May 16, 2019
5 Worlds, Book 1: The Sand Warrior. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Boya Sun, and Matt Rockefeller. Random House. $12.99 (paperback).
5 Worlds, Book 2: The Cobalt Prince. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Boya Sun, and Matt Rockefeller. Random House. $12.99 (paperback).
5 Worlds, Book 3: The Red Maze. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Boya Sun, and Matt Rockefeller. Random House. $20.99 (hardcover).
Inventive despite its constant echoes of other adventure stories, artistically consistent despite its collaborative nature, and told at a pace that allows both for plenty of action and for plenty of explanatory background, the 5 Worlds series of graphic novels is one of the best uses of the form in recent years. The novels are a true sequence, not standalone books: it is very difficult to pick up the series anywhere but the beginning, since the second and third books are continuations of the first with very little attempt to look back and fill in prior events. But that is just fine, because readers who do start with The Sand Warrior will not want to stop until they have gone through all three releases to date – and anyone who happens to pick up The Cobalt Prince or The Red Maze will soon realize that there is a rich vein of fictional history without which the stories do not coalesce very well, and will likely seek out the earlier volumes to understand the foundations of the tale.
5 Worlds has echoes of innumerable fantasies set in the past and future, on Earth or on alternative worlds or somewhere in space. Star Wars is a dominant feature, one among many. But present-day, real-world ecological and economic elements also appear, lending a veneer of almost-realism to some of the characters’ concerns. The three main characters will be instantly recognizable to any fantasy fan as “unlikely hero” types: Oona Lee, goodhearted but not-very-skillful student at a prominent school called the Sand Dancer Academy, who does not remember her parents and whose older, apparently more-talented sister fled the school before the story’s start, for reasons unknown; An Tzu, a boy from the slums who knows how to trick and maneuver his way around the oppressive society, and who has a mysterious illness that means he will not live long; and Jax Amboy, a star athlete in a highly popular game called Starball, who has plenty of fame but no emotional connections worthy of the name – and who, it turns out, is not what he appears to be at all.
The world building here is also of a familiar type: there are indeed five worlds, one of which dominated the others until a long-ago war of independence that resulted in the colonies splitting from the once-dominant Mother World. The worlds were settled by obscure, poorly understood ancient figures called Felid Gods; that race vanished long ago, and there are mysteries of all sorts attached to it. One of those involves five giant beacons, one per world, built for no known reason and now dark after having presumably been lit and important in some significant way in the dim past. 5 Worlds is, at its simplest, the story of the re-lighting of the beacons and of the three young people who – against the feckless and often venal forces of their elders – make the re-lighting possible.
This is not, in truth, an especially inventive story arc, but the five creators of 5 Worlds handle it with very considerable skill that involves characterization as much as action – often more so, in fact. The reason the beacons need to be re-lit is that the worlds are overheating and becoming uninhabitable – for now, by wild creatures, but soon for humans. Or so some people say: this is a political universe (where politics has not advanced much beyond 21st-century Earth norms), and the adults have their own agendas and their own interpretations of what is going on. They also have a bizarre creature known as the Mimic that is manipulating them, or some of them, further complicating pretty much everything: this is a creature that is heartless, in fact literally heartless because of some of the events in the books, but that nevertheless appears unstoppable and, like all ultra-villains, is steadily growing in strength. The five worlds – Mon Domani, Moon Yatta, Toki, Salassandra, and Grimbo (E) – have characteristic colors associated with them and their beacons, and the re-lighting has to take that into account to produce a sequence of white, red, blue, yellow, and green. Why? Just because – although the reason may eventually be made clear. It is a characteristic of 5 Worlds that the story’s mysteries are pervasive but are not paraded for readers with portentousness: there is a genuine feeling here that Oona Lee, An Tzu and Jax Amboy are struggling to make sense of their quest even as readers are struggling along with them. That is a real strength of 5 Worlds.
Another strength of the story is the clarity with which it makes sociopolitical points, but without lecturing or hectoring. The blue-skinned Toki, for example, are a servant class and deemed inferior – but it is the Toki who start the events that lead to the quest of re-lighting, and it turns out that Oona Lee is not of the dominant white-skinned class after all, in one of many surprises and reversals in the story. As for Jax Amboy, he is dark-skinned, but in his case the color is quite literally only skin-deep – another way in which 5 Worlds makes its point about heroic actions being the province of pretty much anyone and, indeed, pretty much anything: an entire race of “vegetals,” for example, plays a significant role, and its members can and do interbreed with more-recognizable humans, producing “mixed-sap” people. The art and coloring in these books is finely honed and always attractive, the background scenery unusual enough to convey a sense of alienness throughout while allowing the familiar elements of this extended quest story to come through clearly. 5 Worlds is a very considerable achievement already, even though it is incomplete and has quite a few questions still to be answered. Surely some of the murkiness will be clearer after the appearance of the fourth book, which will be called The Amber Anthem. But equally surely, that will not be the end of the 5 Worlds saga; and even when this epic graphic-novel series does end, it will have left readers so immersed in its skillful storytelling and highly attractive art that many will surely be eager to return to the beginning and re-live the re-lighting all over again.
Phoebe and Her Unicorn 9: Unicorn Bowling. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
There Was an Old Astronaut Who Swallowed the Moon! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.
Some book series seem to be self-perpetuating. They aren’t, of course – each entry requires the author’s creativity and some new material to engage readers, even if every book tends to revisit the characters and plot points of earlier ones. But there is a comfortable familiarity that young readers will find in every Phoebe and Her Unicorn book – and some of the changes that Dana Simpson rings on her characters and their activities make certain series entries better than others. Unicorn Bowling works particularly well, not so much because of the title sequence (although seeing Marigold Heavenly Nostrils in bowling shoes is certainly amusing) as because of the other small adventures that Phoebe and her magical BFF have. For instance, Phoebe learns that when the two of them sang “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” together, Marigold recorded the performance and released it on Unicorn Radio, where it rose to #23 on the charts. Marigold promises to cast a play-piano-perfectly spell on Phoebe for the fourth-grade talent show, then explains that she made the whole thing up, so Phoebe sits at the piano and creates a song called “Unicorns Are Stupidfaces” – which Marigold later walks along humming, because “What can I say? You wrote a catchy song.” Marigold also tells Phoebe that a unicorn invented a video game called “The Glimmering Volley,” which humans picked up and called “Pong.” And she explains that the “rain, rain, go away” rhyme does not work because “rhyming only makes weather angry.” Marigold gets most of the good lines in the Phoebe and Her Unicorn books, but sequences in which Phoebe has bits of self-discovery are the real gems, as when Phoebe is belittled by fashion-focused classmate Dakota and Marigold says Dakota is entitled to her opinion, but “you decorate yourself in a way that makes you look MORE like yourself, and it is a pleasure to see.” Well put – and so is Phoebe’s next comment: “Thanks, although I dunno about fashion advice from someone who’s usually naked.” And Marigold’s rejoinder: “Fashion is the art of knowing what NOT to wear.” It is byplay of this sort that separates the better books in the Phoebe and Her Unicorn series from the more formula-driven and therefore less interesting ones. Simpson’s better Phoebe-and-Marigold books also have room for pure silliness, as when, in Unicorn Bowling, Phoebe decides to play superheroes by dressing herself as “Claustrophoebea” (whose power is super-empathy for people who are afraid of enclosed spaces) and designating Marigold as her “archnemesis, Pointyhead.” So much for the silly stuff: elsewhere, Phoebe complains to her father that she does not get homework, leading him to promise her that next year, she can do the family’s taxes – to which Phoebe responds, “I know you’re joking, but I’ve daydreamed about it.” And then Phoebe discusses homework with Marigold – who, it turns out, “got excellent grades in Unicornversity” and created a thesis called “Transgressive Sparkle Paradigms: A Deconstructive Analysis of Magicalness as a Literalist Post-Modern Idiom.” That goes beyond everyday, child-focused humor all the way into satire – which is rarely part of the Phoebe and Her Unicorn series and is therefore all the more amusing when it appears.
