May 17, 2018
Take a Ride by My Side. By Jonathan Ying. Illustrated by Victoria Ying. Harper. $14.99.
Toad on the Road: Mama and Me. By Stephan Shaskan. Harper. $17.99.
“From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!” So wrote Dr. Seuss in One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. The words could be the motto for both these books for kids ages 4-8 – both are all about going from place to place and finding enjoyable (if not laugh-out-loud funny) things at every location. In Jonathan Ying’s Take a Ride by My Side, two friends, a cat and a dog, start out on “a trip from here to there” with minimal luggage but big plans. This is a book where the journey definitely matters more than the various destinations (except for the final one). The whole book is about ways of getting from place to place, starting with a bicycle with a sidecar (hence the book’s title) and then traveling in a canoe, a submarine, an airplane and even a rocket ship. Apparently the dog – who is the one who keeps proposing going onward to somewhere new – has both a pilot’s license and an astronaut’s rocket-flying ability, since dog and cat eventually travel all the way to the moon. Victoria Ying draws both characters simply, with an emphasis on their big eyes and almost perfectly round heads. Eventually, though, the two make it to the very best place of all: their home, where the whole adventure started. “But even though it’s fun to roam,/ there’s nowhere quite as great as home,” writes Jonathan Ying, as the friends sit in their living room in front of a wall on which there are pictures of all their adventures. Hmm…Victoria Ying never shows either of them carrying a camera or cell phone, so who took those photos, including the one on the moon’s surface and the one shot deep underwater from outside the submarine? Young readers may well wonder just what happened. Parents can come up with whatever answer they like, or just suggest that kids think something up on their own.
The second Toad on the Road book keeps its characters earthbound and in pretty much the same area, but it expands on Stephen Shaskan’s previous Toad book, in which characters who worried about Toad sitting in the road eventually got help for their vehicles from Toad’s mother, who turned out to be a tow-truck driver. In Toad on the Road: Mama and Me, both Toad and Mama Toad are in the truck (labeled “Mama Toad’s Towing”) and are being helpful to everybody, with the repeated refrain, “Mama and Toad will save the day!/ Everyone shout: Hip hip hooray!” First Mama and Toad come upon Goat, whose delivery truck (“Bob’s Bounce Houses”) has run out of gas. So they supply some. Then they encounter Fox’s van (“Bob’s Balloons”) with a flat tire – which they promptly change. And then they find Moose’s car (“Bob’s Pizza”) stuck in some mud at the side of the road – and use the hook on the back of their tow truck to get the car out. Goat, Fox and Moose all show their appreciation for the help with thanks and a statement that their deliveries “will surely get through” because of the toads’ tow truck’s assistance. And where do you suppose all the deliveries might be going? To a thank-you party for Toad and Mama Toad for all they help they give everyone! Shaskan’s cartoon illustrations are broadly conceived, with little attempt to make the animals at all realistic – clearly these characters are stand-ins for humans showing their appreciation for friends and helpers. The final page’s “hooray to our friends for all that they do” message makes the book’s focus abundantly clear. Gently amusing and written with plenty of easy-to-remember repetition, Toad on the Road: Mama and Me will be fun not only for early readers but also for pre-readers, who will enjoy the easy-to-follow rhythm of Shaskan’s rhyming.
Noir. By Christopher Moore. William Morrow. $27.99.
Secondhand Souls. By Christopher Moore. William Morrow. $15.99.
Christopher Moore writes picaresque novels that are really more like picaresque scenes strung together so they kind of fit but never fully cohere, and it does not really matter. Moore’s wonderfully pithy description of one character in his latest novel, Noir, actually fits the entire Moore oeuvre: this character, a foul-mouthed kid of a type much favored by the author for scene-setting and other nefarious purposes, is described as being “well stocked with enthusiasm and bad intentions.” That is Moore himself to a T.
One does not approach a Moore novel seeking coherence or carefully arranged plots dependent more on comic-but-realistic life flow than on comic-and-ridiculous coincidences. One approaches Moore in the knowledge that everything he does is a sendup of something or other, of a genre or a character type or of other people’s storytelling or of his own style. One example from Noir of the last of these has the narrator, a distinctly non-poetic protagonist named Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin, saying, “the fog off the bay was streaming between the buildings like a scarf through a stripper’s legs, leaving everything damp and smelling of sailors’ broken dreams.” That is a remarkably good parody of the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett genre, a doggone good description of how the fog in San Francisco really does behave (and presumably did in 1947, when Noir takes place), and a passage so dramatically over-the-top that Moore must have known he was using it to go over the top of his own over-the-topness. Moore’s descriptive passages about San Francisco, like Richard Kadrey’s about Los Angeles in Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels, are not at all the point of the books but are a major reason they are so compulsively readable. It is hard to imagine anyone but Moore writing that, when it comes to driving in San Francisco, “it was like trying to find your way in a bruised martini full of lightning bugs.”
Sammy, the guy talking about the scarf and martini, is at the epicenter of a series of bizarrely Moore-ish characters and bizarrely Moore-ish events. Among the former are a blonde named Stilton, aka “the Cheese”; the already-referred-to kid, who is a semi-professional nuisance and misuser of just-learned vocabulary words; Eddie Moo Shoes of Chinatown notoriety; the smarmy General Remy, who is in charge of a dump of a military establishment out in New Mexico in a town that goes by the name of Roswell; a bunch of guys in black suits and ever-present sunglasses who belong “to an agency that was so new, and so secret, that it had failed its basic mission the day the second guy joined”; and the usual mixture of girlfriends, boyfriends, girlboyfriends, corrupt cops, maybe-Satan-worshiping bigwigs – you know, just your normal Moore cast of characters. It is almost a disappointment when, toward the back of the book, everything starts to make a weird kind of sense, including the previously confusing presence of two narrators (Sammy plus someone using the authorial third person and promising to explain later). Moore loves low comedy: the scene of Sammy trying literally to ice his ex-boss, “ex” because said boss unwisely pried open a crate containing a deadly snake that Sammy ordered for a Chinatown-related scheme, is a bit of hilarious slapstick that definitely fits the definition of “black humor” if that phrase is even allowed nowadays. Moore also loves formulaic heartstring-tugging, as when Sammy hears a street musician playing the blues, gets the blues himself, and gives the guy almost all his money. And Moore loves pushing a plot in so many directions that readers can barely keep up and it is obvious that things cannot possibly fit together – then fitting them together. Most of all, Moore loves writing, the sheer cadence of words (including more than a few four-letter ones), the unfolding of a story set in a world distinguished from the real one only by the occasional intrusion of supernatural elements – although, come to think of it, maybe it is the real world, only slightly unmoored (or Moored). Noir is part tribute to its genre, part spoof of it; part satire, part fond replication; part clever sendup, part trying-to-be-clever parody. What matters is that it is all Moore, which means it is compulsively readable – not because of cliffhangers (although it has plenty of them), not because of any desire to know what happens how to whom (although Sammy and Stilton are characters about whom readers can actually care), but because of the sheer power of Moore’s writing, the certainty that however weird and bizarre and peculiar a description or observation may be, there is going to be another one, equally weird and bizarre and peculiar, on the next page. And there almost always is.
