February 28, 2013
When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet, and One Extraordinary Riot. By Lauren Stringer. Harcourt. $16.99.
The Passover Lamb. By Linda Elovitz Marshall. Illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss. Random House. $17.99.
Pretty Penny Makes Ends Meet. By Devon Kinch. Random House. $16.99.
Fly Guy Presents: Sharks. By Ted Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.
No one riots over real art anymore. Yes, there are always stories of fights and violence at pop-music events, many of which seem designed to provoke exactly that; but the days of huge controversies involving serious music – classical, concert-hall, opera, ballet – are long gone. The passions generated by this sort of music are no longer sufficient to get people up in arms, it seems; whether or not that is a shame is a matter of opinion. What is not a matter of opinion is that one of the most notorious musical riots of all time was directly caused by classical music – specifically, a ballet: Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a work now 100 years old and so far ahead of its time that it still sounds modern and disturbing. Lauren Stringer’s When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky is the story of the ballet – or rather the story of its composer and choreographer, and the riot that they pretty much wanted to provoke, at least in this version of the tale. Stringer says of each man that “he dreamed of making something different and new,” and adds that the art of each one changed when he met the other. Expressing herself poetically, she says, for example, that after Nijinsky met Stravinsky, “his torso trumpeted a melody,/ his arms and legs sang from strings,/ and his feet began/ to pom-di-di-pom like timpani.” This is exaggeration, to say the least, but in the service of a good story, it is more than justifiable. And this is a good story, beautifully helped along by illustrations in which Stringer channels art by Matisse, Picasso and others, and introduces her renditions of real-life people involved in The Rite of Spring, including conductor Pierre Monteux, Ballet Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev, and others. Most of today’s young readers are unlikely to be at all familiar with The Rite of Spring, much less with the riot it caused in Paris because it was so dramatically different from anything ever before presented in ballet. Indeed, many young people today may know little, if anything, about classical music. When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky is so good that it may remedy that lack of knowledge by familiarizing the youthful audience at which it is aimed with a time when serious music really meant something, provoking emotions that ran so high that they overflowed into fistfights and street battles. And what wonderful music it is – if only the readers of Stringer’s book can be given a chance to hear it. That is up to the adults who buy the book, who hopefully will do their part to promote culture that goes about as far beyond “pop culture” as it is possible to go.
The true story underlying The Passover Lamb is a far gentler one, with a much greater family focus. Linda Elovitz Marshall bases the book on an incident from her own childhood, when she lived on a farm and discovered, just before the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover, that a sheep was refusing to nurse one of its newborn lambs. This holiday, built around a recounting of Moses bringing the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, is a major one, marked by a special meal called a seder, and the lamb’s problem jeopardized the smoothness of the celebration. In real life, Marshall’s children found a clever solution to the problem – and so does Miriam, the girl who takes care of the lamb in Marshall’s fictionalized version of the story. Tatjana Mai-Wyss provides sweetly charming pictures to move the tale along, as Miriam – worried both about the lamb and about the rituals of the meal, in which she is supposed to play an important part – tries to ensure the baby animal’s survival without losing the meaningfulness of the seder and the holiday. Her solution is an elegant and amusing one that results in the lamb being named Moses, and readers, whatever their religion, will admire the cleverness and pluck of this young girl’s quick thinking and her empathy for a newborn animal that would have died without her intervention. A gently amusing and moving story, The Passover Lamb is charming and meaningful at the same time.
Devon Kinch’s Pretty Penny books always have an element of reality about them: they are designed to teach young readers about money through the adventures of the title character. Pretty Penny Makes Ends Meet contains more reality than usual, starting with a flood in the basement of Grandma Bunny’s house. The water not only makes a mess but also ruins Grandma Bunny’s budget, since the flood comes on top of several other unforeseen circumstances: a broken window and problems with the washing machine and toilet. Penny and her pet pig, Iggy – whose intelligence and cooperative nature are not realistic, but add to the charm of this series – decide to find a way to help Grandma Bunny pay for the plumbing repairs. They come up with the idea of creating handmade jewelry and selling it at the Small Mall, the in-grandma’s-house store where many of Penny’s adventures are centered. Kinch shows Penny checking to be sure she and Iggy have the money they need for supplies and then follows them as they buy what they need, make the jewelry, price it and advertise it, take in money from willing buyers (there are always plenty of those in these books), and then calculate how much profit they have made and can turn over to Grandma Bunny. The instructional elements here flow better than in some of Kinch’s other books, and because they seem less intrusive in the story, they are more successful. And the fact that the situation is not easy and not fully solved by Penny’s good will – she does not earn enough to pay for the whole plumbing job, and she and Grandma Bunny still have a lot of cleanup to do – gives the book an even bigger dose of reality than other Pretty Penny books have. That is all to the good: Pretty Penny Makes Ends Meet is effective at showing that even if a young girl is well-meaning and financially savvy, she cannot solve all the problems of everyday adult life. But she can help a lot, and Pretty Penny certainly does that.
Just as the unrealistic Iggy mixes with the realism of the Pretty Penny books, so the unrealistic Fly Guy mixes with real-world aquarium scenes in Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy Presents: Sharks. This is an odd little book, fun to read and look at but a little difficult to figure out: there are plenty of books about sharks, and these fish are fascinating (and scary) enough to attract young readers on their own, so why use Fly Guy to pull readers into the subject? Presumably the idea is that fans of Arnold’s amusing series will be more willing to learn some factual material if Fly Guy presents it to them, which he does with his typical buzzy vocabulary: “gillzz,” “plantzz,” “puppiezz” and so on. During an aquarium visit with his boy, Buzz, Fly Guy gets to look at lots of sharks – the book is filled with photos, with Arnold’s drawings of Buzz and Fly Guy interspersed among them. There is a “narrative voice” for most of the information: “Scientists have found about 400 different kinds of sharks.” But Buzz occasionally provides a fact himself: “Sharks have been around for over 400 million years!” The information here is highly selective – this is a very short book, designed for kindergarten through third grade – but accurate and well presented: “Most sharks have rough skin made of denticles. It feels hard and sharp. …Nurse sharks have smoother skin than most sharks. It feels like sandpaper.” And the occasional reference to Fly Guy and Buzz is amusing, if perhaps a bit overdone: “Sharks are very smart. They have brains – just like humans and flies.” Fly Guy Presents: Sharks is a good introductory book about these predatory fish and will be, of course, of interest primarily (or almost solely) to Fly Guy fans, who will likely want to find out more about sharks through other books for young readers (of which there are plenty) after finishing this one.
Little Critter: Bedtime Stories. By Mercer Mayer. HarperFestival. $11.99.
We Are Moving. By Mercer Mayer. HarperFestival. $3.99.
Favorite Little Golden Books for Springtime. Golden Books. $19.95.
The Little Golden Book of Jokes and Riddles. By Peggy Brown. Illustrated by David Sheldon. Golden Books. $3.99.
Old MacDonald Had a Farm. Illustrated by Anne Kennedy. Golden Books. $3.99.
The Princess and the Pea. By Hans Christian Andersen. Illustrated by Jana Christy. Golden Books. $3.99.
