March 28, 2019
“Peanuts” Collection No. 12—Lucy: Speak Out! By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Big Nate: Payback Time! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Half a century. That is how long Charles Schulz created Peanuts and brought the strip to the world – and at this rate, that is at least how long the strip will continue to amuse and delight readers of all ages. The many repackagings of Peanuts and its characters show no signs of getting old: the Peanuts kids are not exactly ageless (some of the strips make reference to events that are now obscure), but their worries, concerns and foibles are so perfectly presented and so beautifully captured by Schulz’s enduring humanism that the strip seems just as timely (which is to say timeless) today as it did in Schulz’s lifetime. The latest reprint of Peanuts strips focuses loosely on loud-mouth Lucy, bane of little brother Linus, inept right-fielder on Charlie Brown’s hopeless baseball team, and operator of the “Psychiatric Help 5¢” booth. Lucy’s unrequited love for Schroeder, who plays Beethoven’s complex music on a toy piano while assiduously avoiding Lucy’s attempts to get him interested in her, is a recurring Peanuts theme, as is Linus’ continuing need for his security blanket – which, in one scene here, Lucy takes away because she is trying to grow vegetables and needs it to cover them at night, leaving Linus to sit outdoors and lament, “This is the first time in my life I’ve ever sat up all night with a parsnip.” That scene, like many others, neatly encapsulates Schulz’s ability to merge humor with melancholy and produce wisdom and worry “out of the mouths of babes,” as it were. There are plenty of other instances of the same thing – plus a great deal of just plain fun, as when Snoopy dresses up in an absurdly overdone clown costume as “The April Fool” while Charlie Brown wonders, not for the first time, “Why can’t I have a normal dog like everyone else?” In fact, Snoopy’s hapless owner is moved to use those identical words when Snoopy refuses to start eating until Charlie Brown bows politely to him and says, “Bon appétit” (Schulz even includes the accent, helping explain why Snoopy’s thought in response to the comment is, “Merci”). This book’s title focuses on Lucy, but there are plenty of strips here about other characters in the large Peanuts cast. Peppermint Patty’s academic difficulties appear in many strips, in some of which she is helped by her perpetual hanger-on, Marcie, who calls her “sir” and who, it turns out, has a crush on Charlie Brown. Snoopy’s bird friend, Woodstock, disguises himself as a raccoon (with Snoopy’s help) to keep blue jays away. Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally, submits a two-picture report at school instead of a 2,000-word paper because, after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. And as for Lucy herself, she remains challenged at baseball, using her new glove solely to hold potato chips, but she also assumes the role of sports reporter and takes copious notes showing how odd everyone on the team is – except for herself and Schroeder, of course. There is also an unusually extended sequence in this book in which Charlie Brown is hospitalized while his parents are at a barbers’ picnic – just what is wrong with him is never clear – and we learn that he is 8½ years old, that Sally plans to take over his room, and that when Lucy cries with worry, she wipes her tears on Schroeder’s piano. This sequence ends with a one-time-only event in Peanuts history: Lucy promises that “I’ll never pull the football away again” if Charlie Brown gets better, and she keeps the promise when he comes home; but inept Charlie Brown misses the ball and kicks Lucy instead, injuring her and keeping his 100% football-kicking failure rate intact. Schulz’s record of being entertaining just about 100% of the time remains intact, too.
Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate has not been around quite as long as Peanuts was under Schulz – a “mere” quarter-century-plus – but this is another strip with a highly recognizable cast of core characters whose antics wear very well indeed. It helps that Nate, who is a bit older than Charlie Brown (11 or 12), is a sixth-grader, and that the strip revolves around Nate’s school or, outside school, his school friends and his home life. Lucy is not the only newspaper reporter around: Nate may live in an era when newspapers are far less important than they used to be, but school newspapers still matter, and of course Nate decides that he will write about the soccer game in which he was the superstar goalie (he says): “As the sun set, Nate lingered on the field, seemingly reluctant to abandon the goal he had so magnificently protected.” All modesty, that Nate. Actually, Nate is anything but modest, but he is so oddly unassuming a braggart, so completely unaware of his own shortcomings, and so talented in some ways (just not the ones he thinks), that he is highly likable despite his tendency to overact in many ways while overstating his sense of self-importance. Nate, after all, is on the cusp of teenagerhood, and seems to be getting in shape for it, even if he has not gotten any closer to it in the last two-plus decades. And so Nate continues being very much Nate in Payback Time! He wants to have arch-enemy Gina infected with a deadly disease so the science class can cure her, or try to; he wants to come up with an angle to make his report on President John Tyler more interesting, so he inserts an alien abduction; he wants to dress up as a super-villain for Halloween, so he turns himself into (who else?) Gina; he wants students to have their own lounge at school, and actually manages to have Principal Nichols agree to the idea – only to have the principal assign Gina to work with Nate in setting the room up. There is much more like this. Nate needs to bake cookies for a bake sale and gets his father to help by finding a “Connie, the Cookie Cutie” video on YouTube, only to have his dad fall for the cookie lady, who turns out to have died “of vanilla overdose”; Nate continues his feckless pursuit of longtime crush Jenny, who continues to ignore him and cling to her boyfriend, Artur; and Nate establishes a “Complaint Department” table in the school’s hallway – not to hear other people’s grievances but to air his own. Along the way, Nate interacts with friends Teddy and Francis; is repeatedly frustrated by having to take social studies with teacher nemesis Mrs. Godfrey (who, of course, student nemesis Gina gets along with famously); and gets “loser” written on his forehead in permanent marker by a school bully – at whom he gets back in a very funny scene that fully justifies the book being called Payback Time! Nate has his flaws, to be sure, but they are endearing flaws, and that has made his personality quirks and foibles fun rather than irritating – for a quarter-century-plus and counting.
The Tornado Scientist: Seeing Inside Severe Storms. By Mary Kay Carson. Photographs by Tom Uhlman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
The line here that explains what intrigues tornado-focused meteorologists about these deadly storms is the one about “the drama, excitement, and power of a sky full of wind and lightning.” And potential devastation, although that word does not appear in that particular sentence. But there is nothing morbid in the fascination that tornado scientists such as Robin Tanamachi, the most extensively profiled meteorologist in The Tornado Scientist, feel about these astonishingly powerful, sometimes deadly twisters. Their interest is in figuring out more about how and why tornadoes form so people can get better warnings beforehand and therefore be better able to protect themselves, their families and their property.
