April 19, 2018
A Most Unusual Day. By Sydra Mallery. Illustrations by E.B. Goodale. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
We Love Our Mom! / We Love Our Dad! By Jan & Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $4.99.
Gentle and sweet, Sydra Mallery’s A Most Unusual Day is all about a series of mishaps and unusual elements of a little girl’s day – and just what causes everything to be somewhat topsy-turvy. It is a lovely book for families adopting or considering adopting children, for that is what its underlying topic is. Mallery, herself an adoptive parent, finds a way to capture the excitement, uncertainty and confusion that a girl in the book’s target age range (4-8) might well feel on the day that her new baby sister is supposed to arrive. From where? That is never stated; indeed, there is nothing here about the adoption process and nothing about the adoptive parents except their appearance at the end – in a charming scene in which it turns out that they are just as befuddled on this day as is Caroline, the girl at the center of the book. Mallery repeatedly contrasts what Caroline usually does, at home and at school, with what she does on this particular, special, exciting, rather unnerving day – from forgetting to wear socks and take her lunch from home, to accidentally knocking out another girl’s loose tooth (the girl is happy to have it gone), to making big messes when she tries to clean up small ones. Caroline’s preoccupation, excitement and tinge of nervousness all come through both in Mallery’s text and in E.B. Goodale’s illustrations, especially so when, after school, Caroline’s usually “calm and collected” parents are anything but that when they bring Caroline her new baby sister. The book’s audience is self-limited – families not involved in adoptions will find little to captivate them here on an emotional level, and even if they enjoy the book at arm’s length, they will not get its full flavor. A Most Unusual Day is about a certain specific kind of unusual day, one that Mallery knows from her own life and brings heartwarmingly to the fore in portraying a far-from-ordinary day for the imaginary Caroline.
The experiences of families of all sorts are reflected in a new, combined edition of two Berenstain Bears books: We Love Our Mom! (originally published in 2012) and We Love Our Dad! (originally from 2013). The combined edition invites kids to read one book, then flip it over and read the other, as the “back” cover becomes the front of the additional book. This is fun, and makes the combined volume suitable for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day – or, really, for pretty much anytime. Of course, it is suitable only for fans of the Berenstain Bears and of the rather overly sweet way their stories are inevitably told. For instance, at the start of the Mom book, “everything was fresh and fragrant” and the various animals are doing Berenstain-ish things: for instance, “Mama Frog was taking a jar full of tadpoles out for a stroll,” the jar being placed on a very small wagon-like stroller that the frog, walking on its hind legs, is pushing. The book includes plenty of examples of the way “Mama Bear took care of her cubs,” and the cubs’ determination to do something special for Mama Bear leads to creation of a scrapbook filled with family pictures that, of course, result in “a tear in Mama’s eye” and a trip out for brunch. In the Dad book, the cubs consider making Papa Bear his own scrapbook, but Mama Bear suggests “it would be a nice gift if you cubs did his jobs for him on Father’s Day and let him relax.” So the cubs make a series of we-will-do-your-chores gift certificates and give them to their dad – but when they actually try to do everything, they find out that chores are harder than they look, and Papa Bear has to pitch in and help out after all. Which he does, of course, with alacrity and enjoyment. The Berenstain Bears books in general, and these two in particular, are a bit too good to be true, a bit too idealized for many families to be able to accept them at face value. But parents and kids who enjoy the characters and are looking for tie-ins to the days on which moms and dads are supposed to get some extra attention from the family will certainly not be disappointed in this two-for-one paperback volume.
WhatsHisFace. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.
The always-reliable Gordon Korman serves up another heaping helping of standard middle-school angst with to-be-expected Korman humor, all in the service of a plot that is offbeat on the surface but really quite formulaic underneath, in WhatsHisFace. Korman is an expert at writing for middle-schoolers, always finding ways to complicate his protagonists’ lives (school and social), then over-complicate their lives, then eventually make everything come out just fine, so everybody is happy and the whole cast of characters (except, perhaps, some overbearing adult) is in better shape than before.
The formula creaks a bit in WhatsHisFace, though, because Korman goes rather too far into the fantastical. The title character’s actual name is Cooper Vega, but because his father is in the military and has to move every six months (a problem: that is not how military assignments work, although preteen readers are unlikely to know that), Cooper is constantly starting new schools in new towns where nobody knows his name or pays attention to him.
Well, they are going to pay attention to him in this town, for sure. It is named Stratford, because it houses a Shakespeare collection owned by a billionaire named Somerset Wolfson, who takes the overbearing-adult role here. Korman’s idea is that Cooper’s parents, to try to help him feel better about the constant moves, get him a super-special new smartphone that turns out to be, umm, haunted. And the ghost in the phone belongs to one Roderick Northrop, who died in 1596 and who wrote a play called Barnabas and Ursula on which Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was based. Shakespeare, you see, stole the idea from Roddy, who had just died of the plague, and now Roddy is back, in Cooper’s phone, learning about 21st-century life (including both the hip and hop of hip-hop) and generally complicating things. Oh, and Mr. Wolfson has the play that Roddy wrote, but he is keeping it secret because revealing its existence would somehow undermine the value of all the Shakespeare memorabilia that Mr. Wolfson has been painstakingly collecting for many years (this makes absolutely not a lick of sense, but, again, preteens will likely have no idea how ridiculous the whole thing is).
So somehow Cooper, called “Coopervega” by his friendly neighborhood ghost, has to negotiate the whole theft-of-ideas thing and also handle the everyday difficulties of being a seventh-grader. That means dealing with jock/bully Brock, who of course is cast as Romeo when the school decides to put on a play and chooses – what else? – Romeo and Juliet. And of course Cooper has a preteen-style crush on Jolie, the girl who will be playing Juliet opposite Brock. With a bit of unwanted help from Roddy, Brock is injured – just enough so he cannot play Romeo – and Cooper, who has been channeling Roddy just enough to be able to handle Shakespeare’s language with aplomb, takes over. And this eventually gives Cooper a way to make things right for long-dead Roddy, to the frustration of Mr. Wolfson; and Cooper even gets Jolie as a real-life girlfriend, at least until the family presumably has to move again.
In reality, Shakespeare did borrow much of Romeo and Juliet from earlier material, as playwrights often did in Elizabethan times. Whether or not Korman knows that is irrelevant – but adults (or young readers who get interested in the topic) will likely decide that Korman is playing a little too fast and loose with both facts and fancy. For instance, take the supposed date of Roddy’s death. Korman makes a point of saying that Roddy (the “real” author of what became Romeo and Juliet) died in 1596, presumably because Korman did enough research to know that the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s play dates to 1597. However, it is known that the playwright was working on this drama by 1594, and possibly as early as 1591. Oops. But of course Korman does not have to adhere to any sort of scholarship or truth in creating WhatsHisFace, and neither truth nor scholarship is his point in the book. It is simply another moderately pleasing, nicely paced middle-school romp that will please Korman’s many fans for a short time – and if it is not particularly memorable or likely to receive multiple readings, that is fine, since Korman will undoubtedly have another middle-school novel out soon enough. There is not the ghost of a chance that this will be his last foray into seventh-grade life.
New Music for Flute, Viola and Harp—Works by Stephen Paulus, Andrew Boysen Jr., Libby Larsen, Donald Harris, Dale Warland, and Stephan Main. Cosmos Trio (Katherine Borst Jones, flute; Mary E.M. Harris, viola; Jeanne Norton, harp). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Zhen Chen: New Music for Pipa and Western Ensembles. Lin Ma, pipa; Zhen Chen, piano; Cho-Liang Lin and Elmira Darvarova, violins; David Geber, cello; Liang Wang, oboe; Milan Milisavijević, viola; Howard Wall, horn. Navona. $14.99.
Moto Bello: Contemporary Music for Violin, Cello and Piano. Trio Casals (Sylvia Ahramjian, violin; Ovidiu Marinescu, cello; Anna Kislitsyna, piano). Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).
