July 26, 2018
The Ugly Five. By Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Scholastic. $17.99.
Sea Creatures. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.
The human conception of beauty certainly gets in the way of our understanding and appreciation of animals – some animals, anyway. We impose our human-centric notion of what is attractive on creatures that have evolved in ways very different from ours and that live very different lives – and we then recoil from those creatures’ “ugliness” instead of appreciating how well-adapted they are to their own particular way of life. Julia Donaldson strikes a blow for these under-appreciated animals in a singularly delightful picture book based on her own experiences during an African safari. The Ugly Five is about creatures that are decidedly not beautiful in the eye of the beholder, if that beholder is a human being, and decidedly not the ones that people journey to Africa to see: the warthog, spotted hyena, lappet-faced vulture, wildebeest and marabou stork. Donaldson – abetted by Axel Scheffler illustrations that suitably emphasize the creatures’ ugliness from the human viewpoint – introduces the animals one at a time and has them parade along through the entire book, celebrating their supposed repulsiveness. The rollicking rhymes make the animals’ (and readers’) journey fun: “But here’s someone uglier even than me!/ Who can this strange-looking specimen be?” And the animals make no attempt to play down their appearance, as when Donaldson has the vulture remark, “I have flaps on my face that are wrinkled and pink,/ My beak is gigantic and, what’s more, I stink./ At mealtimes my habits are really quite vile:/ I much prefer food that’s been dead for a while.” How can young readers not find something attractive in this parade of unappealing-to-humans critters, especially when Donaldson and Scheffler literally turn it into a parade, with each animal joining the previous ones until all five are marching along together? What then makes the book so successful in bridging the ugliness gap (so to speak) is that The Ugly Five eventually come to an area filled with babies of their species – young ones that accept and love the full-grown creatures and do not find them ugly at all. And these small creatures thoroughly appreciate their parents: “You clean us and preen us and pick out the nits,/ And we want you to know that we love you to bits.” And young human readers of The Ugly Five will be quite able to relate to those sentiments, even if they do not end up deciding that these five African denizens are truly attractive. Donaldson and Scheffler add a pleasant postscript, too, with notes on and pictures of various creatures potentially seen on safari, including not only the “ugly five” but also the “big five” (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, buffalo, elephant – the animals that people on safari always want to see); the “little five” (buffalo weaver, leopard tortoise, ant lion, rhinoceros beetle, elephant shrew – with names similar to those of the “big five” but very different appearances and ways of living); and the “shy five” (aardvark, porcupine, aardwolf, meerkat and bat-eared fox – nocturnal and rarely seen creatures). The Ugly Five may not lead kids or their parents to redefine “ugly,” but it can certainly lead readers to understand that ugliness by human standards has nothing essential to do with the beautiful adaptation of animals to their environment.
And speaking of ugliness, there is plenty of it – and plenty of weirdness, too – to be found in Seymour Simon’s Sea Creatures. Simon, however, does not use the word “ugly” (or, for that matter, the word “weird”) when discussing any of the ocean dwellers described in his usual matter-of-fact text and shown in the usual high-quality photos that bedeck all his science-for-young-people books. By human standards, there is certainly beauty to be seen here, as in the photo of a sea anemone with tentacles extended; and there is peculiarity, as in a picture of an Atlantic bay scallop that clearly shows the scallop’s tiny blue eyes (up to 40 of them) ringing its shell; and there is grotesquerie, of course by human standards, in the photo of the frogfish, which has blending-in colors and bits of plantlike skin sticking out all over its body, the better to conceal it in the sargassum weeds where it lives. Real ugliness, though, shows up in the photos of deep-sea creatures such as the huge-eyed, frowning-faced lantern fish; the gigantic-toothed (for its size) fangtooth fish; and the distinctly pillbug-like giant isopod. But Simon, always a careful guide to science and nature, simply describes these fish as “strange,” which they are – by the standards of land-dwellers such as human beings. As usual in his books, Simon gives an overview of his topic and then goes into a variety of specific elements of it. In Sea Creatures, that means first discussing the sea itself and the many different ecological niches to be found in it (for instance, the upper waters, where sunlight is a significant factor, and the lower ones, into which light never comes). Then Simon discusses some of the vast variety of sea life; how the various creatures live, feed and reproduce; and how the food web of the waters incorporates everything from microscopic single-celled diatoms to apex predators such as the great white shark. The ways sea animals hunt, the ways they avoid being hunted, the ways some of them enter into mutually beneficial partnerships (symbiosis) while others tag along with but do not help their hosts, and the many different ways in which sea animals have adapted to their particular living areas and their particular ways of life are all mentioned – in brief, of course, but with enough accuracy and sufficiently intriguing facts to tempt young readers to go beyond this introductory book and get more information elsewhere (Simon suggests a couple of places to do just that). It may be impossible to prevent humans from looking at some of the life in Sea Creatures without thinking of the adjective “ugly,” but hopefully Simon’s easy-to-follow explanations and discussions will at least lead to the addition of another adjective: “fascinating.”
Look. By Fiona Woodcock. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Twinkle, Twinkle, You’re My Star! By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
The balloon-bedecked front cover of Fiona Woodcock’s Look is only the beginning of a very clever zoo-trip book. Ooh! That’s the wraparound cover with the balloons – the actual covers of the book itself, both front and back, show butterflies instead. Big, colorful, happily smiling ones. Ooh again! Smooth book groovily festooned – boosts outdoors – whoopee! So…what exactly is going on here? The answer is something pretty “cool”: the book is told almost entirely with words containing the letters “oo.” And its art is special, too: Woodcock (notice the “oo” in her name) digitally manipulates combinations of stencils, rubber stamps and ink-scattering BLO pens (blowing into them releases the ink inside in a kind of pointillism). The result is a book that has a wholly conventional plot but that neither looks nor sounds like most picture books as it takes a brother and sister through a zoo-trip day where they start with food, put on boots, zoom to the zoo by car, see the kangaroo and cockatoo and baboon, hear a dog go “woof-woof,” and so on. True, Woodcock eventually needs a few words without the “oo,” so she can have the animals waving good-bye to the kids on a page saying “see you soon” and can eventually have the kids, now back at home, fall happily asleep to the words “good night.” But these few deviations aside, the book is very effectively told with “oo” words that fit quite nicely indeed with the illustrations, at least some of which will likely have young readers exclaiming “oo!”
The words are of all sorts in the latest cleverly designed board book by Sandra Magsamen, Twinkle, Twinkle, You’re My Star! But here as in her other books, Magsamen offers something in the design that is unusual to look at and fun to play with. Yes, play with – in addition to the simple text, clearly intended for a parent to read to a very young child, the book features a tightly-bound-in star-shaped finger puppet right smack in the middle of all the pages. An adult pokes a finger into the back of the book to animate the soft, smiling, yellow star, which “participates” in the text of every page: “Twinkle, twinkle, little one, your precious life has just begun,” for example, and “you fill the world with hope and light,” and so forth. The drawings on the pages through which the star pokes complement both the writing and the little puppet: on one page are three other yellow stars, all of them smiling down on a lawn and tree; on another page a “tail” attaches to the finger puppet, turning it into a shooting star; on another the three drawn yellow stars are surrounded by rays indicating how brightly they shine, and additional rays surround the space through which the finger puppet emerges so it too shines extra-brightly. Magsamen is an expert at these designs, which allow very short board books – sometimes in unusual shapes, such as the heart shape of this one – to become interactive delights for adults, infants and toddlers. And the books are so well-made that when kids outgrow them and move on to books for slightly older children, the pages and finger puppets will likely have lost none of their attractiveness, allowing them to be passed along to a younger sibling, or even to a new family that will find them equally delightful. Magsamen herself is one of the stars of Twinkle, Twinkle, You’re My Star!
