: the astonishing icefish, the only known vertebrate with no hemoglobin – it has clear blood that functions as antifreeze in the frigid waters near Antarctica, where the fish lives. Having explained that even aristocratic humans do not really have “blue blood,” although ours looks blue when it is deoxygenated, he talks about animals whose blood really is blue, such as squids, octopi and slugs. And then there is the blue-blooded horseshoe crab, an ancient and remarkable creature with an open circulatory system: its blood sloshes around in its body instead of traveling through blood vessels (cockroaches also have open systems, which is why they can live for days after their heads are cut off; Newquist explains this, too). Horseshoe-crab blood is incredibly important to humans, because it is hypersensitive to bacteria – to such a degree that it is used to test the purity of medicines and the sterility of surgical instruments. A picture of a lab in which medical technicians are carefully extracting blood from row upon row of horseshoe crabs is one of the most remarkable in the book.
Near the end of The Book of Blood, Newquist considers bloodsuckers, both real (mosquitoes, bedbugs, vampire bats, leeches) and fictional (vampires), and he delves briefly into the real-life background of some bloodsucking fiction (including the stories of Transylvanian ruler Vlad the Impaler and Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory). But he is careful not to make this the book’s conclusion: that is a discussion of blood transfusions, which are needed because humans still cannot make blood in the lab – only in their own bodies. By the end of this book, young readers will have a much better understanding and, hopefully, appreciation of blood, and perhaps less fear of seeing it – although the book’s layout, with pages that look as if they have blood all over them, seems to be designed to increase the grossness factor as much as the text is aimed at reducing it. Design issues aside, The Book of Blood is highly informative and is likely to encourage at least some readers to explore the subject further – starting with some of the books and Web sites listed at the end.
Larceny in My Blood: A Memoir of Heroin, Handcuffs, and Higher Education. By Matthew Parker. Gotham Books. $20.
A book with a determinedly upbeat conclusion, but written to appeal to those interested in wallowing in the seamiest aspects of modern life, Larceny in My Blood is the memoir of a drug addict and petty criminal who is utterly without self-awareness but is undoubtedly quite talented in telling stories – or at least telling his own story, which is what he does here. A graphic novel in which the writing is better and more attractive than the drawings, the book chronicles Parker’s years of crime, addiction and existence on the very fringes of society, taking him at last out of prison (in which he spent more than 11 years after accumulating more than 30 arrests) and into college – indeed, to the Ivy League, where he earned an M.F.A. degree in creative writing at Columbia University.
It is possible to respect Parker’s accomplishments and admire the way he eventually got his act and his life together without liking him very much. He never makes himself the slightest bit likable, retaining much of the boringly boastful street cred that he spent decades building up. That he has considerable strength of character is shown in his eventual emergence from a life that has killed or incapacitated many others, including both his brothers. But has he really changed in some fundamental way, or simply found a new set of suckers of whom to take advantage? Like other criminals, Parker objectifies his victims and never feels believable remorse for what he has done; similarly, he stays distanced from his eventual success and the people who helped him attain it. The man has talent, but he has always been, and remains, a taker, not a giver.
But he certainly can write. He appears to care for his mother, but he also attributes much of his addiction and criminal attitudes to her, quoting her at one point as saying, “A college degree from a good law school will put you in a position of legalized larceny,” right after he has her commenting, “The trick is not to go to prison at all, but if you do have to go, go federal.” Parker’s stories of his criminal and drug-focused family, of the music he listened to, of his sexual encounters, are told matter-of-factly and often with more underlying pride than they warrant. But when Parker isn’t busy justifying himself or shirking responsibility for his behavior, he comes up with some really interesting writing. After a section explaining his difficulties with most elements of math, for example, he explains that his formula “for staying clean in my first year out of prison” is E=mc2 – where E = energy, m = music and c = “the speed of endorphins squared.” Or, in a chapter in which he has extended conversations with his penis, he makes a series of juvenile but amusing observations that he illustrates with aplomb: “If given free rein, most dicks would have harems of virgins waiting on them head and scrotum,” he writes, and the picture shows an anthropomorphized penis being fed and fanned by traditional “harem girls.”
It is good that there are flashes of humor (if not self-knowledge) in Larceny in My Blood, because they help make up for long sections that are flat-out dull. Those include observations like this: “There appears to be no room in natural selection for selfless acts of kindness.” And family analyses like this, about one of his brothers: “John had an innate engineering sense…and was a natural thief.” And what passes for revelation, like this: “As a child, I had always wanted to be a fighter pilot.” Or this: “I’ve gotten so many tickets over the years that I could use them for wallpaper.” Or: “I made lots of acquaintances, but few real friends.” Parker’s descriptions of prison, rehab programs, police, fellow criminals, parole boards, courts and attorneys are telling and ring true, as well they should with his experience. In fact, a chapter that starts with the line, “Cops love junkies,” is one of the most revelatory and amusingly wry parts of the book. But Parker is less believable when he says certain things that he seems to want readers to take at face value, such as, at one point, “I had a lot of respect for judges in general, and the law in particular.”
