June 28, 2018
Smiley’s Dream Book. By Jeff Smith. Color by Tom Gaapt. Graphix/Scholastic. $17.99.
How to Be a Lion. By Ed Vere. Doubleday. $17.99.
Jeff Smith’s Bone universe continues to expand with Smith’s first picture book for young readers, Smiley’s Dream Book. Smith developed the Bone world and characters in comic books, and when Scholastic picked up the nine novels of the main sequence, the publisher created an entirely new division called Graphix to publish Bone. Just as Graphix has now grown far beyond the Bone series – which itself includes three supplementary graphic novels and an illustrated-novel trilogy called Quest for the Spark – so Bone has grown into the picture-book area with Smith’s latest work. The tall, thin, childlike and rather simple-minded Bone cousin, Smiley, is a natural as the protagonist of this very simple story. Frequently seen with his tongue hanging out, as on the cover and title page here (among other pages), Smiley introduces young readers to a basic counting book while walking through the woods and seeing birds singing. These are not ordinary birds: some wear hats or scarves. And as Smiley says when more and more birds appear and he loses count, “I guess there are a lot of birds singing.” Smiley sees them up close, because he flaps his arms while counting and actually flies among the avian singers, leading to a wonderful two-page wordless drawing of Smiley, arms spread, eyes closed, smiling broadly as a whole flock of birds in shades of purple (a fine choice by color artist Tom Gaapt) circles around him. All the gaiety is interrupted after a few more wordless pages, though: a hawk attacks the flock with a very loud, “KAW!” But despite the hawk’s maneuverability, it does not reckon with Smiley: just before the predator can catch a bird that wears a stocking cap, Smiley comes between it and its intended prey, scaring the hawk away and leading all the birds to crowd happily around Smiley. And then Smiley begins counting them again, starting at 10 and going down this time, until he eventually floats gently to the ground – and wakes up, realizing “it was a dream the whole time!” So Smiley happily returns to his woodland nap, although the final-page drawing of a top-hat-wearing bird that has been seen several times leaves readers to wonder just how much of a dream the experience really was, and how much of it was the sort of offbeat Bone reality that makes Smith’s books such a pleasure to read (and see). Fans of the original Bone series get a bonus here: the back flap of the book cover is a Smith self-portrait that includes the other two Bone cousins and the Great Red Dragon. And removing the protective book cover reveals that the actual front and back covers of the book differ from what the overlay shows – with the back being a full-page picture of the argumentative and irascible Phoney Bone looking out at readers and asking, “HEY! When do I get my own book?” Maybe next time?
There is also something dreamy, in a kind of dream landscape, in Ed Vere’s How to Be a Lion. But this is not a book written for amusement or to take young readers on an adventure. It is a message book that seeks to deliver its comments on lifestyle acceptance and the power of words through a simple, direct and charming story. The protagonists are Leonard the Lion and his best friend, Marianne – who is a duck. This sort of friendship is simply not done among lions, as Vere explains emphatically and as three other lions tell Leonard in no uncertain terms. But even before those other lions show up – indeed, before Marianne appears – Vere explains that Leonard is a different sort of lion, a sweet-tempered one who likes to walk “to his thinking hill,” where “sometimes he daydreams” or “hums quietly and plays with words…making them into poems.” Yes, Leonard is a poet – and that turns out to be what he has in common with Marianne when she shows up one day. Soon the two are spending lots of time together, talking and playing and going for walks and reading poetry books (Leonard’s carries the title of the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken). But then the fierce lions show up and demand that Leonard be fierce, too – which he does not want to be. So he and Marianne think long and hard about what to do and how to communicate their feelings – and eventually come up with a jointly written poem whose core lines are, “Let nobody say/ just one way is true./ There are so many ways/ that you can be you.” And this statement of (and plea for) tolerance turns out to be magical, immediately leaving the three fierce lions looking open-eyed and thoughtful; one is already staring happily and decidedly un-fiercely at two butterflies flying by. So everything is sweetness and light, poetry is triumphant, and the message that all ways of and approaches to life are equally good is communicated with gentle finality. If only real life were as simple as this! But of course Vere wants it to be this simple, and hopes that by presenting this material so adorably (the drawings are real charmers), he will inspire young readers to be themselves in any way they choose – and to let other people be themselves, too. The flaw, of course, is that readers who are human versions of the initially fierce lions are not likely to read this book or, if they do, are not likely to be convinced by it. But tolerance has to start somewhere, and if Vere can get it started with a few very young children through this good-natured and delicate little fable, then who knows what will happen as those children grow and interact with the fierce beings they are sure to encounter?
Pignic. By Matt Phelan. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! By Cate Berry. Pictures by Charles Santoso. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Wonderful watercolor illustrations are the biggest immediate attraction of Matt Phelan’s Pignic, a sweet and simple story of a seven-pig family heading outdoors for a sweet and simple summertime ritual – complete with picnic basket and kite. On closer inspection, though, there is more to Pignic, which gently calls up the sorts of stories and circumstances that very young readers and pre-readers will likely already know about pigs. At the story’s start, for instance, all the pigs are sauntering across a meadow toward a suitable picnic place, but on the far left – in a strongly contrasting blue color – there is a wolf. Uh-oh! And then, when the pigs reach a suitable spot, complete with a tree to climb, one piglet simply can’t get up into even the lowest branch. Uh-oh again! But things work out quickly and happily here. A very large passing tortoise kindly allows the small piglet to stand on top of his shell, giving him enough of a boost so he can reach the lowest tree branch. And what about the wolf? He seems to be sneaking up on two piglets who are about to fly a kite, but what actually happens is that there is no wind to get the kite airborne, so one little pig gestures from the wolf to the kite, clearly asking for some help, and sure enough, the wolf gives a big huff and a big puff and the kite soars into the air: “Hooray!” In fact, any and all adversity on this lovely day turns out to be only temporary: just as the pig parents lay out all the “p” foods they have brought – pretzels, pies, pickles and plums – dark clouds suddenly appear and there is a huge downpour. Uh-oh! Well, actually not uh-oh, since these are, after all, pigs, and pigs like nothing more than to wallow in mud, of which there is now an abundance. So the pig family members are all smiles as they slosh and splash around, eventually ending up completely covered in muck and heading home to the words, “What a perfect day for a pignic.” Yes, perfect indeed.
One piglet is already asleep on the papa pig’s shoulders as the pigs of Pignic approach their house, but sleep is the farthest thing from the mind and interest of Penguin and Tiny Shrimp in Cate Berry’s Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! These two characters are not going to go to bed: “We don’t do bedtime!” says Tiny Shrimp very directly. The two friends spend some time explaining what will not be in the book: no toothbrushing, no bath time, no soft beds, no squishy pillows, no sheep to count, no stars on which to wish. So what is in the book? Glad you asked! “This book has fireworks!” yells Penguin, as bright colors explode all around. “And running through the Serengeti!” he says, as a lion chases Penguin, one of the sheep, and Tiny Shrimp (who is wearing four sneakers). And there is much more, such as “sailing in shark-infested waters,” which seems to alarm even the lion, who has joined the no-bedtime parade. There are songs here, the characters explain, and silly jokes, and even “a Uni-Hippo,” which is, yes, a hippopotamus sporting a single unicorn horn right in the middle of its skull. “One thing this book will never do is make you tired,” exclaims Penguin, by this time surrounded by lots of animals and characters from the various scenes, including an octopus, guitar-playing dog, smiling star, accordion-wielding cat, and of course the Uni-Hippo. “This book will never make you yawn,” continues Penguin, stifling a, um, yawn – while Tiny Shrimp finds himself yawning also. In fact, suddenly all the characters are yawning, even the star. And despite Penguin’s flat-out statement that “my eyelids aren’t heavy at all,” one eye is soon half-closed, and most of the other characters are flopping down together in a big heap of sleepiness – and then dozing off. And at that point, Penguin and Tiny Shrimp climb into bed and are immediately fast asleep as well, leaving the very tired Uni-Hippo to have the last word: “This book will see you in the morning.” A bedtime book with a difference, and a very amusing one both in the writing and in Charles Santoso’s delightfully daffy illustrations, this tale of Penguin and Tiny Shrimp is a neat way to reflect young readers’ own determination not to go to sleep until their bodies simply give out and they have no choice but to “do bedtime.”