There are some CDs that are enjoyable to hear not because of the specific music they contain but because of the instrumental combination used to produce that music. Unusual instrumental mixtures, or ensemble works incorporating instruments with which many listeners may be unfamiliar, can make for quite pleasant listening even if the specific compositions presented are of interest more because of the way they are tailored to the instruments than because of any inherent communicative power. The entire MSR Classics CD featuring the Cosmos Trio is a sound-above-all example, with lovely, sometimes exquisite blending of the unusual mixture of flute, viola and harp throughout in an offering of six world première recordings. The pieces heard here are uniformly well-constructed and seem to lie ideally on and among the instruments – it is no surprise that the Cosmos Trio commissioned and/or gave the first performances of much of this material. All the works were written in the 21st century, and all the composers appear quite comfortable producing tuneful, largely tonal material in which the instruments blend to very fine effect. Petite Suite (2007) by Stephan Paulus (1949-2014) is mostly bright and open-sounding, the “air of melancholy” in the second movement sounding more wistful than depressive. Beautiful, Sweet, Delicate (2006) by Andrew Boysen Jr. (born 1968) lives up to its title, and in particular to the delicacy of which these instruments are capable. Trio in Four Movements (2006) by Libby Larsen (born 1950) and Columbus Triptich (2006) by Stephen Main (born 1963) both give individual instruments multiple opportunities to shine in solo passages – without, however, losing sight of the effectiveness with which flute, viola and harp can be balanced in light of their ranges and tonal qualities. Arise My Love (2007) by Dale Warland (born 1932) is a short and affecting work with more depth of feeling than several others here. And Letter from Home (2011/2013) by Donald Harris (1931-2016) offers an unusual sonic combination by including the voices of not one but two sopranos (Lucy Shelton and Christine Shumway Mortine) with the three gentle instruments – the result being on the somewhat plaintive side, albeit without lacking beauty. This is a disc for those interested in an unusual sonic combination as it is handled by adept composers and first-rate performers, and although there is nothing particularly profound in the material, there is nothing that is less than engaging to the ear.
The sound of the pipa, a popular four-stringed Chinese lute with 12 to 26 frets, may be less immediately appealing to listeners on a new Navona CD featuring music written by Zhan Chen. The pipa has been in use for thousands of years but remains infrequently heard in Western music (although variations on the instrument are popular throughout Asia). What Chen does here is to meld the pipa with various Western instruments, with results that range from startling to surprisingly affecting. The CD’s very opening, when a horn intones part of Dvořak’s Symphony “From the New World,” falls into the “startling” category. In this piece, Arrival, the pipa and piano – the only instruments heard in every single piece on the disc – are joined by violin, cello and oboe as well as horn. Instrumental combinations are quite varied here: Good Morning, the City uses oboe and cello; Dancing in the Rain includes string quartet; On the Roof has a violin and cello; Lost in the Midtown is only for pipa and piano; Lullaby again brings in the string quartet; Encounter has a cello; Cocktails is another work just for pipa and piano; Walk on the Fifth is especially interesting in its inclusion of soprano saxophone and drums; and Harmony, the final work on the disc, uses the string quartet plus horn. Much of the music is delicate, wistful and meandering, but not all: Dancing in the Rain is quite lively, Lost in the Midtown has tango elements, and Walk on the Fifth is jazz-inflected and bouncily involving. There is an underlying story for all the music, having to do with the immigrant experience in the urban United States, but, intriguingly, the music does not really need that “framing tale” to have its effect (except, perhaps, to understand what the touch of Dvořak is doing at the start). The issue for listeners here has to do with the sheer amount of pipa music offered on the CD. Despite its appearance, the pipa is not a lute in the Western sense, and its sound is (to Western ears) somewhat harsher and more penetrating than that of the lute of Dowland’s time. The CD is not a long one – only about 37 minutes – and the instrumental variations plus the changes of tempo and mood help carry it along. Nevertheless, the centrality of the pipa here quickly becomes a matter of taste, and not necessarily a taste that listeners unfamiliar with Chinese music will have acquired. Of course, some sense of discomfort and difficulty “fitting in” is part of the immigrant experience and therefore melds well with the concept of this CD. But to be heard simply as music, rather than as a soundtrack, the disc needs to stand on its own. It does, but the effectiveness with which it does will vary quite a bit from listener to listener.
There is even more variability of response likely to result from listening to another Navona release, this one a two-CD set of pieces by 10 contemporary composers. Here the instruments are conventional – violin, cello and piano – but the composers’ use of them differs considerably from work to work. This means that few listeners are likely to find everything in the release congenial, although many people who enjoy contemporary chamber music will discover at least a work or two here that they would like to hear again and again. Woman A/Part by Diane Jones, intended to reflect a series of photographs, is an ostinato/crescendo mixture. Somewhere between D and C# by Beth Mehocic tries to translate a poem by the composer into a sort of tone poem. Habanera by David Nisbet Stewart is a short interpretation of habanera rhythm. The three-movement Lines, Hockets, and Riffs by Sidney Bailin mainly has the three instruments pursuing their own lines and only occasionally forming an ensemble, “hockets” being melodic phrases split between instruments. Ocean Air by L. Peter Deutsch, the last work on the first CD, seeks to portray “Afternoon,” “Evening” and “Morning” during an ocean voyage, using contemporary musical language rather than Impressionism. On the second CD, Ondine by Giovanni Piacentini is not about the water nymph per se but instead is intended to represent a photo of a sculpture of Ondine, using a combination of shimmering and dissonant sounds. Nightfall by Adrienne Albert is dark and rather dour in effect. Palette No. 1 by Clive Muncaster is an episodic exploration of contrasting sonorities. Solo la Sombra by Joanne D. Carey is a song transcription with contrasting moods. And Imagined/Remembered by Bruce Babcock, with three traditionally labeled movements (“Allegro,” “Lento,” “Presto”), uses the cello particularly effectively both in establishing melodic lines and in prompting, in the finale, material of considerable virtuosity. There is really very little in common among the works here. The two CDs are in effect a sampler of contemporary piano-trio music and are therefore discs that will be of interest mostly to listeners who would like to experience variegated 21st-century material whose basic sonic composition is its primary attraction.
Mark Abel: The Invocation; Those Who Loved Medusa; In the Rear View Mirror, Now; The Ocean of Forgiveness; The Benediction. Hila Plitmann, soprano; Janelle DeStefano, mezzo-soprano; Tali Tadmor and Carol Rosenberger, piano; Bruce Carver, percussion; Mark Abel, organ. Delos. $14.98.
Margaret Brandman: Cosmic Wheel of the Zodiac—A Song Cycle for the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac. Barbora Polášková, mezzo-soprano; Matěj Chadima, baritone; Petr Ožana, piano; Prague Mixed Chamber Choir conducted by Jiří Petrdlík. Navona. $14.99.
Joanna Estelle: Umori [Moods}; Susannah’s Lullaby; Language of a Rose; Moyi mamij [For My Mother]; Qu’est-ce que c’est la vie?(Hommage à Diana, Princesse de Galles); Abwoon d’bwashmaya [Aramaic Lord’s Prayer]; Water Canticle; La chanson de ton coeur [The Song of Your Heart]; Child of the Manger; Song for Abwoon. Navona. $14.99.
