March 29, 2018
Herding Cats: A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Collection (No. 3). By Sarah Andersen. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Fly Guy #18: Fly Guy and the Alienzz. By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
Sarah Andersen continues to offer her skewed and often perceptive take on the life of a modern young woman in the third Sarah’s Scribbles collection, Herding Cats. Actually, what Andersen – or her cartoon avatar – mostly herds is her own uncertainties, insecurities and irritations at the ups and downs of everyday life. Andersen pictures herself as a big-headed, rectangular-bodied character with huge eyes that are decidedly not anime-like but that are very expressive. The Sarah’s Scribbles drawings can include just two panels or as many as seven, depending on what mini-story Andersen is telling. One five-panel example has her enjoying some simple, silly things in life, from a flower crown to a choker she thinks is cute, while outside-the-panel voices criticize everything – leading to a plaintive, super-bulging eyes comment in the final panel, “I just want to enjoy being alive.” Another five-panel sequence, “How to Put a Shirt Back When Shopping,” starts by showing her neatly re-folding the shirt and putting it back on a pile, only to decide self-consciously, “You ruined it,” followed by “You ruined everything,” followed by a final panel showing everything everywhere in flames: “How did you mess up this badly?” This sort of wry self-awareness permeates Sarah’s Scribbles. One sequence shows “Present Me” and “Future Me” with a pile of work between them – until “Present Me” shoves all the work onto “Future Me” and runs away. On another page, “an old song you used to like” returns to bring happiness – but turns out to be dragging a gigantic ball labeled “terrible memories.” And there are several instances recognizing the extent to which both real and online life seem increasingly unfriendly nowadays: Andersen is happy and feels “we’re actually making progress” when a character with a U.S. flag (sort of) for a head mentions “pre-2016” that same-sex marriage has been declared legal – but then, “post-2016,” a panel shows everything burning and people screaming and fighting as Andersen cries out, “What is happening?” Elsewhere, Andersen releases anger that she describes as “petty,” only to find out that it is boomerang-shaped and comes back three years later to smack into her with renewed force. The unique style of Andersen’s art makes it amply communicative with only a few words – which, however, means that the final part of Herding Cats, an extended essay that is “a guide for the young creative” and has only a few illustrations, is the weakest part of the book. This is a well-meaning discussion of the importance of staying true to your creative impulses even if your parents disapprove, even if Internet trolls try to take you down, even if you self-sabotage by diving into depression upon hearing one single item of yours described as “bad thing” when everything else you do is described as “good thing.” But the illustrations (good thing, good thing, good thing, good thing) are so much better than the mediocre text (bad thing) that the essay makes it clear, as does the rest of the book, that where Andersen excels is in visual, not textual communication.
Another character with gigantic, bulging eyeballs on a disproportionately small body is Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy, whose adventures are aimed at kids rather than adults. The latest of them, Fly Guy and the Alienzz, is more elaborate than many of the earlier ones. Fly Guy and the boy who keeps him as a pet, Buzz (whose eyes are also huge and bulging), get together to make a movie using Buzz’s cell-phone camera. Arnold is clever here in showing Buzz doing things that a young reader of this book could actually do to make his or her own movie. Buzz shows Fly Guy how he drew three green aliens, “cut them out, and glued them on sticks, like puppets.” There is a “secret hero fort” made of cardboard and a “solid-gold spaceship” that is clearly shown to be a flashlight with cardboard tail fins taped to it. The movie starts with Fly Guy and Buzz Boy (also cutouts on sticks) captured by the aliens, with Fly Guy escaping as Buzz Boy is tied up. Then things get complicated as Arnold brings in other characters – Dragon Dude and Fly Girl – as Fly Guy talks in his usual buzzy manner (“Oopzz!”). Eventually space pirates steal the aliens’ solid-gold spaceship, so the aliens are marooned on Earth and decide to become good guys, while Buzz and Fly Guy are left to think up a movie sequel. This is a lot to pack into 30 pages, but Arnold does a good job of pacing the story and keeping it and the characters consistent. There is a lot of Fly Guy material out there, including fact books as well as adventures with Buzz, and kids who enjoy Arnold’s characters will appreciate the fact that they stay true to type from book to book and continue to be amusingly offbeat.
Argeneau Novel No. 27: Twice Bitten. By Lynsay Sands. Avon. $7.99.
In the 26th novel of Lynsay Sands’ long-running Argeneau series, Immortally Yours, the lead female character has been a strong, appealing, sexy and determined vampire for more than a century. As the plot progresses, she re-encounters a strong, appealing, sexy and determined male who, it turns out, is her “life mate” – a Sands invention that helps explain, in the context of paranormal romance, the intensity of characters’ physical attraction and connection. But there are complications standing in the way of their happily-ever-after – and “ever after” means a loooooong time when it comes to immortals. The primary one is that someone is trying to kill the female protagonist. So female and male protagonist must team up for purposes of protection and link up for purposes of extreme sexual pleasure, until eventually the nefarious doings are uncovered and the life mates are mated, presumably, for life (or, as it were, for life after death).
Fast-forward to the 27th Argeneau novel, Twice Bitten. Here, the lead female character has been a strong, appealing, sexy and determined vampire for more than a century. As the plot progresses, she re-encounters a strong, appealing, sexy and determined male who, it turns out, is her “life mate.” But there are complications standing in the way of their happily-ever-after. The primary one is that someone is trying to kill the female protagonist. So female and male protagonist must team up for purposes of protection and link up for purposes of extreme sexual pleasure, until eventually the nefarious doings are uncovered and the life mates are mated, presumably, for life (or, as it were, for life after death).
To be fair to Sands and the Argeneau series, there are a number of differences between No. 26 and No. 27. And to be fair to fans of this long-running, multi-character sort-of-vampire sequence, the stylish writing and reasonably hot sex scenes in Twice Bitten will more than satisfy expectations, just as the sex itself more than satisfies the participants in it. More-recent Argeneau novels have started to seem a tad repetitive, more inclined to plot duplication with different characters filled in than were earlier Argeneau books. It is really true that Twice Bitten follows what has become a fairly standard plot of immortal and life mate meeting when one of them is in peril and the two must work together to survive while discovering their unbreakable physical attraction. But it is also true that Sands is good at varying plot details enough so that the similarities seem less important, except perhaps to book reviewers – but in truth, books that fit their series snugly, in series that fit their genre with precision, are in a sense beyond criticism, since they do not pretend to be anything more than they are and do not reach out to anyone except readers who are already enamored of their approaches and/or authors.
To keep Twice Bitten distinctive but clearly connected to the Argeneau series, Sands focuses not only on female protagonist Elspeth Argeneau Pimms but also on her mother, Martine, as cold-hearted and determinedly intense a character as Sands has created anywhere. Elspeth, who is more than 140 years old, finally gets away from her mother’s iron-fisted supervision in Twice Bitten (the Elspeth-Martine relationship was explored earlier in the Argeneau series, but Twice Bitten is self-contained). Martine can control not only the minds of mortals (a standard sort-of-vampire trait in this series) but also those of younger immortals – the twist being that nearly every immortal is younger than Martine, who was born before the fall of Atlantis set the long-long-ago machinery of the series into motion. Elspeth has gotten away by moving from England to Canada and setting herself up with a nice apartment and a pleasant, elderly landlady named Meredith MacKay. This would be fine, except that Martine decides to visit her daughter and, uh-oh, perhaps move across the Atlantic herself. And on the very day that Martine shows up at Elspeth’s apartment, Meredith’s grandson, Wyatt, shows up as well. Elspeth finds him vaguely familiar – and Wyatt remembers Elspeth quite clearly, having fallen in love with her four years earlier. But she does not remember him, not really, and this is a major puzzle for Wyatt, who is not yet versed in the machinations of the Argeneau ethos. And soon enough, Wyatt has other things to worry about, since brutal attacks on Elspeth put him quickly into protective mode – where he goes with alacrity, since he turns out to have a background in “special ops,” that catch-all “tremendous ability for controlled violence” category. The rest of Twice Bitten involves the simultaneous search for Elspeth’s would-be assassin and exploration of the sexual intensity between Elspeth and Wyatt as predestined life mates – that “predestined” bit being rather charmingly old-fashioned in all the Argeneau novels. With the shadow of Martine looming over everything, the book has some flavor of a triangle, as Elspeth’s mother and life mate both try to protect her – in very different ways and to very different effect. Twice Bitten breaks no new ground in the Argeneau sequence, but fans of the series will not care: the book has plenty of action, plenty of sex, and enough humor (a characteristic of Sands’ writing, albeit more so in the early novels than in the more-recent ones) to provide yet another dose of the enjoyable escapism that Sands proffers skillfully, if formulaically, again and again.
