November 29, 2018
Cubicles That Make You Envy the Dead: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
What exactly keeps the newspaper business going these days can be rather hard to fathom, but part of the answer must be, “the comics pages.” These collections of daily bits of amusement and/or visual commentary and/or drama help balance the generalized awfulness found pretty much everywhere else in the traditional newspaper. And although it is certainly possible to read most newspaper comics online – and to read some comics that are actually created online, for Internet-only dissemination – the comic-strip medium originated in print and still seems to fit most comfortably there. To be sure, the reduction in comics’ printed size in recent years has made life extremely difficult for artists whose work shows painstaking detail, and the long tradition of four-panel daily strips has given way in many cases to three-panel ones to allow a smidgen of additional space per panel. Yet some strips have emerged that thrive under these far-less-than-ideal circumstances, and Scott Adams’ Dilbert, which appears in a remarkable 2,000 newspapers worldwide as well as online, is a kind of poster child for modern-strip success.
Adams has drawn Dilbert for almost 30 years and, it can be argued, scarcely draws it better now than he did when he started the strip in 1989. But the quality of the art did not matter in the 1980s and matters very little now. The strip’s backgrounds may be blank most of the time and barely sketched the rest of the time, the characters’ poses may often be virtually identical from panel to panel, and the characters’ facial expressions may range from simple to nonexistent, but that too does not matter – because the strip, not long after its inception, found a perfect focus for Adams’ abilities: the workplace, specifically the Kafkaesque large-corporate workplace. It does not matter that Dilbert has no mouth (except in occasional times of more-extreme-than-usual stress) and that his eyes are invisible behind glasses, because his very facelessness reflects his role as a smart but soul-crushed member of the unappreciated workforce. It does not matter that Wally’s mouth usually consists of pursed lips and that he too has eyes invisible behind glasses, because he represents another common corporate type: the competent but useless employee whose main skill is work avoidance and who keeps his job because firing him would reduce the empire of his boss. And it does not matter that that boss, although he does have visible eyes and mouth, has no name and sports two tufts of hair that look suspiciously like devil’s horns – because a nameless boss just seems to go with faceless characters, and the boss does in fact bedevil his subordinates in a wide variety of soul-stealing ways (and, as longtime readers know, is in fact the brother of a sort-of-actual devil known as Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light).
The consistency with which these typecast characters stand up to scrutiny is shown anew with every Dilbert collection, including Cubicles That Make You Envy the Dead, the 46th numbered volume. Much of the genuinely wry commentary on office life and the world that encourages it comes at Dilbert rather than from him. Dogbert, Dilbert’s dog (who also has no mouth and eyes hidden behind glasses), is a frequent source, as when Dilbert is falsely accused of lying at work and Dogbert tells him, “I know you aren’t a liar” – which makes Dilbert feel better until Dogbert adds, “I see you as more of an idiot.” Short-time or infrequently seen characters also become commentary repositories, as when a new company app has “triggered a zombie apocalypse” by being so addictive – and when tested on Zimbu the monkey, leads Zimbu to say that he gets “a strong dopamine hit every time I click on it. Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” (Parallels to social-media apps are very much intentional.) And at one point in the latest collection, the boss hires “a story-telling mothman,” who really does have an insect body, complete with wings and with antennae that look suspiciously like boss-style horns. The boss explains that the mothman “identifies the employees with the greatest workloads and wastes their time telling long stories,” and when Dilbert protests that the firm does not need a story-telling mothman, the boss asks, unarguably if you have any familiarity with big-company workforces, “Then why does every company have one?”
And that is what has kept Dilbert in the front rank of comic strips for so many years: not the art, which is “suboptimal,” as Dilbert would (and sometimes does) say, but the way Adams taps into corporate culture day after day, creating characters who (objectively) cannot possibly exist in terms of appearance but who (also objectively) do exist in terms of how they think and what they do. Whether big-corporate life has gotten better since Dilbert started is purely a matter of opinion. What is a matter of certainty is that it has not gotten sufficiently better to stop Adams from continuing to mine what appears to be an unending lode (or load) of soul-crushing mediocrity and everyday dehumanizing behavior that is somehow just shy of preventing all productive work from stopping altogether.
Insta Graphics: A Visual Guide to Your Universe. By Dan Green. Scholastic. $9.99.
What if You Had T. rex Teeth!? And Other Dinosaur Parts. By Sandra Markle. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.
The place of the written word in our highly visual age is increasingly difficult to determine. One approach to preserving writing while accepting the apparently unending fascination with visuals is to create books in which the words are adjuncts to pictures – even when it is the words, not the pictures, that contain virtually all the information. That is Dan Green’s approach in Insta Graphics: A Visual Guide to Your Universe, whose title doubly emphasizes what people will see (“visual” and “graphics”) but whose actual content, much of it quite fascinating, lies in the verbiage that the title downplays to the point of omission. This is a six-section, visually striking book that, despite the title, is scarcely universal in any sense: it is a compendium of miscellaneous facts, a kind of “trivial pursuit” of reality, a book whose many pleasures of discovery are almost incidental to the way the highly visual, photographically rich pages look. This is not a “reference book” in any traditional sense, since the facts it presents are random, organized only in very general terms in sections called “Wacky World,” “To the Max,” “Super Senses,” “Pig Out,” “Supertech,” and “Dangerous and Deadly.” Nevertheless, many of the facts here are fascinating. Young readers may already know that the vast majority of Earth’s surface is covered by liquid water (71%), but are unlikely to be aware that temperature rises one degree Fahrenheit for every 70 feet of depth inside our planet. The fact that Everest is the world’s highest mountain is well-known, but the fact that the highest mountain in Europe is Elbrus is much less familiar. Readers aware that the blue whale is the largest animal on Earth, and indeed believed to be the largest animal that has ever lived, may not know that the strongest creature on the planet is the horned dung beetle, which can lift 1,141 times its own body weight. This is the way the entire book proceeds, mixing comparatively familiar information with decidedly abstruse facts. For example, the male silkworm moth can pick up the scent of a female a mile away; a mollusk called the West Indian fuzzy chiton has eye lenses made of limestone; muscles represent 31.56% of a human’s body weight, skin 7.81%, and the digestive tract 2.07%; worker bees travel the equivalent of two to three times around the world for each pound of honey they make; what is believed to have been the largest volcanic eruption of all time occurred under what is now Yellowstone Park; the most toxic natural substance is botulinum, made by bacteria – and used in Botox injections. There is a great deal more than this in Insta Graphics, with those pages that do not have bright and prominent photos having bright and prominent geometric shapes within which the information is presented in very short paragraphs. In one sense, the book represents a capitulation of words to pictures: certainly its basic appearance is a strongly visual one. In another sense, though, it represents a well-meaning attempt to continue to present and transmit information to young readers at a time when screens, smartphones and such have become their dominant method of perceiving and interacting with the world.
