October 25, 2018
The Adventures of Superfish and His Superfishal Friends: The Twenty-Third “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Penguinaut! By Marcie Colleen. Illustrated by Emma Yarlett. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.
Incongruity is fun at any age. Of course, the word itself is best not used when addressing children – or some adults, for that matter. But the concept makes sense, in different ways, for people of all ages. Jim Toomey, who has been writing and drawing the Sherman’s Lagoon comic strip since 1992, is well aware of this. His central character, Sherman the endearingly dim and un-self-aware shark, is surrounded by fellow underwater denizens who have changed little over the years and who share with Sherman all sorts of ridiculous characteristics – to which they periodically draw attention. For instance, in The Adventures of Superfish and His Superfishal Friends, Fillmore, the green sea turtle and resident intellectual of the strip, finds an article about a scientific study showing that fish can recognize differences between human faces. Part of Sherman’s Lagoon, a distinctly adult part, is its periodic inclusion of real scientific (often environmental) information, and this happens to be a real study. But Toomey has his cartoon creations use it in consistent-with-their-character ways, which means that when Sherman mentions the article to Ernest – a kind of teenager-ish fish and computer hacker who, improbably, wears glasses despite lacking anything for earpieces to attach to – Ernest says he saw the story already, “which, I believe, is even more impressive.” Sherman wonders what Ernest means, and Ernest replies, “That fish can read.” And there you have one example among many of Toomey “breaking the fourth wall,” letting readers in on the notion that the characters in Sherman’s Lagoon are well aware of how silly, not to mention impossible, their antics and activities are. Much of what happens in the strip is distinctly for adults, yet is handled in ways that even children will enjoy. Hermit crab, lagoon mayor and all-around schemer Hawthorne, for example, is constantly involved in one mildly nefarious money-making plot or another. That is certainly a grown-up sort of activity – and adults will likely think of Hawthorne types they have encountered over the years. But the specific ways that Hawthorne tries to swindle people have a level of childlike amusement about them. For instance, in The Adventures of Superfish and His Superfishal Friends, Hawthorne at one point decides to get Sherman to take up professional wrestling, with Hawthorne as his manager. “It’s all a show, you know,” says Hawthorne. “How well can you act?” Sherman responds with another of Toomey’s breaking-the-fourth-wall comments: “Are you kidding? I act in this comic strip every day.” But then matters move along, and Hawthorne books Sherman to fight a variety of opponents who seem blissfully unaware that everything is just an act – leading Hawthorne to encourage Sherman at one point by saying, “Keep bleeding. The crowd loves it.” No real blood is shed in the making of the strip, of course, not even when Sherman goes up against “The Masked Marauder,” who turns out to be his wife, Megan. That is a kind of traditional situation-comedy plot, and even kids too young to know how traditional it is – or just what a situation comedy might be – will appreciate it. Toomey manages to be engaging for readers of many ages – and the way he occasionally slips some real science and environmental awareness into the strip means that people of all ages have a chance to benefit from, not just laugh at, Sherman’s Lagoon.
Toomey often plays with matters of his characters’ size, as when Hawthorne asks Sherman what he does “besides being huge” and Sherman, looking down – way down – at the hermit crab, responds, “I put up with little jerks.” Marcie Colleen and Emma Yarlett play with size issues as well in Penguinaut! But since this is a picture book for very young readers, there is no snappy dialogue here and no attempt to mingle adult-oriented and child-focused material. “Orville was small,” the book starts, showing the little penguin in his habitat at the zoo. “His friends were BIG,” the text continues, showing Orville at play with an elephant so large that only part of it fits onto a two-page drawing. And then Colleen and Yarlett get to the point of Penguinaut! They show the big animals having big (and clearly imaginary) adventures, such as flying through the air and deep-sea diving – and have Orville decide that even though he is small, he will have a big adventure of his own. He plans to go to the moon, possibly by learning to fly, using a really long ladder, or building a super-springy catapult. His much-larger friends think the whole idea may be too much for the little penguin, but “Orville flippered out” at being diminished, writes Colleen; indeed, Orville decides he does not need the encouragement or support of anyone else, and is determined to make the journey all by himself. After multiple failures, Orville manages to make a spaceship from old cardboard boxes and other discards, powering it by shaking “a half-filled soda bottle,” and sure enough, he takes off all by himself “through clouds, over stars, and straight to the moon.” But once there, Orville realizes that being all alone on his adventure is not really very much fun. So he imagines his friends are with him – Yarlett’s portrayal of the animals as constellations is an amusing and wholly suitable touch – and soon Orville returns to the zoo, where “the proud Penguinaut felt BIG, too.” Lessons learned: small stature does not mean small thinking; it is possible to accomplish things alone, but they are more fun when done with friends; and, as the final page of the book says, “being together was out of this world.” That last page shows a new cardboard spaceship labeled “Together,” containing lots and lots of the zoo animals, and just about to blast off for who-knows-where. The basic message here is that the “where” does not matter as long as you go wherever-it-is with good friends – and while the message is delivered in an age-appropriate way for young children, it is certainly one from which adults can benefit as well.
Khorasan Archives, Book One: The Bloodprint. By Ausma Zehanat Khan. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
Khorasan Archives, Book Two: The Black Khan. By Ausma Zehanat Khan. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
It is hard not to want Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Khorasan Archives to be good. The sprawling series – four thick volumes that will likely total some 1,800 pages are planned – features a plethora of strong women characters, and indeed is female-dominated in a way that fantasy epics very rarely are. And it has a central proposition that is highly intriguing, namely that the written words of a crucial text called the Bloodprint have power that is both religious and magical. Books about books are always potentially fascinating, and the Khorasan Archives sequence is in large part about the ways in which highly important books – the parallel with the Quran is clear – can be used for purposes both good and ill.
The problem with the series, unfortunately, is that it is so enamored of words and language that it bogs down repeatedly in verbal oddities, from its peculiar mixture of names to the amount of time characters spend on word-related matters. A single example: “Sinnia was unabashed. ‘This country has strange names. In my land, the westward river is called the Tarius. Others know it as Arius.’ Arian nodded, resting her back against the minaret’s curved wall. ‘The people of the Aryaward, the southernmost lands, know it as the Horaya. They say the ancient people named it for one of their gods. The people of the Plague Lands called it the Tejen.’” This sort of discursive dialogue is delivered along with some irritating stylistic idiosyncrasies, such as Khan’s fondness for single-sentence paragraphs. Again, a single example:
“Arian pushed down a surge of longing.
Why had she sought out Daniyar?
Why had the Silver Mage come to her rescue only to ride away?
Her questions remained unanswered.
The sound of Wafa’s chattering teeth distracted her.”
And so on, and on and on, in a manner that is wearing after two volumes (indeed, after a portion of a single one) and is likely to become much more so by the time this grand epic eventually concludes.
And then there are the place names and titles of the very large cast of characters (many of whom are listed in three-to-four-page appendices). There is some consistency, and a certain level of reality-based exoticism, to a land called Khorasan with a region called Hazar and cities called Hira and Marakand. But there is also a region called Far Range, mountains called Death Run, a horn called Avalaunche, and leadership titles including Authenticate, Commandhan, and the Authoritan and his Augur-Consort. This mixture of terms is, at the very least, odd; it is also distracting, making it difficult to focus on the story because of the jarring nature of many of its elements.