Making Friends. By Kristen Gudsnuk. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
Wild Rescuers #1: Guardians of the Taiga. By “Stacy Plays” (Stacy Hinojosa). Illustrated by Vivienne To. Harper. $17.99.
They look like books, they read like books, and in fact they are pretty good books in many ways – but there are numerous books these days that are tie-ins to other things their authors do, such as the Henchgirl webcomic by Kristen Gudsnuk. Making Friends is a typical middle-school-angst story that has nothing specific to do with Henchgirl, but clearly readers who enjoy Making Friends are likely to look around for other Gudsnuk work and discover what she does, at considerably greater length, online. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, but the episodic nature of a webcomic does not translate particularly well to a graphic novel, and Making Friends is so plot-clotted that it seems at times as if Gudsnuk wants to create multiple story threads and have them go along on their own, as they could online, but has realized that in a book the threads must knit together – so she pulls on them until they get, well, rather tangled. Danielle (Dany), the seventh-grade central character here, has nasty-family issues that are made clear at the book’s beginning and that then disappear forever. She has, or rather had, a great-aunt who apparently had magical powers, for reasons that are obscure and never explored. Those powers appear to be vested in a sketchbook that Dany gets after her great-aunt dies. Dany, who is filled with typical middle-school angst, spends a lot of time online with a, well, webcomic – called “Solar Sisters.” She thinks the villain of the piece, Prince Neptune, is kind of cool, so she doodles him in her sketchbook, and then he appears in real life – but only as a disembodied head, since the head is all she drew. Dany, who is remarkably level-headed (ha!) after an initial freak-out moment, soon takes Neptune’s head everywhere, finding it useful because it has magical powers of its own that let it, for example, clean her room instantly. Shades of Mary Poppins! Well, after that part of the plot meanders along for a bit, Dany encounters the usual cliques and social difficulties of middle school and, finding herself friendless, decides to draw a friend for herself, this time remembering to create the whole body and give it a background: “Madison Fontaine. She just moved here from New York City. She’s really cool, funny, smart, and is my new best friend.” So Madison comes into existence (in a toilet stall: nice touch there) and is designed, literally designed, to be everything Dany wants in a friend – which works out just brilliantly until, eventually, it doesn’t, when Madison starts wondering where she lives and where her parents are and why she can’t seem to remember anything before showing up in school and being programmed to be a perfect friend for Dany. Well, eventually Gudsnuk realizes that she has to do something with the Prince Neptune story, the Madison story, the standard-middle-school story, and a few other stories that drop in for a visit along the way. So she creates a great big honking “Solar Sisters” sort of battle in which she draws all sorts of weapons and such for various classmates and, at the same time, she convinces Madison that she is really real because, gosh, she just is, you know? Well, none of Making Friends makes much sense (although the title is certainly appropriate). But the book is fun to read and the various premises, even though they fit together awkwardly, are individually enjoyable and sometimes out-and-out fun. Readers who enjoy the book will indeed be likely to seek out Gudsnuk’s work online, where she spends most of her time.
The first Wild Rescuers novel is even more clearly an also-ran, being no match for the YouTube series Dogcraft, to which “Stacy Plays” devotes most of her time. Dogcraft is a spinoff of Minecraft, featuring Stacy as a girl raised by wolves who now runs with the wolf pack and works with its members to protect the forest and its dwellers. Wild Rescuers is about – well, it is about a girl named Stacy who was raised by wolves and now runs with the wolf pack and protects the forest and those who live in it. This actually goes beyond tie-in: the book is an extension of what happens online, an adventure between covers rather than an adventure on a YouTube channel, but essentially the same type of adventure featuring the same characters. The six Arctic gray wolves with which Stacy roams – Basil, Everest, Noah, Wink, Addison, and Tucker – have powers and personalities all their own and are well-differentiated, in fact more interesting and often more thoughtful than Stacy-in-the-book herself. The adventures here are piled one upon the other again and again. For instance, it is not enough for Stacy and the wolves to rescue a little dog (Stacy “had never seen a dog in real life,” but only in pictures in books, which, yes, Stacy has) – they have to do so after the dog “stood her ground against the wild wolf pack and [jumped] over the magma to safety.” Indeed, there is another wolf pack in the area, and it is larger than Stacy’s and a potential threat; and indeed, there is magma just underground; and there are all sorts of adventures to be had in just about every direction. Guardians of the Taiga is an enjoyable novel that is deeply indebted to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, whether or not the author is familiar with Kipling’s stories. The story of Stacy and the wolves is nicely illustrated in an attractively homey style by Vivienne To. The full-page pictures are the best, creating a distinct family sense for Stacy and the wolf pack. But of course relationships with humans have to become part of the story, and they are inevitably less interesting than Stacy’s interactions with the wolves – and with the dog, which Stacy names Page: “I think she believes she’s a wolf,” Stacy tells Everest, the pack leader, and in any case Page fits into the group nearly seamlessly. The book includes tidbits of factual material: “Fawns are born with no scent – nothing a potential predator on the hunt could pick up.” And this helps give the story a level of verisimilitude that it cannot have from its premise alone. Guardians of the Taiga ends, inevitably, with a cliffhanger, after Stacy’s pack saves what it can of the larger, inimical pack from a fire. Then Stacy – who is pretty well-educated for a wild child, a mystery whose solution is hinted at early in the book when it turns out she ended up with the wolves after some sort of dimly remembered accident – finds herself aboard a helicopter that she cannot understand, thinking thoughts, maybe, of her…parents, of all things. What it all means will be revealed in the next book – or preteen readers, the book’s target audience, may prefer to head right for the Dogcraft YouTube channel, where adventures much like this one are available anytime.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8, 1890 version. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.
Salomon Jadassohn: Symphony No. 1; Serenades Nos. 1-3; Serenade for Flute and Strings; Piano Concerto No. 1. Rebecca Hall, flute; Valentina Seferinova, piano; Malta Philharmonic conducted by Michael Laus and Marius Stravinsky; Belarussian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marius Stravinsky; Karelia State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Denis Vlasenko. Cameo Classics. $18.99 (2 CDs).
Hugo Alfvén: Symphony No. 1; Drapa; Midsommarvaka. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Łukasz Borowicz. CPO. $16.99.
John Harbison: Symphony No. 4; Steven Stucky: Second Concerto for Orchestra; Carl Ruggles: Sun-Treader. National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic conducted by David Alan Miller. Naxos. $12.99.