The pattern is recognizably the same even though the story is completely different in Moore’s previous novel, Secondhand Souls, originally published in 2015 and now available in paperback. However, this is not a standalone book, although it makes some half-hearted efforts to be one. It is a sequel to A Dirty Job (2006), set a year later and bringing back just about all the characters who survived the earlier book and a few who didn’t. Be advised that trying to read Secondhand Souls on its own will indeed produce all the typical reactions to Moore, from groaning at groaners to puzzling at puzzles to laughing out loud at laugh-out-loud scenes, but the reactions will be far more muted than if you read A Dirty Job first. That is, it is one thing to know that a former nun has implanted the soul of “beta male” Charlie Asher in a 14-inch-high meat puppet with a crocodile head, duck feet and 10-inch penis, but it is another thing to know why she did this. The “why” is told, in excruciating and excruciatingly funny detail, in A Dirty Job. In Secondhand Souls, you just kind of have to accept it as background. Likewise, the role of Charlie’s now-seven-year-old daughter, Sophie, as the Luminatus, a kind of death-beyond-death figure, is central to Secondhand Souls but makes more sense (at least a little more) if you know the earlier book. Also likewise, the reason the disappearance of Sophie’s “goggies” (a couple of gigantic hellhounds that protect her) in Secondhand Souls is so important has to do with their appearance in A Dirty Job. And so on. In Secondhand Souls, Sophie fills the profane-mouthed-kid role, Archer is the somewhat feckless but basically good guy in Sammy “Two Toes” mode, Audrey the ex-nun is the Cheese, and the various hangers-on are the various hangers-on. But the characters are different enough so that the good-vs.-evil story of Secondhand Souls reads nothing like the what-the-heck-is-going-on story of Noir. In fact, what is at stake in Secondhand Souls is pretty much everything, as readers will realize when the harbinger-of-doom banshee and the three murderous raven-women show up in (where else?) San Francisco. Secondhand Souls, like Noir, has a stylistic oddity, in this case not in the narrators of the main narrative but in several of the stories-within-the-story in which unsettled ghosts tell the sad tales of their lives, resulting in deviations from rather than deepening of the book’s plot. The save-the-world-again idea of Secondhand Souls is, to be sure, secondhand, but the reason it works as well as it does is that it is secondhand Moore, which is well above firsthand almost-anybody-else. On its own, Secondhand Souls is less successful than Noir. But when paired, A Dirty Job and Secondhand Souls are, together, just as strange and delightful and out-and-out peculiar as all the books that Moore has been producing, with remarkable consistency, ever since Practical Demonkeeping (1992). Moore has never written anything that is not worth reading: his is a uniquely skewed worldview, wrapped in a style both playful and pointed, inside plots that are almost incidental to the hijinks and low humor with which his novels abound.
Monday’s Not Coming. By Tiffany D. Jackson. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
There is something exceptionally annoying about books that insist they are capital-I Important and capital-M Meaningful and lots-of-capitals Not To Be Ignored Because They Deal With Major Issues. A really good writer can get away with this sort of pompous self-puffery by treating issues of the day with style, sensitivity and an awareness that the audience reading the book is likely to be a diverse one that will not necessarily share the author’s viewpoint or sense of societal outrage. And then there are authors such as Tiffany D. Jackson, who basically come forward and try to “guilt” readers into finding a story such as Monday’s Not Coming significant even though the plot creaks, the style is dull, the structure is difficult to follow, and the characters are portrayed in a way that prevents the book from striking a chord with people who are not willing to be “guilted” into empathy.
There is something significant underlying this novel: the plight of the multiply marginalized, of girls who are virtually invisible by reason of their skin color and/or behavior and/or activities and/or family situations and who can therefore disappear without making so much as a ripple in society. In fact, Monday’s Not Coming is loosely based on real-life incidents in Washington, D.C. But what matters is not the realism or lack of realism of the foundational story – what matters is how cogently the author communicates it. And that is where Monday’s Not Coming falls short.
The story is about eighth-grader Claudia Coleman and her best and only friend, Monday Charles – who mysteriously disappears one day. Monday is not there when Claudia returns to school after the summer, and Claudia gets more and more worried as the days pass and Claudia never shows up – and no one seems to have any idea of where she is, or even to care very much. The school removes Monday from its system, her phone does not work anymore, and even Monday’s family seems, if not indifferent, then strangely quiet about Monday’s disappearance, giving different and incomplete explanations at different times. So far, so good from a storytelling standpoint. But Jackson wants to tell the tale in a capital-I Important (or capital-I Intriguing) way, and it does not work. Claudia is part of the problem: she is in her midteens (the book is intended for readers ages 13 and up), but she sounds much of the time like a preteen, and a young one at that. Jackson herself is another part of the problem, because she structures the book in multiple timelines that are very difficult to follow and overly complex. “Before” deals with Claudia finding out that Monday is missing, “After” has to do with the time when Claudia has learned what happened, and then there are chapters such as “One Year Before the Before” and “Two Years Before the Before,” which confuse matters considerably and make it difficult to figure out just what occurred or was learned when. And Jackson is prone to melodrama, as when she reveals that Claudia suffers from PTSD because of Monday’s disappearance and presents other plot twists, including the “reveal” that marks the book’s climax but that is somewhat anticlimactic. The result is a story that often seems overdone and overemphatic.
There is sex and talk of sex in Monday’s Not Coming, and bullying, and drug and alcohol use, and there are issues of abuse and privilege (in the form of gentrification of “culturally rich” but impoverished neighborhoods) and mental health and being downtrodden and so forth. Make no mistake: these are legitimate issues. But loading them onto a book that is also loaded with a creaky, self-consciously “literary” style rather than being told in straightforward fashion with, perhaps, a few flashbacks, simply makes the story less compelling than it could be. This could easily have been a family story – one that would connect with families of all types and colors and income levels – because at its heart, Monday’s Not Coming is about what secret-keeping does to people and how dangerous it is to be silent when you see things that are not supposed to be seen. But by making the book overcomplicated in design and making the protagonist sound much of the time like someone far younger, Jackson vitiates a potentially powerful story.
It has become fashionable in some circles to assert that if you haven’t “been there” yourself, you cannot possibly react “properly” to a story about people who are different from you – because of gender, sexual preference, skin color, ethnicity, religion, or some other characteristic. That is nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that. Certainly an author who wants to reach only people like herself can write stories about people like herself in language that she believes only similar people will understand. And there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that: some books are self-limited by design. But when an author seeks to reach out beyond those who have “been there,” to show people who have not “been there” what it feels like to “be there,” she has an obligation to present relatable material and relatable characters in such a way as to connect with people who have not personally experienced the living conditions of those characters. Retreating behind a wall of “you’re not like me so you can’t possibly get it and besides you’re a racist/sexist/some-other-epithet” accomplishes exactly nothing if the purpose of a book is to reach out. If its only purpose is to reaffirm what others who have “been there” already believe, that is a different matter. Walling oneself up with one’s imagined “tribe” is a protective maneuver, and sometimes an effective one. But it comes at the expense of genuine connection with members of other “tribes” who may genuinely want to understand matters that go beyond their personal experiences. Monday’s Not Coming is too disjointed, too ill-structured, and ultimately too unconvincing in its narrative to offer more than a “guilt trip” reason for people who are not like these characters to care about what happens to them.
Tchaikovsky: Pique Dame. Oleg Kulko, tenor; Sergei Leiferkus, baritone; Albert Schagidullin, baritone; Viacheslav Voynarovskiy, tenor; Maxim Mikhailov, bass; Felix Livshitz, tenor; Alexey Kanunikov, bass-baritone; Nina Romanova, mezzo-soprano; Karina A. Flores, soprano; Ekaterina Semenchuk, alto; Olga Schalaewa, mezzo-soprano; Lilia Gretsova, soprano; Gary Bertini Israeli Choir, Ankor Choir, and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Helicon. $34.99 (3 CDs).
Audio recordings of operas start with the obvious disadvantage that opera is inherently a multimedia experience. Even in operas where characters stand silently for long periods of time while other characters sing at length – as in much opera seria and much Wagner – the stage setting, the costumes and the overall ambience of the scenes are important for audience impact. And in most operas, there is quite a lot happening on stage: opera is, at its foundation, staged drama with music. In an opera such as Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, which quite deliberately sets up visual distinctions from scene to scene and uses appearances to underline characters’ personalities and the way they fit or fail to fit into life, the lack of visuals in a CD recording is felt quite acutely. On the other hand, Tchaikovsky’s music at this time – the opera dates to 1890, between his Fifth and Sixth symphonies – is so evocative of multiple emotions that a listener can sit back and simply imagine stage scenery in his or her own mind, allowing the music to carry the story along as it mostly does so well.
