September 29, 2016
The “Mutts” Autumn Diaries. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Buddy for President. By Hans Wilhelm. Harper. $17.99.
Ah, fall! For places that have pronounced seasonal changes, it is a fast time of transition – quicker than that from winter to spring. Weather seems to alter almost overnight, trees’ leaves change color rapidly and drop to the ground very soon, and the cold that portends winter seems to show up as if it is in a hurry. Things remain at a leisurely pace, however, in the marvelous Mutts universe of Patrick McDonnell. The “Mutts” Autumn Diaries is as much a book about friendship – between animal pals and between animals and humans – as it is one about seasonal change. All the usual characters are here: Earl the dog and Mooch the cat may be the stars, but this is really an ensemble comic strip, and autumn provides just too many irresistible opportunities for nut-throwing squirrels Bip and Bop, who are unusually prominent in this collection. Fall also being American football season, it is inevitable that the characters will interact with football players, drawn by McDonnell to be about four times the size of any other human. They get bopped with nuts, chased by dogs (by three dogs in a row in one panel), and amusingly interfered with: Ozzie, Earl’s human companion, is seen in one panel holding Earl up to a group of scowling players, a football firmly in Earl’s mouth, as Ozzie asks, “Did anyone lose something?” There is no violence here, though, not even the stylized violence of football – the bopping with nuts is about as intense as anything gets. The whole Mutts strip is gentle in approach as well as humor: in a typically sweet strip, the little cat Shtinky Puddin hugs a tree, which promptly sheds leaves, leading Shtinky to say, “I think I broke it.” McDonnell has some themes to which he returns again and again, including the importance of adoption and the great work done by animal shelters. One sequence here has the little girl Doozy visiting a shelter and volunteering “to kiss the kitties,” and also explaining that she is “an experienced belly rubber.” And several strips are post-adoption followups showing how happy once-orphaned animals are in their new homes. The best of these is a tearjerker, originally a Sunday strip, about a greyhound named Flash who always lost in races and “was to be ‘weeded out’” until a rescue group saved him, he was adopted by a loving family, and as Flash says in the final panel, “I finally won.” Along with advocacy strips such as this are some showing McDonnell’s high level of artistic skill: his representation of Jack Frost is, well, picture-perfect. There are also strips focusing on the characters’ personalities, such as an extended sequence in which Mooch dresses as “the great Proshpero” and proves his wizardry by accidentally making the whole comic strip disappear – an even funnier sequence than a separate “disappearance” one in which Mooch and Earl reappear in the pumpkin patch from Peanuts, in which Linus is vainly awaiting the arrival of the Great Pumpkin. “It’s autumn, baby,” says Mooch at the end of one great color sequence in which he turns himself green, then green and yellow, then yellow, then brown, mimicking the seasonal change of the leaves. However chilly autumn gets, Mutts is guaranteed to stay warm.
Comic strips are not the only source of a silly season in autumn: elections, especially presidential ones in the U.S., deserve equal mention. And they get it in Hans Wilhelm’s Buddy for President, a wonderful romp that is as animal-friendly in its way as Mutts is in McDonnell’s. Buddy is a great big, roly-poly dog, seen on the book’s cover sporting traditional political attire (hat and bow tie) in red-white-and-blue patterns. The book is narrated by Hunter Green, Buddy’s boy companion, who has put up signs all over town saying “Vote for Buddy for President.” And it seems like a very good idea to do just that. Hunter explains Buddy’s many qualifications, including happiness, helpfulness, bath-taking, and slobbering on babies. Wilhelm throws in some genuine political information when Hunter says that Buddy is a lover of the outdoors, “like President Theodore Roosevelt,” and a believer in sharing and helping, “like President Franklin D. Roosevelt.” But Wilhelm avoids making the message too heavy by keeping the book’s illustrations very light indeed: the “sharing” one, for example, has Buddy walking on his hind legs, holding a four-scoop ice cream cone in one front paw, and licking the bottom scoops – while carrying Hunter, who is licking the top ones. Some of what Buddy would do as president is played for laughs: “bedtime just for grown-ups and more playtime for kids!” Other proposals have a more-serious sound: “all kids must have a safe place to live with grown-ups and dogs who love them with all their hearts.” Wilhelm maintains a first-rate balancing act between the more-ridiculous and more-somber ideas, and throws in some that are quite apolitical and all the more enjoyable as a result: “Kids will read more! Reading becomes real fun when you have someone to read to. Dogs are the best listeners.” This proposal comes with a two-page scene of what can best be described as organized chaos in a library, where some dogs act like dogs, others read aloud, one wears glasses and is carrying an armful of books, there is a “Reading Doghouse” where kids and dogs can get close, shelves are for dog naps as well as book storage, and so on. Hunter says that when Buddy is seen to do so well as president, other countries will make dogs their leaders, too – the page of pooch slogans in multiple languages is wonderful. And then dogs, dressed in bits of their national costumes, will play ball on the White House lawn, throw Frisbees instead of dropping bombs, and much more. It all sounds absolutely fabulous – except that, it turns out, Buddy does have an opponent, revealed only at the book’s very end, in a thoroughly suitable and highly amusing final illustration. One way or another, though, electioneering of the sort in Buddy for President makes for a much more pleasurable autumn than the political drama that parents – and therefore their children – must endure day after day this fall.
Grow Your Own Crystal Jewelry: 7 Sparkly Projects to Make and Wear. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $22.99.
Make Your Own Mini Erasers with Magical, Moldable, Bakeable Eraser Clay. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $21.99.
There is more science than usual in a Klutz “books plus” crafts-project product in the offering called Grow Your Own Crystal Jewelry. Intended for ages eight and up, it includes both a box filled with everything needed for the experiments – yes, these are science experiments – and a book bound to the front of the box, giving instructions on what to do and explaining why the projects work the way they do. This is sufficiently serious science to inspire a more-than-usually-strong warning on the book’s cover about “chemicals that may be harmful if misused.” True, that is a typical lawyerly overreaction, intended to prevent legal difficulties in the event of problems, but there is enough truth to it so parents should be sure that kids who become intrigued by this project approach it with some care. Neatness helps, too: this can get messy. Grow Your Own Crystal Jewelry includes crystal powder, necklace cord, pipe cleaners (the base of most of the jewelry), dye tablets to color the crystals, earring wires, nylon thread, glaze to brighten the colors of the completed projects, and more. As is usual with Klutz, pretty much everything needed to do the projects is supplied, except for mundane items such as measuring spoons, a small pot, masking tape, some clear nail polish and a few other things. As is less usual with Klutz, the standard (and, again, legalistic) warnings about safety are followed in the book by a section called “Setting Up Your Lab” that makes it clear you really are doing chemistry in creating this batch of wearables. And then there is some honest-to-goodness “Crystal Science,” including the information that the “crystal powder” supplied by Klutz is actually alum – with a short discussion about what alum is, where it comes from, and how it is used. There is also a brief chapter called “Crystals vs. Gems” that explains the similarities and differences – all in all, a fairly substantial amount of scientific information to pack into a brief book whose main reason for existence is to provide instructions on growing crystals. After the introductory material – which, of course, kids can skip if they are really eager to get to the experiments – there are the usual super-clear Klutz instructions on what to do and why, explaining, for instance, the reason to use distilled water to create seeding solutions instead of using ordinary tap water. Some of the information here falls under the heading of good laboratory procedures, although it is not labeled that way – for instance, there is a section on using leftover solution and how to filter it for cleanliness (using a coffee filter). What is really neat about Grow Your Own Crystal Jewelry is how clearly it shows the way chemistry permeates everyday life. That is not, however, why kids will want the product: they will want to get to the “Projects” section and find out just how to make earrings, a pendant necklace and more – seven projects in all, just as the subtitle says. The book is careful to explain that crystals do not last forever and should not be dropped (besides which, alum dissolves in water and has to be kept dry at all times). Nevertheless, as a combination crafts project and science experiment, Grow Your Own Crystal Jewelry has a great deal of value – although, since all the finished projects are for girls, it is unlikely to have much appeal to boys.