The amusement is more straightforward in the long-running “Old Lady” series by Lucille Colandro and Jared Lee. This sequence has been around so long that it has spawned a sort of sub-sequence, the latest volume of which is There Was an Old Astronaut Who Swallowed the Moon! The main series features the Old Lady swallowing various objects that fit together – sometimes in more-obvious ways than others – while her small black dog romps around the edges of the pages. The sub-sequence, which still includes the dog, features the “Old Lady” as other “Old” characters – “Old Mermaid,” “Old Pirate” and now “Old Astronaut” – and brings in two young kids, perhaps her grandchildren, who provide factual tidbits that are sprinkled among the pages featuring the Old Lady’s consumption of objects. The kids, a boy and a girl, talk to each other in rhymes that often scan and sound better than the ones Colandro creates for the Old Lady. In the latest book, for example, the kids say, “Why does the moon stay in the sky?/ Gravity’s force keeps it up high.” But the main narrative includes lines such as, “There was an old astronaut who swallowed a comet./ Just like an omelette, she swallowed that comet.” (Colandro does not have a rhyming word there – but fans of Old Lady books just may not care.) Lee’s humorous illustrations help make up for whatever lacks there are in the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the words, and at the end of this book – when it turns out that the Old Lady is not really an astronaut, but has been watching a show with the children at the local planetarium – there are a couple of pages giving more information on the real-world science referred to in There Was an Old Astronaut Who Swallowed the Moon! And at the very end, there is a search-and-find game that invites young readers to go back through the book and locate specific objects on all the pages. The primary connections among the many (+++) Old Lady books may be the Old Lady herself and the pleasant-if-imperfect, more-or-less-rhyming stories; but in the books that bring in the two children to complement the Old Lady’s presence, it is often the additional elements – factual and participatory – that make these series entries enjoyable even when they are formulaic.
Mozart: String Quartets Nos. 20-23. Alexander String Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violins; Paul Yarbrough, viola; Sandy Wilson, cello). Foghorn Classics. $27.99 (2 CDs).
Abide with Me: Great Hymns in New Settings. Lisa Bontrager and Grace Salyards, horns; Timothy Shafer, piano; Sarah Shafer, soprano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Freedom & Faith. PUBLIQuartet (Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth, violins; Nick Revel, viola; Amanda Gookin, cello). Bright Shiny Things. $15.99.
The great chamber music of the past continues to involve and thrill performers and listeners alike, and to be subject to multiple interpretations that emphasize varying elements of works that are multifaceted and have genuine depth. Among such works are Mozart’s final four string quartets, which get very fine, highly conversational performances from the Alexander String Quartet on a new Foghorn Classics release. Quartet No. 20 in D, K. 499, dates to 1786 and is something of an “outlier” among the quartet series, a kind of quasi-pastoral way station with decided proto-Romantic elements that the Alexander String Quartet clearly enjoys bringing forward. The tempos here are mostly on the moderate-to-relaxed side, but without ever dragging – although the performers have plenty of spirit when it is called for, as in the bright and bracing finale. The three remaining quartets, collectively known as “Prussian,” date to 1789-90 and were supposed to be the first three of a never-completed set of six. No. 21, K. 575, is in D; No. 22, K. 589, is in B-flat; and No. 23, K. 590, is in F. The Alexander String Quartet’s approach to these works is much the same as it is to K. 499, in terms of pacing the works with care and balancing the parts so that the inner voices get considerable prominence – as is not always the case in readings of these works. The quartets are all characterized by changes of emotional tone between and sometimes within movements, and the performers handle those very well without ever losing sight of the cohesiveness of the music. The emotionalism of the final quartets, although certainly not “heart on sleeve” in the still-to-come Romantic manner, is an important element of their impact; and if there is a single touchstone for the Alexander String Quartet’s performances here, it is the performers’ willingness to engage the works’ emotional centers and devise some rather leisurely interpretations in terms of pacing for the sake of plumbing the inward focus of much of the music. Thankfully, the performers do not treat these works as “valedictory” in any sense – certainly Mozart never intended them that way – but instead showcase the highly effective and often quite original ways in which Mozart balances the strings and uses instrumental combinations to evoke an emotional response.
The emotions for which Lisa Bontrager aims on a new MSR Classics recording are quite different. This (+++) CD features 15 arrangements of traditional hymn tunes, some for single horn, some for two horns, and some (but not all) featuring voice. This is an interesting and somewhat experimental method of presenting these hymns – many of which will be familiar to the traditionally religious – by giving them a new sound and still exploring their emotional centers. The varying forms of the hymns give the CD some musical interest even though the underlying musical material is scarcely inventive. In terms of the forms of arrangement, Crown Him with Many Crowns is for soprano, horn and piano; When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Praise the Holy Trinity and two combinations – of Were You There? and Jesus Paid It All, and of Before the Throne of God Above and Great Is Thy Faithfulness – are for soprano, two horns and piano. Well-paced, well-played, and sung with apt emotional involvement by Sarah Shafer, these arrangements are nevertheless less musically interesting than the ones that include no voice at all. Those are Abide with Me, Hyfrydol Fantasy, It Is Well with My Soul, Be Thou My Vision, Deep River, Oh Danny Boy, ’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus, and My Shepherd Will Supply My Need for solo horn and piano, and When Peace Like a River and the combination of Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing and Jesus Loves Me for two horns and piano. Bontrager describes the hymns as a source of comfort for her, especially as she faces the aging of her parents, and the music is likely to provide equivalent comfort for those who share Bontrager’s belief in the form of worship where this music has long been central – although modern emphasis on contemporary music in churches has pushed some of the traditional hymns into the background. The reason the non-vocal arrangements are so effective here is that the music itself provides a level of comfort and even uplift – perhaps even for people who may not know the hymns’ specific words or may not feel a personal relationship to them. The richness of Bontrager’s horn sounds, and those of Grace Salyards in the two-horn arrangements, help provide the CD with an overall feeling of warmth, and Timothy Shafer’s pianism nicely complements the horns by providing them with a harmonic foundation without ever attempting to assume a central musical role. An hour of hymns, even in attractive arrangements, may well be a bit much for many listeners, but those who take comfort in the sound and thoughts of this music may find themselves listening to the CD at various times rather than straight through – and then returning to it again and again for a kind of spiritual tonic.