For an audio recording of Pique Dame to be truly successful, the performance must be exemplary, and Vladimir Jurowski’s in Tel Aviv in November 2012, now available on the Helicon label, comes close to that level. This was a concert performance, not a fully staged one, so in fact there is not much lost when hearing the recording at home. And Jurowski has an excellent handle on the music, playing up the pathos (if not quite tragedy) of the story, its peculiar supernatural elements, and the skillful way that librettist Modest Tchaikovsky arranged scenes to give the audience some respite from the darker material through snippets of the everyday. Jurowski is particularly adept at bringing out this contrast – between the very first scene, of children and governesses in the park, for example, and the introduction soon thereafter of doomed and hyper-Romantic protagonist Herman (Oleg Kulko), telling his friends of his intense love for a woman he has never met and whose name he does not know. Similarly, the bright, naïve pastoral interlude in Act II (which, it must be said, goes on rather too long – Tchaikovsky seems to be enjoying writing in Mozart’s style too much to let it go) contrasts highly effectively with the following climactic scene in the bedroom of the Countess (Nina Romanova), which brings on the inevitable ending that has loomed from the work’s opening.
Kulko handles the overdone and not particularly sympathetic role of Herman very well, pulling what emotional connection he can from the role of a protagonist who dooms not only himself but also those around him. And Romanova makes a fine Countess, being if anything a touch too forceful and self-possessed to make it convincing that she would die of fright when threatened by Herman. As Herman’s love interest, Liza, Karina A. Flores is rather bland – but then, so is her character. She is best in her final confrontation with Herman, when her cry that she will yet save him shows that she does have a touch of assertiveness, albeit too late to do any good. A special treat here is Albert Schagidullin as Prince Yeletsky: the way he proffers his love for Liza, who has secretly chosen Herman already, is so sincere that it leaves little doubt about how wrong her decision will turn out to be. The remaining roles are all filled skillfully by the mostly Russian cast, although Sergei Leiferkus’ voice is a touch too thin and at times slightly shaky, making him less than fully effective as Count Tomsky. The choruses and orchestra all sing well and appear to enunciate clearly – but this is where the recording somewhat falls short.
Pique Dame is sung, as it must be, in Russian. It is only reasonable to expect a recording to offer the libretto in Russian, in transliteration, and in English translation. If this cannot be done in the packaging of the recording itself, for cost reasons, then arranging for the material to be available online is a matter of simple respect for one’s intended audience – in this case, clearly English speakers, since the enclosed booklet is in English only. But Helicon provides nothing at all, and indeed, only 3½ pages of the 44-page booklet are devoted to giving a synopsis and scene summary of the opera. There are 13 pages of photos of the performance – and since this was not a staged production, that just means photos of people wearing suits or dresses. And there are 11 pages of biographies of the performers – part of a recent trend toward “celebritizing” singers and conductors at the expense of giving listeners more information on the music itself. It is possible to get away with this sort of approach with impunity when presenting music that is extremely well-known, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. But listeners interested in opera – and, if they also go see it staged, accustomed to the now-omnipresent surtitles translating what is being sung – are surely entitled to expect some way of following along with what they are hearing. Helicon is certainly not alone in neglecting the music this way, but this release is part of an unfortunate trend that is likely, in the long run, to make opera even more of a niche interest than it already is. That would be a real shame, because works such as Pique Dame have enough dramatic elements, enough sad and moving ones, and enough sweeping and beautiful music (including some passages that Tchaikovsky would later use in The Nutcracker and other late works), to appeal to people who would not normally think about hearing opera – if the purveyors of recordings like this one would take the time to present the material a little more thoughtfully.
May 10, 2018
What if You Had an Animal Tail!? By Sandra Markle. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.
One of the cleverest and most informative books in the long-running What if You Had… series by Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam, What if You Had an Animal Tail!? will have young readers marveling at all the things that animals’ tails can do – and perhaps wishing for one of their own, even though the book, like all its predecessors, emphasizes at the end that people are just fine as they already are, without any additions or enhancements. That is certainly a reasonable position, but my goodness, how impressive the tails chosen for this book are! They range from the obvious (peacock’s tail, rattlesnake’s tail) to the far-from-obvious (thresher shark’s tail, whose top portion can be 20 feet long – as long as the rest of the shark’s body).
The What if You Had… books follow their own formula, from the titles ending with both an exclamation point and a question mark to the drawings in which McWilliam imagines how kids with various animal attachments would look when doing everyday activities. For her part, Markle digs up fascinating facts even about well-known matters. For example, the peacock’s plumage will be very familiar to many readers of this book, but how many will know that “this bird sheds and regrows its tail feathers each year” and that each tail “has its own special pattern of eyespots and shimmering colors”? The fact that a rattlesnake’s tail sounds a warning to frighten intruders away may be common knowledge, but how about the fact that the snake “shakes its tail back and forth about sixty times a second”?
A lot of the fun of these books shows the absurd situations that would become possible if kids had the animal characteristics on which each book focuses. A rattlesnake’s tail would provide “the perfect instrument to play in a band,” for example. A giraffe’s tail – the longest possessed by any land animal – would mean “you wouldn’t need a brush to paint a masterpiece,” and the illustration shows a girl using her giraffe’s tail to create Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” Thanks to a scorpion’s stinging tail, “you’d never have to wait in line,” writes Markle, and McWilliam shows a typical summertime ice-cream-truck scene with a very long line of people standing way back to let the girl with the scorpion’s tail place her order first. A beaver’s broad, flat tail would let you “make the biggest splash in the pool,” and a tokay gecko’s tail – which, like those of many lizards, breaks off if the animal is caught by a predator – would guarantee that “no one could stop you from scoring a touchdown” (at least not if you were tail-tackled from behind).
As in all these books, the all-factual conclusion here is less interesting than the amusing imaginings earlier; but the ending does serve to bring young readers back into the real world. Here, Markle explains about the human tailbone (coccyx) and why it is “exactly what you need to sit down or stand up straight.” A simple McWilliam illustration shows where the human tailbone is located, at the bottom of the spine, and a final page of the book – which, again, is a standard feature of these volumes – explains how to take care of your tailbone. The advice includes “don’t sit sideways on just one hip,” “sit straight and tall with your shoulders back,” and “try to get up and move about every twenty minutes.” All these recommendations are good ones, but they are scarcely the reason kids will pick up this book and enjoy it. The exact potential tail uses discussed and shown here may not be the ones kids themselves would find for these animal appendages, or others. But just thinking about what it might be possible to do with a particular tail makes the underlying facts about these specific tails much easier to absorb – which, of course, is the whole purpose of the What if You Had… series in general and What if You Had an Animal Tail!? in particular.
Riders of the Realm #1: Across the Dark Water. By Jennifer Lynn Alvarez. Harper. $16.99.
The four-book Guardian Herd series has spawned a new planned trilogy set in the same world – and involving species beyond the pegasi, whose trials and tribulations were chronicled at length by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez in the Guardian Herd books. The new Riders of the Realm sequence is strictly for fans of the earlier books who have hungered for more of the same, maybe with some human beings thrown in to interact with the flying horses. That is exactly what readers get, no more and no less, in Across the Dark Water. Here the 140 pegasi of the Storm Herd journey across the Dark Ocean to seek freedom from Nightwing the Destroyer and a new home where they can graze and fly freely. Their leader is Echofrost, who is brave and determined but who succeeds only in bringing the Storm Herd to places peopled by barbaric giants and two-legged Landwalkers – that is, human beings.