Boys may prefer Make Your Own Mini Erasers with Magical, Moldable, Bakeable Eraser Clay, which is fun for anyone and is also intended for ages eight and up. The packaging here reverses that of the crystal-growing offering: this time the book is attached to the back of the box, not the front. What is in the box here is simpler than what is provided for crystal growing: there are eight blocks of clay in different colors, a clay-shaping tool, some paper pieces to punch out and fold for decorative purposes, and an eraserless pencil. There are no major warnings here, but a few minor ones do turn up: the oil in unbaked clay can stain furniture; bright colors can also cause stains; erasers that are too sticky can be cooled by being put in the refrigerator briefly; and so on. On the whole, this is a less-serious and easier-to-grasp project presentation than the one about crystal jewelry. The instructions explain how to knead clay, how to use large or small clay balls, how to shape ovals and cones, and so forth. There are clear drawings showing how to draw faces with a fine-tip permanent marker, how to blend specific amounts of particular clay colors to create new and different shades, and why not to worry when homemade erasers get grey spots (the pencil lead, which is actually graphite, causes the spots). There are recommendations on baking temperature for erasers (including an admonition not to use a microwave oven for these projects), a warning to let newly baked erasers cool untouched for at least an hour after they are done, and some offbeat ways to use homemade erasers: an eraser bracelet, eraser rings, even eraser key chains. The specific projects shown are whimsical and often delightful: bowling pins, roller skates, an eraser shaped like a pencil with an eraser, an ice cream sandwich, a fried egg, pizza, sushi, and all sorts of animals – a koala, a dog, a hedgehog, a parrot, a lion and more. Kids really can get super-creative with this easy-to-use clay and with easy-to-shape projects such as a cactus, a pair of lips, and even a little gnome. There is enough clay for oodles of erasers, and creative eraser-makers will soon discover that they can build things with the clay and not need to attach their projects to pencils at all – although they will still function as erasers if called into service. This is one of those Klutz offerings that are sheer enjoyment, filled with exuberance and amusing possibilities – and easy enough to do so that even kids who may be a bit less than completely neat and careful can have a lot of fun.
King Baby. By Kate Beaton. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.
Dot & Jabber and the Great Acorn Mystery. By Ellen Stoll Walsh. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.
Dot & Jabber and the Mystery of the Missing Stream. By Ellen Stoll Walsh. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.
So often it is the little things in life that bring pleasure – and, at times, mystification. Take the self-awareness of very small babies. How much of it do they have, and how do they integrate it into the world they perceive? Kate Beaton has a very humorous and, parents will find, entirely reasonable notion of how this all works in King Baby. The egg-shaped. swaddled, stern-looking little one staring out from the first page of this delightful book announces immediately, “I am King Baby!” And he then proceeds to assert his authority over his subjects, including his proud but not-yet-exhausted parents and a receiving line of relatives, friends, neighbors and who-knows-who-else. King Baby – the small crown he perpetually wears is a great touch – bestows “smiles and laughs and kisses” on his admiring subjects, and offers them “wiggles and gurgles and coos!” Ah, but then, after all the admirers have gone home, he reveals that he “has many demands,” and Beaton manages to make the scenes of harassed parents trying to comply with the kingly demands to be fed, burped, changed and carried into pictures that are both very funny and all too true to parents’ real lives. “It is good to be the king,” King Baby announces in triumph from his high chair as his obviously worn-out parents sit gasping on the couch in a room so messy that any real-life parent will recognize it immediately. Then fast-forward to King Baby, a bit older, demanding something from his parents that they do not realize he wants, so he “will get the thing HIMSELF!” And so he does – learning to crawl. And Beaton takes readers quickly through the next stages as King Baby walks and talks and becomes “a big boy,” still of course wearing that ubiquitous crown while sitting proudly atop his three-wheeled “Lil Scoot” and holding a suitably kingly cookie. So now the mystery of how babies think of themselves is solved – but, wonders the former King Baby while contemplating the crown that he no longer needs to wear, what will his subjects do without a king? Hmm….well, the “big news” of mom’s pregnancy answers that question quickly and produces an ending with the inevitable words, “I am Queen Baby.” Ah yes, so it goes.
The mysteries are of a different sort in two new Level 2 “Green Light Readers” offering kids up to second-graders “short sentences, creative stories [and] simple dialogue.” These are natural-world charmers from the intrepid mouse detectives Dot and Jabber, created by Ellen Stoll Walsh as an attractive way to show children how nature works while giving kids interesting stories at the same time. Dot & Jabber and the Great Acorn Mystery was originally published in 2001, Dot & Jabber and the Mystery of the Missing Stream in 2002. But these are timeless tales that stand up very well indeed in these new editions in a new format. The acorn story has the mice trying to figure out how a baby oak tree could be sprouting from an acorn when there are no nearby oaks from which the acorn could have fallen. That takes them on a quest to the other side of the meadow, where they encounter a squirrel nibbling an acorn and then running off and burying it – leading Dot and Jabber to realize that squirrels must have carried some acorns all across the meadow and buried them far from the tree where they started out. Walsh’s one-page back-of-book explanation of the oak-and-acorn cycle offers kids additional information that neatly ties into the theme of the book while expanding it for those wanting to learn a bit more. The format is the same in Dot & Jabber and the Mystery of the Missing Stream, in which the mice discover, the day after a big storm, that their familiar nearby stream is dry. They find some fish struggling to swim in a small amount of water, and some crayfish waiting by a puddle to take turns with the turtle currently using it; and by following the stream bed, they find a dam holding the water back – created when the storm blew down many branches from nearby trees. Just as they solve the mystery, Dot and Jabber realize they need to get out of the way, because the dam is breaking up, pressured by all the water behind it. And sure enough, the stream is soon flowing again, with another mystery solved by the intrepid and, at the end, very tired mouse detectives. Walsh’s books fit the early-reader format particularly well, being a fine mixture of storytelling and education. And the more-in-depth pages at each book’s end can be used by parents to open the door to other books and further explorations and explanations of the natural world.
The Best 381 Colleges, 2017 Edition. By Robert Franek with Kristen O’Toole and David Soto. Princeton Review/Random House. $23.99
All About Them: Grow Your Business by Focusing on Others. By Bruce Turkel. Da Capo. $24.99.
The number of “best” colleges in Princeton Review’s annual 800-plus-page survey book keeps creeping up: there were 371 in 2010, then 373 in 2011, and so on until the current assemblage of 383. Exactly how these almost-400 schools make the grade and the remainder of the 4,000-plus do not is a bit of a mystery, but then, so is the whole college admissions process, even for those who have negotiated it successfully. Perhaps especially for those who have negotiated it successfully, as in “How did he (or she) get in here?” One answer may lie in careful study of this super-heavy tome, whose sheer size does not stop it from managing to encapsulate each college in just two pages of statistics (campus life, academics, selectivity, freshman profile, etc.) and commentaries – by students (academics, campus life in general), the school itself, and Princeton Review’s editorial team. These last remarks can be especially useful, explaining, for example, that “very important factors” for Clemson University admission include rigor of secondary school record, class rank, and state residency (South Carolina), while at Moravian College those factors include character/personal qualities, alumni/ae relation, and “level of applicant’s interest.” These issues can quickly help students narrow down their list of college choices. Of course, the winnowing can also be accomplished, using this same book, in more-traditional ways, for instance by noting that Pitzer College students have SAT scores of 620-720 in critical reading and 630-720 in math, with average high school GPA of 3.9, while those at University of Dayton score 510-620 on SAT critical reading, 520-630 in math, and have average high school GPA of 3.6.
Indeed, The Best 381 Colleges, 2017 Edition provides all sorts of ways to compare and contrast schools. For instance, both Haverford College and Mills College were found, in a student survey, to have lots of liberal students and active minority support groups, and the phrase “diverse student types interact on campus” applies to both; but at Haverford, which is in a “town” environment, “students are always studying” and there is “lots of beer drinking,” while at Mills, in a “metropolis” environment, “students are happy” and “dorms are like palaces.” Students and families can decide which factors they care about most and thumb through the book to find schools that provide the focus and orientation they want. They can also use the profile of one school to search for others – in some cases, although not all, the book lists schools that “applicants also look at and sometimes prefer,” which means if Guilford College might be a good fit, then it can be worthwhile to check out Earlham College, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Goucher College and Elon University as well. Families looking at any college should also, very emphatically, check out the “financial facts” provided for each school, and should try not to be scared off by the huge numbers. Dartmouth College, for example, has annual tuition of $48,120, plus room and board of $14,238, required fees of $1,386, and books-and-supplies costs of $1,260; but it also offers need-based scholarships averaging more than $44,000. There may be no such thing as a free lunch – despite some politicians’ call for “free college for all,” which basically means forcing someone other than students and their families to pay for it – but there is considerable generosity among these schools, which puts a great many of them within financial reach of all students who meet their entry qualifications. What The Best 381 Colleges, 2017 Edition does not show is who gets left out of the equation: middle-class families considered too “wealthy” to get substantial financial aid but not genuinely rich enough to pay the colleges’ full costs. That, however, is a political hot potato that neither this book nor politicians nor academics seem inclined to handle. Given the current state of higher education and the absence of pie-in-the-sky imaginary college freebees for all, The Best 381 Colleges, 2017 Edition is as good a solution as any to the mystery of how to come up with a solid list of attainable colleges (and maybe a few “stretch” ones), and find out what it will cost to attend them and what it will feel like to be on campus.