Buying in bulk makes sense when shopping for groceries – and helps explain the enormous popularity of stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club – but buying books in bulk is another matter. It can be a great way to stock up on specific stories that you know your children will enjoy, but it can also be easy to overdo the bulk buying – ending up with a surfeit of material that kids will not get to at all, because they will decide they have had enough of that particular author or character. Still, bulk buying can sometimes be a moneysaver as well as a lot of fun for children who enjoy specific kinds of books. Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter is a perennial favorite, and the six-book set of his adventures from HarperFestival is a great deal: each individual book in the box is marked with the usual $3.99 price, but the six together cost $11.99, which is a 50% saving. The collection is called Little Critter: Bedtime Stories, but in fact the subjects of the books are quite varied, and the books will be fun anytime, not just in the evening. And even if children only like half of them, the box is a good buy. But fans of Mayer and Little Critter will surely enjoy all the books, which all include Mayer’s signature combination of amusement, clear but gently presented life lessons, and pleasant drawings of the huge-eyed Little Critter and parents and friends. The books in this collection are The Best Teacher Ever; The Best Show & Share; Bye-Bye, Mom and Dad; The Lost Dinosaur Bone; Just a Little Too Little; and Just a Little Music. Each is fun, simply told, easy to read, and simple to carry around either individually or in the nicely designed box, which has a Velcro closure and a handle on top and includes, as bonuses, a Little Critter poster and a sheet of stickers. Good buy; good stories; good fun – all at once.
Of course, if you want other Little Critter books, you have to buy them individually. And that will be just fine for Mayer’s fans. We Are Moving, for example, is all about the worries and stresses of going to a new home – very much downplayed, to be sure, since it turns out that the new house is in the same neighborhood as the old one and in fact is “even near my school,” as Little Critter discovers. But before he finds that out, he worries about losing his tree house, having a new back yard, needing to make new friends, going to a new school filled (potentially) with bullies and mean teachers, and so on. Most of his concerns come to nothing, which is the happy news communicated by the book; and at the end, Little Critter concludes, “Sometimes moving is not so bad, after all.” Well, true – but of course sometimes it is. However, that just wouldn’t be the message in a Littler Critter book. Parents planning a move may want to use this book to reassure young children that everything will work out – although if the real-world move will be far away and result in a new school and all-new friends, We Are Moving may turn out not to be as reassuring as it will be for a move within the same general area.
The bulk purchase of Favorite Little Golden Books for Springtime requires thinking different from that involved in the Mercer Mayer books. This five-book set is for families that love the old-fashioned Little Golden Books and are interested in multiple ones built around more or less the same theme. The books cost $3.99 each and $19.95 as a set, so there is no discount for buying them all at once; and the packaging is a simple cardboard slipcase, not any easier to carry around than the books themselves. Really, this is a bulk buy for families that do not own any of these five books and that find the works’ seasonal association pleasant. The books are Home for a Bunny; Two Little Gardeners; Where Do Giggles Come From?; The Little Red Hen; and Baby Farm Animals. In truth, the connection of the books to springtime is a little tenuous – giggles and the red-hen story are not especially spring-focused – but the selection of these works, by various authors and published at various times, is a pleasant one; and the set as a whole is a nice collection, with enough variety so that kids who are not interested in one may well be interested in another.
Here too, though, there are plenty of Little Golden Books that families can buy individually, to fit specific tastes. The Little Golden Book of Jokes and Riddles is filled with sillinesses categorized as “elephunnies,” “oink yoinkers,” “spooky and kooky,” and such unclassifiable yucks as this: “Why did Cinderella get kicked off the basketball team? She ran from the ball.” Beginning readers – and pre-readers to whom adults are willing to read a lot of items at this level – will enjoy this. And then there are the Little Golden Books retellings of classics, such as Old MacDonald Had a Farm, in which the animals spend most of their time laughing and eventually insist on falling asleep in Old MacDonald’s bed (leaving him wide awake); and The Princess and the Pea, in which Hans Christian Andersen’s story is simplified and turned silly through, for example, having the searching prince encounter one “princess” playing in the dirt with chickens and another flanked by two gigantic wolf-like dogs. All the 24-page Little Golden Books are simply written and pleasantly illustrated, and even if not all of them will be to all tastes, some of them will be to most tastes, whether purchased one at a time or in a group.
The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition: A Cutting-Edge Plan to Fuel Your Body beyond “The Wall.” By Matt Fitzgerald. Da Capo. $17.99.
On the face of it, this is a book for a very, very limited audience: intense runners who participate in marathons and half-marathons and have experienced a mid-race muscle shutdown (“The Wall”) that makes it difficult or impossible to finish the course. Actually, there are more athletes running these extended races than most people realize – more than one-and-a-half-million, in fact. And if sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald is correct in asserting that three-quarters of them will hit “The Wall” when racing, then The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition has a large, if still limited, potential audience.
But what is more interesting is to determine whether the book may be useful for the much larger group that does not indulge in intense exercise but would like to become healthier through better fitness and improved nutrition. That combination, after all, is a recipe for significantly improved overall wellness, including much-reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic, potentially debilitating conditions. It turns out that while some of what Fitzgerald recommends is really appropriate only for marathoners and other intensely committed athletes, other elements of his book are worthwhile for anyone seeking to develop a more-healthful lifestyle.
Fitzgerald says there are three reasons runners hit “The Wall”: lack of fitness, poor pacing and nutritional issues. The third of these is the one with the greatest applicability to people in general, and it is the one to which Fitzgerald devotes most of his book. The first part of The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition, “The Two-Rule Diet,” deals with such general-interest issues as calorie density and diet quality. For diet-quality purposes, Fitzgerald categorizes all foods into 10 groups, in decreasing quality order: vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, fish and lean meats, whole grains, dairy products, refined grains, fatty meats, sweets, and fried foods. These are good categories for everyone to know – with the first six being high-quality foods that belong in your diet and the last four being ones to consume sparingly, if at all. And Fitzgerald’s comments to runners are applicable to everyone: “I’m not saying you have to be a world-class chef (I’m not) or prepare a complicated dinner every night (I don’t) to eat healthily. I’m just trying to make the point that eating well comes down to eating good food.”
When you eat matters, too. Again, what Fitzgerald tells runners applies in a modified way to everyone: “What you eat for breakfast and even when you eat it should be dependent on when you normally run. If you run soon after waking up in the morning you cannot eat a full breakfast before heading out the door. …On the other hand, running on a completely empty stomach after an overnight fast would compromise your run in a different way.” This is also true if you do any exercise in the morning, or even if you simply get up and head out to work – some sort of breakfast is crucial for energy gain and weight stabilization or loss, and it makes sense to plan for breakfast as part of every day.
The second and third parts of Fitzgerald’s book are more specifically directed at runners than the first part. Part Two is called “Performance Nutrition from Day 1 to Race Day,” and Part Three is “Nutrition-Training Synergy,” which includes detailed plans for half marathons and marathons. The level of specificity that Fitzgerald provides is excellent for runners: “The average amount of sports drink in the paper or plastic cups handed out at aid stations is 4 ounces. A runner who drinks one such cup at every station – that is, 4 ounces every 1.3 miles – will consume anywhere from 10 to 18 ounces per hour, depending on his or her pace.” This is not, however, helpful for people who are not committed to running for exercise or sport. Nor is a comment such as this: “The best approach to training for marathons and half marathons is the one that generates the greatest combined gains in aerobic capacity, leanness, running economy, glycogen stores, and fat-burning capacity.” However, an understanding of the basics of training for intense exercise may help people who are trying to make some exercise part of their everyday routine do so more thoughtfully. The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition is, by design, a targeted book of limited general value, but its usefulness for its intended audience is high, and it does contain a number of elements and recommendations that can help people who may never run a marathon but who are trying to decide, on an ongoing basis, whether to skip the elevator at work and run up the stairs instead.