In a sense, the CD of hymn arrangements is a “cause” disc, attempting to preserve the hymns’ meaning despite musical changes affecting many churches. A new Bright Shiny Things recording by PUBLIQuartet is a “cause” CD as well, with a title that directly includes the word “faith” and an overview indicating that the material deliberately focuses exclusively on women composers. As a “cause” production, though, and even in strictly musical terms, the (+++) disc falls somewhat short of reaching out to people concerned by or involved in “freedom and faith.” The reason is that, in strictly musical terms, what it offers is not much different from what other committed-to-a-contemporary-sound chamber groups present: genre-bending, mostly highly dissonant, partially improvisatory material that includes “covers” (basically reinterpretations that thoroughly subsume the originals) of older music. Also like many contemporary ensembles, PUBLIQuartet has “initiatives” from which the performers draw the material performed here. One such initiative is simply the group’s commissioning of new works, such as Jessica Meyer’s Get into the Now, which pulls acoustic sounds in their usual modernistic ways by employing extremes of the instruments’ ranges, percussive additions in which the players hit their instruments, and so forth. There are improvisatory elements here, too – scarcely a surprise – but there is also a less-expected hint of lyricism now and then, notably in the work’s second movement; and under the circumstances, this offers some aural relief while freeing listeners from the need to undertake intellectual exercises in order to appreciate what Meyer and PUBLIQuartet are doing. Most of the rest of the CD comes from an initiative called MIND | THE | GAP, in which the quartet members reinterpret and/or run roughshod over material ranging from Hildegard Von Bingen’s O ignee Spiritus to Ella Fitzgerald’s version of A Tisket a Tasket. Then the disc concludes with a Shelley Washington piece called Middleground, which mixes ostinato elements and vaguely folklike themes with pauses for single-instrument solos and, eventually, a conclusion that just stops where it happens to be. Whatever the merits of another woman-composer-focused CD may be – there have been quite a few of them recently – what is attractive here is not the gender of the composers (which in any case is never evident from their music) but the skill with which PUBLIQuartet presents their compositions. Much of what listeners will encounter here is scarcely new on the contemporary-music scene, and the overall sound of the disc is largely indistinguishable from that of many other “with-it” contemporary offerings. But the playing itself is quite good, and if the music itself is less than memorable, the devotion, even fervor, with which the material is presented may be all that an audience already enthusiastic about the latest trends in chamber-music composition and performance needs in order to find the CD enjoyable.
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Piano Concerto in F; Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.” Eliane Rodrigues and Nina Smeets, pianos; Carlo Willems and Koen Wilmaers, percussion. Navona. $14.99.
Debussy: Suite bergamasque and other piano music. Jerry Wong, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Sulkhan Tsintsadze: 24 Preludes for Piano. Inga Fiolia, piano. Grand Piano. $17.99.
Piano Music of George Rochberg, Michael Anderson, Leo Brouwer, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Phillip Evans, Almeida Prado, Thomas L. McKinley, and John Sharpley. Roberta Rust, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Sometimes one must dare greatly in order to succeed wonderfully – and to take solace when one falls short, simply because one has tried to do so much. The immensely dramatic and dynamic new Navona CD of music by Gershwin and Bernstein – arranged, improbably and often marvelously, for two pianos and percussion – is so inventive and filled with such sheer joie de vivre that even the places where it does not quite work are ones worth hearing. Experiencing, rather: there is more here than just some acoustic dabbling. Eliane Rodrigues and Nina Smeets did their own two-piano arrangements of all the music here, with their collaborators and co-performers Carlo Willems and Koen Wilmaers handling the percussion arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue and playing an arrangement of the Piano Concerto in F by Thomas Schindl and one of the Bernstein dances by Peter Sadlo, based on an earlier arrangement by John Musto. A little suspension of musical disbelief is in order here for all listeners: to start with, is it really possible to make an effective piano-and/or-percussion version of the wailing clarinet opening of Rhapsody in Blue? Well, no. But right at the start of this piece, right at the start of this disc, what the performer/arrangers are trying to do becomes clear: they are bringing out and emphasizing certain elements of Gershwin’s and Bernstein’s familiar scores, carefully choosing what to include and what to omit or look past, and in so doing are turning the arrangements themselves into unusual and remarkably involving interpretations of the music. Then they are performing – that is, interpreting – the arrangements that interpret the originals, turning this whole CD into a kind of “meta-interpretation.” Not that anything loftily philosophical seems to be going on here: the overall impression of all the performances is that the players had tremendous fun doing them, resulting in infectiously joyous, sometimes over-the-top readings that capture all the verve and jazziness of Gershwin’s and Bernstein’s creations. Caution, though: “verve and jazziness” do abound here, but tenderness and quietude do not come across so well. The arrangements and performances are at their best by far in the upbeat, brash and heavily jazz-inflected elements of the scores. In the quieter, more-restrained and more-lyrical passages, matters are somewhat less satisfactory. Thus, Rhapsody in Blue is an absolute smash, a truly wonderful performance that breaks all sorts of bounds and rules while adhering to Gershwin’s spirit to an exemplary degree. It is so good that it is difficult to hear the original version of this work immediately after listening to the one recorded here without finding the original a trifle pale. What an accomplishment: certainly the Rodrigues/Smeets/Willems/Wilmaers version is not better than Gershwin’s original, but it is so different in sound and emphasis, yet so true to the spirit of Rhapsody in Blue, that lovers of the original really owe it to themselves to hear how fascinatingly this rethinking shines new light on many elements of the score. The Bernstein dances, placed next on the CD, are not quite an unalloyed triumph, but they have a great many high points. Mamba, Cha-cha and (unsurprisingly) Rumble come off especially well, while Cool is something of an unexpected hit: its mere 40 seconds seem far too few to contain all the classy, irreverent sound of this arrangement. Much less successful, predictably, is Somewhere, always a somewhat saccharine (if effective) element of Bernstein’s score, and one that does not take well to this instrumental combination even when the playing is as sensitive as it is here. The Finale is also underwhelming, lacking the emotional punch of Bernstein’s original – but, again, it is very well and sensitively played. And then comes Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, a decidedly mixed bag. Parts of it are simply wonderful in their exuberance, and the finale is a tour de force for everyone involved, building to a genuine bang-up ending. And in the first movement, the sections just for the two pianos display some marvelous camaraderie between Rodrigues and Smeets. The second movement, though, never gels. The multiple-keyboard arrangement of the opening is clever but never fully convincing, and the remainder of this lovely movement seems always to cry out for sounds beyond those of which percussion – however well-played – is capable. The amazing opening of the finale, though, instantly throws away any misgivings, and the concerto builds to a conclusion that is every bit as convincing as the arrangement here of Rhapsody in Blue. Triumph in music does not require perfection: if not everything here works, what does succeed does so to an overwhelming degree. What a CD!
The pleasures are of a somewhat more conventional sort but are no less welcome on a new MSR Classics release featuring a selection of Debussy piano music played by Jerry Wong. Except for Suite bergamasque, nothing here is “complete” – Wong curates the album by presenting various Debussy works in such a way as to expand upon each other’s moods or provide contrasts. The approach will not be to all tastes, but the clean and unfussy playing ought to be: Wong does not overindulge anything in this music, but presents it in a manner that is not so much straightforward as it is carefully considered. The CD bears the somewhat misleading title, “Of Motion and Dance” – yes to the former, but not so much to the latter, especially when compared to dances by, say, Bernstein. Debussy certainly used the names of dances for some of the pieces heard here – indeed, except for the every-popular Clair de lune, each movement of Suite bergamasque bears the title of a Baroque dance. But none of the suite’s movements is particularly danceable, and Wong certainly does not attempt to make them so: he simply accepts the underlying dance rhythms when Debussy provides them, and uses them to being forth Debussy’s elegant little musical portraits. There are no fewer than 14 other pieces on the CD, eight before Suite bergamasque and six afterwards. Most of those in the group of eight are chosen from Book I of the Préludes or from Children’s Corner, and the juxtapositions highlight Wong’s sensitivity to this music and the care with which he assembles this recital. For example, the liveliness of La danse de Puck is immediately followed by the oddly titled and rather ominous-sounding Berceuse héroique (“Heroic Lullaby”), which in turn is followed by Jimbo’s Lullaby (for a toy elephant), in which Wong suitably brings forth the humor as well as the warmth of expression. In the six pieces at the end of the CD, dances as reimagined by Debussy make several appearances, again to good contrasting effect. Thus, the frenzy of Tarantelle Styrienne is neatly followed, to conclude the disc, with two cakewalks: Minstrels from the first book of Préludes and Général Lavine – eccentric from the second. Both in the choice of material to perform and in the sensitive, studied-but-not-academic way in which he performs it, Wong shows himself well-attuned to the subtleties of Debussy’s piano music and proves himself a fine exponent of it.