The Supernormal Sleuthing Service No. 2: The Sphinx’s Secret. By Gwenda Bond & Christopher Rowe. Illustrated by Glenn Thomas. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Gabby Garcia’s Ultimate Playbook #2: MVP Summer. By Iva-Marie Palmer. Illustrations by Marta Kissi. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $12.99.
Marge in Charge. By Isla Fisher. Illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans. Harper. $6.99.
Marge in Charge #2: Marge in Charge and the Stolen Treasure. By Isla Fisher. Illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans. Harper. $15.99.
Series starters for preteens tend to follow a predictable path – and so do series’ second entries. The first books need to introduce the characters and basic settings, establish underlying plot points and the reasons for the protagonists to be doing whatever they may be doing, and create an environment designed to lure readers ages 8-12 into the whole milieu in which the series will take place. Second books need to pick up where the first ones leave off but also move beyond explanations and world-creation and into actual adventures. Otherwise, readers who enjoy the first book of a series are unlikely to stick around through the second and even less likely to be back for the third and any beyond that. Much of the time, second books in series end up being pretty formulaic, taking the characters in predictable directions based on whatever setup was offered in the first book – these second entries almost read like continuations of the initial volume rather than genuine launches of stories that can theoretically go on through quite a few later iterations. Once in a while, though, a second book of a series proves significantly better than the first, and this is what happens with The Supernormal Sleuthing Service by Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe. The idea here is that supernatural beings, known among themselves as supernormals, coexist with but are invisible to ordinary humans, and congregate from time to time in a New York City hotel of whose existence everyday New Yorkers are unaware. The first series book, The Lost Legacy, was clunky, uncertain of how to balance mystery with humor and just how to present the various characters. Its task was made difficult by the authors’ decision to have the central character, Stephen Lawson, initially totally unaware of the existence of supernormals and of his own relationship to them: he is half fey, but his human father never told him that or, indeed, gave him the slightest bit of information about his heritage or about his long-missing fey mother. Using Stephen as a conduit through which to introduce readers to the supernormal world made theoretical sense, but the book also tried to put together the other two kids who, with Stephen, would make up the sleuthing service of the title: Ivan, son of two supernormal-world detectives, “a short boy about Stephen’s age” with “close-cropped red hair and glasses,” and Sofia, daughter of high-ranking supernormal-world diplomats, “a girl with a high, curly ponytail and a flouncy black dress.” Bond and Rowe also presented various other characters, set up the good guys and bad guys, and produced a mystery for the young sleuths to solve. The whole book was overly complicated and did not hang together very well – but The Sphinx’s Secret is much better. Here the three-person sleuthing team already exists, and the whole story revolves around a powerful but dishonest sorcerer who tricks a sphinx into allowing him entry to a place from which the sorcerer can then select any magical item he wants. The result of the trickery is that the sphinx turns to stone and the whole magical world is at risk from the sorcerer – so it makes narrative sense that the adults focus on dealing with the sorcerer and preserving their way of life while the kids, to whom the sphinx was a friend, pay attention to the possibility of returning the sphinx to a living state by proving that the sorcerer cheated in the sphinx’s riddle test. Some of the intriguing subsidiary characters from the first book reappear in the second, the best of them being a talkative and highly self-conscious elevator that steals the scene every time it appears, and indeed has as much personality as the three team members put together. The balance of mystery/adventure on the one hand and humor on the other is much more solid in the second book than in the first, and the young sleuths hit their stride in The Sphinx’s Secret instead of mostly blundering their way along as they did in The Lost Legacy. On the basis of its second book more than its first, The Supernormal Sleuthing Service seems to be a series that preteen readers will be able to enjoy for some time to come.
Second series entries do not usually work out this well. Sometimes authors essentially try to duplicate in a second book what they produced in the first. That is Iva-Marie Palmer’s approach in the (+++) Gabby Garcia’s Ultimate Playbook #2: MVP Summer. The first Gabby Garcia book established the title character as a baseball-obsessed pitcher who tries to get through her everyday life by creating a “playbook” through which she will handle all the anticipated needs and difficulties she may face. Of course, she ends up with unanticipated needs and difficulties – mild ones – and has to rethink the playbook or think beyond it. The specific challenges change in the second book, but not much else does. This time Gabby’s pitching skill gets her invited to join an elite baseball league, and her slightly quirky charm gets her asked out by her crush – but the main issue in the book involves her bestie, Diego, with whom she has been friends just about since birth (both were born at the same time). Diego has been in Costa Rica and has discovered there that he is fascinated by birds and birdwatching – something in which Gabby has no interest whatsoever, try as she may to share his enthusiasm. Diego is therefore pulling back from baseball, to which Gabby is fanatically devoted, and the result is estrangement between the friends and a summer that does not seem as if it is going to result in Gabby attaining MVP status on the field or retaining solid ongoing friendship away from it. And then Gabby finds out that she has been awarded a scholarship to a prestigious private school, meaning she and Diego will not even be in the same classes after summer ends, and pretty much everything seems dire. But not for long: it quickly turns out that nothing but simple miscommunication has been going on all along, Diego cares about Gabby as much as always and is thrilled about her upcoming school opportunity, and of course she gets the MVP award she had hoped and planned for as a climax of the summer. The Gabby Garcia’s Ultimate Playbook series is very heavily illustrated – the books are not graphic novels, but Marta Kissi’s pictures are integral to them and crucial to their effect rather than being mere enhancements (as are the illustrations by Glenn Thomas in The Supernormal Sleuthing Service books). Gabby’s poetry – yes, she writes poems, apparently so Palmer can indicate that she is more than just a star baseball player – are also sprinkled throughout the book and used, along with the pictures, to help advance the story. Young readers who enjoyed the first Gabby Garcia book will have equal fun with this one, since it is so similar that their reading experience will essentially be duplicated.
In some series, second books are not on the same level as first ones, as in the Gabby Garcia novels – they are a step down. It may not be a big step, but it is a step nevertheless. That is the case in Isla Fisher’s second entry in the (+++) Marge in Charge series. The first book, originally published in 2016 and now available in paperback, has a title that might lead young readers to imagine that Marge is “large and in charge,” but in fact a big part of the setup here involves Marge being very small – about the size of many children, even though she is an adult, and an older one at that. Marge is a babysitter for the Button family, whose seven-year-old daughter, Jemima, narrates the books on behalf of herself and her four-year-old brother, Jakey (also known as Jakeypants). The magical-babysitter trope has a long history, most famously including P.L. Travers’ books about Mary Poppins, but Marge in Charge never comes even slightly close to the delights of Travers’ creation. Marge has multicolored hair (“green, blue, orange, red, and yellow”) that she always conceals under a hat or scarf when adults are around, and in each story – there are three per book – she has fun with the kids while working around their straitlaced parents’ posted rules. This is a harmless and perfectly enjoyable setup, and it works nicely in the first book, which largely consists of Marge telling improbable stories to Jemima and Jakey about her past: she explains that she is a duchess who used to live in a palace with 779 rooms, and she has “ten pets: three white miniature ponies, three swans, two polka-dot Pomeranian puppies, a long-tooth ferret, and an albino water buffalo.” None of the pets ever makes an appearance – the only pets here are the Button family’s “pug-nosed puppy dog,” Archie, and two pet snails named Bill and Bob – so the truth (or not) of Marge’s stories is never established. What matters, though, is simply that Marge and the kids have loads of fun; everything gets tremendously messed up before the parents come home; Marge manages to clean and rearrange everything just in time (whether through magic or skill is also something never firmly established); and even things that the kids do not want to do, dislike doing or are afraid to do become enjoyable when Marge leads the way. She is unstoppable in a very pleasant, wholesome and frequently highly amusing way – as when she ends up helping out with music class at school and gets her head stuck in a tuba.