There is also a strongly visual element to the long-running What if You Had… series by Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam. Here too there is interesting information accompanying the visuals that dominate the individual pages and the overall appearance of the books. The main attraction of these volumes, though, is not what they explain but how McWilliam creates fascinating and often bizarre hybrid creatures by visually attaching animal parts to children. The bizarre element is especially strong in the latest series entry, which also has the most-complicated title to date. All the earlier books refer to an animal something-or-other (feet, ears, nose, tail, etc.); ask What if You Had… the body part; and follow the question with both an exclamation point and a question mark. This time, though, the word “animal” is missing from the title, and the book does not simply substitute “dinosaur” to create What if You Had Dinosaur Parts!? Instead, apparently going for grossness, the title focuses on the always-reliable attraction of Tyrannosaurus rex, shows a huge-toothed hybrid boy-dinosaur with wide-open mouth on the cover, and throws in the after-title phrase And Other Dinosaur Parts to indicate that this is not simply a tooth or T. rex book. The whole thing is a bit awkward, and so is the book itself. A lot of the fun of these books involves showing how the possession of animals’ parts would simplify (or at least change) everyday childhood activities, but the mixture does not work here as well as in earlier volumes. For instance, one entry is about the vicious Velociraptor and the frightening sharp toes and serrated teeth it used to catch and devour prey – that is the informational part of the entry. On the facing page, the notion of a girl using those “sickle-tipped toes” for the innocent and mundane purpose of opening birthday presents seems just a bit too far over-the-top. Similarly, a page on the head crest of Parasaurolophus, apparently used to amplify sounds so they could be heard at long distances, is informationally interesting; but the facing page, suggesting that such a crest would somehow help a girl “lead the school marching band,” is weak. The hybrid drawings are even odder here than in earlier series entries, and the factual material is presented as simply and straightforwardly as always – and both those elements of the book are pluses. But the imaginary way that dinosaur parts would enhance children’s daily lives today are just not as interesting as are the imagined uses of animal eyes, ears, tails and so forth in other books from this series. Still, kids who have enjoyed earlier Markle/McWilliam creations will find things somewhat amusing as well as somewhat informative here. And certainly the book provides further evidence, if any is needed, about the emphasis on strictly visual elements in books that try to interest today’s young readers in the material that is contained in the words.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Funeral Song; Jeu de Cartes; Concerto in D “Basel”; Agon. Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg conducted by Gustavo Gimeno. PentaTone. $33.99 (2 SACDs).
Haydn: Symphony Nos. 49 (“La Passione”) and 87; Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364. Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers; Aisslinn Nosky, violin; Max Mandel, viola. CORO. $18.99.
Franz Schreker: Vorspiel zu einem Drama; The Birthday of the Infanta—Suite; Romantische Suite. Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
The style of composers inevitably changes over time in accordance with the changes in their lives, reputations, expectations, and interests in taking their music in new directions. But these changes can be either subtle or substantial. Two composers for whom they were substantial were Stravinsky and Haydn: Stravinsky’s style changed so much over his career that there almost seem to be multiple Stravinskys, while Haydn’s developed so substantially that he became a bridge from the Baroque era to the edge of the Romantic. Occasionally, a recording will explicitly or implicitly show just how extensive a composer’s progress (or at least change) turned out to be. That is the case with an excellent new two-SACD PentaTone Stravinsky recording featuring the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg conducted by Gustavo Gimeno. Stravinsky lived to be nearly 89 (from 1882 to 1971) and had a remarkable 70-year career, during which he absorbed and worked within styles and techniques ranging from 19th-century Russian nationalism (learned from his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov) to neoclassicism (with which Stravinsky is especially closely identified) to serialism (to which Stravinsky came late in life, handling it in his own distinct way). Bits of several Stravinskys are in evidence under Gimeno’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic direction. The earliest work here, Funeral Song, is not only redolent of Rimsky-Korsakov but is also a tribute to him: it was composed after the older composer’s death in 1908 and first played in January 1909. It was then lost for a century, eventually rediscovered, and first played in modern times as recently as 2016. An attractive work that gives instrument after instrument its chance to pay its respects to Rimsky-Korsakov, Funeral Song is a piece that in no way presages The Rite of Spring, written in 1911-12 and given its still-notorious first performance in 1913. Gimeno gives the primitivism and rhythmic vitality of this piece its full due while never losing sight of its origin as a ballet: this is a danceable version of The Rite of Spring as well as one that works nicely as a concert presentation. Stravinsky’s neoclassicism actually has its roots prior to The Rite of Spring, in Petrushka (1911), but he developed it fully only in later years, and certainly it is abundantly clear in Jeu de Cartes (1937). The balletic elements remain in the forefront in this reading – creation of ballets is one thing Stravinsky did throughout his compositional life – but the sparer scoring and greater transparency of orchestral parts clearly show Jeu de Cartes to date from one of the later Stravinsky styles. A decade after the ballet, Stravinsky remained in largely neoclassical mode with his Concerto in D “Basel” (1946). Although created as a concerto for string orchestra, the short (12-minute) work has elements of divertimento about it, along with overall neoclassical poise and a kind of rhythmic accentuation that stayed with Stravinsky throughout his oeuvre. Matters certainly did change in some ways, though, by the time of Agon (1957, but begin as early as 1953). Yes, it is a ballet, and it includes Stravinsky’s first use of strict twelve-tone technique, but it combines the nod to Schoenberg with a look back many centuries, to dances such as the Saraband and Gaillarde, managing to cram 16 separate sections into less than 22 minutes – a Webernesque miniaturization process, and in fact some of the use of thematic fragmentation is actually reminiscent of Webern. The performances of all five works in this release are very well done, thoughtfully presented and stylishly played, and the two discs, taken together, create a fascinating portrait of quite a few of Stravinsky’s multifaceted compositional approaches.
The latest recording of Haydn symphonies by the splendid Handel and Haydn Society period orchestra is also, in its own way, a portrait of the development of Haydn’s style, even though it contains only two works by Haydn. The contrasts between the Symphonies Nos. 49 and 87 are, however, so many, that this CORO disc becomes a fascinating exploration-in-miniature of the way Haydn’s style changed over time. Separated by some 20 years, the two symphonies are worlds apart in approach and effects. No. 49 is so emphatically in F minor that all four movements are in the home key, with just a flicker of major-key writing in the third movement’s trio. It is the last Haydn symphony written in Sonata da chiesa style, with the slow movement placed first instead of second. It is a deeply serious work, called “La Passione” even in Haydn’s lifetime (although not so named by the composer), possibly first performed at a church service where Christ’s Passion was the center of attention. Wide leaps, intense expressiveness, and virtuosic demands on a small orchestra combine to make this an exceptionally moving and unusually intense symphony even within Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period, of which it is one of the very best representatives, in some ways the best. No. 87 is as different a work as can be, created for a significantly larger orchestra and written in a sunny A major. Amusingly, this recording’s booklet notes include one writer saying that this was the first-written of the six “Paris” symphonies and another stating that it was written last. What matters, though, is simply its position as one of that symphonic group, which cemented Haydn’s international reputation and brought him considerable celebratory acclaim (as well as a considerable amount of money). Harry Christophers does not vary his orchestra’s size for the two symphonies, but he handles the works with so sure a sense of sectional balance and overall style that No. 87 sounds as if a larger ensemble is playing it. And the work’s ebullience comes through with abundant clarity, along with the precision and excellence of its construction. Haydn certainly developed a great deal in the years between these two symphonies – but it is worth pointing out that each of the works is equally impressive and equally effective, albeit in a very different way. Christophers has been including Mozart violin concertos with his Haydn symphonic releases, providing an intriguing contrast between the two composers, and on this CD he presents the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, for violin and viola – a wonderful work by any estimation. Aisslinn Nosky, concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society, is joined as soloist by violist Max Mandel, with whom she has played for more than two decades – and it shows in the remarkably easy, good-natured give-and-take between the solo instruments as well as the consummate skill and sensitivity to period style of both solo players. This is an altogether lovely disc, its program seeming somewhat arbitrary on the surface but proving, on closer examination, to be exceptionally well-thought-out both in terms of giving listeners the experience of two very different Haydn symphonies and in offering some wonderful Mozart that separates the Haydn works on the CD while placing them beautifully in context from a musical standpoint.