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen—Orchestral Music. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Michael Daugherty: Trail of Tears; Dreamachine; Reflections on the Mississippi. Amy Porter, flute; Dame Evelyn Glennie, percussion; Carol Jantsch, tuba; Albany Symphony conducted by David Alan Miller. Naxos. $12.99.
There are so very many ways to tell stories in music – and these three new Naxos releases showcase three very different ones. Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen is the quintessential music drama, a four-opera sequence in which words and music intermingle incessantly and are both equally necessary to give the story its full scope and tremendous impact. There is no theater experience quite like it – but many listeners have neither time nor inclination for full immersion, and conductors have for many years sought and found strictly musical elements that they can extract from the experiential totality and turn into concert pieces. JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic offer a mostly excellent version of 64 minutes of music that, while it scarcely encompasses all the elements of 15 operatic hours, certainly gives a strong flavor of Wagner’s skill both in drama and in orchestration (including but not limited to the Wagner tuba, which the composer created specifically for this masterful set of operas). There is something here from each of the four parts. “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” comes from Das Rheingold, the music’s triumphalism total in orchestral form (as arranged by Hermann Zampe) even though, in the opera itself, there is irony aplenty in the gods’ entry into the new home that they have obtained through very human forms of treachery and deceit. From Die Walküre we get, inevitably and extremely effectively, “The Ride of the Valkyries,” followed by the opera’s conclusion, “Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music” (both arranged by Wouter Hutschenruyter). This latter excerpt does not work particularly well in the absence of Wotan’s voice: the scene is a linchpin of the downward spiral of Wotan and thus of all the gods, and the lack of the vocal element leads to a musical presentation that, although well-played, is rather under-communicative. From Siegfried comes the famous “Forest Murmurs” (arranged by Zampe), as effective as ever. And there are three excerpts from Götterdämmerung: “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” (arranged by Engelbert Humperdinck, whose own works are strongly influenced by Wagner); “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music” (arranged by Ludvík Šťastný); and “Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene.” The last of these is the other major place here where the absence of voice is strongly felt: without the enormous emotional pull of Brunnhilde’s farewell to Siegfried and her self-immolation, resulting in flames that consume Valhalla itself, the music, although splendid, is far less cathartic than in the opera. But despite what is missing, what is here is handled with considerable skill by Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic, from the drama of “The Ride of the Valkyries” to the delicacy of “Forest Murmurs” to the intensity of the funeral music for Siegfried, where the orchestra’s brass section really outdoes itself. This CD is far from a suitable substitute for the entirety of Der Ring des Nibelungen, but it is a wonderful way to recall the operatic sequence for those who know it well, and a first-rate introduction to the music for those who have not yet had the tremendous pleasure of encountering Wagner’s tetralogy in its original form.
Prokofiev also chose the theater for telling a number of stories, but unlike Wagner, he created scores both for operas and for ballets. Since ballet does not require speaking or singing, it tends to translate to recordings better than do purely orchestral excerpts from operas – much less tightly integrated music dramas such as Der Ring des Nibelungen. However, the quality of ballet recordings varies widely, and there are some basic issues that conductors of this sort of stage music must make when performing it without staging – notably ones of tempo. In her new recording of the complete Romeo and Juliet with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop opts for pacing that would work quite well for dancers, and that proves to be a significant strength of her performance. Alsop does not control an orchestra quite as tightly as Falletta does, with the result that, for example, the violins are somewhat lacking in precision in the fight scene in Act I. However, Alsop has a great flair for the dramatic – evident in that same scene – and when the strings are not required to produce quite as high a degree of clarity, they acquit themselves very well. Thus, the love scenes come across with exceptional beauty and warmth here; the performance of the lower strings in the love scene that ends Act I is a particular standout. Other sections of the orchestra also shine in their own way, the woodwinds being especially notable, with the orchestra’s principal flute and oboe playing with truly lovely tone. Alsop certainly picks up on and even extends the romantic drama of the score, presenting the music with passion bordering on that of film music (a category at which Prokofiev excelled) while also allowing plenty of solemnity when it is needed – plus third and fourth acts that are beautifully sad (if perhaps not really tragic) and quite tender. Individual numbers from the score that are particular high points include Dance of the Mandolins and Dance of the Girls with Lilies, but these are exceptional only within the larger context: Alsop integrates the score very well, so these highlights are clearly heard as portions of a greater whole, and the entirety of Romeo and Juliet never comes across as episodic. It is also worth mentioning that the sound quality both of Alsop’s recording and of Falletta’s is absolutely top-notch – Naxos has an outstanding producer/engineer in Tim Handley, who handled both of these releases. Alsop’s Romeo and Juliet continues her work on the music of Prokofiev – she has already recorded all the symphonies, most of them to fine effect – and shows her to be a sensitive and strongly engaged conductor of this repertoire.
The sound is not quite as good on a Naxos CD that tells stories and engages the audience in a very different way: one featuring three 21st-century concertos by Michael Daugherty (born 1954). Listeners will have no doubt at any point that these are concertos, since the soloists are placed quite prominently (the producer/engineers here are Silas Brown and Doron Schächter, with Daugherty himself also taking a producer credit). Aside from that, the orchestral accompaniment by David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony is fine, although this ensemble is not quite at the level of either Falletta’s or Alsop’s. The main effect of Daugherty’s music here, however, comes from the stories it illuminates – something that it does through the composer’s careful selection of solo instruments as well as his ability to find new ways to explore what is essentially traditional tonality. Reflections on the Mississippi (2014), for tuba (Carol Jantsch) and orchestra, is especially successful. Its four movements, portraying scenes the composer says he remembers from youthful times spent by the great river, have sounds that genuinely go with their titles: “Mist,” “Fury,” “Prayer” and “Steamboat.” It is thanks to Jantsch’s marvelous playing that the scenes come so vividly alive: she has the great lower heft of the tuba, to be sure, but she also produces sounds of delicacy and intimacy from an instrument that all too often seems unwieldy rather than as expressive as it is here. The other concertos on this CD are both world première recordings. Trail of Tears (2010), for flute and chamber orchestra, is communicatively on the too-obvious side. Its topic is the forced relocation of Native Americans in the 1830s, and its first two movements (“Where the Wind Blew Free” and “Incantation”) are, accordingly, sad to the point of being despairing – but not particularly revelatory and not expressive in any unusual way. The finale, “Sun Dance,” is the best part of the work, representing the intensity of attempts to overcome deep sorrow and move on with life. It is a difficult and highly virtuosic movement that soloist Amy Porter handles with admirable skill. Daugherty’s use of a chamber rather than full orchestra for this concerto is an inspired touch, lending the music more intimacy than it would otherwise possess. Also on the disc is Dreamachine (2014), a rather too cutely titled concerto for solo percussion and orchestra that gives Dame Evelyn Glennie plenty of chances to display her very considerable skill. The basic idea here is to pay tribute to people who create machines of all types, including ones that never quite make it to reality. The four movements are called “Da Vinci’s Wings,” “Rube Goldberg’s Variations,” “Electric Eel,” and “Vulcan’s Forge.” The communicative power here is not quite as strong or direct as in Reflections on the Mississippi, but Dreamachine has more humor and an overall lighter touch with its subject matter than anything else on this CD. The exact machines portrayed or commented upon in the concerto are not obvious beyond the movements’ titles, and not always even then: “Electric Eel” really does sound like the creature, quite engagingly so, rather than like anything it may have inspired someone to create. The highly virtuosic snare-drum cadenza in this concerto’s finale, somewhat reminiscent in its complexity of Nielsen’s use of the instrument in his Symphony No. 5, is a high-water mark of the entire disc, even if its exact intended meaning is elusive. As a whole, the CD shows Daugherty to be a very fine musical tale-teller whose stories may not always be completely clear but whose enthusiasm for conveying them is evident at all times.