There are mysteries of a different sort – the consumer type – explored in Bruce Turkel’s All About Them. This is a sort of 21st-century version of Vance Packard’s justly famous The Hidden Persuaders, the 1957 book that first showed consumers how companies manipulate their wants, make them seem like needs, and use those “needs” to sell all sorts of products whose value ranges from genuine to dubious. Turkel is an expert at using those hidden persuaders, and from his perspective, which is that of a contemporary marketer, persuasiveness in the service of greater sales of just about anything is a grand goal. For example, he delights in the story of the second-generation Toyota Prius, which became a huge hit as “the instant darling of the Hollywood elite,” allowing any unimportant, grotesquely overpaid celebrity nonentity to proclaim himself or herself “a sensitive world citizen who cared deeply about the environment.” Turkel is delighted to quote a New York Times story about marketing research on the car that showed that “57 percent of Prius buyers said their main reason for their purchase was that ‘it makes a statement about me,’ while only 37 percent cited fuel economy as their prime motivator.” Meanwhile, the essentially equivalent Honda Civic Hybrid languished in sales because it looked like a regular Civic and did not give buyers the same sense of self-importance. Buyers need not be upscale or even would-be upscale to be manipulated this way. Turkel explains that he could not give his old tube TVs, which worked perfectly, to Goodwill, since they were not flat screens: Goodwill would not take them, because even people who must buy TVs there would only buy flat screens. This is not exactly what was meant by the phrase “trickle-down economics,” but it certainly seems like trickle-down manipulativeness.
Turkel is not the slightest bit upset or even much concerned by the triumph of form over function; in fact, he revels in the notion that “if all products and services work equally well, or at least appear to,” then “people don’t choose what you do; they choose who you are.” This explains everything from Apple’s success at selling coolness rather than products to Barack Obama’s successful “yes we can” campaign slogan. There is a lot more of this, including plenty of examples and a variety of specific ways that today’s marketers can explore and exploit people’s understandable predilection for buying products that make them feel good about themselves and make their lives (at least apparently) better and more meaningful. Really, none of this is new: it is all the same stuff that Packard discussed when developing his theory of the eight hidden needs that advertisers and marketers make consumers believe some product or other can fulfill. The needs are emotional security, reassurance of worth, ego gratification, creative outlets, love objects, sense of power, roots (family, nation, team, etc.), and immortality (which is the desire to create meaning so our lives will not have been in vain). It is scarcely necessary to read All About Them to see the many ways in which this 60-year-old list is in constant use today in every medium imaginable. In fact, in one of the many acronyms of which Turkel is fond (such as SPOC for “single point of contact”), he neatly encapsulates a batch of Packard’s hidden needs: Turkel writes about SMIRFs, “an acronym for the categories that encompass most people’s passions,” which he says are Society, Milieu, Interest, Religion, Fraternity, and Substance. That last one is somewhat questionable – “appearance of substance,” as in the Prius example, may be more accurate – but the point Turkel makes is that products and services do not actually have to serve these areas of passionate concern. They only have to be made to seem to serve them. And that is the job of marketers, such as Turkel himself. For businesses, All About Them is a savvy, clear and punchily written guide to taking lookalike, workalike products and making them seem special and important by finding ways to manipulate consumers into believing that one and only one in a group of otherwise identical products will fulfill one or another of their deeply felt needs. For consumers, who unfortunately are unlikely to read it, Turkel’s book can stand as a modern explanation of the ways in which they are targeted and picked off, monetarily speaking, every single day – indeed, many, many times a day. It reads a bit as if The Hidden Persuaders had been created by someone who thought the subtle and not-so-subtle ways of skewing and skewering consumers’ brains were a good thing, not an appalling one. Packard himself, who died in 1996, might not have been scandalized, but neither would he have been particularly surprised.
Tchaikovsky: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra. Jennifer Koh, violin; Odense Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Vedernikov. Cedille. $16.
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2; Concert Fantasy. Eldar Nebolsin, piano; New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Stern. Naxos. $12.99.
Copland: Appalachian Spring—Complete Ballet; Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.
Stravinsky: Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)—Suite; Octet; Les Noces. Tianwa Yang, violin; Rebecca Nash, soprano; Robynne Redmon, mezzo-soprano; Robert Breault, tenor; Denis Sedov, bass; Virginia Symphony Chorus; Les Noces Percussion Ensemble and Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
Just when you think certain works have been played and heard so often that there is no new way to present them, along come some performers (and producers) with a new angle, such as juxtaposition of the highly familiar with the much less known. This is a tried-and-true approach in concert programs and a traditional way orchestras introduce previously unknown (usually contemporary) music to straitlaced audiences. It is, however, much less common in recordings, since someone wanting a well-known work has so many versions of it available that there is no particular reason to choose the CD on which it is coupled with a little-known piece. Here too there is an answer, though: excellent performances, such as those of Jennifer Koh on a new Cedille release of Tchaikovsky’s complete violin-and-orchestra works. Listeners may be genuinely surprised at how little Tchaikovsky wrote for this combination: the Violin Concerto is ubiquitous, but there are only three other Tchaikovsky pieces for violin and orchestra, two being brief and one a bit of a mishmash. A listener considering a CD of the concerto may well wonder, “Why not get the one that also includes some pieces I have never [or, perhaps, rarely] heard before?” That would be a good question, and one likely to be answered by acquiring this disc. Koh plays the concerto wonderfully, allowing it to exude warmth while also accepting its requirements of precision bowing and completely even tone. The near-constant contrast here between the lyrical and the dramatic can become wearing, but not in Koh’s hands and fingers: there is lovely natural flow to the music, and none of the tendency to sound episodic that it can have in some performances. The Odense Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Vedernikov is supple, well-balanced and nicely attuned to Koh’s manner, resulting in the sound of a true partnership. And the other works on the disc are, if not major, very much worth hearing for any lover of Tchaikovsky’s music. The brief Valse-Scherzo offers some of the same contrast between lyricism and brightness that the concerto proffers, while the slightly more extended Sérénade mélancolique fully justifies its title as a moody, slightly depressive but always beautiful spinning-out of melodic invention and finely honed orchestration. And then there is Souvenir d’un lieu cher, the final work here and the only one besides the concerto of some substantiality. It is a three-movement piece whose first movement was actually created for the concerto. Interested listeners may want to program the CD to play the concerto’s first movement, then the first movement of Souvenir d’un lieu cher, and then the concerto’s finale, to get a sense of how the concerto changes with the central Meditation instead of the shorter Canzonetta on which Tchaikovsky settled. As the start of Souvenir d’un lieu cher, the Meditation carries most of the weight of the piece, being longer than the Scherzo and Melodie movements put together. Those two were originally for violin and piano and were orchestrated by Glazunov in a style nicely approximating Tchaikovsky’s own. Koh and Vedernikov present Souvenir d’un lieu cher, and indeed all the music here, with sensitivity and style, making the CD as a whole a particularly pleasant meandering through one aspect of Tchaikovsky’s style.
The Naxos recording featuring pianist Eldar Nebolsin and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Stern comes at the composer from a different angle. In one sense, this is a CD featuring two works that are comparatively unknown; certainly neither of these piano-and-orchestra pieces has anything like the popularity of Piano Concerto No. 1. However, Piano Concerto No. 2 has been programmed with increasing frequency in recent years as musicians have discovered numerous ways in which it is equal to, and some in which it is superior to, its better-known predecessor. No. 2 is a longer, more fully developed concerto than No. 1, and while No. 1 has that highly dramatic opening whose elements surprisingly never return, No. 2 has a slow movement that is in effect a miniature triple concerto for piano, violin and cello – a genuinely lovely piece that gives this concerto a unique sound and provides its slow movement with musical and emotional heft beyond that of the slow movement of No. 1, which is essentially an interlude. Nebolsin and Stern get the scale of No. 2 right, allowing its comparatively monumental scope to unfold naturally through the first two movements, so that the relatively slight finale provides listeners with catharsis and a certain amount of relief (the pianist gets none, though: the movement is quite difficult to play). The one significant flaw here is a cut toward the end of the second movement: many changes were made to this concerto by various hands, some (including the one here) accepted, at least for a time, by the composer, and others rejected; but at this point there is no justification for accepting an egregious, if brief, shortening of the material. The interesting pairing here is with a work that really is obscure: the Concert Fantasy, sometimes (as here) called Concert Fantasia, is a meandering, lovely, piquant piece of considerable length (its two movements last half an hour). It features quicksilver mood changes, in which Nebolsin seems to revel. That is the right approach for this work, which suffers from a certain directionlessness (for instance, the first movement, in sonata form, is marked Quasi Rondo) but more than makes up for it through sheer beauty and Tchaikovsky’s exploration of a wide variety of contrasting melodies and harmonies – indeed, the second movement is labeled Contrastes. Both these piano-and-orchestra pieces belong in the collection of anyone who loves Tchaikovsky’s music, and this pairing is as fine a one as a listener is likely discover.