The overarching plot revolves around two women: Arian, First Oralist of the Companions of Hira, and her apprentice and warrior companion, Sinnia. The Companions of Hira preserve the magicoreligious sacred heritage of a scripture known as the Claim; and they stand in opposition to a vicious, patriarchal, anti-educational, anti-woman movement called the Talisman (yes, as in Taliban). The Talisman – led by a man known as the One-Eyed Preacher – is determined to destroy the Bloodprint, an artifact said to contain the entire Claim, which is generally known only through fragments (many of which are scattered throughout the books’ pages). In The Bloodprint, Arian and Sinnia are on the trail of the manuscript in the hope that the text will show the way to destroy the Talisman once and for all. Their quest is complicated by, among other things, the occasional appearance of the Silver Mage, a man named Daniyar, whose love Arian has rejected for 10 years in pursuit of a higher duty; and by a variety of philosophical discussions and analyses, such as one about whether a single sacred word can mean both “peace” and “submission.” By the cliffhanger ending of The Bloodprint, the quest for the mystical manuscript has failed and the Talisman is continuing its drive to destroy literacy – and, not incidentally, engaging in some rather gruesome torture of Arian, Sinnia and Daniyar. Captured and held separately, the three manage to escape in The Black Khan and reunite to continue their search for the codex, which turns out to be held by a ruler named Rukh, the Black Khan of the second book’s title. In this book, political chicanery and machinations come to the fore, since Rukh’s entire court is ruled by treachery and conspiracy. The brave companions must engage in some intrigues of their own, including with Rukh, whose motivation cannot be trusted even when he joins their cause – or seems to. It is hard to keep track of all the changes in allegiance here, and the task is not really made easier by the author’s inclusion of extended glossaries (five pages in the first book, six in the second) that readers will need to consult frequently to be able to follow what is going on and, more to the point, who is doing what to whom. Even with the glossary, that is not always clear, since characters’ motivations shift frequently and are sometimes self-contradictory. The intriguing place settings and sense of deep history – based in part on some real-world events of the ancient Middle East – are at nearly constant war with the overly complex discussion points and analyses, the innumerable characters with little personality differentiation, and the rather facile and simplistic notion that the foundational question of the whole sequence is one of heart vs. duty. Again and again, readers are likely to wish that Khan would simply get on with it, the “it” being action of some sort, because when there is action, she handles the scenes well. But this planned tetralogy already shows considerable signs of bloat in its first two volumes, and it is hard to argue that it would not be better as a trilogy, or even a two-book sequence.
Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion. By Edward G. Lengel. Da Capo. $28.
Military history is, by definition, a niche interest: only a small subset of general readers will want to know all the ins and outs of long-ago (or even not-so-long-ago) battles, maneuvers, weaponry, strategy and tactics. It is all too easy to forget, as many writers of military history seem to forget, that battles are fought by people, grand campaigns include many thousands of individuals, sweeping movements affect the lives of untold numbers of service members and civilians alike – in short, that military events occur within society as a whole, never in isolation. It is, for example, all too easy to point out, as many historians have, the ways in which World War I remade much of the globe (the geopolitics, we would now say) through the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires. This is certainly true, but it is facile when made as a broad statement, buying into the oft-repeated comment attributed, probably apocryphally but entirely appropriately, to Joseph Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.”
So military historian Edward G. Lengel deserves considerable credit for taking a large and frequently told story, that of the Lost Battalion in the waning days of World War I, and telling it microcosmically rather than macrocosmically – that is, making it into the story of individual people involved in the Lost Battalion and affected thereafter by the experience, some for a few years of postwar life and some for decades. There are four primary characters here: Major (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Charles Whittlesey, Captain George McMurtry, Sergeant Alvin York, and reporter Damon Runyon. Whittlesey was the Lost Battalion’s leader, McMurtry his second-in-command, and both were from backgrounds now unheard-of in the military: successful Wall Street lawyers who volunteered to fight for a cause and a nation in which they deeply believed and for which they were literally ready to put their lives on the line. A mere six weeks before the November 11, 1918, end of the war, they found themselves leading some 600 men into the Argonne during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which had begun in September. Their regiment moved through a ravine toward a heavily fortified German line, but the rest of their unit, on the battalion’s flanks, was unable to advance, leaving Whittlesey, McMurtry and their men stuck, cut off from their supply lines, and pinned down by German fire from 200-foot-high bluffs overlooking the ravine. Without food or water, the inexperienced men of the Lost Battalion held out against snipers and attacks using hand grenades and flamethrowers, but they did hold out, even after the Germans, on October 7, sent a message asking them to surrender – in far more respectful, even admiring language than can be imagined between enemies nowadays. The Lost Battalion stayed put until that night, when a relief force finally arrived and the Germans retreated. But it was not much of a battalion anymore: fewer than 200 men made it out of the ravine alive.
This is the bare-bones battle story, the stuff of many military histories and even of popular culture: the tale became a movie as early as 1919. But although Lengel tells the story with alacrity, it is not his primary focus in Never in Finer Company. His interest is in Whittlesey and McMurtry as men, and in the parts played in the Meuse-Argonne campaign by them, the men they led, and by Sergeant York – one of the most-famous and most-decorated U.S. soldiers from World War I – and Runyon, a sports reporter who had been in the right place, at the right time, to cover Pancho Villa’s raids in 1916. Lengel traces the ways in which these men’s lives brought them all to the Meuse-Argonne in 1918, emphasizing just how different the men were: Whittlesey and McMurtry from New York City’s economic and social elite, York from rural Tennessee and a strong religious background that originally led him to claim conscientious-objector status, and Runyon from a life of hard drinking and incessant womanizing. This sort of throwing-together of disparate lives, so common in the military in World War I and for many years afterwards, is unthinkable in the modern age of an all-volunteer U.S. military. But the deep and very different effects that the war had on the four men are little different from the responses to trauma seen in veterans today, except that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was minimized as “shell shock” and given very little treatment, if any, a hundred years ago: when World War I ended, Sigmund Freud still had more than 20 years to live, and theories about the long-term psychological impact of traumatic events were still in their infancy.
The primary tragic figure in Never in Finer Company is Whittlesey, who never recovered from what he saw when the Lost Battalion was trapped or from the blame some threw at him for not trying to retreat when the men became stuck – even though such a retreat would almost surely have led to the complete annihilation of the battalion by encircling German troops. Whittlesey and McMurtry were both awarded the Medal of Honor for their conduct, but while McMurtry was able to return to Wall Street work, eventually make a fortune, and live until 1958 before dying at age 82, Whittlesey was unable to handle the postwar demands for him to give speeches, attend parades and accept honorary degrees. He said he constantly heard from men he had led, “usually about some sorrow or misfortune,” and simply could not bear much more. In 1921, at the age of 37, he disappeared overboard from a ship sailing from New York to Havana, almost certainly a suicide; his body was never found.
York and Runyon had much-better-known postwar lives, and in the context of Lengel’s book are actually less-interesting characters, simply because they are more-familiar ones. Still, Lengel really does make an effort to focus, as the book’s subtitle says, on The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion, not on grand concepts such as military strategy, heroism in a cause, or the emergence for the first time of the United States on a world stage that it had previously assiduously avoided, thinking that the Atlantic separated it both geographically and morally from European events. None of Lengel’s skillful exposition and careful scholarship will make Never in Finer Company a book to attract a mass market of readers. But for those already interested in military history and in how the United States came to play so large a role in the world during the 20th century, Lengel’s book offers some very human perspective on matters so much more frequently told from a grand geopolitical point of view.
Leonard Bernstein: An American in Paris—Music of Berlioz, Milhaud, Schumann, Bloch, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Bernstein. Orchestre National de France conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Warner Classics. $24.98 (7 CDs).
Hagiography appears inevitable in centenary celebrations. Certainly Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) is coming in for his share of it – much of it deserved. Bernstein could be described as a musical polymath: an internationally respected conductor, a composer of traditional and modern classical music and of popular and show music that seems to be standing the test of time, a very fine pianist, a superb educator who used TV as the educational medium that its early proponents hoped it could become, and more. Although Bernstein’s conducting career is most closely associated with the New York Philharmonic, he conducted, often with considerable aplomb, a variety of other orchestras – including, in the mid-and-late 1970s, Orchestre National de France. Warner Classics has done a genuine service to 21st-century music lovers by producing a boxed set of very well remastered versions of many Bernstein performances with this orchestra – plus some first-ever releases of material recorded live in concert, and even a set of four rehearsal excerpts. The result is an exceptionally well-rounded portrayal of Bernstein with this orchestra and in this time period – and there is some excellent music-making as well.