Nan Schwartz: Aspirations; Perspectives; Romanza; Angels Among Us; Brenton Broadstock: Made in Heaven—Concerto for Orchestra. Synchron Stage Orchestra (Vienna) and Bratislava Studio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kevin Purcell. Divine Art. $17.
20th Century Masterpieces for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Volume 1—Lopatnikoff, Tansman, Malipiero, Berezovsky, Poulenc, Starer, and Creston. Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas, pianos; Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio & Television conducted by David Amos; Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carlos Piantini. MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).
Scriabin: Piano Sonatas Nos. 3 and 4; Preludes and other short piano pieces. Jeremy Thompson, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 9; Granados: Goyescas; Janáček: In the Mists. Orion Weiss, piano. Orion Weiss. $13.99.
Composers in the 20th and 21st centuries have increasingly come to see the piano as a member of the orchestra, frequently using it as more of an obbligato instrument than one leading and even competing with the ensemble as in familiar concertos. This sort of keyboard use is actually a throwback to Baroque and early Classical times, when the harpsichord was part of the ripieno, but of course modern composers handle matters quite differently. Thus, two of the four works by Nan Schwartz (born 1959) on a new Divine Art CD employ piano in a significant way, but no more so than other individual instruments highlighted in the pieces heard here. Aspirations includes piano (Lee Musiker) and tenor saxophone (Harry Allen); Perspectives uses piano (Musiker again) and guitar (Jon Delaney); and Romanza features violin (Dimitrie Leivici), while Angels Among Us includes trumpet (Mat Jodrell). In every case, Schwartz uses these instruments to color the overall orchestral sound, but never makes them the front-and-center, extended focus of these pieces. She is, indeed, a good orchestral colorist, a fact that helps rescue her music from its tendency to meander and to try too hard to be emotional and lyrical – a lot of what she writes sounds like movie music, which is not surprising in light of the fact that film music is what Schwartz primarily creates. Certainly she knows how to produce rather superficial emotional connections through orchestral sound, through the sorts of swells and dynamic passages that inevitably accompany, underline and enhance movie scenes. It just happens that the four works heard here sound as if they come from films even though they do not: it is easy to feel them moving along in four different dramatic arcs, even if they do not precisely correspond to any particular story line. Film music is generally designed to supplement visuals and dialogue, not take their place, but in this case the music is all there is – and while it certainly invites emotional experience and possesses a kind of narrative cohesion, it does not do so with any particular depth or profundity. It is music that is pleasant to hear once but will not likely bear repeated listening very well. The CD also includes the world première recording of Made in Heaven by Australian composer Brenton Broadstock (born 1952), and this too is a well-made work with many of the same roots in jazz that the pieces by Schwartz possess. Indeed, Broadstock’s piece has an overt jazz connection, being intended as a tribute to the 1959 Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue.” Hence the movement titles: “So What,” “Flamenco Sketches,” “Blue in Green,” and “All Blues.” Broadstock can scarcely expect audiences to be familiar with this specific album from nearly 60 years ago, but his music stands on its own in its jazz gestures, both expansive and pointed. It is not quite the “Concerto for Orchestra” that its subtitle indicates – the virtuosity required of the players is not really at the level demanded by Bartók and Kodály in their works with that title – but certainly the musicians have to pass themes and phrases back and forth with aplomb, as if in a jazz ensemble. Conductor Kevin Purcell handles both the Schwartz and Broadstock pieces with considerable élan, and if the music is a bit outside the comfort zone of the orchestras he leads, they certainly manage the material with professional skill – if perhaps less idiomatically than more jazz-focused groups might.
The piano is not a partial focus but the primary one on a new two-CD MSR Classics release of recordings, originally produced in the 1990s, featuring the piano duo of Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas. These are the world première recordings of some very-little-known music that definitely deserves greater attention if it is possible to find more pianists willing to share the spotlight instead of dominating it (Katia and Marielle Labèque would be natural choices for this repertoire). In fact, Pierce and Jonas make an admirable team in these seven pieces – four labeled “concerto” and three using the dual pianos in somewhat different ways. The spirit if not the harmonies of the Baroque hangs particularly strongly over three of these works: Suite for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1928) by Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986), Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932) by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), and Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1949-1950) by Nikolai Lvovich Lopatnikoff (1903-1976). Overtly in Tansman’s suite’s 10 movements and to some extent in the Poulenc and Lopatnikoff concertos – both in three movements that contain multiple tempo and mood changes, so they sound more like a series of shorter pieces strung together – there is a sense of awareness of the role of keyboards in the Baroque and a neoclassical interest in reviving some elements of Bach’s time in the 20th century. Tansman’s piece, with its Perpetuum mobile, Sarabande and concluding double fugue, makes the point particularly clearly. The sensibilities of Poulenc and Lopatnikoff are quite different from each other, and the composers’ handling of the pianos and the orchestra differs as well, but both the works – which, interestingly, are very close to the same length – offer the soloists multiple ways of blending with each other and with the ensemble of which they are a part. The effects of the other works here with “concerto” in their titles are somewhat different. The three-movement Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1951) by Paul Creston (1906-1985) has a kind of classical balance both in the movements and between the solo instruments, while the four-movement Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1993) by Robert Starer (1924-2001) has movements that are pithier, and its overall feeling is on the jazzy and upbeat side. Also offered here are Dialoghi VII for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1956) by Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973), a largely athematic work of meandering form, and Fantasie for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1931) by Nikolai Tikhonovich Berezovsky (1900-1953), which unusually consists of two Allegro movements that give the pianists ample chances to show their mettle. It would be stretching things to suggest that any work here is a long-forgotten masterpiece – there is little profundity in these pieces – but there is a great deal of well-constructed and interestingly orchestrated music offered by Pierce and Jonas, who are nicely if not especially forcefully backed up by conductors David Amos (for most of the pieces) and Carlos Piantini (for the Starer concerto). The most engaging aspect of this release is the way it brings to light an entire subgenre of piano music with which even listeners well versed in 20th-century neoclassicism are unlikely to be familiar. It will be very intriguing to hear what Pierce and Jonas have unearthed for the planned second volume of this series.