The 24 Preludes for Piano (1971) by noted Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze (1925-1991) are quite different from Debussy’s and far less familiar. But on the basis of a fine new Grand Piano recording of this set, they deserve to be better known. German-Georgian pianist Inga Fiolia performs them with considerable flair. Like many other, better-known sets of preludes, they are studies in key sequence we well as in pianism: the first is in C major, the second in A minor (the minor-key, no-accidentals equivalent); then come G major and E minor, then D major and B minor, and so on. But Tsintsadze does not explore any particular characteristics of individual keys in structuring this set. Instead, perhaps with an eye toward the realpolitik of Soviet times that was still a force to be reckoned with nearly two decades after Stalin’s death, Tsintsadze chooses folk and folklike tunes for the preludes, adheres almost always to tonality or mild dissonance, and presents rhythms that clearly show the dance forms in which some of the thematic material originated (although these preludes are no more danceable than Debussy’s). Indeed, Tsintsadze was well-regarded in the Soviet era and was even awarded the USSR Stalin Prize. Yet his father had been arrested during Stalin’s purge of 1937, and this must surely have left a strong impression on the then-preteen boy, who at the time was already studying in a school for highly gifted children (as a cellist). The extent to which the early events influenced Tsintsadze’s compositions in general and the 24 Preludes for Piano in particular is at best conjectural, but certainly there is nothing in this music that would in any way have jeopardized the composer’s position at the Tbilisi State Conservatory, of which he was head at the time he wrote the cycle. It would be overstating things to claim that this is profound or revelatory music, or to single out individual preludes among the 24 as especially noteworthy. Indeed, this set is notable for the way in which the preludes, although thematically unconnected, flow naturally – in Fiolia’s performance – from one to the next, giving the impression of a kind of grand suite celebrating the dances and folk music of Georgia. Although the music’s value is insufficient to give this CD the highest rating, it is certainly enough to designate this a strong (+++) release that will be of considerable interest to listeners who know little of Soviet-era music beyond that of the greatest composers of that time – and who know even less about 20th-century music from the onetime Soviet republic of Georgia.
The connection of heritage between Fiolia and Tsintsadze, although significant, is less immediate and personal than the connections that permeate a new (+++) Navona anthology CD featuring pianist Roberta Rust. There are eight composers heard here, each represented by one to three works, and all of them are personally connected to the pianist – who in turn created the disc as a memorial to her recently deceased mother and stepdaughter. So a level of strong emotional involvement in the music is scarcely surprising here – but as a compendium, the CD does not really hang together very well, since the composers and their works are so very different. Rust’s own catholicity of taste is evident in her choice of these pieces, but listeners who simply want to hear her handling of comparatively modern music (the pieces were composed as far back as 1939 and as recently as 2007) will find the transitions and juxtapositions rather awkward. George Rochberg’s Blues, the second movement of Carnival Music (1971), opens the CD, and is followed by two much more recent Michael Anderson works: Thirteen Plus 4 (2005) and the first movement of Sonata (2008). These tone-cluster-heavy pieces follow rather uneasily after Rochberg’s rather close adherence to the bluesy jazz idiom. Next come three pieces by Leo Brouwer, all from Diez Bocetos (2007; the title translates as “Ten Sketches”). Two of the three include improvisatory sections in which Rust chooses to interpolate and interpret material based on Bach – yet another level of her personal involvement in this recital. Next on the CD is the somber Lament (1999) by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, followed by the earliest music on the disc: Phillip Evans’ Minuetto (1939) and two movements from his Suite 1945. Evans and Rust married in 1980, and it is Evans’ late daughter to whom this CD is in part dedicated. Rust next plays Almeida Prado’s three-part Halley, whose world première performance Rust gave – the 1986 work was inspired by the return of Halley’s comet that year. Two of Thomas L. McKinley’s Fantasy Pieces for Piano (2005) are heard next; the entire work was dedicated to Rust. Finally, Rust plays three of the Four Preludes (1998) by John Sharpley. One of these quotes “Yankee Doodle” and another “Bringing in the Sheaves,” making them somewhat more approachable than many of the other works here. Rust plays everything on the CD with fine technique and obvious dedication, but the musical mixture is just too much of a hodgepodge for the disc to work well for listeners who lack the very strong personal connections to the music that Rust herself has.
May 09, 2019
Ninita’s Big World: The True Story of a Deaf Pygmy Marmoset. By Sarah Glenn Marsh. Illustrations by Stephanie Fizer Coleman. Clarion. $17.99.
Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.
A heartwarmer of a real-life story, Ninita’s Big World is about a real resident of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Loxahatchee, Florida. As the book’s subtitle explains, Ninita is a pygmy marmoset – a member of the smallest species of monkey – and was born completely deaf in the conservatory’s captive-breeding program. Abandoned at the age of three weeks by her parents, who could not figure out what to do with an infant that did not respond to the sounds they made or to environmental noises, Ninita would surely have died if she had been born in the wild: nature is not kind to ill-adapted babies of any species, and Ninita was smaller than a human’s thumb at birth. But because she was born in captivity, Ninita became a subject for study and special care instead of being left to perish. Sarah Glenn Marsh tells her story straightforwardly but anthropomorphically: “Ninita was scared. …Ninita felt so alone.” Stephanie Fizer Coleman contributes illustrations that make Ninita even more wide-eyed than pygmy marmosets really are, and that show her smiling and having other very human expressions – some of which these little monkeys actually do display – as people at the conservatory find ways to help her. It is a bit of an overstatement to say that “Ninita didn’t need to hear the voices of her human friends to know she was safe now,” but surely the little marmoset had some sense of comfort and safety as people groomed, fed and cared for her. Ninita is adorable, and that is no exaggeration: to humans, huge-eyed, playful, highly interactive pygmy marmosets are adorable. The scenes of Ninita being groomed with a toothbrush and fed by hand (actually by finger) – she gets treats such as “smooth yogurt and lumpy rice pudding” – are especially sweet. Then, in another element of Marsh’s anthropomorphic approach, readers are told that “Ninita wished she had a marmoset friend to share in her adventures. But she couldn’t hear the other marmosets inviting her to play.” Well, whatever Ninita wished or did not wish, it is certainly true that pygmy marmosets are social creatures, and the humans at the conservatory, aware of this, chose for her a companion named Mr. Big. Ninita’s Big World shows the two marmosets bonding even though Ninita cannot hear the noises that Mr. Big makes – and this is in fact what happened at the conservatory, where Ninita and Mr. Big still live. This is a lovely little real-world tale that offers young readers exposure to an animal with which they are unlikely to be familiar. Even though pygmy marmosets, which are native to the Amazon rainforest, are not endangered, the conservatory’s captive-breeding program is intended to ensure the long-term survival of the species, and the books and links provided at the end of Ninita’s Big World offer interested children a number of ways to explore these fascinating animals in greater depth.