Note, however, that “some.” You would never know it from the enclosed booklet, which mentions the music not at all and includes only comments from musicians that praise Bernstein to the skies as if he represented the second coming of all that is great in the musical world, but the performances here are decidedly a mixed bag – as were Bernstein’s performances in general. Thus, the genuine service to music lovers that this set presents is not necessarily the one it is intended to present: it shows Bernstein’s very considerable podium gifts, and a touch of his pianistic skill as well, while also making some of his shortcomings clear. Ironically, this makes the seven-CD, nearly seven-hour-long set all the more worth having for anyone who wonders just what made Bernstein so special, so popular, and at times so controversial.
Two of the discs are devoted to Berlioz, and one of them is a real winner: Harold en Italie, with violist Donald McInnes, is elegant, soulful, and much more symphonically connected (it is essentially a symphony with viola obbligato) than in most performances. The middle movements, in particular, have delicacy of expression and, in the third, some simple and outright joy that make the contrast with the longer and more-dramatic outer movements all the better. But Symphonie fantastique, whose Romantic excess would seem a perfect match for Bernstein’s personal ebullience and sometimes over-large personality, is rather surprisingly tame in its last two movements. The first three are excellent, with an unusually slow Un bal that Bernstein makes convincing and a very extended Scène aux champs that hangs together surprisingly well. But Marche au supplice, although it starts dramatically enough, is almost understated at the end, just when one would expect Bernstein to make it over-the-top. And the bizarre elements of the final Witches’ Sabbath are by and large downplayed, with the exception of the church bells, whose first entry is genuinely chilling and whose repeated tolling makes the atmosphere very eerie indeed. But somehow the final movement never quite coalesces or, more to the point, climaxes with the sort of conclusion that, in the best performances, can leave audiences gasping. It is all right, certainly, and the orchestra plays quite well for Bernstein (throughout this entire set, in fact), but this conductor-with-a-flair-for-the-dramatic never quite lets everything go as far as it can here.
The disc of Milhaud’s music, on the other hand, is first-rate throughout. It includes La Création du monde, Le Bœuf sur le toit, and four of the 12 Saudades do Brasil. Despite the boxed set’s title, it includes no Gershwin, but on this CD Bernstein shows his flair for jazz and the jazzy very clearly indeed. And the orchestra plays these century-old works as if they are brand-new, their rhythms and harmonies sparkling and their storytelling bright and polished. Bernstein is also in top form on a CD featuring cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who was himself to become an adequate if not especially distinguished conductor in later years. Here Bernstein’s interpretative finesse, along with that of Rostropovich, takes two dissimilar works and highlights considerable emotional resonance between them. They are Schumann’s Cello Concerto and Bloch’s Schelomo, both of which come across here as extended fantasies. The approach works somewhat better in the Bloch than the Schumann, which some listeners will likely find overextended and rhythmically a touch flabby. But this CD shows tremendous rapport between soloist and conductor, and even an interpretation that may not be to everyone’s liking helps make the Bernstein portrait within this boxed set more complete.
Less rapport is in evidence with Alexis Weissenberg, who is heard in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It is hard to know whether Weissenberg or Bernstein was the driving force in the shaping of this performance, but the two do not seem to mesh as well as Bernstein does with Rostropovich. Perhaps Bernstein, himself a pianist, had some ideas with which Weissenberg did not see eye-to-eye. In any case, this reading shows one of the downsides of Bernstein’s conducting: listeners who enjoy it will call it expansive, but most will more likely find it bloated and at times just plain slow (Bernstein did have a habit of conducting the music of some composers, notably Beethoven, unusually slowly). This is a 40-minute concerto that here runs almost 47 minutes, and listeners who know the music may well find themselves repeatedly and fecklessly asking the musicians to, please, pick up the pace.
The Rachmaninoff CD contains material that is more interesting than the concerto, though: four excerpts from 1975 rehearsal sessions of music by Ravel, including Alborada del gracioso, Shéhérazade, Piano Concerto in G, and La Valse. Listeners have to know French to follow what Bernstein tells the orchestra, but even those who do not know the language will appreciate the meticulousness with which Bernstein approaches even the smallest detail of the music, going over and over and over the same passage until eventually, satisfied as regards a bit of the concerto, he says, with a sigh, Gott sei dank. No need to be an expert in German to understand that. Elsewhere, dissatisfied with a portion of La Valse, Bernstein lapses into English, “No good, no good, no good.” But in the half-hour-plus of rehearsal material, he is actually remarkably positive in his comments most of the time, shaping the performances gently but firmly. The insight into his rehearsal style is a highlight of this entire release.
Ravel is the primary focus of the final two CDs in this set, with the four works heard in rehearsal given in their entirety in performances, and joined by Tzigane for violin and orchestra (Boris Belkin is the violinist) and Boléro, which is heard immediately after La Valse in an excellent juxtaposition: here are pieces in which Bernstein really does cut loose, and the result is thrilling and involving. Marilyn Horne’s warm, elegant soprano voice in Shéhérazade beautifully evokes the dreamlike word painting of Tristan Klingsor, although listeners will have to find the texts online, since, as noted, there is nothing about the music included in this set. Piano Concerto in G features Bernstein himself as soloist, and listening to the whole piece after hearing Bernstein rehearse some of it (playing with the orchestra part of the time and deliberately not playing at other times) adds considerable depth to an interpretation that is excellent in all respects. Clearly, something in Bernstein resonated to Ravel, and the affinity became especially deep when he performed Ravel’s music with a quintessentially French orchestra – and live in concert, where the two final CDs were recorded. The seven-disc set concludes with two suites by Bernstein himself, both of which show just how fully he understood the more-popular side of music and incorporated classical training and thinking into it. One suite is drawn from Bernstein’s music for the film On the Waterfront, and the other, inevitably, is Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” whose nine movements encapsulate Bernstein’s most-famous composition while standing very effectively on their own in the concert hall. This exceptionally well-priced set, if intended primarily to elevate Bernstein to an unapproachable level, falls a bit short on that score (which is to say, with these scores). But really, hagiographic impulses aside, Bernstein was a supremely talented and multifaceted musician, although scarcely one who was unequaled in everything he did. There is enough excellent music-making here to remind listeners familiar with Bernstein of why he was so widely admired and why his conducting style was not to everyone’s taste. It turns out that he, like everyone else, had manifest strengths and evident weaknesses. That is not at all a bad thing to learn from this very welcome and much-appreciated release.
Gregorian Chant Melodies, Volumes I and II. The Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France. Paraclete. $18.99 each.
Then and There, Here and Now. Chanticleer. Warner Classics. $17.98.
