June 27, 2019
Build Your Own Theme Park. By Lizz Lunney. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
From the Films of Harry Potter: Origami. Illustrations by Patrick Spaziante. Origami design by Janessa Munt. Scholastic. $12.99.
All books are participatory – no reader = no communication – but some are participatory in a different way, requiring reader involvement to get anything at all out of them. In fact, those involved with such books are better described as “participators” than as readers, since about the only thing they usually get to read is a set of instructions. Build Your Own Theme Park goes a bit beyond that, however. Yes, its primary purpose is making something, or rather a set of somethings: a whole bunch of theme-park elements including a central castle, a carousel, a roller coaster, food and ticket stands, and more. Everything to be built is printed on thick, cardboard-like paper filled with amusing and sometimes witty cartoon illustrations by Lizz Lunney. When correctly put together – the directions on how and what to fold, how and what to attach where, are quite clear – the various elements combine to create “Lizzneyland” (sounds, of course, like Disneyland), for which Lunney creates the amusingly self-deprecating motto, “Fun for Half the Family” (presumably the “kid” half: the ticket-booth attendant, for one, looks decidedly grumpy). Lunney does not just offer buildings and rides in Build Your Own Theme Park, either: she provides park guests, in the form of cat-headed but upright-standing characters to place here and there among the attractions. Like everything here, the design of the guests is carefully considered: “The cat guests are single sided – no need to glue these! Just fold the base backwards to stand them up! Some cats don’t have a base so they can fit in the rides.” Yes, Lunney has thought of just about everything needed for a make-your-own-theme-park activity. The perforated pages come out of the book easily (although holding a ruler against the perforations helps prevent tears of pages and tears of frustration – and while the backs of most pages simply have designs on them, some page backs show fully assembled portions of the theme park, so budding theme-park architects can get an idea of what things should look like after all the folding, inserting, attaching and gluing has been done. And there really is material to read in addition to building to be done in Build Your Own Theme Park, because Lunney plays around with the whole theme-park concept – and encourages young builders to do so, too. Lizzneyland itself is described as “an imaginary theme park for your brain,” and an illustration of a smiling human’s head shows a brain inside with the word “Lizzneyland” toward the back: “The occipital lobe sits in the lower back part of your brain. This is where you will find Lizzneyland! Reality and imagination flow in different directions in the brain, so be sure to travel the correct way!” The book is full of little remarks like this. For example, one poster promotes the “Futuristic Nightmare Zone,” while another offers the “Human Zone: so boring, it hurts.” Most of the fun here does come from folding and assembling all the various theme-park elements, but some of the extras add to the enjoyment. Thus, at the end of the book, two cat characters, who were first shown introducing the whole project, talk about what they can do next, and Lunney provides space to think up additional theme parks, name their rides and attractions, design their logos, and even create souvenir T-shirts for them. Scissors, tape or a glue stick, and Build Your Own Theme Park add up to a considerable amount of self-made fun.