Like other entries in the long-running and always excellent “Scientists in the Field” series, The Tornado Scientist is partly a personality profile and partly an introduction to the way science really works. There are comparisons to help young readers understand the concepts: “The whole [supercell] storm can reach 8 miles (13 km) up into the atmosphere. That’s one and a half Mount Everests.” And there are well-done explanatory pages – clearly telling, for instance, just what that word “supercell” means. It refers to a monstrous, long-lived thunderstorm “that pulls air in and up at hurricane wind speeds,” and is “powered by an upright tube of air, a mesocyclone,” created “when winds high up in the atmosphere aren’t the same as winds down below” in one of several ways. Why does this matter? Wind shear, which is what it is called when winds at different heights behave differently, is an absolutely necessary ingredient for tornado formation – and is notoriously difficult to pinpoint and probably not the only factor involved in the creation of tornadoes. In fact, meteorologists do not really understand just how and why tornadoes form – that is why it is impossible to give people significant advance warnings about them – but readers of The Tornado Scientist will be helped by Mary Kay Carson’s well-done written explanations and by very clearly designed illustrations to learn a lot about what scientists do know.
And then there are the photographs. Tom Uhlman gives the book most of what makes it visually fascinating, such as a closeup of really big hailstones to go with the caption, “The bigger the hailstones, the stronger the storm,” and a variety of highly dramatic pictures not only of tornadoes but also of the huge storms that spawn them. All this is impressive – and scary, as the photos of post-tornado debris make clear again and again. “Tornado winds turn sticks into spears, shingles into scissors, and boards into battering rams,” reads one photo caption, and the pictures of houses reduced to rubble, cars overturned, and huge areas of emptiness where buildings once stood, are more than enough to engender fear and concern in readers.
They are also enough to produce determination in Tanamachi and the other scientists who study tornadoes and the storms that produce them. There are homey photos of Tanamachi with her family and of scientists teaching meteorology and gathering in front of computers to strategize that are in stark contrast to the photos of tornadoes’ enormous power and deadliness. And there is discussion throughout the book, uniting all the other elements, of several tornado-studying initiatives known as VORTEX, whose aim Carson describes pithily as “saving lives through science and educating the public on how to stay safe.” That is an admirable goal and is one that, combined with curiosity, drives Tanamachi and the other scientists working on the VORTEX project and other forms of tornado study.
There is a certain raw fascination to anything with great destructive potential – in fact, an ordinary thunderstorm releases more energy than many nuclear weapons, but the bombs have more power because their energy is released much more quickly, and power is a function both of energy and of speed of release. The supercells that lead to tornadoes are far more powerful than ordinary thunderstorms, and even supercells result in tornado formation only a small percentage of the time. That makes a tornado a rare phenomenon, but one so spectacular in what it can do that humans are justifiably worried and frightened at the prospect of encountering one. Yet many people do experience these super-potent storms – and the vast majority live to tell about it, thanks to the work of dedicated meteorologists like those profiled in The Tornado Scientist.
Liszt: Symphonic Poems Nos. 1-12. Leslie Howard and Mattia Ometto, pianos. Brilliant Classics. $14.99 (3 CDs).
Smetana: Richard III, symphonic poem after Shakespeare; Wallenstein’s Camp, symphonic poem after Schiller; Hakon Jarl, symphonic poem after Oehlenschläger; Festive Symphony—Scherzo. Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leoš Svárovský. Naxos. $12.99.
Liszt: Études d’execution transcendante. Andrey Gugnin, piano. Piano Classics. $20.99.
Cécile Chaminade: Piano Music. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $20.99.
The importance of Franz Liszt in 19th-century music, and indeed in 19th-century society in general, can scarcely be overestimated. One of the earliest and most prominent members of what would later become a cult of celebrity – but with the difference that Liszt, unlike many later celebrities including virtually all of them today, actually had accomplishments beyond being famous – Liszt was a magnificent contradiction in terms: sincerely religious and eventually taking minor orders, but involved in multiple high-profile affairs; deeply dedicated to Hungarian independence but primarily speaking German; and more. Musically, he was extremely superficial and very deep, not quite at the same time: his earlier works, meant for his own performance, were as popular in orientation as could be, while his later ones looked ahead to the eventual deterioration and even destruction of tonality. There was no clear dividing line in Liszt’s music – unlike Beethoven, he is not said to have early, middle and late periods. Liszt was gregarious, forthcoming with help for many other composers, and important to the music of his time and well beyond. And he was constantly pushing boundaries, as in his 13 symphonic poems. This is a form that Liszt invented, an expansion of the concept of a concert overture into something larger, longer, more symphonic in structure, and altogether grander – and often more grandiose. Few of the symphonic poems are performed regularly by orchestras – the exception is the one Liszt placed third in the cycle, Les préludes – and the works are almost never heard in Liszt’s second version of them, which is for two pianos. (A third version, for solo piano, was done by Liszt’s students.) This makes the new Brilliant Classics release featuring Leslie Howard and Mattia Ometto a major event: it includes all 12 symphonic poems from the 1850s. (The 13th, Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe or “From the Cradle to the Grave,” dates to 1883; Liszt did not create a two-piano version of it.) The performances, as is to be expected from anything Lisztian done by Howard, are brilliant, knowing, tremendously skillfully presented, deeply involving from beginning to end, and if not definitive are about as close to it as anything is likely to be. As with other piano arrangements that Liszt made – notably those of Beethoven’s symphonies – these are not note-by-note transcriptions: although relatively few people know the symphonic poems, those who do will perceive differences (some minor, some fairly significant) between the orchestral versions and these. They are matters of emphasis and of adaptation, changes made out of necessity (in places where the orchestral versions require untuned percussion) or out of structural concern (as in Hungaria, No. 9, where Liszt actually adds new music to produce the two-piano version). What really matters, though, is not direct comparisons between the symphonic and two-piano versions of these broadly conceived, emotionally trenchant works. What matters is whether they work as well in both formats. The answer is that they most decidedly do when the playing is as amazingly intense and sensitive as it is throughout this three-CD set. Howard and Ometto scale the pianistic heights without seeming effort, their technique so refined that it recedes aurally into the background and allows listeners to hear and absorb the many beauties of these pieces and their communicative elegance. The transcendence of No. 2, Tasso – Lamento e Trionfo, is beautifully communicated. The fugal material in No. 5, Prometheus, is elegantly on display. The blend of Polish and Hungarian elements is very clearly delineated in No. 7, Festklänge. The unusually forward-looking Hamlet, placed as No. 10 in the sequence by Liszt even though it was the last of the 12 to be written, here seems both complete in itself and a prologue to Liszt’s later music. One of the things that comes through most clearly in this recording, remarkably so, is how well Liszt chose the order of the Symphonic Poems. They represent a gigantic cycle – three and three-quarter hours of music! – that feels as if it makes complete sense in the Howard/Ometto recording, even if the precise way in which it makes sense remains elusive. These works have long been undervalued and, in their two-piano version, almost completely unknown. This remarkable recording, by making them available so readily and at such an amazingly low price, gives all great-music lovers a perfect chance to evaluate (or re-evaluate) Liszt’s work and give it more of the adulation that it most assuredly deserves.