There is nothing in modern music quite comparable to the effect of hearing Gregorian chant performed in its original form by a chorus fully versed in the music, the meaning of the words, and the Latin language. Many contemporary composers have used Gregorian chant in their own ways or modified it to accommodate the musical changes that have occurred over the last 500 years and more. But nothing that is derived from the original, nothing that builds on its foundation, nothing that reflects it, has the purity and sense of timelessness that true Gregorian chant possesses. Even for those who are not Catholic, even for those who are not religious at all, there is an evanescent spirituality about this material, which was originally created to accompany the Mass and divine office of Roman Catholicism, but eventually became no less than the foundation of Western music: it is through the modes in which Gregorian chant was written, especially the Ionian mode, that the entire later system of tonality with which we are familiar came to be. Pure Gregorian chant is very rarely heard outside abbeys and some very conservative Catholic churches – a fact that makes its beauty and immense spiritual power when sung by the Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France, all the more striking. Because Gregorian chant involves unison singing, it tends to sound simple, even minimalist, to modern ears; but in the voices of the performers heard on a pair of new Paraclete recordings, it also sounds positively angelic. Whatever one’s feelings about the divine, these CDs show the truth of Aldous Huxley’s on-point observation, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
For secular listeners and ones who are religious but not Catholic, there is little reason to choose one of the new CDs over the other, since the distinctions among the works on them lie largely in the chants’ liturgical purposes. There is also little reason to select only one of the discs: for an auditory experience quite unlike any other, with music suitable for everything from focused meditation to genuine spiritual seeking to calming background purposes, it makes perfect sense to have both recordings. Volume I contains material from the Liber Cantualis Mass plus Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament; several Chants to Our Lady; chants designed to be sung during Advent, at Christmas, during Lent, at Pentecost and at Compline (evening prayers chanted before going to bed for the night); and a Kyriale section including a Sanctus, Agnus dei, Credo, and two Kyrie chants. The contents of Volume II, taken from the Liber Cantualis, include Mass of the Angels; two chants each for Advent, Christmas and the Passion; one each for Easter and Pentecost; Benediction of the Holy Sacrament; and several Chants to Our Lady. Also on Volume II are an Antiphon and Benedictus from the Office for the Departed, and at the very end a lovely Hymn Te Deum of Thanksgiving. The effect of this music is exceptional no matter how secular our age: the beauties of Gregorian chant were intended to enhance and ease the connection of humans with the divine, and even today these chants encourage and invite inward looking, contemplation, thoughtfulness, and a kind of separation from mundane affairs that somehow makes it easier to return to everyday matters after spending time in an environment permeated by the masterful singing of the Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey in Solesmes.
Gregorian chant has been around so long that composers such as Giovanni Palestrina (c. 1525-1594), Orlando di Lasso (c. 1530-1594), William Byrd (c. 1539-1623), and Antonio de Salazar (1650-1715) were writing in distinctly later forms even when they created, respectively, the Gaude gloriosa, Surrexit pastor bonus, Ave verum corpus, and Salve Regina heard on a new Warner Classics CD. All these works have roots, directly or indirectly, in Gregorian chant, but all sound very different from what the Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey performs – even though the singers on this disc are every bit as skilled, adept and sweet-sounding in their own way. These performers are the members of the group called Chanticleer, whose new CD celebrates 40 years of the ensemble’s existence with a polyglot collection of 19 tracks whose oldest material is juxtaposed neatly (and a bit disconcertingly) with very up-to-date pieces indeed. Those include five Chanticleer commissions: Whispers by Steven Stucky (1949-2016); Stelle, vostra mercè l’eccelse sfere by Mason Bates (born 1977); Io son la primavera by William Hawley (born 1950); Jarba, Mare Jarba, a traditional Hungarian song arranged for Chanticleer by Stacy Garrop (born 1969); and Bei mir bist du shein by Sholom Secunda (1894-1974) as arranged by Brian Hinman (born 1978). The dates of the various composers and arrangers are instructive where this disc is concerned, because they show clearly just how wide the variety of music is that Chanticleer sings. And while the ensemble has a tone and a style that it brings to all the performances, it also has the ability to adapt the grouping and relative volume of its members so as to give a genuinely different feeling to the various pieces heard here. Now Is the Month of Maying by Thomas Morley (1557-1602) and Il bianco e dolce cigno by Jacques Arcadelt (1507-1568) date to roughly the same time and have some musical approaches in common, and hearing them one after the others makes eminent sense. But preceding the Morley with Nude Descending a Staircase by Allen Shearer (born 1943), and following the Arcadelt with the Bates work (which dates to 2009), requires a certain boldness bordering on the foolhardy. Chanticleer gets away with this sort of thing precisely because the group’s voices are so well-matched and its style is so smoothly elegant. All the works benefit from what may be called the Chanticleer touch, even the inevitable Summertime by George Gershwin (1898-1937). The remaining pieces here are Dúlamán by Michael McGlynn (born 1964), a setting of a traditional Irish song; Straight Street by James Woodie Alexander (1916-1996); I Have Had Singing by Steven Sametz (born 1954); and arrangements of three traditional songs. Those are I want to die easy; Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal; and Keep your hand on the plow. One of the most remarkable things about Chanticleer is that whether it is singing old-fashioned, not-too-far-from-Gregorian-chant Latin material, traditional spirituals, folk tunes, opera excerpts, or modern songs, its handling seems unerringly right, as if the members of the group have absorbed the music so thoroughly that their reproduction of it has the charm of inevitability. This new release offers only a very small part of the material that Chanticleer has sung and recorded over its four decades, but it is plenty to engage and please the group’s existing fans – and more than enough to bring Chanticleer a new and enlarged audience if people hearing the CD are encountering the group for the first time.
October 18, 2018
Let Sleeping Dragons Lie. By Garth Nix & Sean Williams. Scholastic. $17.99.
Sometimes it takes a second chance for adventurers to find their way. That applies even to those whose adventuring consists of creating fantasy novels – and even to authors with considerable experience doing so. Garth Nix and Sean Williams, both highly experienced writers, began a joint series for preteens in 2017 with Have Sword, Will Travel. Although certainly well-written and skillfully paced, the book never really settled into a consistent mode: was it supposed to be a serious fantasy-adventure or a humorous take on the whole fantasy-adventure genre? Funnier at first, more serious later on, filled with gaping plot holes and dependent on a deus ex machina (really a dragon ex machina) for a satisfactory resolution, the book was chaotic and poorly plotted, lurching along rather than moving smoothly and convincingly from event to event. None of this stopped it from being well-paced and easy to read, but it left the overall impression of simply trying too hard.
Apparently Nix and Williams decided to stop trying quite that much and simply let their talents flow and complement each other, because Let Sleeping Dragons Lie, the sequel to Have Sword, Will Travel, is much more consistently written, plotted and paced. The basic characters are the same: 13-year-old Odo and his enchanted talking sword, Biter; and his good friends, 13-year-old Eleanor and her enchanted talking sword, Runnel, are the primary protagonists. Returning from the first book, at least for cameo appearances, are formerly brave and now doddering knight Sir Halfdan, who has one last battle in him; fix-it expert Old Ryce, rescued from slavery by Odo and Eleanor in the first book; and the Urthkin, underground-dwelling creatures that are emphatically not dwarves. And then there are two crucial new characters who propel the plot: Egda, the former king of Tofte, the land where these adventures are set, and his onetime guard captain and now traveling companion, a woman knight known as Hundred. The basic story here will scarcely be new to readers of faux-medieval fantasies: Egda has abdicated after going blind, believing he can no longer rule properly, and intending that Prince Kendryk will rule once he comes of age; but that time has come and gone, because since Egda first gave up the throne, Tofte has been led by Egda’s sister as regent, and now Odelyn has no intention of giving up her position – although she does not want to kill Kendryk outright, preferring to imprison him and try to persuade him to abdicate in her favor. So it falls to Egda, Hundred, Odo and Eleanor to undertake a quest to free the land, right what is wrong, restore proper rule, and all that. None of this is a whit surprising. And speaking of a whit, Let Sleeping Dragons Lie continues to toss in entertaining old insults from time to time, such as referring to a ne’er-do-well as a “slimy cumberwold” (the latter word meaning someone so useless that all he does is take up space).
Well, there is nothing highly original about the basic plot here, but for that very reason, Nix and Williams seem to be more comfortable developing characters and showing their interactions than they were in Have Sword, Will Travel. For instance, the pronounced differences in attitude between Odo, who is a reluctant knight journeying far from home bravely but not very willingly, and Eleanor, a go-getter who is impatient to the point of becoming irritating when she has to do anything as mundane as digging latrine holes instead of getting to practice new sword moves, are explored and deepened in Let Sleeping Dragons Lie. Hundred is a highly interesting new character, although Egda is less so, being more of a cliché – yet when he and Hundred converse in voices not their own, their past becomes one small mystery among many here. Odelyn is a straightforward central-casting villainess and therefore dull, and her No. 2, Lord Deor, is even more typecast – in Darth Vader mode. But Prince Kendryk has some depth to him that keeps the whole quest more interesting than it would otherwise be.