Another new Naxos release is yet another example of mixing the familiar with the less-known. It is the second volume in a series of Copland’s ballets as performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, and it is as well-played as the first volume, which included the very well-known Rodeo, the virtually unknown Dance Panels, and other works. This time the highly popular – and, here, quite beautifully played – ballet is Appalachian Spring, and the one with which very few listeners will be familiar is Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Commissioned by Ruth Page, Hear Ye! Hear Ye! (1934) was Copland's first composition to be choreographed. Its topic is a murder in a nightclub and the following trial in a Chicago courtroom, during which an increasingly bored jury hears three mutually exclusive versions of what happened. It is a work very much of its time, with a jazzy score and, in its original staging, flashy costumes and stage design. Nevertheless, it was not a success and soon fell into obscurity – which the music, at least, really does not deserve, based on how it sounds here. There are 18 very short scenes lasting a total of just over 34 minutes, lending the work a frenetic pace that was, it is safe to assume, reflected in the stage action. The intent was presumably excitement rather than anything over-hectic. In any case, the catchy tunes and bouncy rhythms that pervade the score make pleasant listening, and there is a bit of controversy in the work as well, since at a couple of points Copland distorts part of the National Anthem, as if to indicate that the nation’s justice system is out of whack. Certainly Hear Ye! Hear Ye! lacks the maturity and careful organization of later Copland ballets – very definitely including Appalachian Spring (1944), commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for Martha Graham. Appalachian Spring is only a few minutes longer than Hear Ye! Hear Ye! But it is altogether broader, more expansive, and a work that more fully integrates Copland’s rhythmic propensities with a story whose timeless feel is almost the complete opposite of the in-the-moment intensity of the earlier ballet. The juxtaposition of the two works is quite intriguing, showing in one fell swoop just how much Copland had developed in the decade between the ballets – although of course his maturity came gradually, not with the abruptness experienced by listeners who hear the earlier ballet and then, immediately afterwards, the later one. Slatkin is a fine Copland interpreter, with a flair for the composer’s orchestral color and balance and a good sense of the danceability of both the pieces here.
A new Naxos CD of Stravinsky works, with JoAnn Falletta conducting a variety of Virginia-based performers, offers balletic elements even though it does not contain any of the composer’s actual ballets. Les Noces, however, has been labeled a “ballet cantata,” and does indeed include dance in its original conception. Les Noces was written in 1923 but partakes far less of the Jazz Age than does Copland’s Hear Ye! Hear Ye! of the next decade. Les Noces – Stravinsky actually described it as "choreographed scenes with music and voices” – is distinguished by its unusual scoring for percussion, pianists, chorus, and four vocal soloists. It is an exceptionally influential work because of its sound world, which continues to seem very modern in its balance of simplicity and subtlety. Its very Russian mixture of folklike and primitive elements reflects Stravinsky’s increasing interest in neoclassicism, which indeed he was just turning to in the same year as Les Noces – with his Octet. This was written for an unusual combination of winds: flute, clarinet (in B-flat and A), two bassoons, two trumpets (in C and A), and two trombones (tenor and bass). Stravinsky revised the work in 1952, and that is the version heard here, but the piece’s basic structure did not change with the revision. The first movement is in sonata form, which underlines the “neoclassicist” designation because Stravinsky rarely used it; the second is a theme and variations that is unusual because three of the variations are almost identical; and the third has a syncopated rhythm, based on that of a Russian dance, within a structure that resembles that of a rondo but is not quite the same. Both here and in Les Noces, Stravinsky is striving for something new in music without losing his attraction to the Russian elements that pervaded The Firebird – and also without falling into the comparatively formulaic approach of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Clarity of sound and rhythm is crucial to the effect of both these works, and Falletta is quite aware of this: the performances have plenty of bounce, and the playing and singing are quite good throughout, but it is Falletta’s sure hand in shaping the music and ensuring its crispness that is the primary attraction here. A number of the characteristics of Les Noces and the Octet were already emerging a few years earlier, in L’Histoire du Soldat, which in 1918 used a septet, narrator and two speakers to tell the story of a soldier who outwits the Devil before eventually, in his over-confidence, becoming the Devil’s victim. Naxos has already released the complete L’Histoire du Soldat under Falletta, featuring violinist Tianwa Yang, and it is a wonderful recording, with greater depth and scope than is to be found in the 1920 suite heard here. The suite does, though, contain much of the work’s attractive music, and those who do not know L’Histoire du Soldat – but who encounter it via this release – may well be tempted to pick up Falletta’s version of the full score as well. That temptation, unlike the Devil’s, is one to which it does no harm at all to succumb.
Rebecca Clarke: Trio for Violin, Violoncello, and Piano; Arno Babajanian: Piano Trio; Frank Martin: Trio sur des melodies populaires irlandaises. Lincoln Trio (Desirée Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; Marta Aznavoorian, piano). Cedille. $16.
Anthony Plog: Concerto No. 1 for Solo Trumpet and Large Brass Ensemble; Joel Puckett: The Shadow of Sirius—Concerto for Flute and Wind Orchestra; Jay Krush: Concerto for Bass Trombone; Jennifer Higdon: Oboe Concerto—For Solo Oboe and Wind Ensemble; David Maslanka: Desert Roads—Four Songs for Clarinet and Wind Ensemble; Adam Silverman: Carbon Paper and Nitrogen Ink—Concerto for Marimba and Wind Ensemble. Temple University Wind Symphony conducted by Emily Threinen. BCM+D Records. $12.97 (2 CDs).
Aleksandra Vrebalov: The Sea Ranch Songs. Kronos Quartet (David Harrington and John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Sunny Yang, cello); video and animation by Andrew Lyndon. Cantaloupe Music CD+DVD. $20.
Taylor Brook: El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan; Andrew Greenwald: A thing is a hole in a thing it is not; Kate Soper: Nadja. Kate Soper, soprano; Mivos Quartet (Olivia De Prato and Lauren Cauley, violins; Victor Lowrie, viola; Mariel Roberts, cello). New Focus Recordings. $17.99.
The creativity of performers in plumbing new works and bringing them to a wider audience knows no bounds – although the works themselves sometimes establish boundaries by simply being in-your-face (or in-your-ear) unappealing, as if some composers are determined to show how up-to-date they are by creating pieces to which only they and selected performers are likely to gravitate. That is certainly not the case with the composers represented on an excellent new Cedille release featuring the Lincoln Trio. Although most listeners will be encountering these works, and two of the three composers, for the first time, this is a highly intelligently assembled program featuring musicians – both performers and composers – who clearly have communication with the audience in the forefront of their minds. The concept here, as the CD’s title has it, is “Trios from Our Homelands,” and yes, that is a gimmick – but one that works very well indeed when the music is as good as it is here. Switzerland’s Frank Martin (1890-1974), from the homeland of violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, is the best-known composer on the disc, and his Trio sur des melodies populaires irlandaises (1925), if scarcely a work of great significance, is tuneful, artfully assembled and highly enjoyable to hear, the Irish melodies pervasive and handled by composer and performers alike with real flair. Trio for Violin, Violoncello, and Piano (1922) by Rebecca Clark (1886-1979) is also distinguished by tunefulness and fine crafting; it represents England, homeland of cellist David Cunliffe. The work is large-scale and emotionally varied, with a particularly affecting central Andante molto semplice that the players deliver with just the right combination of passion and clarity. The most-recent work here is the trio by Armenia’s Arno Babajanian (1921-1983), from the homeland of pianist Marta Aznavoorian. Dating to 1952, it is an impassioned piece with two slower, somewhat emotionally overdone movements (marked Largo and Andante) followed by a speedy finale that dispels some of the tension while refusing to let all of it evaporate. What is exceptional on this disc is not only the excellent playing but also the underlying thoughtfulness of the program, taking what could have been mere thematic gimmickry and turning it into a truly revelatory exploration of 20th-century musical thinking by composers in three very different parts of the world.
A high degree of thoughtfulness has also gone into the assembly of a program of wind concerti offered on a two-CD release from the awkwardly named BCM+D label. The letters stand for Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance, and it is that school’s musicians who are highlighted here, along with soloists from the Philadelphia Orchestra. All the music here is from the United States, all of it was written by living composers, and none of it has the emotional impact of the works played by the Lincoln Trio – but none of it seems intended to connect in that way. The six works are all showpieces of one sort or another, and it is the playing, more than the underlying material being communicated, that is most attractive. David Bilger is featured in Concerto No. 1 for Solo Trumpet and Large Brass Ensemble (1988) by Anthony Plog (born 1947), himself a trumpet player – and a rather demanding composer, on the basis of this work. David Cramer is soloist in The Shadow of Sirius (2010) by Joel Puckett (born 1977), which is based on the poetry of W.S. Merwin and offers considerable expressiveness, especially in the solo part. Blair Bollinger plays solo bass trombone in the 2007 concerto by Jay Krush (born 1953), which is a work requiring considerable virtuosity from an instrument not usually thought of as having much solo potential. Jonathan Blumenfeld is soloist in the 2008 concerto by Jennifer Higdon (born 1962), which likewise puts the solo instrument through considerable paces. Ricardo Morales plays solo clarinet in Desert Roads (2005) by David Maslanka (born 1943), in which the clarinet’s ability to match the range of the human voice is well-used to convey the sense of the songs that inspired the composer. And Phillip O’Banion plays marimba in Carbon Paper and Nitrogen Ink (2013) by Adam Silverman (born 1973), a work that stretches the solo instrument in some unexpected directions that are intellectually interesting even when they do not sound especially good. Through all the pieces, the Temple University Wind Symphony under Emily Threinen provides solid, well-balanced backup, resulting in a release that does its job as a showcase for the university’s music school very well indeed, while also giving listeners an opportunity to sample mostly well-made music for some expected solo wind instruments and some decidedly unexpected ones.