Of course, no matter how the piano’s role changes in modern times and no matter how many ways composers find to use the keyboard, there remains an important place for the piano as a quintessential solo-recital instrument. And there are some exceptionally interesting ways to hear it in that light. Jeremy Thompson has found one – on another new MSR Classics release – by going back to the final recital given by Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). Scriabin died of septicemia on April 14, 1915, and gave his last recital not even two weeks earlier, on April 2. It was not his own pianism but that of Rachmaninoff that brought Scriabin fame – posthumously. But certainly Scriabin had a fine sense of the piano’s capabilities and a plentiful ability to delve into and extract them. Scriabin’s final recital was built around his Piano Sonata No. 3, the last in which he wrote in this form comparatively conventionally, and Piano Sonata No. 4, the first in which he moved toward a new, complex and highly personal compositional idiom. At his last performance, prior to Sonata No. 3, Scriabin played 10 short pieces – seven Preludes plus a Mazurka, Etude and Valse. Then, for the second half of the recital, he played eight additional short items – Nuances, Danse languide, two more Preludes, Guirlandes, Flammes sombres, another Prelude, and Etrangeté – before offering the very short two-movement Sonata No. 4. Thompson has resurrected the entire recital, and he handles it from start to finish with considerable understanding of Scriabin’s style – although inevitably a modern pianist sees that style differently a century after Scriabin’s death than the composer and his audience perceived it in 1915. Thompson plays very well and with genuine sensitivity, but the CD is more of a curiosity than a fully realized musical experience. The reason is that the program of the recital, which undoubtedly made considerable sense to Scriabin when he arranged it, now comes across as a kind of multiple-reverse-encores grouping, with the substantial sonatas heard only after a considerable number of lesser works whose relationship to the sonatas is not especially evident. For a composer seeking to present a cross-section of his music to a contemporary audience, and certainly not anticipating his imminent demise, the recital is an interesting one, and surely the original audience would have enjoyed seeing how Scriabin handled the various miniatures that make up most of the material he played. But the reasons Scriabin selected these specific pieces to play prior to the two sonatas are no longer clear and not especially relevant. Now Scriabin is recognized – thanks largely to Rachmaninoff’s advocacy – as a great Russian composer as well as a very unusual one, and programs including his sonatas and shorter pieces can be put together more meaningfully than this one is. This takes nothing from Thompson, whose playing is first-rate and whose notion of reproducing this final Scriabin recital is, in its own way, quite worthwhile. But the disc offers nothing especially new in the understanding and interpretation of two of Scriabin’s important works, and its presentation of 18 of his shorter ones, including several that run less than one minute, gives the disc an overall choppy feeling that renders the whole program intriguing but not especially significant.
Scriabin fares better in a more-wide-ranging, thematic program self-released by pianist Orion Weiss. The CD’s title is “Presentiment,” and the notion here is that there is an underlying ominous quality to this music by Scriabin, Granados and Janáček. That is a bit of a stretch, due largely to the hindsight associated with the fact that these pieces were all created on the cusp of World War I: Scriabin’s in 1913, Granados’ in 1911, and Janáček’s in 1912. The Scriabin is known as the “Black Mass” sonata – a title of which the composer approved, although he did not come up with it – and certainly its harmonic instability (because of its strong reliance on the interval of a minor ninth) and its unsettling and grotesque elements (notably the march into which the opening theme is eventually transformed) produce feelings of disconnection, distress and emotional dysfunction. Weiss highlights the anxiety inherent in the music, turning it into an ominous portent of a war that was soon to come – and that would claim the life of Granados, who was aboard a ferry that was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1916. If the mood of Scriabin’s sonata seems to anticipate the martial tremors soon to engulf the world, though, the multiple moods of Goyecas do not. Weiss plays the work as a suite of six movements (omitting El pelele, which is not officially part of the suite but is usually played as its finale). He does an excellent job of turning each movement into a miniature of storytelling, somewhat akin to what Mussorgsky did in Pictures at an Exhibition even though there is no known definitive correlation between Granados’ music and specific Goya paintings. The beauty and immediacy of the music come through clearly in Weiss’s performance, and the strong improvisational feeling he gives to the Balada titled El amor y la muerte is especially apt and especially welcome. Goyescas contains more of Impressionism than does Scriabin’s dense and difficult “Black Mass” sonata, and the musical Impressionists, especially Debussy, also seem prominent in Janáček’s In the Mists. The five-or-six-flats keys and the complexity of the meters in this work create a pervasive feeling of melancholy that never quite turns into despair. Weiss emphasizes a certain sense of nostalgia, of longing for a past irretrievably lost, in this music; the interpretation nicely fits the notion of this and the other material on the CD as representing a kind of farewell to a world that is about to be shattered forever. However, it would be a mistake to take the notion of “Presentiment” in all these pieces too literally: only Scriabin’s sonata, the most forward-looking of these works and the one written closest to the outbreak of war, seems strongly to partake of a despairing prediction of imminent catastrophe. Still, all the music, however carefully composed, has about it a somewhat disjointed feeling, which could be heard as a sense of the old order passing with no sure knowledge yet of the new. Weiss has here assembled a program that is as well thought out as it is well played.
March 22, 2018
Thank You, Earth: A Love Letter to Our Planet. By April Pulley Sayre. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Olga #2: We’re Out of Here! By Elise Gravel. Harper. $12.99.
Gorgeous photographs that highlight the many beauties and wonders of our planet are the central reason for being of April Pulley Sayre’s Thank You, Earth, a simply written book intended to remind readers how many everyday things in the world are extraordinarily beautiful if we only take the time to look at and appreciate them. When described, the pictures do not seem particularly unusual: a spider’s web, a sandpiper on the beach, some clouds, a bit of seaweed, mountains, trees, and creatures ranging from a ladybug to a sloth to birds and squirrels and turtles. But Sayre’s careful selection of photos, her thoughtful sequencing of them, and the delicacy with which she decorates the pictures with just a few apt words, make Thank You, Earth very special. “Thank you for sounds” goes with a close-up view of a yellow warbler with beak open. “For struggles” has a squirrel straining upward on a branch of pussywillows in search of some treat or other. “Thank you for rays and radials” juxtaposes an extreme close-up of a purple coneflower on which a bee is perched with an almost equally close view of dandelion fluff. “Thank you for those that crawl” includes a strange-looking red mangrove root crab and a gorgeously colored black swallowtail caterpillar. And while many photos here are super-close looks at things, others are very broad views: “Thank you for sunsets” covers two pages and shows spectacular sky colors in Arizona’s Phoenix Sonoran Preserve. The concluding sentiment, “Thank you for being our home,” simply and beautiful sums up all that has gone before, all the plants and animals and day scenes and night scenes and all the aspects of nature that make Earth and the lives on it so special. Interestingly, Sayre completely omits human beings and human creations from this “love letter,” implying in so doing that the beauties of Earth are strictly those that do not include or involve people – an omission that can open the door to discussions with young readers about the world they live in and how it intersects with and may often displace the loveliness of the world shown by the photos Sayre has selected from multiple sources and the words she has chosen to go with the pictures.