The problem with the second book in the series, Marge in Charge and the Stolen Treasure, is that Marge is no longer quite unstoppable, no longer quite in command of everything, and no longer quite as unflappable as in the first book. The reason is that Fisher here introduces Jemima and Jakey’s baby cousin, Zara – and as Jemima says, “even though Zara looks like an angel, she is definitely not one.” No, indeed – no matter how hard Eglantine Ceulemans tries to make this little one look sweet, she is not nice, not endearing, not cutely mischievous, not fun and not funny. And even though she is certainly in diapers and has supposedly just recently learned to crawl, she somehow manages to grab things from Jemima and Jakey and Marge and scoot away with them so quickly and efficiently that none of them, not even Marge, can catch her. This makes absolutely no sense, and it thoroughly undermines the idea of Marge being “in charge.” For that matter, it undermines making Marge the central character in the book: everything in Marge in Charge and the Stolen Treasure revolves around Zara, in all three stories, and that makes the whole book decidedly less interesting than the first series entry. By the time of the third story, a wedding at which Jemima is supposed to be ring bearer – except that Zara manages to steal the rings, hide them where nobody (not even Marge) can find them, then scoot around so quickly and adeptly that nobody (not even Marge) can catch her, it has become abundantly clear that good-natured Marge, even though she barely manages to restore order to the chaos, is not able to handle Zara’s not-funny-at-all behavior and antics. By having Zara repeatedly outmaneuver Marge in this way, even though Marge eventually comes out on top, Fisher diminishes Marge as a character and reduces the quality of the entire Marge in Charge series: Marge is not really in charge when Zara is present. The first Marge in Charge book is amusing enough, if somewhat bland and predictable, but the second is a real disappointment that comes close to undermining the whole premise of the series. Hopefully Fisher will put Marge back in charge when the sequence continues.
Beethoven: Complete Works for Cello and Piano. Marc Coppey, cello; Peter Laul, piano. Audite. $25.99 (2 CDs).
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 5. Norman Krieger, piano; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Decca. $15.
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1; Capriccio in D minor, Op. 116, No. 1; Intermezzo in A minor, Op. 116, No. 2; Ballade in B, Op, 10, No. 4. Norman Krieger, piano; Virginia Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Artisie 4 Recordings. $15.
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Sonata No. 1. Norman Krieger, piano; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Philip Ryan Mann. Decca. $15.
The major works of Beethoven and Brahms are so familiar, and have been performed and recorded by so many outstanding musicians over so long a time period, that their genuinely innovative nature can sometimes get lost. So can the ability of certain performers to bring out the intricacies of even the best-known of these pieces in ways that shine an intriguing spotlight on elements that are not always in the forefront. Doing this – making highly familiar material sound genuinely new – sometimes requires considerable daring on the part of performers. And that is precisely what Cellist Marc Coppey and pianist Peter Laul offer on a new two-CD Audite set of Beethoven’s five cello-and-piano sonatas, plus his three sets of variations for these instruments. This is a live recording made in one day, taking performers and audience alike through this music chronologically and with tremendous style. The cello-and-piano sonatas are very clear examples of the usual division of Beethoven’s music into early, middle and late periods – a division also seen in the symphonies and piano sonatas but not, for example, in the piano concertos, which are early- and middle-period works only. For performers to trace Beethoven’s development as Coppey and Laul do, with sensitivity and a firm understanding of the way the composer’s style matured and changed in so many ways over time, is an exceptional accomplishment. Only musicians of the highest caliber would even be likely to attempt a survey of this sort on the basis of live recordings. That Coppey and Laul bring it off successfully is genuinely remarkable. The two play together with such solidity and refinement that it is often impossible to say which of them is taking the lead and who is taking the accompaniment role. And this works surpassingly well in the cello-and-piano sonatas, in which Beethoven – even in the two earliest, which retain largely Classical proportions – balances the instruments to a degree quite surprising for a virtuoso pianist such as himself. The first two sonatas, in F and in G minor, follow a two-movement form common in the Classical period, with the first movement being much longer and weightier. But already here Beethoven strikes out in a new direction, opening each sonata with an extended slow introduction that, in the second work, is nearly as long as a separate slow movement. These early-period sonatas contrast strongly with the sole middle-period one, No. 3 in A, which is in three movements that are all in fast tempos: its sole concession to a slower pace is the introduction to the finale. Coppey and Laul convey a fine sense of the headlong rush of this work and its greater intertwining of instruments than in the first two sonatas. As for the final two, late-period sonatas, No. 4 in C is another two-movement work, but here the movements are about the same length and are short: this is a compressed, concise and rather harsh work balanced more toward the end than the beginning. No. 5 in D returns to the three-movement form and features a remarkable central Adagio con molto sentiment d’affetto that looks forward to the late string quartets and back toward Bach at the same time – and leads to a fugal finale that also shows Beethoven’s way of reinterpreting that which came before. Coppey and Laul play the three variation sets as “punctuation points” among the sonatas – after Nos. 1, 2 and 3 – and use them to provide balance and a lighter experience than the sonatas themselves offer. The first set is on a well-known theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, the second and third on themes from Mozart’s The Magic Flute – with the second set of variations, on Papageno’s Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen, being the most sophisticated and unusual of the three, even including a minor-key Adagio variation that somehow manages to wring a tragic sound from essentially light and airy material. The daring with which Coppey and Laul approach all this material, and their willingness to perform all of it in one extended sitting before an audience, result in an outstanding recording that holds listeners’ attention and attentiveness throughout its two-and-a-half hours, all the while showcasing both Beethoven’s compositional development and the performers’ thorough understanding of and attunement to it.
Laul is scarcely the only pianist whose deep feeling for Beethoven’s style, structure and stature leads to strong and sensitive performances. Norman Krieger’s pianism on a new Decca CD featuring Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 5 (“Emperor”) results in a disc that is also remarkably well-handled and a front-runner in an extremely crowded field of recordings of these works. And what is equally interesting about this recording is the excellence of the accompaniment by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta. Many conductors dislike the “accompanist” role for their ensembles, but Falletta seems to relish it, taking advantage of every opportunity to show the many ways in which Beethoven’s use of the orchestra in these concertos sets off and deepens the piano’s centrality. Over her years at its helm, Falletta has turned the Buffalo Philharmonic into a top-notch ensemble: in this recording, the strings are sweet and warm, the winds are lively and very well balanced (the flute-and-bassoon duet in the Largo of No. 3 is a high point), the brass has nuance worthy of the sound of Central European orchestras, and the timpani add just the right touch of piquancy and drama again and again. As for Krieger, he here shows himself, above all, to be an intelligent virtuoso, not just a thoughtful one (although he is that as well). There is a sense of control everywhere: in the steady rhythms of the first movement of No. 3, the careful proportions of that concerto’s second movement, the expansiveness of the latter part of the first movement of No. 5, and the exceptional beauty of the piano’s first entry in that concerto’s second movement. The Krieger-Falletta pairing is one of insight as well as musicianship: again and again, the way piano and orchestra play off each other is impressive and involving, with a sense of rightness that approaches the revelatory. Of course, as with any performance of these works, it is possible to nitpick some specifics: for example, the finale of No. 3 seems rather held-back until the coda, the opening flourishes of No. 5 are on the mild side, and that concerto’s last movement seems rather matter-of-fact. Even these less-than-ideal elements, though, seem to emerge from thoughtfulness, from a desire to let the music unfold without being overplayed or subjected to Romantic-era excesses (again, these concertos are middle-period Beethoven, not late Beethoven). This live recording of the Third and Fifth stands up to just about any other performed on a modern piano (those using the type of fortepiano for which Beethoven actually wrote, and against whose inadequacies he railed even as he sought to overcome them, are in a different class). Both Krieger and Falletta refuse to produce straightforward Beethoven here: each seeks, and finds, numerous small, elegant touches to bring forward, both separately and together.