Parker just doesn’t have much insight into himself. Certainly he is a survivor – very much like his mother but quite unlike both his brothers, whose deaths come across as pointless and utterly without meaning (although Parker says they were significant to him). A comment that “I wasn’t a thorn in the side of The Man, but rather old meat trapped in his intestines,” is about as close to self-understanding as Parker ever gets. He tells his story with skill and often with relish, unflinchingly addressing his drug habit, thievery and awful (and not-so-awful) experiences both within the prison system and outside it. But he never stops indulging unashamedly in a bad-boy self-image that he seems, even in middle age, to relish – for example, the most he says about the horrors to which he subjected his mother (who admittedly is something less than a saint herself) is, “She was too kind and I used her.” Larceny in My Blood is often fascinating, and certainly it is a thrill ride of sorts for people looking for a vicarious experience of the underbelly of society. But it’s not the intestines or underbelly that the book is missing. It’s the heart.
Mahler: Symphony No. 3. Alexandra Petersamer, mezzo-soprano; Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw, Damen des Tschechischen Philharmonischen Chors Brünn and Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conducted by Gabriel Feltz. Dreyer Gaido. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Jeannette Wernecke, soprano; Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conducted by Gabriel Feltz. Dreyer Gaido. $18.99.
Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conducted by Gabriel Feltz. Dreyer Gaido. $18.99.
Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conducted by Gabriel Feltz. Dreyer Gaido. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conducted by Gabriel Feltz. Dreyer Gaido. $18.99.
Gustav Mahler knew exactly how he wanted his symphonies to sound. A famed and brilliant conductor, Mahler peppered his scores with notations, clearly indicating tempos, dynamics, subtleties of musical shading, minute elements of emphasis and de-emphasis, and rationales for his decisions on pacing and orchestration. This does not make Mahler’s symphonies easy to conduct – the scores are tremendously complex, and some of his comments, while undoubtedly crystal-clear to him, are less so to others – but Mahler certainly provided one of the most accurate road maps to performance ever given by any composer. So why, it has to be asked, are readings that try carefully to follow what Mahler clearly indicated he wanted rather bland? A well-known case in point is Gilbert Kaplan’s studious recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” which is about as close to following the composer’s directions as any recording has ever been but which lacks the fire and involvement of many other performances. The readings by most famed Mahler conductors tend to deviate, sometimes in significant ways, from what the composer called for – dating back to Bruno Walter’s emotional focus and Leonard Bernstein’s dynamism and intensity. Wrongheaded these performances could be, but they were never uninteresting or uninvolving.
Most modern performances tend to hew rather closely to Mahler’s expressed intentions, with deviations here and there and some personalization based on a conductor’s preferences in tempo and instrumental emphasis. But no one thoroughly rethinks Mahler, challenging his written indications and modifying his symphonies’ sound to a significant extent. No one, that is, until Gabriel Feltz, whose ongoing Mahler cycle on the Münster-based Dreyer Gaido label (the brainchild of Michael Dreyer and Hugo Germán Gaido) is the most unusual and most controversial set of the symphonies in recent years. These are live recordings, released essentially at the rate of one a year: the performance of Symphony No. 7 dates to 2007, No. 6 to 2008, No. 5 to 2009, No. 3 to 2010 and No. 4 to 2011. Feltz provides his own booklet notes for the performances, each set of notes including specific musical examples illustrating his approach to particular interpretative issues. And Feltz uses the booklet notes to argue, again and again, that even if Mahler said he wanted things done a certain way, he, Feltz, has good reason for doing them differently.
These are not small differences, either, and some will border on sacrilege for many, perhaps most, fans of Mahler’s music. For example, Mahler made it clear that the march theme in the first movement of Symphony No. 3 was to be played at the same tempo each time it appears. Feltz knows this and even draws attention to it in his writing – and then explains why he does not follow the composer’s instructions. In Symphony No. 4, the evenness of the entire work places it in a celestial sphere that makes it the most placid of all Mahler’s symphonies. Feltz knows this – and deliberately shakes things up with a first movement whose frequent extreme tempo changes propel the music with far more excitement than in other performances, albeit at the cost of the work’s intended calm. In Symphony No. 6, all conductors have to think through the controversy about whether to use two or three hammer blows in the final movement, but this is not what concerns Feltz at all: his booklet notes, which have the most extensive musical illustrations offered for any of these releases, deal entirely with the question of whether the Scherzo should be placed second or third (Feltz argues very decisively that it should go second).