Among the words on the cover of Elise Gravel’s second book about a girl named Olga are “Ciao, Earth!” Young readers may wonder why anyone would want to get away from all the gorgeousness in Sayre’s book. Well, that is not really what Olga wants: she is something of a grump, and she simply wants to get away from people. OK, not all people – just most of them. And she wants to take Meh with her on a journey to Meh’s planet. If Meh comes from a planet other than Earth. Meh, you see, is a somewhat piglike, pink and fuzzy creature of unknown provenance, discovered in a trash can by Olga in the first Olga book, whose delightfully offbeat title is Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere. Olga is a budding scientist as well as a misanthrope, and the first book mostly involved her trying to figure out what Meh could be and deciding that there is no way to know, so Meh must be a new species, Olgamus ridiculus. Gravel’s idea in these books – in which the pictures and text are equally important even though the works are not exactly graphic novels, being more of a hybrid form – is to include some factual material along with the usual exploration-and-discovery-and-friendship stuff that is common in books for preteens. The mixture worked better in the first book than it does in the second, where the science is brought in somewhat heavy-handedly and repeatedly threatens to hijack the story and turn it (horrors) educational. Olga is considerably happier and more involved with human beings here than in the first book, even though the start of We’re Out of Here! is about her determination to get away from our home planet. As in the first book, Olga likes to wear the same sack-like dress all the time and does not like to wear socks or shoes – a fact that Gravel forgets at one crucial point, when Olga (who narrates the book) says, “I put my shoes on and ran, still wearing my pajamas,” but the picture clearly shows Olga barefoot, as usual. Anyway, the plot here starts with Olga looking into ways to explore space, then involves her investigating reports of alien beings or creatures coming to Earth, and eventually works its way around to the main point – which has to do with Meh (so called from the noise she usually makes) behaving strangely and smelling worse than usual and needing to go to a veterinarian. The vet, Dr. Spiffle, is a showoff obsessed with his Internet presence, but he does manage to give Olga some useful information: apparently this budding scientist never thought to measure Meh’s length or height, for example, but Dr. Spiffle does so. The best part of the book is the eventual discovery of why Olga’s appearance and behavior have been a bit “off,” and that discovery very definitely opens the door for future books in the series. So despite the second book’s title, readers can expect to be seeing more of Olga and Meh right here on Earth, hopefully having adventures in which the blend of amusement and information is handled as entertainingly but a bit more seamlessly than it is in We’re Out of Here!
Big Nate: Silent but Deadly. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The “Mutts” Spring Diaries. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
I’m Not Your Sweet Babboo! A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Packaged with pull-out posters, “More to Explore” sections and other enhancements, some of Andrews McMeel’s comics collections are aimed directly at children – a fact that shows that so many of the same comic strips are, when taken as a whole, not just for kids. Of course, among modern strips as among older ones, some cartoonists do primarily target younger readers – as Lincoln Peirce does with Big Nate, whose presumed audience is around the same age as the strip’s sixth-grade central character. Nate’s inflated sense of his own importance, intelligence and abilities is the central element of the strip, and the fact that Nate never lets life get him down when it is repeatedly shown that he is less than he imagines himself to be is what makes him appealing (and a potential role model for readers of the same age). Peirce specializes in “character comedy,” with Nate and the rest of the cast (mostly his classmates and teachers at P.S. 38) being known quantities whose interactions with Nate and with each other provide the humor. Thus, in Silent but Deadly, what is funny about a series in which super-brain Gina falls for silly and clumsy but cute and endearing Chad is that Gina having a crush on anyone is so out of character, while Chad being oblivious to Gina’s feelings is in character. And when Gina finds out that Chad does not “like” like her (or any girl), and that affects how well she does on a test, her vow never again to “let personal feelings get in the way of academic achievement” makes perfect sense because of who she is. The “character comedy” elements of Big Nate even extend beyond the humans in the strip: an especially funny sequence in Silent but Deadly involves Spitsy, the inept, cross-eyed dog (who always wears a protective Elizabethan collar), and Pickles, the cat belonging to Nate’s friend Francis, having a “lovers’ spat” that is resolved by playing “their song.” The book’s slightly scatological title refers to Nate’s super-sensitive nose being able to identify all sorts of things and people by sniffing the air – the point being that Nate does have some quirks that set him well apart from everyone else, but spends most his time over-estimating his abilities in areas where he does not excel. One area where Nate is strong is basketball, and one of the best sequences here has him involved in a one-on-one dispute with another team’s point guard, who is considered far better than Nate and makes sure Nate knows it. The climax of this series of strips has Nate doing the unexpected: bypassing his own ego and helping someone else on his team score the winning basket, thus taking the arrogant opposing point guard down a peg and showing that when he has to, Nate can actually take others’ needs and feelings into account. It does not happen often, but it does happen occasionally – and is one reason kids of Nate’s age (and probably their parents) will find Silent but Deadly and the other Nate collections so amusingly interesting. The full-color, pull-out poster of the book’s front cover is a little something extra to enjoy.
Patrick McDonnell’s marvelous Mutts strip is very clearly aimed at adults, with its frequent bows to fine art, earlier comics, and societal issues such as conservation and the adoption of animals from shelters. But some of the characters in Mutts are children, and the sweet simplicity of many of the strips easily crosses generational lines, as is shown in The “Mutts” Spring Diaries. This is the fourth Diaries collection: the first was simply The Mutts Diaries, the second was for winter, and the third was for autumn. Presumably a summer grouping will show up at some point. The selected strips within these collections are put together to reflect whatever season is mentioned in the book’s title, which means The “Mutts” Spring Diaries is mostly about new growth, showers that being flowers, Easter, birds returning from flights south, and so forth. Those themes show up here with typical Mutts twists, as when Mooch the cat perches in a tree and sings discordantly from a branch, leading a nearby bird to tell Earl the dog, “I hate karaoke night.” Earl and Mooch are the central characters around whom Mutts is built, and some of McDonnell’s uses of them are sheer genius, as in one panel in which multiple Earls and Mooches rain down in a setting that duplicates the famous “rain of men” in René Magritte’s painting Golconda. Not all readers, adult or child, will catch all the art and older-comics references in Mutts, but it is not necessary to do so in order to enjoy a strip that is generally drawn very simply but contains considerable depth of thought: Mutts may seem childlike but is not childish. McDonnell has a lot of fun with stereotypical comic-strip scenes, as in one strip showing Earl and Mooch lying on a hilltop watching clouds, as many other characters have elsewhere. In Mutts, the two friends see an elephant, then a pink sock (Mooch’s favorite toy), then a fish, and then simply a cloud, leading Mooch to exclaim, “Finally!” Also here are strips in which McDonnell embellishes literary or environmental quotations: “The Earth is what we all have in common – Wendell Berry” includes three black-and-white panels of elephants, people in a city, and a polar bear, followed by a larger, full-color panel of Earl and Mooch siting beneath a tree and contemplating nature all around them. Even when Earl and Mooch act doglike and catlike, they do it with Mutts flair, as when Mooch finds a ball and Earl cannot stop himself from insisting that Mooch throw it (Earl’s eyes get huge and he exclaims “Throw it!” again and again and again). Mooch complies, but comments to the reader (in his particular style of speech), “I think it shmight be time for an intervention.” There are also several “Shelter Stories” here, in which endearing animals warmly and amusingly ask readers to choose a special friend at a local animal shelter. And the “More to Explore” section at the back of the book fits McDonnell’s themes well, showing how to build a bird feeder and giving information and suggestions for backyard bird watching.