The scope of communication possible within a symphony is so wide that, even if a symphonic work does not quite encompass the whole world as Mahler said it should, a symphony can take in and explore greater emotional depths than can be found in any other instrumental music. Certainly this is the case with Bruckner’s symphonies, and in particular his Eighth, the last one he completed: his canvas here is so vast that every performance brings out different elements of the work, and the symphony can be interpreted in an hour and a quarter or in more than an hour and a half. Scarcely a compact work by any measure, Bruckner’s Eighth is bedeviled by the “version” question that emerges so often in listening to Bruckner: the original 1887 version is heard far less often than the revised 1890 one, and there is also a 1939 version (by Haas) that stakes out something of a middle ground between the two that date to Bruckner’s own lifetime. Interestingly, even when the 1890 version is played, as usually occurs, a performance such as the new one on BR Klassik, featuring Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons, can make the symphony sound new and even unfamiliar. This is very much an end-weighted symphony – the whole thing builds to the finale – and this presents a significant challenge to a conductor, who needs to construct the overall edifice carefully while never losing sight of the pinnacle toward which Bruckner continuously moves. It is Jansons’ skill at doing exactly this that sets his performance apart. Throughout the first three movements and the first part of the finale, he builds individual peaks and explores Bruckner’s many themes and complex harmonies, allowing each movement to flow naturally and become a kind of edifice of its own. But at the same time, Jansons holds something in reserve – not in the playing, which is excellent throughout, but in the shaping of the symphony as a whole. The result is that each movement becomes an entirely satisfying individual experience, yet the material becomes fully clear, and indeed resplendent, only when Bruckner piles all the elements upon each other and eventually produces a genuinely overwhelming conclusion. It is extraordinary to realize that this is a live performance – but once that is accepted, the you-could-hear-a-pin-drop silence of the audience is not a surprise: Jansons pulls listeners into the music from the very first notes and never flags in keeping them involved, so that even when the work’s last phrase resounds, there is complete silence for a few moments before the applause begins. The feeling here is of being subsumed for a time within a world drawn from but not really of the mundane one, a world more expressive and rarefied than the one outside the confines of the music. At its best, when best performed, that is the effect of Bruckner’s music, and Jansons certainly brings the monumentality and intensity of Bruckner’s Eighth glowingly to life in this reading.
Given the existence of symphonies such as Bruckner’s Eighth, it is scarcely surprising that so many other works of Bruckner’s time and thereafter, no matter how well-made, tend to seem a bit pale. This explains, at least to some degree, the obscurity in modern times of fine symphonic craftsmen such as Salomon Jadassohn (1831-1902). Nevertheless, the rediscovery of a composer such as Jadassohn is something of an event, because he has faded so completely from public perception that it is hard not to expect his music to be deserving of neglect. A fine new Cameo Classics release shows Jadassohn’s just deserts to be better than would be expected – somewhat on the lighter side, true, at least when compared with music by the giants of his era, but quite pleasurable to experience and apparently written with an eye toward entertaining the music-loving public rather than plumbing substantial emotional depths. Jadassohn wrote four symphonies, the fourth being the most impressive, but even No. 1, heard on this release, has much to recommend it. Dating to 1861, it is a well-proportioned work with some clear nods to Mendelssohn – a common factor in symphonic works by composers of this time, such as Niels Gade – and an especially pleasing second-movement Scherzo. Most of the two-CD release, however, focuses on some of Jadassohn’s serenades, which are lighter works than his symphonies and in fact were often used by composers as “training grounds” of a sort for symphonic development; consider Brahms’ two and Tchaikovsky’s four in this context, for example. Like Brahms and Tchaikovsky, Jadassohn offers serenades that are very nicely crafted and, without the intensity and close relationship among movements characteristic of symphonies, are somewhat more freewheeling and quite pleasant to hear. The first serenade, known as Serenade No. 1 in 4 Canons, would seem from its title to be something of an academic exercise, and indeed Jadassohn was accused in his own time of being rather stodgy in his music. But this five-movement work is considerably lighter and airier than its designation might indicate, and its structural elements are by no means forced or ill-fitting; they simply constitute a method by which Jadassohn produces a series of pleasant effects. The second serenade, in three movements, is actually broader in conception than the first, with, again, some Mendelssohnian flavor; and the third, in four movements, offers some especially pleasing instrumentation, in which the appealing use of a triangle in the second movement stands out. The Serenade for Flute and Strings, another four-movement work, once again echoes Mendelssohn, although not in any directly imitative way, and includes a lovely Notturno and a concluding Tarantella that is a whirlwind of enjoyment. The symphony and serenades heard here are all lighter music without actually being “light” music – but Jadassohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, although the shortest work on this recording, is of somewhat greater intensity. This is a single, fantasia-like rhapsody that structurally recalls Liszt rather than Mendelssohn (Jadassohn actually studied with Liszt for a time). The concerto is well-scored – the orchestration of all these works shows Jadassohn’s particular skill in highlighting and combining instruments – and there is plenty of virtuosity to challenge the soloist and impress the audience, although unfortunately there is also a lot of coughing from the specific audience that attended this particular 2008 performance, which was recorded live. It would be stretching things to call this piano concerto profound; in fact, nothing heard on this release merits that designation. But Jadassohn’s music gives considerable pleasure even though it does not engage the senses strongly or delve into depth in anything approaching the manner of the greater symphonists of Jadassohn’s time.
There is a great deal of enjoyment to be had as well in the works of Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960), but here too one should not expect too much of an initial symphonic endeavor. Alfvén’s First Symphony dates to 1896, the year of Bruckner’s death and two years before the first symphony by a better-known Nordic composer, Jean Sibelius (whose first language was Swedish even though he became so strongly involved with Finnish nationalism). The Alfvén work is an even more youthful endeavor than that of Sibelius, which dates to Sibelius’ early 30s: Alfvén was just 24 when he created this piece. So it would be unreasonable to expect unique, fully formed style at this juncture – and yet there is enough of it to make the work a very pleasant surprise. It is a large-scale piece, although scarcely in Brucknerian terms, more closely approximating the length of the earlier Sibelius symphonies. And like those, it incorporates a certain amount of Nordic folk material, rhythmically and in atmosphere if not in terms of explicit quotations. The symphony’s first three movements have a great deal to recommend them: as Sibelius was to eschew an orchestral tutti at the start of his first symphony in favor of a lengthy clarinet solo, so Alfvén opens his work with solo cello – after an impressive timpani roll that sets the stage for a serious, even solemn symphony rather than one along the lines of Haydn’s No. 103. The Nordic feeling of the first movement is evident, and after a slow movement immersed in melancholia (but not deep sorrow), there is an effective folk-dance-like Scherzo that again has nationalistic overtones. Alfvén, however, shows less confidence in the symphony’s finale, which is also a dance but which is rather foursquare and characterless. Still, the work marked a strong start to what would eventually be a set of five symphonies – all of which will be released by CPO, which has found an adept conductor of the music in Łukasz Borowicz, who brings forth the typically smooth and polished playing of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin to fine effect. The CD also includes an occasional piece that is dark and moody without being especially evocative of sorrow: Drapa, a solemn work whose title refers to an old Icelandic verse form. This piece dates to 1908 and was dedicated to the memory of King Oscar II, who had died the previous year. It is a suitable work for its purpose, but one of no particular distinction. However, the much lighter Midsommarvaka (“Midsummer Vigil”) is impressive – in a very different way, to be sure. This is a piece, dating to 1903, that opens with one of those tunes that listeners will be 100% sure they know well and have heard before, even if they never knew of the work’s existence. From that decidedly upbeat beginning, Midsommarvaka bubbles along through a series of impressions of summer celebrations among young Swedes, including dancing and drinking and lovemaking and even a certain degree of not-very-serious fighting. Alfvén once offered a detailed storyline for the work, but he also said the work has no particular program, so it is not known how seriously to take his explanatory material. Nor does it really matter: the music speaks effectively for itself, telling a story of joy, exuberance and largely uninhibited pleasure in the inevitably short Nordic summers.