In the depths of South American rivers lives a creature very different from the pygmy marmosets climbing the trees high above: the piranha. However, this toothy and much-feared fish gets a far lighter treatment from Aaron Blabey than Ninita gets in Ninita’s Big World. Blabey has a thing about piranhas, having made one of them a central character in his The Bad Guys series of comic-book novels. In Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas, he again (or still) plays the fish for amusement, drawing piranhas with hugely bulging eyes and numerous teeth that stick out above their underbite. Blabey will stop at nothing, including pronunciation, to get laughs. The word “piranha” is pronounced either “pih-RAH-nuh” or “pih-RAN-ya,” but neither of those rhymes with “banana,” so Blabey clearly wants readers to pronounce it “pih-RAN-uh” for purposes of his rhyme scheme. In fact, the rhyme scheme is about the only purpose this book has, other than fun. One piranha (however you choose to pronounce it), named Brian, insists on offering pieces of fruit – starting with the titular banana – to the other piranhas. They repeatedly turn down his recommendations, of course: “We don’t eat apples! We don’t eat beans! We don’t eat veggies! We don’t eat greens! We don’t eat melons! We don’t eat bananas! And the reason is simple, pal. We are PIRANHAS!” Brian, however, insists that “fruit is the best,” and eventually gets the other piranhas to try some – resulting in a feeding frenzy that Blabey shows in a circle, with three piranhas toothily chomping on produce as bits fly messily everywhere. Satisfied to have gotten the group engaged, Brian asks the other piranhas if fruits and vegetables are “yucky or yum.” But he does not get the answer he wants, being told at the book’s end that “we still prefer BUM” – as the piranhas start grabbing the bathing suit of a hapless human being who happens to be standing in the water. Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas was originally published in 2015 in Australia, which has many unusual animals, but no piranhas in its rivers. Now available for North American, um, consumption, the book offers plenty of chuckles and some really silly drawings – a Blabey specialty – along with no accuracy whatsoever in its portrayal of Brian and his bum-eating buddies.
Safely Endangered Comics. By Chris McCoy. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Oh No. By Alex Norris. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
The Internet may interconnect nearly the entire world, but it does not interconnect the world’s social norms. That means that humor, among other things, does not always translate particularly well across borders, even electronic ones. And there is a longstanding difficulty between the United States and Great Britain when it comes to what is funny: neither society tends to “get” what the other one does. This is why, for example, British TV humor programs (or programmes) are generally adapted by American TV producers instead of simply being brought “across the pond” in their original form. There are certainly exceptions, such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but those tend to prove the rule, becoming cult favorites for those “in the know” rather than sources of amusement for a more-general audience. So it is interesting that some cartoonists from Great Britain, operating strictly online, have found ways to bridge the British-American humor gap – the evidence coming in the form of their book collections. While not every offering in Safely Endangered Comics and Oh No will be equally funny for Americans (or for Canadians, for that matter), most of the content of both books arrives from the British side of the Atlantic with humor unimpaired.
This works largely because Chris McCoy and Alex Norris do “human-condition” comics, of the wry and sometimes sarcastic sort, rather than satirical ones requiring readers to understand culturally specific references to whatever is being satirized. The panels in McCoy’s Safely Endangered Comics have no recurring characters and no predictability of topic – but McCoy manages, again and again, to find amusement in things that transcend national boundaries. One strip, set at “Passport Control,” has a skeptical officer looking at a passport photo of a caterpillar and telling another officer, “I think this guy’s a terrorist.” The final panel shows that the traveler is a butterfly, who is left to protest that it is just an old picture. On another page, a character is seen consuming numbers and lamenting that they never seem to end. The final panel shows that he is in a pi (not pie) eating contest. That is subtle as well as transnational. Then there is McCoy’s version of a happy dog fetching a thrown ball: the dog’s thinking shows him promising to get the ball and lamenting that “humans are so clumsy.” And there is a sequence in which a Godzilla-like monster decides to do a “trust fall,” but there is no one to catch him, so he collapses backward and crushes a building. Also, there is a genie-paradox page, with a genie offering to grant the wishes of the person who rubs his lamp – who promptly says, “I wish you can’t grant wishes.” That is an unexpected variation on the old “I wish for more wishes” line. In fact, a great deal of Safely Endangered Comics is unexpected, and that is why McCoy’s work amuse across borders. His drawings are nothing special, but their simplicity of outline and careful use of detail to highlight various elements of each comic work well – and fit the Internet origin of the comics aptly, since the Internet is not known to reward subtlety of artistic expression. It sometimes does, however, reward subtlety of verbal expression, and that is an area in which McCoy’s work stands up well.
Norris’ Oh No has a far more limited palette and features even simpler drawing that borders on the nondescript. It is a set of variations on a single theme – many, many variations – and it is no surprise that the words Oh No have taken on something of a life of their own online. This is a comic that is all about disappointments – big ones, small ones, and every size in between. The featured character is barely a character at all: it is a pink blob of varying shape with dots for eyes, a line for a mouth, and no other features. And almost every three-panel comic ends with the same punch line: the blob (or sometimes other, equally blobbish characters) saying, “Oh no.” This sounds like a recipe for repetitiveness, and it is, but that does not mean the same thing as boredom. The key here is the many ways Norris uses the “Oh no” phrase and the many situations to which he applies it. Each strip has a title reflecting its particular disappointing situation. “Impossible” starts with the blob wanting to be successful. The second panel shows success at the top of a hill labeled “effort.” The third panel has the blob just standing there saying, “Oh no.” In “Experience,” the blob checks a diary after commenting, “They say to write from real experiences.” The diary, shown in the second panel, says “did nothing” on every day. The third panel has the blob saying, inevitably, “Oh no.” The “genie” variant here is called “Wish” and features a genie emerging from a lamp in the first panel; in the second, the blob wishes the world were a better place; and in the third there is a tombstone, showing that the blob is dead and buried – and saying, from underground, “Oh no.” That is darker humor than the norm in Oh No, but really, there is no specific “norm” here. Oh No is sometimes self-referential and sometimes Internet-referential. A strip called “Social Media” starts with a panel showing the blob smiling on a sunny beach, with the label “#carefree.”” The second panel starts to widen out to show where the picture has been cropped. The third panel is much wider, showing the pink blob surrounded and almost buried by big purple blobs labeled “worry.” The pink blob is, naturally, saying “Oh no,” and at the same time commenting on the way in which always-edited social-media posts paint a false picture of people (and blobs) and their world. In a similar vein, a trip called “Fad” starts with three orange blobs telling the pink blob, “We are into this new thing,” while each holds a rectangle labeled “Fad.” In the second panel, the pink blob decides to join in and reaches for a similar rectangle. But in the third panel, the three orange blobs are holding rectangles labeled “New Fad” and saying, “We are into something else now,” leaving the pink blob to remark, of course, “Oh no.” The over-simplification of Norris’ art often seems to reflect the over-simplification of the Internet world and, by extension, the world away from the Internet (yes, there is such a thing). It is precisely because the world online crosses so many boundaries, national and otherwise, that books such as Oh No and Safely Endangered Comics have the opportunity to reach out well beyond their points of origin and find kindred spirits, or kindred worriers, thousands of miles away.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 7. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 8. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 6. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $18.99.