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 23 and 25. Rudolf Buchbinder, piano; Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Sony. $11.99.
Bach: The Six Partitas for Harpsichord. David Korevaar, piano. MSR Classics. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Remembranza: Music of Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos, Ernesto Nazareth, Granados and Albéniz. Rosa Antonelli, piano. Albany Records. $19.98.
Maestro or Mephisto: The Real Georg Solti. A film by Andy King-Dabbs. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.
Anyone who thinks there is a single “right” way to perform Mozart or Bach will be disabused of the notion when hearing the new recordings by pianists Rudolf Buchbinder and David Korevaar – and there is even more personalization to be had in Argentinian pianist Rosa Antonelli’s heartfelt playing of the music of her countryman, Astor Piazzolla, and the works of the other composers represented on her new CD. Buchbinder’s Mozart disc is actually a personal expression not only for him but also for Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who – unlike Buchbinder – is well-known for period-instrument performances. Harnoncourt’s handling of the orchestral parts of Mozart’s Concertos Nos. 23 and 25 is exemplary, and indeed better than some of his occasionally quirky recent recordings of other music. By presenting his accompaniment in a fairly straightforward manner – with clear edges in the strings and winds that burst through the texture whenever they are called upon – Harnoncourt highlights the ripieno of his 37-piece orchestra in a way that makes the solo playing of Buchbinder all the more effective. Buchbinder here plays a very fine Paul McNulty fortepiano copied from a 1792 original by Anton Walter, possibly the most prolific of all fortepiano builders; and the choice is an excellent one, allowing Buchbinder and Harnoncourt’s ensemble to communicate on nearly equal and very effective terms. Buchbinder’s cadenza in the first movement of No. 25 is a wonderful display piece for his instrument, yet not out of keeping with historical practice, and the grandeur of this concerto comes through very effectively from start to finish. No. 23 is not quite as successful – the balance between piano and orchestra is not quite as good, which may be due to the recording rather than the interpretation (the two concertos were recorded live at two concerts in June 2012). No. 23 is a touch stiff here and there, without the easygoing lilt that it can have; but this is nevertheless an impressive performance that fully utilizes period sound and performance practices to show Mozart in ways that no reading with a modern piano can – the difference between the modern instrument and that of Mozart’s own time is simply too great.
And of course, the difference between a modern Steinway D and the harpsichord of Bach’s time is greater still. In common with other piano performances of Bach harpsichord works, Korevaar’s version of the complete partitas labels the pieces as being for “keyboard,” but this is a dodge, since they were written for harpsichord and most assuredly not for anything resembling the modern piano. The argument over whether these works are better heard on harpsichord or piano is unlikely ever to be settled, but certainly Korevaar makes a strong case for the emotional depth that a piano can bring to the partitas without delving too deeply into wholly unacceptable interpretative Romanticism. In fact, Korevaar’s lightness of touch is what prevents the partitas from appearing too dense when heard on piano, and his fascinating way with ornamentation – he really mixes it up, handling different movements in very different ways – makes the set a fascinating listening experience. These are nuanced and emotional recordings that do not, however, swoon. Korevaar does an especially fine job of contrasting the slow Sarabande movements of the Partitas with the faster surrounding movements, with the Sarabande from Partita No. 6 particularly heartfelt. The opening movements of the works – such as the short Fantasia in No. 3 and much longer Ouverture in No. 4 and Toccata in No. 6 – provide strong contrast to the lighter dance movements, and Korevaar adeptly draws out the different moods without overdoing them. The recorded sound is rich and warm, adding to the effectiveness of Korevaar’s interpretations – which some listeners may find on the slow side, but which the pianist makes convincing because he uses the frequently relaxed tempos to bring out the nuances and many beauties of the music, not to expand it beyond the proportions it was intended to have. Korevaar knows Bach extremely well, as his fascinating booklet notes and elegant playing both show; and if his performances of the partitas do not quite make an unassailable case for hearing this music on a modern piano, they do show that listeners who prefer the piano sound can get all the detail, all the sensitivity and all the beauty from this music that Bach put into it – when a performer as skillful as Korevaar handles the works.
The music on Antonelli’s very personal CD is nowhere near the level of the music of Mozart or Bach, and Antonelli does not play it as if it belongs on that elevated plane. Instead, she imbues the works with emotional warmth that comes partly from her own heritage, partly from her 2011 Carnegie Hall debut (where she played a number of these pieces), and partly from the works themselves, all of which are relatively brief (the longest runs nine minutes) but all of which encapsulate memories of Spain and Latin America and release them for performer and audience alike. Antonelli performs five tangos here, four by Piazzolla and the very brief Odeón—Tango Brasilero by Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934), the least-known composer on this CD. Of the four Piazzolla works, only Adiós Nonino has been recorded in a piano version before; these are world première recordings of the piano versions of La Ultima Grela, El Mundo de los Dos and Imperial. Antonelli has a marvelous affinity for the tango, especially in the modernized version created and championed by Piazzolla – yes, it is a dance, but it is not just a dance, any more than the best waltzes of the Strauss family were just waltzes. Antonelli pulls the tango beyond its roots, as Piazzolla himself did, to show it as a musical miniature, capturing its heritage and Latin flavor just as surely as many Strauss waltzes encapsulated the joys and tribulations of Austria-Hungary in the 19th century. Wisely, Antonelli mixes the tangos with other evocative pieces: Villa-Lobos’ Poema Singelo and Valsa da Dor; Granados’ Quejas ó La Maja y El Ruiseňor from Goyescas and the Allegro de Concierto in C; and Albéniz’ Granada and Cádiz from Suite Espaňola, plus L’Automne Waltz – the last of these showing Antonelli’s skill and comfort with dance forms beyond that of the tango. If there is a flaw in this recording, it is that it comes across mostly as a series of encores: some pieces are more substantial than others, but there is nothing here with the depth and extent of fully worked-through sonatas or descriptive suites. Nevertheless, the choice of works makes a statement of its own, and Antonelli’s clear personal commitment to the music produces an evocative and involving recital that will make listeners wonder when the pianist will attempt something of really grand scope, such as the entirety of Albeniz’ Iberia.