Krieger and Falletta have actually shown their joint mettle repeatedly, and at times to an even greater degree than in the Beethoven concertos – which were recorded over a surprisingly long time period, No. 3 in 2004 and No. 5 in 2015. Between those dates, in 2007, Krieger and Falletta got together for a genuinely eloquent live performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, in which Falletta led not the Buffalo Philharmonic but the lesser (although still more than adequate) forces of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, another ensemble of which Falletta has long been the artistic director. All the best characteristics of their Beethoven disc are here as well: the intelligence, sensitivity, mutual respect, and excellence of interplay. Add to those a palpable sense of excitement in live performance, with touches of rubato and carefully building emotional sincerity limned by rhythmic sensitivity and a thoroughgoing understanding of the vast symphonic sweep of the score, and you have a recording in which the exceptionally high level of involvement of the performers comes through both audibly and emotionally to listeners. Nothing is out of place here: the subtlety of Krieger’s first-movement opening and the amazingly effective way it intertwines with Falletta’s handling of the orchestral entry; the discipline and care that both Krieger and Falletta put at the service of an unabashedly Romantic interpretation of a concerto that they appropriately conceptualize on the grand scale of a symphony; even the recorded sound, whose vividness complements the performers’ approach beautifully. As in the Beethoven disc, Falletta seems especially focused on the woodwinds and brass, which accordingly play with drive, enthusiasm and unending expressivity. This is, by any measure, a gem of a Brahms First Concerto, one that stands up against any other available and is as thrilling on CD as it must have been when performed at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk more than a decade ago. It is complemented by three studio-recorded encores that show just how carefully Krieger pays attention to detail not only when performing with an orchestra but also when playing piano solos. There are the first two of Brahms’ Op. 116 Seven Pieces, late works that contrast in significant ways with the early First Concerto but that Krieger handles with equal care and attentiveness; and the Ballade, Op. 10, No. 4, in which he produces a more-intense performance that draws out the music’s inner core to fine effect.
Anyone who hears the Krieger/Falletta Brahms First Concerto will surely hunger for a Brahms Second, and now Decca has released one – sort of. It is indeed a Krieger performance, but this time the accompaniment is provided by the London Symphony Orchestra under Philip Ryan Mann. And that accompaniment is at a very high level, with the strings here being particularly warm and welcoming – a must for this late (and decidedly autumnal) Brahms. However, listeners will miss the seemingly intuitive connection between Krieger and Falletta: this Brahms Second has a more studied feel about it, a sense of careful balance and well-rehearsed interplay that lacks the apparent spontaneity (really the result of extremely careful scrutiny of the score) in the Krieger/Falletta Brahms First. Nevertheless, the Krieger/Mann Brahms Second is a top-notch performance. The meditative first movement, in particular, is a gem, with the interplay between piano arpeggios and strings (and winds) handled with gentle beauty and a sense of mystery toward the movement’s end – which makes the onrushing Scherzo all the more effective, especially with the lustrous string tone. One string player in particular deserves mention: the cellist in the third movement, whose name, unfortunately, is not provided. The extended cello solo that opens this movement can be a high point of the entire concerto, and so it is here: smooth, warm, assured and just delicate enough to complement the piano when Krieger eventually enters. Krieger and Mann take a somewhat unusual approach to the finale, making its opening as close to carefree as one ever gets in Brahms – with Krieger underlining this handling of the music by the time the movement’s third theme comes around, then keeping the liveliness front-and-center as the movement concludes. The result is a performance that, while certainly not lacking gravitas, finishes in more-upbeat fashion than is typically heard in this very long and generally very serious concerto. The pairing on this CD is an interesting one: instead of offering short encores, as he does for the Brahms First Concerto with Falletta, Krieger here presents Brahms’ very large (more than half-hour) Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 1. This makes for an unusually generous disc (total time of more than 80 minutes) and an unusual opportunity to hear the scale of Brahms’ thinking both in an early work and in a late one. Krieger’s attentiveness to detail is as clear in his performance of the sonata as in the three shorter pieces offered on the Brahms/Falletta CD. This sonata is packed with traditional elements of construction, from canons to arpeggios to extended trills, and it has echoes (from the faint to the readily apparent) of Beethoven, Schumann, Haydn and even Mendelssohn. At the same time, it is a wholly Brahmsian work in its contrasts between the monumental and the intimate and in a pervasive sense of melancholy and frequent use of minor keys (even though its tonic is C major). Krieger’s high musical intelligence is everywhere on display here along with his formidable technique, whether in the con grande espressione variation of the second movement or in a Scherzo that at one point is marked fff molto pesante. By the time Krieger escorts the Allegro con fuoco finale to an eventual Presto, he has thoroughly plumbed the depths of this unusually deep sonata and shown strikingly – and rather surprisingly – that the vast canvas of the Second Piano Concerto shares many of its emotional and pianistic roots with Brahms’ First Piano Sonata. The totality is a CD that is exceptionally impressive both in its orchestral elements and in its solo-piano material.
Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music; Oboe Concerto; Flos Campi; Piano Concerto. Carla Huhtanen, soprano; Emily D’Angelo, mezzo-soprano; Lawrence Wiliford, tenor; Tyler Duncan, baritone; Sarah Jeffrey, oboe; Teng Li, viola; Louis Lortie, piano; Elmer Iseler Singers and Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Paul Reale: Concerto “Dies Irae” for Piano Trio and Wind Ensemble; Piano Sonatas Nos. 7 and 8. Mirecourt Trio (Kenneth Goldsmith, violin; Terry King, cello; John Jensen, piano); California State University Wind Ensemble conducted by David Whitwell (Concerto); Paul Reale, piano (Sonata No. 7); Walter Ponce, piano (Sonata No. 8). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Music for Violin and Harp by Donizetti, Hovhaness, Saint-Saëns, Adrian Shaposhnikov, Angel Lasala, and Murray Boren. Aurora Duo (Donna Fairbanks, violin; Lysa Rytting, harp). MSR Classics. $12.95.