There is an underlying communicative impulse to all the works on the Temple University release, even when it does not come through especially clearly; this is very different from the sort of communicative experience sought by Aleksandra Vrebalov, the Kronos Quartet and Andrew Lyndon in a Cantaloupe Music release called The Sea Ranch Songs. The Sea Ranch is a 1,300-person community in Sonoma County, California, that proclaims itself “environmentally planned.” It is 94% white and 83% age 45 or older, so it is quite clearly an enclave – and there is nothing wrong with that at all, except to the extent that the community promotes itself as a kind of utopian haven for a world that looks very little like The Sea Ranch itself. There is some wonderful architecture in the community, and its views of the Pacific Ocean are remarkable, helping explain why it is a popular spot for day trips and overnight vacationers. And this is undoubtedly a very carefully planned community – one whose meticulousness, however, would not work on a larger scale. Vrebalov’s music and Lyndon’s visuals are hagiographic in the extreme, treating The Sea Ranch not only as a kind of paradise on Earth but also as the sort of place to which people everywhere should aspire. The music starts by portraying the Pomo Kashia Indians who lived long ago in the area, then deals with early Russian settlers who lived harmoniously with the Indians instead of displacing them, and then celebrates the area’s planning, development, environmental awareness, and so forth. Vrebalov admits in the booklet notes to the recording that The Sea Ranch “might be utopian” on a global scale, but argues for its “urgent relevance in our wounded world.” This recording project does not, however, come across that way: what emerges is the sense that people everywhere should live this way and only fail to do so because they are ignorant or misguided (and, by the by, do not have land available right on the Pacific Ocean). The beauty of The Sea Ranch is impressive, and the DVD in this set makes it abundantly clear. Vrebalov’s music, though, is hopelessly naïve and almost desperate in its attempt to be important and meaningful in ways that composers less freighted with sociopolitical baggage (such as Clarke, Babajanian, Martin and those represented on the Temple University recording) achieve more clearly and cleanly. The physical loveliness of The Sea Ranch and the attractiveness of some of Vrebalov’s music lead to a (+++) rating for this release, but it will certainly not be for all tastes and is likely to inspire as much cynicism as admiration in listeners and viewers who find the whole recording, and The Sea Ranch itself, to be hopelessly self-important.
Even more limited in audience and even less inclined to compromise in any way to reach a wider group, a new Mivos Quartet release on the New Focus Recordings label shows a great deal about the gap between listeners in general and contemporary composers who write primarily for themselves and those who think just as they do. If The Sea Ranch Songs is overdone on the utopian scale, the three works offered here are overthought on a different scale altogether. They are uniformly well-made within the strictures that the composers set for themselves, but they are so hyper-intellectual and so lacking in any of the emotional connection of which music is capable that listeners are likely to be bored, puzzled or fed up in short order by what they hear – in more or less equal amounts. This state of affairs comes through especially clearly in Nadja (2013-2015) by composer/soprano Kate Soper. The three movements offer poems by authors whose works could scarcely be more different: Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Ovid; and André Breton. In her composition and her performance, Soper manages to make all the poetry sound essentially identical – a remarkable accomplishment, although scarcely one that most listeners will find worthy of celebration. The other pieces here are similar in both cerebral heft and emotional vapidity. Taylor Brook’s 2013 work, whose title translates as “The Garden of Diverging Paths” and is taken from another literary source, a short story by the remarkable Jorge Luis Borges, imagines six ways in which musical history might have diverged from the path it took in our world. That leads Brook to create six movements intended to show where music as we know it might have gone, but did not. This is an intriguing thought experiment, and the movements’ titles lend hope that it might be an audible one as well: “Altercation,” “Pedals,” “Strumming,” “Following,” “Lament” and “Coils.” But in practice, very little of the erudite underpinning of the music comes through: performers – including the very adept members of the Mivos Quartet – will certainly see the ways in which these miniature tone poems explore alternative realities, but it is asking too much of any but a very esoteric audience indeed to expect listeners to be able to follow and understand just where this music is supposed to be going. The third work on the CD, Andrew Greenwald’s A thing is a hole in a thing it is not (2010), is one of those portentously titled pieces that are supposed to mean a great deal – which perhaps it will to people who are highly familiar with Carl Andre, the American minimalist artist from whom the title is taken. Or perhaps not even the cognoscenti will see how the extreme sonic environment of this work, whose 11 minutes seem nearly interminable, relates to Andre’s production. The point is not that any of these pieces is misguided – indeed, they are all taken just where the composers want to take them, and the Mivos Quartet delves into the material with enthusiasm and in grand style, a major reason the CD gets a (+++) rating. But the extreme dryness of the material, the complete lack of understanding or caring that not everyone who might hear this music functions at the rarefied level of those who created it, makes this CD into a self-referential exercise whose communicative potential is confined to those “in the know,” who will congratulate themselves that they “get” so much more than lesser mortals do. Unfortunately, preaching to the choir produces few converts to one’s beliefs – although it is by no means clear that these composers are reaching out to anyone who is not already convinced of the importance of what they are producing.
September 22, 2016
Bertram and His Fabulous Animals. By Paul T. Gilbert. Pictures by Minnie H. Rousseff and Barbara Maynard. Pomegranate Kids. $24.95.
Books do not have to be monumentally consequential to be absolutely delightful entertainments for kids. In fact, it helps if at least some of them, instead of dutifully reflecting gigantic real-world issues and disputes, exist in their own unreal, generally pleasant world, as escapes from some of the rigors and tremors of everyday life. This may have been better understood in 1937, when Paul T. Gilbert's Bertram and His Fabulous Animals was first published, than it is today, when books with social or sociopolitical messages are all the rage, the operative word indeed often being “rage.”
There is a modicum of anger in Bertram’s world, but only a touch here and there. It is usually directed at highly imaginative Bertram himself, or directed by Bertram at the many and varied creatures he encounters in and around his home. Bertram is fortunate to live in a town where all sorts of animals, real and fanciful, turn up at the drop of a hat – all of them able to communicate with him, his friends and his family. He is also fortunate to live near Omaha, since that is the place from which his father inevitably returns from doing business in order to set things right when, equally inevitably, they go wrong.
Bertram and His Fabulous Animals is a sequel to Bertram and His Funny Animals, which appeared three years earlier and had Bertram interacting with real-world animals that were drawn with some realism by Minnie H. Rousseff and that behaved in some ways like real animals (except for the facts that they talked, turned up on local streets and in local yards, and so forth). These tales are not exactly a prototype of the Calvin and Hobbes situation, since Hobbes was only a stuffed animal to everyone except Calvin, while the animals with which Bertram interacts are quite real not only to him but also to all those around him. And that includes the animals that are distinctly unreal, which are the ones in Bertram and His Fabulous Animals. This is more of a “lessons learned” book than its predecessor, since in several cases here, Bertram wishes he had a fantasy animal because he wants or does not want to do something – but when he gets the animal, he gets his comeuppance. In the 1930s, homes were still heated by coal, which was heavy, messy and difficult to shovel, so of course Bertram resents having to stoke the furnace all the time and wishes he had a fire-breathing dragon. The thing is, when he gets one, it turns out that Bertram has to stoke the dragon with coal so it can breathe enough fire to keep the house warm. And after he wishes that his little brother, Baby Sam, were a mermaid, because then mermaid Sam could bait Bertram’s fishing hook with worms and Bertram would not have to push Sam in the buggy, Bertram actually meets a mermaid – who does help with fishing but also smells tremendously of fish, so the town cats follow her and Bertram constantly, and on top of that, the mermaid insists on being pushed in the buggy even more than Bertram ever had to push Baby Sam in it.
Bertram’s father is quite good at sorting things out eventually, even when those things involve fabulous animals of which readers will never have heard. Those animals – as described by Gilbert and pictured by Rousseff and Barbara Maynard – are among the big attractions here, creating a kind of surrealistic weirdness in the chapters in which they appear. One is a “Squeazle-Weasel,” which looks a bit like a four-limbed spider walking upright and which has extremely picky eating habits – teaching Bertram that he should stop being so fussy about food. Another is an “Anting-Anting,” a 17-legged caterpillar-like creature the size of a dachshund, whose diet turns out to consist of all the clothing in Bertram’s house except for the corduroys that Bertram had been refusing to wear but for which he is eventually grateful. And a third is a “Miki-Miki,” who is “perfectly round and green, and he looked like a big gooseberry on ducks’ legs” – and who is quite generous with his food, which consists entirely of sweets, until eventually Bertram has had enough of all the candies and such that he had previously demanded constantly. Yes, a lot of Bertram and His Fabulous Animals revolves around food, but not all of it. Bertram also encounters a griffin, unicorn, baby dinosaur, roc and winged horse here, and in every chapter comes out a bit worse for wear but a bit better-behaved and perhaps a touch more self-aware. Still, this is a book of amusing fantasy, not one intended to instruct, much less lecture; and it is therefore an anodyne for all the painfully message-heavy books for young readers that have become de rigueur among contemporary authors. There is nothing really contemporary about Bertram’s adventures and Gilbert’s recounting of them. Bertram and His Fabulous Animals is simply a book of naïveté and unassuming charm, two characteristics that are in distinctly short supply in more-recent books for children.