Feltz’s written commentaries could easily be dismissed as academic or even trivial, except that they are so clearly reflected in the pacing and sound of these performances with the Stuttgart Philharmonic, of which Feltz has been principal conductor since 2004. The orchestra responds beautifully to everything that Feltz asks of it, and he asks a lot. He seeks a genuine symphonic structure, an overarching connectedness, in Symphony No. 3, and if he does not quite find it, the seeking itself is fascinating, as the first movement lurches through episodes rather than proceeding at an integrated pace to build to its conclusions. Details of orchestration are beautifully brought out throughout the symphony, with the naïveté of the third movement, including its posthorn solo, wonderfully contrasted with the very human depths of Alexandra Petersamer’s heartfelt and elegant singing in the fourth (texts for the fourth and fifth movements are not provided – a flaw in what is otherwise an elegant presentation). The fifth movement has a darker and dourer central section than usual, the better to highlight the brightness of its start and end, and the finale is taken at a somewhat faster pace than is usually heard, although it is no less emotionally heartfelt for all that. Symphony No. 4 also features lovely vocalizing, by Jeannette Wernecke, whose effectiveness comes from her managing to keep her voice sounding more childlike than do most sopranos in this music. Feltz’s first movement of this symphony is quite unlike any other conductor’s, with greater tempo contrasts and, in some sections, a near-breakneck pace that takes some getting used to; and he emphasizes the eerie elements of the second movement well. The third movement starts at more of a walking pace than the marked Poco adagio, but Feltz makes it convincing throughout – and a very well-conceived prelude to the finale.
Mahler’s three “middle” symphonies, without vocal elements, all get unusual treatment that proves highly involving to listeners willing to cast off preconceived notions of how the music should sound. Feltz seems at particular pains to do different things with No. 5. Mahler specifically marked the first movement Wie ein Kondukt, but this would be a very confused funeral procession indeed, as Feltz alternates stately march tempo with quite a few others – managing to make the changes mostly logical, so the music flows freely even if not as the composer intended. The second movement, though, definitely starts Mit größter Vehemenz, as Mahler wished; yet this is a movement in which Feltz feels he needs to add a note that Mahler never included in any of his 10 versions of the symphony – this is one fearless conductor. The symphony’s third movement sounds like a tone poem, while the fourth lapses into quiet stasis, as calm as a vast mountain lake under a clear blue sky – and the finale builds to a headlong conclusion whose intensity is likely to take listeners by surprise.
Symphony No. 6 strides boldly forward, but Feltz deliberately makes the gentler central portion of the first movement an island of nearly complete calm, so when the headlong propulsion returns, it is even more dramatic than usual. This is a common pattern for Feltz: bringing out contrasts between sections of individual movements as well as among the movements themselves. He follows this approach in the second movement as well, also being sure to highlight instrumental details (especially percussion touches). The third movement is gentle, meandering, questing and questioning, providing considerable respite from the hectic first two and an oasis of calm before the intense finale. Feltz builds the first part of the final movement slowly and ominously, then steadily increases the intensity, strongly emphasizing timpani and percussion as the music becomes much more frenetic – although never slipping out of control. Feltz is always ready with a little something extra: a bit faster tempo here, a slightly slower one there, one orchestral section or another suddenly brought forth and as suddenly sliding back into the overall sound. The very end of this symphony slips away completely before the concluding outburst, which seems to stun the audience into silence – there is no applause for 15 seconds.
For Symphony No. 7, which remains the toughest nut to crack for most conductors, Feltz is surprisingly (for him) accepting of Mahler’s score and statements. He takes the work pretty much at face value, not seeking in it the irony that other conductors look for. Thus, the symphony moves from the darkness and complexity of the first movement to the straightforward (for Mahler) brightness and ebullience of the finale. This is quite an effective approach, and seems closer to the composer’s original intention than are Feltz’s interpretations of the other symphonies. Yet this is not to say that Feltz always follows the score and the composer’s notes – here too he makes his own emendations. For example, he is quite free with tempos as the first movement comes to its climactic conclusion. And in one fifth-movement section, Mahler calls for a crescendo in the violins and simultaneous decrescendo in the flutes – a passage requiring considerable musicianly dexterity to bring off. Feltz simply ignores the dynamics and brings out the primary theme, which makes perfect sense and sounds right. Make no mistake: Feltz’s decisions require some adaptability on the part of listeners already familiar with Mahler performances. The opening of the finale of Symphony No. 7, to cite one example among many, is beautifully and very dramatically contrasted with the soft and delicate close of the second Nachtmusik that precedes it – but is taken at a much faster tempo than listeners are likely to have heard before.