The latest Peanuts reprint contains both a pull-out poster and a “More to Explore” section, the latter focused on helicopters because of one especially noteworthy sequence included in the book: the comic-strip series that for the first time has Sally calling Linus her “sweet babboo” (first use: January 27, 1977). Linus strongly objects to the characterization – hence this book’s title – but the phrase became one of Charles Schulz’s lasting contributions to comic strips. It shows up during a series of strips in which Linus is stuck on a slippery barn roof and has to be rescued by Snoopy, who functions as a helicopter piloted by Woodstock – hence the helicopter-oriented material at this book’s conclusion. Both the helicopter rescue and the “sweet babboo” phrase result from a “love triangle” involving Linus, Sally and a girl named Truffles, whose appearance is unusual for a Peanuts character: she has a bigger nose and much bigger eyes than Schulz’s other characters do. Truffles disappeared after the “sweet babboo” series, showing up for the last time on January 29, 1977; adult fans who may remember her will enjoy rediscovering her in this collection. The book includes several other notable multi-strip sequences as well. One of the longest and funniest has Peppermint Patty enrolling at a private school because she is not a very good student – and ending up in an obedience school for dogs, courtesy of a brochure she gets from Snoopy. She does well and graduates, only to be told – after she brings in her diploma to prove her graduation, also bringing along her lawyer (yes, Snoopy) – that she was not in a school for human children after all. Her explosive anger at Snoopy over the whole incident leads to her fighting (outside the visible panels) with the never-seen cat next door (whose name, we learn in this collection, is “World War II”). She thinks the cat is Snoopy in disguise – but the real Snoopy shows up at the last minute to turn the tide of the fight and repair his relationship with Peppermint Patty. The complexity of this series and the way the characters’ personalities are interrelated and used to advance the story show just how skillful Schulz was once he had developed his characters fully and figured out multiple ways to involve them with each other. This is also clear in other extended sequences in I’m Not Your Sweet Babboo! There is, for example, one in which Snoopy falls in love and decides to get married; invites his brother, Spike, to be best man; and Spike runs off with the bride, who is never seen – and who then deserts Spike for a coyote. Another extended Snoopy sequence features another minor female character, this one named Molly Volley – a tennis player with a hair-trigger temper who first appeared on May 9, 1977 and lasted a lot longer than Truffles did: Molly’s final appearance was on September 16, 1990. In the series in the current collection, Molly and Snoopy play doubles; Molly dominates the play and yells her calls loudly at the other (unseen) players; but at the very end, when there is a question about whether a ball hit by the other team was in or out, Snoopy indicates honestly that it was in, so he and Molly lose (and she does not appreciate the “smak” on the cheek that Snoopy gives her in consolation). Schulz had the remarkable ability to make young readers think Peanuts – a strip that was a major influence on McDonnell, among other cartoonists – was intended for children, while simultaneously having adults realize just how grown-up some of the strip’s themes, interactions and concepts could be. This latest collection confirms once again the unique way that Schulz managed to make Peanuts truly a comic strip for the ages – all ages.
Copland: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Symphony for Organ and Orchestra; Orchestral Variations; Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2); Symphonic Ode. Jonathan Scott, organ; BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Copland: Orchestral Works, Volume 3—An Outdoor Overture; Symphony No. 1; Statements; Dance Symphony. BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Dag Wirén: Symphony No. 3; Serenade for String Orchestra; Divertimento; Sinfonietta. Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Aaron Copland’s popularity rests on a small subset of his works, pieces written overtly in folk/popular mode: Lincoln Portrait, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, El Salón Mexico, Fanfare for the Common Man. But there was much more to Copland than this, an entire body of more overtly serious, even experimental music that was very much in tune with the times in which it was written and that also reached out into new areas and explored them. Copland may not have been an innovator in the mode of, for example, Stravinsky, but he was subject to many of the same influences and interpreted them in his own way – including, among other things, the influence of Nadia Boulanger and of the overall musical climate of Paris in the 1920s, plus the influence of jazz at a time when it had not yet become pervasive. Somewhat like Leonard Bernstein, Copland wrote works overtly intended for popular consumption and others that he took very seriously and of which he was quite proud, but that never attained the popularity or frequency of performance of his easier-to-hear, easier-to-follow music. All this makes the ongoing Chandos project to record Copland’s orchestral works in performances by the BBC Philharmonic under John Wilson quite valuable and very much welcome. Much of the more-popular material was offered on the first SACD of the series; the second and third have turned to some substantial but less-known music – in particular, Copland’s symphonies and other symphony-like works. Copland is scarcely thought of as a symphonic composer, a fact that is partly his own fault: only his Symphony No. 3 (1944-1946), which incorporates Fanfare for the Common Man, has anything approaching recognizable, much less conventional, symphonic structure. But Copland toyed with symphonic style for many years before this work – and “toyed” is not really the right word, because he was quite serious about rethinking what a symphony could be and how the orchestra could be used within an extended formal structure that, if not recognizably a traditional symphony, was certainly symphonic in outlook and instrumentation.
The second and third Copland SACDs on Chandos show the composer in full-fledged symphonic mode – and Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic treat this material with the same care, sensitivity and intensity that they would bring to European symphonies of the same period, showing that Copland’s music speaks clearly in geographical areas well beyond the borders of the United States, despite the close association between him and rural and Western America. Anyone interested in Copland’s universality of expression and in his symphonic output in particular will surely want both these discs, which complement and supplement each other intriguingly. In particular, Symphony No. 1 appears on both releases – in its two separate guises. Originally created as Symphony for Organ and Orchestra in 1924, the work was arranged by Copland for orchestra without organ in 1926-1928 after the composer realized that it would likely be performed far more often (and somewhat more easily) without an organist being required. The 1924 version is more interesting, fully integrating the organ (which is very well played by Jonathan Scott) into the orchestral fabric, but using the instrument quite differently from the way Saint-Saëns used it in his “Organ” Symphony of 1886. There is, however, a definite French connection between the two works: Copland wrote his under the influence of Nadia Boulanger and dedicated it to her, and she played the organ in its first performance. The later version, known simply as Symphony No. 1, seems sturdier and less innovative than the earlier one even though the notes are essentially the same. The comparison is fascinating, and both performances here are exemplary.
The other works on these two releases are also decidedly symphonic. Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2), which dates to 1931-1933, and Symphonic Ode (1927-1928, but revised as late as 1955) both contain some melodies, flourishes and rhythms that are identifiably “Copland-esque” in terms of being used in some of his better-known music. But both are dense, rhythmically complex works, each being written in a single large-scale movement within which multiple sections offer a wide variety of challenges both to performers and to listeners’ ears. Tightly integrated and carefully structured, they are works of considerable impact within their comparatively brief durations. The Volume 2 disc containing them also includes Orchestral Variations, a 1957 orchestral arrangement of the 1930 Piano Variations and a work that sounds completely different – and considerably more intense – in full-orchestra garb. On the Volume 3 disc, the works offered in addition to Symphony No. 1 include yet another piece with symphonic aspirations: Dance Symphony (1929), a far-from-lighthearted arrangement of music from Copland’s vampire ballet Grohg – anyone led by the work’s title to expect even the slightest frothiness will be quite surprised at the pervasive darkness of the music. This too is a piece conceived as a single large-scale movement made up of multiple short sections, and although it is not as tightly constructed as Short Symphony or Symphonic Ode, it is impressively orchestrated and makes its points effectively. All these works are redolent to some degree of the times in which they were written – and Statements (1932-1935) is even more so. Dissonant and almost self-consciously modernist in its six-movement construction, the work is a series of miniatures adding up to a 1930s version of a suite – but one with no vestiges of dance and little gaiety about it. In strong contrast, An Outdoor Overture (1938) is the lightest, brightest and most accessible work on either of these SACDs. Originally written for performance by students at the High School of Music and Art in New York City, this festive piece amply repays the attention it gets from a first-class professional orchestra and a conductor as sensitive as Wilson is to the work’s frequent mood and tempo changes (11 of the latter in eight-and-a-half minutes). Listeners who know only more-familiar Copland will find these two releases genuinely revelatory, while those who already know at least some of these works will revel in the quality of the playing here as well as in the sonic excellence of the recordings.