Fly Guy’s Ninja Christmas. By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
The Ninjabread Man. By C.J. Leigh. Pictures by Chris Gall. Scholastic. $16.99.
Folk Tale Classics: Puss in Boots. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next Door. By Adam Rubin. Illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
Hmm. Not sure how much ninjas have to do with winter holidays and folk tales. But they are the attraction of new books by Tedd Arnold and C.J. Leigh. offering a heaping helping of absurdity and silliness lathered onto territory that would otherwise be familiar. In Arnold’s Fly Guy’s Ninja Christmas, the title-character pet who can say his boy’s name watches Buzz read a book about “ninjazzzz” on Christmas Eve and becomes excited when Buzz explains that the next day there will be “prezentzz!” But unfortunately Fly Guy does not have a gift for Buzz, so he cannot sleep. And then he spots a stranger in the house and goes into ninja action, knocking down none other than Santa Claus, or “Zanta,” as Fly Guy puts it. The tree gets knocked down, too, but Buzz wakes up and helps put everything to rights, then goes back to bed – awakening on Christmas morning thinking what a cool dream he had. Then it is gift time, but Buzz cannot find Fly Guy anywhere, until he opens a beautifully wrapped present and finds in it – Fly Guy himself! “You are the best present ever!” says Buzz. And there is more in the box: a ninja suit, courtesy of Santa – and, on the last page (and in one of Arnold’s funniest and most ridiculous drawings), there is a ninja suit for Fly Guy as well, his Christmas gift from Buzz. As Christmas stories go, this one will never overtake anything by Charles Dickens, but as Fly Guy stories go, it will be a pleasant seasonal amusement for fans of the series.
Leigh’s The Ninjabread Man gives a ninja twist to the folk tale of the gingerbread man who runs away and taunts those chasing him until he gets his comeuppance. That is exactly the story here, but the ninja elements – including the cookie’s very amusing ninja-frosting costume, very well rendered by Chris Gall – keep everything fresh. That includes the freshly baked cookie, made by “a little old sensei” whose ninja students are a bear, a snake (whose ninja costume is the best of the lot), a mouse, and a fox. The scenes of the ninjas training are delightful, but the successful baking of the “dangerously delicious” ninjabread man is what sets the main thread of the story going. As in the original tale, the cookie escapes from the oven and runs away, but that is not enough for this version: the ninjabread man also challenges the students, causing the bear to lose his balance, defeating the snake in a battle of throwing stars, and tripping the mouse during a sword fight. But he meets his match in the wily fox, as in the original story: brains and trickery succeed where brawn, speed and ninja skills alone do not. There is a delicious afterword here, too, in the form of a recipe for ninjabread cookies, which of course are simply molasses-rich gingerbread confections decorated “with frosting, raisins, and candies” to look like any ninja you may want to design.
And speaking of brains and trickery, for a very finely illustrated and far more straightforward version of a classic tale, there is Paul Galdone’s 1976 version of Puss in Boots, now available in a new Folk Tale Classics edition. Galdone here offers a mixture of highly realistic illustrations, such as the initial one of the elderly miller and his three sons, and fanciful pictures, notably those of Puss the cat in his many shrewd-looking, humanlike poses with his sly, knowing expressions. This is not a sugar-coated version of the story – Puss catches a rabbit, a pair of partridges and some fish and gives them to the king for supper on his master’s behalf, and the king is quite happy to accept the game and order it prepared for eating. The role of the miller’s son in this tale is simply to accept everything Puss tells him to do, and that goes very well for him indeed. Galdone’s Puss does not seem intimidating enough to frighten haymakers and reapers into telling the king that they are vassals of the Marquis of Carabas – the name Puss chooses for his supposedly lordly master – but this is, after all, a folk tale, and best accepted at face value. The way Puss outwits the evil giant/sorcerer is a highlight of the story and the book: this is the place where Puss relies on his basic nature as a cat to gobble up the giant, whom he has tricked into turning himself into a mouse. The happily-ever-after ending fits this tale’s mixture of fun and drama particularly well, and Galdone’s rendering of all the scenes, including the final one of a contented Puss – his red boots now removed – resting on pillows and sporting a self-satisfied smile, is particularly apt.
The art is also a major attraction of Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next Door, although Adam Rubin’s supremely silly story is amusing enough on its own. Originally published in 2011 and now available in paperback, this is the tale of Old Man Fookwire in the winter, irritated as usual by the highly intelligent and mischievous squirrels that share his property, and now doubly irritated when Little Old Lady Hu moves in nearby and brings along her cat, Muffins. “He was a real jerk,” Rubin writes, and Daniel Salmieri draws him just that way: Muffins is huge, super-furry, with tiny legs and a perpetually crafty, sly or scowling expression. As the squirrels continue to make trouble for Fookwire – for example, by eating the delicious pie that Little Old Lady Hu, the town baker, makes as a neighborly gift – the cat makes trouble for the squirrels, giving them noogies and wedgies and tying their tails together and generally being a bully and pest in ways that Salmieri clearly relishes depicting. Little Old Lady Hu, who thinks Muffins is adorable and calls him “shnookums,” refuses to see how dastardly the cat is, so the squirrels use their cleverness to devise a plan to humiliate the cat. And none too soon: even the birds, which are among the few pleasures in grumpy Fookwire’s life, have become so upset by Muffins that they “flew up to the treetops and refused to come down.” The birds, though, are an integral part of the squirrels’ revenge plans, and sure enough, when Muffins chases them, the cat is doused with water from a squirrel-built trap sprung by the fleeing birds – and Muffins turns out to be a “pathetic wretch…no bigger than a squirrel,” so embarrassed by his thinness and overall scrawny appearance that he slinks away and becomes a house cat. And all ends happily as Little Old Lady Hu makes friends with birds and squirrels alike, Fookwire resumes painting – one of the few things he enjoys – and Muffins is left to scowl and grump at himself, as different a cat from Puss in Boots as it is possible to be.
The 39 Clues Superspecial: Outbreak. By C. Alexander London. Scholastic. $13.99.
Swindle #8: Jingle. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.
At long last The 39 Clues appears to be winding down. This highly popular, multi-series sequence that helped promote the notion of books as but one part of a multimedia experience requiring readers to do active mystery-solving online as well as within the novels’ pages, has gone through four complete book sequences, the most recent being Doublecross. Now comes what appears to be a single, standalone novel designated Superspecial, titled Outbreak, written by C. Alexander London, who was also the author of the second Doublecross novel, Mission Hindenburg. This Superspecial differs from the series volumes in various ways, partly in price (it costs a dollar more) and partly in its lack of accompanying cards (real or virtual) to be tied into online activities – although it still provides a Web address at which readers can “find exciting missions and connect with fellow Cahills.” In Outbreak, it is assumed that readers are members of the super-powerful Cahill clan that has managed and manipulated human history for many centuries. Readers need to be familiar with the overall Cahill history for Outbreak to make complete sense. Dan is currently the leader of the Cahills, and in this book is 14 years old (not 11 or 13, as in earlier series); that makes Amy 19, which means she is almost an adult – another sign that this long-running sequence may finally have run long enough. The story of Outbreak is a familiar one in the usual twisty style of The 39 Clues, involving locations around the world, a deadly virus, and a former friend named Sinead Sterling who turned traitor but may have turned back to a Cahill supporter and may be trying to prevent release of the virus instead of trying to arrange for it to destroy the world. The good-or-bad uncertainty is part and parcel of The 39 Clues, as are the globe-hopping and the potentially nefarious deed involving a possibly deadly substance of some sort. Having dutifully, if not very stylishly, contributed to the series before, London pulls Outbreak along in all the expected directions, avoiding any stamp of distinctive style (as all the authors in this series must be careful to do) but being careful to produce enough cliffhangers and turns to keep readers interested, if perhaps not really on edge. Unsurprisingly, the book ends with a dramatic, painful and emotionally wrenching sacrifice that is followed by a suitable twist. More surprisingly, the book actually ends, rather than concluding, as earlier volumes have, with distinct hints of where the series will go next. That could mean The 39 Clues has gone about as far as it can go, or it could mean that future entries will be self-contained, as Outbreak is, rather than part of multi-book sequences. Either way, The 39 Clues has more than made its mark, and if Outbreak does not represent a highly dramatic, bang-up ending, it does show the books concluding – if they have concluded – in much the same way that they have progressed from the start.