I Play French Horn. Bob Watt, French horn; Todd Cochran, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of the rare composers of whom it is possible to say that he did not have a “typical” style. He explored so many forms, including some he created, and used so many different techniques, that it is not always possible, on hearing an unknown piece, to declare definitively that it is by Vaughan Williams: his works are that varied. And some of them are a pleasure to hear simply because of the way they sound. They may not tie directly to his most-significant pieces, such as his nine symphonies, but they inhabit a sound world into which Vaughan Williams’ skills at orchestration and at evoking emotion inexorably draw an audience. And some of these sonic gems do tie into the composer’s symphonies in one way or another – including three of the four on an excellent new Chandos SACD featuring the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. For example, the Piano Concerto, which receives a first-rate performance featuring Louis Lortie, has some of the drama of the Fourth Symphony, on which the composer began work between the dates of the concerto’s first two movements (1926) and the third (1930-31). The concerto is a three-movements-in-one work with some unusual and even disturbing characteristics that may explain why it has never become a concert staple: the climax of the dramatic first movement suddenly stops and leaves the piano alone for a touch of lyricism, the second movement has some of the sensibilities of Ravel and includes a quotation from Arnold Bax’s Third Symphony, and the finale is both a fugue and a waltz and has an abrupt and unexpected conclusion. The concerto’s sound world makes it worth hearing even if it can be difficult to grasp what it is trying to say. The Oboe Concerto, which also has a fine soloist here (Sarah Jeffrey), is a later work (1943-44), written immediately after the Fifth Symphony, to whose sensibilities it bears a distinct similarity. Although a wartime work, it is essentially pastoral in sound and is unified by having each of its three movements begin and end with the same theme – another of Vaughan William’s many unusual approaches. But neither concerto is as unusual in its sound world as Flos Campi, written in 1925 for solo viola, small wordless chorus, and small orchestra. Despite a title pointing to the later pastoralism of the Fifth Symphony and Oboe Concerto, this is a lush, even sensual work, with six movements played consecutively and drawing on the distinctly sultry Song of Solomon from the Bible. Indeed, this hybrid work – not exactly a concerto, not quite a choral piece – includes six Latin quotations that Vaughan Williams wanted listeners to read to themselves in order to experience the work in its entirety (a kind of early multimedia approach). In its use of these quotations in this way, Flos Campi looks ahead to the Seventh Symphony, Sinfonia antartica, which asks the audience to read material in a similar fashion. The sensitive and lovely sound of the Elmer Iseler Singers beautifully complements the orchestral music in this recording, and violist Teng Li produces just the right blend of beauty and intensity. And the sound of Flos Campi is fascinating to compare with that of Serenade to Music, heard in this recording in the composer’s arrangement for four soloists, chorus and orchestra. Serenade to Music, all by itself, testifies to just how variegated the sound of Vaughan Williams’ music can be. Vaughan Williams originally created the work, which uses slightly modified words from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, for orchestra and 16 specific soloists, with the soloists joining together as a chorus from time to time while at other points having their material split into as many as 12 parts. This first version was written in 1938 and first heard the same year – but Vaughan Williams realized that assembling 16 top-quality soloists on an ongoing basis would be difficult, so he later made no fewer than four alternative versions of the piece, every one of which sounds different but communicates the beauty and subtlety of Shakespeare’s words very well. There is an arrangement for choir and orchestra, one for choir and piano, one for orchestra alone (which still manages to convey Shakespeare’s meaning), and the one heard here, for four soloists plus choir and orchestra. Serenade to Music lasts less than15 minutes but seems to encompass not only a great deal of Vaughan Williams’ own musical thinking but also some of the “music of the spheres,” which in fact is one element explored in Shakespeare’s words. It is a remarkable piece and quite a lovely one, which sounds very beautiful indeed on a disc whose four works collectively provide a highly appealing sonic portrait of Vaughan Williams’ tremendous skill at musico-emotional communication.
There is some interesting listening to be had as well from a new MSR Classics release featuring music by Paul Reale (born 1943). The longest and most intriguing work here is Concerto “Dies Irae” for Piano Trio and Wind Ensemble, written for and performed here by the Mirecourt Trio. One intriguing element of this work is what is not heard throughout or repeatedly: the Dies Irae chant in its most-recognizable form. It does appear occasionally, but most of the time, Reale takes it apart and juxtaposes it with other material or sets it off against other themes. A lot of what Reale does seems more an intellectual exercise than an emotional one – for example, in the first movement of the concerto, he creates a cello theme that can be analyzed as being based on the Dies Irae but that will not be recognizable as such to the casual listener. Thus, Reale seems not to want casual listening: he expects the audience to work for whatever pleasure or other communication this music provides. By the time the Dies Irae chant does appear recognizably, in a violin cadenza near the end of the first movement, listeners will either be engaged in Reale’s approach or will have decided it is not for them. The Mirecourt Trio and accompanying California State University Wind Ensemble under David Whitwell certainly give this work its due; whether it adequately repays the effort needed to understand it will be a matter for individual listeners to decide. Also on this (+++) CD are two of Reale’s piano sonatas. The composer himself performs No. 7, subtitled Veni Creator Spiritus, a difficult five-movement work that, again, demands a great deal of listeners seeking to absorb what it has to say and comprehend the reference to the same thousand-year-old hymn used by Mahler as the first movement of his Eighth Symphony. Sonata No. 8 is performed by the pianist for whom Reale wrote it, Walter Ponce. It is a single-movement work subtitled Il Trionfo della Folia, the reference being to the famous tune used and varied in a wide variety of ways by Lully, Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Handel, J.S. and C.P.E. Bach, Salieri, and others. The theme does not appear until near the sonata’s end, somewhat in the same way that the Dies Irae in its familiar form is not revealed until near the conclusion of the concerto’s first movement. Reale seems to enjoy hinting at themes, challenging the audience to figure them out on a first hearing of a work – adding to the impression that his music speaks more to one’s intellect than to one’s emotional responsiveness. Listeners who find this approach congenial will enjoy the fine performances to be found on this disc.
Two other new (+++) MSR Classics CDs are attractive almost purely for people who gravitate to the very different sonic environments their performers present. Donna Fairbanks and Lysa Rytting offer violin-and-harp music by a variety of composers from a variety of time periods on their CD – including two pieces written for them and heard here in world première recordings. Actually, there are three world premières on the disc, of Poema del Pastor Coya (1942) by Argentinian composer Angel Lasala (1914-2000); Movements from the Liturgical Dance (1995) by Murray Boren (born 1950); and the violin-and-harp version of Sonata in D minor (1925-26) by Adrian Shaposhnikov (1888-1967). All three of these works have a somewhat hypnotic, gentle, meditation-inspiring effect that seems to be the primary raison d’etre for the entire CD. Lasala’s piece has an especially lovely second movement, Boren’s is a kind of mood music filled with serenity, and Shaposhnikov’s is pleasantly lyrical and nostalgic. This is nice music, easy to hear and very easy indeed to use as background for whatever else one may be doing – somewhat the opposite, in that respect, of Reale’s music, which requires full-on attention throughout. The other works played by Fairbanks and Rytting partake of similar sensibilities. Donizetti’s very short Sonata for Violin and Harp has some operatic gestures in its first movement and a bright and very short second, concluding one. Hovhaness’ Sonata offers five brief movements, the last of them running under one minute, with the composer’s typical blend of Western simplicity with Eastern musical sensibilities. The most interesting work on the CD concludes it. This is Saint-Saëns’ late (1907) and rarely heard Fantaisie (spelled without the central “i” on this recording), a piece that gives both instruments some virtuoso opportunities and blends and contrasts them in ways heard nowhere else on the disc. The overall effect of this CD is rather soporific if one tries to pay close attention throughout – but the Saint-Saëns is something of a wakeup call, and the most attractive music offered for listeners preferring attentiveness to a guide to relaxation.
There is warmth but scarcely anything quiet-inducing on the CD called I Play French Horn, which features Bob Watt, who was Assistant Principal French horn of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1970 until his retirement in 2008. Watt, the first African-American French horn player hired by a major symphony orchestra in the U.S., says the disc reflects his own life journey and pays special attention to his ancestry in the Gullah culture of the southern U.S. As such, the recording is an entirely personal expression that will engage listeners who empathize with Watt’s background and admire the excellent sound he produces from his instrument. It will not be of particular interest for the musical content of the 11 individual tracks, however. Each of them is intended to reflect some aspect of Watt’s personal, musical, emotional and spiritual life journey, mostly through music composed or arranged by pianist Todd Cochran, who performs with Watt on all eight tracks requiring piano: Cochran’s own Missing Miles (in short and long versions), Cochran’s arrangement of Bach’s Lord, I Cry to Thee, the Cochran-composed Laughter and Humor/Satire, the Watt-Cochran arrangement of the traditional Gullah Novella, Cochran’s arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s Rondo à la Turk, and Cochran’s arrangement of the traditional Steal Away/How Great Thou Art. The other three works here are Cochran’s Eternity and Love, for French horn and string quartet; Ravel’s Forlane, arranged by guitarist Barry Finnerty and played by him with Watt; and a Watt-Cochran arrangement of John Newton’s Amazing Grace, for French horn solo. This is as much a Cochran CD as it is a Watt disc, the collaboration clear in the compositions and arrangements as well as in the performances. Fans of either or both of these artists will enjoy the sound that they bring forth in this varied program, as individuals, in duets, and in collaboration with several other musicians. This is above all a tribute disc, not so much a tribute to Watt as a tribute by Watt to his own career, the ancestry through which he came to it, and some of the people whom he met along the way. It is the kind of CD that could easily be sold as a souvenir of a Watt (or, more likely, Watt-Cochran) recital – of primary interest to recital attendees, but offering enough highly skilled playing to be attractive as well to fans of Watt’s chosen instrument.