Because of Mahler’s known excellence as a conductor and the fact that he conducted his own symphonies and made copious notations about their performance, his works have tended to be treated more deferentially in the concert hall than those of Beethoven, Brahms or Mozart. There is nothing wrong with that: if other composers had left equally clear instructions about how to play their music, conductors would certainly take those remarks into equally careful consideration. But what Feltz does that is so intriguing is to show that even with Mahler, there is no need to be slavish to the score (or, in Mahler’s case, to the score-plus-commentary). It is possible to look beyond what the composer wrote, and even what he intended, to re-create his music in new ways that may not be “authentic” but that are nevertheless true to his spirit and filled with a sense of excitement, adventure and exploration. Feltz’s first five Mahler recordings are all those things and more: they are utterly convincing on their own terms, if not necessarily on those that Mahler himself set down.
Two Lutes: Lute Duets from England’s Golden Age. Ronn McFarlane and William Simms, lutes. Sono Luminus. $16.99.
William Lawes: Consorts to the Organ. Phantasm (Lawrence Dreyfus, treble viol and director; Wendy Gillespie, treble viol; Jonathan Manson, tenor viol; Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, bass viol); Emilia Benjamin, tenor viol; Mikko Perkola, tenor and bass viols; Daniel Hyde, organ. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).
Franz Xaver Dussek: Four Symphonies. Helsinki Baroque Orchestra conducted by Aapo Häkkinen. Naxos. $9.99.
From three centuries come works of very different character and very considerable interest on these three recordings – all played very idiomatically by musicians clearly steeped in the very different requirements of pieces composed under differing sets of rules. Two Lutes delves into the 16th century and a bit into the early 17th, primarily featuring lute duets by John Johnson (1540-1594), John Danyel (1564-after 1625), John Dowland (1563-1626) and Thomas Robinson (c. 1560-1610). There are also a few works by other composers and a number of anonymous ones, some of the latter being quite well-known – Greensleeves and La Rossignol, to mention two. Dowland is far and away the best-known composer of this time for the lute, but only two of his works are here: Ronn McFarlane and William Simms prefer to focus on Johnson (10 pieces) and Robinson (six). And indeed, although Dowland’s music for solo lute remains preeminent, Johnson and Robinson prove to have considerable skill in writing for a pair of the instruments, whose lines intertwine pleasingly in a variety of dance forms (notably pavan and galliard), song-derived works (“The Nuts Be Brown,” “Wakefield on a Green”) and pieces that, for their time, were comparatively free-form (“A Fantasie,” “A Toye”). McFarlane and Simms balance their instruments with care and bring out the melodic and contrapuntal lines of all 27 short works on this Sono Luminus CD with skill and some very adept finger work. None of the pieces especially stands out on its own – not even Dowland’s – but taken as a whole, they provide an involving and intricate listening experience using instruments and musical forms too pleasing to the ear to have fallen into total obscurity since the Renaissance (when the lute was the most popular of all instruments).
The music of William Lawes (1602-1645) partakes of much the same sorts of sounds, for all that it is somewhat later than the lute works. The Consorts to the Organ heard on a new Linn Records SACD are five-part and six-part “sets,” in three movements or four, for strings as well as organ – Renaissance precursors of the great Baroque suites of Bach and Telemann. Certainly simpler and more transparent than the later works, they have a directness and charm that are altogether winning. And in fact they pushed beyond the traditional musical rules of their time, as Lawes strove with considerable success to produce freer and less-rigid music than many of his contemporaries created. Often setting his Consorts in minor keys – as is the case with four of the seven on this recording – Lawes varied the structure of individual works very considerably. The five-part, four-movement set in C minor, for example, contains a Fantazia, Aire, Paven [sic] and another Aire; but the three-movement one in A minor contains two Fantazias (the first being labeled “Fantazy”) and an Aire. An occasional movement bears an unusual title and form: “On the Playnsong” in the G minor five-part set and “Inominy” in the B-flat major six-part set. All Lawes’ music is carefully, even elegantly constructed, with contrapuntal and fugal elements that were well ahead of their time. And Lawes had a most unusual approach to his themes, not hesitating to juxtapose intense, even peculiar ones with simple ones that would not be out of place in a pastorale. Indeed, after Lawes was killed during the English Civil War that led to the rule of Oliver Cromwell, his music rapidly fell into disfavor – largely because he had been employed by Charles I but also because what he wrote was considered simply too strange. The members and guests of the ensemble Phantasm take great delight in bringing this music back to life, not going out of their way to highlight its unusual elements but certainly not downplaying them either. The result is a very fine recording of works that not only carry the sound of long ago but also look much farther into the future then do others of the early to middle 17th century.