The number of composers influenced by Liszt’s symphonic poems is a large one. Tchaikovsky’s work certainly owes much to Liszt, as does Wagner’s, as does Dvořák’s – Dvořák even created a symphonic-poem cycle in Nature, Life and Love (consisting of In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello.) An even grander cycle is Smetana’s Má vlast, which is directly traceable to Liszt, whom Smetana knew and whose musical and business advice he sought – which, with typical generosity, Liszt provided. The two men had a good deal in common, including the fact that both of them primarily spoke German despite feelings of allegiance to Habsburg-ruled nations other than Germany. It is unsurprising that the six symphonic poems of Má vlast were not Smetana’s only ones in the genre. A new Naxos CD featuring the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra under Leoš Svárovský provides a welcome chance to explore other Smetana works in this form and examine the Liszt influence in new ways. Má vlast is very late Smetana, dating to 1874-79, but the works heard on this CD are earlier, and each is self-contained. Richard III dates to 1858 and depicts in musical terms the doom-laden scene before the Battle of Bosworth in which the king is haunted by the ghosts of his many victims. Smetana creates an effective portrayal, combining the expected martial elements with some distinctive touches, such as a reflective passage using muted lower strings. Wallenstein’s Camp (1859) also includes effective if rather obvious scene-painting, as when the army is asleep and then is roused by a trumpet to a final march – but here too, Smetana picks up some refined Liszt-like touches of orchestration, in a section where the scene of a street preacher mocked by the crowd is told through three trombones and tuba. Hakon Jarl (1861) features an attractive harp cadenza in a work that effectively mixes martial and religious themes. As an encore, Svárovský and the orchestra perform the scherzo from Smetana’s Festive Symphony, which was something of an occasional piece – written amid nationalist fervor in 1854, after the marriage of Emperor Franz Joseph I to Elisabeth of Bavaria. Three of the symphony’s four movements contain the old Imperial anthem, music written by Haydn but with many unfortunate associations in later years (including with the Nazis in the 20th century). Only the symphony’s third movement lacks references to Haydn’s tune, and Smetana himself conducted it as a standalone piece, as did others. In isolation, it is a well-made but not especially unusual work, of less interest than the symphonic poems on the disc but perfectly fine as a kind of musical dessert.
It is worth noting that Liszt not only influenced many other composers – and pianists – but also influenced himself in intriguing ways. Handel was a master of self-borrowing, but Liszt took this idea, as he took so much else, into new areas. Notably, in Liszt’s Transcendental Études, the fourth piece, an Allegro in D minor, bears the title Mazeppa, and is in fact the music that the composer later reworked into the symphonic poem of the same name (No. 6). The symphonic poem has a more-extended and more-triumphant coda than the piano work, and is expanded to twice the length, but the scene-painting and much of the music used to tell and comment on the story are the same. Liszt may have stopped concertizing professional at age 37 (in the stormy year of 1848), but he remained renowned as a pianist throughout his life and always produced piano music packed with challenges and innovations. A new Piano Classics CD featuring Andrey Gugnin in the 12 Transcendental Études certainly shows Liszt’s pianistic prowess – and Gugnin’s – to very fine effect. The Transcendental Études are a rite of passage for all young piano virtuosi, and certainly Gugnin gets the showy elements right, as in the rapid double-note passages of Feux Follets and the arpeggios and tremolos of Vision. But Gugnin also handles the subtle elements of the études convincingly and with care: the long-drawn-out melody of Ricordanza, for instance, and the calm impressionism of Harmonies du soir. This is a sensitive and thoughtful performance that accepts and conquers the technical demands of the music while looking beyond them to the études’ emotional underpinnings, showing them to be – in addition to study pieces, in addition to virtuoso display works – a kind of glorified and expanded salon music, perhaps not deep but undeniably attractive.
A similar description fits the piano music of Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944), who was surely aware of Liszt’s reputation and his approach to piano writing – and who once played some of her own early works for Bizet – but who generally chose to produce pleasantries rather than try to scale the emotional and technical heights where the older composer/pianist dwelled. Mark Viner, whose pianism is certainly equal to Liszt’s demands, finds a great deal worthy of exploration in Chaminade’s music on a new Piano Classics CD that contains three suites and five miniatures. Actually, everything here is a miniature, since the suites’ movements are themselves short: Chaminade shows the reverse side of the coin on whose obverse are Liszt’s very extended and highly symphonic tone paintings. Instead of Transcendental Études, Chaminade wrote six Études de concert that certainly contain some technical challenges – such as the nearly-nonstop double notes of the opening Scherzo – but that are mainly memorable for their delicacy and pleasurable sound, notably in the poetic Automne. (Chaminade was also, like Liszt, quite willing to borrow from herself: she used the fourth of these pieces, Appassionato, as a sonata finale.) There is prettiness as well in the four pieces of Poème provençal, with introversion (if not deep introspection) especially evident in Solitude and Le Passé. The third suite on this disc, 6 Romances sans paroles, takes after Mendelssohn more than Liszt and also shows Chaminade’s strength in music whose worth lies in its acceptance of the value of prettiness without striving for a deeper beauty. Idylle and Méditation are especially indicative of Chaminade’s approach, although it would be a mistake to consider this composer entirely one-dimensional, as the boldness of Chanson Brétonne shows. The individual pieces that Viner offers all have pleasures of their own: Pierette, air de ballet; Les Sylvains; Arabesque; La Lisonjera; and Thème varié, which – despite its title – is not a set of variations but an exploration of two similar themes that are attractively juxtaposed and treated with more virtuosity than is the norm in Chaminade’s music. Unlike Liszt’s piano music, Chaminade’s is often aimed at talented amateurs; and if Liszt’s stage was the world (or at least all of Europe), Chaminade was more comfortable with the Parisian drawing-room scene. But there was and is room for both Liszt and Chaminade in pianists’ repertoire, the two composers’ contrasts providing artists such as Gugnin and Viner with ample opportunity to showcase their technical prowess as well as their ability to use the piano in the way Liszt intended, as an orchestra in miniature.