Symphonic stories continue to be told in the 21st century, by composers such as John Harbison (born 1938) – who has already written six symphonies, each with its own distinct character. The Fourth, dating to 2004, appears on an interestingly varied Naxos CD featuring the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic conducted by David Alan Miller. It is a five-movement work lasting about as long as Jadassohn’s First Symphony but partaking, unsurprisingly, of a very different harmonic and emotional language. Indeed, the emotionalism of the fourth-movement Threnody is the heart of the piece and its most effective element: thoughtful, lyrical, a touch sad and almost but not quite depressive. The rest of the work goes in different directions, though, and the result is a bit of a hodgepodge: the other movements do not really support the emotional communicativeness of the Threnody. A bright and jazzy first movement is followed by a somewhat inward-looking but rather unfocused Intermezzo, then by a singularly humorless (if energetic) Scherzo; and the finale is not so much a summation as a change of focus. Although well-played, the symphony is not especially convincing experientially, and indeed might better be labeled a suite than a symphonic work. Also on this (+++) CD is Second Concerto for Orchestra (2004) by Steven Stucky (1949-2016) – a piece whose third and final movement has something in common with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra in its use of thematic fragments, but whose overall impression is of a work rather too enamored of its own cleverness. The piece is challenging to perform and may be more enjoyable for the participants than for the audience. The third work on this CD fits uneasily with the other two: it is Sun-Treader, the best-known piece by Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) and a notoriously hard nut to crack. Actually, in that respect the work is reflective of the prickly and difficult Ruggles himself: he completed fewer than 20 works in his long life, and was as well-known for his ability as an artist – and for his profanity and racist outbursts – as for his musical compositions. Like Anton Webern, Ruggles, to the extent that he can be characterized at all, was a miniaturist: Sun-Treader is his longest work, lasting (in this performance) 15½ minutes. It is an extended intervallic sequence characterized by an ongoing series of ascending and descending pitches, a difficult work to grasp and understand (if “understanding” was ever Ruggles’ purpose) and a complex one to play. It sounds quite good in this reading and seems comparable in some respects to some of the music by Ruggles’ sometime friend, Edgard Varèse – although it is very much unlike the music of Charles Ives, who was two years Ruggles’ senior and the only composer Ruggles professed to admire. This CD as a whole is a fine showcase for the performers. But it has a somewhat disconnected feeling about it that makes it less than fully rewarding for listeners, except insofar as they enjoy the first-rate playing for its own sake.
July 19, 2018
The Three Little Superpigs. By Claire Evans. Scholastic. $14.99.
One way of reconsidering fairy tales and other familiar children’s stories is to assume that kids know them well already, so they can simply become background for entirely new books for which the originals are merely foundations. And one way to make those new books work well is to make them extensions of the originals – with additional elements that kids who do know the earlier versions will find incongruous and highly amusing. That is exactly what Claire Evans does in The Three Little Superpigs, originally published in Great Britain in 2016 and now available in a new U.S. edition. The book, after the inevitable “once upon a time” beginning, picks up exactly where modern versions of the story of the three little pigs end: the Big Bad Wolf is seen falling down the chimney of the pigs’ brick house “into a pan of boiling water!” But he is not roasted alive, as in the original story – most of the now-familiar children’s tales are considerably less gory than they were when first told or collected. All the quick background page says in Evans’ book is that the wolf was trapped by the pigs – and then he is seen being taken away to jail in a police vehicle (license plate FLPD 1 for “Fairyland Police Department 1”) as the pigs wave goodbye to him.
The wolf, pigs and other denizens of Fairyland are rendered in Evans’ illustrations in a style that kids will immediately recognize from animated films in which characters are given something of a 3-D look. What happens to the pigs after the wolf’s capture is right in line with filmmakers’ reconsideration of fairy tales, too. The pigs are given dress-up outfits (two of which, unnecessarily, include masks) and medals saying SP1, SP2 and SP3 – the letters standing, of course, for Superpig. They are applauded by all sorts of Fairyland characters, including Pinocchio and happy dwarfs and a crown-wearing frog and a wizard and many more. And then they are seen cashing in on fame. No, not for money (that would be a touch too realistic!), but SP1 takes a selfie with Red Riding Hood, SP2 signs an autograph for the gingerbread boy, and SP3 is seen “fighting crime and stopping nursery rhyme bad guys” – specifically Goldilocks, who is led away as the three smiling bears look on.
All this is mere scene-setting, though: the plot gets going, and gets increasingly silly, as the wolf is seen in his cell, reading books such as “How to Forge Keys” and “Bricklaying for Dummies,” after which bricks start mysteriously disappearing from all around Fairyland – leading the Superpigs to investigate using Sherlock-Holmes-style magnifying glasses and crime-scene tape. Then the Superpigs learn the wolf has escaped from prison, and they set out with binoculars, a Wolf Detector, and other equipment, to locate him – but he is too smart, or they are too dim, since Evans shows him in the Deep Dark Woods, only steps from where the Superpigs are fruitlessly searching. The search gets increasingly absurd in a police-station lineup where the wolf, dressed as an old lady but carrying a basket full of bricks and with his wolf face quite clearly visible, just cannot be spotted because he is “a master of disguise.”
Eventually, though, the wolf’s nefarious plan must be revealed, and so it is: he uses one of those forged keys to get into the Superpigs’ houses, and when the pigs try to get away, they find themselves trapped behind a huge brick wall built by the wolf with the stolen bricks! Soon two of the Superpigs are neatly wrapped in pastry blankets, ready for dinner – the wolf’s dinner. But of course the third Superpig saves the day, having fortuitously just perfected “his jet pack invention,” which lets the pigs zoom over the wall: up, up, and away. “When pigs fly,” indeed – in fact, Evans has the Fairyland residents exclaim happily, “Wow, pigs really can fly!” And now the wolf is trapped behind his own high brick wall, so everyone – well, everyone but the wolf – is happy. “The end?” writes Evans with a question mark. Apparently not: the wolf is last seen reading another book, and who knows what will happen next? Young readers will enjoy trying to guess, whether or not Evans creates a sequel to The Three Little Superpigs. And even if there is no follow-up book, this one is sufficiently full of hijinks and hilarity to keep kids who know the original three-little-pigs story happy with this thoroughly ridiculous continuation.
Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea. By Lynne Rae Perkins. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Gone to Drift. By Diana McCaulay. Harper. $16.99.
Float. By Laura Martin. Harper. $16.99.
Sweet, well-meaning and oh so sincere, books such as Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea and Gone to Drift are water-centered and written to wring the occasional drip of water, in the form of a tear or two, from preteen readers. Lynne Rae Perkins’ novel is a notably quiet one, simply the story of a pleasant week’s beach vacation featuring mildly adventurous Alix Treffrey; her older and more-reserved sister, Jools; and their parents. There is no great drama here, only gentle discovery of the ocean for the first time, envisioned by Perkins as a series of small events with insightful cumulative effect – shown through Perkins’ pleasant black-and-white illustrations. Sand castles, long walks on the beach, the discovery of beach glass and indulging in crafts projects using it – these are the mildly memorable events that Alix and Jools experience. Not everything is sweetness and light: at one point, Alix gets temporarily separated from her parents, and at another she is nonplused when a giant june bug lands on her arm. But these minor inconveniences are quickly resolved, and the sisters move on to one small enjoyment after another. That, in fact, is Perkins’ point: the small things in life, cumulatively, are what matter and what make a vacation (and by implication other events in life) special. One must just stay open to the wonders of the everyday. For instance, the planned family visit to a wildlife refuge seems to Alix to be a “boring walk through deserted places” – until the girls get to see some raccoons and Alix has a chance to hold an injured falcon that is being rehabilitated. What is important, as Alix neatly sums things up at the end of the week, is that the vacation has turned out to be very different from what she and Jools expected – and that is a wonderful thing, because it has been so delightful in so many ways that Alix now anticipates amazing things continuing to happen to her. In truth, nothing in Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea is particularly amazing, but everything is gentle and nice and family-focused. This is the sort of book that parents would like their preteen daughters to read and enjoy. Some will.