Fast forward one century more to another set of very interesting but very little-known music: symphonies (actually called sinfonias) by Franz Xaver Dussek (1731-1799). When he is remembered at all nowadays, which is seldom, Dussek is known as the man at whose summer villa Mozart completed Don Giovanni in 1787 and perhaps also La Clemenza di Tito in 1791. But Dussek was more than merely Mozart’s friend (not that there is anything very “mere” about that). He was the leading composer of instrumental music in Prague – as well as a highly respected teacher and a harpsichordist and pianist of considerable fame. His last name is sometimes written Duschek; in proper Czech spelling, he is František Xaver Dušek. Dussek taught piano to Mozart’s son, Karl Thomas Mozart (1784-1858). And Dussek’s wife, Josepha Hambacher, also has a strong Mozart connection: she sang in several Mozart operas, and a concert aria called Bella mia fiamma, K. 528, was written for her. But it was not Mozart who influenced Dussek’s own symphonies/sinfonias, which date to the 1760s and 1770s: all are in the stile gallant of the early Classical period. The four played by the 18-member Helsinki Baroque Orchestra under Aapo Häkkinen, who conducts from the fortepiano, have considerable verve and good spirits. All are in major keys: G, A and B-flat (one in three movements, one in four). Themes are well chosen and adeptly developed; orchestration is nicely handled, more than adequately balanced and frequently clever, if not especially innovative; and the overall impression of all four works is of music partaking of the lighter side of Haydn or Dittersdorf. None of these pieces stands out for depth of expression or any particular intensity, although the four-movement sinfonia in B-flat is longer and somewhat more fully worked out than the three in three movements. There is considerable charm in this music, including the charm of rediscovering a skilled musical craftsman of Mozart’s time; and the very fine performances on this Naxos CD certainly give the music its full due. But by no stretch of the imagination can Dussek be deemed a major undiscovered talent – he certainly had abilities in composition as well as performance, but his contributions to the music of his time are, for all their pleasantries, decidedly modest ones.
Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Dvořák: Symphony No. 9; Sibelius: Symphony No. 5; Nielsen: Symphony No. 3. Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. C Major DVD. $29.99.
Richard Strauss: Lieder—Befreit, Winterliebe, Traum durch die Dämmerung, Gesang der Apollopriesterin; “Arabella” excerpts—“Mein Elemer!” and final scene from Act I; Eine Alpensinfonie. Renée Fleming, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Christian Thielemann. Opus Arte DVD. $24.99.
Ola Gjeilo: Piano Improvisations. 2L Blu-Ray+SACD. $34.99.
These three fine recordings raise anew a perpetual question about classical music in video formats: what is the value of adding the visuals to the music? There are three rather different answers here. In the case of the DVD of four mainstream symphonies conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, the only real benefit of video is the so-called “bonus material” – here, several interviews in which Dausgaard discusses the concerts at which he presented these well-known works, his general feelings about collaboration with the very fine Danish National Symphony Orchestra, and his thoughts about the music itself. Fans of Dausgaard will no doubt appreciate hearing his insights into the music and the performers who bring it to vibrant life; indeed, the DVD as a whole is a fans-of-Dausgaard production, perhaps of more appeal in Europe (where Dausgaard is better known) than in North America. The performances themselves are very well done, with Dausgaard being especially sensitive to the flow of the Sibelius and of Nielsen’s “Sinfonia Espansiva” – whose last movement requires careful presentation (which it receives here) so as not to be something of an anticlimax. The Brahms and Dvořák symphonies sound fine, too, but the interpretations are basically solid, middle-of-the-road ones with the requisite amount of excitement and lyricism – not bad at all, but nothing really special. Indeed, all four performances are something short of revelatory in musical terms, although they do show that the Danish orchestra has become a world-class one that can play idiomatically not only in Scandinavian music but also in works from other cultures. A listener – that is, a listener-and-viewer – who wants Dausgaard’s readings of these symphonies, with the conductor’s well-spoken commentary, will enjoy this DVD; but none of the performances is of unequalled value, and none really requires visualization to have its full effect.
The situation is somewhat different with part of the Richard Strauss DVD featuring soprano Renée Fleming: the part showcasing Fleming herself. Fleming is a superb interpreter of Strauss vocal works – her performances of Four Last Songs are the best to be heard from any singer today – and there is something to be said for seeing as well as hearing the way she brings the music vividly to life, exploring its nuances and making it very much her own. Of the four songs here, Befreit (Op. 39, No. 4) is the deepest and most moving, although there are beauties and even profundities in all four. Even better is Fleming’s work in excerpts from Arabella, one of her signature roles, which she handles with strength and intensity – although here the high involvement level of her dramatic performance is somewhat at odds with the elegant concert setting (and clothing) in which it is delivered. This is a generalized problem with opera in concert, and therefore with concert versions of operas or opera excerpts on DVD: what a viewer sees is at variance with what is being sung. Nevertheless, Fleming is entrancing enough to watch so that her fans will enjoy her performances here. The rest of the DVD, though, does not benefit in any particular way from visual elements: Christian Thielemann is a fine Strauss conductor, and the Vienna Philharmonic is a superlative orchestra for Strauss (as it is for just about every composer). Eine Alpensinfonie is lush and dynamic and is played with sumptuous warmth and as much drama as the score holds – but a viewer who closes his or her eyes will enjoy the performance as much as one who keeps them open. Perhaps more, since Thielemann and the orchestra beautifully conjure up Strauss’ alpine journey, and the trek is clearer in the mind’s eye without the distraction of seeing the conductor and orchestral musicians at the Salzburg Festival in evening dress.