Schubert: Sonatas for Violin and Piano (complete). Elizabeth Holowell, violin; Erin Helyard, fortepiano. Centaur. $16.99.
Matej Meštrović: Danube Rhapsody; Chinese Rhapsody; New England Rhapsody. Matej Meštrović, piano; Zagreb Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
Michael G. Cunningham: Clarinet Concerto; Rain Worthington: In Passages; Ssu-Yu Huang: Guitar Concerto No. 1; Bruce Reiprich: Lullaby; Beth Mehocic: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Croatian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
Project W: Works by Diverse Women Composers. Chicago Sinfonietta conducted by Mei-An Chen. Cedille. $12.
Jeff Morris: B4ch1007 (“Bach Loot”); Three Improvisations with Violin. Jeff Morris, live electronics; Ulrich Maiß, electric cello; Eric K.M. Clark, violin. Ravello. $14.99.
What, a listener may wonder, could be more straightforward in classical music than the combination of violin and piano in some Schubert sonatas? Well, if the listener hears Elizabeth Holowell and Erin Helyard playing those sonatas, he or she is going to have to redefine “straightforward.” These performances are anything but usual – they are, in fact, so unusual that they can fairly be described as revelatory about the music and about Schubert as a composer. Holowell and Helyard have gone back to the historical performance practices of Schubert’s time for this Centaur release – and that, it turns out, means much more than reduced vibrato and gut strings. It also means a period bow for the violin and a set of performance characteristics filled with violinistic techniques that were common in Vienna in Schubert’s time but later fell into obscurity or only occasional use. Here everything from rubato to frequent use of arpeggiated chords permeates the performance of all four of the violin-and-piano sonatas, giving them a wonderfully fluid and also very-exotic-to-modern-ears sound. And the violin elements are only part of the story. The piano is a fortepiano, a meticulous modern re-creation of one of Schubert’s time – a specifically Viennese type with no fewer than six pedals, each allowing special effects up to and including the “Turkish” sound of bells and drum. The point is not to overuse these intriguing possibilities but to incorporate them into the sonatas as Schubert would have expected them to be incorporated – they were simply standard elements of music-making in the Vienna of his day, a time when performance characteristics were very different depending on geographical area. Now these elements sound quite amazing, giving the straightforward violin-and-piano combination flavors that 21st-century listeners will have rarely, if ever, heard before. The music is marvelous in any guise, and Holowell and Helyard play it with beautifully knowing pacing and a fine grasp of period style – and with great sensitivity to the manifest beauties of Schubert’s melody-making. But it is the unusual elements of the sound here that set this excellent recording apart, as when that “Turkish” pedal is suddenly, dramatically introduced into the first movement of the Sonata in D, D. 384. This is one of three sonatas from 1816, the others being in A minor, D. 385, and G minor, D. 408 (they are sometimes designated Op. posth. 137, Nos. 1-3). All three are closer to piano sonatas with violin than to works in which the instruments play equal roles, but when a fortepiano rather than a modern concert grand is used, the interplay of the instruments is much subtler and their close proximity, if not quite equality, is much better established. The fourth sonata on the CD, “The Grand Duo” in A, D. 574 (Op. posth. 162), although written just a year later, is something quite different, giving the two instruments much more equal participation and being conceived on an altogether larger scale even though it is only about the same length as the A minor sonata of 1816. This Centaur release offers more than Holowell and Helyard in fine combinatorial form: it provides a window back to Schubert’s time and place, with sounds that are fresh and piquant as well as warm and emotionally evocative. This is quite a musical journey.
There is also some theoretical journeying on a new Navona CD featuring music of pianist/composer Matej Meštrović – in this case to Croatia, China, and New England – and there is also a considerably more exotic sound than might be expected from what at first seems like a disc of rhapsodies for piano and orchestra. Meštrović, it turns out, is not content to produce rhapsodies that only focus on piano and orchestra – at least not in two of the three works here. Danube Rhapsody, a celebration of the famous river that flows through 10 countries, sounds distinctly like a piece by Smetana from time to time, but its overall feeling is as Croatian as is Meštrović himself. The extended (30-minute) four-movement work mixes highly Romantic piano material with the sounds of instruments native to or especially popular in Croatia: accordion (played by Marjan Krajna), tambura (Svetlana Krajna), cimbalom (Alan Kanski), and fife (Dani Bošnjak ). In its unapologetic Romanticism – consisting of a splashily grandiose opening movement, a second-movement waltz that begins with almost-corny three-beat emphasis, a third movement called “Water Reflections” that sounds exactly like its title, and an extended and celebratory finale – Danube Rhapsody veers back and forth between genuine exoticism and a sort of Rachmaninoff-like overdoneness. It is very unusual to hear a recently-composed work in this style, which sounds like “maximalism” in an age where minimalist music is so common. The experience will not be to the taste of listeners who find unashamed use of Romantic-era effects inappropriate nowadays – but just when Meštrović seems to take things a little too far, as in the opening of the final movement, he suddenly stops everything and produces some lightly scored, near-self-parodic material that is genuinely amusing and is clearly part of a well-honed compositional style. Chinese Rhapsody is much shorter, at 12 minutes, but the approach here is similar: Meštrović builds on the expected piano-and-orchestra scaffolding by including a violin (played by Li Xinxing) and three Chinese instruments: pipa (Tu Shan Xiang), zheng (Zhang Pei), and erhu (Bai Yu). Add a rhythmic approach that distinctly reflects Chinese music – through a European’s perception, to be sure – and you have a work that quite successfully melds Western and Eastern musical elements. New England Rhapsody, whose three movements run about 17 minutes, is the only piece here that sticks to the piano-and-orchestra plan without other prominent instruments, but it is unusual in other ways – certainly for anyone expecting stolidity or a homespun Ivesian approach. As he filters China through Croatia, so Meštrović filters New England through his homeland, producing a work that generally swings along merrily, dips deeply into overt sentimentality in its second movement, and eventually finds in New England both a hint of Croatia and a level of jazziness that will surprise anyone who associates jazz with more southerly climes. Meštrović is both a skilled composer and a clever one, and his willingness to use, without irony, the forms and melodies of an earlier era, results in music that is genuinely enjoyable to hear and that, while sometimes sounding like a throwback, more often comes across as a reinterpretation of the past and its filtration through Meštrović’s very personal sensibilities.
