July 18, 2019

(++++) HIGHLY UNLIKELY


Nugget & Fang Go to School. By Tammi Sauer. Illustrations by Michael Slack. Clarion. $17.99.

Teeny Tiny Ghost. By Rachel Matson. Illustrated by Joey Chou. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

     The mismatched-friends notion is a very common one in books for young readers, designed to teach acceptance of those who “not like us” in some way and also intended to provide plenty of opportunities for fun because the buddies are so different. Tammi Sauer and Michael Slack take this whole notion to extremes – making it extremely amusing – by pairing Nugget, a tiny minnow, with Fang, a huge shark. The whole concept is so outlandish that, at the start of Nugget & Fang Go to School, Sauer feels obliged to write, “They were best friends. Really.” Yes, with italicized emphasis.

     Fang’s super-toothy grin is much in evidence here, scaring the daylights out of pretty much everyone even though Nugget assures the other fish that Fang is, of all things, a vegetarian. “Most fish never stuck around long enough to find out for sure,” writes Sauer, and a look at Slack’s illustrations of Fang is more than enough to show why. But Nugget & Fang Go to School is not about how the two unlikely friends got together – that was in the previous book, which introduced them. Instead, Sauer and Slack here offer a fairly straightforward school-worries story that is rendered funny and silly by the way the characters go through it.

     It seems that Nugget and the other “mini minnows,” which really like Fang a lot because he “once saved them from being the catch of the day,” want him to go to school with them. Fang is suitably honored – he even sheds a tear at the prospect – but then he starts thinking that school might be too tough for him, “or weird…or scary.” The fun here comes from the nature of Fang’s worries: he tells Nugget that he might lose a tooth, or 20; or get algae in his eye; or “yawn and accidentally swallow someone.” These are scarcely the everyday concerns of the young readers who are the target of Nugget & Fang Go to School, but Sauer and Slack make Fang’s fears relatable even as they show Nugget leading him by the fin into school.

     Fang doesn’t stop worrying. For instance, he thinks the teacher is crabby – no surprise, really, since she is a crab. And Fang just can’t get the hang of reading or math or science: Slack shows the many always-amusing ways he messes things up. Nugget keeps promising Fang that he’ll “be fine,” but Fang is just as mixed-up and nervous and unsure of himself as…well, as a human child might be when dealing with school anxiety, which of course is the point here.

     Naturally, things eventually get better – but not before Fang has trouble with music (trying to play the bagpipes, of all things) and feels “just plain terrible” about “the Brief History of Minnows,” which includes a chart that shows a variety of extinct sharks with minnows in their bellies (an especially funny touch). And then, worst of all, school ends with “share time,” and Fang has nothing at all to share and is far too embarrassed even to consider talking to the whole class. The illustration of a super-nervous Fang cowering in front of all the tiny fish and the very small crab teacher, as everyone looks at him expectantly, is a perfect reflection of the way many human children feel about the prospect of getting up in front of an audience and saying something about themselves. So how do Sauer and Slack turn the day around for Fang – and their human audience? Well, Fang looks at Nugget, who is holding the “Fang: Our Hero” lunchbox that he brought along to school that morning, and Fang realizes that what he has to share is the fact that he has “the best friend in the whole underwater world!” And he announces that in huge letters and with his very toothy mouth so wide open that if he really were a ferocious shark – well, there is no need to go there, since Fang’s declaration is such a big hit that the teacher gives him a gold star (that is, a gold starfish: a nice touch). And then Sauer reaffirms, at the very end of the book, that these very unlikely buddies are, really truly are, best friends. Really.

     The unlikely-friends notion knows no season: Nugget & Fang Go to School is a start-of-the-school-year book, and Teeny Tiny Ghost is, unsurprisingly, for Halloween. But in Rachel Matson’s book as in Sauer’s, the point is to bring together characters who are very unlike each other but who decide that their differences are no barrier to friendship. Somewhat echoing the old fairy tale of the teeny-tiny woman who ill-advisedly takes a teeny-tiny bone from a churchyard to make teeny-tiny soup for her teeny-tiny supper – but without the slightest hint of anything gruesome or frightening – Matson’s text emphasizes the teeny-tininess of both characters in this board book: the ghost in a barn and a mouse that lives there, too. Joey Chou’s pleasantly colored illustrations ensure that the text will not upset even the littlest children. This is about as strong as anything gets: “In the teeny tiny attic/ Of the teeny tiny barn/ The teeny tiny ghost/ Tried her best to cause alarm.” Unfortunately for the would-be-scary spirit, “The teeny tiny ghost had just/ A teeny tiny shriek,” which is not much good for scaring anyone or anything. But this little ghost – in addition to being quite adorable – is determined to create some sort of scare, and eventually manages “a teeny tiny: boo.” And sure enough, as a result, “The teeny tiny mouse/ Gave a teeny tiny yelp.” And the mouse jumps, startled, into the air. But then mouse and ghost get a good look at each other and have “a teeny tiny laugh” together, as Chou shows the hearts of friendship above both their heads. And so the book concludes with the two becoming best friends and playing together from then on, with nobody trying to scare anybody else. As a sweet Halloween story for the very youngest children, Teeny Tiny Ghost works very well indeed; and as an introduction to innumerable books for slightly older children, in which the focus is also on friendships that arise between odd couples, the book can claim a thoroughly non-seasonal place in family libraries.

(++++) EXPRESSIVE BREADTH


Dvořák, Elgar and Schumann: Cello Concertos; Strauss: Don Quixote. Kim Cook, cello; St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arkady Shteinlucht (Elgar, Schumann) and Gerardo Edelstein (Strauss); Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gerardo Edelstein (Dvořák). MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).

Richard Danielpour: Talking to Aphrodite; Symphony for Strings; Kaddish for Violin and Strings. Sarah Shafer, soprano; Maxim Semonov, French horn; Evgeny Pravilov, violin; Russian String Orchestra conducted by Misha Rachlevsky. Naxos. $12.99.

Martinů: Memorial to Lidice; Penderecki: Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima; Karel Husa: Music for Prague 1968; Philip Koplow: For the Peace of Cities; How Sweet the Sound. Ravello. $14.99.