It is sometimes forgotten that conductor Georg Solti (1912-1997) started out as a pianist, working as a répétiteur coaching Hungarian State Opera singers and playing at rehearsals. Solti always had his sights set on a conducting career, and conducted The Marriage of Figaro as early as 1938 – but during World War II, living in Switzerland, he could not get a work permit as a conductor and supported himself as a piano teacher. He must have been a highly demanding one, since his early reputation as an extremely tough conductor – coupled with his bald head – led some wags to label him as “the screaming skull.” Maestro or Mephisto, a biographical Solti film that is slightly less hagiographic than others, could have used a bit more of a sense of humor to offset the extreme seriousness with which Solti emerges here (although Kiri Te Kanawa’s description of Solti as “naughty” is an amusing moment). Solti’s early pianism and wartime experiences get short shrift here, as Andy King-Dabbs focuses primarily on the conducting characteristics for which Solti was justly famous and sometimes controversial: his strong willpower, tremendous drive and very demanding style. Solti left an extensive recording legacy that shows him to have mellowed somewhat in later years: some of his more-recent performances are less driven and hectic, less intense, than his earlier readings of the same works. But his strength and musicianship never flagged. Forceful, almost ferocious on the podium, Solti almost always led performances that were worth hearing and that frequently brought something new in sound, balance or emphasis to standard-repertoire music. And some of his accomplishments remain unmatched: his Der Ring des Nibelungen recording, completed in 1965, is generally considered the best version of the cycle even today, despite the vocal weaknesses of the aging Hans Hotter as Wotan. Maestro or Mephisto contains the usual mixture of comments by fellow musicians – most of them, not surprisingly, admiring. It also offers a number of remarks by Solti himself, including some retrospective ones from near the end of his life in which he talks about his challenges and achievements and is clearly trying to shape his legacy. Solti was a larger-than-life figure in classical music, which explains why a number of film biographies about him have been made. King-Dabbs’ (+++) film is nicely positioned among them: it does not reach out to anyone beyond those already familiar with Solti, but it gives those who do know and admire him yet another set of comments and discussions explaining why he was held in such high esteem despite the distinctly prickly parts of his personality and podium manner.
Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Fabio Luisi. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.
Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Fabio Luisi. Wiener Symphoniker. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Weinberg: Symphony No. 8, “Polish Flowers.” Rafał Bartmiński, tenor; Magdalena Dobrowolska, soprano; Ewa Marciniec, alto; Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $9.99.
Joachim Raff: Symphony No. 2; Four Shakespeare Preludes. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
The gigantism of Mahler’s symphonies was in many respects the capstone of the Romantic era. There were large symphonies before his and some afterwards – by Shostakovich, among others – but Mahler’s all-encompassing works, at once highly personal and reaching out to contain the world (as he said they should), had a sense of substantiality never matched after his death. Mahler’s First fits neatly into a fin-de-siècle time frame: he finished it in 1888, but it was not published until 1896, by which time it had become the four-movement symphony almost always performed today (rather than the five-movement one as originally written). Fabio Luisi gives the opening of the symphony expansiveness akin to that of Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, which had been written just eight years before Mahler’s First. But Luisi and the Wiener Symphoniker move things smartly along once the movement’s main theme begins – this is a somewhat brisker walk in the countryside than usual, and is emblematic of an interpretation that emphasizes contrast not only among the movements but also within them. Luisi does not deemphasize the scale of the symphony, though, giving the music plenty of chances to breathe and expand. The orchestra’s brass gets a real workout throughout the symphony, and acquits itself beautifully, with a full and warm sound that fits the music like a custom-made outfit, especially in the second movement – whose main section begins with an unfortunate speed-up that some conductors for some reason have adopted in recent years, but otherwise sounds wonderful except for some further unnecessary rubato in the gently lilting Trio. Luisi starts the third movement as quietly as the first, and emphasizes not only its changing dynamics but also the tempo contrasts among its sections. The explosive opening of the finale is impressive, and this movement also becomes a study in strong contrasts as Luisi spins out the slow sections while pushing the quick ones smartly ahead. The symphony’s dramatic ending becomes, in this reading, a ringing and clear statement of a triumph over adversity.
Mahler’s Sixth, in contrast, is both big and confusing. This is the symphony whose final shape Mahler never made clear. Should the finale have two hammer blows or three? It works better with three – making more musical sense and providing a more satisfyingly tragic conclusion – but Mahler, perhaps out of superstitious dread, removed the third himself. And what about the order of the movements – should the Andante come second and the Scherzo third, or the Scherzo second and the Andante third? Mahler himself never quite made up his mind about this, and there are good arguments on both sides: the movement sequence is in many ways stronger if the Scherzo comes second, but Mahler himself put the Andante second when he conducted the work’s Viennese première in 1907. The live recording of Luisi’s January 2011 performance follows Mahler’s original sequence. Luisi’s reading of the symphony is expansive and lyrical: the huge opening march is not as intensely dramatic as in some other performances, but the gorgeous second theme and the various sections of the movement that provide respite are handled with warmth, understanding and delicacy. The result is that placing the Andante second makes considerable emotional sense and splits the symphony into a more-expressive first half and more-intense second. The gentleness with which the slow movement concludes makes the jagged start of the Scherzo all the more effective – Luisi clearly sees the symphony as changing character halfway through, with the quieter parts of the Scherzo becoming recollections of the symphony’s earlier moods. The opening of the finale is ominous to the point of being scary, and the movement’s main tempo, beginning five minutes from its start, bespeaks a grotesque. The forward propulsion of the finale is relieved by relaxed moments from which Luisi extracts a full measure of quietude, but each time the music returns to drama, he and the orchestra emphasize the inevitable tragedy ahead, which is dramatic even without the third hammer blow, fully justifying the huge canvas on which Mahler created this work.
Among other composers of large-scale 20th-century symphonies are not only Shostakovich but also Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), whose work Shostakovich admired. Weinberg wrote 26 symphonies in a variety of forms and sizes, and Naxos has now released three of them, albeit in an odd order: No. 6, then No. 19, and now the world première recording of No. 8, which is a choral symphony – closer to a cantata than a traditional symphony – and dates to 1964. A number of the choral passages and instrumental effects, including the quiet ending, will remind listeners of Shostakovich, while much of the seventh movement, “Warsaw Dogs,” will be reminiscent of Orff’s Carmina Burana in its use of percussion and rhythmic propulsiveness. This is a symphony that certainly pushes whatever boundaries the form had left by the 1960s, being in 10 movements, six of them including a tenor solo and one of the others using a soprano and alto. The movements’ texts are by Julian Tuwim (1894-1953) and are very clearly intended to evoke memories of and hopes for Weinberg’s homeland, Poland, with sections devoted to war, grinding poverty, social inequality, cruelty, and (at the end) a hope for a brighter future. Unfortunately, despite the fine singing by the soloists and chorus and the excellent playing of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Antoni Wit, English speakers will get only a portion of the effect of this hour-long work: the recording does not come with the text, and while Naxos makes the words available online, they are given there only in Polish. The CD booklet does summarize the content of each movement (although, oddly, it says the symphony has 12 of them); but in a work whose textual and instrumental elements are so closely intertwined, a summary is really not adequate for full understanding and emotional impact. Despite this significant shortcoming, though, this disc is a very strong one, with considerable impact: Weinberg’s sincerity and the skill of the interplay he creates between voices and instruments come through clearly even though the nuances of the texts’ meanings are lost. Weinberg is clearly an important symphonist and a composer whose works deserve rediscovery and revival; hopefully Naxos will continue releasing recordings of his symphonies and some of his other music as well.