A very different sort of construction is the basis of From the Films of Harry Potter: Origami. The paper-folding art is here put at the service of 15 Potter-themed creations, ranging in difficulty from pretty simple to very hard indeed; the difficulty level of each item is given in lightning-shaped scars like the one on Harry’s forehead, ranging from one scar to five. There is more reading to do here to understand how to create things than there is in Lunney’s book: the projects have step-by-step instructions, and there are a lot of steps – even an owl, one of the easier items here, requires 31 creation stages. This is a book for Harry Potter fans who are patient and can follow directions closely – and will pay attention to “tips” that make the finished products look much better. The book is filled with text explaining the meaning within the world of Harry Potter of the origami items that can be created using the included paper. For instance, “a Howler is an enchanted letter that could probably just say its message quietly, but instead it, well…howls it…” And “Fluffy is a three-headed dog that guarded the Sorcerer’s Stone. Although Fluffy was vicious, he could be lulled to sleep with a bit of music.” The text goes on to tell a bit about specifically how each origami project fits into the narrative of the Harry Potter films – and there are stills from the films scattered throughout the book, along with illustrations. The number of steps required by each project does not necessarily reflect the project’s difficulty level: the one-bolt cauldron has 21 steps and the hippogriff has only 16 – but is a four-scar project because of the complexity of folding, rotating, pressing, reversing and crimping the paper to create it. Familiarity with origami is not necessary to enjoy From the Films of Harry Potter: Origami, because the book opens with careful explanations of the various types of folds required for the projects. plus illustrations showing just how each fold works and what has to be done to make each of them come out properly. Especially valuable in this introduction is a small box titled, “Practice Makes Perfect!” This recommends that origami novices warm up using their own, large paper before trying projects that require the paper included in the book: “Some of the pieces in this book are complicated and it will be easier to see the shapes and folds if they are bigger.” This is very good advice, because many of these projects – and not only the most-difficult ones – require considerable care and dexterity. Young Harry Potter fans who are willing to focus hard in order to create some rather intricate paper shapes will have a lot of fun with From the Films of Harry Potter: Origami. But this is not a book to try to grasp quickly, and there is no place here (or in origami in general) for impatience or undue haste. Even origami-experienced readers would be well-advised to start with the simpler projects here and work their way through to the harder ones – and in truth, even the simplest shapes in this book, when folded properly, come with a considerable measure of enjoyment for a job well (and patiently and carefully) done.
The Bad Guys #9: The Big Bad Wolf. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.
Making Friends #2: Back to the Drawing Board. By Kristen Gudsnuk. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
Well, they can’t all be gems. By and large, the books in Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys series have so far been a great deal of silly fun, as Mr. Wolf, Mr. Shark, Mr. Piranha, Mr. Snake, and Legs the tarantula try hard to overcome their negative reputations by fighting a set of really nasty tentacled aliens led by an especially repulsive head guy (actually head thing) disguised (some of the time) as a super-adorable guinea pig named Marmalade. And if that description seems to make almost no sense, then it is exactly right, because the books, individually and as a series, make almost no sense. And that’s just fine – usually. But Blabey has been making the sequence increasingly complex, for example by not only including the mysterious Agent Fox but also introducing the entire League of Heroes…and having one episode, involving time travel to the dinosaur age, result in bringing a velociraptor into present times while turning him super-hyper-intelligent and also having the Bad Guys themselves pick up various super-powered superpowers. Whew. Blabey actually gets away with the increasingly silly, increasingly complicated plotting, because neither he nor readers will have any reason to take anything that is happening even one iota seriously. But seriously, the ninth book, The Big Bad Wolf, pushes the envelope a little too far, and envelopes, even those addressed to or by Blabey, can stand only so much pushing. In this book, Mr. Wolf is gigantic and evil and destructive because of events that happened in the last book, Superbad, and get no recap here. Now the remaining Bad Guys have to stop him, except that Legs has to get together with Agent Shortfuse to find a way onto the alien mother ship to try to short-circuit the alien invasion that is happening while Mr. Wolf is laying waste to pretty much everything. Matters are really getting overly complex at this point, with the result that elements of the series that have made it distinctive get short shrift (and in some cases, no shrift). Mr. Snake’s reluctant admiration for Mr. Wolf is based on prior events and is a key to the events in The Big Bad Wolf, for example, but it is used only in passing. Mr. Snake has (imperfect) mental powers that he has to use to try to stop Mr. Wolf from destroying, well, everything, so Mr. Snake has to get into Mr. Wolf’s ear (literally) and whisper sweet somethings into it – things along the lines of “cut it out already.” But this doesn’t work because, it turns out, Marmalade is in Mr. Wolf’s other ear, countermanding everything positive that Mr. Snake is saying. And besides, Marmalade (in alien form) turns out to be able to remove all the superpowers from the Bad Guys – something he never thought of before and something Blabey never got around to mentioning – so suddenly Mr. Wolf and the others are back to just being well-meaning Bad Guys who want to be Good Guys, which solves the destroy-everything problem but leaves Mr. Snake absent, perhaps permanently, and leaves everyone and everything in the clutches of the evil aliens, where they have been all along…wait, that can’t be right. Umm, but it is: The Big Bad Wolf doesn’t really go anywhere, doesn’t really advance the story of the Bad Guys (even in a silly direction), and really just comes across as a setup for the next book, The Baddest Day Ever. That may turn out to be the final one in the series, and if so, that would be fine, because even super-silly sequences eventually run their course, and The Bad Guys has just about run its.