John Alan Rose: Piano Concerto “Tolkien Tale”; Old Father Time; 25,000 Years of Peace; Ticket to the Theater. John Alan Rose, piano; JungWon Choi, cello; Moni Simeonov, violin; Sing Rose, soprano; Tyler Bunch, narrator; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
Art songs are an acquired taste even for many listeners who otherwise enjoy classical compositions. Modern art songs are even more rarefied, with composers rarely content to write “pretty” music or to explore fanciful stories or idealized romance – seeking instead to find significance and communicate their seriousness to an audience. Thus, even when well-thought-out and well-composed, contemporary songs often require more of a listener than attentiveness and enjoyment of the music and lyrics: they mandate acceptance of the composer’s worldview and an unspoken agreement to share it, at least for the duration of the performance. Certainly this is true of the music of Mark Abel on a new Delos CD. Abel’s music, which like that of many contemporary composers includes jazz and rock elements, is firmly in the service of the words he chooses to set – by himself, Kate Gale and Joanne Regenhardt. In and of itself, the music is not especially distinguished or memorable – but it gains stature in supporting and enhancing the verbiage, which is clearly what matters most to Abel in these songs. The songs’ topics are modern to post-modern, tied to causes-of-the-day that provide immediacy (especially for those who see the causes the same way Abel does) but that are unlikely to give the material much staying power. However, as songs and song cycles exploring issues-of-the-moment, the material is effective. After some rather obvious musing about the uncertainty of life in The Invocation, Abel uses Those Who Loved Medusa not to explore any lasting truths but to support strictly contemporary views of rape and rapine. The well-considered use of percussion here is the song’s most-effective element. The three-song cycle, In the Rear View Mirror, Now, in which Abel himself plays the organ, is about attachments, both personal and to the world, and how they change and disappoint. Its second element, The World Clock, is especially narrowly focused, having to do with the city of San Francisco and specifically with the ways in which technology has changed it. Soprano Hila Plitmann handles all the songs with care and emotive skill, but even more striking is mezzo-soprano Janelle DeStefano’s delivery of the emotionalism of The Ocean of Forgiveness, the cycle on this disc that reaches out most strongly to listeners. This cycle works because, although Regenhardt’s words are partly inspired by specific locales, such as a desert area near San Diego, the words do not insist on topicality or on dealing with straitened concerns of the current sociopolitical environment. Instead, they use highly specific occurrences – as in Sally’s Suicide, the second of the five songs – to try to connect with listeners facing their own turmoil and life difficulties. Abel’s musical support of the words is particularly effective in this cycle, whose final song, Patience, would have made a genuinely thoughtful conclusion for the CD. Unfortunately, the disc includes one more song, The Benediction, and it is an altogether lesser piece, starting with the words “from sea to shining sea” and dwelling on the notion of a country “crying out for truth and reason.” The eventual statement that “open hearts must point the way” trivializes some genuinely troubling elements of modern life and makes the finish of this recording less trenchant than it could have been.
Margaret Brandman’s Cosmic Wheel of the Zodiac comes at major issues of life in a different way – twice, once through solos and duets and once using a chorus to present the same musical material. Like Abel, Brandman goes beyond traditional classical music not only through extended harmonies but also by incorporating jazz and other styles, such as swing. The music itself is more interesting on this Navona CD than is the case on the Abel disc, partly because the words are of less consequence: they were written by an astrologer (Benita Rainer) and are supposed to present the characteristics of people born under the various sun signs. In strictly musical terms, it does not matter whether the lyrics are nonsensical, since Brandman uses them as a jumping-off point for a series of songs whose moods include the quiet and meditative (Libra), expansive (Sagittarius), bright and energetic (Capricorn), mysterious (Aries and Pisces), upbeat and light (Cancer), and more. The double performance of the material is rather odd: the cycle runs a bit more than 30 minutes in both versions, and the pacing of the individual songs is pretty much the same, with the choral version slightly longer and the solo-and-duet version offering easier-to-understand words. It is certainly not necessary to accept any of the tenets of astrology in order to enjoy the contrasting personality characteristics presented by Brandman (who apparently does take the material seriously). But listeners may well wish for somewhat more contrast among the songs: the pacing does vary, but the overall feel of the musical material is much the same throughout the cycle. Listeners familiar with Holst’s The Planets will know it is possible to characterize mythic and cosmic beings and features in highly differentiated ways, even without spoken words. Brandman’s songs offer fewer contrasts – which may encourage listeners to enjoy and relate to whichever ones fit their individual tastes, just as it is possible to select any horoscope one may wish and find elements in it that appear to fit one’s personality well.
Joanna Estelle’s music on another new Navona release has a more-personal feel throughout, as if the songs here reflect her own life even when ostensibly dealing with other matters. Listeners whose emotions gravitate to Estelle’s will find these works especially congenial, and not only in terms of the words that are sung: the first piece on the CD, Umori [Moods], is for piano solo, and its 10 very short sections clearly reflect and express their titles (“Ardent,” “Determined,” “Energetic,” “Whimsical,” “Shimmery,” “Repentant,” “Reflective,” “Wistful,” “Solemn” and “Hopeful” – no ambiguity anywhere here). The vocal material is similarly straightforward: Susannah’s Lullaby, subtitled “This Is a Face of Love,” offers an idealized portrait of family life; Moyi mamij [For My Mother] is simple and expressive; La chanson de ton coeur [The Song of Your Heart] is simple and happy; Child of the Manger is a moving choral carol, one of several works here with overt religious connotations; and so on. Unlike composers such as Abel and Brandman, Estelle works in what is essentially a pure tonal medium. Like Abel, she often sets her own words, although in two pieces here, Abwoon d’bwashmaya [Aramaic Lord’s Prayer] and Song for Abwoon, she uses Aramaic – the language spoken by Jesus – in an attempt to connect New Testament times with today’s world. Estelle has some interesting ideas about instrumental support for her words: Abwoon d’bwashmaya [Aramaic Lord’s Prayer], for example, is for soprano and cello, while Moyi mamij [For My Mother] is for soprano and baritone with cello and piano. The highly personal nature of the material on this CD means it will have strong connections for some listeners but little appeal for others.
The only vocal piece on a Navona disc featuring the music of John Alan Rose is much more theatrically structured and much less personally intense. It is Ticket to the Theater, a very post-modern sort of stage-oriented work (albeit with faint echoes of Mozart’s The Impresario). In Rose’s piece, a narrator expects to host a performance that, it turns out, does not exist, so a soprano and orchestra “improvise” a formulaic theatrical plot from scratch, and the whole thing eventually ends with a “Waltz of the Ushers, Janitors and Custodians.” The concept is silly and overdone and quite funny, with pompously delivered lines such as “tragedies remind us of the impermanence of life” being quite appropriately (in context) overmatched by meaningless singing and instrumental elements. Thankfully, the work does not overextend its welcome, lasting only about 17 minutes. Rose’s whimsicality is less in evidence in the remaining, purely instrumental works on this disc, although there is some playfulness in the first movement of his Piano Concerto “Tolkien Tale,” a movement that Rose says he composed after reading The Hobbit. The concerto’s second movement is quite short, really just a brief and warm intermezzo preparing the way for a forceful finale that is a tad on the pretentious side, at least until matters lighten up considerably toward the end. Between the concerto at the start of the CD and Ticket to the Theater at its end are two extended single-movement works. Old Father Time, for cello and orchestra, uses the solo instrument both in the forefront and as first-among-equals in the ensemble, with Rose focusing on the cello’s capacity for warmth as well as its exceptional range. Yet the work, although well-wrought, never quite seems to have a specific point of view or to be on a journey to anywhere in particular; as a result, it seems dragged-out beyond the capacity of its ideas. More unusual structurally, 25,000 Years of Peace features a two-minute solo-violin introduction that sounds like an out-of-place cadenza – followed by what is almost a pastiche of musical styles that are vaguely Copland-esque or Ivesian, hymnlike, and somewhat self-consciously dissonant. This is a work that repays at least a second hearing in an attempt to figure out just what the composer is trying to do – although a listener may well conclude, after that rehearing, that the piece is more form than substance. This CD does not start with the voice – instead, it concludes with it – but it certainly shows ways in which vocal works as well as purely instrumental ones can be used by today’s composers in uniquely communicative ways, even if not necessarily in a manner that will connect effectively with audiences that are not already predisposed to enjoy serious contemporary compositions.