The context of the music of Franz Schreker (1878-1934) is quite different, and the extent to which Schreker’s style evolved over the 20-year period of the works on a new Naxos CD is debatable. Once deemed as important an opera composer as Richard Strauss, Schreker fell into obscurity even as Strauss’ reputation was cemented and soared. From the standpoint of musical development, it is easy to see why: Strauss’ style changed significantly between that of his early, famous tone poems and that of his final opera, Capriccio (1942). Yet Strauss (1864-1949) was scarcely a slavish follower of the many musical changes that occurred during his long life. Schreker, on the other hand, seems to have remained firmly with late Romanticism in terms of musical style and emotional communication – with the result that his works, although very well-constructed and often quite engaging to hear, do not really stand out stylistically from those of other composers of the era (including those of Strauss that date to the same time period). All this is hindsight, though, and a bit unfair to Schreker, whose works – thanks to the tireless devotion of JoAnn Falletta to the rediscovery of interesting, neglected repertoire – show considerable skill in orchestration and, often, a fine flair for the dramatic. “Often” is not “always”: Vorspiel zu einem Drama (1914), an expanded version of the overture to Schreker’s lurid opera Die Gezeichneten (which was not performed complete until 1918), is rather shapeless and surface-level impressionistic. However, the work is filled with beauty and lyricism that make it certainly worth hearing, and Falletta does quite a good job of holding it together with greater cogency than one might expect. The protagonist of Die Gezeichneten is hunchbacked and deformed, and Schreker evokes considerable sympathy for him in the opera, at least for a time. A similar protagonist, an ugly dwarf, lies at the heart of the pantomime The Birthday of the Infanta (1923); indeed, his death of a broken heart (when he realizes that the haughty princess does not love him and has been laughing at rather than with him) is the climax of the music and of the Oscar Wilde story on which the theatrical production is based. Here as in Vorspiel zu einem Drama, Schreker combines lush orchestration with emotionally affecting lyricism, especially in the last few pieces of the 10-movement suite. Yet there is little significant musical development between this work and the richly scored, conservatively harmonized Romantische Suite (1903): over a 20-year period, Schreker’s style solidified without changing in any significant way. Falletta makes about as good a case for these works as they are likely to receive, thanks not only to her sure-handed orchestral direction but also to the absolutely first-rate playing of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (more often listed as Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin). This is a world-class ensemble whose tonal richness and exceptional sectional balance fit Schreker’s music beautifully, giving listeners who enjoy late-Romantic music multiple opportunities to bask in Schreker’s expressive richness.
Classical String Trios, Volume 2—Music by J.C. Bach, Carlo Antonio Campioni, Haydn, Johann Ignaz Klausek, François-Joseph Gossec, Jean-Baptiste Sébastien Bréval, and Vivaldi. The Vivaldi Project (Elizabeth Field, violin; Allison Edberg Nyquist, violin and viola; Stephanie Vial, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Kaija Saariaho: Tocar; Cloud Trio; Light and Matter; Aure; Graal théâtre. Jennifer Koh, violin; Nicolas Hodges, piano; Hsin-Yun Huang, viola; Wilhelmina Smith and Anssi Karttunen, cello; Curtis 20/21 Ensemble conducted by Conner Gray Covington. Cedille. $12.
Campbell Ross: Concertante; Sonata for Solo Guitar; Variations 2 (on “Norwegian Wood”); Variations 3 (on “World without Love”); Ariel Dirié: Morning; Mesurando y Dalias; Diez Estudios; Gerardo Dirié: Si un Dia el Olvido…; Evening. Campbell Ross, guitar; Lachlan Symons, bass; James Whiting, drums and percussion; Benjamin Greaves, violin; Matthew Ryan, viola; Ngaio Toombes, cello. Ravello. $14.99 (2 CDs).
The period-instrument string trio, The Vivaldi Project, actually includes a bit of Vivaldi on its second MSR Classics release devoted to trios of and around the Classical era. That does not make this recording better or worse than the previous one, which omitted Vivaldi: this CD is equally delightful in its exploration of hitherto almost completely unknown repertoire. For that matter, several of the composers heard on the disc are also almost completely unknown: J.C. Bach, Haydn and Vivaldi are familiar names, and works by François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) are heard every now and then, but very few listeners will likely be familiar with Carlo Antonio Campioni (1720-1788), Johann Ignaz Klausek (c. 1720-c. 1775), or Jean-Baptiste Sébastien Bréval (1753-1823). The dates of the composers are worth noting: all were contemporaries of Leopold and/or Wolfgang Mozart, and in the case of Gossec and Bréval, their lives extended as late as that of Beethoven. But the trios heard here are redolent of earlier sensibilities, being light, beautifully balanced, unchallenging to the ear, and exceptionally pleasant as a kind of 18th-century background music. Vivaldi’s Sonata da Camera, Op. 1, No. 2 is the earliest work here, dating to 1705, and uses two melody instruments plus “violone o cembalo,” as would be expected in what is essentially a Baroque form. J.C. Bach’s Sonata in G for two violins and basso dates to the late 1750s, as does Haydn’s Divertimento in D for the same instruments. The remaining four works, though, are later, and serve as testimony to the ubiquity of the string trio as a kind of occasional music for many occasions. Even when these works are in minor keys, they have at most a mild melancholy about them, a slight sense of wistfulness rather than any real depth. Campioni’s 1762 Sonata in G minor and Klausek’s 1769 Trio in B-flat minor are the two minor-key works here. The latest piece, and the one that most thoroughly engages the cello with the two higher strings, is the intriguingly titled Trio Concertant et Diologué in B-Flat, Op. 27, No. 4 by Bréval, which dates to about 1786. It is a touch unfair to think about what Haydn, Mozart, and the Mannheim composers were doing in the mid-1780s, when listening to these slight and uniformly pleasant pieces. Clearly the purpose of these trios was to serve as a kind of salon music, performed for royal households and in some cases by amateur musicians of those households. The melodies of all the works flow easily, naturally and pleasantly, the harmonies are carefully managed to intrigue the ear in easy-to-grasp ways, and the interplay among the instruments – especially the violin and viola – is managed with care and sensitivity. The Vivaldi Project, whose three members play with consummate skill throughout this disc, can spin out its rediscovery of trios of this era for quite some time if it so chooses: there are several thousand such works, most of them entirely unknown today. Additional volumes like this and the first one would be most welcome: there is nothing profound about any of these works, but in their generally simple beauty and largely uncomplicated forms, they offer some very welcome musical respite from the rigors and complexities of everyday life today – just as they did from the very different, but no doubt equally stressful, mundanities of the 18th century.