Packed with surprising interpretations and filled with insights, the in-progress Beethoven cycle by Philippe Jordan and the Wiener Symphoniker, on the orchestra’s own label, is emerging as one of the most interesting of the innumerable Beethoven sequences of recent years. These live recordings practically crackle with enthusiasm and a sense of pulling the amazingly quiet audience into the sound world that Beethoven calls for and that Jordan and the orchestra evoke with consummate skill. Orchestras, conductor and audiences are all so familiar with Beethoven’s symphonies that a certain level of ennui tends to creep into performances and the listening experience alike: a comfort level with the music that goes so deep as to turn Beethoven almost into “background music,” not in the sense of Philip-Glass-style minimalism but in that of already knowing how things will sound long before the notes are played. Jordan, however, will have none of that. Certainly he has conducted this music many times, with many orchestras, including others just as high-quality as the Wiener Symphoniker. But in these performances, Jordan does not hesitate to mix expected elements of the performances – ones that the performers and audience alike will know are coming – with ones that will come as a surprise to listeners, if not necessarily to the musicians.
Thus, for example, Jordan turns the opening chords of Symphony No. 2 into a statement as emphatic as that brought by the opening chords of the “Eroica” – to which he clearly sees No. 2 as a gateway. This performance is exemplary in highlighting, for example, the ways in which the first movement’s introduction looks ahead musically, while the movement’s main and second themes represent more of a continuation of what Beethoven did in his Symphony No. 1. Jordan clearly marks No. 2 as a transitional work for the composer and, at the same time, a symphony that looks forward to Schubertian emotionalism in its slow movement even as it retains and expands Haydn’s penchant for surprising effects in its Scherzo. And the finale, played here both speedily and with intensity, clearly shows Beethoven striding into territory all his own – anticipating the “Eroica” to come. It is difficult to conduct any Beethoven symphony as if the later ones had not yet been written – and No. 2 is especially hard to manage on that basis. So Jordan finds ways to connect No. 2 neatly with its predecessor while hinting that something even newer and grander is to come, but without making it seem that Beethoven was already aware of what that “something” would be. No. 2 is paired with a triumphal reading of No. 7, a rendition that is less the apotheosis of the dance (as Wagner famously called it) than a symphony of wide contrasts, culminating in a whirlwind finale. Jordan’s reading here is meticulous in its attention to detail, notably in the first movement, where the very extended introduction (Beethoven’s longest) is given considerable heft, then followed by a Vivace in which Jordan has the orchestra handle the dotted rhythms with tremendous care and attentiveness. Jordan’s version of No. 7 is in fact all about rhythm: even the melodiousness of the Adagietto is heard within a context that is almost funereal, lacking the drama of the second movement of the “Eroica” but being cut, rhythmically, from much the same marchlike cloth. This is an unusual approach that makes this so-familiar movement sound fresh, and perhaps even a trifle odd. The third and fourth movements, both packed with surprises by the composer, get strong attention to dynamic changes and contrasts, with the finale seeming always on the verge of spinning out of control until Jordan shows that he knows (and Beethoven knew) exactly where everything is going. The result is an ebullient performance of an always-exhilarating symphony.
The CD featuring the “Pastoral” and still-underrated Symphony No. 8 is similarly thoughtful. In No. 6, Jordan is particularly cognizant of Beethoven’s statement that this symphony expresses feelings – it is not an exercise in musical scene-painting except in a small number of details, such as the bird calls at the end of the second movement. Again, Jordan’s attentiveness to detail pays dividends throughout the reading: here, for example, the distinctive sound of strings playing with mutes in the entire second movement – the only symphonic movement in which Beethoven muted the strings this way – creates a dreamlike flow that is perfectly in accord with the notion of a brookside reverie. The imitation of a crude peasant band emerges here without mocking tone, instead almost with fondness, before the storm sweeps everything away – and the finale is a true capstone in this performance, its inner tranquility and outer expressions of post-storm relief merging into a proto-Romantic sense of joyfulness and appreciation of the natural world into which Beethoven and Jordan immerse the audience. No. 6 is paired with No. 8 – the somewhat arbitrary choice of which symphonies to release on the same CD is not one of the better points of this series, in which Nos. 1 and 3 were offered together, as were Nos. 4 and 5. But the mixing of No. 6 with No. 8 turns out to produce some unexpectedly interesting juxtapositions. No. 8 is, in its own way, as unusual as No. 6 – a fact that is not often appreciated, but one of which Jordan seems quite aware. No. 8 is not really a “small” symphony and certainly not a delicate one: Beethoven uses the fff designation in No. 8 just as he does in No. 7, but nowhere earlier. No. 8 is a compressed work, with a great deal of material packed into compact form, and this is how Jordan handles the symphony. No. 8 is in the same key as No. 6 – Beethoven’s only home-key repetition in his symphonies – and both build to climactic finales, which in the case of No. 8 leads to an immensely extended coda despite the short length of the symphony as a whole. Jordan revels in the oddities of No. 8 in a way that shows the work not only as jovial but also as extremely clever, giving audiences a chance to experience it in a distinctly non-Haydnesque mode. All these Jordan performances have so much to recommend them that the occasional missteps only intermittently register: there are some unwarranted in-movement tempo changes here and there, occasional rushing of passages, and capricious decisions once in a while – such as the pause immediately before the very last note of No. 2. But if Jordan’s readings have quirks, they are not, on the whole, quirky: they are well-considered, very well played, and again and again are genuinely revelatory.
Robin Ticciati, born in 1983, is nine years Jordan’s junior and does not quite have Jordan’s wide-ranging conducting experience or repertoire. But what distinguishes Ticciati is that he is wholly unafraid to tackle pretty much anything without preconceptions and without being concerned about the traditional handling of a piece of music – or the traditional view of a composer. If Jordan’s Beethoven seems to spring from carefully considered and well-thought-out analysis of each symphony, Ticciati’s conducting sometimes seems tied to enthusiasm and a kind of carefree iconoclasm – which does not, however, result in reinterpretations for their own sake, but in ones that look at a piece of music in a way that differs from the usual. That is certainly the case with the new Linn Records release of Ticciati’s Bruckner Sixth Symphony, which is surely one of the most muscular readings this symphony has received on CD. Ticciati sees nothing cathedral-like or organ-like in Bruckner, at least in this symphony: he conducts at a very brisk pace, bringing the symphony in at about 51 minutes even though most conductors take 60 to 70 minutes to negotiate it. The conducting does seem fast at times, especially in the opening of the first movement, but it takes only a few minutes of listening to be caught up in Ticciati’s interpretation and captivated by it. It is not charming, exactly, and certainly not long-breathed or expansive; nor is it full in sound – which means, to put it positively, that it is not clotted, overly massive or thick. Indeed, this is a very Schubertian performance: Bruckner’s similarities to Schubert are not always evident in performances, but here Ticciati offers a Bruckner Sixth that is significantly shorter than Schubert’s “Great” symphony and has many of the same sensibilities and a considerable dose of similar melodiousness. Ticciati simply refuses to be troubled by the unusual elements of Bruckner’s Sixth, such as the basically tuneless Scherzo: he paces the movement nicely and simply lets it unfold with clarity and solid instrumental balance – the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is at its usual level of excellence here. This is Bruckner played with clarity, rather as shaped by Mario Venzago, the only other conductor to have played the Sixth at this pace in a recent recording. Venzago, however, who is 35 years Ticciati’s senior, produced a carefully considered performance with considerable intellectual underpinning. Ticciati’s reading sounds far more impetuous and, yes, youthful. This is the only Bruckner symphony in which the composer did not make a series of revisions, so everyone uses the same score except for some very minor elements. As a result, whatever differences exist between performances really reflect the predilections of the conductors, not often-arguable alterations within the music itself. So it is clear that Ticciati regards the Bruckner Sixth as a work that is strongly in line with Romantic ideals even though it is generally not deemed particularly “Brucknerian” and lacks numerous hallmarks of the composer’s style. This is Ticciati’s first recording of a Bruckner symphony, and it is impossible in light of the specific work he chose to know how he would handle others in the cycle. The one thing that does seem sure is that Ticciati would approach other Bruckner symphonies without hidebound preconceptions, just as he does the Sixth. Whether that rather freewheeling way of conducting Bruckner would work equally well in the other symphonies is a question whose answer will have to wait until Ticciati delves more deeply into this repertoire.