The human society already knows about pegasi, using tame ones in war and for protection against the threatening giants. The Storm Herd is astonished to see humans riding on pegasi – and dismayed when herd member Shysong is captured by the Landwalkers. Soon Echofrost is caught as well, and the two pegasi need to figure out how to escape before they become Landwalker slaves. Unsurprisingly in this formula-packed book, the pegasi end up with an unlikely Landwalker ally: 12-year-old Rahkki Stormrunner, who feels a not-surprising-at-all (in view of his name) connection to the Storm Herd and to pegasi in general. Unfortunately, Rahkki and Echofrost cannot understand each other – will they come to common ground before Shysong and Echofrost are doomed to servitude?
Readers need little grounding in standard fantasy-adventure lore to see what will happen here and why: for example, Rahkki is an orphan, of course, and therefore develops a “family” kinship with the pegasi. But Rahkki is supposed to prepare Echofrost for auction, and is therefore conflicted between duty and deep feelings (or ones that readers are told are deep; this is not really clear in the narrative itself).
Even for Guardian Herd readers of around Rahkki’s age (the book’s target audience is ages 8-12), Across the Dark Water will be on the creaky side. It starts with a rather poorly done summary of the huge battle that makes the Storm Herd’s flight across the Dark Ocean possible. The writing is less than crystal clear – anyone not already familiar with the four Guardian Herd books will likely be confused about who is who and what is what here. The new book’s pacing is on the decidedly slow side, and its focus changes midway from the pegasi, who are more interesting than the Landwalkers, to the political ins, outs and foibles of the humans – who are not especially well-differentiated and whose politics is the usual mess of slyness, power-seeking and backstabbing. The more time Alvarez spends on the Landwalkers, the duller they seem in comparison to the pegasi. And the overarching story conception here – slaves flee, seeking freedom, and find a new world that brings them only more bondage – is scarcely a new one. Rahkki is suitably heroic-but-conflicted but is not an interesting enough character to provide strong identification for readers – who are more likely to feel kinship for the pegasi. Across the Dark Water reads like an afterthought to the Guardian Herd sequence rather than the fully formed beginning of a new, related book series set in the same world and featuring some of the same characters. Alvarez seems to be trying too hard to get extra mileage out of her original concept, but instead of the Landwalker elements expanding the scope of the Guardian Herd books, they seem mostly to narrow it and make it more mundane and earthbound.
Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano; Auf dem Kirchhofe, Op. 105, No. 4; Wie Melodien zieht es mir, Op. 105, No. 1; Regenlied, Op. 59, No. 3. Sirkka-Liisa Kaakinen-Pilch, violin; Tuija Hakkila, piano. Ondine. $16.99.
Nielsen: Clarinet Concerto; Six Humorous Bagatelles; Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano; Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano; Serenata in Vano. David Shifrin, clarinet; Ryan Reynolds, bassoon; William Purvis, horn; Jon Greeney, snare drum; Benjamin Hoffman and Theodore Arm, violins; Jennifer Frautschi, viola; Mihai Marica, cello; Curtis Daily, double bass; Yevgeny Yontov, piano. Delos. $16.99.
Unusual presentations of well-known or moderately-well-known pieces always run the risk of seeming like gimmicks – but when well done, atypical ways of handling music can bring new insight into the works, along with pleasures of their own. Certainly that is the case with the excellent presentation of Brahms’ violin-and-piano (in this case often called piano-and-violin) sonatas by Sirkka-Liisa Kaakinen-Pilch and Tuija Hakkila. This Ondine CD is special in two ways and odd in a third. One unusual element is the inclusion of three songs whose material Brahms incorporated, in altered form, into the sonatas. The CD opens with Auf dem Kirchhofe and uses the other two songs as interludes between the sonatas. This makes for a very attractive package that can be heard straight through, for listeners so inclined, without any sense that the sonatas, which are quite different from each other, are “bumping up” against one another. The second unusual aspect of the CD is that Kaakinen-Pilch and Hakkila play instruments of Brahms’ own time – it is worth remembering that period-instrument performance is not confined to Baroque music but can be equally effective in works of the Romantic era, a time of gut strings, less use of vibrato, and pianos with less key travel and keys often set closer together (making some hand spans easier and affecting the sound of chords). Kaakinen-Pilch plays an anonymous violin of Brahms’ time; Hakkila uses an 1864 Streicher piano – a type much favored by Brahms himself – for Sonata No. 1 and Regenlied, an 1892 Bösendorfer for the rest of the music. The instruments are very well-balanced against each other, and the performances, which are presented at pacing that fits the music just about perfectly, offer exactly the sort of give-and-take between the musicians that Brahms surely intended. There are many fine recordings of these sonatas available, and this is one of the finest, getting an extra edge from the period-instrument approach and the inclusion of the song material. As for the disc’s oddity, that lies in the sequence in which the sonatas are presented: No. 2, then No. 3, and finally No. 1. There is no demonstrable reason for this, and its effect is, if anything, to undercut, to an extent, the cleverness of sprinkling the songs amid the longer works. Still, this is a relatively minor quibble, and of course listeners need not listen to the CD straight through and can arrange to hear the tracks in any order at all. Still, this particular disc invites a straight-through hearing, and it would have been better to arrange it so listeners could readily absorb not only the songs’ influence on the sonatas but also the changes in Brahms’ handling of violin-and-piano interplay from No. 1 (1878) to No. 2 (1886) to No. 3 (1888).
Unusual elements abound on a new Delos CD featuring elegant clarinet playing by David Shifrin, who takes on a series of works by Carl Nielsen in unexpected and uniformly successful ways. The big piece here is the Clarinet Concerto, but it appears in a never-before-recorded chamber-music arrangement made by Rene Orth. This sets Shifrin against eight musicians rather than a full orchestra – although “against” really applies only to the snare drum, which here (as in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5) seems determined to interrupt the musical flow and distract from it. The opposition between clarinet and snare drum is even clearer in this chamber arrangement than in Nielsen’s original scoring, and the rapprochement with which the work concludes is equally satisfying. This concerto can easily sound episodic – indeed, it is episodic in its design – but Shifrin manages to find coherence throughout and maintain musical flow even though the short episodes of which the work consists make it difficult to sustain a sense of organization. There is a delightful contrast between the chamber version of the concerto, which opens the CD, and the Serenata in Vano, which closes it and was recorded at the same live performance. Nielsen scored Serenata in Vano for a very unusual instrumental complement: clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double bass. The result is a work whose sound is unique, with the music itself being wry and witty. This is a three-section piece whose “story” involves serenaders seeking unsuccessfully to appeal to a woman with two different musical offerings, then giving up (hence the piece’s title) and heading home while playing a jaunty march for their own enjoyment. The players certainly share the pleasure here, not only with the audience for which they performed but also for listeners to the CD. In between the chamber works are three clarinet-and-piano pieces, two of which have their own unexpected presentation elements. One of those two is Six Humorous Bagatelles, a piano work arranged by Steven Cohen (himself a clarinetist) for clarinet and piano. This set of six small pieces, Nielsen’s own Children’s Corner Suite, dates to 1894-97 and therefore predates Debussy’s of 1908, which is also in six movements, by more than a decade. Nielsen’s work is far less often heard, which is a shame, since the straightforward miniatures are all nicely conceived and written at just the right length to avoid overstaying their welcome. Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov handle them with just the right amount of delicacy and charm. The two are also well-matched in Shifrin’s own transcription for clarinet and piano of Nielsen’s Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano – in fact, the first of these two early works (1889) takes on additional depth as arranged here, and the second is suitably playful. The CD also includes the short Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano, an even earlier work (dating to 1881, when Nielsen was just 16). Here too Shifrin and Yontov blend and contrast very well indeed, and the music benefits from their camaraderie. The arrangements of most of the pieces on this disc may be unusual, but it is the very high quality of the music-making, not the unexpected elements, that makes the recording a pleasure from start to finish.
Franz Krommer: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 7. Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99.