April 12, 2018
Night Out. By Daniel Miyares. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
It is almost impossible to overestimate the influence that Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are has had in the more than half century since it was published in 1963. Again and again, other authors of children’s books – and some authors of adult books, too – have used Sendak’s dream-fantasy of an overly rambunctious young boy who becomes king of huge, toothy but distinctly unthreatening monsters as a jumping-off point for imaginary journeys of their own. When an author does this with care and sensitivity, as Daniel Miyares does in Night Out, the result can be as delightful and striking in its own way as Sendak’s original book was in its time – if perhaps not quite as groundbreaking.
The framing story for Night Out actually occurs outside the pages of the story proper – a very neat touch. What happens is shown on the inside front cover pages and the inside back ones: the front ones show empty chairs at a communal meal table, and the back ones show the chairs occupied by young boys, only one of whom has a visible face; he sits in the middle of the group, looking out from the picture. The two-page illustration just after the title page fills in a bit more of the story – still without a single word. The empty chairs from the inside front cover pages are now occupied, but the boy who is face-forward at the book’s very end is seen here sitting very far from everyone else, eating all by himself, his expression downcast.
How do we get from the glum front-of-book scenes to the upbeat back-of-book one? That is where the Sendak influence comes in. Using spare text and delightfully surreal drawings, Miyares shows the boy, tired but still awake in his bed at the end of a row of beds in which the other boys are all sleeping. He looks slightly disconsolate, and the two words on the page, “All alone,” immediately capture his feeling. But he is not quite alone, since there is a fishbowl on a chair next to his bed, and a small turtle is just finding a way to climb out of it. And suddenly, looking at the bowl, the boy sees an envelope resting next to it. “An invitation?” asks Miyares’ text. Oh, yes – “the honor of your presence is requested.” That is all the card in the envelope says, but it is enough to get the boy out of bed as the full moon shines brightly outside his window. Soon he himself goes out the window, and “a journey begins” as the boy rides his bike – from what is apparently a boarding school, through the woods, to a very deep ravine above which a small footbridge stretches. Then it is over the bridge and to the edge of a body of water in which “a friend,” his turtle, swims toward him. But this is his turtle made gigantic, coming to shore only long enough for the boy to climb on his back for a journey to a cave where a chair looking exactly like the one by the boy’s bed and the ones by the dinner table stands ready for the boy – offered to him by a motley collection of animals: full-size bear, oversize owl, really big bunny, and a goose and a fox, all welcoming the boy to a tea party that is less Sendak than it is Lewis Carroll.
After tea, sandwiches, cookies and cake, it is time for “a song,” with the boy dancing as the animals play instruments – fox on banjo, owl on flute, bear on washboard, rabbit on harmonica, and goose on tambourine, as the giant turtle claps along. And then it is time for a ride back to shore, back to the bike, back to the boarding school, with the boy sleepily climbing in through the window as the now-small-again turtle climbs back into his fishbowl. And then? Well, then it is time for “a story to share,” which the boy does as five other boys listen attentively, apparently enthralled. And that explains why, at the book’s very end, the formerly lonely boy is eating right in the middle of the group, now sporting a satisfied smile. Sweetly offering its message of inclusion, Night Out is a delightful bedtime story for ages 4-8 as well as a lovely tribute to the thoughts and sensibilities of Sendak’s justly famous, somewhat wilder and more boisterous story of more than five decades ago.
Floundering Fathers: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Evil Emperor Penguin #2: Evil Emperor Penguin Strikes Back! By Laura Ellen Anderson. David Fickling Books. $8.99.
Because so many animals are so all-fired gosh-darn cuddly and adorable, especially when drawn as cartoon characters, it only makes sense that some people will take them to the opposite extreme and make them decidedly uncuddly and unadorable. Stephan Pastis has been doing this for years in his Pearls Before Swine comic strip, so it is no surprise that he continues doing it in the strip’s latest collection, Floundering Fathers. Pastis is quite determined to make his central animal characters less attractive than…well, than any other characters in the strip. Which is really saying something. Take those stick arms and legs that Pastis creates for Pig, Rat, Goat, the crocs, et al. Pastis knows how to draw more-realistic-looking limbs – maybe not much more realistic, but somewhat more realistic – and does so when portraying his own in-strip cartoonist character and a wide variety of single-use entrants, such as the farmers being sold at a farmers’ market and the people to whom presidential candidate Rat speaks about his campaign, who are seen in that strip’s final panel holding a pitchfork and torch. So Pastis is clearly being quite deliberate in giving his primary characters as little potential cuddliness as possible. He then extends that plan by what he has them say and do. For instance, Rat challenges Goat to drink a beer “every time a CNN political analyst begins their [sic] answer with the word ‘look,’” and one panel later, both Rat and Goat are completely buried in beer cans. For another instance, cartoon Pastis presents “a syndicated cartoonist’s top ten list of topics that generate the most complaints,” among which are race, religion, sex, drugs, Fox News, and praise for or criticism of Barack Obama; and in this strip’s final panel, Rat says, “I saw that Black Muslim Obama on Fox News,” and Guard Duck chimes in, “Do you think he has sex while on drugs?” Clearly animal matters in Pearls Before Swine are cast about willy-nilly, if not like pearls before swine, then like cubic zirconia before – hmm, no, that would probably insult someone somewhere somehow, and that is part of Pastis’ job, self-created. The rest of Pastis’ job is to think up awful and outrageous puns and wordplay and have his characters react a smidgen negatively when cartoon Pastis presents the material. For example, there is a strip about a man named Richard who names a potato company in Decatur, Georgia, after himself and now has so much money that he controls the town; so the whole scenario, cartoon Pastis announces, refers to “the Dick’s Tator Decatur dictator,” leading Rat to suggest, “Let’s go punch him in the face repeatedly.” Oddly enough, all this is considered family humor, more or less, to the extent that it must be “family humor” to be included in the slow death spiral of newspapers, whose demise is possibly being hastened by defining Pearls Before Swine as “family” anything. So much for using animals to appeal to people’s warm and welcoming side.
Laura Ellen Anderson’s graphic novels about Evil Emperor Penguin and his minions do not go quite as far into the world of anti-cute as do Pastis’ comic strips – after all, Anderson is reaching out to children as readers, while Pastis’ work is emphatically not for kids. Why, Anderson even has a unicorn in Evil Emperor Penguin Strikes Back! True, the book’s back cover shows abominable hench-snowman and top minion Eugene riding the unicorn while shouting, “To the lair of evil!” But both Keith the unicorn and Eugene are drawn in a rounded-enough way to retain vestiges (in fact, more than vestiges) of cuddle-ability; and besides, who can dislike a book whose contents page features the art that Eugene draws and tapes to “the Fridge of Evil” in Evil Emperor Penguin’s Antarctic lair? Like the first book in this series, this second one gets a (+++) rating because, as much fun as it delivers, it tries so hard to be clever that it repeatedly trips over itself. The cast of characters remains the same here as in the first book: EEP himself; the small and adorable Eugene (who loves hugs, rainbows and unicorns, but still hangs around with EEP and supports EEP’s plans for world domination); the very tall, intellectual, monocle-wearing purple-octopus henchthing named Number 8, although referred to as “Squid” by EEP; and scowling, mustachioed Evil Cat, mastermind of all things that are anti-EEP but still evil. Kids who had fun with the first book will enjoy this one equally, with its “super computer of evil” running “OS-evil” and utilizing the “USB of evil.” The “paint palette of evil” is enjoyable, too, especially when Eugene ends up within a number of famous paintings (the Mona Lisa, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Munch’s “The Scream,” and more) that kids probably will not know but that parents will enjoy seeing in this context if they happen to dip into the book. The eventual outcome of the interrelated adventures here – told chapter by chapter – is that EEP, of course, fails to take over the world; and Evil Cat also fails; but Eugene succeeds, sort of, thereby proving that niceness and being “cute and fluffy” can conquer all. More or less. Apparently there is room for cuteness, even in works featuring critters who are determined, at all costs, not to be even the slightest bit cutesy.
Gregorian Chant Sampler. The Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France. Paraclete. $16.95.