The second Making Friends graphic novel by Kristen Gudsnuk, although aimed at older readers than the ones Blabey targets, shares many of the same approaches and flaws. The Making Friends books are also vastly over-complicated, trying to make up in pacing what they lack in plot coherence; and the second book picks up right where the first one left off, making no attempt to present a back story and not even trying to make first-time readers (if any pick up this volume before the earlier one) feel comfortable or knowledgeable about what is going on. Where Gudsnuk, who targets middle-school readers, differs from Blabey, whose readers are younger, is in wanting her story to have some level of meaning and significance beyond simple entertainment. So she packs it with middle-school tropes involving mean girls, friendship questions, classroom issues and more – and although none of these elements adds much to the story, they do serve to complicate it ever further, to such a point that many plot elements spring up quickly and disappear just as speedily to make room for others. To understand Back to the Drawing Board, readers need to know, from the previous book, that protagonist Dany has magic powers because of a sketchbook that she inherited, and Dany, typically lonely in a middle-school-angsty way, has used those powers to create a best friend for herself. This is Madison, who in the first book frees herself from Dany’s control and starts living her own life, but then ends up as Dany’s best friend by choice rather than by compulsion (or something along those lines). In the second book, the mostly destroyed school (wrecked in the climactic battle at the end of the first book, as is not explained) is back in session, and there are plans to raise money to fix things up, and those plans involve having a typical middle-school dance. In another plot strand, Dany continues to feel inadequate and socially awkward despite her magic prowess and the fact that she has used her abilities to give all sorts of magic to other students. So Dany actually pays the local mean girl to be her friend (one of many plot threads that eventually goes nowhere); and then Dany comes up with the brilliant (?) idea of using the sketchbook to make a clone of herself that will have a more-bubbly, more-extroverted personality and also be better at homework. This goes about as well as might be expected – no, it goes better than expected, because Dany and Cloney get along beautifully and really do help each other, at least until Cloney starts overstating some matters and being a little too forthright about others and…well, maybe this is what might be expected, after all. But wait – there’s more. There is also a school bully who, it turns out, has his own magic (that plot point comes out of absolutely nowhere). And his magic is tied up with a blue dog, a genie of sorts called a “hinn,” and the dog is in a bottle that happens to be in the possession of Dany’s parents (another out-of-nowhere development). And Dany accidentally frees the dog, and learns that her parents have magic as well (hoo boy), and that magic has consequences (well, duh); and by the latter part of the book, it is legitimate to ask not who has magical powers but who doesn’t (that seems to be a shorter list). A huge confrontation with the bully and hinn, which involves people turning into animals (some of them never realizing it), ends up as the book’s climax, but it is neither funny enough nor pointed enough to make Back to the Drawing Board a wholly satisfying sequel. Still, readers who liked the over-complex, over-plotted first book will find at least some elements to enjoy in this even-more-complex, even-more-over-plotted second.
Walter Leigh: Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings; Ned Rorem: Concertino da Camera; Viktor Kalabis: Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings; Michael Nyman: Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord and Strings. Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Chicago Philharmonic conducted by Scott Speck. Cedille. $16.
Daniel Ott: Pieces of Reich; Fantasy on a Falling Line. Jeffrey Savage and Karen Savage, pianos. Navona. $14.99.
Mira J. Spektor: Summer and Winter Songs. Maeve Höglund, soprano; Jean-Paul Björlin, piano and tenor. Navona. $14.99.