Richard Heuberger: Der Opernball. Gerhard Ernst, Lotte Marquardt, Alexander Kaimbacher, Ivan Oreščanin, Nadja Mchantaf, Martin Fournier, Margareta Klobučar, Sieglinde Feldhofer, János Mischuretz; Chor der Oper Graf and Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester conducted by Marius Burkert. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Composers who significantly influenced other composers deservedly get a great deal of credit for doing so. Haydn’s enormous influence on Mozart and Beethoven, Beethoven’s on Schubert and Brahms and a plethora of Romantics, Offenbach’s on Suppé and Sullivan, Wagner’s on Verdi and Puccini and on through-composition of opera in general, Schoenberg’s on nearly all composers from the Second Viennese School down to our own time – these are just a few examples. Many of those who absorbed and extended the innovations of earlier composers became influential in their own right. But some did not: they took in enough techniques to produce interesting, sometimes even compelling music, but their works were dead ends, and whatever popularity they enjoyed for a time faded, often quickly, after the composers’ deaths. But it is a testament to the high quality of some of this music that, when it is rediscovered, it proves more than worthy of performance and of repeated hearings. Such is the case with the symphonies of Franz Krommer (1759-1831), a Viennese composer who lived and worked almost literally in Beethoven’s shadow and who, as a result, faded quickly into obscurity despite the initial enthusiasm with which his works were met. Krommer wrote nine symphonies, eight of which have survived, and Howard Griffiths, a dedicated explorer of some of the byways of musical history, offers three of them in exceptionally forceful and well-played versions on a new CPO disc featuring the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana. It is easy to hear influences of Haydn in these works (especially in Symphony No. 7); and, like the symphonies of Louis Spohr, these are redolent of Beethoven as well. But it is Beethoven of around the time of his Symphony No. 2 (1801-1802), not later Beethoven – even though these three Krommer works date from 1820, 1821 and 1824, respectively. There is dynamism and a strong sense of sturm und drang in these pieces, and their sound may remind some listeners of that of Niels Gade’s symphonies (although those also have Mendelssohnian elements that Krommer’s symphonies lack). Krommer was writing some of his later symphonies, including No. 7, when Beethoven had advanced far beyond the Krommer sound: Beethoven’s Ninth was written from 1822 to 1824, and Krommer’s Seventh, which (like all three symphonies heard here) features a third movement labeled Menuetto, seems like something of a throwback. These are works of strength and solidity, but their style is a derivative one despite some clever twists that Krommer brings to the material. Symphony No. 4 in C minor is strong and dramatic, with a complex Adagio second movement. Symphony No. 5 in E-flat is filled with trumpets and timpani and offers intriguing contrasts between the martial and the pastoral within the first movement and between that whole movement and the following Andante sostenuto. And Symphony No. 7 in G minor is especially interesting for concluding with, of all things, a fugue – but one created in the harmonic language of Krommer’s time rather than that of Bach. Griffiths leads the orchestra with a sure hand in all the symphonies, giving Krommer his full due for the works’ structural integrity and thematic cogency. None of these symphonies is especially distinctive in breaking new ground for later composers: they are very much of their own time, and it is scarcely surprising that they were eclipsed by other material not long after Krommer’s death. Yet these well-made works are worthy of revival today, both for the innate pleasures they offer and for the insight they provide into the music being created in Vienna in Beethoven’s time.
The influences that culminated in Der Opernball by Richard Heuberger (1850-1914) are apparent not only in the music but also in the story. This operetta, by far the best-known work by Heuberger and a piece whose overture continues to appear frequently on concert programs, has nearly the same plot as Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and a structure almost identical to that of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. It is a straightforward and often amusing “bedroom comedy,” although here the room involved is a chamber séparée to which various men seek to bring various women who are not their wives – or maybe are. That is, the women decide to test their husbands’ faithfulness by creating a specific Carnival costume to be worn at the opera ball of the title – and matters get more complicated when the chambermaid of one couple decides that she too will wear the costume and use it to lure the man in whom she is interested. The opera ball occurs in the second act, as does the party in Die Fledermaus, and Heuberger’s third act is used to unravel matters, blame the confusion on the chambermaid, and assert, rather unconvincingly, the fidelity of both the married men: there is nothing here quite akin to Strauss’ conclusion that nur der Champagner war an allem schuld! However, Der Opernball of 1898 quite clearly echoes Die Fledermaus of 1874 (although the play on which Heuberger’s operetta was based did not appear until 1876). The music bubbles along in a similar vein as well – and it really is bubbly in the new two-CD recording from CPO. As for the overall Opera Graz production – well, sprechen Sie Deutsch? Dann ist die neue CPO-CD von "Der Opernball" ein echtes Vergnügen. If you do speak German – and are unfamiliar with Der Opernball or not particularly concerned about authenticity in performing it – then Marius Burkert and the Graz soloists, chorus and orchestra offer plenty of ebullience and charm in their rather broad interpretation. If you speak only English and/or would like to hear the operetta as Heuberger composed it, this release will be a disappointment despite the good playing and enjoyable singing. The language issue lies simply in the fact that the dialogue – which has been rewritten from the original libretto by Viktor Léon and Heinrich von Waldberg – is crucial to understanding the action and is neither printed in the booklet nor offered online, much less translated from German to English. The sung pieces are given in the booklet, and CPO deserves some credit for that, but they appear in German only. As for the sequences of the music, that issue belongs entirely to Opera Graz, which decided not only to alter the dialogue (a common if unfortunate occurrence in contemporary operetta presentations) but also to rearrange the order in which the set pieces are presented. It is very hard to understand why this was done: Der Opernball is confusing enough by intention so that it makes no sense to complicate matters further by moving its music around willy-nilly. Presumably the rewritten dialogue was designed to clarify the rearranged music, but it would have been a great deal simpler and a great deal more pleasant if Opera Graz had simply presented the operetta as the composer intended. Certainly the quality of the music, with whose orchestration Heuberger had the assistance of Alexander von Zemlinsky, comes through here, and certainly it is easy to hear why Geh'n wir in's Chambre séparée took Vienna by storm in 1898. The sheer quality of the musical material is enough to give this release a (+++) rating. But it could easily have been an even more welcome recording if the fine singing, playing and conducting had been put at the service of Der Openball as it was intended to be performed.
May 03, 2018
Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain. By Zac Gorman. Illustrated by Sam Bosma. Harper. $16.99.
It takes a certain amount of courage, or foolhardiness, to set a new fantasy-adventure series in a land called Nth. Nth? Zac Gorman’s debut novel may not be successful to the nth degree, but it is an unusually clever preteen adventure with an unusually strong focus on a single protagonist rather than the more-typical group of largely interchangeable buddies.
Take that protagonist’s name, for example. “Thisby Thestoop”? There is a perfectly logical explanation for it, within Gorman’s twisted but consistent world. An infant girl abandoned by her parents (“most parents are idiots, yours especially,” one character sagely observes), she is grabbed by a minotaur, one of the less-terrifying denizens of the Black Mountain, who is a touch full from lunch and decides to keep this snack for later. So he leaves a courteous note for the goblin maintenance staff: “Found This By The Stoop. Please Keep For Later.” However, because minotaurs have poor penmanship – apparently cursive is not taught to them any more than it currently is to many human children in our world – the goblins read this as: “Found, Thisby Thestoop. Please Keep Forever.” And there you have it – the start of it, anyway.
The “it” that starts here is the story of a 12-year-old girl in a fantastical realm where she cares for all sorts of monsters in such a way as to prevent all sorts of mayhem. She is not some undiscovered heroine about to come into potent powers, not the object of some strange prophecy – not, in short, any of the usual things that protagonists in preteen fantasy-adventures tend to be. Instead, and this is a wonderful notion on Gorman’s part, she is a careful observer of her environment who takes copious notes (presumably in better handwriting than that of a minotaur) that she reviews later. “It’s unbelievable what can be accomplished when a person pays attention and takes diligent notes, and nobody paid better attention or took better notes than Thisby Thestoop.” This is a most unusual talent for the central character in a book like this.