Gregorian Chant Anthology. The Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France. Paraclete. $16.95.
Hannah Lash: Requiem; David Lang: statement to the court; Ted Hearne: Consent. Yale Choral Artists and Yale Philharmonia conducted by Jeffrey Douma. Naxos. $12.99.
Among the many church leaders who took the name Gregory or Gregorius – 16 popes and two antipopes – two are associated with gifts to the world of nearly inestimable value. It was Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585) who commissioned the Gregorian calendar that is now used virtually throughout the world. And it was Pope St. Gregory I (590-604) during whose papacy the liturgical music now called Gregorian chant was codified – although not quite in the form we know it today, which blends the type of chant collected in St. Gregory’s time with a chant known as Gallican. Whether the calendar or the chant is of greater value to humanity depends largely on one’s point of view. The calendar is of exceeding secular importance and so integral to everyday life, whatever one’s religion may be, that it is scarcely imaginable to get along without it. The chant, however, although originally created to accompany the Mass and divine office of Roman Catholicism, eventually became no less than the foundation of Western music – an emotional and spiritual experience that is every bit as crucial in some ways as the calendar is in others. Pure Gregorian chant is very rarely heard outside abbeys and some very conservative Catholic churches – a fact that makes its beauty and immense spiritual power when sung by the Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France, all the more striking. Because Gregorian chant involves unison singing, it tends to sound simple to modern ears, but it is anything but simplistic. There were eight modes originally, expanded to 12 in 1547, and from them (especially the Ionian mode) derives the entire later system of tonality. These days there are actually 14 modes, and even in the 21st century, composers use them to give a particular “feel” to their music beyond what is provided by keys containing sharps or flats – modes do not have these. So how do modes sound? That is what the Paraclete recordings called Gregorian Chant Sampler and Gregorian Chant Anthology let listeners find out: the 23 chants on Sampler and 26 on Anthology are as authentic as listeners will hear anywhere. The numbers of the chants’ modes are given, for anyone wishing to explore modal matters, and the Anthology disc provides specific connections between chants and feasts or seasons – what is known as the Proper of the Mass, in contrast to the Ordinary, which remains the same throughout the year. Anthology offers chants for the entire liturgical year, including Christmas, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter and other celebrations; Sampler has chants connected with the Introit, Offertory, Responsory, Communion, Alleluia and more. But if all this seems impossibly abstruse for lay listeners – and even for many secularized Catholics – it need not be off-putting. In fact, the music is exceptionally inviting, engaging listeners’ ears with beauty and elevating their thoughts no matter what their spiritual or religious beliefs and doctrines may be. The beauties of Gregorian chant were intended to enhance and ease the connection of humans with the divine. And even in a primarily secular age, they encourage inward looking, contemplation, thoughtfulness, a kind of separation from mundane affairs that somehow makes it easier to return to everyday matters after spending time in an environment where Gregorian chant resonates. Yes, the sensitive, careful, beautifully measured performances here can be used as an entry point to an earlier time, if scarcely a simpler one; but they can also be heard, quite literally, as background music, providing a canvas against which one’s mundane life may be painted in more-beautiful and less-brassy colors.
Among the many contemporary composers who still find communicative value in the old Latin texts of Roman Catholicism and elsewhere in Christianity is Hannah Lash (born 1981), whose handling of the text of the Requiem is right in line with the approach of many moderns: she uses a new English translation, without the Credo, and she places her emphasis in different places, in different ways, from those used by composers in the past. The liturgical concept of the Requiem is acceptance and peace, and some composers have taken that a bit further into something approaching joy at the reunion of the soul of the departed with God. Not so Lash, who wrote this version in 2016. The Dies irae here is far from threatening or terrifying; it is at most a bit unsettled. The Sanctus includes some lovely writing for solo harp (played by Lash herself) and cor anglais (Lydia Consilvio), with an emphasis on the words “the sky is full of light.” And the Lux aeterna reintroduces the same mood after Agnus dei and Psalm: De profundis clamavi have taken the work in a different direction. Lash’s work is primarily choral, although countertenor Eric Brenner provides some affecting solos in three of its eight sections. The Requiem is traditionally for and about the deceased, but Lash’s version is more focused on those left behind and how death affects them – it is in some respects closer to a wake than to the traditional Mass. Jeffrey Douma leads the chorus and instrumental ensemble with feeling and understanding throughout in this world première recording. Another world première on this Naxos CD is statement to the court (2010), its title all in lower case, by David Lang (born 1957); but this is a work that is too aware of its supposed importance to be fully effective. Its text is the words of Eugene Debs, union leader and avowed socialist, made in court when he was charged under the Sedition Act of 1918, which extended the wartime Espionage Act of the previous year to cover more offenses – including some forms of speech. Lang sees Debs as an unvarnished hero and undoubtedly intends this piece as a warning against similar excesses, or potential excesses, in the United States today. Certainly the Sedition Act – which was repealed in 1921 – represents a level of government intrusion and censorship that deserves to be decried, although these days such censorship is more strictly enforced outside the government (on many university campuses, for example) than by act of Congress. Historically, though, Debs is not the best choice for a free-speech hero, and his words, while thought-provoking enough, do not ring with great emotional power – a fact of which Lang himself seems to be aware, since he uses a pounding drum to highlight their supposed dramatic importance. Of more interest is the shortest work on the disc and the only one that has been recorded before: Consent (2014) by Ted Hearne (born 1982). It juxtaposes four different texts to explore language, love and religion, raising some interesting questions even if it never quite answers them. In a sense, it does not have to: the uncertainty that underpins modern life is foundational here, and while religion does enter the picture, it does so very differently from the way it does in, for example, Gregorian chants – which were designed to organize the entire year carefully and help listeners, worshipers, understand exactly where they stood during their time on Earth and would stand in their anticipated life to come.
John G. Bilotta: Yeats Songs; Renaissance Songs; Three Sonatinas for Piano; The Hippocampus’ Monologue; Two Songs on American Poetry; Allan Crossman: 10 Songs; Sonata fLux, for piano. Navona. $14.99.
Mark G. Simon: Ode on a Grecian Urn; Anniversary Sonata; Un Buen Piola Porteño. Linda Larson, soprano; Mark G. Simon, clarinet; Aleeza Meir, piano. Navona. $14.99.
James M. Stephenson: Liquid Melancholy—Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra; Colors; Last Chants; Fantasie; Étude Caprice; Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. John Bruce Yeh, clarinet; Lake Forest Symphony conducted by Vladimir Kulenovic (Concerto); Alex Klein, oboe; Chicago Pro Musica (Colors); Chicago Pro Musica (Chants); Patrick Godon, piano (Fantasie, Étude, Sonata). Cedille. $16.
Contemporary composers of vocal music are nothing if not eclectic in their choice of texts to set. Some of the works by John G. Bilotta and Allan Crossman on a new Navona CD draw on unsurprising sources, while others are considerably more unusual. Bilotta’s works dominate the disc. Yeats Songs (1977) are, as the title indicates, settings of five poems by William Butler Yates, performed here by baritone Andrew R. White and pianist Hadley McCarroll. “The Lover Pleads with His Friend for Old Friends” is suitably dismal, and “The Moods” continues in much the same vein. So does “A Drinking Song,” which is only half a minute long – just enough time for a slight nostalgic flavor. “The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water” is depressing, and it is only in “Maid Quiet” that a touch of tenderness creeps in to counter the generally downbeat mood of the whole cycle, which is darkened further by White’s rich baritone. Renaissance Songs (1976) is quite different, using five texts – by John Donne, George Herbert and others – and sung by tenor Justin Marsh, with McCarroll again on piano. The titles are “Prisoners,” “The Silver Swan,” “Aubade,” “Bitter-Sweet,” and “A Fancy,” and the songs run only about a minute apiece. The piano accompaniment here is more flowing than in the Yeats cycle, the emotions expressed more floridly in the language of the Renaissance and in music that brings them forward. In fact, Bilotta has some interesting ideas for piano expressiveness: the three three-movement sonatinas on this disc are more expressive, all in all, than the Yeats and Renaissance song cycles. Karolina Rojahn plays the sonatinas with suitable delicacy and an understanding of their miniature nature: each lasts less than four minutes, the first being dancelike, the second having a stronger sense of forward momentum, and the third offering some humor in its opening and closing movements (each under a minute long) with a contrasting two-minute Andantino sandwiched between them. Bilotta seems most comfortable creating miniatures, although his remaining two works on this CD are slightly more extended. The Hippocampus’ Monologue (2013), sung by Cass Panuska with McCarroll on piano, is an excerpt from an opera in which some characters are parts of the brain, while Two Songs on American Poetry (1976) uses texts by Carl Sandburg (“Lost”) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (“Prayer to Persephone”). Cass and McCarroll perform these as well, and the music has many of the same characteristics as the Yeats songs despite the very different textual choices.