The 20th century brought a surprising revival of interest in the harpsichord, thanks largely (on the classical side) to Wanda Landowska and (on the decidedly non-classical side) to the desire for unusual sounds for themes for television shows (e.g., Laurie Johnson’s music for the mid-1960s British “spy-fi” cult series, The Avengers). Interestingly, there was also at least a modicum of interest in writing new classical works for harpsichord – not just performing old ones. There are not too many of those modern works for harpsichord, but Jory Vinikour and the Chicago Philharmonic under Scott Speck have chosen a particularly interesting quartet of them to showcase on a new Cedille CD. What makes the disc special are not only the fine performances and the differences among the works, but also the way the four pieces – arranged chronologically – trace some fascinating changes in harpsichord use and in other aspects of classical music through the 20th century. The Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings, probably the best-known work by Walter Leigh (1905-1942), dates to 1934 and has a very distinct flavor of tribute to Bach and Vivaldi – indeed, this nine-minute, three-movement work in classical form could almost be a lost Baroque concerto, so closely does it hew to its models in writing for the solo instrument (although not in harmony). The Concertino da Camera by Ned Rorem (born in 1923 and still going strong) is not much later – it was written in 1946 – but, surprisingly, this is its world première recording. And a very good one it is, too, neatly showcasing both the elements of the concertino that look back toward Leigh and Leigh’s models and those that have greater acerbity, born of more-recent attitudes toward rhythmic and harmonic structure. Rorem’s work is twice the length of Leigh’s but never has a sense of overstaying its welcome. Things get more complicated, though, in the third work here, Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings (1975) by Czech composer Viktor Kalabis (1923-2006). This is a very extended piece, lasting 28 minutes in this performance; and while it uses the same three-movement form employed by Leigh and Rorem, it has a very different flavor. Here the writing for the harpsichord is suitably light and is balanced quite well with that for the strings, but the expert construction of the work is scarcely the main thing that listeners will notice. It is the emotionalism of this piece, which is quite decidedly that of the mid-20th century, that is its most salient characteristic. Each outer movement is, in its own way, almost a perpetuum mobile for the soloist: Vinikour’s stamina comes through as clearly in them as does his musicianship. And the central Andante proffers a very bleak landscape indeed, a dryness that seems peculiarly well-suited to the harpsichord’s sound and that casts its chill over the remainder of the piece. This work has many attractive elements, but it will be off-putting to some listeners. It will not be as much so, however, as the final item on the disc, the 1975 Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord and Strings by Michael Nyman (born 1944). This is one of those pieces that can be considered an acquired taste that not all audiences will care to acquire. Its six movements have “with-it” modern tempo indications: note values for two, one marked CADENZA (in all caps) and the last designated “(post-cadenza)” with all small letters and parentheses. The musical sound here is essentially minimalist, and minimalism is one of those contemporary approaches with as many detractors as fans. A characteristics of minimalism is the ease with which it fades deliberately into the background, but it does not do that in Nyman’s work – and the reason is the harpsichord, which here is used in the exact opposite of the way Baroque and some Classical-era composers employed it, as harmonic grounding: Nyman makes it an attention-getting foreground instrument in ways that go well beyond those employed by Leigh, Rorem and even Kalabis. Nyman’s concerto is shorter than Kalabis’ (21 minutes vs. 28) but feels longer; and it is less idiomatic in the writing for the harpsichord than anything else on this disc. It nevertheless functions well to cap what amounts to a particularly intriguing chronological survey of original 20th-century harpsichord concertos – and a CD of generous length (76 minutes).
The keyboard instrument is much more familiar on a new Navona CD featuring music by Daniel Ott – or make that “keyboard instruments,” since these are works for not one but two pianos. This (+++) disc is very much a specialty item: it lasts a total of only 29 minutes and is as much a showcase for Jeffrey Savage and Karen Savage (who call their piano duet 88SQUARED) as it is for Ott’s music. The 2004 Pieces of Reich was written as a prelude to Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, then adapted as a standalone concert piece for 88SQUARED, which gave its première in that version. Fantasy on a Falling Line was actually commissioned by this piano duet, which gave the work its première in 2017. The musical language of both pieces is fairly straightforward for modern (or modernistic) works: almost everything is dissonant and harsh and there are many contrasts between extremely quiet passages and super-loud ones. As a result, the most interesting elements here are the ones that sound least like the music of many other contemporary composers: a surprisingly lyrical section opening the first of the seven movements of Fantasy on a Falling Line, for example, and a delicate and nuanced (and admirably short) third movement (“Interlude I”). Although this is not really minimalist music, parts of it – notably “Movement II” and “Interlude II” – partake of minimalism. The rest of the work, like the entirety of Pieces of Reich, is a comparatively straightforward opportunity for the pianists to engage each other in ways that are sometimes complementary and at other times competitive. The disc is strictly for fans of 88SQUARED and listeners already familiar with Ott’s music.