The Black Mountain is intertwined with Castle Grimstone, and Gorman’s casual description of the castle’s provenance is a good sample of his clever writing: “Of the thirty-three architects who had overseen the construction of the castle, only two of them weren’t criminally insane, and at least one of those two was just never caught in the act.” The mountain and castle exist in Nth largely to give the land’s impoverished would-be adventurers the faint but inevitably vain hope of getting in, getting out alive, and bringing home some of the treasure reputed to be within the usual deep, black dungeons. Thisby’s job as maintainer of the various monsters, which mostly involves keeping them satisfied so they do not run amok and go after each other, is done so the population at large will not “realize this wasn’t actually an ‘evil dungeon being kept alive with powerful, ancient magic,’ but more of a tourist attraction, a sort of day care for bored kids with swords – albeit one with a terribly high mortality rate.”
Thisby does have a couple of friends, including an elderly goblin named Grunda and a “talking ball of glowing mucus” named Mingus, who turns out to have a deep dark secret. Or rather a Deep Down secret – the Deep Down being the area below even the lowest parts of the lowest dungeons farthest beneath the Black Mountain. Mingus, to whom Thisby has given some make-believe eyes and a make-believe mouth so he can sort of have expressions, is another delightfully offbeat Gorman creation. And Gorman gets extra credit for occasional subtle references to other fantasy series, such as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld sequence: “Thisby had even read something once that claimed the world was held on the back of a giant turtle moving through space. She’d quite enjoyed that one.”
All of Gorman’s cleverness, and there is quite a lot of it, makes up for an underlying plot that is far less unusual. It has to do with a Royal Inspection of Thisby’s environs, featuring the 15-year-old royal twins, Iphigenia and Ingo. Iphigenia is two minutes older, therefore destined to rule, and extremely stuck-up and self-involved. Ingo is handsome, persuasive, and quite obviously going to turn out to be a bad guy who wants to usurp the throne. This becomes clear quickly: the Royal Inspection is Ingo’s idea – and after everything, of course, goes wrong, Iphigenia finds herself thinking that “her brother had insisted on it” and “whatever Ingo wanted, Ingo got.” In case the hints early in the story are not enough, as the tale progresses and Iphigenia needs Thisby’s help to search for supposedly kidnapped Ingo, Iphigenia finds herself thinking, “Ingo was great at fooling everyone, but his sister saw through him. She knew him better than anyone else.” Umm, no. The one who knows Ingo better than anyone else is a gigantic force lying deep, deep, deep beneath everything and known as the Eyes in the Dark, the ultimate bad guy here. It is the machinations of the Eyes in the Dark and the growing friendship between Thisby and out-of-her-depth Iphigenia that together make up the major plot points in a generally well-paced, well-structured, thoroughly entertaining novel.
This is not to say that everything works. Gorman can be a touch too cute for his own good, as in designating chapters 17.5 and 22.5 for no apparent reason. And many of the illustrations by Sam Bosma are disappointments. In one spot, for example, Gorman carefully describes the bizarre bricks of a building, which Bosma shows with ordinary bricks; in another, Gorman makes a point of writing about Iphigenia wearing Thisby’s gigantic backpack, but the illustration does not show her doing so. Still, the vast majority of Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain is several cuts above typical fantasy-adventures for ages 8-12, and will surely whet young readers’ appetite for further forays into the life, times and courage, or foolhardiness, of the oddly but appropriately named Thisby Thestoop. The next one will be called Thisby Thestoop and the Wretched Scrattle.
Will Bear Share? By Hilary Leung. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Will Sheep Sleep? By Hilary Leung. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Adorable critters doing things, or refusing to do them, make these board books a treat for the youngest children. Hilary Leung’s big-eyed, bright-eyed characters are equally emphatic whether answering the title questions of the books in the affirmative or the negative. And the books have little twists that put them a cut above many other board books. For example, adults may expect there to be a lesson that starts with selfishness and is all about how you must learn to share in Will Bear Share? But not so: from the start, Bear shares things already. The book turns out to be about things that should and should not be shared. “Will Bear share her berries?” asks Leung as Bear walks toward huge-eyed Ladybug, who is fully half Bear’s size. Turn the page and there is one word: “Yes.” Both Bear and Ladybug now have fruits to eat, and both look quite happy about it. But after a bit more sharing – of a book, with Giraffe – the question that comes up is, “Will Bear share her toothbrush?” Now she is with the wide-eyed and very toothy little Alligator – but now, on the page after the question, the answer is, “NO! Toothbrushes are not for sharing.” Alligator misses out on additional sharing, too – that is, after Bear successfully shares several other things. Alligator’s next appearance comes when Bear has an ice-cream cone – and this time, Bear simply refuses to share it, and Alligator looks suitably downcast. But then the ice cream falls out of the cone, onto the ground, and now neither of them has a sweet treat – until Ladybug shows up with a gigantic cake, bigger than herself and Bear and Alligator combined, and all the friends have something to share. An amusing, soft-pedaled lesson about what to share and what not to share – and what sometimes happens when you do not share – the book is good-humored throughout, and the simple, pleasantly rounded drawings that cause all the characters to look a bit like plush toys help make the story fun.
The story is even more entertaining in Will Sheep Sleep? Here the answer is no – again and again. Even though Sheep is tired when the book starts, he will not go to sleep – instead, he springs into further play activity, wearing his bed’s blanket as a cape. All the characters seen in Will Bear Share? also show up in this story. Brushing his teeth – along with Alligator – does not help Sheep sleep. Neither does drinking water given to him by his friend Frog. Sheep makes everything into a game: dueling toothbrushes with Alligator, creating a water fountain with Frog. Even reading a book in bed – with Bear – does not help, since Sheep, instead of paying quiet attention, jumps up and dances all over the bed. The stay-awake amusements continue until the eventual and inevitable question, “Will counting sheep help Sheep sleep?” Turn that page and the one word that appears is, “Perhaps.” So, in the book’s funniest illustration, all the characters appear dressed as sheep and go jumping about to help Sheep rest. And each of the disguised characters has a number underneath, from 1 through 5 – so suddenly Will Sheep Sleep? turns into a counting book as well as a good-night one. This is particularly clever – and it seems only fair that at the book’s end, when all five helpful friends have had a night’s sleep but remain sleepy-eyed in bed, Sheep is bright-eyed and very much awake, showing up in the bedroom with breakfast for all. The characters in these books may sometimes say yes and sometimes no, but parents of very young children will be quite happy to say yes both to Will Sheep Sleep? and to Will Bear Share?
Oopsie-Do! By Tim Kubart. Pictures by Lori Richmond. Harper. $17.99.
Even in well-meaning, well-written, well-illustrated kids’ books, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. And that is what readers ages 4-8, and their families, get from Tim Kubart and Lori Richmond in Oopsie-Do! The idea here is to use Kubart’s fame as a Grammy award winner, and an original song that is available online, to expand upon and reinforce the message of a book that tells young children not to be upset about mistakes – just take them in stride, and all the people around you, kids and adults alike, will come together to fix things.
It certainly makes sense to present and reinforce the notion that everybody makes mistakes and that accidents, when they happen, are no big deal. And there are some very good books for this age range that make the point quite well, one recent one, for example, being Andrea Tsurumi’s Accident! The secret ingredient in that book, and in effective communication about accidents and their consequences or non-consequences, is humor, not repetition – although repetition can certainly play a role. But where Tsurumi’s book piles absurdity on absurdity as it has “awful” thing after “awful” thing occur for an ever-growing cast of characters, the Kubart/Richmond book has all the accidents – a whole string of them – happen to one single little girl. And while her friends, as shown immediately on the book’s cover, have expressions of concern about the messes that the mistakes cause, the girl herself is seen smiling, her arms thrown wide as if to shrug off the situation as no big deal at all.