Darker and more intense, Diana McCaulay’s novel about her native Jamaica has a preteen boy protagonist rather than a preteen girl, and the story is significantly grittier: this is no tale of the deliciousness of a family beach trip. It is the story of 12-year-old Lloyd “Lloydie” Saunders and his much-loved grandfather, Maas Conrad, a fisherman who has gone to an area called Pedro Bank and has not returned. Lloyd’s parents seem unconcerned and preoccupied, his father with rum and his mother with selling the fish that Conrad catches. This is not an old-man-and-the-sea story so much as it is a standard-issue grandfather-and-grandson-bonding one, with Conrad’s personal history (which appears from time to time during the narrative of Lloyd’s search for him) revealing much about Jamaica and the changes the island is undergoing. It becomes apparent as Lloyd looks for his grandfather – by asking around Kingston and searching with the help of his friend, Dwight – that Conrad is shipwrecked and injured. Readers know this well before Lloyd’s search – which includes stowing away on a Coast Guard ship – leads him to some unpleasant truths. These involve dolphin poaching, and McCaulay is sure to trot out some marine biologists and references to the evils of greed and globalization: although this is a fairly quietly told story, it has a strong social agenda just beneath its surface. McCaulay’s use of patois dialogue gives the novel a sense of authenticity, and young readers interested in that rather unusual form of immersion into Jamaican life will find the story intriguing. But the eventual revelation that the depravity of Lloyd’s parents goes well beyond their uncaring relationship with both Lloyd and Conrad means this is scarcely a book for all tastes: it is a novel-length advocacy pamphlet (actually an expanded version of what was originally a short story) that immerses readers in economic and environmental issues. And it insists that those matters be seen strictly from a perspective that limits the book, which hints from time to time at the longstanding relationship of humans and the sea but which founders on the shoals of the lessons that McCaulay is determined to teach.
A much lighter and frothier book whose title refers not to water but to air, Laura Martin’s Float is intended as a romp with some serious elements – and has a kind of old-fashioned camp-novel feeling that will charm some readers while likely seeming simplistic and unrealistic to others. Some of the lack of realism is quite intentional: Camp Outlier, where the book is set, is for boys who have been labeled RISKs. The acronym stands for “Recurring Incidents of the Strange Kind” and involves preteens whose uncontrollable and poorly understood powers range from spontaneous combustion to accidental invisibility to X-ray vision to time travel – this last being at the center of the book’s rather fragmented plot. The underlying, entirely unsurprising theme is one of camaraderie and acceptance, of finding others like oneself and working together on each other’s behalf. Emerson, the 12-year-old protagonist, has a tendency to float unless he wears weighted shoes and a vest to keep himself on the ground; hence the novel’s title. He and the other boys are taken to (or herded into) Camp Outlier by the government, which has the usual slightly sinister but essentially protective role common in books of this sort. The story focuses on Emerson and the other boys in Red Maple cabin, and in particular on time traveler Murphy – who, the boys discover, is doomed to disappear forever unless they can do something. Do what? That is the question here, and the central element of the boys’ bonding. Well, that is one such element, the other being a rather embarrassing (and distinctly archaic-seeming) scene in which older campers force the boys to wear dresses and makeup as an initiation – a scene that Martin brings back repeatedly as a joke that, in the year 2018, may not come across as particularly funny. Float is intended as lighthearted fun, and it is just that some of the time, as in the pranks played at the camp and the exploration of the boys’ peculiar powers that come out of nowhere. The serious “save Murphy” element fits uneasily with the otherwise rather whimsical storytelling, though, and the book as a whole has a kind of cobbled-together feeling that keeps it from being as enjoyable as Martin clearly wants it to be.
Time Tracers 1: The Stolen Summers. By Annabeth Bondor-Stone & Connor White. Harper. $16.99.
It was apparently too much to hope for. Annabeth Bondor-Stone and Connor White are the coauthors of a couple of delightfully daffy books for preteens, called Shivers! That’s as in “shiver me timbers,” and the central character is a boy pirate whose family is filled with the usual dashing piratical derring-do and dastardly doings but who, for his part, wants nothing to do with pirate stuff and in fact is deathly afraid of water. And of dry land, for that matter. And of snails. And pizza. And pretty much everything else. Shivers’ misadventures are so utterly ridiculous, and the character is so endearingly absurd, that it is obvious that Bondor-Stone and White have some real talent for creating comedic preteen adventures. Young readers should definitely get their hands on Shivers! Those who do will have high hopes for the authors’ new series.
Unfortunately, the Time Tracers sequence, on the basis of its first entry, is so ordinary, formulaic and unamusingly silly that The Stolen Summers would be a (++) book if Bondor-Stone and White didn’t rate a third (+) simply out of a hopefully not forlorn hope that they will recover their cleverness and ebullience for the next book in the group.
Not even the series’ dull and confusing title works well. How about Time Thieves? That is what the book is about. How about Time Trackers? It is also about people who track the time thieves. But Time Tracers? The book misfires literally from its cover. About that cover: it shows a startled-looking preteen gazing at his watch (do lots of preteens still wear watches?) while surrounded by a horde of ugly buglies that have buggy-looking heads but clawlike, sort-of-handlike appendages plus human feet. Um, what? As it happens, this is not how the bad guys are described in the book, but yes, the baddies are bugs of some sort (actually various sorts), and apparently there are numerous types of them, so maybe one of them looks like the ones on the front cover? They are also on the back cover – which features a guy driving a bus into the horde of bug-uglies while a sort-of-ninja, black-clad woman fighter is using one bug thing as a club to smash other bug things.
The bug things, see, are invisible time suckers (why not call the book Time Suckers?). And what they do is suck the fun out of life. Yes, they consume fun, which is why time seems to fly when you are having fun – the fun part gets stolen by these things, which live on it. They are, like, everywhere, and the organization of the book’s title, the Time Tracers, is charged with tracing them. Well, not exactly – the group is charged with stopping them. How about Time Stoppers?
Anyway, into this mess comes class clown and all-around fun-seeker Taj Carter, who turns out to be the Worm. Yes, the Worm turns. Because, see, being the Worm is a good thing. It seems that Taj, and only Taj, can restore lost time (which looks like grains of sand – yes, the sand-in-an-hourglass cliché) when the Time Tracers recover it from the evil bug baddies. And this is especially important at the moment (Moments in Time?) because the bugs have been stealing much more time than usual, for reasons unknown, and all the people in Taj’s town are going to be rendered brain-dead, or more brain-dead than they already are, if Taj does not come into his powers soon and use them for all that is good and right and, um, timely. This even includes bringing the dead back to life. But only the good dead. No zombies here (Time Shamblers?).
Yes, this is another only-a-kid-can-save-the-world book. And it is an unusually drippy one. For instance, preteen adventures usually give the protagonist buddies with whom to interact – and with whom readers can identify if for some reason they are not taken with the primary character (which would be understandable here: Taj has precious little personality and a tendency to do the wrong, frequently dumb thing more often than not). Well, Bondor-Stone and White do give Taj a couple of buds named Jen and Lucas – who do absolutely nothing in the entire story and appear only at the very start and the very end. Preteen adventures usually reach out for some sort of pathos or difficulty in the protagonist’s family, both to explain certain character motivations and to make the central character less unidimensional. Thus, Taj has a little sister who had a congenital heart-valve problem and needed two surgeries as an infant. And she shows up briefly at the book’s start and briefly at its conclusion, and not at all anywhere else, and the relationship between her and Taj goes nowhere and might as well not exist. Taj’s only interactions are with adults, including the two pictured on the book’s back cover, and that is simply weird in a novel for preteens. The adventure elements of the book are thoroughly stereotypical, the bad-guy bug mastermind is right out of central casting, the few attempts at humor invariably fall flat, and the only certainty here is that the bad bugs will not feed on the experiences of young readers who encounter this book, since there is so little fun to be had in it. Time to Go? Maybe – to go and read Shivers!