Another new (+++) Navona release also contains a modest amount of material – 43 minutes – and will also be mainly of interest to listeners who already know the composer, Mira J. Spektor. Here the piano is primarily an accompaniment instrument, but Spektor uses it again and again to set the scene of her songs, which explore a wide variety of landscapes and moods in rather helter-skelter fashion. For example, the CD’s title, “Summer & Winter Songs,” really relates to only three of the 18 pieces: White Road of Summer, Winter Lullaby and Indian Summer – with the second and third of those separated, rather oddly, by a piece called Paracheech Tea. Spektor herself wrote the lyrics to many of the songs: both Winter Lullaby and Indian Summer as well as Have Song Will Travel, Rain Song, Neige dans Mon Coeur, Take Me Home Tonight, and Call Me, and she also added lyrics to Caroline Crippen’s in You Were There. The authorship reinforces the notion that this is a disc for Spektor devotees. It is also for listeners interested in some rather unexpected (although presumably deliberate) juxtapositions. For instance, Spektor’s Take Me Home Tonight and Call Me, which are quite distinctly modern in the scenes they set, are separated on the disc by When We Two Parted, which uses words by Lord Byron. And Spektor’s Have Song Will Travel and Rain Song are separated by three songs, in German, to words by Goethe. There is little apparent rhyme or reason to the arrangement of material on the disc, but there is certainly clarity of style: Spektor’s music is tonal, lies frequently on the ever-shifting boundary between classical art song and popular music, and has occasional theatrical elements – notably in the final two songs, You Were There and Give Me Time, which are listed as being from a “mini-musical,” itself called Give Me Time, and which are duets featuring both Maeve Höglund and Jean-Paul Björlin. In truth, Björlin is a much better pianist than tenor, especially in contrast to Höglund, who is the soloist on all but those final two songs and who handles their many moods and three languages with sensitivity and insight (where insight is called for, which is not always the case). On the whole, these songs are pleasantries rather than works of significant consequence; and the piano, fulfilling its traditional art-song role of providing backup, accompaniment and scenic design, has enough to contribute to support the singing but not enough to show any particularly distinctive compositional style.
Gade: Erlkönigs Tochter; Fünf Gesänge. Sophie Junker, soprano; Ivonne Fuchs, mezzo-soprano; Johannes Weisser, baritone; Danish National Vocal Ensemble and Concerto Copenhagen conducted by Lars Ulrik Mortensen. Dacapo. $16.99.
Harry Partch: Ulysses at the Edge of the World; Twelve Intrusions; Windsong; Sonata Dementia. Ensemble PARTCH. Bridge Records. $14.99.