As for the book’s title, suffice it to say that Odo and Eleanor learn here of a longstanding pact between humans and Urthkin – and then it turns out there is also an agreement between humans and dragons. How that was forged, by whom and when, and what it entails and leads to, are all elements that become increasingly intriguing and increasingly important as the book progresses – until, after the main story ends, there occurs the return of yet another character introduced in the first book, this time a very improbable (indeed, well-nigh impossible) reemergence of someone whose elimination in Have Sword, Will Travel was quite thorough. That sets up the next book in the series – which will hopefully be as sure-handed as this one.
And hopefully the third book will be significantly better in one important respect: the map of central Tofte, thoughtfully provided with a host of place names at the start of Let Sleeping Dragons Lie, is printed upside-down and backwards. The entire adventure starts in Lenburh, the town where Odo and Eleanor live, and takes them farther and farther north and west toward the country’s capital, Winterset. So says the narrative and so narrate the authors. But not the map. It shows Lenburh in the extreme northwest of Tofte, Winterset all the way to the southeast, and every town and place mentioned in the text in exactly the wrong place. This would be funny if it were not so dismaying: maps like this are common in heroic-fantasy books, helping readers get their bearings, but this one will almost literally turn them back to front and top to bottom. What a shame that just as Nix and Williams hit their stride with this series, someone could not be bothered to check the map’s design and directions. Well, there is always the third book. Until then, readers can literally turn this one over and read the various town names upside-down to be able to follow what is going on.
Barren: A Demon Cycle Novella. By Peter V. Brett. Harper Voyager. $14.99.
Tales of an 8-Bit Kitten #1: Lost in the Nether. By “Cube Kid” (Erik Gunnar Taylor). Illustrated by Vladimir “ZloyXP” Subbotin. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The whole point of immersion in a fantasy world is to visit some other reality for a time and live vicariously through that world’s characters for a while, sharing their thoughts, feelings, adventures, triumphs and failures. The point of when to enter the world is therefore crucial. Series authors usually try to give some basic grounding in their creations within every book, so readers discovering imaginary places for the first time can familiarize themselves sufficiently with a world so as to be able to navigate a story without being required to begin with the first tale set there and work their way into every one of the new books, one at a time. But not all authors do this: some present stories that are self-contained only for people already quite familiar with the places where they occur and with the rules, personalities and requirements of those places. Thus, Barren is a taut novella set in the world of Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle – which Brett never elucidates at all, clearly aiming the book at existing fans to whom the events of Barren will make perfect sense because they already understand the milieu in which those events occur. Nicely done for those readers, the book is almost completely incoherent for anyone not already knowledgeable about the Demon Cycle series, which has been extending and expanding its reach ever since the first book appeared in 2009 as The Warded Man (actually in 2008 in Great Britain, as The Painted Man). The primary cycle of novels then moved into The Desert Spear, The Daylight War, The Skull Throne, and finally The Core, and Brett produced three standalone novellas as well: The Great Bazaar, Brayan’s Gold, and Messenger’s Legacy. So Barren is part of a very extended and internally consistent world – but one with which readers must be quite familiar for the story to make sense. It is about small-town politics and sexuality, about families that cooperate only uneasily against a greater threat but that harbor decades-long resentments that fester until they eventually break out, and about the uneasy alliances that are needed in order to prevent the destruction of the town and its people by monstrously evil magical creatures. The themes are scarcely original, but the setting is – for those who understand it. Barren is a very poor entry point for anyone seeking to find out what the Demon Cycle is all about. Not even the dates make sense: some chapters occur in 334 AR, others in 284 AR, but what “AR” means is never explained, although there is a single passing reference to “the Return.” Regarding from where or by whom or under what circumstances, there is not even a whisper. The underlying conflict between religious fundamentalists and the town’s secular contingent is clear enough, but there is nothing explained about the holy book that the groups interpret so differently, often with such dire consequences. And the whole matter of “demons,” including frequent references to “the core” and “corespawn” and curses incorporating the word “core,” makes no sense whatsoever. Apparently there are largely mindless, inherently vicious, evil demons that can move about only at night, and they have unremitting enmity for humans, who use magical wards and charms to hold them off and kill them. The demons, on the basis of Barren alone, are 100% perfect (or 100% imperfect) boogeymen, seeking nothing but to destroy people unless the people destroy them first – they are nameless, faceless, implacable forces of darkness that are evil because they are evil. That is a pretty poor setup for a series that runs to five novels and four novellas, and in truth it is not the entirety of the story of the Demon Cycle, by any means. But Barren is wholly lacking in background sufficient to make the world in which the novella takes place intelligible, so readers are left with a well-paced story about small-town intolerance of those who “deviate” from the norm and are in violation of proscriptions in some holy book or other – and about the deaths and difficulties that the narrow-mindedness causes for just about all the major characters. There is nothing wrong with this story arc, but it is a hyper-familiar one, and the elements designed to differentiate it, the elements of worldbuilding involving magic and demons, are presented in so superficial and slapdash a fashion here that Barren becomes a story of little appeal except to those already well-informed about the world where it takes place.
The world where the story of a cat named Eeebs occurs is another one requiring intimate familiarity for the narrative to be at all entertaining. The first book in a planned series called Tales of an 8-Bit Kitten is a start-of the-quest setup labeled “An Unofficial Minecraft Adventure” and written by videogame enthusiast “Cube Kid,” previously the creator of the Diary of an 8-Bit Warrior sequence – which the kitten-flavored one will undoubtedly parallel closely, even containing some of the same characters. But non-readers of the earlier series – and, more to the point, anyone not highly familiar with Minecraft – will get so little from Lost in the Nether that they are unlikely to get past the first few chapters. The story is as basic as a fantasy can be: young protagonist wanders into dangerous land, is transformed into a hero, and discovers that he represents the fulfillment of a prophecy. Eeebs looks like a Minecraft creation, of course – the illustrations by Vladimir “ZloyXP” Subbotin are absolutely true to the look of the game – and his opponents also fit the Minecraft world very well, and are as silly and feckless as can be: led by an Enderman named EnderStar whose primary objective is to be evil, the bad guys include wither skeletons, zombie pigmen and so forth, and they are stupid to the point of hilarity. They are initially seen being unable to do much of anything because it is too bright, leading EnderStar to look up at the square yellow thing in the sky and shake his fist at it, saying, “I can’t believe this! All of my planning, ruined by the stupid sun!” (Yes, the sun is square in Minecraft.) Later, Eeebs has a meeting with an endermage named Greyfellow, whose initial babbling does not help much of anything but who eventually shows Eeebs and two other heroic kittens screens that “are called visual enhancements” and “can be used to interact with objects or your inventory, or they can simply display data.” The following discussion of screens actually provides more information on the Minecraft world than is ever provided about the world of the Demon Cycle, but because this material shows up halfway through Lost in the Nether, it is unlikely that anyone unfamiliar with Minecraft will still be reading. No matter: the information reminds readers who are Minecraft fans of some elements of the world, and it fleshes out (or bricks out) the abilities that Eeebs and the other now-powerful kittens have or can develop. Unlike Barren, which is intense, extremely serious and intended for adults, Lost in the Nether is lighthearted, amusing and aimed at the young demographic that delights in Minecraft. But one thing the two books have in common is that they target readers who are already in the know about the worlds where the events occur: you simply cannot be a newcomer (“noob” in Minecraft) and get the full flavor, or very much of the impact, of either of these series entries.
A Fierce Glory: Antietam—The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery. By Justin Martin. Da Capo. $28.