Another 20th-century composer who wrote three numbered symphonies but is rarely thought of as a symphonist is Dag Wirén, who indeed is scarcely thought of at all – even in his native Sweden – except insofar as he is known for his wonderful Serenade for Strings of 1937. Wirén (1905-1986) was a contemporary of Copland (1900-1990), but his focus throughout his small compositional output was nearly always on absolute music rather than music designed to evoke specific scenes (although he did write three ballets). The four Wirén works on a new Chandos SACD fall neatly into two categories: earlier ones that are light, even buoyant, easy to hear and mood-boosting, and later ones that remain readily accessible but that communicate more substantially and substantively, albeit without delivering any specific messages. Rumon Gamba and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra deserve a vote of thanks for showing that there is more to Wirén than the Serenade for Strings, although it must be said that their performance of that lovely work is as fine as anyone could wish – a genuine pleasure to hear. The other relatively early piece on this disc is Sinfonietta in C (1933-1934, revised 1939), and it too is delightful – and has some genuinely innovative touches, such as an opening theme (or at least an opening rhythm) on, of all instruments, the snare drum. Simplicity and clarity in a kind of Stravinsky-ish neoclassical mode are the order of the day here, and the work has an effect somewhat akin to that of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony – although, unlike that work but like several of Copland’s symphonic pieces, it is played as a single extended movement containing multiple sections. In contrast, Wirén’s Symphony No. 3 (1943-1944), although lacking in thematic richness, is structurally sound, even impressive, both opening and closing in a mood and orchestration distinctly reminiscent of Sibelius. Dedicated “to my parents,” the symphony eventually builds to a whole so cohesive that it comes across as a single large sonata-form work even though, in this case, the piece is broken up into individual movements (the first and second attacca, the third and longest separate). And Divertimento (1953-1957), despite its title, is scarcely diverting – it defies expectations much as Copland’s Dance Symphony belies its title. Wirén offers some playful material here, but most of the effects are more serious: the intensity of the double basses in the second of the four movements stands out, as do the lyricism-within-dissonance of the third, slow movement and the power with which the percussion (silent in the third movement) opens the finale. Wirén was far from prolific and may not have been a substantially innovative composer, but his music shows strength of construction, cleverness of instrumentation, and a determination to engage listeners in the manner of the best absolute music of any era. Gamba and Chandos have done both Wirén and listeners a genuine favor with this fine recording and the unexpected delights it offers.
Brian Buch: From the River Flow the Stars No. 6; Acanthus Leaves No. 6; Life and Opinions No. 7; Landscapes No. 1; Maze of Infinite Forms No. 1. Daedalus Quartet (Min-Young Kim and Matilda Kaul, violins; Jessica Thompson, viola; Thomas Kraines, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Peter Dayton: Fantasy for Viola and Piano; Morceaux des Noces for String Quartet; Sonata “Los Dedicatorias” for Violin and Piano; Variations for String Quartet; Sonata for Violoncello and Piano. Sarah Jane Thomas, Marika Suzuki, Joshua Hong and Andrew Kwan, violins; Yang Guo, viola; Lavena Johanson, violoncello; Michael Sheppard, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Although composers have for centuries been inspired to create music by witnessing or reacting to artistic endeavors in other media, the tendency seems even more pronounced among some contemporary composers than it was in the past. Again and again, modern composers make it a point to share the inspirations for their music and to suggest that audiences respond multidimensionally, to the music itself and to the underlying reasons it was written. Even composers who do not go quite that far clearly believe that listeners will gain more from works whose provenance they know and understand – even when the music is able to connect with listeners who are not cognizant of its origins. Thus, Brian Buch’s compositions, five world première recordings on a new MSR Classics CD, have numerous telling moments unrelated (or at most marginally related) to their titles; and at some level, Buch is surely aware of this, since in four of the five pieces here he gives the movements of the works entirely conventional titles based on their tempos – the only programmatic or inspirational element is the overall label for each work. That labeling is rather curious, adding numbers to words, and this is something about which listeners would do well to know. Buch says he composes in collections of short pieces – the longest movement in any work on this disc lasts less than six minutes – and tries to evoke specific feelings by combining the brief pieces in different ways. At least on this CD, Buch shows himself especially inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman: Acanthus Leaves No. 6 relates to thoughts expressed by a feline in Hoffman’s novel Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, and Life and Opinions No. 7 draws on the same work. Buch does, however, have other literary inspirations: From the River Flow the Stars No. 6 contains three pieces based on ancient Japanese poetry, and Maze of Infinite Forms No. 1 is based on poems by Rabindranath Tagore. Interestingly, the only work here with a visual inspiration is the only one whose three movements have evocative titles: Landscapes No. 1 refers to three specific paintings by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, “Sparks,” “Mists,” and Creation of the World V.” What are listeners to make of all this, particularly listeners who may know little or nothing of Tagore, Ciurlionis, even Hoffmann? That is a question answerable only by hearing the music as music and deciding whether it “works,” whatever its origins may be. In fact, Buch has a good sense of the capabilities of the string quartet and does not feel obliged to push the instruments to their extremes, much less beyond them. The two Hoffman-based works offer a multiplicity of moods, the juxtaposition of differing ideas being especially clear in Life and Opinions No. 7. There is considerable lyricism in the two movements of the Tagore-inspired work, gentleness in the piece based on Japanese poetry, and a kind of dreamlike quality to the music interpreting and reacting to Ciurlionis’ art. There is no way listeners can know if the sounds coming from the Daedalus Quartet are evoking the specific feelings and emotions that Buch sought when writing this music, but this will matter less to the audience than to the composer. Listeners will find that Buch’s music is generally communicative and expressive whether or not they familiarize themselves with the specifics of its inspiration and intent.
The two string-quartet works on a new Navona CD of the music of Peter Dayton have specific inspirations as well, but in this case many of them are musical rather than literary – and some will come through clearly for listeners attuned to 20th-century composers. Variations is a single movement whose elements in Shostakovich’s style are particularly evident, although several other composers are alluded to as well. And if listeners will not know that the variation consisting of a violin cadenza is inspired by a specific violinist, it will not matter – the virtuosity speaks for itself. Morceaux des Noces is a three-movement work whose movements, like those in most of the Buch pieces, simply bear traditional tempo indications. The third movement does have a literary inspiration – a poem by Hart Crane – but what listeners will hear is simply a well-crafted sequence of contrasting pieces whose impact is primarily based on the writing for and playing of the instruments, not on Dayton’s source material. Actually, the three works on this disc for solo strings and piano are somewhat more interesting than the two for string quartet. Fantasy for Viola and Piano is a rare contemporary work that seems too short: its four-and-a-half minutes include so many moods, meters and tempo changes that it seems to want to expand into something larger. The four-movement Sonata “Los Dedicatorias” is more than four times as long and not as convincing – largely because this is a highly personal piece, intended to display and interpret the personalities of specific individuals. There are some interesting elements, such as the sense of talkative chatter in the final movement, but most of the sonata is on the bland side, nicely written but not terribly involving. On the other hand, the two-movement cello-and-piano sonata is captivating from its starting and pervasive first-movement trills onward. Shostakovich looks over the composer’s shoulder here as in the Variations, with Dayton successfully channeling some of the earlier composer’s frenetic pacing and bitterness of expression – without, however, becoming overtly imitative. Although it ends questioningly and delicately, this is a rather gritty work – some piano chords are positively pounded – and it is a piece that provides an example of how a contemporary composer can absorb earlier artistic influences and use them in a new and effective context.
March 15, 2018
Misunderstood Shark. By Ame Dyckman. Illustrated by Scott Magoon. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.
The Bad Guys #6: Alien vs. Bad Guys. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.