June 21, 2018
Chicken on Vacation. By Adam Lehrhaupt. Pictures by Shahar Kober. Harper. $4.99.
Mighty Truck on the Farm. By Chris Barton. Illustrated by Troy Cummings. Harper. $4.99.
Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur and the Sand Castle Contest. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Charles Grosvenor. Harper. $4.99.
Pinkalicious and the Pirates. By Victoria Kann. Harper. $4.99.
Haunted Halloween. By Sue Fliess. Illustrated by Jay Fleck. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
Even the easiest-to-read books can be highly enjoyable for young children when they are put together as well as are most of the entries in the “I Can Read!” series. The easiest books in this series are called “My First” and are intended for adults to share with kids who are almost but not quite ready to read on their own. Then come the Level 1 books (“simple sentences for eager new readers”), which frequently use well-known characters from picture books and chapter books as their protagonists – making it possible for kids to learn reading with those characters and then follow their adventures in increasingly complicated books that are not part of this learning-to-read series. At their best, Level 1 “I Can Read!” books stand up very well in comparison to more-complex books with the same characters, giving their adventures in simplified form but carefully staying true to the characters’ personalities. Two good examples are Chicken on Vacation and Mighty Truck on the Farm. The chicken, Zoe, has a very vivid imagination and is always pulling her friend, Sam the pig, into improbable adventures in which reality never gets in the way of Zoe’s fantasizing. That is exactly what happens in Chicken on Vacation: Zoe tells Sam that they are going on a beach vacation, and also invites Pip the mouse along. But of course they do not really go to a beach: they simply wander around the farm. Zoe exclaims with excitement about seeing the ocean, but Sam points out that it is really just the farm’s pond. Zoe says the beach is right over there, but Sam correctly sees only dirt. Being a chicken, Zoe does not really swim, but she stands on the dock by the pond and tells Sam she is on a surfboard. And then she claims to find a treasure map, and the three friends search for a treasure that eventually turns out to be the pie that Zoe packed as a picnic treat. The whole book is good-humored, with Pip and Sam indulging Zoe’s fantasies and actively taking part in them. As for Mighty Truck on the Farm, the title character here is an old truck named Clarence who gained mighty powers when lightning struck a car wash: he becomes Mighty Truck when wet and reverts to everyday Clarence when dry. In this book, he hopes for a break from his mighty urban duties when his parents ask him to visit them on their farm. But it turns out they have just as many chores for him to do as he has been doing in the city – different ones, but they are still loads of work. So while his parents sleep, Clarence changes into Mighty Truck, gets all the chores done, then changes back by drying off – after which he finally gets a chance to rest, relax and do some fishing. These two books have short but interesting stories that neatly pave the way for the adventures that the book’s central characters have elsewhere. Kids who learn to read with these characters will likely want to find out more about them as their reading skills advance.
Not all Level 1 books are quite this successful: some push the protagonists in directions that do not quite gel with other adventures. They can still serve as good early-reading material, however, and possibly get young children interested in trying out a few other books in which the same characters appear. The 1958 book Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff (1912-2004) has inspired a new series of almost-lookalike books that pay tribute to Hoff’s original idea of a museum-dwelling dinosaur befriended by a young boy. Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur and the Sand Castle Contest, a summertime series entry, does not quite read like a Hoff story and is not quite drawn like one, either. But 21st-century children are unlikely to know the original Hoff concept (although they will enjoy it if given the chance!) and may very well be carried away by this mild story of a day at the beach. Danny first uses the dinosaur to create a sure-to-win sand construction (covering the dinosaur with sand to create a “sand sea monster”), but when waves threaten to swamp all the other castle builders’ work, Danny has the dinosaur protect the shore from the water so the other kids’ constructions are saved – even though it means Danny does not win the contest. This is a bit more of a teachable moment than is really necessary, but the book is still enjoyable enough to work as a simple warm-weather tale. Similarly, Pinkalicious and the Pirates is a beach story involving the pink-loving title character; her brother, Peter; and Aqua, a friendly “merminnie” (miniature mermaid). And all that is just fine, but the plot turns on two supposedly scary pirates (whose ship, however, flies pink flags) having a dispute – giving Pinkalicious and Peter a chance to capture them by using Pinkalicious’ pink kite. Then it turns out that Captain Pinkbeard and his first mate are “good pirates” who were only arguing about the best color of sprinkles for their latest batch of freshly baked cookies. This is a very thin Pinkalicious story that is not entirely in line with her usual adventures – but, as with the Level 1 Danny-and-the-dinosaur book, it works for easy summertime reading and some modest enjoyment of the central character.
Of course, no one says beach stories and other warm-weather tales are the only easy-to-read books for kids during the summer. In fact, some children may tire of the sameness of the variations on summertime activities in many simple books and want something a bit less seasonal. That could be something such as Haunted Halloween, a particularly pleasant board book celebrating a cooler time of year in highly amusing fashion. Some of the book’s pages are traditionally squared-off, while others are rounded – semicircular, for instance, or humped – so just turning the pages is enjoyable. The story tracks five kids walking in their nicely imagined costumes (the oversize Frankenstein-monster head is particularly well done) while the narrative is based on counting from one to 10. That means there are lines such as, “Two toads sleep./ Earthworms creep.” And: “Six snakes slide./ Spiders hide.” Each page very neatly shows the sort-of-spooky creatures in decidedly non-spooky guise – even the five ghosts are mostly seen smiling, as are most of the eight tiny gargoyles (which resemble adorable stuffed toys). Eventually the book gets to: “Ten small feet/ Trick-or-Treat,” and the five kids walk through a suitably sort-of-spooky-looking door to find a bunch of other children having a very happy Halloween party. As a counting book, a rhyming book, an easy-to-read book, and an alternative to all the beach-and-picnic books so common during summer, Happy Halloween is, simply, great fun.
All of Us. By Carin Berger. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Running on Sunshine: How Does Solar Energy Work? By Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano. Illustrated by Giovana Medeiros. Harper. $17.99.
Sweetness. Carin Berger’s All of Us is packed with it; in fact, that is its entire content. The book is simply an affirmation, accompanied by collage art intended to reinforce its message of love and togetherness – but including in the art, rather oddly, quite a few bits of typeset material with words much too big for young readers and wholly unrelated to the topic of the book: “customized recommendation,” “entrusted to manage,” “experienced advisors,” “America has great,” “half of invoice of a,” and many more…in several languages. Or are these non-child-focused, real-world words accidental? The book’s central message, shown through two large hands clasped across two pages, is, “We are stronger together,” the motto of the divisive and failed Hillary Clinton presidential campaign of 2016. Berger then goes on, “Hope and light will always prevail. For love wins. Love wins. Love will never fail.” And those words are spread among seven pages absolutely jam-packed with hearts and showing many, many intermingled people of all races and ethnicities – in fact, it is almost impossible to find two people of the same racial makeup and opposite genders (that is, heterosexual parents in the most-common pairings) hugging and touching among all those who are proclaiming “love wins.” So there is a very clear, very simple surface-level message in All of Us, and it is a beautiful and 100% politically correct one about complete inclusiveness for everybody at all times and under all circumstances, even “when the winds are wild and the path unclear” (words that appear near the start of the book with, interestingly, some of Berger’s most-attractive illustrations – which do not really reflect the mild negativity of the text). Perhaps very young children will not notice the typeset words within the collages – certainly pre-readers are unlikely to pay much attention to them – and perhaps All of Us has no sociopolitical subtext after all and is simply a very sweet paean to perfect love and inclusion of everybody within the whole “one world” family of humanity. Perhaps – but there have been numerous picture books with that same sweet and simple message, delivered in a straightforward and loving way without even the possibility of misinterpretation. All of Us is different, whether by design and intent or not. Parents will not want to read too much into it, but will also want to decide for themselves whether the book is really a straightforward assertion of universal oneness through love or whether there is something else, or something additional, going on here in the guise of sweetness.