Modern sensibilities are, of course, very different from those of centuries past, even when the matters stimulating them are similar. Thus, it is no surprise that a work such as Cloud Trio (2009) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (born 1952) manages the violin, viola and cello in thoroughly contemporary ways. Saariaho has in fact stated directly that her handling of the cello differs substantially from its use in the Classical era, with her emphasis on the instrument’s highest register and on producing sound through techniques that stretch listeners’ ears as well as performers’ fingers. The question is whether Saariaho’s approach is simply technically motivated or whether it is put at the service of enhanced audience communication, and this question will have different answers in the minds (and ears) of different listeners. Certainly the instruments in Cloud Trio shift and change sonically through all four movements, but whether in so doing they pull listeners effectively into the ongoing metamorphosis of clouds is another matter. Similar questions about intended and actual effects are raised in a trio for different instruments – violin, cello and piano – called Light and Matter, which dates to 2014 and receives its world première recording on the new Cedille CD featuring violinist Jennifer Koh. Here as in Cloud Trio, Saariaho appears concerned with changing musical textures by varying the relationship among the three players and also having them employ techniques that extend the usual sound of their instruments. Light and Matter seems somewhat more abstruse than Cloud Trio, though, and its musical connection to its title is less apparent. Also on this disc are two works in which Saariaho employs two instruments rather than three. Tocar (2010) is for violin and piano and, despite its title, gives little sense of “touching” between the instruments, their themes or their sounds. Aure (2011), whose title refers to a gentle breeze, is heard here in its first recording in a version for violin and cello – it was initially written for violin and viola – and carries rather a lot of freight for a six-minute piece. Originally written for the 95th birthday of composer Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), the piece is built around a motive by Dutilleux and draws not only on that music but also on Anne Frank’s diary, to which the Dutilleux work made reference. It is a rarefied work that is likely to be fully intelligible and emotionally communicative only to listeners who know its background and its referents. The last and longest work on the CD, an actual violin concerto, is called Graal théâtre and dates to 1994. The title is taken from a novel by Jacques Roubaud (born 1932), and the piece is filled with expressions of pain that are put forth through often-painful-to-hear contemporary compositional techniques. Its two movements, “Delicato” and “Impetuoso,” are by no means as reflective of their respective titles as a listener might expect, and the work as a whole makes its points repeatedly and seems quite unwilling to let them go no matter how often they have been emphasized. It is a difficult work both to play and to listen to. It is certainly possible to appreciate Koh’s considerable skill with the solo part, and the very fine support she receives from the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble under Conner Gray Covington, without necessarily finding the music either intellectually or emotionally particularly satisfying. This is a (+++) CD that is filled with committed performances of music that will please existing fans of Saariaho but that will not necessarily engage the thoughts or feelings or anyone unfamiliar with this composer’s techniques and her forms of expressiveness.
Saariaho is far from the only contemporary composer for whom two or three instruments are not always enough to communicate with an audience. Guitarist Campbell Ross requires a small chamber group for Concertante, the opening work on a (+++) Ravello release offering two CDs for the price of one. The piece is for guitar, jazz trio and strings, and it is a melodious and nicely paced, if not especially original-sounding, blend of jazz, blues and classical elements, with some Latin touches thrown in as well. Ross writes quite well for his own instrument and plays it with considerable enthusiasm – indeed, the most affecting and effective parts of Concertante are those in which Ross plays solo or is well out in front of the remaining performers. The balance of the first disc in this release is for Ross alone. Sonata contains four movements that put the guitar and guitarist through a great many paces. The second and most melodious movement is designated “homage to Franz Schubert,” and while it sounds not at all like anything by the earlier composer, it has enough quiet beauty to be vaguely reminiscent of some of his work. Also on this disc are two sets of guitar-solo variations on Beatles tunes. These are homages rather than representations of what Lennon and McCartney created or variations upon it. Indeed, they come across somewhat like variations on homages, with Ross taking off from and paying tribute to the original songs, then creating improvisatory elements based on his initial spinoff. The second disc offers a series of works for guitar and percussion by Ariel Dirié (1960-2010) and Gerardo Dirié (born 1956). The most interestingly varied material here appears in A. Dirié’s Diez Estudios, which draw both on classical models (“Con Brio” sounds positively Baroque) and on Latin dance forms (two of the 10 movements are labeled “Tango”). The Dirié works are all previously unrecorded, and will be of considerable interest to guitarists as well as listeners who enjoy guitar music. The material on both CDs is largely consonant rather than dissonant, the G. Dirié pieces being exceptions; the rhythms throughout the pieces are generally clear; and the somewhat superficial feelings underlying the music are nicely brought out by Ross, who is a very fine and sensitive performer. This is a considerable amount of guitar music to digest in a single sitting: hearing it a few tracks at a time will be the best approach for anyone interested in the communicative power of a single instrument whose expressive capabilities are well-explored here.
November 21, 2018
I Need a Hug. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.
You Are My Sunshine. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
I Love Classical Music: My First Sound Book. By Marion Billet. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $9.99.
Aaron Blabey has a knack for creating surface-level-unlovable characters that are, just beneath the surface, entirely adorable. And that is just what he does in I Need a Hug, which actually dates originally to Australian publication in 2015 but is just delightful just about anytime. The story is a super-simple one about an exceedingly prickly porcupine with enormous eyes (a frequent trademark of Blabey’s characters). As the book’s title says, all the porcupine wants is to be hugged. So he asks all his friends, or apparent friends. He tells a rabbit named Lou that he needs a hug, but Lou flees “those spikes” and tells the porcupine, “Get away from me! Shoo!” He asks a deer (or is it a moose?) named Ken to cuddle him, but Ken runs off as quickly as possible to get away from “that prickly thing.” He asks a bear named Joe – surely a really big, heavily fur-coated animal will hug him – but Joe says no. In fact, he says it four times: “No No NO NO!” Poor porcupine! He laments his unhugged fate – but then looks up and sees all three animals running toward him and happily exclaims, “You’ve all changed your mind!” Umm…no such luck. They run right past him – fleeing a bright green snake (with eyes just as huge as the porcupine’s) who says, “All I did was ask for a kiss.” Well, this must be the beginning of a beautiful (if rather strange) friendship: the snake wraps itself carefully around the porcupine, gently holding down the prickly quills, as the porcupine gives the snake a big hug, and the book ends with the two friends smiling happily, eyes closed, enjoying the cuddling they both asked for unsuccessfully. Blabey further enlivens the book by having the inside front cover pages filled with all the negative comments made by the animals: “Shoo!” “Help!” “Get away!” “Spikes!” “Prickles!” And so on. But the inside back cover pages are filled with words that do not appear in the story but clearly result from it: “Hugs!” “Aww!” “Lovely!” “Ooh!” “Cuddles!” “Kisses!” And so on – a happy after-the-ending ending.
Sandra Magsamen’s board books are inevitably cuddleable from start to finish, and You Are My Sunshine is no exception. These sweet little books always contain something interactive for parents and very young children to enjoy together. In this case, the “something” is a finger puppet shaped like a bright yellow, smiling sun surrounded by bright orange rays, shining forth from the center of every page thanks to the clever way it is bound tightly into the back of the book and integrated artistically (and artfully) into the words. For several pages, those words are the familiar ones of the song, “You are my sunshine,” illustrated charmingly with the clouds and hearts and sweet little animals that Magsamen regularly scatters around her books. The page showing two heart-surrounded skunks carrying bright yellow umbrellas because “skies are gray” (and it is raining a bit) is especially delightful: apparently this is only a sun shower, anyway, since the finger-puppet sun sticks into the page just beneath the clouds and raindrops. After including some of the song’s lyrics, Magsamen switches to her own text, promising to “give you lots of hugs and kisses every day,” with a final page that simply overflows with adorable little hearts and practically guarantees that a happy child and doting parent will be hugging each other enthusiastically. It is all fun, sweet, and mildly musical.
There is more music – not a lot of it, but plenty for a very young child – in Marion Billet’s I Love Classical Music: My First Sound Book, which is one of a number of board books in the My First Sound Book series. What is bound into the back of this book is not a puppet but a music-generating chip: the back of the book is a single boxlike assembly that is as thick as all the narrative pages put together. Within that back-of-book box is a pink, battery-powered, batteries-included music player with a switch that an adult simply clicks one way or the other to turn playback on or off. When turned on, this little digital music box plays six excerpts from particularly pleasant and upbeat classical music by six important composers. And Billet illustrates each piece with considerable charm. First is the Turkish March from Mozart’s Piano Sonata, K. 331 – with five fez-wearing, hand-holding (or paw-holding) tigers zipping across the page. Then there is a bit of the “Spring” violin sonata from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, with kids invited to “look at the flowers and bugs spring to life!” And the characters are all smiling happily as they do so. Next is an especially well-done blend of music and drawing: Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky March with a line of five happy, big-eyed ants marching from left to right. Then there is a bit of Schubert’s “Trout” quintet, in which the piano creates rippling-water sounds as kids look at a fish leaping out of the water toward a rather alarmed-looking dragonfly that may, if it is not careful, become a meal. The fifth piece is “Dance of the Mirlitons” (small, kazoo-like instruments) from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, featuring prominent flutes, with two cartoon mouse ballet performers twirling. Finally, there is a boy rabbit below a balcony, serenading a girl rabbit above him, to the music of the “La Campanella” theme from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2. The excerpts may well be enough to entice young children to want to hear more of the music – and the book includes, at the back, a complete list of the pieces and the specific recordings heard here. There are also six find-the-objects puzzles, simple ones, that will encourage very young book-and-music lovers to use their eyes as well as their ears to get the most enjoyment possible from a book whose musical content is absolutely worth holding snugly in a boy’s or girl’s heart.