Strictly for those seeking something unusual from the 19th century, the world première recording of the1864 version of Danish composer Niels W. Gade’s Erlkönigs Tochter (“The Elf-King’s Daughter”) is now available on the Danish label Dacapo with a Danish chorus and instrumental ensemble – sung in German. This may seem odd from a repertoire standpoint, but it is not from a historical one, since Gade was quite well thought of in Germany during his lifetime. Indeed, Elverskud (the work’s Danish title), completed and originally performed in 1854, was translated into German the next year and performed in Germany three times in 1855 alone. The dramatic cantata remained popular, gaining more international attention in German than in the original Danish; Gade made a number of changes in the instrumentation in 1864. The work, in any language, is not well-known today, and its performance by the original-instrument ensemble Concerto Copenhagen is a welcome and quite idiomatic one. It is also quite international: soprano Sophie Junker, who sings the title role, is Belgian; mezzo-soprano/alto Ivonne Fuchs, in the role of the ill-fated knight’s mother, is German/Swedish; baritone Johannes Weisser, as the knight, is Norwegian; and the Danish National Vocal Ensemble is, of course, Danish. The story is a typical warning-against-the-fey folktale, based on medieval ballads, in which a knight, on the eve of his wedding, rides off – supposedly to invite additional guests, but in reality to calm a heart already torn between his earthly bride and the elf-king’s daughter. Sure enough, he encounters elven enchantment that leads, when he returns home on what is supposed to be his wedding morning, to his death. Structured by Gade as a series of nine songs (three each in three parts of the story), with a prologue and epilogue that both use the same music and contain the same “beware” message, Erlkönigs Tochter is particularly intriguing for showing that Gade, like Grieg and Sibelius, was interested in the nationalistic and folkloric elements of Scandinavia in addition to being heavily influenced throughout his compositional life by German musical traditions and, in particular, by Mendelssohn. The music at the end of the prologue, for example, sounds very distinctly Mendelssohnian, while the orchestral section that opens the second part of Gade’s work is especially notable for its harmonic and instrumental evocation of night in the realm of the fairy folk. Erlkönigs Tochter is paired on this very interesting CD with an earlier, a cappella choral work with an even stronger German connection, Fünf Gesänge of 1846 – using German texts and first published in Leipzig. Gade was a church-choir conductor, among other things, and quite skilled in writing for massed voices in ways that allow vocal lines to come through clearly in appealing melodies. These five songs, four to texts by Emanuel Geibel and one to words by the better-known Ludwig Tieck, are about various aspects of nature: spring, the water lily, walking in the woods, autumn, and the joy of sunshine in the forest. The Romanticism of the words is palpable, and the settings have a clarity and fine vocal balance that make these two-to-three-minute songs into enjoyable pleasantries. Gade’s music remains relatively infrequently heard outside Denmark, and these specific works will be of particular interest to listeners who know him mainly through his symphonies, which are his best-known pieces today.
Listeners interested in highly unusual music from the 20th century rather than the 19th can hear a considerable amount of it on a new Bridge Records release featuring some of the outré creations of Harry Partch (1901-1974). Partch wrote music that sounds different from anything else of his time or, for that matter, any time. A theorist who subdivided the octave into as many as 43 tones and then created instruments that could play the resulting music, Partch was one of the earliest users of microtonality – and a musical experimenter as far from the norm in one direction as John Cage was in another. Because Partch’s musical notation gives no indication of what his works should actually sound like, his pieces have yet another layer of performance difficulty associated with them. The ensemble PARTCH, however, has made it a habit to unlock the mysteries and sounds of its namesake composer, and the group’s new CD shows, as so often happens with Partch’s creations, that the material is more “listenable” than its highly abstruse and genuinely odd conceptualization would lead listeners to expect. There are three world première recordings here: Sonata Dementia, Windsong (the score to an art-house film), and – as a bonus track – a live 1942 recording of Partch himself performing Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California (1941), which is one of Partch’s best-known works, to the extent that any of them are known to audiences at large. What is noteworthy (and yes, that is a pun) about Partch is that whatever the peculiarities of his structure and notation may be – and they are many – the music he created, when coaxed out of its labyrinth of complexity, is genuinely interesting to hear and has a sound all its own. It is almost tonal, but the word “tonal” has little meaning when it comes to Partch – his creations really require a new vocabulary. The members of PARTCH certainly speak it, whatever “it” may be. Thus, Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1962), subtitled “A Minor Adventure in Rhythm,” mixes percussive and other rhythmic sounds effectively. Twelve Intrusions (1950) is filled with vocalizations, some of them discernible words and some more like groans and sighs – and here Partch proves himself quite capable of Impressionism of a sort, in pieces such as “The Waterfall” and “The Wind,” and also of deliberately overstated scholarly or pseudo-scholarly endeavors (“Study #1 on Olympus' Pentatonic” and “Study #2 on Archytas' Enharmonic”). Windsong (1958) opens with straightforward narration and proceeds into a sonic agglutination that sounds, in the main, like percussion gone wild. Sonata Dementia (1950) is in three movements labeled “Abstraction & Delusion,” “Scherzo Schizophrenia,” and “Allegro Paranoia,” and the second and third, in particular, reflect their titles so well that it can be hard to determine whether some sections are vocal or instrumental (this is actually a characteristic of much Partch music, a consequence of the way he subdivides octaves). The Barstow bonus track, recorded at the Eastman School, starts with an introduction to the piece (and to the town of Barstow) by the composer and is narrated by him with considerable attentiveness to the emotions of the unknown hitchhikers whose words the piece memorializes. There is also one other bonus track on this CD: a short Native American chant taken from a 1904 Edison cylinder and giving some intriguing insight into one of the sources from which Partch’s mini-micro-tonal explorations emerged. Partch was an outlier among outliers in music, and his works are unlikely ever to garner widespread acceptance, much less enthusiasm. But for listeners seeking the highly unusual or ones already aware of Partch’s existence, if not the extent of his explorations, the ensemble PARTCH here offers an excellent selection of material that is as well-if-strangely-performed as it is well-if-strangely-constructed.