Light. Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano here offers a Level 2 book in the “Let’s Read and Find Out” science series – this level is for primary-grade students and intended to go a bit beyond the basics of the series’ Level 1 books. The topic of Running on Sunshine is clear and is handled, in its own way, almost as simply as the topic of love and inclusiveness is managed in All of Us. The opening of DeCristofano’s book, abetted by well-constructed illustrations by Giovana Medeiros, sets the tone nicely by changing something very big and overwhelming (the gigantic size of the sun and how it produces energy) into something graspable and easy to relate to everyday life (the way sunbeams strike and influence green plants, fruits and more). Then DeCristofano shows a solar panel and explains what happens when a sunbeam hits it, and the book is well on its way. DeCristofano explains how solar energy has been used to power the around-the-world flight of a special airplane, how solar-panel-equipped cars have raced across Australia, how solar panels can help rescue workers stay in touch from remote places, and more. All this is interesting, even exciting – and then DeCristofano explains how solar energy works by contrasting it with energy produced by conventional means. Here, though, the book starts to go just a bit awry: it is not wrong but is incomplete, even for readers at this level. Because of traditional energy use, DeCristofano says, “rain does not fall where it’s expected,” while “cold snaps and heat waves sizzle like never before. Yikes! …We need to use energy without making the air dirty.” Well, all right: this is a straightforward assertion of human-caused climate change, simplistic but in line with most scientific thinking today. But where the book’s problematic issue comes up is a bit later, in the comment that “there are some tricky things about using solar energy.” DeCristofano mentions rainy and cloudy days, nighttime, and snow blocking solar panels as real-world issues, and talks about storage systems and cutting-edge technologies beyond those of the planes and cars mentioned earlier. But she never mentions, even in passing, the gigantic issue facing widespread adoption of solar energy, which is the need to move it from areas where it is collected and stored to areas where, because of weather and geography, it can be used but cannot be reliably produced. Moving energy, however it may be generated, requires gigantic investment in infrastructure and requires construction of vast power grids that frequently are met with vocal opposition from the same people who stridently advocate alternative energy. With wind energy, for example, many of the same people and groups strongly pushing for wind farms have rallied against – and blocked – wind-farm construction in areas where the farms might interfere with people’s pristine views and/or harm birds. There has been similar not-in-my-back-yard hypocrisy associated with solar energy – which can only be collected by using a lot of space (DeCristofano at one point acknowledges this, just in passing: “It would take a whole lot of space to hold the batteries for a whole town’s electricity”). A simple comment that a big problem with solar energy is the need to build very extensive transportation networks to move it from place to place would have made Running on Sunshine a more-useful instructional book. But it might have made it a less inspirational one, and its purpose does seem to be as much to generate enthusiasm among young readers as to give them real-world information on solar power. The book is a pleasant and upbeat introduction to its topic, but young readers – and adults reading the material with them – will have to go elsewhere to understand why the subject of solar energy tends to generate as much heat as light.
Scout: National Hero. By Jennifer Li Shotz. Harper. $17.99 (hardcover); $12.99 (perfect binding).
Under Dogs. By Andrius Burba. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
In the three-book Hero series and in Max: Best Friend. Hero. Marine., complete with periods within the title, Jennifer Li Shotz celebrates canine courage and canine-kid connections repeatedly, if formulaically. And now she has a new angle on the same topic, with Scout: National Hero as the start of a new sequence about, um, canine courage and canine-kid connections. Really, it is hard to argue about such well-meaning books, whose themes show the interwoven lives of dogs and the people to whom they become attached and whom they are able to help in a variety of perilous situations. But what all Shotz’ books have in common, Scout included, is that the dogs have far more personality than the humans and are always doing more-interesting things than the people are. In Scout, 12-year-old Matt lives with his military family, his mother running a National Guard unit while his father is deployed in a war zone overseas, and of course there is plenty of heart-tugging and wistfulness in the scene of Matt’s 12th birthday party, which his father attends via technology and has to leave abruptly because he has “got a situation.” Also in the human cast is Matt’s 17-year-old sister, Bridget, whose main reason for being is to cramp Matt’s developing style and to need rescuing when a flash flood hits the Nevada town to which the family has recently been transferred. It is the flood that provides the book’s climax by giving both Matt and the dog, Scout, a chance to prove themselves – which Scout needs to do because he is an absolutely first-rate rescue dog when he wants to be, but does not always want to be, so Matt’s mom is going to have send him back where he came from if he cannot become better-trained and more consistently obedient. Readers will know from the start that this is not going to happen, so the only question is how Scout is going to prevent it from happening. The flood is the answer. As for the humans here, Matt’s primary personality trait is impulsiveness that verges on self-destructiveness, because, see, he keeps trying to prove himself to the kids in all the new towns where his family has to move, and his definition of proving himself involves doing dangerous and stupid things so – well, so what? That is never very clear and is not the point of the book, anyway. What matters is the budding relationship between Scout and Matt – who, predictably, is the only person who realizes Scout’s quality and understands that this dog is, if anything, too intelligent to obey all commands blindly. The book’s subtitle will presumably be shown to be meaningful later in the series, because Scout’s heroism here – in rescuing Bridget after first figuring out (intelligence, remember?) how to free a baby trapped in a partly submerged car and unable to release the harness holding her car seat in place – is strictly on the local level. But there is surely more to come. And it seems, miraculously and without explanation, that Matt and his family will actually be able to stay in Nevada, even though staying in one place has never been possible before. And this will give Matt a chance to develop friendships with the preteens he meets and interacts with in this first series book, especially Dev and Amaiya. They should all get along very well: none of them has a differentiated personality. Nor do they need one: this is a book about a dog star. And that is a Sirius…err, serious matter.
Decidedly unserious are the pictures in photographer Andrius Burba’s Under Dogs, which are exceptionally amusing and are flawed only because when you have seen them once, there is little reason to go back to the book and see them again: this is an almost perfect example of a gift book that a gift-giver need not feel guilty about thumbing through before handing it to the intended recipient. That recipient needs to be a dog lover with a somewhat skewed sense of humor – certainly Burba’s appears to be a little off-kilter. The book contains nothing but photos of dogs taken from below – presumably the pups are standing or lying on a piece of glass or plastic that, hopefully, is comfortable enough so their expressions are indicative of relaxation rather than panic. It is a little hard to be sure in some of the photos, but the view-from-underneath concept is amusing and apparently harmless enough to give Burba the benefit of the doubt. Aside from the photos, there is nothing in the book except a statement of the breed of each dog photographed. Some of these pictures are genuinely funny: there is a German spitz that is nothing but four paws completely surrounded by puffy white fur, and a Yorkshire terrier whose paws are barely visible at all because of its extensive coat (and where exactly is its head?). On the other hand, the Thai ridgeback, with rear legs splayed and muzzle pointed straight down toward the camera, looks distinctly uncomfortable, as do the Basenji and golden retriever, both of which seems to be trying to keep their balance (what exactly are they on top of?). There is a shih tzu here that looks like an alien teddy bear (is that a single eye up top?), and a dachshund that seems to have not only an exceptionally long body but also a highly extended turtle-style neck. Some breeds are shown more than once: Burba seems to favor Chihuahuas and Yorkies. And yes, a couple of mutts are included. The point of the book is to be quite pointless: there is no lesson here, no grand theme, and, really, no significance at all. That is why the book, as much fun as it is to look through once, has little staying power: it is ultimately not about much of anything. It is certainly enjoyable in its own way, though. And a gift-giver can even suggest that the gift recipient handle it very gently and re-gift it, so its small delights can be passed along again and again.