This is fine – up to a point. But the point is made again and again and again in Oopsie-Do! And the response to errors is overly simplistic, even for this age group: “No reason to fret if you make a mistake! Just say OOPSIE-DO!” Well, yes, if you make a mistake. But in this book, the girl spills fish food when caring for the class aquarium; accidentally dumps her entire snack on the floor when getting her backpack; mixes colors with which she is painting in a way she does not want; falls when kicking a ball; mis-buttons her coat when heading home; and squirts toothpaste onto her pajama top at night. There are mistakes by her little brother and the family dog, too. Kubart and Richmond do not, however, use the pileup of small problems in any humorous way – all readers get is the admonition, again and again and again, to say the magic “oopsie-do!” so everything is all right. Sometimes things are all right because classmates help clean up the spilled fish food, sometimes because the teacher finds a snack replacement, sometimes because the messed-up colors become the basis of a whole new approach to painting – but it is a very messy one that does not earn an “oopsie-do!” even when the girl splatters paint on her face and all over the floor. And sometimes, as with the toothpaste incident, things are all right “just because”: the girl changes her pajama top and leaves the one with toothpaste on it on the floor, along with the toothpaste tube and everything coming out of it. Parents will need to explain that in real life, the paint and toothpaste messes would not be OK if handled as they are in this book.
And that is the difficulty with the extremely well-intentioned Oopsie-Do! Kubart and Richmond are so determined to show young children that mistakes happen, are no big deal, and are easily corrected, that they deliver the message with considerable repetition and in a by-and-large serious manner. But without the leavening of laughter, the notion that one little girl could make so many mistakes in a single day may upset some kids instead of teaching them a valuable lesson. And the idea that only some messes resulting from accidents need to be cleaned up by the child who made the mistake, while others do not, is unlikely to be something that parents want their children to take into the real world: the cover picture in which the girl seems at most indifferent to what she has done is a bit much for real life. Kubart and Richmond certainly deserve praise for what they try to do in Oopsie-Do! But the way they try to do it turns out to be a bit of an oopsie-do itself.
Copland: Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson; Jake Heggie: Newer Every Day; Gordon Getty: Four Dickinson Songs; Michael Tilson Thomas: Poems of Emily Dickinson (selections). Lisa Delan, soprano; Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille conducted by Lawrence Foster. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Elgar: Violin Sonata in E minor; Mozart: Violin Sonata No. 32 in B-flat, K. 454; Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor. Dominika Dancewicz, violin; Donald Doucet, piano. World on Wire Records. $14.99.
TORCH: Music of Ben Thomas, Brian Chin, Eric Likkel, Erik Satie, Manual de Falla, and Igor Stravinsky. Common Tone Records. $15.
Although there are always personal elements in music-making – and in composing – there are some recordings that come across with a more strongly personal stamp than others. A clear example is a new PentaTone SACD with the title, “A Certain Slant of Light” – a phrase from a poem that begins, “There’s a certain slant of light,/ Winter afternoons,/ That oppresses, like the heft/ Of cathedral tunes.” The poem is by Emily Dickinson and is one of 22 Dickinson settings, by four American composers, on the disc. This is an unusual and welcome compilation, with virtually no poems repeated on the release and with the totality of the recording revealing nearly as much about Dickinson (1830-1886) as it does about the composers represented. Dickinson’s voice is considered uniquely American, one of the first such voices in poetry, yet her words and the music they inspired clearly have international resonance, as is clear from the finely honed, sensitive performances by American soprano Lisa Delan and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille under Lawrence Foster. Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson (1948/1950) shows Aaron Copland in an interesting light. The settings are neither as accessible and tonal as his best-known works, nor as self-consciously modern as much of his less overtly popular music: they genuinely support Dickinson’s language without overwhelming or commenting on it, giving Delan – who is highly sensitive to textual nuance – plenty of chances to bring forth the poems’ emotional strength. Copland did not have access to definitive editions of Dickinson’s poems, but this matters little in the context of the care and sensitivity with which he set the words. That Dickinson’s work can be handled in multiple ways is immediately clear when the disc moves on from Copland to the five poems in Newer Every Day (2014) by Jake Heggie (born 1961). Heggie finds acerbity, if not quite bitterness, in Dickinson’s words, and is especially effective at underlining the thoughts and feelings behind I’m Nobody! Who Are You? and Fame (one of two different poems on the disc with that title). The selection of specific poems to set is one aspect of the strong sense of personalization here. Four Dickinson Songs (2008) by Gordon Getty (born 1933) is in some ways an extension of Getty’s The White Election of 1981, which contains 31 Dickinson poems. The four here were orchestrated specifically for this recording, and three of the four are about death, including the famous Because I Could Not Stop for Death – which Copland also set, with slightly different words and in a version 50% longer than Getty’s. Getty engages directly with the poems here and does not hesitate to bring out their darker elements: if Copland’s settings are presentations of the poems, Getty’s are interpretations of them. The final offerings here are five selections from Poems of Emily Dickinson (2001) by composer/conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (born 1944), and again the choices say a great deal about composer and poet alike. Thomas introduces every poem with a kind of scene-setting orchestral opening, ranging from little more than a flourish to a kind of miniature tone poem. The poems heard here are all short, with Thomas choosing to keep two of them brief in presentation while expanding the other three – in one case, The Bible, to almost five minutes. This recording is quite clearly intended for listeners interested in Dickinson, in modern American music, and in art songs in general – an admittedly rarefied group. But the material is so compelling, and at the same time so variegated, that anyone who knows Dickinson’s poetry (even a little bit of it) will have an enriching experience by listening to it in this fascinating context.
Context is also a matter of interest for the performances on a new World on Wire Records release featuring the Dancewicz-Doucet Duo. There are two sonatas here, by Elgar and Debussy, that date from the same time (1918 and 1917 respectively) and share a number of similar sensibilities, despite the considerable differences between the composers’ styles. They are separated on the disc, rather oddly, by Mozart’s K. 454 sonata of 1784, a work of very different provenance and style whose second-movement chromatic modulations look toward the future but whose overall mood is considerably lighter than that of the other works. The selection of these three pieces, placed in this order, quite clearly reflects the personal preferences of the performers, who bring warmth and considerable sensitivity to all the performances. The Elgar sonata is inward-focused and on the dark, melancholic side, somewhat along the lines of the composer’s Cello Concerto, written a year later. It is one of Elgar’s three minor-key chamber works of the same time period, along with the String Quartet and Piano Quintet, and repays careful listening and the sort of subtle, nuanced performance it receives from Dominika Dancewicz and Donald Doucet. Debussy’s sonata is likewise one of three related works – the others being those for cello and piano and for flute, viola and harp. But in this case there were supposed to be six pieces: Debussy’s death halted the creation of the full group. The violin-and-piano sonata is Debussy’s last major work, and his performance of its première, with violinist Gaston Poulet, was Debussy’s final public performance. Yet the work is scarcely autumnal in quality. Interestingly, it lacks a slow movement, the emotions that would normally be expressed through one instead emerging through the legato elements and generally long note values of the opening Allegro vivo, which does not come across as a traditional Allegro at all. The second movement is handled particularly well in this reading. An intermezzo marked Fantastique e legér, it seems to be part scherzo, part fantasia, with Dancewicz and Doucet showing themselves quite adept at contrasting and balancing the musical elements. Dancewicz has some very fine spiccato here. The finale is somewhat less engaging, not for any lack in the performance, but simply because the music itself never quite gels, having elements of perpetuum mobile and others that seem rather tacked-on, such as the fortissimo assertion of G major at the end. The main characteristics of the Elgar and Debussy performances here are warmth and understanding – and warmth predominates in the Mozart as well, but does not fit the music quite as well. The unusually slow introduction to the first movement, in which Mozart is also at pains to balance the contributions of the two instruments, sets the overall tone of the performance, which is broad and expansive and leans a bit too strongly in the direction of Romanticism – even the comparatively playful finale has a generally serious tone here. This reading does, however, help the Mozart fit well between the Elgar and Debussy sonatas. Listeners interested in these specific pieces and in hearing a duo with excellent skills at communicating – with each other and with an audience – will gravitate to this recording.