Ola Gjeilo’s Piano Improvisations provides an unusual opportunity to decide for oneself whether the visual or nonvisual approach to this music is more effective. By combining an audio SACD with a Blu-Ray video disc, this release gives listeners interested in Gjeilo’s music (which is something of an acquired taste) two different ways to experience it. Born and raised in Norway, Gjeilo has studied both classical music and jazz and is often influenced by film music as well. Of the 18 works recorded for Piano Improvisations, three are for three pianos and one is for two instruments – with Gjeilo improvising all the parts as they are layered atop each other. Because this is a CD of improvisations, the visual impact of watching Gjeilo is higher than it would be if he were simply performing works that were fully written down, although the aural impact of the Blu-Ray and SACD media is pretty much the same: 2L makes exceptionally high-quality recordings. Unlike many contemporary composers, Gjeilo has a different sound in different works, and his improvisations reflect that, ranging from the joyous Prelude and Seven Eight (two of the three-piano pieces) to the graceful Susanne to the expansive The Great Plains to the tender Heart to Heart. The music in that last piece (which concludes the recordings) tends to wear its heart on its sleeve, and indeed, Gjeilo sometimes comes across as rather superficial – a sort of 21st-century salonist. But he is an expert pianist, eliciting a wide range of sound and color from his instrument, and the three works here that are adaptations of his choral pieces sound just as fine on piano as do the pieces originally composed for it. In the final analysis, the Blu-Ray disc will be of more interest to those who already know and like Gjeilo’s music and who want to see (not just hear) what the composer himself makes of it as he takes it through its many paces. For familiarizing oneself with the music on its own terms, the SACD is a better choice, lacking the distraction inherent in watching Gjeilo perform and giving listeners a chance to decide whether this is a composer/performer from whom they want to hear, and perhaps see, more in the future.
July 12, 2012
Cardboard. By Doug TenNapel. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
Heron’s Path. By Alethea Eason. Spectacle. $9.95.
The usual tropes of fairy tales – mysterious strangers, contact with the otherworldly, transformations both internal and external, and of course good vs. evil among both humans and supernatural beings – are constantly rethought and reworked by modern authors, testimony to the continuing power of the old stories and storytelling methods, and (for those of a Jungian bent) to the archetypes on which fairy tales and similar stories of magic and wonder draw. With very different approaches, these two books dip into the fairy-tale universe and look at elements of it in ways intended to appeal to worldly 21st-century young readers.
Doug TenNapel’s Cardboard has multiple fairy-tale elements, but it has more heart and soul than many traditional fairy tales, plus excellent drawing (with coloring by Der-Shing Helmer) and pacing matching that of TenNapel’s Ghostopolis and significantly surpassing that of his Bad Island. There is the down-on-his-luck protagonist (here, a carpenter named Mike who cannot find work because of the stagnant economy); the mysterious purveyor of magic (here, “Old Man Gideon,” who sells cheap toys and offers a certain cardboard box to Mike for exactly the 78 cents that Mike has left in his pocket); the magical rules that must not be broken (Mike must return any leftover cardboard scraps and must not ask Old Man Gideon for more cardboard); the quest (external, through a cardboard city, and internal, through acceptance of the pain of loss and therefore the ability to move on in life); and so on. Mike is a widower who is trying, with little success, to do all the right things for his son, Cam, whose birthday is the occasion for Mike getting the cardboard box. Next door to Mike and Cam lives Tina, an attractive woman who is clearly interested in Mike – an interest he does not reciprocate, because he still mourns Carol, his wife. The “bad guy” in the story is a boy named Marcus, who – with his friend, Pink Eye – lies, steals and manipulates in order to get the magic cardboard for himself and use it to create an army of cardboard slaves that will worship him as their king. Marcus has his wealthy parents wrapped proverbially around his finger, and manages to get them to leave him home alone so he can proceed with his selfish and ill-fated plans. Standing against him are Mike, Cam and a cardboard boxer named Bill, the first creation of Mike and Cam and a worthy, upstanding character who wants, like Pinocchio, to be a real person (he even studies Plato). Mike bypasses the “no more cardboard” rule by using his carpentry abilities to make something that will make more cardboard, which is sort of like wishing for more wishes. As in any fairy tale, this rule-bending, although done for good motives, is sure to end badly, and so it does – when Marcus steals the “factory” and uses it to start constructing a cardboard world reflecting his own twisted mind. The story sounds rather silly when described in plot points, but it does not play out that way, because TenNapel keeps pulling bits of reality into the fairy-tale world: Mike rescues Tina from