There is also a Croatian connection on a (+++) Navona anthology CD of five very different concertos or other soloist-with-orchestra pieces: Miran Vaupotić, whose fine conducting of the Zagreb Symphony Orchestra is a big part of the success of the Meštrović disc, appears here as well – this time as conductor of the Croatian Chamber Orchestra. And he proves as sensitive and adept with the smaller ensemble as with the larger one. There are musical connections, too, in the forthright neo-Romanticism of Lullaby by Bruce Reiprich (with violinist Goran Končar) and the large-scale, ebullient Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by Beth Mehocic (with pianist Charlene Farrugia). This concerto actually sounds at times like something Meštrović could have written: although it is not as tightly structured as his pieces, it has some similarities in use of specific instruments, as in the percussive opening of the finale. The three other works on the CD are of somewhat less interest, or of interest more intermittently. Michael G. Cunningham’s Clarinet Concerto is intriguingly scored, featuring solo clarinet (Bruno Philipp) with the non-string instruments of the orchestra. The result is a rather bleaker sound than might be expected, added to by Cunningham’s insistent dissonance: the concerto certainly has interesting elements, but never quite hangs together. Rain Worthington’s In Passages uses solo violin (Mojca Ramušćak) for a 10-minute piece that dips in and out of lyricism seemingly rather arbitrarily. And Ssu-Yu Huang’s Guitar Concerto No.1, subtitled “Remembrance of Hometown,” interestingly uses a Taiwanese folksong as its basis and opens with a nicely considered solo for guitar (played by Pedro Ribeiro Rodrigues); but the rest of the piece is rather wan, and the intermingling of guitar with orchestra is not especially compelling. All the pieces here contain material of interest, but not all sustain particularly well from start to finish.
There is interesting small-ensemble material as well on a (+++) Cedille “cause” recording, an anthology devoted to music by women – as if a composer’s gender is somehow highly germane to the quality of his or her compositional ability. Like the Navona concertos-and-other-works CD, this one is a mixed bag in terms of how the material sounds and how effectively it reaches out to listeners. Dances in the Canebrakes by Florence Price (1887-1953), as arranged by William Grant Still (a man!), includes three simple and gently meandering dance tunes that, individually or collectively, serve as pleasant curtain-raisers for the rest of the program. Sin Fronteras by Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad (born 1978) is a more-conventional blend of multicultural influences, pleasant enough but too slight for its 13-plus minutes. Coincident Dances by Jessie Montgomery (born 1981) is deliberately multicultural as well, but its richer orchestration and more-evocative instrumental use help it hold its own to better effect than does Assad’s work. Two pieces by Reena Esmail (born 1983) are the most overtly sociopolitical works here, with the brief Charukeshi Bandish using a traditional Hindustani form (and Esmail’s own voice) to set up the much longer #metoo, yet another of the proliferating pieces that seem destined to turn a powerful and important women’s movement from one of assertiveness and self-expression into yet another series of endless complaints about how hard life is. The sincerity of the underlying motivation here is never in doubt, but there has been so much music created recently along these lines that only a piece offering something genuinely revelatory will likely stand out significantly. Esmail’s does not. Dance Card by Jennifer Higdon (born 1962), on the other hand, is a real winner. Providing a strong “closing bookend” in parallel to Price’s first-on-the-disc dances, Higdon creates a five-part suite in which some movements are genuinely danceable; some are mostly notable for rhythmic vitality; some are tours de force for performers (the Chicago Sinfonietta under Mei-Ann Chen is outstanding here and throughout the CD); and all are noteworthy for the skill of their orchestration and the high quality of the underlying creativity on a purely musical basis – independent of gender and of whatever the composer’s and listeners’ social, political or societal viewpoints may be.
Contemporary small-ensemble works may include, as often as not, electronic components, extending even into “duets” of a sort quite different from those of Schubert. A (+++) Ravello CD of music written and partly performed by Jeff Morris is a case in point. Morris’ performance elements are in the form of live electronics that are combined in the usual multiple sonic ways with electric cello in one piece here and with violin in the other. The first work, B4ch1007 (“Bach Loot”), has one of those cutesy titles in which the part in parentheses sort of relates to the main title – in this case, through a form of Internet writing known as leetspeak. The title is also, intentionally or not, ambiguous: “loot” can refer either to the richness of the Bach material on which the piece is based, or to the notion of looting Bach in the sense of vandalizing his creation. Will listeners familiar with Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G find this series of monumental distortions of that work revelatory in some way (the “richness” idea), or will they consider the whole Morris piece a bit of silliness, if not desecration (the “vandalizing” notion)? The answer will, of course, be highly individual and will depend on the extent to which listeners think electronic screams and shrieks of all sorts, through which bits of Bach occasionally emerge, are to be celebrated or dismissed. As for Three Improvisations with Violin, the idea here is to take the violin through paces inspired by images ranging from a house of mirrors to a ride on a beam of light, and in so doing to explore all the sound capabilities of which the instrument is capable. As an experiment in violin sonority – which, at its extremes, sounds quite as electronic as the live electronics – this work has some intellectual interest. Whether it is actually music, and whether it is intended to be, is a philosophical question (certainly not a musical one). There is a theatricality to this piece, and indeed to everything Morris offers here, that points toward the possibility that a live performance of this material would be more engaging than a recorded one, and less likely to wear out its welcome as quickly. Strictly as a recording, this disc offers very little in the way of sounds that has not been heard frequently before in pieces that composers seem to create primarily from a desire to show how adeptly they can handle the intersection of the electronic and acoustic worlds.
March 21, 2019
The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons. By Natascha Biebow. Illustrated by Steven Salerno. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
There are many things we take for granted in life, whether we are adults or children, never pausing to wonder where they came from and how they came to be. Crayons, a ubiquitous part of childhood going back generations, are one example. They seem always to have been around, and not to have changed very much – except for the addition of some new colors, larger boxes, and of course higher prices – since parents’ childhoods and their parents’ childhoods and…well, how far back do they actually go?
This is a too-infrequently-asked question, because it turns out, as Natascha Biebow explains in The Crayon Man, that the super-familiar Crayola crayons (and why, exactly, are they called that?) date to an age almost unimaginably remote from the present day, even though it is historically not all that long ago: the year 1903. This was a time when paper could not be used in schools: it was too expensive, so kids wrote with dusty, crumbly chalk on small slates. It was a time when crayons, although they existed, were impractical: big, clumsy, and hard to use. It was a time when only high-quality artists’ crayons could be employed in anything approaching the manner we take for granted now – but they cost a great deal and did not last, tending to crumble and break easily.
This is hard to imagine, but Biebow walks children (and parents!) through the realities of the late 19th and early 20th century surely and carefully, and the fine period-style illustrations by Steven Salerno help keep the story lively and, in the main, accurate. The book is the story of Edwin Binney (1866-1934), half of the Binney & Smith team whose eponymous company (which used that name from 1885 until 2007, thereafter becoming known as Crayola) started out creating industrial pigments that were so impressive for quality and price that they won a gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Binney was something of what we would now call a serial entrepreneur, inventing a better pencil, better chalk and other items before turning his attention to crayons, largely at the behest of his wife, a former schoolteacher.