Heartstone. By Elle Katharine White. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
Heartstone #2: Dragonshadow. By Elle Katharine White. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
There is something about Jane Austen’s 1813 Pride and Prejudice that inspires rapturous devotion on the one hand and unending temptations toward parodies and mashups on the other. Take, for example, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), whose author, Seth Grahame-Smith, aptly summed up the reason he found the project irresistible: “You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there.” All he needed was a sprinkling of the undead to create a thoroughly contemporary bit of ridiculousness (which, for better or worse, sold well and was made into a movie).
Elle Katharine White is far more respectful of Austen and of Pride and Prejudice than this, but her basic take on the story – fierce independence + dashing heroism + militia of a sort – is exactly the same. It just happens that these militia members ride dragons (talking ones, no less) and that the threats against the good guys come in the form of gryphons, mysterious strangers and such. The first book in White’s Heartstone sequence actually adheres rather more closely to the Pride and Prejudice model than a straightforward description of its fantasy-world plot might lead one to expect. There are echoes of the British Regency period original in names such as Arle and Merybourne Manor, and there are the inevitable multiple daughters (four, not the five in Austen’s novel) whose mother seeks to elevate the family status by finding a suitable husband for at least one of them, and there are episodes of wit and wordplay that somewhat soften the outright sword-and-sorcery battle scenes – which, however, are part and parcel of the plot. The first Heartstone novel lays out the characters and their basic relationships in Austen-ish style. The Darcy-analogs are the Daireds, and they are the dragon riders who defend the country. The Bennet analogs are the Bentaines, and they are commoners in this highly stratified fantasy world, employed by one of the landowners: the four young women are daughters of Moira Bentaine, wife of the clerk of Merybourne. White has little trouble bringing the primary characters together: Darcy and his riders are hired to destroy troublesome gryphons at Merybourne. The basic relationships here will be thrice-familiar to Pride and Prejudice fans: second daughter Aliza, who has a strong streak of pragmatism, initially cares little for Alastair Daired, although of course he is very handsome and dashing and, as a bonus, his dragon, Akarra, is very friendly. But Aliza’s sister Angelina finds herself quite charmed by Cedric Brysney, Daired’s close friend. The relationships blossom, not without Austen-ish back-and-forth issues, despite the ever-present danger of the gryphons and the arrival at Merybourne of an enemy of Daired – who comes with the requisite mysterious stranger bearing a dire warning. The mixture of relationship-building, misunderstanding, and monster-fighting (this world has not only gryphons but also direwolves, lamias, banshees, and lindworms) is rather surprisingly engaging, even though there are some frustrating omissions in the world-building: how, when and why did people and sentient dragons pair up for monster-fighting? The first Heartstone book can actually be enjoyed even without knowing Pride and Prejudice, but the intended audience is clearly Austen fanciers seeking an offbeat but respectful expansion and reinterpretation of the beloved novel.
The first book concludes with the semi-apocalyptic Battle of North Fields and with Aliza and Alastair united in marriage, to the surprise of absolutely no one who knows Austen or who has followed the characters’ byplay. The sequel, Dragonshadow, could easily have been a rather sappy romance focusing on the newlyweds and on issues raised somewhat obliquely in the first book, such as class distinctions. But White takes Dragonshadow in a different direction, one that moves farther from the Austen model and more toward rather traditional sword and sorcery. The result is that Pride and Prejudice fans will likely prefer the first book, while others will gravitate more to the second, which can be read reasonably successfully without knowing the first. The second book does indeed begin with the newlyweds’ honeymoon, but it is quickly cut short when news comes of a mysterious something that is killing innocent creatures, including humans, in the northern part of Arle. Alastair and Akarra must ride to the rescue, of course – the Riders are essentially anti-monster mercenaries, after all – but Aliza refuses to stay behind, even though she is not a dragon rider. So the three (two humans and dragon) head through the dangerous Wilds (all fantasy worlds have an area with that name, or a mighty close version of it), fighting off various nefarious attacks, and Aliza learns to ride Akarra, and soon the heroic trio reaches a vaguely Scottish landscape with its own cast of magical creatures (selkies, centaurs and the like). Then the mystery of the events affecting the Lake Meera region must be unraveled, and Aliza takes the initiative in doing so as Alastair does his usual derring-do in ridding the area of various bad things (though he is somewhat limited by the fact that he is recovering from an earlier injury, making Aliza’s role all the more central). The contrast between the slowed-down Alastair and the quick-witted Aliza is nicely done, and the interactions among characters are well-handled, without drawing as directly on Pride and Prejudice as the first series entry did. This is either a strength or a weakness, depending on how closely one wishes for parallels between White’s series and Austen’s novel. In Dragonshadow, White moves beyond her original model in significant ways, starting to develop her characters within their own world and with fewer references to the one from which they originally sprang. This makes the book a more straightforward heroic fantasy than its predecessor but may also help it reach out to fantasy readers in general rather than primarily to fantasy enthusiasts who also happen to be devoted fans of Pride and Prejudice.
Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Anja Harteros, soprano; Bernarda Fink, alto; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. LPO. $12.99.
Smetana: Die Moldau; Stravinsky: Five Movements from “Petrushka”; Khachaturian: Adagio from “Spartacus”; Prokofiev: Three Waltzes, Op. 96; Ravel: La Valse; Shostakovich: Waltz No. 2 from “Suite for Variety Orchestra.” François-Xavier Poizat, piano. Ars Produktion. $19.99 (SACD).
Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection,” is the first to show him producing the exceptionally grand scale in which all his later symphonies except the Fourth would be written. It is his first symphony with vocal elements and his first to attempt to explore in depth the meaning of his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism – a change necessitated by his career ambitions, but one that clearly resonated deeply with him on a spiritual level. But this symphony of firsts for Mahler was also a symphony of seconds, not only as his second work so designated but also as his second foray into the specific territory explored with such intensity in his First: the gigantic funeral march of the first movement of the “Resurrection” was, for Mahler, the laying to rest of the hero around whom the First was built. This was also Mahler’s second in-depth use of Wunderhorn songs in a symphonic context: among other things, the third movement of the “Resurrection” is an instrumental version of the rather cynical “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes.” A conductor aware of the firsts and seconds that are joined in this monumental work can produce a splendid performance if given the right singers and orchestra, and Mariss Jansons is quite clearly just such a conductor. This live recording – of a performance from 2011 that for some reason is only now being made available – is excellent in every way: dramatic, emotionally moving, and intense and thoroughly involving from start to finish. Jansons has what feels like an intuitive sense of pace for the entire work, although in reality it surely results from close study of the score: the many tempo changes flow with absolute naturalness, and the complex dynamics within the movements sound as if they could scarcely be played any other way. Bernarda Fink is a splendid alto soloist, bringing strong emotion as well as musicality to the fourth movement – although BR Klassik’s failure to include texts with the CD is an irritant, despite the ready availability of the words online. In the finale, most of which is not choral, Jansons manages to make the extended instrumental beginning a time of high drama and deep spiritual unease, after which the quiet choral entry has just the right touch of wonder and amazement to go with Klopstock’s words (which, again, are unfortunately not provided, but can be found online). Anja Harteros is as sensitive and involved in her solos as Fink is in hers, and the result is a thoroughly convincing and very meaningful performance in which the excellence of the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is all the more appreciated for being expected: these are simply some of the best musicians in the world. So overwhelming is the end of the symphony’s finale that it seems to look ahead directly to the conclusion of the even more gigantic Eighth, wherein Mahler uses even larger forces to study and celebrate life after death. Jansons’ “Resurrection” is a performance to treasure and is worth owning even for listeners who already have multiple versions of this symphony.
Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are not much earlier than Mahler’s first works in the form: Mahler’s First was first performed in 1889, four years before Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, and the “Resurrection” was first heard in 1895. But the scale of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies is far more modest and traditional than that of Mahler’s symphonic works; and in his earlier symphonies, Tchaikovsky was still finding his way from Russian nationalism to a kind of cosmopolitan composition to which he added wonderful elements of his country even as he stretched traditional symphonic bounds – in ways quite different from those that Mahler came to use. Tchaikovsky’s supremely tuneful First Symphony has some structural inelegances that also troubled the composer when he created his Second, known as the “Little Russian” because of its use of Ukrainian folk tunes at a time when Ukraine was often referred to as “Little Russia.” Tchaikovsky was sufficiently dissatisfied with his second symphonic effort – despite the fact that it was quite successful when first performed, in 1873 – to revise it considerably from 1879 to 1880, creating the version almost always heard today. Vladimir Jurowski leads an especially effective live performance (from 2016) of this symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, released on the orchestra’s own label. The symphony has several unusual elements that contrast with Tchaikovsky’s First. For one thing, despite its minor key (C minor), it is altogether brighter than the First (in G minor). Also, the Second lacks a slow movement: a rather sweet march that in some ways looks ahead to The Nutcracker takes its place. And the folk elements of the Second, which appear in all movements except the third, are pronounced and are handled with considerable aplomb. Jurowski paces the work very well, allowing its delicacies of orchestration to shine through and its abundance of lively tunes and strong rhythms to flower. The conclusion of the symphony is truly rousing, as evidenced by the audience’s justifiably enthusiastic reaction. The Second is paired on this release with Tchaikovsky’s Third, in a different live performance from 2016 (and, oddly, without any audience reaction at the end). The Third is Tchaikovsky’s only major-key symphony (D major) and his only one in five movements. It was written and first performed in 1875, between the two versions of the Second, and in some ways is a step back from the “Little Russian” – at least when compared to the Second’s later version. Parts of the Third do not quite coalesce: the very serious opening and the much lighter main section of the first movement, for example, and the rather foursquare fugue midway through the finale. And although the Third is called “Polish” for the Tempo di polacca marking of its finale, it does not particularly partake of any national character – even its “Russianness” is less than that of the first two symphonies. Nevertheless, in the hands of a sufficiently skilled and committed conductor, the Third is a pleasure to hear: it is the most balletic of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and in some ways the least inward-looking and least self-conscious. Jurowski clearly knows this: his performance flows beautifully and often sounds actually danceable, and while he allows some of the slightly overdone emotionalism of the central Andante elegiaco to come through, for the most part he keeps the excesses of the score reined in and, as a result, produces a performance in which the orchestra’s excellent playing is front-and-center and provides the music with clarity, form and considerable elegance.
Pianist François-Xavier Poizat’s second foray for Ars Produktion into piano arrangements of well-known orchestral works – the first came out in 2013 – offers some intriguing sound and excellent playing, even though not all the music comes across equally well on the piano. The first and last works on the SACD show this quite clearly. It opens with Smetana’s Die Moldau as arranged by Heinrich von Kàan-Albést, whose arrangements did a great deal to popularize the works of Smetana, Dvořák and other Czech Romantic composers. There is considerable virtuosity required throughout this piece, starting with hand-crossings at the very beginning, and there is undoubted excitement in the continuous rippling effects representing water in one hand while various themes are developed above and below them in the other. But the arrangement as a whole is on the pale side – a bit watered-down, one might say. In particular, when the river flows past the old castle of Vyšehrad near the end and then disappears beyond, the sense of grandeur of the orchestral version is missing; and the final bars, as Poizat plays them, feel rather rushed. On the other hand, the disc ends with a Shostakovich waltz from Suite for Variety Orchestra, arranged by Florian Noack, and this is a gem: light, lilting, tuneful, and altogether winning as an encore. The four works sandwiched between these two are a bit of a mixed bag stylistically and in terms of their arrangements. All receive first-rate, highly virtuosic treatment from Poizat, although the pieces’ stylistic distinctions are not always handled very sensitively: Poizat tends to play all the music in pretty much the same way, which works very well for some works and less so for others. Poizat seems most comfortable with the Russian and Russia-area pieces – not only the Shostakovich waltz but also the works by Stravinsky (arranged by Theodor Szántó), Khachaturian (arranged by Matthew Cameron), and Prokofiev. The rhythmic flow of all these pieces is well-handled, and Poizat shows in the Prokofiev, as in the Shostakovich, that he has a good feeling for three-quarter time. On the other hand, Ravel’s La Valse (arranged by Alexander Ghindin) comes across less well: this is not simply a waltz, even though Ravel saw it as a homage to the Strauss waltzes of the mid-19th century, and Poizat is not quite as sensitive as might be desired to Ravel’s impressionistic deviations from the strict dance form. Some of the shortcomings on the disc may be due to the arrangements rather than to the performer: certainly Poizat’s virtuosity leaves nothing to be desired. It may simply be the fact that these pieces are so well-known in orchestral guise that piano arrangements, even when skillfully done, fall a bit short. But if Poizat does not make a compelling case for hearing these works on the piano, he certainly does make one for his own considerable abilities at the keyboard.
Handel: Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. Cassandra Lemoine, soprano; Benjamin Butterfield, tenor; Bach Choir of Bethlehem and Bach Festival Orchestra conducted by Greg Funfgeld. Analekta. $18.99.
Scott Perkins: Whispers of Heavenly Death; Holy Sonnets of John Donne; Riddle Songs; Dogen Songs; Spring and All; Summer Songs; Three Songs for Autumn; Soir d’Hiver. Julia Mintzer, mezzo-soprano; Jamie Jordan, soprano; Dashon Burton, baritone; Zachary Wilder, tenor; Éric Trudel, piano; Helen Park, flute. Navona. $14.99.
Elizabeth Vercoe: Butterfly Effects for flute and harp; This is my letter to the World for voice, flute, and piano; Elegy for viola and piano; Herstory I for soprano, piano, and vibraphone. Peter H. Bloom, flutes and piccolo; Mary Jane Rupert, harp and piano; D’Anna Fortunato, mezzo-soprano; Patricia McCarty, viola; Ellen Weckler, piano; Boston Musica Viva (Cheryl Cobb, soprano; Randall Hodgkinson, piano; Dean Anderson, vibraphone; Richard Pittman, director). Navona. $14.99.