     Performances of great warmth and sensitivity make a well-priced MSR Classics two-CD set featuring cellist Kim Cook into an almost unalloyed pleasure. The works of Dvořák, Elgar, and Richard Strauss spring, in some ways, from similar sensibilities, and Schumann’s Cello Concerto can be seen to an extent as a precursor of the others not just temporally but also in terms of the relationship it establishes between cello and orchestra. Yet these pieces, all of them technically trenchant and emotionally exploratory, require cellist and conductor to handle the balance between solo and ensemble in different ways and to use the wide range and mellow tone of the cello to elicit differing responses in an audience. These recordings come from very different times and places – the Dvořák dates to 2001 in the Czech Republic, the three others to 2016 in Russia – but Cook’s sumptuous tone, adept fingering and unending display of sonic beauty are the same throughout. The Schumann concerto (written in 1850, the year after he created five short pieces for cello and piano) is a work of considerable intimacy, with almost chamber-music-like handling of the cello among the larger ensemble in its slow movement. Cook’s careful pacing and willingness to share the spotlight with the orchestra make this a winning performance. The Dvořák is altogether grander in scale and is structured uniquely: no composer before or since has created a cello concerto that sounds at all like this one. It was Dvořák’s last solo concerto, dating to 1894-95. And it shares with Schumann’s work sections of intimacy (especially between cello and winds) that, in the case of the Dvořák, stand in stark contrast to the work’s impressive full-orchestra segments. The highly unusual finale, a rondo that is distinctly marchlike, finds its progress interrupted for an extended and very beautiful slower section in which Cook’s lovely lyricism is on full display – after which the big orchestral wrapup sounds forth to fine effect. The orchestra-solo balance is also crucial and also well-handled in Don Quixote (1897), in which Cook (representing the mad would-be knight-errant) shares the spotlight with violist Anna Vainschtein (playing the main instrument representing down-to-earth Sancho Panza). Cook and Vainschtein communicate their respective roles quite well, and hearing them in the context of Strauss’ lush orchestration is a particular pleasure. But here as elsewhere in this release, it is often the quieter rather than the more-monumental sections that stay with a listener: Don Quixote’s return to a clear mind just before death, always a touching moment, is especially well-done here. And the satire-plus-nostalgia of Strauss seemingly paves the way for the mood of Elgar’s concerto (1919: his last major work). This is dark and often distressing music, especially so in the first two movements, and it is only with the consolatory Adagio that Elgar conveys a feeling that, despite the horrors of the recently ended Great War, it is worth going on with life. That feeling is underlined in the finale, which is certainly not celebratory but which does produce a feeling of encouragement regarding the future. This is a difficult and subtle piece, and the way Cook works through its many moods is a measure of her very considerable skill. She works equally well with the two orchestras and two conductors here – although the St. Petersburg ensemble is a cut or two above the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic. The presentation of the recording, though, has more rough spots than are usual in MSR Classics releases. Its back cover lists both orchestras as playing the Dvořák and omits saying which plays the Strauss, and credits are given for tracks 1-16 on the first CD even though the disc actually has 17 tracks. The information is correct in the included booklet, but this sloppiness contrasts starkly with the care and concern that Cook brings to all the music here – and is readily enough forgivable in light of the quality of the performances.

     Nothing on a new Naxos CD of the music of Richard Danielpour (born 1956) is even close to being as sumptuous as the cello-focused works played by Cook, but Danielpour has one important thing in common with the composers who get Cook’s attentive playing: he genuinely wants to communicate with an audience. This is by no means the case for all contemporary composers, and Danielpour deserves considerable credit for producing music that, even when not wholly engaging, nearly always shows an effort to reach out to listeners. The three works on this new CD express themselves in different ways – in two cases through the use of soloists, in one just through a small string orchestra (fewer than 20 players). Talking to Aphrodite is the most recent piece here, dating to 2016, and the most interestingly scored, being for soprano, solo French horn and chamber orchestra. The text consists of poems by Erica Jong – kudos to Naxos for including them in the booklet as well as making them available online – in which a woman who has given up on life decides, after a dream in which she meets the goddess Aphrodite, not to surrender to death after all. The dreamer does not exactly start out as a fan of the goddess of love: “My lady, Aphrodite, Venus,/ fairest of goddesses,/ you cover the world/ with your mischief,/ making populations burgeon/ beyond our poor earth’s power/ to bear.” But by the end of the song cycle, she sees Aphrodite – and herself – in a different way: “She is the goddess for whom/ the earth continues to spin –/ in her turning/ all endings end/ and all beginnings/ begin.” The poetry is on the facile side and the introspection is nothing special – there is no explanation of what has brought the dreamer so low, so it is difficult to empathize with her. But Danielpour, moving through music that mostly forces both the soprano and the horn player to the extremes of their range, eventually allows both to achieve something approaching a state of grace, or at least much-reduced anxiety. Sarah Shafer enunciates very well and sings the words feelingly, and is very well partnered by Maxim Semyonov – who in turn gets fine backing from the Russian String Orchestra under Misha Rachlevsky. The mood of Talking to Aphrodite continues in the Symphony for Strings, which bears the title “…For Love Is Strong as Death” and which is in origin a 2014 transcription of Danielpour’s 2009 String Quartet No. 6. Both this version and the original are much concerned with saying goodbye, not only to individuals and circumstances but also to life itself – hence the connection with the Aphrodite texts. But the almost unrelentingly dark mood of the Symphony for Strings becomes wearing, and it is only in the central Presto giocoso, a mere seven-minute movement in a three-movement, 34-minute piece, that Danielpour conveys any sense of value to going on (and even this movement, although fleet in pacing, is scarcely bright). To complete the mood of what is on the whole a dark and gloomy disc, there is Kaddish, referring to the Jewish prayer for the dead. This is heard in a 2011 version for violin (Evgeny Pravilov) and string orchestra, adapted by Danielpour from its original appearance in his Sextet for Strings. The whole score is supposed to encourage contemplation of death and life and, eventually, eternal peace; but it takes quite some time to attain what peacefulness it possesses, and many listeners will likely find this nearly-80-minute-long CD quite difficult to listen to straight through. Of course, the three pieces here, all being given world première recordings, were not written to be played back-to-back, and do not much benefit from being heard that way. Listeners who can tune into Danielpour’s earnest desire to bring them meaning through distinctly modern but eminently listenable music will give this release a (++++) rating, although its thematically dour outlook and somewhat over-extended handling of the material will make it a (+++) CD for others.

     The mood is no less dark – indeed, in many ways it is darker – on a new (+++) Ravello CD that intends, like the Danielpour recording, to provide uplift, but that succeeds mainly in showcasing just how many awful things have happened to just how many people over just how many years. The actual arrangement of the CD is almost completely reverse chronological, with a focus on the two works by Philip Koplow (1943-2018). But the effectiveness of the music and of the disc’s overall theme is clearer if the CD is heard in pretty much the reverse of the order in which it is presented. That means starting with Martinů’s Memorial to Lidice (1943), offered in a splendid 2005 recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach. The orchestra’s exceptionally warm sound, its first-rate brass, its beautifully massed strings, combine to make this memorial for the victims of the wartime massacre at Lidice, Czechoslovakia, in 1942, a deeply moving experience. Penderecki’s still-terrifying Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), heard in a 1998 performance by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit, makes it impossible to forget that the war-ending nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was, even if deemed necessary and even if it prevented far greater casualties anticipated under other scenarios, a human tragedy of monumental scope. Next chronologically is Music for Prague 1968 by Karel Husa (1921-2016), a four-movement suite written in the same year that the Soviet Union crushed an uprising against its domination – a rebellion still commemorated as the Prague Spring, but one whose wintry memory is kept very much alive by Husa’s music. This is a very fine 2008 performance by the Rutgers Wind Ensemble under William Berz. And then, after hearing these commemorations of terror and tragedy, it makes sense to listen to Koplow’s two pieces at the start of the CD. For the Peace of Cities (1998), heard in a 1999 performance by the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra under Paul Nadler, features violinists Jorja Fleezanis and James Braid. It commemorates the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995 that ended the Bosnian War, and it has more lyrical and even pastoral elements than do the works of Martinů, Penderecki and Husa – yet there is plentiful dissonance here, and the brass fanfares and other triumphal elements seem to hint at the fact that the Dayton Accord was, and to some extent remains, controversial. Koplow’s other work here is How Sweet the Sound, heard in its 2001 world première performance by the Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul John Stanbery. This is an interestingly conceived work, based on the hymn “Amazing Grace” and featuring a number of variations on that music, each in a different key. The idea is to indicate musically that grace, and by extension peace, can be found in all keys – that is, in all circumstances, by all people. The message of hope and uplift is a welcome contrast to just about everything else on a CD that is otherwise downbeat and at times out-and-out depressing. How Sweet the Sound does not actually communicate its intended meaning particularly well, but in this context of memories of horror and turmoil, it is welcome – and is best heard by listeners as the last of these pieces rather than in its placement second on the disc.