Five of the books in The 39 Clues have been written by Gordon Korman, but ever since Flashpoint, the 2014 conclusion of the Unstoppable series, he has turned his attention elsewhere – for instance, to the Swindle series, which has now reached its eighth volume, Jingle. Yes, this is a Christmas-themed novel, but otherwise it has all the characteristics of its seven predecessors, ranging from the machinations of Griffin Bing (“the man with the plan”) to the barely containable enthusiasm of the Doberman, Luthor. To as great an extent as the books in The 39 Clues, those in the Swindle series feature formulaic plotting and formulaic characters – which means that Jingle will be fun for those who already know Griffin and his comrades, and will be a pretty good entry point to the series for anyone who picks the book up, enjoys it simply as a seasonal read, and at the end wants to know about other books along the same lines. In Jingle, the annoying Logan signs Griffin and pals up without their consent to act as elves in Cedarville’s traditional holiday performance, the Santa’s Workshop Holiday Spectacular. As usual, Logan has his own reasons for this – he wants to be an actor and is trying to raise his chances of getting into the North Shore Players group – but all that really matters here is that the signup gets the plot going. That plot involves all sorts of typical seasonal and Griffin-ish elements, such as a faintly unpleasant biker playing Santa and the usual disagreeableness of abusive classmate/nemesis Darren Vader. What turns this into a mystery – all the Swindle books are mysteries – is the theft of the Star of Prague, a multimillion-dollar-artifact, from atop the tree in the Colchester mansion. At the top of the list of suspects are Griffin and his group, in light of their various over-planned adventures (and consequent run-ins with the law) in the past. Of course this requires Griffin to come up with a plan to find the real thief, and of course the plan needs to be over-complicated and lead to even stronger suspicions being directed at Griffin and company, and of course everything has to come to a climax when the precious object is supposedly destroyed. But of course it is not, the culprit is found, the various skeins of this yarn are suitably untangled, and the scene is set for a new year that is as likely as not to contain another overdone-but-simplistic adventure of Griffin and the gang.
Fire in My Eyes: An American Warrior’s Journey from Being Blinded on the Battlefield to Gold Medal Victory. By Brad Snyder and Tim Sileo. Da Capo. $25.99.
Multimillionaire sports figures who metaphorically spit on the United States by deliberately disrespecting its flag, national anthem and other symbols, while retaining every bit of the grotesque amounts of money the country has made it possible for them to make in return for doing meaningless things of no value or importance whatsoever in some “professional” “game,” really ought to read a book such as Fire in My Eyes, if they have sufficient attention span for it (doubtful). The wealthy pond scum would surely be unable to “relate to” the pride taken by Brad Snyder in his work, in the military and in his country. But maybe, just maybe, they could relate to his success in athletics – one year after being blinded on the battlefield in defense of a country where ignorant fools have every right to pocket millions while pretending to care about “social justice” or anything else beyond lining their own pockets and singing their own praises.
Yes, it was one year to the day after he set off an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan in an explosion that threw bomb fragments into his right hand and across his face – costing him both his eyes – that Lieutenant Snyder won the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle at the Paralympic Games in London in 2012. The one-year anniversary of an event such as Snyder’s blinding is referred to by wounded veterans as “Alive Day,” and that is certainly what it was for Snyder.
By the way, he lost his sight while rapidly clearing a path to allow fellow service members to rescue two men who had been severely wounded by a previous IED explosion. No word on those men’s skin color or politics.
Interestingly, in his autobiography, written with the assistance of Tom Sileo, Snyder does not simply produce a memoir about recovering from a devastating injury: the IED explosion and recovery take up only the last third of the book, which as a result is weaker than it would have been if more of the focus had been on being blinded and fighting back to win the gold a year later. Snyder’s overall story is one of persistence, which he discusses not only in the context of competitive swimming but also in terms of the leadership lessons he learned at the U.S. Naval Academy. There is a good deal here on what is required to complete one of the most difficult courses in the military: a mental and physical curriculum combining diving and bomb disposal. There is also much here about resilience, but Snyder, for most of the book, avoids delving too deeply into his own physical comeback, instead discussing the devastating emotions called up by loss of friends and loved ones. Snyder is a man who strode willingly, time and again, without multimillion-dollar rewards or any prospect of them, into real and enormous danger, not into some manufactured “sport” arena with everybody padded and re-padded and watched over by officials who prevent anything more than symbolic and minor violence.
All this is to say that Fire in My Eyes is a story packed with authenticity, and one packed to a great extent – indeed, in many ways too great an extent – with details of military training and deployment. Snyder is not unthinkingly jingoistic, although he is certainly patriotic – and thoughtful about being so. He is also aware, increasingly so in the later part of the book, of the enormous gulf between being an officer in charge of an elite military squad and being a blinded veteran who has trouble putting toothpaste on a toothbrush. Snyder’s unwillingness to dwell on everyday challenges of that sort is admirable, but it makes his book less-compelling reading for anyone who will never serve in a capacity remotely like his. When Snyder does, as the book nears its end, become genuinely thoughtful about his life – when he discusses the metaphor of cane use to bring readers into his now-slow pace of life and warns of the dangers of getting lost in “the Delta,” a dangerous valley between what you used to be and what you have become – the book approaches profundity and from time to time attains it. In its earlier sections, though, and indeed for more than half its length, it is simply too matter-of-fact to draw in readers who lack significant familiarity with (or interest in) modern military training.
If Fire in My Eyes is flawed, however, the one way in which it excels from start to finish is through Snyder’s humility. Certainly readers are welcome to consider Snyder heroic – and this being a free country, others are entitled to deem him jingoistic and manipulated into harm’s way by the military-industrial complex or something of that ilk. But Snyder himself never dons the “hero” mantle and quite clearly eschews praise and applause – those things for which overpaid “sports” nonentities constantly strive – for himself and his sacrifice. Snyder’s life took him from battlefield heroism to the heroism of everyday existence – something to which readers can relate if they accept that everyone has obstacles to overcome and a life that can change dramatically in an instant. Those who will never encounter an IED owe Snyder thanks and praise, neither of which he seeks. The human garbage that disrespects men like Snyder and the nation they defend – all to allow self-loving trolls to spew their ugly hatred – deserves to be forgotten as surely as Snyder and his sacrifice deserve to be remembered.
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 6; Waltz Suite. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $12.99.
Michael Daugherty: Tales of Hemingway; American Gothic; Once Upon a Castle. Zuill Bailey, cello; Paul Jacobs, organ; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.
Giorgio Gaslini: Murales Promenade; Adagio Is Beautiful; Piano Concerto. Alfonso Alberti, piano; Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento conducted by Yoichi Sugiyama. Stradivarius. $16.99.
Kevin Puts: Symphony No. 2; River’s Rush; Flute Concerto. Adam Walker, flute; Peabody Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $12.99.
Prokofiev’s most delightful symphony is his first, the “Classical,” but his best and most important are his two from World War II, Nos. 5 and 6. They are something of a pair. The large and imposing three-movement No. 6 has an overall dark cast that contrasts with a certain lightness, if not exactly levity, and a greater sense of triumph over adversity in the four-movement No. 5. That makes No. 5 somewhat more traditional both structurally and emotionally, and means that No. 6 requires a conductor of considerable sensitivity and willingness to take chances for it to have its full effect. Marin Alsop is not that conductor: she tends to be perfunctory and surface-level in most of her interpretations, especially of familiar or relatively familiar works. Yet in her new Naxos recording of Prokofiev’s Sixth with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, part of a Prokofiev cycle that now lacks only his final, seventh symphony, Alsop turns up with an excellent reading almost in spite of herself. Something in the work speaks, if not to her, then to the orchestra, which plays with fervor and intensity fully befitting the music and with considerable sensitivity to the many shades of darkness that Prokofiev here puts on display. Alsop seems more to be carried along with the music than to shape it – her overly fast finale, indeed, almost derails the movement’s effectiveness. But the performance as a whole turns out to be very successful indeed, with the gradations of Prokofiev’s anti-triumphalist writing coming through clearly and the sectional stability of the orchestra allowing the symphony’s many themes and unusual balances to emerge to fine effect. The reality must be that Alsop is responsible for shaping this very fine performance, but it almost feels as if the orchestra is playing without a conductor, with suppleness and sectional sensitivity that bring forth, all in all, a very impressive reading. Alsop seems a stronger presence in the six-movement and altogether lighter Waltz Suite, in which Prokofiev recycled three pieces from Cinderella, two from War and Peace and one from an abandoned film project, Lermontov, into a half-hour suite that explores three-quarter time from a wide variety of angles and with numerous emotional high and low points. The music is neither substantive nor substantial, but it is thoroughly pleasant and showcases ways in which Prokofiev was a worthy, if lesser, successor to Tchaikovsky in the waltz medium. The least-known of the waltzes, Mephisto Waltz from Lermontov, is the biggest surprise of the suite, speeding along with real panache and some particularly interesting turns of phrase. Again the orchestra delivers first-rate playing, and the result is a highly interesting juxtaposition of a 1945-47 symphony that is very serious indeed with a 1946-47 suite that remains determinedly on the frothy side.