John Dryden’s 1687 “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” is more than a celebration of the saint’s day, November 22. It is a tribute to the creative power of music, the “music of the spheres” that arranges the heavens in orderly fashion and gives meaning to the cosmos. So grandiose a notion, not necessarily meant to be taken 100% literally, gave Handel the basis for a 1739 work that continues literally to resonate today, the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. Substantial in length although less extended than an oratorio (it lasts about 50 minutes), the work, which is in two parts, is brightly festive and evocative in its succession of instrumental and vocal elements, the latter for two soloists and chorus. Dryden invites some rather obvious tone painting (“soft complaining flute,” “sharp violins”), and Handel duly provides appropriate segments; but the main attraction of this choral work is the grand way in which it creates a sense of the drama of music’s place in the universe – both in the time of creation and in a distant future when, as Dryden’s last line has it, “music shall untune the sky.” Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day is on the obvious side, musically speaking – there is nothing here akin to Haydn’s chaos at the start of The Creation, for instance – and it is, after all, occasional music, created to serve a particular purpose even though, for today’s audiences, it goes well beyond honoring St. Cecilia. Led by Greg Funfgeld, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) and Bach Festival Orchestra give a rousing, upbeat and suitably straightforward presentation of Handel’s music: Funfgeld’s strong sense of rhythm and pacing keeps matters moving at a good clip without actually rushing anything, and both the orchestral playing and choral singing are first-rate. The two soloists are good, although not quite top-level: Cassandra Lemoine sings and emotes well, but her diction leaves something to be desired (a more-obvious flaw because the Analekta CD’s booklet does not include Dryden’s words); while Benjamin Butterfield has something of the opposite issue, pronouncing everything clearly but tending to be a bit rough and overly loud in his solos. On the whole, though, this is a fine performance whose overall forthright and direct expression fits Handel’s music well and presents it with a pleasant combination of drama and a modest but welcome dose of lyricism.
Drama and lyricism are present as well on a new Navona CD featuring no fewer than eight song cycles by Scott Perkins. The vocal writing here is about as different from that of Handel as it is possible to be, and the songs – all for voice and piano, plus flute in one cycle – are set by turns tonally, atonally, in falsetto, in Sprechstimme, and with all sorts of vocal techniques that go far beyond anything used in the 18th century. Yet Perkins manages to be extraordinarily creative without spending a lot of time being self-indulgent. He accomplishes this largely through his choice of texts – and also through integrating the piano parts (played wonderfully throughout the disc by Éric Trudel) into the cycles’ fabric, making the piano and pianist into full-scale participants rather than simply accompanists. The variety of poems set by Perkins is truly extraordinary. The most exceptional cycle of all, one whose daring is genuinely gripping, is called Riddle Songs (for baritone) and uses anonymous texts from the 10th-century Exeter Codex – in the original Old English. Just pronouncing this language, which is akin to Old High German, is difficult enough; creating music that accurately reflects the differing moods of these riddles – riddling being a major poetic form of the time – is even harder. Perkins manages to solve the, ahem, riddle of producing modern music for thousand-plus-year-old words with inventiveness that borders on the astonishing. His jazz/blues handling of a riddle about a key has to be heard to be believed, but is no more inventive in its way than his tiny little setting (less than 30 seconds) of one about ice. These songs are clever, yes, but they are more than that: they are genuinely revelatory in showing how an almost unknown language of long ago can be combined with a purely contemporary musical idiom to produce works to make 21st-century listeners sit up and take notice. Nothing else on the disc is quite this good, but several other cycles come close. Holy Sonnets of John Donne (for soprano) is intense, inward-looking and emotionally trenchant. And Dogen Songs (for tenor), using English translations by Brian Unger and Kazuaki Tanahashi of poems by the 13th-century Japanese Zen monk, Dogen Zenji, shows that modern minimalism can coexist surprisingly well with that of eight centuries ago. Somewhat less interesting is Whispers of Heavenly Death (for mezzo-soprano), to words by Walt Whitman: the settings are fine and sensitive, but Whitman’s poetry has been set so often that Perkins’ version seems like just another in a long series. The remaining four cycles here treat the seasons of the year, although they were not specifically conceived as a “cycle of cycles.” Spring and All (for tenor) uses verses by William Carlos Williams, in one of which, “The Right of Way,” Perkins handles the concluding lines with particular aplomb. Summer Songs (for soprano) is a cycle of Robert Louis Stevenson and includes a particularly operatic “Summer Sun” setting. Three Songs for Autumn (for baritone, and including flute to add atmosphere) uses words by Lia Purpura. And Soir d’Hiver (“Winter Evening,” for mezzo-soprano) intriguingly offers four French-language poems by four different poets: Émile Nelligan, Rainer Maria Rilke, Louis-Honoré Frechette, and Paul Verlaine. The scene-painting in the autumnal and wintry cycles is a bit more obvious and a bit less inventive than Perkins’ work elsewhere, but it is always effective and very sensitive to the cadences and nuances of the poetry. This is, on the whole, a remarkable disc, showcasing a composer with very substantial talent in the art-song genre.
Voice is used in two of the four works by Elizabeth Vercoe on another new Navona CD – and one of the two, This is my letter to the World, uses flute and piccolo as well as mezzo-soprano and piano. This six-song cycle is, however, much more ordinary in sound and techniques than the cycles by Perkins. The wind accentuations appear just as would be expected, and the declamatory settings are quite typical of contemporary handling of poetry. The poems themselves are by one of the favorites of modern composers, Emily Dickinson, and while there is nothing out of place in the settings, there is nothing especially distinctive, either. The other vocal work here, Herstory I, has a more intriguing instrumental complement, adding a vibraphone to soprano voice and piano. Its six songs are by four women poets: Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, and Pam White. The cycle’s intention, as is clear from its title, is to present the life experiences of women – but Vercoe’s way of doing so, which includes sounds ranging from near-screeches to near-whispers, is overly melodramatic, although when it does gibe with a poem’s words, as in Plath’s “Mirror,” it is very effective indeed. On the whole, Vercoe is more interesting on this (+++) disc in the non-vocal pieces. The seven-movement Butterfly Effects is not slavishly imitative of butterflies’ appearance or flight, although there is some of that. What Vercoe does here is set the harp against four different flutes: piccolo, bass, alto and concert. This creates a sound world that differs significantly from movement to movement but still has an underlying similarity that fits neatly with the notion of various very different-looking insects all being butterflies. The multiple techniques called for in the flute-playing further enhance the notion of differences-within-overall-similarity. The fourth work on the CD, Elegy, is the shortest and the most conventionally scored, for viola and piano. It is also, in many ways, the most effective piece on the disc. Vercoe uses the viola’s emotive capabilities and its ability to combine some of the virtuosity associated with a violin with some of the warmth of a cello to good effect, producing an inward-looking work that, interestingly, becomes increasingly tonal as it develops. It is as if the emotions being displayed by the viola require the aural comfort of tonality to achieve satisfactory resolution. Vercoe has some interesting ideas, both vocally and instrumentally, even though her presentation of those ideas on this CD is rather uneven in its approach and efficacy.
November 15, 2018
Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
On one level, there is no need whatsoever for fans of Stephan Pastis’ dark and sometimes borderline dismal comic strip, Pearls Before Swine, to buy an oversize “Treasury” volume such as Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn. These large collections simply contain the strips that have already appeared in earlier, smaller-format books, in this case I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream Because Puns Suck and Floundering Fathers. On the other hand, there are some perhaps rather rarefied reasons to buy the “Treasury” even if you already have the books whose strips it collects. For example, there is the cover. The covers of Pearls “Treasury” books are usually gems, if admittedly rough-cut ones, and this one is no exception. The front cover is a scene right out of innumerable noir movies, with a trench-coated guy, presumably a detective, being enticed to the corner of a building on a foggy night by a long-legged dame whose out-of-sight hand is holding a butcher knife. Also on the cover are multiple Pearls characters known for their violent propensities, such as Rat with a baseball bat and Guard Duck with a grenade; and also pictured is typically naïve and oblivious Pig, innocently playing a paddle game.