(+++) SOUND MIXTURES


Moto Quarto: Chamber Music by David Nisbet Stewart, Emma-Ruth Richards, Joanne D. Carey, Allyson B. Wells, L. Peter Deutsch, Christopher Brakel, Clare Shore, Keith Kramer, and Mathew Fuerst. Trio Casals (Sylvia Ahramjian, violin; Ovidiu Marinescu, cello; Anna Kislitsyna, piano). Navona. $14.99.

Resonating Colours 5: Hong Kong Composers’ Guild—Music of Wong Hok-yeung Alfred, Chan Chin-ting, Lee Kar-tai Phoebus, Chen Yeung-ping, Ng Chun-hoi Daniel, Au Tin-yung Alex, and Wong Chun-wai. Navona. $14.99.

McCormick Percussion Group: Soli for Tuba, Zheng, Horn, with Percussion by Tyler Kline, Chihchun Chi-Sun Lee, Michael Standard, and Matthew Kennedy. McCormick Percussion Group (Robert McCormick, director; Joseph Alvarez, tuba; Haiqiong Deng, zheng, Jay Hunsberger, tuba; Eric Hawkins, horn). Ravello. $14.99.

     The sound worlds of contemporary composers are as often expressed through new uses of traditional instruments as they are through use of non-traditional ensembles or a mixture of material from different cultures. Anthology discs make the differing approaches of various composers abundantly clear. The nine works by nine composers that are played by Trio Casals on a new Navona CD all use the instruments of a traditional piano trio, but each composer handles them – singly or in combination – in a different way. Three for Three by David Nisbet Stewart is a three-movement, three-instrument work that sounds a bit like a throwback to the mid-20th century, or a tribute to the composers who flourished then. It is acerbic rather than melodic and makes its points clearly, cleanly and not at inordinate length: the whole piece lasts just 10 minutes. Dark Radiance for Solo Cello by Emma-Ruth Richards is indeed dark, even dismal in sound, spinning out long lines alternating with abrupt chords or sounds in the extremes of the instrument’s range. Running six minutes, it matches Joanne D. Carey’s Piano Trio No. 2 in length, but Carey’s single-movement work is more varied structurally, not only because it features the sound of three instruments but also because Carey changes moods and tempos repeatedly and unexpectedly throughout. Heard next on the CD is Since Then by Allyson B. Wells, a more emotive work than those earlier on the disc and one that spins out the violin and cello lines to good effect. Sunset at Montélimar by L. Peter Deutsch, which at four minutes is just half the length of Wells’ piece, is even more emotionally expressive and sounds like a distinct revisiting of Romanticism and Impressionism – which, in its placement on this CD, gives it the feeling of a pause or interlude. Poem for Violoncello Solo by Christopher Brakel returns to a more-overtly-contemporary musical language, with thematic snippets here and there and abrupt contrasts of volume and mood. The two movements of Day Tripping by Clare Shore, “Peace at Dawn” and “Juniper Run,” are intended to reflect kayak paddling on two rivers. The water sounds come through clearly, with rather generic “reaction” music – now percussive, now lyrical – complementing them. Suspension of Disbelief by Keith Kramer is a journey of a different sort, into materials from Eastern music – common enough travel for today’s composers, here handled in the kind of Western contemporary context that involves stops and starts and unexpected silences. The CD concludes with Mathew Fuerst’s Totentanz, whose title is either wry or ironic: rather than a mournful dance of death, it is a rather upbeat (if rhythmically irregular) sonic mixture in which the piano’s percussive elements play a large part and the “trickling” sounds midway through could almost be those of one of Shore’s watery journeys. There is a fair amount in Fuerst’s work that is eerie and some material that is quite dissonant, plus the obligatory piano-pounding chord that is followed by exceptionally quiet string passages – just a few of the many effects that Trio Casals brings out with considerable skill here and throughout the CD.

     The mixture of Eastern and Western material in contemporary classical music tends to be thought of, at least in the West, as involving Western composers adopting Eastern scales and rhythms or including Eastern thematic elements in traditional Western forms. But as members of the Hong Kong Composers’ Guild show clearly on a Navona CD called Resonating Colours 5, the East may adopt Western elements just as skillfully and seamlessly as the West adopts Eastern ones; indeed, the boundaries of East and West have become blurred in our highly interconnected world. The nine works on this disc, by seven composers, all use Western instruments, and generally in traditional ways: there are two pieces for solo violin; one for solo piano; one for cello and piano; one for violin, clarinet and cello; one for string quartet; and one for orchestra. The remaining two works are slightly more unusual in instrumentation: one is for two guitars and the other, the most unusual of all, is for contrabass quintet. The oldest work here is not very old at all: it is November Winds, a string quartet by Ng Chun-hoi Daniel, and dates to 1991. A short, single-movement work, it is as dissonant and athematic as would be expected in modern music, with wind sounds more implied than duplicated. All the other music here dates to the 21st century. Night Poem for cello and piano (2001), by Wong Hok-yeung Alfred, is, harmonically and emotionally, reminiscent of earlier music, its expressiveness clearly presented. The two solo-violin pieces here, both by Chan Chin-ting, are Cross-Currents (2015) and Postcards (2017), the first of them a kind of étude pushing the violin to its tonal limits, the second a series of miniature declamations that also have the flavor of studies but spend more time exploring the instrument’s expressive capabilities. Pyrus Flower in Rain (2011), by Lee Kar-tai Phoebus, is for solo piano, using the instrument in minimalist mode to produce a slow-paced, drifting quality. Appearing next on the disc is the work for contrabass quintet, Chen Yeung-ping’s Stretch of Light (2013-15), which has the most exotic sound of anything on the CD despite its use of well-known Western instruments. Of course, a quintet of basses is scarcely a common feature in recitals, but the sound here is mostly quite far from the massed heaviness of which these instruments are capable: the music mixes the upper reaches of the basses with their lower ones in intriguing ways, and the linear-vs.-chordal construction is interesting as well. The sound ends up being rather monochromatic, however, and the piece feels longer than its 11 minutes – but its experimental nature is apparent throughout. Ng Chun-hoi Daniel’s Prelude II (Wuxing Interaction) dates to 2013 and is the work on the CD for two guitars. Unlike the composer’s two-decades-earlier string quartet, this piece is unashamedly tonal and – despite its use of percussive techniques such as tapping on the guitar body – is essentially melodic, interrelating the two instruments to good effect. Heard next is Dyeing (2017) for violin, clarinet and cello, by Au Tin-yung Alex. An attempt to replicate in music the process by which dyes change fabric colors, it mixes the aural qualities of the three instruments in ways that do not really blend particularly well, but that do draw attention to the differing sounds of which each participant is capable. The final work on the disc is the one for orchestra: Clouds in Twilight (2015) by Wong Chun-wai. This is almost pure Impressionism, a slow-paced work building bit by bit from a decidedly crepuscular-feeling opening into use of the full orchestra, both massed and in sections, expressively capturing the feeling of the piece’s title. Like anthology discs in general, this one is a mixed bag, in which different listeners will gravitate to different pieces and few will likely embrace all the music equally. However, everything here is well-performed, in some cases by the composers themselves, and the CD is an effective demonstration of the cross-pollination of Eastern and Western influences at a time when the world seems, musically if not politically, to be closer than ever before.