Two works by Crossman are juxtaposed with those by Bilotta, and here too the composer’s choice of words to set varies quite widely. This is especially evident in 10 Songs, seven performed by mezzo-soprano Megan Stetson and three by bass Richard Mix, with Crossman himself on piano. Four of the songs use words by Federico García Lorca; the other six include an anonymous text from Renaissance Spain and works by Hermann Claudius, Ricarda Huch, James Joyce, Alexander Scriabin, and Louis Phillips. Where Bilotta uses his song cycles mainly to establish a single mood, Crossman uses this one to produce a variety of effects, from the pastoral (to the Spanish text) to the mystic (Scriabin’s words from his “Poem of Ecstasy,” which he later turned into his own music) to the simple and naïve (the text by Phillips, which begins, “Oh to be sixteen again”). Crossman’s other work on this disc is a somewhat too cutely titled piano sonata, performed by Keisuke Nakagoshi. It is a more-or-less impressionistic work, the title “fLux” having a capital L to indicate “Lux” (light) and the second movement following the same pattern, being called “fLight of the Firefly,” the spelling indicating the insect’s light. That movement proffers largely expected fluttering sounds, although some are produced in unusual ways. The first movement, “Moto Atlantico,” is one of the innumerable attempts to bring the feeling of a body of water – here, the Atlantic Ocean – into music. The finale, “Rondo a Pollock,” is by far the most interesting movement, including a touch of polka (in a pun on painter Jackson Pollock’s name) amid a kind of personalized pianistic pastiche that recalls Chopin, Hummel and Beethoven. The CD as a whole offers some interesting contrasts between the two composers’ handling of the piano in a support role for vocal works and as a focus of its own.
The voice appears in only one of the three works by Mark G. Simon on a new Navona CD, but the clarinet – which closely resembles the soprano voice in many ways – appears on them all, played by the composer. That makes the piece combining soprano (Linda Larson) with clarinet and piano (Aleeza Meir) especially interesting. This is Ode on a Grecian Urn (1995), using as its text four of the five stanzas of the familiar poem by John Keats. Simon’s third setting here, “Coming to the Sacrifice,” does a particularly good job of interweaving soprano and clarinet, then moves into an entirely instrumental section that includes a fugue – an especially interesting treatment of the text. The other works on the disc are for clarinet and piano without voice and are performed by Simon and Meir, who sound well-matched in their give-and-take. Anniversary Sonata (1998) is pleasant enough music, less striking than the Keats setting, and perhaps a bit too intensely personal to be readily comprehensible by listeners unfamiliar with its underlying story – which, Simon explains, has to do with his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and his mother’s heart attack. The third work on the disc, Un Buen Piola Porteño (2001), is personal in a different way, being connected with Simon’s interest in learning the Argentine tango. Inevitably, a “tribute” work of this sort bears comparison, for good or ill, with the music of Ástor Piazzolla. But in this case, there is little in common between Piazzolla’s creations and Simon’s. Simon offers three tango themes in a specific order, then “unwinds” them in the opposite sequence, in the middle creating an affecting slower episode. Simon’s music is easy to listen to, confidently tonal and redolent of pop influences. If it is never profound, neither is it ever difficult for the sake of difficulty.
The music of James M. Stephenson is similarly accessible, although less steeped in traditional tonality, on the basis of a new Cedille recording consisting mostly of world premières. Liquid Melancholy, although certainly concerto-ish, is neither particularly melancholy nor especially liquid-like – indeed, at times Stephenson seems to write against the natural flowing line of the clarinet in order to elicit a particular effect, as when he has the instrumental sound leaping about, oboe-like, in the work’s finale. The music certainly demands considerable control from the soloist, in all the clarinet’s registers, and John Bruce Yeh provides that to perfection: as a sheer display of technical skill (not merely virtuosity), this is a most impressive performance. Yeh does equally well in the other extended work here, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, which is also a world première recording. The able partnership of Patrick Godon makes this truly a work of cooperation, and the music is lyrically appealing to a greater extent than is that of the concerto. Actually, “liquid melancholy” is a phrase (originally from the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451) that is more applicable to the first two movements of the four-movement sonata than it is to the concerto that uses the words as its title. In the sonata, though, Stephenson does an abrupt about-face in the third movement, to such an extent that the opening of this movement sounds as if it is being played on a flute. The last movement, with its jazz inflections and high level of sensitivity to the clarinet’s warmth, is a charmer, and Yeh, the work’s dedicatee and its first performer, plays it with smooth beauty that is thoroughly appealing. The shorter works on the disc also show how adept Stephenson is at writing for all the sounds and moods of the clarinet. There are two more world première recordings here: Last Chants, which percolates along nicely in a blend of subtle percussive sounds with themes derived from Near Eastern music; and Fantasie, a blend of a different sort, mixing typical three-quarter-time forms such as waltz and scherzo in sensitive scoring that neatly partners the clarinet and piano. The other two works on the disc are the only ones that have been recorded before. Colors uses oboe as well as clarinet – Stephenson writes well for both – plus string quartet, in four movements that are intended (a bit like those in Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2, The Four Temperaments) to reflect the emotional connotations of specific colors. “Red,” of course, is angry; “Blue” is, well, bluesy; “Green” is pleasantly outdoorsy; and “White” is bright and upbeat. The work is very enjoyable to hear and best not taken too seriously. Also on the disc is the very short Étude Caprice, a delightful little encore (although not placed last on the CD) that gives Yeh a considerable workout that appears not to trouble him at all. Nor will it trouble listeners, who will find its compressed capriciousness thoroughly satisfying as a kind of auditory dessert.
April 05, 2018
Owl Always Love You! By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag. By Rob Sanders. Illustrated by Steven Salerno. Random House. $17.99.
Although many kids’ books are designed to reach the widest possible audience, others are self-limited to specific groups by design. Sandra Magsamen’s sweet little board books, especially the ones with bound-in cute shapes or characters aimed at enhancing the very simple narratives, are for the very youngest children and are intended to be as participatory as possible for infants up to age three or four. A perfect example is Owl Always Love You! Projecting from the top of the book, tightly bound into the back cover, is a smiling mostly-green owl with huge eyes, an upside-down triangle for a nose, and a heart-shaped bright red mouth. This little plush animal virtually duplicates the larger of two owls shown on the book’s cover – the attachment to the story is handled to perfection. And there is more: the bound-in plush owl is actually a finger puppet, so the adult reading the book can make it move back and forth and seem to look down into the book’s pages – its eyes already are cast downward, as if toward the illustrations, so this works quite well. The text, simple as it is, is neatly worked into the appearance both of the larger owl and of the smaller one on the cover, whose body is mostly yellow. Within the book’s pages, only the littler owl is seen; the bigger, parental one looks down from above the binding and participates in the story to the extent that the adult reader arranges things. The tie-ins between the words and the use of the finger puppet are very well done. For example, Magsamen writes, “If you fly up high in a tree, I’ll fly there, too, to see what you see.” The illustration shows the little yellow owl near the top of a tree, looking up at such an angle that the finger puppet’s eyes, looking down, seem to stare directly at the in-book picture. Everything is handled with this level of skill in Owl Always Love You! The result is a book that only looks simple: it fits the age level at which it is aimed perfectly, it is designed for the specific circumstances of an adult reading lovingly to a very young child in a participatory environment, and it is created in such a way as to fit into that environment as smoothly as possible.