That is the front cover. On the back cover are Rat and the shadowy figure of the dame walking away into the fog, only visible from the back, as Rat gives a thumbs-up sign. In the foreground is a chalk drawing, the sort used by police to show where a body has been found; and Pig, wearing the hat formerly sported by the trench-coated presumed detective, is joyfully drawing hearts, balloons, flowers and such in chalk on the pavement.
Lest anyone wonder whether all this is in fact a weirdly off-key tribute to noir films, the inside front cover shows several Pearls characters settling in to watch a movie in an old-fashioned theater, where the screen shows the alleyway of the front cover but without any visible people or cartoons. And the inside back cover shows the Pearls characters reacting to the movie they have just seen (the screen now says “The End”) in suitable ways: Rat, for instance, is hurling a tomato.
And there is more than this that makes Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn a value-added proposition. Many cartoonists use “Treasury” collections to make brief comments on their strips, drawing attention to a timely reference, a sequence that went well or not so well, or some aspect of the writing or drawing. But Pastis takes this to extremes (sort of the way he takes the strip itself to extremes): he makes comments on every page, ranging from the self-derogatory to the self-congratulatory to the self-revelatory. For instance, Pastis does a strip in which Goat is watching “a documentary titled ‘World’s Greatest Mysteries,’” and Pig asks whether the documentary explains why a Honda Accord’s speedometer goes up to 160 miles per hour; in the comment below, Pastis tells readers that he really does have a Honda Accord with a speedometer that goes up to 160 miles per hour, and wonders whether the manufacturer wants him to experiment to see if it can really go that fast. Elsewhere, Pastis has cynical Rat comment that “togetherness makes the heart more annoyed” in a strip – beneath which Pastis says he hopes Rat’s remark catches on but that so far, “Hallmark hasn’t called.”
Pastis is well aware that his comments have value. Many times, he points out a strip that did not work or that confused or befuddled readers, such as one in which he uses the film-industry phrase “dolly grip” and shows a man holding onto a character who is supposed to be Dolly Parton but is drawn, ahem, less than perfectly (Pastis makes plenty of remarks, some overdone but many justified, about his own limited artistic skills). After explaining the Dolly Parton element of this strip, Pastis adds, “Too bad I can’t print these comments in the actual newspaper.” Well, yes, that is too bad in one sense – but in another, the comments are fun precisely because they explain things that readers, including those who own the smaller-size collections on which Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn is based, might not have understood until the “Treasury” became available.
Of course, whether or not this book is in fact treasurable will depend on one’s views on Pearls Before Swine. This remains a strip on which opinion is sharply divided, and Pastis seems quite content with that. He delights in pushing the verbal boundaries of the comic pages by engaging in rather juvenile but often amusing word usage: at one point, Pig, while watching the Olympics, sees swimmers doing the breast stroke, and Pastis comments beneath the strip, “It is sort of interesting how I can say ‘breast stroke’ but could never say ‘stroke breast.’” Along those lines, Pastis occasionally introduces a comic-strip-censor character who is fed up with the way the strip stays just within the bounds of verbal acceptability. Even in strips that do not push the proverbial envelope, Pastis likes to be subtly (sometimes not so subtly) subversive: one Sunday strip has Goat talking to “Benny the beach bum” and telling him to get a job and get on with life so he can make money to build up his savings so he can one day retire and do whatever he wants, such as hanging out and sitting on the beach. Realizing what he just said, Goat plunks himself down on the sand and tells Benny, “You’re the most brilliant human alive.” And Goat, mind you, is the strip’s resident intellectual.
Pearls Before Swine certainly isn’t for everyone, which means that neither is Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn. But for those who find Pastis’ weird characters and offbeat, often deeply sarcastic humor attractive, this “Treasury” adds authorial insight to comics whose dark-but-funny observations often seem unerringly in tune with our times.
Paying for College, 2019 Edition: Everything You Need to Maximize Financial Aid and Afford College. By Kalman A. Chany, with Geoff Martz. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $22.99.
This annual guide to college costs, now in its 27th year, was a lot more fun when it was called Paying for College without Going Broke. Well, not “fun,” exactly – it was never that – but the former title encapsulated the knowledge of college-financing consultant Kalman A. Chany that college costs are a huge strain on the budget of most families and need to be thought through very carefully so they do not torpedo the rest of a family’s financial life (including the parents’ retirement). The 2019 edition of what is now simply called Paying for College contains the same sort of straightforward advice and assistance as previous editions, including excellent line-by-line guides through the enormously thorny thicket of federal forms – notably FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), some of whose questions can be answered in various ways that will have different impacts on student financial assistance. There is similar detailed advice on handling the CSS PROFILE form – required by many selective colleges in addition to FAFSA. There are even 2017 versions of IRS forms 1040 and 1040-A in the back of the book, just to make the whole paying-for-college experience even less enjoyable.
To be fair, Chany does not want to make college finances frustrating, difficult, time-consuming and overwhelming, but that is what they will be for most families. “Almost every family now qualifies for some form of assistance,” Chany asserts, and while that is a bit of an overstatement and over-simplification, it is true enough to make it worthwhile to use this book to find out if your family can indeed get assistance and, if so, how to go about getting as much as possible. Chany minces no words when it comes to the way a college financial aid officer (FAO) works: “He will be much more invasive than the IRS ever is, demanding not just your financial data but intimate details of your personal life such as medical problems and marital status. …The college FAOs don’t really want you to understand all the intricacies of the financial aid process.” Chany’s book is intended to show how parents, once they do understand the way an FAO operates, can use the rules to their advantage.
Paying for College is not intended to turn parents into financial-aid experts. Its objective is to guide families to the circumstances discussed in the book that most closely resemble theirs, then show them how to use those circumstance as effectively as possible to maximize aid. Some of Chany’s advice applies to almost everyone: “If you have any hope of financial aid, never put money in the child’s name” (because colleges insist that lots of the funds held by a child be used to pay for schooling, far more than the percentage they insist parents contribute). And some of the information does apply to everyone: “Colleges now use the tax year two years before college begins…as their basis for deciding what you can afford to pay during freshman year.”
Much of the material in Paying for College, however, is of the “it depends” type: its value depends on your family’s specific circumstances. For example, there are good reasons to file a Form 1040A or 1040EZ if IRS rules allow you to do so – even if an accountant says it is better to file a more-standard 1040. If you own a home, federal financial-aid methodology does not include its value in determining eligibility, nor do calculations at most state schools, but highly selective private colleges (and even some that are not as highly selective) do include it. And so on – and on and on. Yes, this gets extremely complicated, and Chany can simplify it only so far; in fact, the firm he founded, Campus Consultants, charges nearly $2,000 to help those who can afford it get through all the ins and outs of college financial aid, and he would have no business if all the complexity could be learned for $22.99. Nevertheless, there is a great deal to be gained from Paying for College. Chany includes a chapter on what students themselves can do while parents wade through all the forms and numbers: take an SAT review course, take AP classes, plan to transfer to a desired college after spending two years at a less-expensive one, and more. He provides very helpful lists, such as one of state agencies that administer college aid and one of the different types of financial aid (with explanations of the pluses and minuses of each). And he delves into all sorts of pragmatic issues, such as what to do if you are divorced, separated or a single parent, and how to file an appeal if the FAO does not offer enough aid. The bottom line – an apt term to use when discussing money – is that Paying for College will not solve every family’s financial concerns and will not pre-empt the need for at least some families to seek help from Chany’s firm or a similar one in order to maximize college aid. For many families, though, Paying for College will be a highly useful guidebook showing what to look for, and what to look out for, when negotiating the morass of forms and requirements and tax laws and individual colleges’ quirks – and how to do all this without going broke.