Mozart: Der Schauspieldirektor; Salieri: Prima la musica e poi le parole. Eva Mei, Patricia Petibon, Markus Schäfer, Oliver Widmer, Werner Schneyder, Manfred Hemm, Melba Ramos; Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Belvedere. $20.99 (2 CDs).
Holst: The Planets; Elgar: Serenade for String Orchestra. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. SWR Music. $8.99.
Dvořák: Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 and Op. 72 (complete).SWR Rundfunkorchester Kaiserslautern conducted by Jiří Stárek. SWR Music. $8.99.
Ragtime in Washington—Music of Scott Joplin, Henry Lodge, George Gershwin/Will Donaldson, Thomas Benjamin, William Albright, William Bolcom, John Musto, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bob Zurke. Michael Adcock, piano. Centaur. $16.
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet—excerpts; Schumann/Liszt: Widmung; Gershwin/Wild: Seven Virtuoso Etudes; Bizet/Horowitz: Variations on a Theme from “Carmen”; Saint-Saëns/Godowsky: The Swan from “Carnival of the Animals.” Michael Adcock, piano. Centaur. $16.
Classical music is sometimes referred to as “serious” music, and certainly a great deal of it is very serious indeed; and virtually everything identifiable as “classical” tends to be more serious than works of pop culture. But the “serious” label has the unfortunate side effect of making people who are not entirely familiar with classical music reluctant to listen to it – there is enough seriousness in the world and in life, the argument goes, and who needs more of it when seeking entertainment? Something mindless, frothy and altogether unimportant is a far better alternative! Well, classical music is scarcely mindless, but the fact that it is carefully constructed should not and does not prevent much of it from being outright fun. Yes, there may be a serious subtext (although not always!); but there are many works to which it is possible, even preferable, to listen simply for the out-and-out pleasure they bring. And that brings us to the non-contest between Salieri and Mozart in the year 1786, when each wrote a piece for a musical extravaganza staged (by imperial order, no less) at Schönbrunn palace. The underlying seriousness here had to do with comparisons between Italian opera (Salieri’s venue) and the German Singspiel (Mozart’s field for the purpose of this engagement). The result was two witty and frequently hilarious one-act works – originally performed by orchestras stationed at opposite ends of the same very large room. Both works were parodies of the theatrical and operatic practices of their time: Salieri drew heavily on a then-popular opera seria by Giuseppe Sarti, while Mozart focused on the inevitable competition between two would-be prima donna singers. These two short theatrical pieces are rarely heard nowadays – their parodistic nature, unfortunately, makes them captives of their own time to a great degree, preventing modern audiences from getting many of the jokes and references. And they are almost never performed together. But they were in 2002 at the Salzburg Festival, by Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and that performance is now available as a for-fun-only Belvedere release. It really is just for fun, although German speakers get all the words in the enclosed booklet (English speakers get only a translation of Mozart’s material, while Salieri’s is translated only into Italian). What is heard here is not exactly what audiences heard in1786: Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (that is, The Impresario) was almost all talk and was larded throughout with specific contemporary references that have almost all been excised and replaced here by ones more comprehensible to a modern audience. And so what? The music of both these works is absolutely delightful, and that is the point of this release. Salieri’s underlying topic, whether “First the music and then the words” makes sense in operatic composition, is a serious one that Richard Strauss contemplated in much the same way more than a century and a half later – in his final opera, Capriccio. And Mozart’s foundational concern, that artists should do their best at all times but should not hog the limelight or diminish their compatriots, is equally timeless and seems, if anything, even more apt today. But the character interplay and music used to explore and elucidate these matters is joyous, intelligent, witty and thoroughly delightful – and the singing and playing are simply wonderful to sit back and bask in. From a serious standpoint, this is a welcome chance to hear some less-known music that tackles topics of continuing interest and importance. But a serious standpoint is scarcely necessary for the pure enjoyment that this release provides.
There is also pure enjoyment in some of the super-bargain-priced releases from Southwest German Radio on the recently created SWR Music label. This is not to diminish the underlying care and seriousness of the interpretations but to point out that some of the music being made available on these discs is of a type that invites listeners to sit back and enjoy, not to engage their critical faculties or mental energy to the extent that so much classical music does. The exceptionally fine Roger Norrington-led performance of Holst’s The Planets is a perfect case in point. The reading really is outstanding and can be analyzed, if one wishes, to figure out why: for instance, “Venus, the Bringer of Piece” here is beautifully done and is not the comedown that it usually is after the drama of “Mars, the Bringer of War,” and the handling of “Uranus, the Magician” is superb. But for most listeners, it will be enough simply to relax and delight in the wonderful playing of the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR and the excellent orchestration by Holst (to which Norrington is especially sensitive). It helps to remember that this massive suite is all about astrology, not astronomy, and that it is thus an invitation to suspend one’s disbelief and simply luxuriate in the sound of it all. And the pairing of The Planets with Elgar’s short, warm and thoroughly lovely Serenade for String Orchestra is a highly effective one: the Elgar has the effect of a post-prandial period of pure relaxation, its strings-only instrumentation a pronounced and very pleasant contrast to Holst’s use of a very large orchestra.
Pure pleasures abound as well in Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances as played by the SWR Rundfunkorchester Kaiserslautern under Jiří Stárek. Like the Holst/Elgar CD, whose performances date to 2001, this one dates back a few years, to 2000 and 2001. But here too the enjoyment is scarcely time-bound. The ebullience of the faster dances, the homey folksiness of the slower ones, and the wonderful contrasts among the eight dances within each set and between the Op. 46 and Op. 72 sets as a whole are among the matters to enjoy here. Yes, it is possible to examine and listen to the dances, individually and collectively, in a serious way; in particular, the Op. 72 ones look to forms well beyond the purely Czech ones of the Op. 46 dances. But what Stárek’s performances communicate so well is that this is dance music, certainly brought into the concert hall by the composer but retaining throughout (even more in Op. 46 than in Op 72) the flavor of the outdoors, of the countryside, of 19th-century rural life in general. There is no reason to do anything but enjoy this music. Exploring its provenance is certainly an option for those who wish to do so, and studying its place within Dvořák’s oeuvre is certainly possible (and interesting); but the sheer delight of the dances is what comes through most clearly in these performances, and experiencing that enjoyment is more than enough reason to own the CD and listen to it – repeatedly.
Sheer delight is also the primary reason to hear two new Centaur discs featuring pianist Michael Adcock. Yes, Adcock is a serious and seriously talented performer, and yes, that is abundantly clear in the music he plays on these CDs. But he is also clearly a pianist who revels in what he is doing and enjoys the chance to present music with exuberance as well as sensitivity. The CD called “Ragtime in Washington” (actually recorded outside the nation’s capital, in Frederick, Maryland, but why quibble?) offers a generous hour-and-a-quarter of fast and slow, original and imitative, ragtime and almost-ragtime pieces that range from the 100% authentic (Scott Joplin’s Bethena, The Easy Winners, Palm Leaf Rag and Solace) to the interpretative (Scott Joplin’s Victory by William Albright) to the amusingly, gently sarcastic (Thomas Benjamin’s That Old Second-Viennese-School Rag). The Joplin pieces and the one here by Jelly Roll Morton, Grandpa’s Spells, have inherent character quite different from that of the other pieces on the disc, although Red Pepper Rag by Henry Lodge (1885-1933) and Old Tom-Cat on the Keys by Bob Zurke (1912-1944) share somewhat similar sensibilities. Anyone who thinks “ragtime” (however defined) refers to music that all sounds essentially the same need only compare the works by Joplin, Lodge and Zurke to the four here by William Bolcom: Incinerator Rag, The Brooklyn Dodge, Last Rag and Fields of Flowers. The different handling of rhythm and harmony is fascinating – but it is also something more serious to consider than is really necessary when hearing these pieces. The ultimate point of “Ragtime in Washington” is out-and-out enjoyment, and that is what the CD provides, thanks to Adcock’s abundant skill with and involvement in the material. In addition to the pieces already mentioned, the disc contains Rialto Ripples by George Gershwin and Will Donaldson (1891-1954); Albright’s Sleepwalker’s Shuffle; and John Musto’s Recollections and In Stride. Listeners will have their favorites, and should: the pieces, most of them quite short, are very different in sense and sound. But every one of them has its pleasures, and that is just what listeners can and should notice above all: it is fun to hear this material.