Toothsome and terrifying, sharks have been a major object of fear for people ever since – well, at least since the Steven Spielberg movie Jaws (1975) brought them to the attention of people who had previously never thought much about what might be underwater near a beach. In reality, sharks have been a source of worry and fear for much longer, but only among people unfortunate enough to come in contact with them and live to tell the tale. And yet human-shark encounters really are quite rare, and as nature-focused organizations constantly point out, the chance of dying in a shark attack is far, far lower than the chance of all sorts of alternative forms of mayhem (a true statement that is somehow not especially reassuring). Anyway, the upshot of all the shark fear in the last several decades has been a series of books, both factual and fictional, intended to show that sharks are not so bad after all. They are simply misunderstood. As in Ame Dyckman’s Misunderstood Shark. This is all about a TV show called “Underwater World with Bob” (Bob being a jellyfish), specifically about an episode into which a gigantic and extremely toothy shark suddenly intrudes. Shark is about to swallow a fish when Bob tells him he is on camera and should not eat anyone while people can see – and Shark, with a sly grin that plays toothily to the audience (although he still holds the frightened little fish in a fin bearing an anchor tattoo with the word “Mom”), says he did not intend to eat the fish. He just wanted to show off his new tooth. So Shark holds the fish right over his wide-open mouth, with the fish understandably asking, “Can I faint now?” Meanwhile, Bob uses the moment to give the audience a “fun fact” about sharks: they can grow and lose some 30,000 teeth in a lifetime. And so the show and the book progress: Shark starts doing typical hungry-shark things, claims he did not intend to do them and is simply misunderstood, and pulls back from his impulses long enough for Dyckman to have Bob deliver several honest-to-goodness facts about sharks. Scott Magoon’s highly amusing, very cartoonish illustrations make Shark seem both fierce and funny, but his smiles are always on the heh-heh-heh side of things – something that Bob himself eventually finds out when Shark’s instincts get the better of him just after Bob agrees to give him a hug. But no worries! Bob promises to be back for his next show with a real “INSIDE view of our underwater world!” Nothing to fear here, folks – nothing at all. Or at least not much.
Another shark, sometimes known as Shark and sometimes as Mr. Shark, is merely one of a heroic quintet of bad guys trying to become good guys in Aaron Blabey’s ongoing series of simple and hilarious graphic novels, The Bad Guys. Shark is the disguise expert of the group, but his disguises are ridiculous, absurd, and would not fool anyone; so of course Blabey has them fool everybody, maybe even the alien who is the real bad guy in the sixth book of the sequence, Alien vs. Bad Guys. In addition to Shark, the Bad Guys include Wolf, their leader; Piranha; Snake; and Legs, a tarantula. And all of them are really up against it, the “it” being a gigantic many-tentacled thing with lots and lots of teeth and lots and lots of butts (or butt-like pieces of anatomy that appear at the end of the tentacles and are just great for squeezing and picking up stuff, such as Bad Guys). Anyway, the alien used to be a tiny megalomaniacal guinea pig named Marmalade – that was in earlier books of the series – but now that disguise is unnecessary, since the alien has learned all it needs to know about the weakness of Earth’s defenses and its own ability to, you know, take over the planet and all that. Nothing stands in its way except the Bad Guys, who are not doing so well because they happen to be standing in a room filled with dried alien snot. That is, all are there but one: Snake, who has never bought into the idea of the Good Guys Club and has gotten out while the getting out is good. Actually it isn’t good, but out is better than in with the alien, if you get Snake’s drift. So he drifts away – or, actually, powers away in an escape pod, leaving everyone else behind in an alien spaceship on the moon, where this whole book takes place. Is there any hope for Earth? Any hope for the Bad Guys and their Good Guys Club? Of course there is! If there were no hope, how could there be another book? But there will be another, set in the age of dinosaurs because, well, why not? For now, kids will have to be content laughing their, um, butts off at Alien vs. Bad Guys, while they wait for the forthcoming Do-You-Think-He-Saurus?
What Makes a Blizzard? By Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. Illustrated by Maddie Frost. Harper. $17.99.
Icebergs & Glaciers. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.
Both these books could be called “Let’s Read and Find Out” science, but in fact only the one by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld is included in that series, where it is a Level 2 book intended for ages 4-8. Zoehfeld introduces the topic of blizzards by going back to a still-notorious 19th-century storm, the blizzard of January 12, 1888. She uses it as an example of this extreme form of winter storm partly because it was nicknamed “The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard,” so called because it struck the U.S. Midwest while kids were in school, reducing visibility to almost zero, so “children trying to walk home from school became hopelessly lost.” Most teachers kept schoolkids in their one-room schoolhouses, and the few exceptions were usually fatal – the blizzard claimed 235 lives, although Zoehfeld does not mention this. (Nor does she mention that this is not the Great Blizzard of 1888, which hit the U.S. East Coast later in the same winter.) After giving 21st-century children a small taste of what the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard was like, Zoehfeld gets to a formal definition of this type of storm: it must have winds of at least 35 miles per hour that last at least three hours, with enough snow in the wind to cause a whiteout – which means visibility of one-quarter mile or less. Zoehfeld – aided by illustrations by the appropriately named Maddie Frost – explains how the collision of warm and cold air creates storms, and why such storms are especially common and violent in the U.S. Midwest. Zoehfeld gets into the basics of the water cycle, how snow is formed, how weather was predicted in the past and how it is predicted today, and more. She also gives more-modern references to blizzards to supplement the story of the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard of 1888 – for instance, she talks briefly about the 1977 blizzard in Buffalo, New York, where snowdrifts were higher than zoo fences and some reindeer escaped by simply walking away. Zoehfeld ends by bringing the matter of blizzards and other winter weather into modern times, explaining the differences between a “watch” and a “warning” when a storm is coming, suggesting ways to be prepared before bad weather hits, and reminding young readers – to avoid frightening them too much – that “eventually the wind will stop” and cleanup will begin, and there will be chances for play in the snow the storm leaves behind. A factually accurate book that will be easy for most children in the target age range to read and understand, What Makes a Blizzard? can be useful both in classrooms and at home during winter days when school is closed because of bad weather, if not necessarily blizzards.
Seymour Simon’s Icebergs & Glaciers, originally published in 1987 and now available in a new, updated edition, is fact-packed as well, and it is far more attractive to look at than What Makes a Blizzard? The reason is that, as usual in Simon’s books, the visual material is in the form of photos rather than illustrations. And what photos these are! Unusually for a Simon book, this one has not a single picture of a human being in it – and no photos of animals, either. So the photographs of glaciers, ice fields and water take on a kind of abstract beauty that turns the book very nearly into a work of art. But there are serious issues for humans in the forms of ice that Simon describes: the sole picture of anything human-created here shows a cruise ship that hit submerged ice off Antarctica in 2007, capsized and sank (the photo shows the Explorer listing strongly to starboard before going under). Simon does his usual excellent job of explaining: he discusses how glaciers form, how they move, and how icebergs are created when pieces of a glacier “calve” or split off. One photo appears to show a huge ice shelf – that is, a monumental ice sheet at the point where it meets the sea – stretching as far as the eye can see. It is an especially dramatic picture that becomes even more so when young readers (the book is intended for ages 6-10) read that this is not an ice shelf after all: it is an iceberg that broke off from an even larger iceberg that in turn broke away from an Antarctic ice shelf. The scale of the ice masses described by Simon is so vast that even his usual attempts to offer comparisons with more-familiar items falter – it is impossible to grasp that the Antarctic ice sheet is more than 15,000 feet thick, and not much easier to visualize what it means that this is “about the height of ten Empire State Buildings stacked one atop another.” Nevertheless, Simon makes a concerted effort to help young readers understand glaciers and icebergs, an attempt that includes showing “the ways that the land was changed by the glaciers” that receded after the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago. And he discusses the possible effects of “melting ice due to climate change [that] could raise global sea levels almost two feet by the end of this century” – a jumping-off point, one among many here, for young readers to learn more about this topic and discuss it further, whether in a classroom setting or elsewhere.