Peter Schickele: Spring Forward; Richard Danielpour: Clarinet Quintet; Aaron Jay Kernis: Perpetual Chaconne. David Shifrin, clarinet; Miró Quartet (Daniel Ching and William Fedkenheuer, violins; John Largess, viola; Joshua Gindele, cello); Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello); Jasper Quartet (J. Freivogel and Sae Chonabayashi, violins; Sam Quintal, viola; Rachel Henderson Freivogel, cello). Delos. $14.98.
Alyssa Morris: Where Do Children Come From?; Coastal Kaleidoscope; Collision Etudes; Motion. Alyssa Morris, oboe; Christina Haan, piano; Elizabeth Darling, flute; Andrea Vos-Rochefort, clarinet; Jessica Findley Yang, bassoon. MSR Classics. $12.95.
York Bowen: Sonata for Oboe and Pianoforte; Petr Eben: Oboe Sonata; Henri Dutilleux: Sonata for Oboe and Piano; Eugène Bozza: Sonata for Oboe and Piano; Francis Poulenc: Sonata for Oboe and Piano; Camille Saint-Saëns: Sonata for Oboe and Piano. Alex Klein, oboe; Phillip Bush, piano. Cedille. $16.
David Shifrin’s deeply felt and strong commitment to the new clarinet literature as well as more-classical clarinet works leads him again and again to unearth some gems of modern composition. If those gems are in the main semi-precious rather than truly valuable and brilliant, they are nevertheless often quite worthy of the time and attention that Shifrin lavishes on them, as he does on the three works for clarinet and string quartet – all world première recordings – on a new Delos CD. Peter Schickele’s Spring Forward (2014) is a pleasant, often bouncy work whose title indicates a somewhat seasonal interest but whose music simply moves along good-naturedly and for the most part with a tonal center. The five fairly short movements confirm Schickele as something of a miniaturist: each is nicely done on its own and well complemented by the others, although none is much of a standout and the work as a whole has more the feeling of a rather lighthearted suite than that of a closely integrated composition. Matters are considerably more serious in Richard Danielpour’s two-movement quintet (2015), which bears the title “The Last Jew in Hamadan.” The underlying topic is the Iranian city where the biblical queen Esther lived and where a Jewish community thrived for many years but has now very nearly disappeared. A far more dissonant work than Schickele’s, Danielpour’s quintet makes repeated forays into Jewish music as well as strongly felt emotional expression. The agitato indication for the first movement is very clearly reflected in the music, while the triste sounds of the second movement – which is almost twice the length of the first – are intended to reflect Danielpour’s sorrow at what has happened to the Jewish community of Hamadan, and to the city itself, since the Iranian revolution of 1979. There is a certain inevitability in the progress of the music, at times almost a sense of ostinato underlying the expressionism, and Danielpour often uses extremes of the clarinet’s range to underline the feelings he is trying to convey. The second movement’s length does tend to overbalance the work, with Danielpour making his point about the pervasive sorrow of Hamadan’s current circumstances quite clearly at the movement’s beginning and then belaboring it to a somewhat over-extended degree. Shifrin’s sensitive playing suits the music admirably, but does not overcome the spinning-out of what is essentially a single emotional expression. Aaron Jay Kernis’ Perpetual Chaconne (2012) is a work of a very different sort: an extended single-movement piece of “pure” rather than descriptive music that opens in quiet, rather lyrical sadness and contrasts that feeling with considerably more-anguished and harsher material as the work progresses. Variations and combinations of themes are evident in the structure, and the piece is certainly well-made, but it gives the impression of trying hard to show emotional progress while not being really very descriptive of it. There is something a touch too intellectual in Kernis’ work: it does not fully repay the effort needed to absorb its structure and progress, and lacks the emotional satisfaction that the best parts of Danielpour’s piece convey. Here too, however, Shifrin offers the same sort of highly committed, first-rate playing that he brings to all the music on this disc; and in all three works, he receives sensitively played backup and cooperation from the musicians who make up three separate string quartets.
Like Shifrin’s clarinet journeys, those that Alissa Morris makes via oboe have both outward and inward elements; like Shifrin’s explorations, Morris’ are offered as world première recordings of 21st-century works; but while Shifrin offers interpretations of music by three contemporary composers, Morris presents her own, very personal views of the subject matter with which she deals musically. As both composer and performer on a new MSR Classics release, Morris has ample opportunity to display highly skillful playing in the service of music that, if sometimes over-clever, is in the main imaginative and adeptly put together. The CD opens with Where Do Children Come From? (2013) and offers four answers of increasing seriousness to the title question. “The Circus” is a romp that mixes music of the big top with bits of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Then “Outer Space” presents suitably (if rather clichéd) impressions of otherworldliness, along with material best described as flighty. “A Higher Place” answers the title question with quieter and more-lyrical material that, however, is rather obvious in its reaching for something approaching sublimity. Finally, “Grace” is, well, graceful, less forthrightly expressive than “A Higher Place” and better as a result, implying rather than insisting on its answer. The interplay between Morris and pianist Christina Haan is also more effective in this final movement than elsewhere in the work. Scene painting is the point of Coastal Kaleidoscope (2013) as well, with the three movements – “Waves,” “Seals,” and “Spring Tide” – being suitably evocative of what their titles suggest. In this work, Morris and Haan are joined by Elizabeth Darling on flute, and the result is a pleasant blending of two woodwind sounds that are enjoyable to hear together even when the scene-painting in which they participate is on the obvious side. The bouncy, jazz-infused “Seals” is the most attractive movement here. There is also plenty of bounce in the six Collision Etudes (2017), which really are etudes, showcasing a wide variety of oboe techniques in pieces that are nominally descriptive of or responsive to scenes painted by five women artists: Mary Cassatt, Joan Mitchell, Georgia O’Keeffe (twice), Alma Thomas, and Margarete Bagshaw. These pieces will likely be of considerable interest to Morris’ fellow oboists, but less so to a general audience: their focus really is on effective performance approaches rather than on strong emotional communication. The final work on this CD, Motion (2010), is for woodwind quartet (oboe/flute/clarinet/bassoon) and tries to portray four forms of movement: “Bike Ride,” “Stretch,” “Tip Toe,” and “Strut.” Like the fanciful titles to other works by Morris, these four are somewhat indicative of how the music sounds, but only somewhat. The role of the prominent bassoon in “Bike Ride,” for example, is a bit hard to discern. But the blending of instruments – in all four movements – is nicely handled, and there is a pleasant undercurrent of amusement throughout the work (most strongly in “Tip Toe”). All the pieces here have their pleasures – mostly small ones, to be sure, but plenty of them, resulting in a very enjoyable foray into some little-known chamber music for oboe.