Joachim Raff’s symphonies deserve more attention, too. Raff (1822-1882) wrote 11 of them – each of the last four representing one of the four seasons – and Raff was one of the most highly regarded and most-performed composers of his time. Neeme Järvi’s new recording of the Symphony No. 2 shows why – and also shows, unintentionally, why Raff fell into obscurity after his death: his works are not quite Brahmsian and not quite Lisztian/Wagnerian, so they fit with neither of the major compositional schools of his time and therefore had no one to take up their cause and perpetuate them. But today, at a time when listeners are equally appreciative of Brahms, Liszt and Wagner, there is certainly a place for Raff’s music: his Symphony No. 2 packs a lot of material into a relatively short (34-minute) time frame, with well-chosen and well-developed themes that sometimes look back to Beethoven and sometimes ahead to Richard Strauss. There is elegance here, notably in the Andante con moto second movement; some fascinating rhythmic complexity in the Scherzo; and plenty of energy and intensity in the opening and closing movements – each of which has the unusual structural element of a second development that becomes the coda. In fact, Raff had some very innovative approaches to structure, as his Four Shakespeare Preludes demonstrate. These works date to 1879, 13 years after his Second Symphony, and while they employ a large symphonic orchestra, they do not approach the four plays – The Tempest, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Othello – in an expected way. All the preludes are compressed rather than expansive, and each handles its themes differently. The Tempest includes very brief musical sketches of the characters, after an opening portraying the storm. Macbeth presents disconnected sections that seem to stand for individual characters or actions in the play. Romeo and Juliet is distinguished by harmonic instability – a very modern way of portraying the constant conflict between the Montagues and Capulets, with the families represented by themes that appear at the start of the work and pervade it. And Othello uses dissonance and a sense of constant conflict as its ingredients, creating a very effective – and short – sound portrait of the play’s world. The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande plays all these works with sureness and understanding, and Järvi’s well-thought-out interpretations, presented in top-notch SACD sound, will have listeners hoping for more Raff music from this conductor and orchestra in the near future.
February 21, 2013
Mommy’s Little Monster. By Dawn McNiff. Pictures by Kate Willis-Crowley. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.
Hey, Duck! By Carin Bramsen. Random House. $17.99.
Anyone who does not go “awwwwww!” when reading these books has a Scroogelike aversion to the utterly adorable. There is nothing particularly unusual about the books’ plots, but the pictures are so all-fired sweet that adults will want to cuddle their children extra-hard just for an excuse to read the books together. In fact, cuddling is what Mommy’s Little Monster is all about. You might think, from the title, that this is a book about misbehavior, but not at all. It is simply the story of a toddler who happens to be a monster – a troll, to be specific – and who absolutely adores his troll mommy, who is going out to a party even though Tiny Troll clings to her and does everything in his power to get her to stay home. Tiny Troll, in his striped onesie, with his big green head, wide eyes and small horns, is beyond adorable, and the story as told by Dawn McNiff and illustrated by Kate Willis-Crowley is wonderful from start to finish. Somehow, Willis-Crowley manages to make the troll furnishings, which include the requisite insects and spider webs and other cave decorations, really cute. And the simple story just doesn’t let up: “Tiny Troll took one look at his mommy and loved her so much he nearly popped!” So will non-troll parents looking at the big, heavy troll who has “rubbed slime into her scales” and “put on her high-heeled clodhoppers and her pondweed cloak.” The unhappy bewilderment of downcast Tiny Troll as his mommy waves goodbye, leaving him with babysitter Mrs. Hag, is too cute for words – good thing it is shown in a picture. It turns out that Mrs. Hag is darned good at babysitting: she knows to offer Tiny Troll mudmilk (which he initially refuses) and to look the other way when “he flung his toy slug against the wall.” As Tiny Troll works through his temper tantrum, off to the swamproom goes Mrs. Hag, leaving the devastated little troll sprawled adorably on the “itchy mat,” his tiny tail banging against the door as he cries tears of frustration. But then the smell of the delicious mudmilk revives him, just a little, and Tiny Troll goes to see Mrs. Hag, who lets him have two mugs of the yummy drink – something even his mommy does not do. So the evening works out just fine after all, and when Tiny Troll’s mommy returns home – bringing him a delicious gift of rotten worms – the little troll is already happily asleep, but not so deeply as to be unaware that he is being picked up and cuddled. Awwwwww….
Carin Bramsen is both author and illustrator of Hey, Duck! – and she has a very different, but equally effective, approach to total cuteness. Unlike the deliciously overdone troll illustrations, Bramsen’s are of photographic quality, actually looking realer than real and thus heightening the effect of her simple and silly story. The too-cute-for-words duckling in this book mistakes a cat for another duck and keeps asking the cat to play, leading to dialogue such as this: “‘Such pretty feathers, by the way.’ ‘Such pretty fur, you mean to say’” – the picture showing the cat with arched back and fur standing up all the way to the tip of its tail. The cat’s expressions of bewilderment as the duck refuses to take “I’m a cat” for an answer are hilarious, and when the duck finally gives up and goes off to play alone, no one is more surprised than the cat at discovering that – well, it would be fun to play together, after all. “Who needs that grumpy duck for fun?” wonders the duckling as the cat goes to sleep up in a tree – soon awakening to search for the duck and become frustrated at not finding him. The cat’s surprise when encountering a yellow truck (not a yellow duck) and then a yellow chick (also not a yellow duck) is delightfully silly, and when the cat does finally find the duckling, he asserts, with perfect illogic, “QUACK!” And so the two friends have a great time together, although the cat is not so sure about splashing about in puddles. But what are friends for, if not to have new experiences together? And so with a final “MEOW” – this from the duckling – Bramsen concludes a book that is about as sweet as it is possible for a book to be. Awwwwww indeed.
Ma! There’s Nothing to Do Here! A Word from Your Baby-in-Waiting. By Barbara Park. Illustrated by Viviana Garofoli. Random House. $7.99.
Snow Rabbit, Spring Rabbit: A Book of Changing Seasons. By Il Sung Na. Knopf. $6.99.
Teenie Greenies: The Little Recycler. By Jan Gerardi. Random House. $6.99.
The Bus Driver. By Todd H. Doodler. Robin Corey Books. $7.99.
Whether originally created in board-book format or adapted to it from traditional books, works for the youngest children are designed to delight, to be involving visually, and sometimes even to teach simple lessons – all things that the best board books do very effectively. Barbara Park’s Ma! There’s Nothing to Do Here! is a real charmer for anyone who is about to become a big brother or sister. It also makes an adorable gift for a mother-to-be, with Park’s whimsical notions of what a not-yet-born baby has not yet encountered: “Not a sandbox or swings,/ Or those monkey bar things./ Not a park or a zoo./ MA! There’s nothing to do!” Viviana Garofoli’s delightful illustrations capture the new baby’s imagined expressions beautifully, and at least some readers will laugh out loud at the picture that goes with the words, “I’d love to go boating,/ But where’s the canoe?/ MA! There’s nothing to do.” And that illustration is only one of the delicious ones here, some of which parallel the arrangement of words – as when Garofoli shows the baby all curled around itself on the page opposite a spiral of Park’s words about how cramped things are in the womb. A wonderful melding of amusingly silly thoughts and equally enjoyable pictures – the one of the baby driving a big truck provides another laugh-out-loud moment – Ma! There’s Nothing to Do Here! moves seamlessly from amusement to sentimentality and ends up as an affirmation of love, which is quite a lot to pack into a board book.