The audience for a CD called TORCH, on the Common Tone Records label, is harder to discern. The works here are composed or re-composed by three of the group’s four members: Brian Chin (trumpets), Eric Likkel (clarinets), and Ben Thomas (vibes, percussion and bandoneón). The fourth person in TORCH is Steve Schermer (double bass). All the music on the CD has distinct jazz elements and an improvisational feel; much of it consists of very personal reimaginings of works by earlier composers, including Satie, de Falla and Stravinsky. Even when the material has been through-composed, it does not sound that way, which is part of the point: the group appears to be trying to blur the line between traditionally organized classical music (where what matters is what is on the page) and jazz (where the written score is only a starting point and the performers rather than the composer decide where the music goes and what impact it has). Many of the tracks on the CD have the usual trying-to-be-clever titles in which contemporary composers and performers often revel: The Surface of an Emerald, Yachtie, Andantinish, Larghetto-Land, Lento Bash, etc. The relationship of various pieces to their Satie/de Falla/Stravinsky inspirations is not particularly apparent or particularly relevant: the idea here is to move beyond the original compositions, not to dwell on or pay tribute to them. The actual playing on the CD is of very high quality, and some of the balance among the instruments is intriguing, with Thomas’s contributions particularly distinctive. TORCH seems to be an experiential group that would be intriguing to see and hear in person. But the material on this CD – although it will appeal to listeners who enjoy some rather unusual instrumental combinations and an overall feeling of jazziness – is not really distinctive enough to be involving beyond a comparatively limited audience. Of course, that may be the whole point of TORCH: to reach out to an “in crowd” of the group’s own making. Certainly the aim of bridging the gap between traditional notions of classical music and jazz is a good one, but it is scarcely new, and while this disc offers some pleasant listening, it is neither inspirational not musically compelling enough to suggest that it is the harbinger of a wide-ranging form of communication.
April 26, 2018
Monsters Unleashed No. 1. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Mark Oliver. Harper. $6.99.
Monsters Unleashed No. 2: Bugging Out. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Mark Oliver. Harper. $16.99.
Fly Guy Presents: Police Officers. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.
The second book in John Kloepfer’s entertaining, if formulaic, Monsters Unleashed series ratchets up the ickiness quotient of the sequence by introducing something even worse than the monsters found in the first volume: bugs. Lots of them. Billions, in fact. And not just any bugs. No, these are 3D-printed thingies created by one of Freddie Liddle’s classmates, and they are about to be a big challenge to Freddie, his buddies, and their pet monsters. But first – well, anyone who wants to get the full flavor, so to speak, of Bugging Out, really needs to start with Monsters Unleashed No. 1, originally published last year and now available in paperback. It falls squarely into the typical-preteen-fantasy-adventure mode, in which groups of kids (largely indistinguishable from each other) band together to deal with issues that are much simpler and more straightforward to handle (although admittedly somewhat ickier) than the problems and difficulties of everyday real life. Kloepfer, a virtuoso at this sort of tale, starts the series (amply illustrated by Mark Oliver) by assembling the team, making sure there are a few nods to differing appearances and ethnic backgrounds. The primary protagonist is sixth-grader Freddie, who is the opposite of his name, being big (six-feet-four-inches tall) and rather klutzy. The child of divorced parents, he has moved to New Mexico and found only one friend, a small Hispanic boy named Manny Vasquez. The three other members of the “inner circle” here start out as Freddie’s enemies: they are bullies – a jock and jerk named Jordan, an “evil mega-nerd” named Quincy, and a black wannabe actress named Nina. Trying to handle his feelings about his tormentors, Freddie draws three monsters based on them, and then, with Manny’s help, uses, yes, a 3-D printer to make actual physical versions of the creatures – called Kraydon, Mega-Q and Yapzilla. But there is something mysterious and magical about this particular printer (never explained; why bother?), and the monsters it makes come to life – and start growing enormously as soon as they come in contact with water. Soon enough, mayhem ensues throughout the school, where as usual the adults are oblivious and/or clueless and/or invisible. Eventually, though, Freddie tames the monsters by understanding how they think. To do that, he has to enlist the kids on whom he modeled them – Jordan, Quincy and Nina – in the anti-monster brigade, with the result that the kids, working together in newfound friendship, rescue the town. The monsters are returned to a harmless state, shrunken to adorable size and cooperativeness – and hence are available for the onslaught of insects in the second book. The problem is that the 3D-printed bad bugs are strong, fast and nasty – and growing. And try as they might (and they do try), the kids and the now-nice monsters cannot smash and stomp the baddies quickly enough to save the town this time. Oh no!! What can they do?? “It’s like we are in our own video game, Freddie thought. Except there are no do-overs in this game of monsters. This one is life-and-death.” So everybody dies and – no, just kidding! Of course the kids and monsters emerge triumphant, and in fact there are more monsters here than in the first book, notably including one that the kids vote four-to-two to name Slurp (the losing two votes are for Filburt). Slurp, an “octovarkephant” (figure out what animal bits he contains!), has “huge waggling snouts” that are “like vacuum cleaners,” a big help in sucking up the bad bugs, known as “entomons” because the first two are “parentomons.” There is also an “entomonster” that, err, is really big. Anyway, everything works out just fine, with cupcakes for everyone at the end and the miraculous 3D printer taken out of action but not actually destroyed – after all, who says the second book of Monsters Unleashed needs to be the last one? Certainly not Kloepfer and Oliver – who, by the way, has an absolutely classic-of-its-type illustration in Bugging Out, showing the team members staring directly at the reader, wearing determined get-the-bugs expressions while holding weapons ranging from cans of bug spray to lacrosse sticks and a double-sided oar.
Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy tends to have much milder adventures with his boy, Buzz, than Freddie Liddle and his friends have. But Fly Guy has some of his experiences in the real world as well as in fiction, specifically in the Fly Guy Presents “field trip” books. The latest of these, Police Officers, follows the pattern of earlier books (Space, Firefighters, Castles, White House and others) in using the drawings of Fly Guy and Buzz along with real-world photos to give Fly Guy’s young fans a simple but accurate introduction to everyday topics. One of the best things about these short books is the way Arnold presents surprising information along with the basics. In Police Officers, for example, he has Buzz mention that Hawaii is the only U.S. state that does not have a statewide police force; and he has Fly Guy get upset about the SWAT team because he thinks they carry “swatterzz,” giving Buzz the chance to explain that the letters stand for Special Weapons And Tactics. The basic narrative of the book is suitably simple: “A law is a rule. …When someone breaks these laws, they have committed a crime.” And some of the photos are particularly helpful for children who may hear adults discussing police activity – for example, one photo shows what a dashboard camera looks like in a police car; another shows the size and shape of a body-worn camera; and there are two pictures of officers riding on horseback: “Mounted officer patrols are useful in crowds since they have a better view than officers on foot.” There is good information on when to call 9-1-1 and what to do if you call it by mistake (“stay on the phone to let the dispatcher know you are okay”). And there are even brief explanations, with photos, of uniformed services that sometimes assist the police, including the National Guard and United States Marshals Service. Fly Guy Presents: Police Officers should take a lot of the mystery, and perhaps some of the fear, out of any encounters that young children might have with the police. And it can open the door to a family discussion of what the police do in the family’s own neighborhood – multiple photos show police-community interactions, and Arnold even has Buzz remark, “A police officer might be your neighbor.”