Binney’s great idea – well, one of them – involved using wax in crayons. He had employed it in other products and thought, correctly as it turned out, that wax might solve the problem of easy breaking that afflicted crayons made in Europe from charcoal and oil. The Crayon Man does not make it seem that the invention of Crayola crayons was quick or easy: there are many scenes of ways in which Binney and his coworkers “kept on trying” and “kept on experimenting.” There is a certain among of revisionist history here, in the pictures if not the text: Salerno shows not only women but also African-American women working as equals with men, a historical inaccuracy justified by today’s determination to rewrite history to make it more inclusive (and also by the desire to have The Crayon Man reach out to a wide audience of 21st-century readers). There are multiple pictures showing workers, including Binney, covered in all sorts of colors, and some of these illustrations are highlights of the book, making it exceptionally, well, colorful – even if the extent of spillage onto workers’ clothing seems somewhat overdone.
The creation of Crayola crayons was, in effect, a major science project, with Binney as the lead creator – his cousin, C. Harold Smith, meanwhile kept Binney & Smith going with its more-mundane products: Smith was an outgoing and by all accounts highly effective salesman. It was in June 1903 that Binney got the recipe for a new kind of colored crayon right – and, writes Biebow, his wife, Alice, promptly named the product: “craie,” French for a stick of chalk, plus “ola” as in oleagninous, which is to say oily rather than dry and crumbly. Put the words together with a little bit of creative, Americanized spelling, and there you have it: Crayola crayons. The crayons, originally sold in boxes of eight colors for a nickel, were an immediate hit, assisted by the fact that by the time they were invented, new methods of creating paper had also been found – making paper cheap enough for children to use for coloring. Crayola crayons would not have worked on the old slates for which chalk was required, and would not have been quickly adopted if they had required they use of highly expensive paper.
Shortly after Crayola crayons came into being, Binney & Smith won another important gold medal, at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. It was not for the crayons but for the company’s dustless chalk – but the fact that the company was a gold-medal winner quickly appeared on Crayola crayon boxes, lending the new child-focused invention an extra bit of cachet. This is an altogether delightful story, neatly told and filled with fascinating tidbits of information – and after the main narrative ends, there is wonderful two-page photographic presentation showing how Crayola crayons are now made. It is as amazing in terms of the use of modern technology as the main story is in terms of the creativity and business acumen of Edwin Binney. Binney and his inventiveness came along at the right time, when industrial processes made colored wax crayons possible at reasonable prices and when paper could be produced cheaply enough to make the crayons readily usable. The Crayon Man is a wonderful blend of biography and scientific/commercial history, and a fine testament to the spirit of creativity that seems to be a longstanding trait of Americans and their businesses.
Diary of an 8-Bit Warrior #6: Forging Destiny. By “Cube Kid” (Erik Gunnar Taylor). Illustrated by Saboten. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Curious George Seek-and-Find. By Julie Fenner. Illustrations by Rudy Obrero. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.
The continuing “unofficial Minecraft adventure” series, Diary of an 8-Bit Warrior, offers more of the same in its sixth book – that is, more of essentially what it offered in the first five volumes. These are the stories of an unassuming 12-year-old villager named Runt who is determined to become a warrior, and who goes through various training regimens and a variety of adventures as he grows into more and more of a hero. Neither Runt nor anyone else in these books is much of a personality – like characters in the actual Minecraft world, they are basically Lego-like characters defined entirely by what they do, with largely interchangeable personalities. But as in video games in general, personality is not the point: what matters are the quests, the unusual scenes, the traps to escape, the “bosses” to battle, and the successes to be had. “Cube Kid” obviously knows the Minecraft world well, and his books, unofficial though they may be, have a look and feel and writing style that fit Minecraft like a glove. That means not many words per page, constant changing of type style and size to keep the pages visually interesting, and comic-book-like exclamations (not always with exclamation points) on an ongoing basis. “The village was certainly beautiful, yes. Elegant, breathtaking, enchanting. But it was also empty. ABANDONED.” And so on. As for the dialogue, it is along these lines: “I do say, noble sir, ye have bested me in this duel. Thy abilities are most exquisite.” Neither the descriptive material nor the spoken elements will be a reason for most readers to pick up Forging Destiny. The book is positioned simply as a continuation of Runt’s ongoing successes at various difficult tasks and assignments, the idea being that if you are a Minecraft lover who has followed Diary of an 8-Bit Warrior from the start, then videogame enthusiast “Cube Kid” will share your interest and expand your view of the Minecraft world a bit. Not too much, of course, because the book series has to stay planted firmly within Minecraft territory to have any reason for being at all. But the enchantments in the book are new, the costumes of the characters are new, and the specific adventures are new. They do not, though, really work as well in print as in videogameland. For example, an entire 29-page chapter called “Tuesday” is a page-by-page illustrated battle “written by Emerald” with the title “Let ’Em Know: Ballad of Villagetown.” This contains lines such as, “Don’t let them win, don’t bend the knee,/ Be the heroes straight out of prophecy.” Page after page shows battle scenes, complete with video-game-style damage; musical notes to indicate, well, music; and fighting of all sorts: “It’s time for us to test our skills/ And reach the record for most kills.” It all fits the Minecraft concept but loses a little – actually a lot – in translation to the printed page. In the long run, nothing much happens in Forging Destiny except that Runt and his companions do various good things and beat back various baddies, thereby advancing further into hero-ness. Minecraft fans will enjoy this as long as they don’t expect the book to have all the visual punch of Minecraft itself. Diary of an 8-Bit Warrior is nothing if not predictable – but for that very reason will be enjoyable for readers who will know exactly what to expect, and will get it.