Snow Rabbit, Spring Rabbit is a more-modest book but is every bit as charming in its own way. Author/illustrator Il Sung Na first shows a closeup picture of a white rabbit, then portrays the bunny observing other animals getting ready for winter, from ducks flying south to turtles (their shells decorated artistically) swimming “to warmer waters” to squirrels gathering extra food for the cold weather. Later, “the snow has melted and the trees are in bloom,” and all the animals know spring has returned, and at the book’s end we see the rabbit in closeup once again – but now with brown fur and a knowing wink at the reader. This is the sort of simple yet informative story that goes well in a board book, teaching as it brings enjoyment. And The Little Recycler teaches, too, even more overtly. One of the Teenie Greenies books, it uses a series of flaps to show how recycling works. For example, one page showing used aluminum cans says, “Crush the cans – red, green blue.” Flip up the flap and there is a picture of a car with the words, “Make them into something new.” This is a straight-out advocacy book as well as a teaching tool, directly urging children to “recycle paint, printer ink, a tub, a toilet, a kitchen sink!” But there is nothing at all strident about it, and its suggestions on reuse – by sharing toys with other children and turning a cardboard box into a decorated make-believe boat in which to play – are practical ones that even very young kids will be able to appreciate. Jan Gerardi’s age-appropriate ideas, combined with the attraction of the lift-the-flaps format, make the book a winner.
The Bus Driver by Todd H. Doodler (pen name of Todd H. Goldman) is a winner, too, in a different way. The teaching here is counting – not only from one to 10 but also from 10 back to one. And the book itself is bus-shaped for an extra bit of fun. The story starts with the one bus driver all alone, and simply involves the passengers he picks up on his route, such as “four boys covered in dirt,” six doctors, and even “eight lively puppies…each with nine fleas.” By the time the bus is full – the illustration showing it packed tightly is a particularly amusing one – the driver realizes he cannot add passengers, so it is time to drop them off. And that is just what he does, from “the ten teachers in front of the school” to the pups and their fleas at a convenient dog wash to five basketball players at the local arena. After dropping off “two chatty girls” who have been talking on their phones throughout the book, the bus driver is alone again and we are back to the number one – after a thoroughly pleasing journey that is even more fun for being taken aboard a bus-shaped board book.
Bone: Quest for the Spark, Book Three. By Tom Sniegoski. Illustrated by Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.
Marigold #1: Once Upon a Marigold—Part Comedy, Part Love Story, Part Everything-but-the-Kitchen-Sink. By Jean Ferris. Sandpiper. $6.99.
Marigold #2: Twice Upon a Marigold—Part Comedy, Part Tragedy, Part Two. By Jean Ferris. Sandpiper. $6.99.
The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True. By Gerald Morris. Illustrated by Aaron Renier. Sandpiper. $4.99.
When My Baby Dreams of Fairy Tales. By Adele Enersen. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $15.99.
“I’m too old for fairy stories,” says the exhausted and skeptical Chief of a warrior band in the third and final book of Bone: Quest for the Spark. But in truth, it turns out that he is not too old for what only sounds like a fairy tale, told to him by Tom Elm, who – with his friends, including several Bones – is on a heroic quest to prevent the world from being plunged into eternal darkness. The quest motif is a common one in fairy tales, and the way the quest progresses – with a brave group being sundered and forced to operate separately until, joining near the climax, its members rescue each other and save everything – is pretty much standard in heroic fantasy. Bone: Quest for the Spark fits neatly into that category, and its characters sometimes seem almost aware of the fact, with 12-year-old Tom realizing at one point that the battle between light and dark is an eternal one: “Now he knew that this battle had raged since the beginning, that light and dark had always been at odds. ...It was a balance, as it always had been, but the powers of darkness were growing greedy, desiring what they once had. Before the Spark and the coming of light. When all was black.” Tom Sniegoski does a good job of keeping Bone: Quest for the Spark in the universe created so effectively by Jeff Smith in the original nine-graphic-novel Bone series; and Smith’s excellent art (beautifully colored by Steve Hamaker) ensures that this trilogy’s conclusion fits tightly into the Bone world from a visual perspective. The reappearance in Bone: Quest for the Spark of a major, enigmatic character from the original sequence – the gigantic mountain lion whose name is the title of the fifth graphic novel, Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border – pulls Sniegoski’s work even more closely into alignment with Smith’s original, and that is all to the good. The basic themes worked out here are familiar ones in many heroic quests: bravery against formidable odds, the recruiting of unlikely allies, the possibility of a traitor in the midst of the noble warriors, and others. There is also some of the comic relief here that Smith managed to weave into the Bone graphic novels – mostly through the antics of the Rat Creatures, Stinky and Smelly. And the new characters introduced in this book – notably Stillman, a small dragon, and his turtle friend, Porter – offer equal parts amusement and heroism. The basic story of the evil dragon called the Nacht, and the attempt to prevent the victory of darkness by use of the Spark, for whose reassembly the quest has been launched, is a very straightforward one. Sniegoski handles it well, notably by splitting it into so many pieces as the adventures of old and new characters alike go along on separate tracks until they eventually intersect. The fact that good will eventually triumph over evil has never been in doubt since the start of Bone: Quest for the Spark. But it is rarely in doubt in most fairy tales. Those stories’ pleasures – and the pleasures of Sniegoski’s trilogy – lie in joining the good guys’ adventures, rooting for them to overcome adversity, and being present when they ultimately, against all odds, come out on top despite the apparently greater strength of their foes.
Fairy tales with a humorous twist offer somewhat different kinds of enjoyment. The first two books in the Marigold series, dating to 2002 and 2008 respectively and now available in paperback, are particularly good examples of the use of fairy-tale motifs to tell what is essentially a very funny (and, yes, occasionally filled-with-adventure) story. Once Upon a Marigold is the story of how Christian, a commoner who lives in a cave with a troll and has a thing for Princess Marigold, actually wins the girl of his heart and manages to foil the nefarious scheming of Queen Olympia – who is plunged into the river below the castle, never to return until Twice Upon a Marigold. In the second book, the evil queen has recovered her memory (conveniently lost until its reemergence is needed to move the plot) and sets about once again to destroy the now-rulers of the kingdom, Christian and Marigold. Oh, and their happily-ever-after hasn’t turned out so happily after all, which is a nice touch. In fact, these two Marigold books are full of nice touches: Jean Ferris channels fairy tales while mixing them with bits of romance and a coming-of-age plot (the first book starts when Christian is only six years old). What these books have that most fairy tales do not is well-thought-out characterization: Ferris’ creations have depth, and enough quirks to distract readers from the fact that many plot points are predictable. For example, Edric, the troll who raises Christian, likes to offer adages – and mixes them up; Christian has a stubborn streak that lands him in all sorts of trouble, including with Marigold after they marry; and Marigold herself likes some pretty bad jokes, which is an interesting characteristic for a member of royalty to display (Marigold’s discovery of knock-knock jokes is a high point of the second book). Twice Upon a Marigold is not quite as original or endearing as Once Upon a Marigold, but its focus on Olympia and on the bickering between Christian and Marigold keeps it interesting and unusual – and the whole book sets the scene for the forthcoming Thrice Upon a Marigold, which will take the story into a further generation by focusing on Christian’s and Marigold’s daughter.
Gerald Morris’ series, The Knights’ Tales, also partakes of both humor and derring-do, and in the case of The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True the two are pretty much equally balanced. This book is largely a retelling and expansion of the famous story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th-century lesson in chivalry and honor updated by Morris for the 21st (the book was originally published in 2011). The original tale has the mysterious Green Knight offering to accept anyone’s ax blow if he may deliver a similar blow to the ax wielder in a year and a day. Gawain beheads the Green Knight, who picks up his head and walks off, reminding Gawain of his promise. And Gawain goes through many travails as he endeavors to keep his word. This is the basic plot of The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True, but even a short novel like this one needs a bit more fleshing-out, so Morris turns the book into an exploration of loyalty, friendship and gallantry (an easier concept for modern readers than chivalry). And the author is not above addressing the reader directly: “The idea of ‘vows’ has already figured several times in this story, and since that idea is about to be important, it is worth pausing over it for a moment. A vow, of course, is a promise, but in King Arthur’s time, promises meant rather more than they sometimes have since then.” Just how much they mean is one of the lessons that Gawain learns – along with finding out that courtesy can be as important as courage, and other good stuff that promotes balance between action and thoughtfulness. The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True is not really as preachy as a brief description makes it sound – it is fast-paced and funny – but it does have a lesson to teach, and it manages to do so quite well even while keeping its readers amused.