     The use of traditionally Eastern instruments within traditional Western ensembles is particularly clear on a new Ravello CD featuring the McCormick Percussion Group, one of whose members plays the zheng. That is a Chinese zither known for some 2,500 years, but all the music here is quite recent, with two of the five works on the disc – both by Chihchun Chi-sun Lee – featuring the zheng prominently. Double Concerto for Tuba, Zheng and Percussion Orchestra (2015) moves from a first movement whose most salient element is gong-like sounds, to a second in which tuba and zheng are more prominently featured and contrasted, to a third in which percussive effects come not only from the percussion complement itself but also from the solo instruments. A sort of oom-pah humor in the finale is a welcome change from the usual ultra-seriousness of contemporary music. Lee’s other work here, Zusammenflusses (Confluence), dates to 2013, and it also shows the composer focusing on ways in which disparate sounds complement and contrast with each other. Here that means use of the vibraphone and cymbal playing with, and sometimes against, the zheng. The sounds themselves are the attraction here: the piece does not really go anywhere, but if it is static, at least it is stationary in an interesting place. Also on the CD is Loam, a 2017 concerto for tuba and percussion ensemble by Tyler Kline. This is a work that is intended to explore aspects of soil and tilling but that goes on much too long (half an hour) and with only intermittently involving use of the solo instrument: there is a pervasive pomposity about this four-movement piece that does not fit well with what is essentially a modest (if far-reaching) topic. Michael Standard’s Stamina (2018) is also a concerto, a three-movement one for horn and percussion quartet, but here at the modest and more-suitable length of 10 minutes. The movement titles are “Fracture,” “Rehabilitation,” and “Capacity,” and the musical structure is standard avant-garde stuff – the first movement breaks things apart, the second uses glissandos to pull elements together, and the third (which lasts just one minute) finally allows some aural progress, albeit in a strictly atonal and non-rhythmic sense. The sounds emanating from the instruments are of some interest even though the work as a whole is underwhelming. There is yet one other concerto on the CD, In Pursuit of Ghosts (2018) for tuba, percussion sextet, and piano, by Matthew Kennedy. Commissioned by and written for the McCormick Percussion Group – which plays it, and everything here, with considerable finesse and an impressive blend of individualism and ensemble – Kennedy’s work intends to reflect the journey through life and what is preserved or lost over time. Whether the philosophical framework comes through in the music is very much a matter of opinion, and the movement titles (“Heartland,” “Cat’s Cradle,” “Spirits”) help, at most, only a bit. As with any autobiographical or semi-autobiographical piece of music, what matters is whether the material connects as music with an audience that filters it through its own background and experiences. Kennedy is at least middlingly successful in making connections with listeners; for example, the mostly quiet and dour second movement makes an apt contrast with the brighter focus of the finale, although here too a quiet middle section brings with it a feeling of stasis. Like the other works on this CD, Kennedy’s has considerable interest for the sheer sound of the instruments performing it, even if – also as with the other pieces here – it is not always clear in what way that sound is at the service of the intended extramusical communication.

July 11, 2019

(++++) HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT


Look Again: Secrets of Animal Camouflage. By Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

     There is a constant arms race within the animal kingdom, in which an adaptation that protects prey animals favors predators that happen to be able to see through the adaptation – so they can still catch prey. Then prey animals with a different adaptation become more successful, until predators that happen to be able to see through that adaptation have a higher success rate. And so it goes in the eternal food web – in which prey and predators alike sometime use the same adaptation. That is the case with camouflage, which – just as humans have discovered in warfare – can be used both to stay concealed from enemies and to make it difficult for potential victims to know that a predator is lurking.

     Steve Jenkins and Robin Page explore both sides of this prey-predator camouflage match in Look Again, and they do so with a cleverness made possible by their very careful creation of illustrations consisting of collages made from cut and torn paper, seen against digitally created backgrounds. In truth, photographs of real animals in real settings would also show just how effective camouflage can be for concealment or as a weapon, but by accentuating its workings through their art, Jenkins and Page make their points about how camouflage functions crystal-clear. They create their scenes so carefully that even after a young reader knows exactly where to look, it can be hard to see the camouflaged creatures.

     Jenkins and Page accomplish this by first presenting scenes in which animals are shown against backgrounds that make them almost invisible, and then – on the following pages – showing the animals in identical positions but without the digital backgrounds. Thus, readers can look at the size and shape of the animals, then turn back to the previous page and see, or try to see, where the animals are. The whole book becomes a puzzle; and even though matters are somewhat different in the real world – where, for example, coral reefs and their denizens are in constant motion, not static as they must be in a book’s pages – Look Again does an excellent job of showing as well as explaining how various creatures’ appearances keep them safe or make them hard for their prey to spot.

     The coral-reef environment is well-known as a camouflage spot. Here, Jenkins and Page highlight such denizens as the whip coral shrimp, which really looks like coral, and the trumpet fish, a long and thin predator that hovers with mouth facing down so it looks like a harmless frond. Even more interesting are the environments that are all around the book’s readers but not usually thought of as camouflage “hot spots,” including trees and their roots, flowers and plants, leaves and vines. The creatures shown in these settings have some truly remarkable ways of blending in: “The wings of the leaf-mimic katydid resemble decaying leaves, right down to their veins and dark spots,” for example. And: “The tulip-tree beauty moth almost disappears on a lichen-covered tree trunk.”

     Jenkins and Page also explore places where camouflage would seem to be difficult, if not impossible, including the vast white expanse of the Arctic and locations that are mostly rocks. Here too they find amazing adaptations, such as the wrybill, a wading bird that lays its eggs on rocky riverbanks – with the eggs being the size and color of the rocks amid which they lie.

     Most creatures in Look Again will be unfamiliar to readers, and Jenkins and Page help give a sense of them not only by their accurately created representations but also by showing a human hand or adult human body next to each illustration, to provide a sense of scale. The fact that animals of many sizes use camouflage as a protective or hunting technique makes Look Again all the more remarkable – for instance, both the two-inch-long Namibian stone grasshopper and the five-foot-long marine iguana have ways of remaining unseen in the very different rocky areas where they live.

     At the back of the book, Jenkins and Page provide four pages of additional information on every creature they have shown, plus a list of books and Web sites where readers can get more information – and even (a nice touch) a set of “useful Internet search terms” for those who would like to explore further on their own. Jenkins and Page are experts at showing young readers fascinating aspects of the world around us, and Look Again is another case in which they have produced a book worth looking at again and again.

(++++) BEING WHAT YOU’RE NOT


I Am a Tiger. By Karl Newson. Illustrations by Ross Collins. Scholastic. $17.99.

     One of the great things about childhood is the ability to transform into anything, to believe, or seem to believe, that you are something that you can never, ever really be. This is the concept underlying I Am a Tiger, and Karl Newson gives it a particularly amusing twist by having the central character – a mouse – insist that he really is a tiger, and never mind what all the other animals say about it.

     The raccoon, to start with, points out that tigers are much bigger and louder, but the mouse says “tigers can be small, too,” and gives out with a suitably tiger-ish “GRRRR!” The fox comments that tigers have stripes, but the mouse remains blasé: “Some do. This one doesn’t. So there.”

     Well, this is going nowhere fast, so a snake, hanging from a branch, comments that a tiger can climb a tree – to which the mouse says he could climb a tree and in fact could climb to the moon if he wanted to, because “most tigers can.” So a bird asks for a climbing demonstration, but the mouse says he cannot give one because, like any tiger, he has to hunt when he wants to eat, and it happens to be lunchtime.