The dispute as to whether the Civil War was all about slavery continues more than 150 years after the war’s end and shows no sign of ending anytime soon, if ever. Certainly the war was not 100% about slaveholding at first, even though extremists on both sides – defenders of slavery and opponents – stridently said that it was, as they sought to rally like-minded people to the cause of the Union or the Confederacy. Certainly Abraham Lincoln did not see the war as being about slavery: it was always, for him, about preserving the Union, and also about retaining his own political standing – a Republican, Lincoln needed the support of Northern Democrats, who generally opposed the notion of fighting a war to free the slaves. Indeed, as late as 1862, Lincoln famously made it clear in a letter to abolitionist Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune that maintaining the Union was his primary focus: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
But then came the Battle of Antietam – or, as it is also known, the Battle of Sharpsburg. It was after this inconclusive, extremely bloody battle, a tactical draw but a strategic Union victory because the Confederate troops left the field first, that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation – which took the third option Lincoln had mentioned to Greeley. Proclamation 95, as it is also known, freed all slaves in Confederate states – where, it could be argued, the Union had no power to free them – while avoiding the issue of slaveholding states that had not joined the Confederacy, including Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. It is for this proclamation and for its standing as the bloodiest day in United States history (more than 22,000 dead, wounded or missing) that Antietam is remembered today.
There is no shortage of books about the battle, but Justin Martin looks for a new angle in A Fierce Glory by making his book about Lincoln just as much as it is about the battle itself. Martin focuses his book on Lincoln the man as well as Lincoln the president, discussing Lincoln’s personal and family troubles while also delving into his political worries, both domestic and foreign: a decisive Confederate victory in the battle at Sharpsburg, Maryland – that is, in the North – could lead Britain or France to recognize the Confederacy or provide it with assistance. The battle itself is presented carefully and with considerable attention to descriptions of equipment, formations, weapons, uniforms and more. Three maps show the location of Sharpsburg, the layout of the battlefield, and, most interestingly in terms of humanizing the president, “Lincoln’s daily commute” from Northeast Washington to the White House. And there are the usual period photographs, many of them familiar from other books, to go with information such as the fact that six generals – three from each side – were killed or mortally wounded during the battle.
But A Fierce Glory has nothing new to say about the fighting itself: it will be of interest to readers wanting to know more about President Lincoln as a human being, his political calculations and the way he balanced everyday Washington infighting against what he saw as the grand work of preserving the United States as a single nation, no matter what that might entail. Seizing the outcome of Antietam as an opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation showed Lincoln’s political skill as well as his willingness, by this point in the war, to use whatever means he had at his disposal to rally sufficient support for the Union and against the Confederacy. If that now meant freeing the slaves, even in areas where Lincoln’s word carried moral weight but no legal authority, then that was what he would do – leaving complete abolition to occur later, indeed posthumously (the 13th Amendment was not ratified until December 6, 1865). Martin interweaves the battlefield and presidential topics skillfully, although the intermingling inevitably means that neither area is covered in as much depth as they have been in single-focus books. A Fierce Glory, based on considerable primary research as well as use of secondary sources, is a good overview of Antietam/Sharpsburg for readers not highly familiar with this element of the Civil War or with the tactics, both on the battlefield and in the political sphere, used to fight it.
Bernstein: Symphonies Nos. 1-3; Prelude, Fugue & Riffs. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, mezzo-soprano; Beatrice Rana, piano; Nadine Sierra, soprano; Josephine Barstow, speaker; Coro e Voci Bianche dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; Alessandro Carbonare, clarinet; Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia conducted by Antonio Pappano. Warner Classics. $26.98 (2 CDs).
Sisters in Song: Opera, Songs and Spirituals. Nicole Cabell and Alyson Cambridge, sopranos; Lake Forest Symphony conducted by Vladimir Kulenovic. Cedille. $16.
Hayes Biggs: Pan-fare; When you are reminded by the instruments; Inquieto (attraverso il rumore); The Trill Is Gone; Fanfare for Brass and Percussion; E.M. am Flügel; Wedding Motet—Tota Pulchra Est/Set Me as a Seal upon Thine Heart; Ochila laEil. Navona. $14.99.
Spectra, Volume 2—Music of Elizabeth R. Austin, John Alan Rose, Juliana Hall, Ryan Jesperson, Frank Vasi, and Nancy Tucker. Navona. $14.99.
There was very little that was conventional in Leonard Bernstein’s thinking about where the lines between classical/serious and pop/Broadway music should be drawn – if indeed they should be drawn at all. Bernstein (1918-1990) had at least as many successes in theater, West Side Story being the best-known, as in the concert hall, if not more. His classical-style music tended to be erudite and sometimes mentally as well as aurally challenging, as in Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. And much like another famous 20th-century American musician, Aaron Copland, Bernstein found that his popular works tended to eclipse ones that were more difficult for audiences to grasp but that were deeply imbued with what he deemed to be the crucial elements of his musical thinking. Bernstein’s three symphonies, which receive excellently played and heartfelt renditions on a new Warner Classics release featuring Antonio Pappano and Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, stand in many ways as pinnacles of Bernstein’s classical thinking – and as examples of his non-traditional handling of traditional forms. The first and third are vocal works and are deeply imbued with Bernstein’s Jewish heritage. As such, they use languages that concert audiences rarely hear, Hebrew and Aramaic, and their topics turn them into something between declamation and oratorio. No. 1, “Jeremiah,” dates to 1942 and is in three movements titled “Prophecy,” “Profanation” and “Lamentation.” A wartime work – premièred, interestingly, in a mosque – it has little of the Sturm und Drang of many other World War II orchestral pieces, taking a more-inward and rather depressive stance on events of the day by using such Biblical phrases (in Hebrew) as, “All her [the city’s] friends have dealt treacherously with her; they are become her enemies.” Skillfully orchestrated and boasting a large percussion section that Pappano uses to particularly fine effect, the symphony is decidedly on the dour side, although there is considerable beauty in some of the vocal material as sung by Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 (1963/1977) is called the “Kaddish,” using text from the eponymous Aramaic-language Jewish prayer for the dead. Dedicated to the memory of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated just weeks before the work’s première, the symphony is even more expansive than No. 1, using both a mixed choir and boys’ choir – plus two voices, a soprano and a narrator – as well as, yet again, a very large orchestra that in this case requires four percussionists. The narrative of the three-movement “Kaddish” begins with the prayer but soon turns into a confrontational argument between the speaker (Josephine Barstow) and God (a one-sided argument: God never replies). After raging at God for the injustices of the world, the speaker attains a level of calm and offers to comfort God as God has previously comforted humans: the lullaby sung in the second movement by the soprano (Nadine Sierra) is gentle and compassionate. The third movement has God dreaming as the narrator creates scenes from the human imagination, then exhorts God, “Believe! Believe!” The work is philosophically ambitious and musically quite varied, not always fully coherent but certainly heartfelt – and demanding of both performers and listeners.
Between these vocal symphonies, Bernstein’s Second, “The Age of Anxiety” (1949/1965), lacks vocal elements but retains the individual-against-the-mass structure through extensive use of a solo piano. It also includes a pianino (small upright piano). It is the most complexly structured of Bernstein’s symphonies, being in two parts, each of which includes three sections – with the second and third sections of Part One each broken down into seven subsections. The title sounds evocative of the modern age as a whole, but in fact reflects the work’s genesis as a musical interpretation of W.H. Auden’s poem of the same name (Auden did not much care for the music). The frequent tempo and rhythm changes of the symphony – which, like the other two, is orchestrated with considerable skill – keep the work interesting, and certainly Pappano and pianist Beatrice Rana handle it with understanding. But only listeners who know Auden’s poem will really get the point of much of the symphony, so closely does it reflect specific elements of Auden’s work. The music does contain considerable jazzy elements, and those are appealing in their own right – and indeed, Bernstein’s incorporation of jazz into his scores is one of his most attractive attributes. This melding of jazz with classical elements is scarcely unique to Bernstein, but he handled it with unusual flair, as in Prelude, Fugue & Riffs (1949), which explicitly mixes classical material (the first two movements) with jazz (the third). This is a clarinet concertino that makes an excellent encore after the three symphonies; and if Alessandro Carbonare does not play with quite as much flair as Benny Goodman, to whom Bernstein dedicated the work, he certainly handles the material stylishly and is ably abetted by Pappano. This is a highlyworthwhile release for listeners who know Bernstein’s symphonies only from the composer’s own performances: Pappano’s readings are different in many points of emphasis, bringing out a variety of subtleties. And listeners who do not know the serious/classical side of Bernstein at all will find this recording revelatory.