The questing is far milder and not at all violent, and is intended for very young readers indeed, in Curious George Seek-and-Find, one of the many books in the ever-expanding universe of Curious Georgedom. None of these books has anything much to do with the original series by H.A. Rey and Margret Rey, except for the inclusion of Curious George himself (frequently drawn with only a passing resemblance to the original character) and the occasional appearance of The Man with the Yellow Hat. This seek-and-find book fits the “expansionist George” mode well, and will be fun for young readers and pre-readers. Each two-page illustration shows one of eight scenes in which kids are supposed to find specific objects or shapes – the usual approach for books like this. But because this is for the youngest age group, there is no attempt to conceal the things-to-be-found – as there usually is in books of this sort, such as the long-running series Where’s Waldo? Instead, the shapes are shown here in the lower-left corner of each two-page layout exactly as they appear in the larger illustration, where they are gently mingled with other shapes that do not hide the ones to be found at all. Thus, a scene with balloons shows George in a balloon basket with a dachshund, while The Man with the Yellow Hat waves from below – and the shapes to be found include a strawberry-shaped balloon, a banana-shaped one, and so on. A kitchen scene featuring “Chef Pisghetti” has George learning to make pizza as The Man in the Yellow Hat (here without his hat, a no-no in the original books) watches approvingly. Kids are supposed to find ingredients that George needs and that are hidden in plain sight: a bowl of olives, another of tomatoes, and so forth. It is hard to imagine most children going through Curious George Seek-and-Find more than once, although the search-for-it theme does get slightly expanded at the back of the book, with suggestions to find specific characters on every page and then to find “one or more star shapes” per scene. The fun here is mild and transient, but will be fine for the target audience of the youngest fans of the various new incarnations of Curious George.
Respighi: Feste Romane; Fontane di Roma; Pini di Roma. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
Respighi: Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows); Impressioni brasiliane (Brazilian Impressions); Rossiniana: Suite for Orchestra. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) was one of a group of Italian composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who wanted to reassert the importance of Italian orchestral music – as opposed to opera, where Italy was already acknowledged as being in the forefront. Respighi found some unusual ways of furthering this cause, partly by looking back to very old dance forms and reinterpreting and orchestrating them for a later age, partly by creating orchestral suites from earlier composers’ music, and partly by producing Impressionistic travelogues in a style that could never be confused with that of French composers, around whom Impressionism was primarily clustered. Respighi’s “Roman Trilogy” is his best-known foray into this very personal Impressionism and – unsurprisingly, given Respighi’s skill as an orchestrator – has been justifiably popular now for nearly a century. It takes a highly committed conductor and an exceptionally adept, well-balanced orchestra to deliver the three tone poems of the “Roman Trilogy” with their full effect, and it is a measure of the strength of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta that their new Naxos recording of this material is so excellent from start to finish. The works are unconnected except to some extent thematically (not musically thematically but in terms of literary underpinnings); they are usually heard in the order in which they were composed, first Fountains of Rome (1916), then Pines of Rome (1924), and then Roman Festivals (1928). This recording, however, places Feste Romane first, and there seems to be a good reason to do so: the start of this latest of the pieces is a sonic spectacular, and the work calls throughout for magisterial pomp, excellence in the brass, and an outgoing sense of celebration and splendor – and those are precisely the qualities that Falletta and her orchestra offer here. The result is downright exhilarating. Interestingly, though, the Buffalonians are just as impressive in the much quieter and more-sedate Fountains of Rome, which gives them a chance to play with delicacy and very careful sectional balance, at which Falletta excels. And in Pines of Rome, which has some bright and forthright elements and others that are inward-looking, the skill of the players and sensitivity of the conductor come together to produce a truly engaging performance, filled with rhythmic vitality, sweep and considerable elegance. The Buffalo Philharmonic of 2018, when these works were recorded, is wonderfully suited to the material and is truly a first-rate orchestra.
Interestingly, Naxos offers an unusual chance to hear how the orchestra and its conductor have grown and matured, through comparing the new “Roman Trilogy” recording with one including three other Respighi works – these recorded in 2006 by the same performers (although, of course, not all members of the orchestra are the same). Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows) dates to 1925 (although it was not performed until 1927) and was in fact not written about church windows: the four movements’ titles were added after Respighi finished the suite. The work is pleasant and, as usual with Respighi, cleverly scored. The gently nostalgic first movement, “The Flight into Egypt,” and dramatically warlike second one, “St. Michael the Archangel,” sound best here, but the third, “The Matins of St. Clare,” drags, and the finale, “St. Gregory the Great,” never really builds to an impressive climax. Impressioni brasiliane (Brazilian Impressions) was written in 1928, after Respighi made a trip to Brazil, but this performance, while workmanlike, never captivates or seems especially in tune with Brazilian rhythms. The first and longest movement, “Tropical Night,” should sound more sensuous than it does here, while the second, “Butantan” (the name of a research facility where dangerous snakes were raised), is never quite sinuous or menacing enough despite Respghi’s quotation at the end of the Dies irae. “Song and Dance,” the finale, is pleasant, but greater ebullience would have made it come across better. This is a cautious performance: Falletta seems to be holding back something throughout this work, shaping it carefully without ever cutting loose to make it sing. Similar care is lavished on Rossiniana: Suite for Orchestra, written the same year as Vetrate di chiesa. But the interpretation falls a bit short for the same reasons. The suite’s four movements are based on piano pieces that Rossini called Les Riens (“Trifles” or “Nothings”), much in the manner of Respighi’s earlier foray into reinterpreting Rossini, the 1919 ballet La boutique fantasque. Unfortunately, Rossiniana is not as charming as the earlier work, and Falletta fails to evoke more than occasional joy from it. The one thing missing most on this (+++) CD is lightheartedness – a quality that would enhance all the pieces here, even the one nominally focused on the sacred. Both Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic have made considerable performance and interpretative strides since this recording, which is certainly not a bad CD but is far more ordinary-sounding than their new offering of the “Roman Trilogy.”
Copland: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—Third Symphony; Connotations; Letter from Home; Down a Country Lane. BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Sergio Cervetti: Et in Arcadio ego; Consolamentum; Plexus. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.
Mark John McEncroe: Symphonic Poem—The Passing; Symphonic Suite No. 1—A Modern Medieval Tale. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armore and Heiko Mathias Förster. Navona. $14.99.