The target age range is older, ages 5-8, and the subject matter much weightier, in Rob Sanders’ Pride, but this too is a self-limited book intended for a specific and narrow audience. It is for gay couples who have children living with them, and perhaps for traditional families whose children interact regularly with such couples or have expressed curiosity about them. Despite the age range Sanders writes for, this is not an introductory book about gay rights or the LGBTQ+ community – it is strictly for those who know the topic already and are completely accepting of it. It is a book of hagiography, making activist Harvey Milk and rainbow-flag designer Gilbert Baker into larger-than-life heroes, painting their lives in colors as bright as those of the flag itself while brushing off any opposition to their ideas and activities as mean-spirited if not downright evil. There is plenty of precedent for handling stories like this in this way: books for African-American children and families often portray white people, especially those who lived in the days of legal segregation, as typecast, one-dimensional evildoers. Sanders and illustrator Steven Salerno do not go quite that far, but Pride states directly that the only motivation of Milk and Baker was “to protest inequality and unjust laws,” making it hard for young children to understand how such laws could exist. In one especially dramatic illustration, Salerno shows Milk addressing a huge and completely faceless crowd – only Milk is seen as an individual, with all the crowd members, whether favoring his views or opposing them, simply being blobs of color. The text here says, “Some people listened. A few agreed. Most did not.” But how is that possible, children may ask, when the only thing Milk was talking about was ending “inequality and unjust laws”? Adults will have to fill in a considerable amount of background for young readers of an inquisitive bent. That necessity, and the extremely (and deliberately) unbalanced nature of the narrative here, result in a (+++) overall rating for the book. However, the limited audience at which Pride is directed will have no qualms about rating it (++++) – for that audience, the book will come across as Sanders and Salerno intend, as an assertion of pride in the rainbow flag and the people who brought it into being.
How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents. By Jimmy O. Yang. Da Capo. $27.
The title’s implication, and the author cover photo showing Jimmy O. Yang waving a small American flag with one hand while holding a beer in the other, sitting in a chair with a football on the floor on one side and snack foods spilling onto the floor on the other, certainly combine to imply that How to American will be a romp of some sort. But this turns out, rather quickly, to be misleading. Yes, Yang is a comedian, and yes, his chosen profession initially got little parental support – the book’s back cover even includes a quote from “Jimmy’s Dad” to the effect that “Jimmy is not funny.” But this is not a comedy book per se, and certainly not the sort of written-out version of an existing comedy act that sometimes passes for a book by an entertainer whose job is to generate laughter. Instead, How to American is a memoir, and at times a surprisingly affecting one.
Yang was born in Hong Kong and moved to the United States just before starting high school. Amusingly, he learned English by watching Black Entertainment Television and seeing rap videos – and he got into standup comedy after college with stories like the one about his white friends asking him to order Chinese food in Mandarin, even at Panda Express from a server named Consuela. When it comes to trying to break into comedy, Yang’s experience is not really all that unusual, although his way of commenting when things go well is a bit offbeat: “The crowd ate it up like it was orange chicken with a side of chow mein.” The financial reality, on the other hand, is pretty straightforward: “I didn’t get paid a single penny that night, but I did score a six-pack of Bud Light.” Other “nonmonetary payments for a stand-up set,” Yang explains, include “weed,” “high-fives,” “unsolicited career advice,” and “one food item from the left side of the menu.”
Professionally, Yang’s career took off after he landed a role on the HBO series Silicon Valley. But How to American is not simply a success story filled with self-praise – it is more interesting and amusing than that. Each chapter is a how-to of some sort: “How to Get High,” “How to Strip Club DJ,” “How to Hollywood,” etc. Within many chapters are subsections with titles such as “Too Cool for Prom, but Not Really,” “I Got Arsenio Canceled,” and “Lap Dance Salesman.” The material within the chapters and subchapters is not particularly revelatory, so what makes the book worth reading is the way Yang describes what has happened to him. For instance, discussing “ten extra minutes on stage” at one point, he explains, “It’s like being on a first date and completely running out of things to say, so you sit there twiddling your thumbs wanting to kill yourself, except instead of one girl judging you, it’s a hundred drunk people judging you on a brightly lit stage.”
It is the self-deprecating sense of humor, more than Yang’s eventual success at landing the role of Jian Yang on Silicon Valley, that is really of interest here, although the book may have particular appeal for fans of the show who want the inside story, such as it is, of one of the program’s stars. It is, to be sure, sometimes a bit hard to know just how seriously to take what Yang says, since some of the occurrences he describes are so clichéd: “I was so flustered, I forgot how to be nervous.” “I was suddenly thrown into a fantasy world.” What is not difficult, though, is to empathize with Yang, his attempt to fit in after a move to a new and strange country, his friendly writing style that makes it difficult to do anything but like him, his eventual success, his willingness to say things such as, “The day you buy your 55-inch flat screen and throw away your old Zenith tube TV is one of the best days of your life.” There is nothing profound in How to American, nothing revelatory about life in general or Hollywood in particular; but there is a great deal about what it feels like in the 21st century to be a recent immigrant to the United States (a legal immigrant; no big sociopolitical stances here), and to have the pluck and luck to succeed in a new country. For today’s immigrants, unlike so many of those who passed through Ellis Island more than a century ago, there remains a strong tie to “where I came from” rather than a desire to escape fully from “the old country” – or at least this is so for Yang. He encapsulates the feeling in one of his most-sensitive sentences, after a visit to the place where he was born: “When I came home to LA from Hong Kong, I felt like I had left my real home to come back to the place I called home.” Yang is not a deep thinker, but that is a deeper thought than many memoirs ever produce.
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $27.99 (2 CDs).
Korngold: Violin Concerto; Bernstein: Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium.” Liza Ferschtman, violin; Prague Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Malát (Korngold); Het Gelders Orkest conducted by Christian Vásquez (Bernstein). Challenge Classics. $19.99 (SACD).
Verdi, Puccini and Massenet: Opera Scenes and Arias. Marie-Josée Lord, soprano; Orchestre symphonique de Laval conducted by Alain Trudel. ATMA Classique. $16.99.
Ricky Ian Gordon: Too Few the Mornings Be (Eleven Songs for Soprano and Piano); Jake Heggie: Eve-Song. Emily Sternfeld-Dunn, soprano; Amanda Pfenninger, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Haydn: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Zuill Bailey, cello; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robin O’Neill. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Even when music of the Romantic era is as familiar as Brahms’ symphonies, there is room for a conductor to find something new to explore, something new to express through the music. And Robin Ticciati finds quite a few new things to say in his Brahms cycle on Linn Records. His Symphony No. 1, in particular, is a triumph, with the 50-odd members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra producing a sound of heft without heaviness, giving Brahms a clarity of expression – especially in the middle voices – that is genuinely revelatory. Ticciati chooses quick tempos, but does not hesitate to let the music breathe and expand when that is appropriate: his introduction to the finale is truly exceptional. And the use of small-bore trombones and 19th-century trumpets results in absolutely first-rate balance of brass against strings, again adding to the clarity of the musical lines and the effectiveness of the work’s overall expressiveness. Were it not for a touch too much rubato in the main portion of the finale, this would be a genuinely superb performance – in fact, it very nearly is one despite the occasional excesses. The other three symphonies are also packed with excellent moments, despite some less-than-excellent decision-making. Ticciati makes an egregious mistake – in sports it would be called an unforced error – in No. 2, by omitting the repeat of the exposition in the first movement, resulting in a movement that is not the longest in Brahms’ symphonies, as it should be. It is possible this was done to ensure that Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 would fit on a single disc, but if so, that was a poor decision, since the timings of Ticciati’s readings mean the repeat could have been accommodated by pairing No. 1 with No. 4 and No. 2 with No. 3. More than that, though, this omission is a significant one in terms of the scope and balance of the symphony, apart from the esthetic harm done by depriving audiences of re-hearing the wonderful first few minutes of the symphony’s opening movement. The rest of No. 2 is excellent, with the second movement warm and sensitive and the finale particularly perky – rendering the first-movement problem all the more stark. Symphony No. 3 is the only one in which the comparatively small string section seems to work against the music: the warmth that pervades this work is insufficiently evident in this quick and rather cool performance, and the touches of rubato are on the intrusive side – although the finale is an effective capstone. Rubato also does little good in the first movement of No. 4, although here the rest of the symphony is at a very high interpretative level: the second movement is simply lovely, the third has all the liveliness one would hope for from Brahms’ sole symphonic scherzo, and the variations in the finale are pointed, elegant and beautifully balanced. This is, in totality, a very, very good Brahms cycle, and one in which niceties and insights of all sorts percolate through continually – although, unfortunately, so do touches of fussiness and excess.