And just to make sure that fairy tales and other explorations of myth continue to be of interest to the next generation, there are works such as Adele Enersen’s When My Baby Dreams of Fairy Tales, a charming picture book in which Enersen imagines the dreams of her daughter, Mila. The photographs here are just luscious, showing sleeping Mila as the princess who felt the pea beneath multiple mattresses (here, comforters); letting down her long golden hair, as Rapunzel did; kissing the frog prince; looking like Thumbelina and Tinker Bell; and more. Enersen rings some amusing changes on the old stories, for instance by combining Red Riding Hood’s tale with that of the three little pigs – who escape by learning to fly. One of the most amusing photos here shows Mila – sound asleep, as she is in all the pictures – apparently playing the recorder, while two stuffed teddy bears “accompany” her on flute and violin, and the whole ensemble is “conducted” by another stuffed animal. Enersen goes beyond traditional fairy tales into a broader definition of the genre, showing Mila as Mary Poppins in one photo, as a searcher for the Little Prince in another, and aboard an Arabian Nights flying carpet in yet another. The world of fairy tales is surely wide enough to accommodate all Mila’s dreaming, and all the costumes and settings that Enersen can dream up for her. Seeing Mila asleep through all the posed scenes does lend the book an imaginative quality – and seeing her awake at the book’s end, in a real-world setting, is a wonderfully visual way to tell readers (including other parents as well as children) that the fairy-tale world may be one of dreams, but those dreams live on in our waking lives to the extent that we absorb, modify, interpret and continue to enjoy them, as we are likely to continue doing for many generations to come.
Modern Cartooning: Essential Techniques for Drawing Today’s Popular Cartoons. By Christopher Hart. Watson-Guptill. $21.99.
A Pet Named Sneaker. By Joan Heilbroner. Illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre. Random House. $8.99.
You have to love an instructional manual that begins, “First, let’s examine the various theories of cartooning from a contextual standpoint. Just kidding! Let’s just start drawing instead!” One thing that makes Christopher Hart such an enjoyable guide to the fine and not-so-fine points of drawing is that he takes the work itself seriously – and is very good at showing budding artists how to do it – but does not take himself seriously, at least in his teaching role. The drawing of cartoons is actually an art that has changed very little over the centuries – it is possible to deconstruct the works of, say, Thomas Nast (the famous 19th-century editorial cartoonist best known for bringing down the corrupt Tweed Ring in New York City), and discover the same basic components as in, say, South Park. Yes, those components are used very differently, and the underlying cultural sensibilities have changed dramatically, but the figures themselves – the things that make these drawings cartoons rather than elegant portraiture – are by and large the same. Thus, Hart can start with a simple circle and call it “the mother of all cartoon head shapes” that “has been around since the dawn of cartooning and even before.” And he can then show today’s would-be cartoonists how the circle is used in cartoons with contemporary flair and a modern twist. Same basic ingredients; different outcome from what would have emerged in the past. Throughout Modern Cartooning, Hart starts with very simple shapes and then shows how to modify them to produce different character types and expressions. Some of his revelations are surprising: for instance, women’s earrings often float instead of being attached to earlobes. Other comments are reasonable notions that less-experienced cartoonists may not think of: “You’re allowed to draw the character in a semi-distorted manner as part of his or her basic character design,” Hart says in connection with showing how to “use a huge forehead for smart characters, or for evil characters who like to think of themselves as smart.” Each drawing decision leads to others, Hart points out: for example, in the case of giant foreheads, “note how the hair is drawn within the head shape, not on top of it, for a funny look.” And of course Hart does not just say these things – he draws what he is talking about, and so clearly that readers will easily be able to follow him. Hart also knows where cartoonists often go wrong, and clearly shows why. For example, he points out that when drawing a woman wearing a flowing cape, “there is no need to draw the underlying body shape before starting on the cape. It would waste your time. I, on the other hand, am forced to waste my time on it, partly because I am teaching the concept and partly as penance for something I must have done in a past life.” Yes, that is the way Hart writes – amusingly and with enough self-deprecation (even if it is only make-believe self-deprecation) to keep his lessons interesting. Another example among the many here: “Take the basic construction and compare it to the final image. What do you notice? That I go through a lot of pencils? Yes, good point, but there’s even more.” And then, having enticed readers with his writing style, Hart gets into the serious stuff, both verbally and in his illustrations. Hart has written a whole series of books on drawing and cartooning, and has his method of dealing with the field down pat – but it does not come across as formulaic. He knows cartoons very well indeed: “There is only one kind of dad in cartoons: the one you don’t have – always good-natured, with no temper (or brains).” And he knows how to take less-knowledgeable cartoonists step-by-step through the process of creating characters that fit the traditions of this form of drawing – which also means showing them how to break away from those traditions once they master the basics that have been the foundation of the field for a very long time indeed.
It is interesting to look at real-world examples of cartoonists applying Hart’s approach to drawing, even if they are not knowingly following his precepts but are simply creating cartoons on their own. Pascal Lemaitre, for example, is a highly experienced artist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker as well as in children’s books and elsewhere in both the United States and France. He certainly does not need to follow Hart’s ideas – but a look at his art for A Pet Named Sneaker shows just how pervasive those notions are. This is a particularly amusing “Beginner Book,” a new entry in a series dating back more than 50 years and tracing its origin to Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat. Joan Heilbroner’s story blends amusement and mild adventure in just the right quantities. Sneaker is a snake who goes home from a pet store with a boy named Pete and soon shows some remarkable qualities: Sneaker not only learns to be a hat or necktie when playing with Pete but also goes along to Pete’s school, where he soon disabuses the other kids of the mistaken notions that snakes are slimy or gross. In fact, Sneaker learns to spell words (including his name). And when school is over for summer, Sneaker turns out to be a hero by rescuing a baby who has fallen into a swimming pool. Now, Sneaker does not look at all like a real snake (except for his generally long, legless body), but what he does look like is an adaptation of some basic cartooning shapes. For that matter, so does Pete, whose head and body designs and proportions are right in line with traditional cartooning, and whose postures and gestures reflect exactly the ones given by Hart in Modern Cartooning. The other kids in A Pet Named Sneaker look different from Pete but are still drawn in accordance with cartooning norms; so is the teacher, whose elongated shape and head-to-body proportions are quite different from those of her students. The baby that Sneaker saves, and the big-nosed lifeguard who thanks Sneaker, are also clear cartoon “types” whose very different appearances are clearly in accord with the basic designs that cartoonists have used for many years. A Pet Named Sneaker is a fine book all on its own, great for beginning readers. And it is also an interesting object of study for young artists who want to do their own cartooning – and would like to see how some basics of cartoon drawing show up, again and again, in a professionally created and very effective work like this one.