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra; Kodály: Concerto for Orchestra. Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Jakub Hrůša. PentaTone. $15.99 (SACD).
Monica Houghton: Andean Suite; The Twelve Causes from the Circle of Becoming; Wilderness Portraits—Three Places in Nevada; Stay, Shadow; Three Songs without Words; Epigram; Corpo Sonoro; Sky Signs. Navona. $14.99.
Simon Andrews: Violin Dialogues I and II; And that moment when the bird sings; For the earth is hollow and I have touched the sky; My dove, my coney; The heart has narrow banks; Abiquiu Trio. Navona. $14.99.
Although they were friends, fellow gatherers of folk music, and fellow ethnomusicologists, Bartók and Kodály by and large wrote very different works – but their interests came together when each created a work called Concerto for Orchestra. Both were after the same thing: virtuoso treatment of all instruments and sections of the orchestra, exploring individual and sectional communicative potential through writing that required performers to give their best at all times. But beyond that, the works are very different, with Kodály’s essentially being a 20th-century update of the Baroque concerto grosso, while Bartók’s much longer work is closer to a symphony, both structurally and in terms of its emotional progress. Each work is in five movements, although in Kodály’s case this is more a matter of being in five sections that are played straight through, giving the effect of a single movement. Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra has the overall feeling of an extended dance with folk elements, an impression reinforced by the work’s repeated alternation of slow and fast sections, much as occurs in many folk dances of Hungary and elsewhere. There is a feeling of small groups of instruments being played against the overall orchestra in concertino vs. ripieno style, and there is considerable use of counterpoint – which reinforces the impression that this is in some ways a much-updated Baroque work. Nevertheless, Kodály’s concerto, which dates to 1939-40, is nowhere near as popular as Bartók’s, which is slightly later (1944). Bartók’s five broadly conceived movements, with their very strong virtuosic elements, their memorable themes, and their overall sense of progress from darkness into light, are captivating – and Bartók’s absorption of Hungarian folk music into the overall symphonic structure proves neater than Kodály’s folk-music elements. A very fine new PentaTone recording of the two concertos, featuring the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Jakub Hrůša, provides a good opportunity to compare and contrast the works, both of which are played with great enthusiasm and considerable sensitivity to their ethnic roots. Kodály’s concerto comes through here as a very serious work, Bartók’s as one that allows humor (for instance, in the form of quotations from other composers’ music) to help leaven its basically serious progress. The orchestra’s virtuosity is evident throughout both pieces, and if Hrůša’s excellent sense of style serves to showcase the reasons for Bartók’s music’s enduring popularity, it also offers listeners a chance to hear Kodály’s concerto given its due as an equally well-constructed work, if a somewhat more distanced and therefore not as emotionally compelling a piece. This is a pairing that would be welcome more often if performances would always be at this level: the significant similarities and even stronger differences between these two concertos are quite fascinating to consider and explore.
The communication involves smaller groups of instruments – and, sometimes, voices – on two new (+++) CDs from Navona, one featuring the music of Monica Houghton and the other focusing on works by Simon Andrews. Much of Houghton’s music, like that of Bartók and Kodály, has folk influences and impressionistically reflects Houghton’s travels, although not so directly as do the works of the Impressionists. Much of her writing is tonal, but she incorporates various contemporary attitudes and techniques, including the use of non-Western material. The nicely varied, four-movement Andean Suite, for cello (Dmitri Atapine) and piano (Hyeyeon Park), includes impressions of and folk tunes from Peru. The Twelve Causes from the Circle of Becoming, for solo piano (James Winn), intended as a musical reflection of paintings relating to the Tibetan Buddhist Wheel of Life, has something of a “New Age-y” feeling about it, contrasting with dissonant moments. Two trios – Wilderness Portraits: Three Places in Nevada, for violin (Stephanie Sant Ambrogio), cello (Atapine), and piano (Winn), and Sky Signs, for violin (Stephen Warner), piano (Carolyn Gadiel Warner), and saxophone (James Umble) – mostly offer episodes of quiet drifting, sounding more like background music than portrayals of or reactions to specific parts of the natural world. Epigram, for standard quartet scoring (Takako Masame and Sae Shiragami, violins; Lisa Boyko, viola; Linda Atherton, cello) is intended as a response to and commentary on Beethoven’s last quartet. However, it is a stretch to relate Houghton’s unprepared-for (and thus modern-sounding) dissonances, use of harmonics, and unexpected instrumental entries into even vaguely Beethovenian thinking. The three remaining works on this disc are inspired by poetry, but two are strictly instrumental. They are Three Songs without Words for flute (Mary Kay Robinson) and guitar (Don Better), which has a rather minimalist sound because the quiet juxtaposition of the instruments; and Corpo Sonoro for piano (Halida Dinova), a somewhat more substantial four-movement work whose pervasive stop-and-start motion wears thin rather quickly. And then there is one piece that goes beyond the instrumental by including voice: Stay, Shadow, for soprano (Sandra Simon), flute (Robinson), viola (Lynne Ramsey), and piano (Alijca Basinska). This is a setting of a sonnet in Spanish by 17th-century poet and composer Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, and it includes some music attributed to her as well as her words. Like much of the music on this disc, the work is rather evanescent, the instruments tending to float serenely and quietly while the singer declaims the words. The eight works here are collectively a generous helping of Houghton’s music – the CD runs more than an hour – and will please listeners already enamored of her compositional style. Those not familiar with her music may, however, find a certain similarity of blandness among many of the compositions.
The Andrews CD also offers a fair sampling of that composer’s music – here too, about an hour of material. There are two pieces here using voice: My dove, my coney for soprano (Celeste Godin), oboe (Andrew Price), cello (Aron Zelkowicz), and piano (Andrews himself), and The heart has narrow banks for soprano (Godin) with piano (Andrews). The first of these sets a poem by W.H. Auden, the second one by Emily Dickinson. Both settings use a kind of Sprechstimme that has the primary effect of erasing the tremendous differences of thought and sensibility between the two poems, with the Dickinson setting’s acerbity seeming particularly at odds with the words. The remaining material here communicates strictly with instruments. Violin Dialogues I and II (with Joanna Kurkowicz on violin and Andrews on piano) has one section with the instruments in conflict and eventually coming together, followed by one in which they seem basically in accord – but calling the back-and-forth conversational, in traditional chamber-music style, would be quite a stretch. This is an extended work, lasting more than 16 minutes, that does not really have enough to say to sustain its length. Half that length and more musically and instrumentally interesting, And that moment when the bird sings is written for clarinet (Doris Hall-Gulati), two violins (Gregory Vitale and Christine Vitale), viola (Kenneth Stalberg), and cello (Aron Zelkowicz) – with Andrews conducting the chamber group. The composer’s combinatorial prowess is the most intriguing element here: the various sounds of the instruments (including some that push the limits of ranges, in typically contemporary fashion) are interesting to hear, even if the musical material itself is thin. The four contrasting movements of For the earth is hollow and I have touched the sky, for violin (Michael Jamanis), cello (Sara Male), and piano (Xun Pan), offer some pleasant contrasts not only of sound but also of tempo, although some of the gestures – such as the chordal piano opening of the second movement and the brutal pizzicati at the start of the third – are overdone and rather clichéd. The CD ends with a somewhat impressionistic work, Abiquiu Trio for clarinet (Doris Hall-Gulati), violin (Simon Maurer) and piano (Pan). But although inspired by scenes in New Mexico, this work is nothing like a Houghton piece such as Andean Suite. Instead, Andrews uses impressions gleaned from his visit to explore his own inner responses, doing so especially effectively in the very slow and broad opening of the second movement. Like Houghton, Andrews is a composer of some skill whose work is inevitably well-crafted and will be of considerable interest to audiences already familiar with his style or ones interested in hearing some of the instrumental methods through which contemporary composers continue to seek their own forms of expressiveness.