The fun is somewhat more rarefied, although not more attenuated, on Adcock’s other new CD, which features keyboard transcriptions of two extended works and three much shorter ones. Here Adcock has a chance, which he happily accepts, to showcase his sheer virtuosity while also displaying considerable sensitivity of tone, phrasing and emotional connection. The longest piece here, a set of 10 excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, is the most variegated and the most challenging in terms of requiring the pianist to convey multiple contrasting but complementary moods. Adcock handles it with warmth mixed with piquancy, contrasting the dramatic portions with the emotive ones to fine effect. And listeners need not know Prokofiev’s ballet to enjoy the performance: Adcock pulls the audience into the music and lets the shifting moods of the material speak for themselves. Things are lighter and brighter in Seven Virtuoso Etudes, in which pianist Earl Wild develops and then strings together a series of George Gershwin’s wonderful melodies, among them “The Man I Love,” “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm.” Adcock has just the right touch for this material: light and swinging and thoroughly in command of the complexities that Wild brings to melodies that are essentially simple and straightforward – indeed, almost pop-music-like, making them all the easier for listeners to accept and enjoy at face value. The remaining pieces here are short, one of them (the Schumann/Liszt Widmung) functioning as an interlude between the two extended works, the other two offered at the CD’s conclusion. Interestingly, Adcock places the Bizet/Horowitz Carmen variations, which would seem an ideal encore, before the Saint-Saëns/Godowsky The Swan, thereby ending the recital – and it does feel like an intimate-venue recital – on a quieter, softer note than might be expected. It is an intriguing decision, one that nicely complements Adcock’s performing skill and his sensitivity to the many moods of the works he plays and the many forms of pleasure they deliver to those who hear them.
John Williams: Movie Music. Dallas Winds conducted by Jerry Junkin. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).
Villa-Lobos: Chôro No. 7; Ginastera: Pampeana No. 2; Webern: Ach Jüngen Lieder; Alicia Terzian: Yagua Ya Yuca; Les Yeux Fertiles; Berio: O King; Boulez: Dérive; Franz Schreker: Der Wind. Grupo Encuentros conducted by Alicia Terzian. Navona. $14.99.
Scott Barton: Breeding in Pieces; Eroding Mountains; Opus Palladianum—Voice and Drums; Effusion; For Steps That Grow When Climbed; Carried by Currents; Through the Rain. Scott Barton, guitar and vocals. Ravello. $14.99.
Modernity depends, by definition, on the time at which the word is used. Consider the Handel and Haydn Society, the third-oldest musical organization in the United States, founded in 1815 with the express purpose of presenting both older music (Handel) and modern works (Haydn). The notion seems quaint nowadays, but really is not: so many works deemed “modern” in their time are now part of the standard repertoire or even considered old-fashioned, even sometimes deemed passé. Furthermore, in the 20th and 21st centuries, as composers have drawn on wider and wider spheres of influence to produce their works – and more and more venues through which to communicate them – music may sound “modern” in a great variety of ways, depending on how and why it is composed in addition to the date of its creation. In a sense, for example, all movie music is modern, since film as an entertainment medium is essentially a 20th-century phenomenon, with music absolutely integral to its effects since the days of silent movies and continuing right through to today – although the use and importance of music have changed substantially. John Williams (born 1932) is one of the grand masters of movie music, a field that has also attracted such notables as Prokofiev and Shostakovich – for whom, however, film and other theater music were sidelights. For Williams, during his six-decade career, movie music has been the main event, and many of the films with which he is associated have become classics of the genre: in the 1970s and 1980s alone were The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, 1941, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – the list goes on and on. And on. Williams has produced concert music as well, but it is for his film pieces that he is best known – those, plus some of his TV work, such as the Olympic Fanfare and Theme that he wrote for the 1984 Summer Olympics and that opens a very fine, very upbeat new Reference Recordings SACD featuring the Dallas Winds under Jerry Junkin. The 13 works here, all arranged for wind band, show how Williams uses modern compositional techniques (primarily of rhythm and harmony) while producing easy-to-listen-to, generally upbeat movie material that fulfills its primary function of supporting the visual action while at the same time carrying the film audience along effectively from scene to scene. There is nothing deeply emotional on this release, and little of that sort in Williams’ film music as a whole: swelling violins and discordant electronics convey love, warmth, fear and the like quite well enough on the big screen, and these are not Williams specialties. What Williams produces is music that sweeps the audience into alternative worlds and pulls them along beautifully from place to place. The Dallas Winds pick up on all the nuances of this material – which, to be sure, is not especially nuanced – and deliver performance after performance that will have listeners sitting up in their seats when they are not marching around in time to the music or their memories of the movies. Included here are The Cowboys—Overture, the march from Superman, excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, “With Malice Toward None” from Lincoln, the main title from Star Wars, the Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back, “Scherzo for X Wings” from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, “The Jedi Steps” and the finale from that same film, the theme from J.F.K., “Adventures on Earth” from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the march from 1941, and, in conclusion, The Star-Spangled Banner – which Williams did not write, of course, but which in its bright and upbeat mood fits everything else on the disc beautifully (and never mind that it originated as an 18th-century British drinking song). There is nothing deep or particularly thoughtful in any of the Williams music heard here: it is all escapist fare, as are most of the films for which Williams wrote this material. And although the music is quite clearly tonal, it is also quite clearly modern in its approach and in the way it evokes the emotional uplift called for by the film directors with whom Williams has worked so successfully for so many years.