     And then who should show up but a tiger! And he proclaims loudly just what he is, as the other animals – except the mouse – huddle together in fear. The mouse just laughs: “You’re not a tiger. You’re a mouse!” Climbing onto the tiger’s head, he talks (somewhat unrealistically) about the tiger’s “tiny, twitchy nose,” and (even more unrealistically) about its “little hands and feet.” Juggling acorns, the mouse reiterates that he is a tiger who can do tiger-ish things (apparently including acorn juggling); and then he drives the point home by hanging from a tree branch by his tail and showing the tiger something else that the tiger cannot do but the mouse-tiger can. By now thoroughly confused, the tiger glances over at the other animals and asks the mouse-tiger, “If I am a mouse, what are they?”

     Well, the mouse has great answers to that question, and in the funniest part of the book, he explains that the raccoon, being “furry” and “stripy,” is a caterpillar. The fox, being long and red and enjoying bouncing, is obviously a balloon. The snake, which is “thin” and “pointy” and “hangs in trees,” is certainly a banana. And the “tiny” and “colorful” bird, which “sits on a stick,” absolutely has to be a lollipop.

     Kids will be laughing out loud by this point in the book – in which the illustrations by Ross Collins help carry Newson’s silly story along beautifully. But there is more, as the mouse heads away from the now completely befuddled group of animals, only to wander onto a rock at the edge of a pond and see his reflection. “GAH!” he exclaims. “I am NOT a tiger! How could I be so wrong!?”

     Well, of course he is not a tiger, the mouse realizes, gazing at the reflection of his teeth, claws and tail. Clearly there is only one thing he can possibly be: a crocodile! And as the mouse says this, Collins shows him perched on top of a very scaly brown head out of which a big yellow eye stares balefully. But have no fear: the mouse is sure to talk his way out of this situation, just as he did when the tiger showed up.

     I Am a Tiger teaches no lesson and offers no particular point about make-believe, fantasy and reality: Newson and Collins play the story strictly for the sake of amusement, of which it has plenty. But there is a point to be made here, and parents who read this book with young children can enjoy making it once the laughter stops. After all, it is fine and fun to pretend to be anything you want to pretend to be, but it also helps to know who you really are and what you can really do. Whether the mouse has known all along and is just having fun with the other animals, or has taken his pretending a bit further than he should (since tigers and crocodiles do, after all, have big teeth and big appetites), is a matter completely ignored by Newson and Collins. Parents and kids, though, can have fun playing around with the whole idea.

(++++) MUSICAL SOJOURNS


Hugo Alfvén: Symphony No. 3; Bergakungen Orkestersvit; Uppsala Rhapsody. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Łukasz Borowicz. CPO. $16.99.

Weber: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings; Rózsa: Sonatina for Clarinet; Glazunov: Rêverie orientale; Erland von Koch: Monolog 3 for Solo Clarinet; Heinrich Joseph Baermann: Adagio for Clarinet and Strings; Willson Osborne: Rhapsody for Clarinet. Robert DiLutis, clarinet; Mellifera Quartet (Catherine Gerhiser and Christina Wensel, violins; Nicholas Hodges, viola; Benjamin Wensel, cello). Delos. $14.98.

Ravel: Shéhérazade; Debussy: Ariettes Oubliées; Fêtes Galantes; Maurice Delage: Quatre Poèmes Hindous; Poulenc: Deux Poèmes de Louis Aragon; Fiançailles pour Rire; Deux Poèmes d'Apollinaire (Montparnasse; Hyde Park). Raquel Camarinha, soprano; Yoan Héreau, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

John Knowles Paine: Piano Music. Christopher Atzinger, piano. Delos. $14.98.

Richard Carr: Places I’ve Walked. Ravello. $14.99.

     Mendelssohn was scarcely the only composer to be inspired by Italy or, for that matter, the only one to write an “Italian” symphony. Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) created one as well, although he did not officially call it that. It is his Symphony No. 3, a work filled with Northern European enjoyment of sunny Mediterranean landscapes and the pleasures associated with them – extra pleasures in Alfvén’s case, since he visited Italy with his mistress (and, later, wife), Marie Triepcke Krøyer, who at the time was married to someone else. A new CPO recording – the second in a series that will eventually offer all five Alfvén symphonies – presents a well-paced, pleasantly upbeat reading of the Symphony No. 3 with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Łukasz Borowicz. This work has all the brightness expected from its E major home key, percolating along pleasantly through all four movements and concluding the first of them in a manner that can only be called cute (scarcely a common term in connection with symphonies!). Alfvén’s skill in orchestration is everywhere apparent, and if his sound in full-orchestra passages is strongly reminiscent of that of Richard Strauss, his themes and their development elsewhere have a Nordic sturdiness that, in the case of his Symphony No. 3, mixes surprisingly well with the bucolic strains that Alfvén associates with Italy. The composer’s instrumental adeptness is even more strongly in evidence in Bergakungen Orkestersvit (orchestral suite from “The Mountain King”), which includes four movements taken from one of the only two stage works written by Alfvén. The opening of the first piece, “Sorcery,” is highly dramatic, with some of the rhythmic impetus of a Stravinsky ballet but decidedly different thematic construction. “Dance of the Troll-Girl” is extended and moderately sensuous, while “Summer Rain” is an effective bit of scene-painting. The final movement of the suite, “Dance of the Herdmaiden,” includes some of Alfvén’s best-known music in its opening and closing pages, whose bright delicacy frames a well-constructed contrasting middle section. There is drama and charm aplenty in this suite. The CD concludes with Alfvén’s version of an academic festival overture, written for an occasion similar to the one that elicited Brahms’ and built along similar lines, featuring a variety of student songs. These Swedish tunes may be less-known to most listeners than the ones employed by Brahms, but they are no less hardy and enthusiastic, and Alfvén creates some amusing “down the hatch” instrumental imitations of a student game built around imbibing. This whole CD is upbeat and good-humored, showing that despite Alfvén’s more-serious and academic sides, he was also quite capable of producing pleasantly laid-back music that takes an audience skillfully to both Italy and Sweden.

     Sweden is also one musical destination, a brief one, on a new Delos CD featuring clarinetist Robert DiLutis and the Mellifera Quartet. Erland von Koch (1910-2009) was a Swedish composer who included melodies from his country in his two-movement Monolog 3 for solo clarinet. The first movement begins and ends solemnly, while the second is considerably speedier and lighter, the two together creating a small suite along the lines of a sonatina. This disc also includes a work actually labeled as a sonatina, a 1951 piece – also in two movements – by Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995). Rózsa was Hungarian-American, and just as von Koch included Swedish elements in his solo-clarinet work, so Rózsa includes Hungarian ones in his. Best known as a film composer, Rózsa here, in the first of two works he wrote for solo clarinet, shows himself able both to create engaging tunes and to produce virtuosic and well-written material for a solo instrument. Even more engaging and significantly more substantial, Weber’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings is the longest piece on this disc and the most involving. Weber had a knack for delightful themes developed with high skill, and in this work he shows firm understanding both of the clarinet’s capabilities and of ways to involve it with a string quartet – sometimes interweaving, sometimes displaying like a soloist in front of an orchestra. DiLutis, whose skill in fingering and superb breath control are everywhere evident on this recording, is really at his best here, playing the quintet with tremendous polish and joie de vivre. It is an exhilarating reading. And the work has ties to another offering on the CD. Weber wrote it for clarinetist Heinrich Joseph Baermann (1784-1847) – whose Adagio for Clarinet and Strings DiLutis and the Mellifera Quartet play here. Formerly attributed to Richard Wagner, this short piece – actually the slow movement from Baermann’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 23 – is emotionally warm and sensitive, using the string ensemble as a group to set off the clarinet’s lyricism. The remaining two pieces on this CD offer brief travel-to-Asia experiences. Glazunov’s Rêverie orientale uses the imagined Orientalism included in much music of its time (1886) and gives it a feeling of tristesse in which the strings accentuate the clarinet’s melancholy. And the Rhapsody for Clarinet by Willson Osborne (1906-1979), which can also be played on bassoon, is a solo work that grows from a brief fragment of melody in an expansion that especially plumbs the clarinet’s emotional capabilities – with which DiLutis is particularly skilled.