There is nothing so substantive musically on a new (+++) Cedille CD called “Sisters in Song,” but there is a great deal of listening pleasure for anyone who simply wants to hear the intertwining voices of two first-rate sopranos. This is a short CD of short pieces, 14 of them adding up to about 49 minutes of music, and it is clearly intended to showcase the ways in which the voices of Nicole Cabell and Alyson Cambridge both blend and differ. It does that quite well, both in opera excerpts and in various song and spiritual arrangements by Joe Clark. The repertoire choice is apparently highly personal to the singers; indeed, the whole CD is the sort of product that one might pick up after hearing a joint recital by the performers. From the opera world come the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, the Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakmé, the Evening Prayer from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, and two excerpts from Mozart’s Così fan tutte. They are “Ah guarda, sorella,” for Cabell and Cambridge alone, and “Soave sia il vento,” in which the sopranos are joined by baritone Will Liverman, whose rich-toned voice nicely complements theirs. The four songs here are Del Cabello más Sutil by Fernando J. Obradors, Claire de Lune by Gabriel Fauré, Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria, and the traditional Black Is the Color (of My True Love’s Hair). These songs’ music, thanks in large part to Clark’s arrangements, fits very effectively with the five spirituals: There Is a Balm in Gilead; Oh, What a Beautiful City!; Ain’t That Good News; Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child; and He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. Taken as a whole, the musical potpourri is not particularly attractive or unattractive – the specific pieces are is a sense irrelevant to the overall sound of this disc, which has clearly been assembled with care and targeted strictly at people who either know one or both of the sopranos already or who are simply pleased by the opportunity to hear paired voices of similar range but very different heft and vocal quality.
The two vocal works on a new (+++) Navona CD of music by Hayes Biggs show modern approaches to liturgical texts that are quite different from those of Bernstein or those in the spirituals sung by Cabell and Cambridge. One Biggs work, Ochila laEil (1999), uses Hebrew, but quite differently from the way Bernstein does, and for quite different purposes. This text is taken from services at which the cantor asks permission to pray on behalf of the congregation – and Biggs extensively uses a French horn, apparently to represent the cantor, before any vocal material enters. The horn sounds as if it is asking with more and more passion to speak for the congregation – and when vocals do enter, they are from a chorus (the Florilegium Chamber Choir conducted by JoAnn Rice). After the text, the horn returns again to close the piece as wordlessly as it began. The other vocal work here, Wedding Motet (1998), is a short piece (half the length of the 14-minute Ochila laEil) in which various words from the Song of Songs are set in variegated fashion to music whose multiplicity of approaches prevents smooth emotional flow but offers a series of little stylistic surprises, all handled neatly by the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective conducted by Ben Arendsen. The other six, non-vocal works on the CD also showcase the considerable variability of Biggs’ music. Two are solo-instrument works: The Trill Is Gone (2013), a lighthearted tribute to composer Edwin London (1929-2013) for tenor saxophone (Andrew Steinberg), and E.M. am Flügel (“Eric Moe at the Piano”), a piece from 1992 tailored to the style of Moe, who performs it here. There is also a work for violin (Curtis Macomber) and piano (Christopher Oldfather) called Inquieto (attraverso il rumore), which dates to 2015 and whose title translates as “Disquiet (amid the noise).” Here and throughout the CD, Biggs is apparently seeking a level of profundity and philosophical inquiry that, however, is never supported by the specifics of the music in the way that Bernstein’s musical thinking invites other forms of thoughtfulness. Biggs is somewhat more interesting when he does not appear to be trying quite so hard, as in the bright and energetic Fanfare for Brass and Percussion (1989), a short curtain-raiser of a piece that has more complexity of design than is usual in fanfares, and wears it well. Also short and interesting is Pan-fare (2007), in which the Moravian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Petr Vronský, is joined by Desiree Glazier-Nazro on steel pan, pedal bass drum, and tambourine. There is something intoxicating in the very varied percussive sounds here (the work also includes vibraslap, bongos, congas, marimba, Chinese opera gong and more); and even if there is nothing particularly meaningful in the piece, its gestural, outgoing nature is infectious. But when Biggs strives for meaningfulness, he tends to over-complicate. That is the impression created by When you are reminded by the instruments (1997), its title taken from a Walt Whitman poem and its septet scoring (oboe/English horn, clarinet/bass clarinet, French horn, violin, viola, cello, and bass) used to create a sound far removed from what listeners will likely expect from this instrumental complement – but little that will surprise an audience accustomed to the ways in which some contemporary composers prefer to extend the sound of traditional instruments into new and different realms, if scarcely more sonically pleasing ones.
A (+++) Navona anthology disc featuring six members of Connecticut Composers, Inc. includes one vocal work and one that could be described as almost vocal. Here too there are composers intrigued by the human voice and looking for ways to incorporate it, or at least make reference to it, in music with a distinctly contemporary feel. The vocal piece here is Bells and Grass (1989) by Juliana Hall, and while its poetry is scarcely unusual – the five works are by Walter de la Mare – the setting is out of the ordinary. It is for soprano (Julia Broxholm) and oboe (Margaret Marco) – no piano here. The unusual combination lends the work an unexpected coloration that is quite pleasant and that reflects nicely the small touches of intimate experience on which the poetry dwells. The almost-vocal piece is B-A-C-Homage (2007) by Elizabeth R. Austin, which is written for viola (Laura Krentzman) and piano (Erberk Eryilmaz) and which uses the notes represented by Bach’s name (B-A-C-B flat) as a compositional technique. Bits of actual Bach drift through the two movements, the first of which shares its title with the work as a whole. But the second movement is the almost-verbal one. It is called Ich bins, Nachtigall, a reference to a Rainer Maria Rilke fragment whose first line translates as “I am the one, Nightingale, of whom you sing.” The bird-focused words, although not actually sung, are the reason for the birdlike sounds heard in the movement, which really make sense only if listeners know the Rilke inspiration. Also on the CD is another work inspired by literature, Sleepy Hollow Suite (2007) by John Alan Rose. Heard here in a version for solo piano, the work is largely programmatic, its three movements focusing on several characters from the well-known story and on the climactic encounter between Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. The inspiration is Greek mythology in Icarus (2017) by Ryan Jesperson, and this is a work designated as being for alto saxophone (Joseph Abad) and piano (Marko Stuparevic); but in reality it is for a processed version of the instruments, with overlays of additional material on the basics. Whether or not this makes the music connect any more meaningfully with the story of the youth who disastrously flew too close to the sun will be a matter of individual listeners’ opinion. Random Thoughts (2014) by Frank Vasi is for saxophone quartet (David Langlais, soprano; Will Cleary, alto; Vasi himself, tenor; Tim Moran, baritone) and has some attractive combinatorial sounds that nicely complement compositional techniques such as playing 4/4 and 6/8 time against each other in the second movement and producing some (literally) offbeat jazziness in the fourth and last one, which is entertainingly titled “Picasso’s Rag.” In fact, it is the entertaining nature of Vasi’s piece and of the two by Nancy Tucker that is the most attractive element of this variegated disc. Tucker offers two very short works, Escape of the Slinkys (2004) for 6-string guitar (Tucker herself) and marimba (Tom Dest), and Grasshopper’s Holiday (2001) for 6-string guitar solo (Tucker again). The latter features such enthusiastic plucking and strumming that, like certain country music, it encourages listeners to bounce along with it. There is effortless-sounding joy in these two little pieces, which thus stand in pleasant contrast to the generally serious – indeed, often overly serious – tone of so much contemporary classical music, whether vocal or instrumental.