The fourth and final volume in John Wilson’s survey of Copland’s orchestral music – and the third including symphonies – brings this notable sequence of Chandos SACDs to a satisfying conclusion in part because it shows how Copland’s musical can be handled effectively as international in orientation, not specifically American. Copland tends to be thought of as a quintessentially American composer, and his Third Symphony (1944-46), with its finale incorporating a version of Fanfare for the Common Man, is often deemed as the most American of his works in this form. It has even sometimes been called “The Great American Symphony,” although that appellation seems overstated and perhaps indicative of lack of familiarity with Charles Ives – and, for that matter, William Schuman and Alan Hovhaness. In any case, Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic show this to be a work of considerable heft and interesting instrumentation, with the first-rate recorded sound an important element of the production: from delicate passages to the intensity of the bass drum, this is a recording for audiophiles. It is also one for seekers of completeness: Leonard Bernstein suggested a dozen-bar cut in the finale to Copland, the composer accepted the idea, and both Bernstein and Copland himself recorded the symphony with the excision; but Wilson goes back to the original version, which is rarely heard. This is a small point but a telling one: it shows Wilson treating this piece as any sophisticated international symphonic work would be handled, with respect for the composer’s original intentions even if revisions are more frequently heard (the extreme example of this being Bruckner). Another example of this “internationalization” is Wilson’s handling of Copland’s Third as something of an orchestral showpiece, for example by pushing the fugato passages in the finale (after the fanfare) to a speed that seems rather uncomfortable (despite the excellent playing of the orchestra). Yet the overall feeling of Wilson’s conducting is rather on the lyrical side, despite the generally quick tempos. The strings are especially clean-sounding and effective in the slow movement, and Wilson generally seems to be seeking a balance between intensity and lyricism throughout the symphony. That creates a bit of a neither-here-nor-there feeling in the performance, but it would be hard to argue that this is anything less than a thoughtfully conceived and very well executed version. Wilson and the orchestra handle the almost-symphony Connotations quite well, too. Copland originally thought of calling this piece a symphony – he certainly used that designation for some very different works – but it is in fact an occasional work (written for the opening of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City in 1962) and is more of a tone poem than anything genuinely symphonic. It is also a knotty, infrequently recorded piece, one of the few in which Copland dipped into the Second Viennese School: in a modified serial approach, all 12 semitones of the octave are heard in chord clusters and melodic lines, lending the work the “contemporary” feeling that Copland avowedly sought even though his approach was scarcely a new one by the 1960s. Here as in the symphony, Wilson shows the internationalism of Copland by treating the work as a rather smooth, carefully conceived piece despite its serialism: Wilson does not feel obliged to make Copland’s technique an in-your-face one, and the result is an interesting reading in which the music sounds “Coplandish” despite its overtly modernist elements. There is a refinement to Wilson’s view of Connotations that almost makes the work seem more a part of the European mainstream in the 20th century than a part of a specifically American kind of music. Wilson concludes the disc and the series with two attractive, melodic miniatures that serve as pleasant encores. Letter from Home (1944/1962) is gentle, tender, nostalgic, and reflective, a kind of ode to what we would now call Middle America. Down a Country Lane (1964) is also homespun and rather sweet: it is certainly not deep, but it is pleasantly redolent of the feeling of warmth and connection with nature that a country walk can provide. It was arranged by Copland for school orchestra from one of his piano works, so it is not difficult music to play, but in the hands of Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic, it makes a very satisfactory and very satisfying conclusion to a very fine four-disc series.
Copland never wholeheartedly embraced serialism and other modern compositional techniques, but they are foundational for many other composers. Sergio Cervetti’s symphonic poem, Et in Arcadia ego (2017), is contemporary in sound from its first shrill notes through its massed gouts of sound in which two deeply dissonant pitches – B and B-flat – are almost constantly played against each other. The work is supposed to be about an island off Uruguay that is a nature preserve, but if that notion is taken at face value, the island, Martín García, must scarcely be one where humans can commune with the natural world in the manner of Copland’s Down a Country Lane. The deliberately cacophonic material in Cervetti’s piece appears to be intended to make listeners feel uncomfortable, although the purpose of doing that is never quite clear. Cervetti is a skilled orchestrator and an unashamed adopter of various modern musical techniques, and Et in Arcadia ego has numerous interesting elements when considered simply as music and not as having any particular meaning. Even on that basis, though, its 20-plus minutes seem longer, since its not-quite-tonality leads to a feeling of uncertain or absent progress as the music continues. Consolamentum (2016), also a symphonic poem, is one-third shorter and considerably more successful in presenting a heartfelt tribute to several medieval Christian sects that were persecuted and virtually destroyed by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition. The pacing of the music and the extent to which it progresses quietly but inexorably are effective. Here too Cervetti juxtaposes two elements – in this case, chords rather than notes – and uses them as touchstones for the entire work. More a tribute to martyrs than a musical tale of their beliefs and martyrdom, Consolamentum requires no particular religious faith or spiritual orientation of an audience: it simply reaches out and asks listeners to experience empathy. In this way it is almost the opposite of Plexus (1970, revised 2016), which, like Copland’s Connotations, is an occasional work – written for the Fifth Inter-American Music Festival in Washington, D.C., in 1971. The original version must have sounded interesting: it required orchestra members to speak various radio and TV slogans of the time. The revised version eliminates anything like that and now sounds simply like yet another of the innumerable pieces of minimalist, going-nowhere “background music” in which the layers of instruments produce textures but ultimately communicate very little with them. This is a (+++) Navona CD that, like many similar ones, will appeal to listeners who simply want to hear what some contemporary composers are doing with now-common techniques – but it should be noted that Consolamentum is an unusually involving use of various modern musical approaches.
Another (+++) Navona disc features a composer who is more willing to embrace tonality and even some Romantic-era gestures when those are appropriate for communicating his ideas. Mark John McEncroe’s Symphonic Poem—The Passing is a short work, seven-and-a-half minutes, that is supposed to express the difficult necessity of letting go of old ideas. There could be an intriguing musical way to express this, by using avowedly Romantic material in the early part of the work and transfiguring it gradually into something more distinctly modern. McEncroe, though, keeps the material moderately paced and moderately tonal throughout, with a wide variety of cymbal-clash-accentuated climaxes that appear more or less randomly. The work is quite easy to listen to, certainly by comparison with many other orchestral pieces by contemporary composers, but it has little sense of progress or of distinct forward motion: it meanders, staying in pretty much the same emotional and musical territory throughout. The seven-movement Symphonic Suite No. 1—A Modern Medieval Tale is well-written and shows a sure command of the orchestra, but it is not especially strongly tied either to the past or to the present. The tone painting tends to be rather obvious, as in the contrast between the suite’s third movement (“Rising Discontent”) and its fourth (“Peasants’ Uprising”). From a musical standpoint, McEncroe does not seem entirely sure of whether he wants the audience to take the suite at face value or with a sense of irony, although his discussion of the material suggests he is quite serious about it, believing it illustrates the idea that human beings are as tied to the flaws in their nature today as they were in medieval times. As with Symphonic Poem—The Passing, this suite is considerably more “listenable” than is a great deal of contemporary music. Indeed, simply listening to these two orchestral works without trying to impart any particular meaning to them – hearing them as a sort of film music without visuals, which is a pretty fair description of their overall sound – leads to a satisfying experience. It is only when one tries to find and accept the deeper meanings that McEncroe wants his music to have that the works fall short.