The spirit of the Romantic era remains very much in evidence in the violin concerto by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which is a bit surprising for such a late work: Korngold (1897-1957) had moved somewhat beyond this style by 1945, when he created this piece, although it certainly reflects the way his earlier music sounded. It also reflects his many film scores: the concerto is riddled with quotations from them, and they fit into the musical flow quite naturally and without drawing attention to themselves in the way that, say, the quotations in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 do. The pacing of the concerto’s first two movements is relaxed, while the third is bright, upbeat and makes quite delightful use of pizzicato passages. Liza Ferschtman plays the work very well, with considerable flair in the finale, on a new Challenge Classics SACD that also includes an interesting Leonard Bernstein piece from 1954: Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium.” This is a five-movement set of character pieces exploring various participants in Plato’s gathering: first Phaedrus and Pausanias, then Aristophanes, followed by Eryximachus, then Agathon, and finally Socrates and Alcibiades. The serenade is scarcely as accessible as Bernstein’s works for more-popular audiences, and a full appreciation of the music does require knowing something of the underlying impetus for the music. Even without that knowledge, though, listeners can readily appreciate the ebullience of the third-movement Presto, the beauty of the fourth-movement Adagio, and the many felicitous instrumental touches in a score that uses only strings, harp and percussion along with the solo violin. Bernstein’s lyricism is different from Korngold’s and seems less directly tied to the Romantic era, but both these works are attractively expressive and provide Ferschtman with plenty of opportunities for both virtuosity and warmth. The two orchestras and conductors offer able if rather bland backup, with the more-polished sound of the Prague Symphony Orchestra being more engaging.
The orchestral backup is actually one of the positive distinguishing features on a new ATMA Classique recording mostly featuring opera excerpts sung by soprano Marie-Josée Lord. Bernstein makes an appearance here, too: Lord’s encore is Somewhere from West Side Story, and this piece gives the singer a chance to delve further into the pop-music scene in which she has been focused for several years. In opera, Lord has been best-known for her Puccini, and the excerpts here from La Bohème, Madama Butterfly and Suor Angelica (a Lord specialty) justify the high regard in which she was held when she first emerged as a classical soprano. The three Puccini arias are placed between four works by Verdi and four by Massenet, with the CD’s overall theme encapsulated in its one-word title, “Femmes.” It is indeed a disc focusing on important female characters in opera, although scarcely unique in that regard – indeed, sopranos (and mezzos) produce material of this sort all the time. Lord does a more-than-respectable job with the oversize emotions of her heroines, and there are a few surprises here, notably the fact that O patria mia from Aida is more affecting and altogether more convincing than the more-familiar Ritorna vincitor. The other Verdi works are from La Traviata: the opera’s prelude, in which the Orchestre symphonique de Laval shines under Alain Trudel, and the rather odd combination of E strano with the vivacious Sempre libera – which could use a touch more abandonment and, ideally, an underlying sense of desperation, rather than the rather too-happy treatment it gets in Lord’s enthusiastic rendition. The Massenet excerpts include two from Hérodiade and one each from Le Cid and Thaïs, and Lord handles everything with suitable emotional heft and understanding. This is, on balance, a (+++) disc that will primarily be of interest to existing fans of the soprano – especially ones interested in seeing how she has returned to a level of classical focus after appearing for a while to be more comfortable in the popular-music field.
Another soprano-focused CD with a very distinct feminine slant is a new (+++) Navona release featuring works by Ricky Ian Gordon and Jake Heggie: the disc’s title is, very simply and directly, “She.” Although both composers are men, both pieces here focus on women and are performed by women. Gordon’s Too Few the Mornings Be is a set of 11 settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, most of them quite short and all of them reaching out in Dickinson’s inimitable epigrammatic and inquisitive tone. “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” is especially impressive, particularly in this context, but all the settings are nicely done, with pianist Amanda Pfenninger having a sure sense of when to fade into the background so soprano Emily Sternfeld-Dunn can dominate the vocal-instrumental conversation, and when to move more forward to reinforce the poems’ emotional messages. As for Heggie’s Eve-Song, to words by Philip Littell, it shows a composer best known for his operas producing a dramatic and complex portrait of a single person – the biblical Eve – through music so variegated that the eight movements collectively reinforce the notion of Eve as the mother of the entire human race. Like Dickinson, Littell’s Eve has more questions than answers; but beyond that, she has strong viewpoints, considerable enthusiasm and a refreshing sense of humor that goes well beyond anything biblical. She also shows a level of kindness that gives this musical portrait a distinctly modern sensibility: Eve is as multifaceted as Heggie’s music (which draws on everything from chant to jazz) can make her. There is an underlying sense of advocacy in Eve-Song, a kind of “cause” mentality to the work in a quasi-sociopolitical sense, asserting an Eve quite different from the “first sinner” found in Genesis. Stripped of this somewhat overdone gloss, though, Eve-Song is an interesting interpretation (or reinterpretation) of the character and a work in which both Heggie as composer and Sternfeld-Dunn and Pfenninger as performers are able to explore both femininity and feminism.
If the Gordon/Heggie CD has largely moved beyond musical Romanticism, Zuill Bailey’s new Steinway & Sons recording of Haydn’s Cello Concertos in C and D has fastened onto the Romantic sensibility and applied some of it to music written before the Romantic era existed. Bailey favors a big sound, and his Matteo Goffriller cello is quite capable of producing it – but the sound tends to overawe some of Haydn’s music in these concertos, as if the notes are not quite up to the declamatory quality that Bailey brings to them. This is scarcely a full-blown Romantic interpretation: Robin O’Neill leads the Philharmonia Orchestra with some sensitivity to period style, although this is not describable as a historically informed performance. And Bailey’s always-formidable technique is as impressive here as it is in the sorts of Romantic works for which it is better fitted. Haydn was not a cellist and, indeed, not especially adept at composing concertos, certainly not when compared with Mozart: Haydn’s are pleasant, nicely balanced and extremely well-constructed, but generally lack the flair that Mozart brought to his. What Bailey does in this (+++) recording is supply some of that flair – but whether he does so appropriately in terms of the scores will be a matter of opinion. This is quite a short CD, only 48 minutes: it contains the two concertos and nothing else. It thus comes across as something of a “souvenir” disc, the kind of thing that Bailey’s fans might pick up on their way out the door after a satisfying concert. That is perfectly fine, and certainly the actual cello playing here is refined, tonally beautiful and carefully balanced against and matched to the first-rate support of the orchestra. But there is a bit of an underlying mismatch between the way Bailey approaches this music and the way Haydn wrote it: this is Classical-era material, and even though Bailey shows some restraint in handling it, his performances leave the impression that he is keeping a desire for full-blown Romanticism in check only by force of will.