a cardboard monster, and she says he is her hero but that that isn’t enough after the way he has been treating her; Cam builds small cardboard replicas of both his parents, and the cardboard Carol plays a significant role in getting Mike to look inward and move on; Marcus eventually looks inward, too, and realizes – in a key scene – that his own fears and uncertainties are reflected throughout the cardboard kingdom and that he isn’t really much of a human being (all right, this isn’t particularly realistic, but it makes good dramatic sense). Bill’s eventual heroism – and the clever end-of-book twist resulting from it – are high points. So is what happens when Marcus confesses to his father – a scene that leads, in a neat buttoning-up, to a rapprochement in Marcus’ family and a perfectly reasonable job offer for Mike. There is humor scattered throughout the book, too, as when Old Man Gideon spins a thoroughly ridiculous story about where the magic cardboard originated and when Bill, getting the worst of it in a fight with another cardboard boxer, is asked by Cam, “How many fingers do you see?” and replies, “Nevada.” Most important of all, this is a graphic novel, and the graphics are remarkable, whether TenNapel is presenting the standard “ka-pow,” “krakk” and “wa-bump” of comic books, showing a close-up of a character’s eyes with the rest of the panel black, creating a horde of monstrous hermit crabs, moving the characters through an increasingly surreal scene of a cardboard city and forest, showing a two-page spread of Bill and Mike fleeing, or producing multiple super-dark panels in which a cloudburst destroys the cardboard evildoers – which, like all cardboard entities, are ruined by water. The genuine family and interpersonal issues in Cardboard give the book its strength, even as the fairy-tale elements give it its resonance – and the art, with its clever use of shadows and shading, its understanding of comic-book traditions and its use or bending of them, gives it visual power and striking effectiveness.
A traditionally written novel with fewer surprises but with its heart equally in the right place, Alethea Eason’s (+++) Heron’s Path combines a fairy-tale transformation with the traditional notions of very different girls, raised as sisters, whose fates are intertwined – and of a supernatural conflict between good and evil beings. The girls are Katy and Celeste, teenagers whose grandfather was married to Olena, a medicine woman from a mysterious tribe called the Nanchuti. Olena still lives on the farm across the river Talum from where the girls live with their parents. The old woman is something of a spirit guide: “Time passed for Olena the way trees grow,” says Katy, who narrates the book, “and both Celeste and I forgot about the minutes ticking away.” Katy and Celeste do not always get along, and Celeste’s personality bewilders Katy: Celeste is usually on her best behavior around adults, but not when Katy and she are alone together; and Celeste hears voices that seem to call her into the woods, where she goes frequently (“‘I have another home, Katy, and they want me to go there,’” says Celeste at one point). There is obviously something magical about Celeste, and it will obviously fall to Katy to find out what it is and set Celeste free to fulfill her destiny; and in fact this is exactly what happens. But if the progress of the plot is not particularly surprising, the sensitivity with which the story is told and the genuineness of the emotional connection between the sisters make Heron’s Path a satisfying read. As for the evil and the conflict that bring the book its tension, these exist in two ways. In the real-world aspect, Katy and her family represent settlers bringing potentially destructive change to the old Nanchuti way of life (the book is set in the early 1900s). In the supernatural sphere, the Nanchuti ancestors, the Old Ones, are at war with dark spirits called wei-ni-la, and each of the girls has a role to play in that ongoing battle. This is a short book, almost a novella rather than a novel, but it is a richly told story whose resonance is independent of its length. As different as Heron’s Path is from Cardboard, both the books owe their success to certain elements that they have in common – specifically, the placement of everyday family issues within a world where fairy-tale and mythic elements coexist uneasily with the mundane. And both works succeed in large part because they focus primarily on how the supernatural affects the lives of ordinary people – people much like the young readers that both authors are seeking to attract.
The Bellwether Revivals. By Benjamin Wood. Viking. $26.95.
A big, determinedly old-fashioned, engrossing novel that reads like an expansive Victorian indulgence updated for the 21st century, The Bellwether Revivals is a book for readers who like to immerse themselves in an author’s world and simply soak in it for a good long time. Reading in some ways like a 400-plus-page version of The Fall of the House of Usher, Benjamin Wood’s novel is firmly set in the present but consistently feels as if it is taking place in a slightly skewed alternative reality. The characters have depth – more of it than those in many of its Victorian forebears – but they feel slightly unworldly, a touch difficult to grasp or pin down. And that becomes a large part of their charm and the pleasure of the story itself.