Michael G. Cunningham: Silhouettes; Clarinet Concerto; Symphonette; Bach Diadem. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský; Bruno Philipp, clarinet; Croatian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
Mark John McEncroe: Symphonic Poems. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armore. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).
Hans Bakker: Canzona III Hidden in Her Light; Jan Järvlepp: Suite for Strings; Clive Muncaster: Redcliffe Gardens Suite for Strings; Shirley Mier: Of Lakes and Legends. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský and Stanislav Vavřínek; Croatian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
John A. Carollo: Awakenings for String Orchestra; Romantica Passione Suite; Metamorphosis No. 3 for Solo Violin; Guitar Prelude No. 3—The Tai Chi Set; Guitar Etudes Nos. 7 and 9; Music for Choir; Metamorphosis No. 13 for Solo Flute; Bright Stillness (You Are My Desire) for String Orchestra. Navona. $14.99.
Modern composers of orchestral music are well aware that they are building on a rich legacy from which to extract what is most meaningful to them while still placing their own imprimatur on works for large ensemble. Michael G. Cunningham is particularly attuned to what has come before, to the point of sometimes offering direct tributes to and interpretations of earlier music. Notably, Cunningham’s Bach Diadem arranges three of Bach’s works for full orchestra in a way that certainly acknowledges the earlier composer’s influence even though the arrangements do not add any particular insight to the originals – and are performed rather ploddingly by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský. The playing is more successful elsewhere on a new Navona CD, for example in Silhouettes, whose nine short movements include genuflections to Gershwin and Mozart even though those pieces sound little like the works of either composer. Cunningham’s use of the orchestra is actually more attractive in his charming and charmingly titled Symphonette, whose three straightforwardly labeled movements (“Con Spirito,” “Calmato” and “Gioviale”) are neatly packaged and effectively evocative of the intended moods. Cunningham simply seems more comfortable here than in some of the works tied more directly to earlier times: the good-humored finale, in particular, is a gem. Cunningham also shows sure command of orchestral forces in his Clarinet Concerto, as much through what he omits as through what he includes: the work uses no strings, placing the clarinet against winds, brass and percussion in a way that produces an unusual sonic world that leaves most of the expressiveness to the soloist (Bruno Philipp is quite adept with the material) while keeping the instrumental complement in a somewhat staid role. The result is a work that bespeaks Cunningham’s personal style more effectively than do those in which he pays closer conscious attention to prior composers.
All 10 of the symphonic poems by Mark John McEncroe heard on a two-CD Navona release show the composer’s ability to craft effective music for a large instrumental group, and all look to the past in the sense in which they are emotionally evocative rather than mired in compositional fads or techniques of the moment. They are nevertheless quite contemporary in their aims, with some speaking of a natural world that McEncroe regards as being systematically destroyed and deserving of much greater respect, while others express internal struggles and attempts to come to terms with them. The nature-focused symphonic poems are generally longer and include two that are Romantic-era substantial: An Early Autumn Morning, which lasts more than 21 minutes, and A Celebration of the Natural World, which runs more than 17. In truth, both of these suffer somewhat from bloat: McEncroe makes his musical points effectively enough but then tends to re-make them again and again. The somewhat shorter “nature” symphonic poems handle their expressiveness more modestly and, as a result, actually become more involving than the longest two. The less-extended ones include Summer’s Last Hurrah, That Old Indian Summer, Mid Autumn’s Deep Colours, Movements in the Night, and Deep in the Wilderness. As the titles indicate, McEncroe does take up the same topic repeatedly, and several of the symphonic poems’ titles could be switched around without doing any damage to the way they evoke their scenes: McEncroe’s fondness for grand string themes and lyricism is everywhere apparent. The three pieces here that are more inward-looking are also more readily differentiable. The Passing is a work of initial discomfort that leads to a working-through of ideas and eventual emergence of something more affirming. Echoes from a Haunted Past has a somewhat similar “story arc,” beginning in what sounds like uncertainty and eventually succeeding in producing a satisfactory conclusion. A Pageant at the County Fair, on the other hand, is lighter and more straightforward, with little outbursts of pleasure amid a soundscape that is essentially peaceful and pastoral. Two full CDs of McEncroe’s symphonic poems are a bit much: an hour and three-quarters is a very generous musical helping, but the works are insufficiently varied for straight-through listening. Heard one or two at a time, though, they are quite satisfying.
On the basis of another Navona release, skilled handling of orchestral forms by contemporary composers is widespread: all four composers on this CD show evidence of it. The most intriguing-sounding is Hans Bakker’s Canzona III Hidden in Her Light, a hymn to the sun, which is a three-movement work with some genuinely interesting orchestral touches. The intermingling of the non-string portions of the orchestra with the string sections is unusual, and the work has the feeling of a personal expression of delight in or admiration of the sun and all it stands for: this is not a work about actual sunrise so much as it is about an inward response to the sun’s existence. It expresses nothing specific, but constantly hints at a meaning beyond its musical phrases. Jan Järvlepp’s Suite for Strings is a far more modest work, written for youth string orchestra as a training piece, but it is attractive in ways that go well beyond its pedagogical purpose. The first movement’s frequent changes of time signature produce a pleasantly angular and not-quite-danceable forward motion; the position shifts of the second movement and the expressive bowing required in the third produce striking (if scarcely deep) emotional contrasts; and the finale, “Dance of the Monkey Man,” with its finger snaps and persistent syncopation, is just plain enjoyable. Clive Muncaster’s Redcliffe Gardens Suite for Strings, so called because Muncaster composed its parts while living at Redcliffe Gardens in London, also offers pleasant contrasts among its five movements, although it is not a particularly well-unified work: the third and fifth movements were originally for violin and piano, the fourth originally for full orchestra. The bright and lively concluding “Girandole” is a highlight. Shirley Mier’s Of Lakes and Legends is a full-orchestra piece, a suite with a specific focus on the city of White Bear Lake, Minnesota. The work opens with a recounting of a local legend, continues with a pleasant depiction of an early railroad trip, next offers a moodily intimate portrayal of in-home music making, and concludes by displaying the spirit of sailboat races held on the lake. Listeners not familiar with the specifics underlying the movements will get less from the suite than will ones who look into the work’s background, but any audience will appreciate the sureness with which Mier handles the orchestra and uses varying instruments for a series of effective tone paintings.
Like Järvlepp and Muncaster, John A. Carollo favors a string orchestra rather than a full one on a new Navona release, using it for the first and last pieces. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Stanislav Vavřínek handles these bookends of the CD with warmth and sensitivity, although the works themselves are on the superficial side: Awakenings emerges from the depths in largely predictable ways and could swap titles with Bright Stillness, which is also slow-paced and filled with the usual somnolent swells and rhythms designed to stand in for profundity. Carollo is much given to gestural rather than sincere and heartfelt communication, but actually comes across better on this recording in chamber or solo works than in the string-orchestra ones. The lightly scored pieces here include Romantica Passione Suite for guitar and violin, Metamorphosis No. 3 for solo violin, Guitar Prelude No. 3 and Guitar Etudes for solo guitar, and Metamorphosis No. 13 for solo flute. None of these works is especially distinctive, although all show Carollo’s ability to write for the instruments involved. The most intriguing piece here, though, is Music for Choir, which includes four nicely balanced settings of Carollo’s own poems, sung sensitively and with very fine enunciation by The Composer’s Choir conducted by Daniel Shaw. The poetry has a uniformly outdoorsy feeling, and the words are not especially revelatory, but each of the poems is set to bring out its words with clarity. The four are “Little Gems,” “She Saw the Rainbow,” “Moon Dust,” and “Crafted Stardust,” and if none of them packs a significant emotional punch, all show Carollo to be among the contemporary composers who have found ways to communicate their musical ideas not only in large instrumental ensembles and small ones, but also in vocal works.