     Faux Orientalism lasted well past the time of Glazunov’s Rêverie orientale and was still much in evidence when Ravel wrote his song cycle Shéhérazade in 1903. Intended for mezzo-soprano or tenor and orchestra, the work gets a pretty but slightly “off” performance for soprano and piano on a new Naïve CD. Raquel Camarinha and Yoan Héreau are obviously comfortable performing together, and they handle their respective parts of the music with skill, especially the increasing intensity of the first and longest of the three songs, “Asie.” But much of the charm of this work, and much of its exoticism, comes from Ravel’s skillful orchestration, and the piano reduction is just that: it reduces the orchestral effects and turns this intended visit to the Orient into something closer to a nicely performed salon piece from France. Indeed, this entire (+++) CD is a French journey, largely one of rather fey Impressionism. Camarinha somewhat overdoes the swooning quality of Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliées, although the tone painting is more effectively conveyed in the composer’s Fêtes Galantes, where the pianism of Héreau tends to come to the fore more strongly. The Quatre Poèmes Hindous by Maurice Delage (1879-1961) were intended to use a chamber ensemble of two flutes, oboe or cor anglais, clarinet, bass clarinet, harp, and string quartet, and as in the three songs by Ravel, these four are designed to reflect the experience of a specific part of the world. In Delage’s case this is India, and the music partakes of both the time of the songs’ composition (1912-13) and some of the melodies and rhythms of Indian music. Camarinha sings these pieces particularly well, bringing forth their emotional landscapes just as much as their intended exoticism. The most-recent works on the CD are those by Poulenc, composed between 1939 and 1945, but Camarinha and Héreau seem especially interested in showing how they fit into the same earlier-20th-century atmosphere in which the other songs on the disc were created. Thus, in Deux Poèmes de Louis Aragon, the expressiveness of “C” seems more genuine than the somewhat forced-sounding “Fêtes Galantes.” The six songs of Fiançailles pour Rire proceed pleasantly enough and perhaps a touch over-delicately. And “Montparnasse” and “Hyde Park” – which constitute one of several Poulenc pairings of Apollinaire poems – come across, like the Aragon pair, as being of considerable sensitivity in the former setting but a somewhat forced brightness in the more-ebullient latter song. A pleasant enough song recital for listeners who want to be transported for a time to France, especially in the early 20th century, this disc will be a bit monochromatic for a wider audience.

     The visit is to America, at a time when the United States was scarcely thought of as an important musical destination, on a new Delos recording of the piano music of John Knowles Paine (1839-1906). The 25 tracks here provide a generous sampling of the piano works of a composer best known for his orchestral compositions and his seminal importance in creating American classical music built on a substantial European framework but nevertheless reflecting the thinking of the New World. Having studied in Berlin, Paine naturally brought many influences from Germany back to the U.S. with him. These are apparent in some of the pieces heard here, such as the Brahmsian “Impromptu” from Four Characteristic Pieces, Op. 25; the Chopin-influenced Nocturne, Op. 45; and the early and distinctly Bachian Prelude in F-sharp Minor, Op. 15, No. 2. But Paine’s modification of European models into something more American shows here as well, notably in “Fuga Giocosa” from Three Piano Pieces, Op. 41, in which a popular late-19th-century baseball tune gets Bach-style fugal treatment. To be sure, most of the music here is salon-like and relatively inconsequential, which will make this a (+++) release for many listeners even though it will get a (++++) rating for those interested in 19th-century American piano music and in the development of the U.S. as a world musical center. Christopher Atzinger certainly conveys the impression that he both respects and enjoys Paine’s piano pieces: he captures all their moods, from the very serious (A Funeral March in Memory of President Lincoln, Op. 9) to the much more lighthearted (the aforementioned “Fuga Giocosa” and the other two pieces in the same set, A Spring Idyl and Birthday Impromptu). The longest work here by far, and the one that most constitutes a musical visit to Paine’s time and place, is In the Country: Ten Sketches for the Piano, Op. 26. These miniatures, most lasting less than two minutes and none as long as three, mix typical Romantic-era interests (“The Shepherd’s Lament,” “Gipsies”) with short, idyllic strolls and saunters through the American outdoors (“Woodnotes,” “Wayside Flowers,” “Rainy Day”), and eventually lead to a pair of genuinely impressive concluding pieces that extract emotion from their own simplicity: the gently melancholic “Farewell” and the brightly upbeat “Welcome Home.” Although Paine’s music provides a visit to what may be considered a single, limited place and time, this CD shows it exploring that location and era from many angles and with a great deal of sensitivity.

     Another new CD, this one from Ravello, is intended to be far more wide-ranging. This (+++) release features Richard Carr as both composer and performer, promising listeners a tour of some of the many parts of the world to which he himself has traveled. This is an entirely personal journey: most of the tracks bear no discernible relationship to the locations to which they are supposed to transport an audience. Among those places are Fjordland (the South Island of New Zealand), Cordillera Blanca (the Andes in Peru), Jardin de Plantes (Paris), and Corridors of Light (Zanzibar). Carr divides his travels into four “parts,” grouping them that way to provide “resting places,” with Part 4 containing only a single piece that is a resting place of a different sort: Cementerio de la Recoleta, a necropolis in Buenos Aires. Carr plays a number of instruments here: violin and electric violin, viola, guitar, piano, keyboard, bowed and sampled strings, and more. For additional sound effects – many of the effects are more “sound” than “music” – he includes performances by other musicians on alto and tenor saxophone, fula flute and bansuri flute, harp, percussion, etc. And he uses the varying instrumental combinations to communicate not only outward journeys but also such inward ones as Both Sacred and Profane (which juxtaposes the sounds of a Moroccan street singer with those of a right-wing radio host) and Through Streams (intended to be streams of consciousness rather than water). Carr obviously is at pains to construct a substantial philosophical framework for Places I’ve Walked, but the question for listeners will be what sort of music comes into it. The answer is less imposing than Carr’s concept: the music simply sounds like much other chamber and enhanced-chamber music by contemporary composers, generally having a sort of minimalist feeling with overtones of gentle jazz and occasional inclusion of taped material from the real world (scarcely anything new: Respighi did it). It is certainly true that travelers bring themselves wherever they go, and that seems to be the message, intentional or not, in Places I’ve Walked: wherever Carr has gone in the world, wherever he has gone internally, he has come up with pretty much the same portrait of a place or a mode of thought or feeling, since everything reflects through him. The slightly more upbeat pieces here, such as Avenue C Rainstorm, bring brief but welcome respite from a journey that otherwise proceeds slowly and gently pretty much throughout. Whatever varied memories Carr has obtained from his many travels, what he offers to those who did not travel with him is a heaping helping of pretty much the same thing.

(+++) SACRED AND SECULAR


Vivaldi: Musica sacra per alto. Delphine Galou, contralto; Alessandro Giangrande, tenor; Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone. Naïve. $16.99.

Vivaldi: Arie e cantate per contralto. Delphine Galou, contralto; Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone. Naïve. $16.99.