The symphonic nature of three very recent compositions by Michael Daugherty (born 1954) comes through especially clearly on a new Naxos disc that gives all three their world première recordings, all taken from live performances. Daugherty has a fine command of large orchestral forces and a style that, while very clearly modern, does not eschew tonality or emotional communication when those are the tools he needs to make his musical points. The three works here could be collectively called “Portraits.” Tales of Hemingway (2015) is a very symphonic cello concerto that gets a bang-up reading from Zuill Bailey and wonderful accompaniment from the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero. The percussion alone, requiring two players, is remarkable: one performer handles chimes, vibraphone with yarn mallets and bow, marimba, mark tree (a set of bell chimes), suspended cymbal and triangle, while the other is in charge of crotales, glockenspiel, triangle, piccolo snare drum, kick drum, a different suspended cymbal, tambourine, castanets, claves, maracas and another mark tree. The music is not even slightly Mahlerian, but Daugherty uses the percussion complement much as Mahler used his vast orchestral forces: surprisingly delicately, a bit at a time, only rarely bursting forth with the strength and intensity that so large a collection of instruments is capable of delivering. The performers here gave this work its world première concert performance, and that is the live recording heard on the CD. The rather surprising choice of a cello to represent Hemingway ties to the reality that the famously macho author actually played that instrument as a child, in school orchestras. Certainly much of the cello writing is big, almost brassy (an odd adjective for a cello, but there it is); but much of it uses the instrument’s considerable lyrical potential as well. The four movements of the work are named for four Hemingway stories or novels: Big Two-Hearted River, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Sun Also Rises. Daugherty’s subtlety is much in evidence here, in his minimal but clear use of castanets and maracas for the Spanish setting of The Sun Also Rises and his sprinkling of bell sounds throughout For Whom the Bell Tolls instead of having them resound intensely. Tales of Hemingway contrasts interestingly with American Gothic (2013), a three-movement orchestral suite intended to reflect the life and works of Iowa artist Grant Wood and coming across partly as Daugherty’s tribute to his own Iowa childhood. Here too the scope is symphonic. The first movement, On a Roll, is bright and colorful; the second, Winter Dreams, reflects the bleakness of an Iowa winter as well as Wood’s paintings of those cold-weather scenes; and the third, Pitchfork, based on Wood’s most-famous painting, is quirky and witty and amusing and difficult to pin down as to its meaning – much like the painting itself. Also on this attractive CD is Once Upon a Castle (2003/2015), which is an organ concerto and, yet again, a piece of symphonic proportions and scale. The castle here is not a European one but that of William Randolph Hearst in California, famous as a 165-room grand estate, a symbol of “wretched excess,” and part of the inspiration for Orson Welles’ iconic Citizen Kane. Daugherty’s work has as strong a personal stamp here as in American Gothic. He opens with The Winding Road to San Simeon, taking listeners on the five-mile trip through the mountains to Hearst’s monument. Neptune Pool offers strictly contemporary water music, befitting the tremendously over-decorated Olympic-size pool surrounded by statues of Neptune and water nymphs. Rosebud moves into Welles territory and juxtaposes the organ-as-Kane (the Hughes figure in the film) with a solo violin representing his mistress, Susan Alexander (the film’s name for Marion Davies). Paul Jacobs, who gives a wonderful performance throughout, offers especially sonorous material here. The final movement, Xanadu, musically portrays one of the many elegant parties held at Hearst Castle during the 1920s and 1930s. It neatly ties up a suite in which fairy tales about castles, fairy tales Hollywood style, and the real world in which the Hearst castle still exists, are all on display. All of Daugherty’s music on this disc is very American, very contemporary, and at the same time very personal: Daugherty is one composer who has developed, maintained and over time expanded a musical vocabulary all his own.
There are distinctive elements as well to the musical style of Giorgio Gaslini (1929-2014). His come mainly from jazz, the musical field in which he is best-known. But a new CD on the Stradivarius label shows that he could work effectively in more traditionally classical modes as well. Like Daugherty, Gaslini does not shy from tonality, but while Daugherty’s works tend to be carefully planned and tightly controlled, Gaslini’s often have an improvisational feeling to them even when they are fully written out. As a performer, Gaslini was known as an effective improvisational jazz pianist; the two piano-and-orchestra works on this disc show how he adapted that element of his career to music with a more classical, even symphonic structure. Murales Promenade is a kind of Pictures at an Exhibition, Gaslini style. This four-movement piano concerto dates to 2008 but derives its thematic material from a 30-year-earlier jazz work. In this form, the work was inspired by walking through a Latin American town and seeing a series of large, impressive murals whose subjects varied from the celebratory to the sinister. The colors and forms were often violent and always emotionally expressive, and those are the qualities of Gaslini’s music, which seesaws repeatedly among expressions – from the solemn to the agitated, from the bright and outgoing to the dark and portentous. Murales Promenade is followed on this CD by the strongly contrasting Adagio Is Beautiful, a 1998 piece for 16 strings that shows Gaslini at his most Romantic: it starts in darkness and uncertainty and gradually is transformed into a kind of radiant affirmation. This relatively short work (nine minutes) makes an effective dividing line between the two large concertos heard here. The second of those, simply called Concerto, dates to 2013 and is one of Gaslini’s last works. Interestingly, although Murales Promenade has traditional tempo markings for its four movements and Concerto has descriptive ones (starting with Ursa Major for the first and Terra! for the second), Concerto really does have a more traditionally classical structure and approach. All four movements are traceable to the same seven-note series, and the work as a whole follows an arc not too different from that of Adagio Is Beautiful. After the first two movements, in which Concerto focuses on the dark and the vast emptiness of space, the third movement bears an Italian title that translates as “Echoes of the songs of John Donne in the 21st century,” and the fourth has a title, also in Italian, that can be translated, “Crossed paths – head-on into the wind.” These movements represent a turn to the human and philosophical from the first two movements’ outward focus on nature and the natural universe. The initial darkness of Concerto becomes increasingly exultant – and, interestingly, increasingly tonal – until the work finally ends triumphantly and includes an actual spiritual, indicating in what way Gaslini sees human reaching-out as leading eventually to emotional affirmation. Pianist Alfonso Alberti handles both concertos on the CD skillfully, and the Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento under Yoichi Sugiyama provides effective, if rather dutiful, backup, albeit with strings that really shine in Adagio Is Beautiful. Gaslini is not among the best-known contemporary composers, but on the strength of this disc, he is worthy of more attention: unlike many modern composers who insist on adding together classical and jazz elements in ways that often seem awkward or overdone, Gaslini offers more of a jazz sensibility within formal classical models, giving his works – at least the ones heard here – a consistent voice, with more genuineness than is to be found in most music that proclaims itself to be “crossover.” Gaslini’s pieces are more a true blend than a colloidal suspension of jazz and classical elements – that is, they are an altogether smoother and more-complete mixture.
The music of Kevin Puts (born 1972), available on another new Naxos CD conducted by Marin Alsop, has some interesting elements but is less compelling than that of Daugherty and Gaslini. The three world première recordings here showcase Alsop in her most-effective role, as an advocate of new and less-known music rather than a presenter of well-known works by composers whose reputations are already solid. Puts’ Symphony No.2 (2002) is one of an innumerable number of well-meaning works responding to the terrorist murders in New York City and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. Its introspective sincerity is undoubted, but it is not especially distinctive or evocative in its progression from rather standard evocation of tragedy to a meditative conclusion whose ending in uncertainty reflects the notion of not knowing what lies ahead. It is an occasional work rather than one for the ages. River’s Rush (2004) is also straightforward in presenting the sense of rapidly moving river currents. The work is cast as an orchestral perpetuum mobile featuring a series of short motives. Like any number of other portrayals of flowing water, it inevitably recalls Smetana’s Vltava, which continues to stand far above its imitators and successors. Like the symphony, this tone poem is well-crafted but not really distinguished in any significant way from similar works by other composers. The best piece here is the Flute Concerto (2013/2014), with Adam Walker’s excellent playing complementing the equally fine sound of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra under Alsop – all at the service of a work that, ironically, has a much-more-personal style than the others here even though it also includes more-overt echoes of earlier composers. The lyrical opening of a first movement marked “With great sincerity and affection; flexible, with motion” very definitely recalls Copland in manner and directness of appeal; the second movement, simply labeled Andante, rather oddly (but surprisingly effectively) mixes Mozartian beauty with parody of (or, perhaps, commentary upon) the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 21; and the finale, a toccata marked “Very fast, with tremendous energy,” puts both Walker and the orchestra through some highly exuberant paces whose unflagging high energy makes for a thoroughly rousing conclusion. There is no “big message” in this concerto, and perhaps for that reason it comes across much more directly and successfully than the meaning-heavy Symphony No. 2. The CD as a whole gets a (+++) rating – it is worth having for the concerto alone, and River’s Edge is pleasant enough, but although well-intentioned and well-made, Puts’ Symphony No. 2 has little staying power and ultimately not much to recommend it for repeated hearings.