Stepping back just a few years, to the 20th century rather than the 21st, dramatically changes the oboe’s role and the nature of the music written for it. The six works on a new Cedille CD featuring Alex Klein with pianist Phillip Bush are one and all larger-scale and more ambitious than anything on the Morris disc. This is not a matter of the works’ length but of their seriousness of intent and quality of compositional execution – and performance as well. The Saint-Saëns sonata, the shortest work here at 10-and-a-half minutes, will be a revelation to anyone unfamiliar with it: bright and outgoing, thoroughly Romantic in temperament, it showcases the emotionally communicative ability of the oboe while partnering it with piano in a highly skillful manner. It is, to put it plainly, simply beautiful music. The sonata by Dutilleux, barely longer than that by Saint-Saëns, is not quite at the same level, but its emotional range is actually wider: it opens with a very serious Grave movement before proceeding to a lighthearted and inventive Scherzo and a strongly determined conclusion. But even Dutilleux’ work, although scarcely shallow, is less deep than Poulenc’s, a genuinely philosophical and inward-looking piece whose considerable thoughtfulness climaxes in a third, final movement with the unusual title “Déploration” (that is, “Lamentation”) and a pervasive sense of meditative, if somewhat dour, calm. These three French works are, in and of themselves, sufficient reason to own this exceptionally well-played and well-thought-out disc. The remaining pieces, though, are of lesser quality and interest, although each has its own interesting elements and is worth an occasional hearing. York Bowen’s sonata is gracious and pleasant and lies well on the oboe. It is not music of great consequence, but its sound is quite pleasing and its construction admirably well-planned and well-executed. The sonata by Petr Eben (1929-2007) gives the piano a significant role and features a particularly lyrical central movement, although the work as a whole never seems to go anywhere in particular. And the sonata by Eugène Bozza (1905-1991) – the only four-movement work here, all the others being in three – is most noteworthy for being possessed of a wistful, slightly melancholy air that Klein brings out with particular skill. This sensibility pervades even many of the faster parts of the music, placing the sonata in a somewhat monochromatic landscape and lending it a less-engaging emotional tone than will be found in several of the other pieces here. But even though the musical selections on this disc are uneven in their impact, they are all quite interesting to hear in Klein’s wonderfully adept interpretations and in his compellingly effective partnership with Bush.
May 02, 2019
Kahlo’s Koalas: 1, 2, 3, Count Art with Me. By Grace Helmer. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.
Baby Love. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.
I Love My Llamacorn. By Danielle McLean. Illustrated by Prisca Le Tandé. Random House. $9.99.
Usually small, usually square, always limited in length and usually limited in what they try to communicate, board books are an excellent introduction to the world of reading for the youngest children, nearly from birth up to perhaps age four. Every once in a while, though, a board book comes along that pushes past the typical limits of the format and ends up giving very young children far more information than parents have any right to expect from these generally very simple volumes. A particularly fine example is Kahlo’s Koalas, which basically requires parents to study or re-study a variety of famous artists before letting their little ones engage with Grace Helmer’s illustrations. Helmer does something truly amazing here: she turns the usual one-to-10 counting book into a presentation of 10 different styles of art, distilling each artist’s signature approach into broad-brush (literally broad-brush) illustrations to go with every number. The book’s title refers to the number two, for example, and the illustration – shown in somewhat different form from the way it appears on the book’s cover – is of two koalas wearing bright, Kahlo-esque, multicolored floral caps. The number one is a Cubist, dual-perspective “Picasso panda,” the number three features “Lichtenstein llamas” against a background of evenly spaced red dots on white, and so on. Every page is a wonderful encapsulation of a specific artist’s approach. The number seven shows “Van Gogh geckos,” all of them primarily yellow and swirling in circular fashion against a “Starry Night” background that is mostly a rich blue. The number eight is “Seurat sloths,” and a very pointillist portrayal it is. The other artists to whom Helmer pays tribute are Matisse (four multicolored cutout-like silhouettes of monkeys), Pollock (five paint-spattered poodles), Kandinsky (six abstract line drawings of kangaroos), Warhol (nine different views of warthogs on a 3 x 3 grid, eight from the front and one from the rear), and Monet (10 delightfully colored and posed mice amid lily pads). The final two pages of this marvelous board book offer a “Gallery of Artists,” giving the dates of each one mentioned and some basic information on their styles. At a minimum, parents should familiarize themselves with these very short biographical sketches so as to be able to guide their young children’s enjoyment of this very special book. Ideally, families will have art books on hand so slightly-older-than-the-very-youngest children who especially like one or another of these artists can see their actual work and begin what will hopefully turn into a lifelong love of art and culture.
Sandra Magsamen’s board books hew more closely to the minimal-communication model than does Kahlo’s Koalas, but Magsamen is an expert at giving families more than just a very simple set of sentences on a very straightforward topic. Several works by Magsamen are called “Heart-Felt Books,” because the messages they convey are heartfelt and their covers incorporate actual felt in some form. That form, in the case of Baby Love, is in fact a heart, which functions as an overlay of a circular mirror that reflects through all the pages from the book’s end to its front cover. There are not many pages here, only 10, and not much message beyond love, either. But for the very youngest children, that will be plenty. Magsamen uses gentle humor here, as in her other board books, to interest parents and little ones alike. She first asks what the mommy bunny says to her baby, and then answers her own question, “You’re some bunny special!” Next is the elephant mommy, who tells her baby, “I love you a ton!” Then comes a cat, then a dog, and finally the human mom’s question, “What do I say to you?” The answer, of course, is “I love you!” But there is more to the book than this. That built-in mirror lets a child look into every page and see himself or herself “in costume,” as it were – that is, looking like a baby bunny, elephant, cat or dog. The words themselves draw young children in: some are in thin letters, some in thick ones, some white, some multicolored. And there are prettily drawn hearts of all sizes and colors sprinkled around the pages, picking up on the “Heart-Felt Books” theme and the big red heart that appears around the central mirror cut-through on the book’s cover. There is not a great deal of information communicated in Baby Love, but what is put across is perhaps the most important information a young child can be given – and Magsamen gives it with her usual heaping helping of joy.
There is a cut-through feature as well in I Love My Llamacorn, and here too a heart is involved, but what goes beyond standard board-book design in this case is the way the cut-through is used. It looks, on the cover, like a series of ever-smaller hearts in multiple colors: dark blue, lighter blue, pink, red, yellow and green. Each of those colors then becomes the primary outline-of-heart color on the inside pages, so the hearts get smaller as the book progresses, while the delightful Prisca Le Tandé illustrations take up more and more of the page space. Danielle McLean’s concept here is also an above-and-beyond-the-usual one: the magical animal is neither a llama nor a unicorn but a blend of both, with a llama’s shape and furry coat, a unicorn’s rainbow-colored horn and tail, and even a rainbow-colored blanket on its back. It is just too cute for words – not that McLean lacks those: “You leap across the RAINBOW sky/ and dance on clouds that float up high.” And, “When you come near, birds start to sing/ because of all the JOY you bring.” And so forth. The llamacorn, a less stately beast than unicorns usually seem to be, spends most of its time cavorting with a group of suitably upbeat fellow creatures, including a saxophone-playing bunny, a guitar-strumming fox, and birds and butterflies and even a turtle that perches on the llamacorn’s head. All the typical pleasures of books for very young children are here: happily buzzing bees, a smiling sun, a crescent moon holding out its arms (yes, it has arms) for a hug, and more. Interestingly, though, in another of its departures from standard board-book design, I Love My Llamacorn is the size and shape of a regular book – that is, taller than it is wide – instead of being square, as board books usually are. As a delightful combination of expected and unexpected elements, I Love My Llamacorn is sure to be plenty of fun both for the youngest children and for adults fortunate enough to have a chance to read the book to them.