     The 59th and 60th releases in Naïve’s remarkable, nearly two-decade-long series of presentations of Vivaldi music held at the National University Library of Turin are, like many entries in this outstanding series, first-class achievements that may nevertheless be a bit much for all but the most-dedicated Vivaldi lovers. There is nothing on either CD that will be a must-have for listeners, but there are many nice-to-have works on these two discs focused on the contralto voice (one CD called “per alto” and the other “per contralto” for no apparent reason: Delphine Galou is listed as “contralto” on both). The CD of sacred music is the more interesting of the two. There is genuine depth and intensity here, more than may usually be associated with Vivaldi, and both the sincerity of the settings and the severity of expression of the material may come as a surprise to audiences that think of Vivaldi mainly in terms of his plethora of short and formulaically laid out concertos. There is one of those here, RV 582 in D for solo violin and two string orchestras: it appears on the disc of sacred music because Vivaldi designated it as “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary.” And while its scale is not significantly different from that of many other Vivaldi concertos, its emotional strength and seriousness, as performed by Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone, do set it apart. The five other works on this disc are all vocal and all impressive. One, Deus tuorum militum, RV 612, is for both contralto and tenor, and here Vivaldi interweaves the low female and high male voices to particularly good effect, while also including two oboes that he uses expertly for emphasis of portions of the material. The contralto is the sole voice in the remaining works: Filiæ mæstæ Jerusalem, RV 638; Salve Regina, RV 618; Non in pratis, RV 641; and Regina Cœli, RV 615. Each of these has exceptional touches that turn this CD into a very varied program of sacred music. For example, Salve Regina opens instrumentally, the ensemble building gradually to full strength, and it is only after a minute of introduction that the vocal line, filled with expressive depth, begins. The pastoral and gentle aria later in this work, Et Jesum, benedictum, is a highlight. And Vivaldi adds two specially adapted, trumpet-like trombe violins to Regina cœli (played here by actual trumpets), producing a sound both martial and celebratory – and not unlike some of his opera arias.

     Some of those arias, along with excerpts from chamber cantatas, are heard on the secular disc, whose 11 tracks include material from, among other works, Tito Manlio, RV 738; Tieteberga, RV 737; La verità in cimento,RV 739; La Candace o siano li veri amici, RV 704; and Il Giustino, RV 717, which was presented in its totality as the 58th release in this series. The specifics of the sources matter little to the enjoyment of the arias, and the disc is really a showcase for Galou, whose rich, warm and well-controlled voice handles the demands of the music – some of which are considerable – stylishly and with a strong understanding of Vivaldi’s expectations and those of his time period. What impresses in this collection of arias is the gentle flow and well-thought-out ornamentation in a piece such as Liquore ingrate; the martial sound of voice and instruments in Ombre nere; the effective scene-painting of Nell’orrido albergo; the emphatic instruments that contrast with the voice in O mie porpore più belle; the thin, sweet introduction that sets up No, non vidi; and many other elegant little touches. There is no single aria here that stands high above the others, and the totality of the disc rather than its individual elements is, accordingly, what provides it with its effect. Both the singing and the accompaniment are simultaneously careful and enthusiastic, and the familiarity with Baroque style of both Dantone and Galou – frequent contributors to this Vivaldi series – comes through again and again. This disc of secular arias will be of interest primarily to listeners who want to hear Vivaldi’s way with words without wishing to wade through all the recitative-based storytelling of the complete works from which the arias are drawn. The CD also offers a chance for people familiar with Vivaldi as an instrumental composer to hear his equal skill in vocal material. Although nothing here is earthshaking in terms of causing a reconsideration of Vivaldi’s place in music, everything helps contribute to a better-balanced understanding of his importance in his own time and his significance for other composers in the Baroque and thereafter. That, ultimately, is the major contribution of this entire now-60-release-long exploration of so many of Vivaldi’s compositions, including quite a few that these releases are bringing out of undeserved obscurity.

July 03, 2019

(++++) EVERGREENS


Five Little Monkeys Shopping for School. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

First Grade Dropout. By Audrey Vernick. Illustrated by Matthew Cordell. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Sheep Go to Sleep. By Nancy Shaw. Illustrated by Margot Apple. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     Some kids’ books retain their sense of delight year after year and edition after edition – inviting their periodic reissue in new formats and sometimes even with new titles. Five Little Monkeys Shopping for School, now available as a board book, was originally published as Five Little Monkeys Go Shopping in 2007. And Eileen Christelow’s department-store counting tale, with or without the “school” element in the title, remains both an amusing story and a very unusual counting book. Christelow does not simply go up through numbers one through five or one through 10, then back down again. She uses the occasion of a trip to a department store (a place that many of today’s young children may never have visited, so some explanation may be required) to show how addition and subtraction work – without ever using the word “addition” or “subtraction,” and without ever implying that any sort of lesson is being taught in the story. In fact, the tale is amusing enough to stand on its own, since it is about trying to keep a somewhat unruly group of kids…err, monkeys…in order and focused on the task of buying what they need for the new school year. The confusion starts as soon as Mama marches her five little monkeys into the children’s department: “‘I only see four little monkeys,’ says the saleslady.” And the next page shows Mama’s thoughts as a subtraction problem, as she thinks that five little monkeys originally minus four little monkeys present means there is one missing monkey. She has to search, and off she goes, telling the four to try on clothes “AND DON’T GO WANDERING OFF!” Good idea, maybe, but two of the little monkeys are so thirsty that they just have to find a water fountain. So by the time Mama returns with her missing monkey, the saleslady sees only three monkeys, and Mama is thinking that she started with five, there are only three here, so now she has two missing. Off she goes again, again warning the little monkeys to stay put, but this time one little monkey really, really needs a bathroom. And at the same time he heads out, three friends of the little monkeys show up, and now things really get confused when Mama returns with the two water-fountain monkeys: now there are seven little monkeys in the children’s department, and Mama has to do a subtraction problem that includes the seven little monkeys minus the four of her little monkeys, meaning she is still missing one! Young readers will find all this highly amusing, since Christelow makes sure they understand just what is going on, no matter how confused Mama may be. Unfortunately for Mama but fortunately for the story, all seven little monkeys in the children’s department get tired of trying on clothes and decide to go help Mama look for the missing monkey. Mama finds that one – and the monkey friends’ papa shows up with two sister monkeys – and now there should be 10 monkeys. But of course there are only three, since the other seven are off somewhere trying to help. The saleslady tries to solve the problem by making an announcement over the store’s loudspeaker system (which, again, parents may have to explain to today’s young children) – but so many little monkeys show up in response to being called that now there are 14 little monkeys. All is eventually settled, though, when the grandma of the extra four little monkeys claims them, and everybody finishes shopping and heads home – except that one friend of the five little monkeys asks to come play at their house, and they say that will be fine, so as Mama drives away, she discovers that she now has six little monkeys in the car. This is one of the cutest and silliest books in Christelow’s cute-and-silly series, and this new board-book edition should captivate plenty of kids who were not yet born when the original version was published.