The slippery nature of being modern is especially clear from a new (+++) Navona CD featuring Grupo Encuentros under the direction of its founder, Alicia Terzian. Actually, although the disc is new, the performances date to 2008, making them a decade less “modern” than if they had just been done. But the recording date is not what makes it interesting to consider just what modernity in music means; nor is it the CD’s title, “40 Years of Contemporary Music,” although that too will show modernity to be a slippery concept at best and will make listeners think about just what “modern” means in different time periods. It is the mixture of music and of composers that really raises the question of what it means to be “modern” in music, and whether that designation is even of value in considering how to perform pieces and how to respond to them. Thus, the first two tracks juxtapose a 1924 work by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos with one from 1950 by Argentine’s Alberto Ginastera. These two pieces, of almost identical length, are both examples of classical music making use of folk and native sounds and forms by adapting them to the concert hall: Villa-Lobos uses Amerindian material plus some drawn from the polka and waltz, while Ginastera adapts an actual Argentine folk melody within a work of considerable virtuosity. Villa-Lobos writes for chamber ensemble (Fabio Mazzitelli, flute; Ruben Albornoz, oboe; Matias Tchicourel, clarinet; Maria Noel Luzzardo, saxophone; Ernesto Imsand, bassoon; Sergio Polizzi, violin; Carlos Nozzi, cello), while Ginastera uses only cello (Nozzi) and piano (Claudio Espector), but the contrasts between their pieces have more to do with their treatment of the themes than with the performing instruments. The rest of the CD is somewhat less focused than this. Anton Webern’s Ach Jüngen Lieder includes eight songs, seven of them very short, sung by mezzo-soprano Marta Blanco, with Espector on piano. They date to 1899-1903, before Webern became a true enfant terrible of the Second Viennese School, although their miniaturization does look ahead to his later work. There are two works here by Argentinian composer Alicia Terzian (born 1934): Yagua Ya Yuca (1992) for percussion (Arauco Yepes) and Les Yeux Fertiles (1997) for mezzo-soprano (Blanco), flute (Mazzitelli), clarinet (Tchicourel), piano (Espector), violin (Polizzi), and cello (Nozzi). The first of these is an intriguing representation of a dance from a lost Argentine culture. The second is more self-consciously “modern,” combining bits of poems by Paul Eluard into new poems and relying on ample use of microtones and a requirement that the musicians both play and sing. Luciano Berio’s O King contains only the word “King,” referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. – it dates to the year of King’s assassination, 1968, and is for mezzo-soprano (Blanco), flute (Mazzitelli), clarinet (Tchicourel), piano (Espector), violin (Polizzi), and cello (Nozzi). The work is a very “modern” musical obituary and tribute, and contrasts in some intriguing ways with the next piece on the CD, which is a tribute of a different sort. This is Pierre Boulez’ Dérive, which Boulez dedicated to William Glock on his retirement from the Bath Festival. The title refers to the drifting of a boat in the wind, but this is also a work derived from six chords that are manipulated in fairly typical “modern” ways. The piece dates to 1984 and is for piano (Espector) with flute (Mazzitelli), clarinet (Tchicourel), violin (Polizzi), cello (Nozzi), and percussion (Yepes). Finally on the CD, there is a “contemporary” work more than a century old, Der Wind by Franz Schreker. It dates to 1909 and is for violin (Polizzi), cello (Nozzi), clarinet (Tchicourel), horn (Gaston Frosio), and piano (Espector). The piece is “modern” for its time entirely by intention, combining elements of Impressionism, Schoenbergian expressionism, and intended (and now largely obscure) links to Symbolism. Although well-crafted, it is a work that does not wear particularly well by its own modernistic standards – it seems rather dated, in much the same way that self-consciously “modern” music appears to be when it is tied too closely to a particular time period or set of precepts.
For analogous reasons, it is unlikely that the works on a new (+++) Ravello CD of the music of Scott Barton will have much longevity. Barton is very much a composer of or in the moment: these pieces, which use traditional instruments plus electronics (a sure sign of seeking the “modern” nowadays), contain the usual contemporary bows to multiple genres and forms, but do not break any new ground or presuppose any particular inclination toward non-superficial communication with listeners. Breeding in Pieces (2009) and Through the Rain (2017) are for guitar, which Barton himself plays; Opus Palladianum—Voice and Drums (2013) requires voice, which Barton himself supplies. There are some purely electroacoustic works here: Effusion (2016) and For Steps That Grow When Climbed (revised 2011). And there are two pieces for multiple instruments: Eroding Mountains (2014) for narrator (Art Cohen), voice (Barton), and piano (Aurie Hsu), and Carried by Currents (2017) for flute (Anthea Kechley), oboe (Elizabeth England), clarinet (Amy Advocat), and bassoon (Gregory Newton). The intertwining of electronic material with sounds produced by traditional instruments is done skillfully, and the inclusion in some pieces of sounds reminiscent of rock music and psychedelic experience makes portions of several works intermittently interesting. There are also signs of rather wry humor here from time to time, notably in the contrast between the smooth narration of Eroding Mountains and the dissonant pizzicati that accompany and compete with the words. The moods here tend to be fleeting and neither considered nor developed in depth: just as a listener starts to feel as if he or she has fastened on a particular theme or emotion, Barton goes in an entirely different direction. And while this is a thoroughly “modern” approach to music in the way it pushes and pulls the audience hither and yon, it does not produce a very satisfactory auditory experience. Barton’s works here sound a great deal like many other consciously and self-consciously “modern” ones, encased in their techniques and contemporaneity in a way that leaves them trapped in the amber of their own time.
July 12, 2018
Fruit Bowl. By Mark Hoffmann. Knopf. $17.99.
One of the cleverest educational picture books in some time, and one whose subtext about inclusion and exclusion is itself worth thinking about, Mark Hoffmann’s Fruit Bowl is above all a lot of fun to look at: the illustrations, of fruits and vegetables with expressive eyes and entirely-appropriate-to-the-situation appearances, are what will draw pre-readers and early readers (ages 3-7) to the book. But there is much more to it, and that “much more” is what will bring adults to Fruit Bowl to read it to or with young children.
The basic setup is a standard one that could happen in any home (well, any home with talking produce). After a shopping trip, the fruits need to be placed in a bowl on the counter and the vegetables need to go in the refrigerator. An unseen child asks the fruits how they are all doing and gets a chorus of replies: “Peachy keen,” “All good,” “Awesome,” and so forth. And all the fruits climb up a little ladder into their bowl as the child talks to them: “Looking good, lime!” And up the ladder comes the tomato as well – only to be turned away and told to go to the refrigerator, despite his protestation, “But I am a fruit.” No, says the child, and the apple comments, “You’re being kind of saucy,” while the banana remarks, “You’ll have to split.”
The tomato is determined: reading a book, he exclaims that he can prove he is a fruit, and he starts talking to the residents of the fruit bowl about what makes them fruits in the first place. This is the educational element of Hoffmann’s book, presented simply and elegantly: fruits start out as flowers, and they have seeds inside – and, sure enough, that describes the tomato. The taste of fruit is not an issue, the tomato explains when told he is not sweet: after all, cranberries are not sweet, and no one claims they are not fruits. Still unconvinced, the kitchen denizens all go on a search for Old Man Produce to get a definitive answer. They eventually discover the shriveled senior, who gives a rather silly and inconclusive speech but, when asked directly if the tomato is a fruit, replies yes. So the tomato heads for the fruit bowl on the counter – and, umm, it turns out that there are “other vegetables that are fruits in disguise” as well. And that starts a parade from the refrigerator to the countertop bowl, featuring a green pepper, an eggplant, a squash, and other happy-go-lucky characters that are used as vegetables in most homes but that are really, by definition, fruits. In fact, this part of Fruit Bowl is likely to be at least as big a surprise to parents as to children.
The book ends with all the fruits, the ones traditionally known that way and the ones traditionally thought of as vegetables, snuggled together in the bowl on the counter, while the vegetables inside the refrigerator peek out of the crisper where they are kept and ask, “Why don’t we get our own bowl?” That is a perfectly reasonable question – one that can lead parents to talk with kids about the right way to store and preserve food, whether or not specific produce items are biologically fruits or vegetables. In fact, Fruit Bowl can open a whole set of fascinating discussions and explorations for parents and children. Really, does it matter if something is “officially” a fruit or vegetable, or is it all just a labeling issue and one of traditional use that counts? It would be nice if parents could give kids a single, simple way to tell the difference between fruits and vegetables, such as the “fruits contain seeds” statement that is part of the tomato’s reasoning. But alas, things really are not that simple, since strawberries’ seeds are on the outside, blueberries come from flowers but do not contain seeds, and grapes do not stop being fruits just because they can be bred to be seedless. A little research is clearly in order after consumption of the tasty lessons of Fruit Bowl. And the book itself is delicious enough to encourage further exploration.