Bernstein: Transcriptions for Wind Band. University of South Carolina Wind Ensemble conducted by Scott Weiss. Naxos. $9.99.
Duke Ellington: Black, Brown, and Beige—Suite; Harlem; Three Black Kings—Ballet; The River—Suite; Take the “A” Train. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.
Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos in E minor and D minor; Violin Sonata in F minor. Tianwa Yang, violin; Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä conducted by Patrick Gallois; Romain Descharmes, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Zia: Music of Gabriela Lena Frank, Lou Harrison, José Evangelista, Reza Vali and Elena Kats-Chernin. Del Sol String Quartet (Kate Stenberg and Rick Shinozaki, violins; Charlton Lee, viola; Kathryn Bates Williams, cello). Sono Luminus. $16.99.
It is common when speaking of Bach’s music to say that it is almost independent of the instrument or instruments on which it is played – it is so transcendent that it can be played on anything and have its essence still come through. This is surely a bit of an exaggeration, but it makes the valid point that, at least at a certain level, Bach’s works do not depend for their communicative potential on the means by which they are presented to the listener – there is something in them that goes beyond any specific instrument or performer. For other composers, though, the experience of music changes, sometimes dramatically, based on the instruments used. A change of instrumentation can make familiar music sound entirely different, providing new insights into a composer’s thinking – or can simply sound like a ham-handed attempt to do something new for its own sake. Happily, new Naxos CDs of the music of Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington are more revelatory than capricious. The six Bernstein works transcribed for wind and played by the University of South Carolina Wind Ensemble under Scott Weiss all sound fresh and new, with Bernstein’s characteristic rhythmic flair coming through clearly and with some nice instrumental touches adding to the enjoyment of the performances. The brief Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy, orchestrated by Sid Ramin, is straightforward enough. More interesting are three transcriptions by Clare Grundman: Overture to “Candide,” Divertimento, and “Candide” Suite, all filled with attractive melodies and all nicely paced and very well played here. Also on the disc are Jay Bocook’s transcription of Symphonic Suite from the film “On the Waterfront” and Marice Stith’s transcription of Three Dance Episodes from “On the Town.” Much of this music, although not all of it, is quite familiar, and taken as a whole, it shows clearly how comfortable Bernstein was in highly popular forms as well as more strictly classical ones. The wind arrangements give the works a pleasant and welcome tinge of the unusual.
The music of Ellington, as played with considerable verve and spirit by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta, is not transcribed but orchestrated. Ellington, after all, did not write for a full symphony orchestra – but his works sound mighty good in that guise. There are five of them here, the most famous by far being Ellington’s own arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train, offered at the end of the CD as an encore of sorts. But this perennial favorite is far from the only great pleasure on this CD. Harlem, orchestrated by Maurice Press, is as bouncy and bright as can be, while Black, Brown, and Beige, also orchestrated by Peress, is more subdued and heartfelt – its three movements include settings of work songs and spirituals. The River, orchestrated by Ron Collier, is a late work, dating to 1970, four years before Ellington’s death. Its five evocative movements (“The Spring,” “The Meander,” “The Giggling Rapids,” “The Lake” and “The River”) filter the longtime musical preoccupation with tonal portraits of water through a strong jazz sensibility that flows very well indeed. And the ballet Three Black Kings, never finished by Ellington and completed by his son, Mercer, is inventive and eminently danceable in its portrayals of “King of the Magi,” “King Solomon” and “Martin Luther King.” Falletta is an enthusiast where American music is concerned, and she inevitably brings attentiveness and a fine sense of pacing to it – as she does here. The surprise on this CD is the discovery of just how good Ellington’s music sounds when dressed for the concert hall.
There is quite a different surprise in Tianwa Yang’s new Naxos recording of Mendelssohn’s violin concertos. Yes, concertos – not only the ever-famous and always gorgeous E minor but also the earlier, far less known and admittedly lesser one in D minor. Knowing that Mendelssohn wrote this work in 1822, when he was all of 13, reinforces the 19th-century opinion of him as another Mozart. Even 22 years before writing the E minor concerto, Mendelssohn had a marvelous sense of balancing propulsiveness with lyricism; and if the D minor is very much a derivative work – not of Mozart’s violin concertos but of those of such now-little-known composers as Rodolphe Kreutzer – it is also a piece that shows Mendelssohn’s early mastery of sonata form, of dance rhythms and of attractive solo passages. Yang plays the work stylishly and with a forthright manner that works very well indeed, not overwhelming its modest proportions with an overdose of virtuosity. She does a fine job with the E minor concerto as well, although she is perhaps a bit blasé in tossing off the work’s comparatively modest technical requirements. It has been accurately said that Mendelssohn’s E minor is not the most difficult concerto to play, but is the most difficult to play well. The reason is that its virtuosity is wholly at the service of beauty of line, perfect flow and wonderful balance between soloist and orchestra. Yang sounds a touch too self-confident, or perhaps self-involved, for this to be a great performance, but it is certainly a very good one, with the fine accompaniment by Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä under Patrick Gallois being a big reason for its success. Also on this CD, Yang and pianist Romain Descharmes deliver an attractive performance of the early Violin Sonata in F minor, written a year after the first violin concerto – that is, when Mendelssohn was 14. This is a more forceful and dramatic work than the D minor concerto, and it too is a demonstration of Mendelssohn’s inborn melodic skill and his adept handling of instrumental balance and the back-and-forth of chamber music. Although certainly not a major work, it is a pleasant and nicely proportioned one that, like so much of Mendelssohn’s music, is remarkable in part because of the age at which the composer produced it – he was, after all, just 17 when he wrote the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The surprises of a new Del Sol String Quartet CD entitled Zia are of a more-modern type and are unlikely to have as wide an appeal. There are still many pleasures to be had, though, in the five works chosen for this recording by a quartet that, since its founding in 1992, has focused on contemporary music from a wide variety of sources. The pieces offered here are eclectic in sound, style and design, and their connection to the album title is tenuous and not actually reflected in the music. The title of this Sono Luminus disc has to do with the Zia Indians of New Mexico, who are known for their pottery and their four-pointed sun symbol, which appears on the New Mexico flag. The music, though, mostly reflects a combination of Western European training with folk and traditional music from Peru, Turkey, Spain, Iran and Uzbekistan – the different sensibilities integrated into the works in varying ways and with varying degrees of success. Lou Harrison’s String Quartet Set (1979), for example, opens with an interesting movement called Variations on Walter Von der Vogelweide’s “Song of Palestine” but then moves into a variety of different influences that do not hang together particularly well – although the performers make the work sound about as unified as possible. Gabriela Lena Frank’s 2001 Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout is more firmly rooted in a particular culture and geographical region, and its six movements all partake of similar sensibilities. José Evangelista’s 1993 Spanish Garland: 12 Folk Melodies from Spain is largely straightforward and very pleasantly presented. On the other hand, Reza Vali’s Nayshâboorák (Calligraphy No. 6), which dates to 2005-06, seems not to have very much to say either in form or in substance. The last and shortest work on the CD, Elena Kats-Chernin’s 2007 Fast Blue Village 2, is presented as an encore, and is mainly interesting for showcasing the skill with which the players intermingle their parts. The CD as a whole gets a (+++) rating: it has many interesting moments but is not particularly effective as a whole, either thematically or in terms of the relationships among the pieces. However, fans of the Del Sol String Quartet will surely welcome their skillful handling of a number of less-than-familiar works.