     School is approached from an entirely different angle in First Grade Dropout, originally published in 2015 and now available in paperback. Audrey Vernick’s story deals with embarrassment, laughter, humiliation in front of peers, and eventual forgiveness. It is about a first-grader who said something so completely unforgivable that everybody laughed at him and he cannot possibly return to school, ever: he called his teacher “Mommy” when answering a question. Matthew Cordell’s marvelous illustrations perfectly capture everything from the moment of trauma to the ways the boy tries to cope, such as: “Maybe I’ll just put on glasses and change my hair and pretend to be a new kid from London. Or France. Or Cincinnati.” The three parallel changed appearances are delightful. So is the two-page spread of “a big marching band of laughing people” who all have hats with the word “Mommy” on them. So, in fact, are all the pictures, which help propel the story as the boy nurses his resentment of his classmates and tries to cope with his own feeling of having made an unforgivable mistake. Glumly, he goes to play soccer, where he runs into his best friend, Tyler – whose laughter at the “Mommy” mistake hurt most of all. But Tyler does not bring up what happened, and when the boy says he is dropping out of school, Tyler says he will do the same because then the two of them can “work on our junk shots.” He says what? Now it is the boy who has heard something to laugh at, but he does not want to laugh, because he is better than all the people who laughed at him. But he just cannot help himself, and when he tells Tyler the term is jump shot, he sees that Tyler is just as embarrassed as the boy was when he said “Mommy.” But then Tyler laughs, and then the boy laughs, and the two reaffirm their friendship, forgive each other for laughing and for being unintentionally silly, and everything ends happily as the boy makes fun of himself by deliberately referring to their teacher as “Mommy.” Like Christelow’s addition-and-subtraction book that sneaks the learning in, Vernick’s friendship-and-forgiveness story (thanks in large part to Cordell’s pictures) gets its message across in a pleasantly understated way – and the lesson is one that is as apt now as it was when the book first appeared in print.

     There is no particular lesson in Sheep Go to Sleep, but this 2015 entry in the long-running Nancy Shaw/Margot Apple series about five sheep’s everyday adventures—now available as a paperback – is another book that retains its charm and sense of fun. This is a sort-of-counting book, since the sheep go to sleep one by one, but in this case the counting is not the point: this is better as a bedtime tale than as a story about numbers. The tale, as usual, is simple, and, also as usual, is told amusingly in rhyme. The five sheep “hit the hay” (literally, in their case) but find they cannot sleep because nighttime is just too noisy: “Screeches! Rustling! Noisy crickets!/ Sheep hear hoots from nearby thickets.” To the rescue comes “a trusty collie” who manages to help the sheep sleep, one at a time. One wants a hug, one needs a drink, one falls asleep to a doggie lullaby, and so on. The recurrent refrain here does include numbers: “Two asleep! How many more?” (Or one, or three, or four asleep...) But, again, this is not really a counting book – it is at heart a book about helping friends: the collie lends one sheep his own teddy bear and finds a quilt to cover the last of the five. By then the collie has “a weary grin” of his own, and at the end of the book, after a very funny illustration showing the sheep dreaming of themselves, the dog and the borrowed teddy bear flying, the collie wanders away – but not too far away – and himself goes to sleep beneath a haystack. That is the whole book: five sheep and one dog bed down for the night. But as always in this series, the charm and gentle amusement, even more than the well-told story with its well-matched illustrations, are the main attractions of the tale – and that is as true now as it was at the book’s initial publication.

(++++) MORE OF THE LESSER


Even More Lesser Spotted Animals: More Brilliant Beasts You Never Knew You Needed to Know About. By Martin Brown. David Fickling Books. $18.99.

     To begin with, “brilliant” in this book’s subtitle does not mean “exceptionally smart.” It is an Australian and British term for “exciting,” “wonderful,” “really neat,” and so forth. Martin Brown has two reasons for using the word that way, having started out in Australia before moving some years ago to Great Britain.

     However, there really is something brilliant, in the North American sense of “quite smart indeed, chaps,” about this sequel to Lesser Spotted Animals. Brown correctly points out in the introduction to Even More Lesser Spotted Animals that “there are thousands of different types of wild animal out there, each one with a name and a story all its own,” but there are only a few superstars that we hear about again and again and again. Elephants, zebras, polar bears, pandas and such are “marquee” animals, highly useful in government and nongovernment fundraising campaigns and great for “save the endangered critters” presentations, since everybody already knows them so well.

     But there is a curse to familiarity, or rather to too much of it: many other, equally deserving and equally intriguing animals are completely neglected, even if they too are fascinating to see, worthwhile to learn about, and in some cases are every bit as endangered as the better-known creatures out there. So it is redress-the-balance time in Brown’s series – which, however, still has a prejudicial flaw that somewhat limits its exploratory value. But more of that anon.

     What Brown does so well in Even More Lesser Spotted Animals, as in its predecessor, is to find really interesting-looking animals with really interesting characteristics, present exceptionally well-made, near-photographic drawings of them, and detail their habitats, their lifestyles and their challenges in an unusually well-blended mixture of fact and amusement. For example, there are dingisos, endangered, fuzzy-faced tree kangaroos from New Guinea that local Moni people believe are ancestor spirits – which, they say, is why the animals, when approached, rear up on their hind legs, raise their arms, and whistle. No one really knows why they do this, but Brown shows a dingiso behaving exactly this way and saying, “Hello! Probably.”

     On another page, Brown introduces “two gliders: aerial possums from eastern Australia,” explaining the similarities and differences between the near-threatened yellow-bellied glider and the not-threatened-at-all feathertail glider – the latter being the smallest glider of all, which Brown says is “as big as a mouse (but cuter).” Brown gives the size of all animals in his book, such as the “guinea pig big” sengi, which used to be called the elephant shrew but turns out not to be a shrew and not to look much like an elephant. Brown is also fond of throwing in bits of offbeat and/or moderately disgusting facts, showing a sengi picking its nose with its super-long tongue and, when it comes to red river hogs, noting that “they nose through elephant dung for undigested seeds” (with a small picture showing one of the animals examining a dung pile and exclaiming, “Yum!”).

     One thing that Brown brings to Even More Lesser Spotted Animals that he did not include in the previous book is actual storytelling, which he uses for a couple of the animals to vary the presentation of facts a bit. For example, when discussing the “tamandua: South America’s treetop termite terminator,” he explains that this eater of ants and termites would “be the thing of your nightmares” if you were an ant or termite. He then goes on with the narrative: “It begins with a ripping crash as the walls of your home are torn away by powerful arms and terrible claws. …Even if your soldier ants try to fight back, they can’t get past the thick fur that protects the tamandua’s skin from bites and stings.” This is an unusual and appealing way to present some of the information here, and it reaches its apex in the discussion of the ringtail cat – a small carnivorous animal once called the “miner’s cat.” For this animal, Brown creates an entire little story about a miner named Jed who lets one ringtail stay in a “little wooden box” nearby and is happy to have “that stripy-tailed critter” around because it neatly disposes of mice and rats, and is so agile that “he’d seen the darn thing turn a cartwheel chasing a moth.”

     There are some genuinely fascinating animals in Even More Lesser Spotted Animals, including several about which little is known because their habitats are largely unexplored or their habits keep them well away from anywhere that humans can track them. Brown certainly makes the case that all these creatures are as worthy of being known, and as interesting to learn about, as the “marquee animals” with which most people are far more familiar. And what could be prejudicial about that? Well, it just so happens that every single creature in Even More Lesser Spotted Animals is a mammal – even the ones that fly (three bats and two gliders) or swim (a beaked whale and the ribbon seal). True, we humans are mammals as well, so perhaps Brown comes by his mammalian bias naturally. But aren’t there lots and lots and lots of critters that are not mammals and that deserve to be better known: reptiles, birds, insects, fish, octopuses, and many others? How can Brown turn his back on so many non-mammalian denizens of our planet? Or could he perhaps be planning lots and lots and lots of further entries in the “lesser spotted animals” series? If so, why, that’s brilliant!