It is not, at bottom, a complex story: an outsider named Oscar Lowe, having surmounted his mean-streets background, is working in the storied city of Cambridge, England, when he encounters members of the old, wealthy and insular Bellwether family, and becomes enmeshed in their close-knit group of acquaintances and their faintly sinister interests (this does sound like Poe’s Usher, doesn’t it?). Those interests, which revolve around music, are part of the initial bond between Oscar and Iris Bellwether and, more chillingly, represent the genius – or mania – of Iris’ brother, Eden. The brother and sister have a very close and faintly unnatural relationship that is sure to end badly (more echoes of Poe there), and their hangers-on are swept into their orbit by the sheer force of the Bellwether personalities and determination.
At the core of the novel is the power of music – what that power is, who can invoke it, and what its limits are. This is heady and sophisticated material for a 21st-century novel, and Wood handles it very well indeed. Early on, Eden describes Iris as a “Cognitivist” with “some very cold-hearted ideas about how music works,” contrasting her with himself as an “Emotivist” and a believer in the notion that music not only has charms that can soothe the savage breast but also has genuine healing power – power that Eden believes himself capable of harnessing through the theories of Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), a composer and noted music theorist. Mattheson was a friend of Handel, but the two later became enemies and Mattheson almost killed the more-famous composer in a duel – after which the men were reconciled. This much is history, but Wood has Eden invoke Mattheson in a stranger way, as the supposed discoverer of musical means that can make people feel certain things, can control them, and – of particular interest to Eden – can heal them.
The way Wood has Eden describe these outlandish notions makes them seem far-fetched but not totally unreasonable – after all, music can and does evoke specific emotions, making listeners feel happy, sad, uplifted, depressed, and so forth. Furthermore, Wood discusses enough real-world effects of art – the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, the poems of Sylvia Plath – to pull readers along toward the idea that there may be other effects not yet discovered or explored. That the exploration will prove dangerous, even fatal, is abundantly clear from the Prelude (actually closer to a postlude) with which the novel begins; besides, this is just that sort of story, with a kind of “dance of doom” aura about it. But Wood so skillfully sweeps readers into this dance that curiosity about how things will play out overcomes the reality of knowing, from the start, just how badly matters are going to turn out in the end.
The erudition of The Bellwether Revivals is pervasive but not intrusive. It shows itself in evocative chapter titles: “A Reversible Lack of Awareness,” “The Harmony of What Exists,” “The Treatment of Our Mutual Friend,” “Ibidem,” “A Light Went Off in the Organ House.” It pervades much of the descriptive material and a great deal of the dialogue, even though here Wood sometimes slips into banality (as when Iris tells Oscar, “Somehow I feel like I could tell you anything”). The casual references to Plato, Pythagorean planetary theory, Descartes, Thomas Aquinas, Nietzsche, Rupert Brooke, Frankfurt School philosopher Walter Benjamin and other people and ideas fit neatly into the Cambridge university aesthetic, but there is always something sinister just beneath the learning and coexisting with it, for example when Eden – with Iris’ complicity – puts a nail through Oscar’s hand.
The skill with which Wood develops subsidiary characters is a big part of the book’s charm. The most interesting of these secondary (but still important) people is Dr. Paulsen, a patient at the local nursing home where Oscar works and a character about whose earlier life as an English professor at Cambridge readers may want to know more – this is still a man of whom Wood writes, “There were more books in his room than anything else, in fact; more novels and poetry collections and anthologies than stripes on the wallpaper.” Making an elderly nursing-home resident such as Dr. Paulsen come alive while also limning the oddities and preoccupations of a group of rich, bored and mentally unstable youths is quite an accomplishment. So is Wood’s way of encapsulating characters’ reactions to each other, as when Oscar thinks about Iris’ parents, “They had that impossible confidence that comes from wealth, the self-righteousness that comes from piety.”
Wood does tend to overdo such often-overdone techniques as foreshadowing: it is obvious that something really awful is going to happen when he writes, as Iris is driven away by her father, “the reflection of the dimming sky came sweeping over the glass to vanish her.” And the book sometimes depends rather too heavily on coincidence as a mover of events – another respect in which it resembles its Victorian predecessors. But The Bellwether Revivals is, finally, old-fashioned in all the right ways: deep, paced slowly but not glacially, populated by believable characters whose interactions are driven by their personalities as much as by the exigencies of the plot. It is not, however, a book that invites rereading, partly because its dour and drab final pages balance so uneasily between being an inevitable conclusion and a disappointing one. But this is Wood’s first novel – in all likelihood, there will be others to explore in the future.