June 20, 2019
Croquette & Empanada: A Love Story. By Ana Oncina. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Business Cat 2: Hostile Takeovers. By Tom Fonder. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
There is still something endearingly childlike about many cartoon characters, even when they appear in stories that are certainly not childish. The title characters in Ana Oncina’s Croquette & Empanada happen to be adorable, and both happen to be baked goods, but this is indeed, as the book’s subtitle indicates, a love story, in which the two move in together and have all the everyday adventures associated with making a life with another (adult) person. In fact, the other characters in Croquette & Empanada are humans, but the title characters interact with them seamlessly, and no one is the slightest bit surprised to have “pastry people” adopt pets, go shopping, attend parties, go on trips, etc. The total acceptance of Croquette and Empanada as just two more members of the (admittedly somewhat expanded) human family is the underlying conceit of Oncina’s book, and it is often what makes the mundane occurrences funny. For instance, there is a recurring theme called “Scary Bedtime Stories” that involves Croquette and Empanada at night. In one of these sequences, Empanada says a book scares her and asks Croquette to read it to her, and when he does, the two characters both get too frightened to sleep. That is the whole story. In another set of panels with the same title, Empanada pushes against Croquette while sleeping, so he almost falls out of bed; he wakes her up so she moves a bit farther away; then she goes to sleep again and the same thing happens. That too is the whole story – one that humans with partners will surely recognize, and one made amusing only because here it involves a croquette and an empanada. To be sure, an occasional sequence plays directly with what the characters are: one “Scary Bedtime Stories” entry has Croquette so soundly asleep that he does not realize Empanada has taken a bite out of him. Then there is the at-a-party story in which Croquette keeps talking and talking and talking, well beyond the comfort level of others at the gathering – that one is called “Croquette on a Roll,” a punning reference to baked goods. And early in their relationship, while they have dinner together, Empanada comments, “I love croquettes. I think they’re my favorite food. You should try one.” Watching Empanada eating miniature versions of himself, Croquette can only stare at her and say, “No, thanks.” The humor here is mild and offbeat at the same time, and occasionally on the weird side, as when Empanada creates “a comic about us as if we were people.” Simply drawn against plain backgrounds, Oncina’s book scarcely breaks new ground artistically or thematically. But its basic premise works surprisingly well.
Tom Fonder’s Business Cat, originally an Internet comic, has a concept at least equally strange. Fonder deliberately makes the title character’s cat’s-head-on-a-human body completely unrealistic-looking, the head being quite obviously clumsily attached. The body itself is drawn much more realistically, and all the other human characters in the strip are also realistic – which means that Fonder knows how to draw people but, when it comes to Business Cat himself, chooses not to create a seamless (or even semi-seamless) blend of human and feline. The idea of the strip is that Business Cat is all cat when it comes to most of his habits and activities – but exists as a CEO in a human world. This means, for one thing, that he can get into deep trouble with the IRS, which is what happens in Hostile Takeovers – but that the government agents must conclude that “the state prohibits us from trying a cat in a court of law.” Does this mean that Business Cat gets away with having “named a stuffed animal head of accounting” and putting a scratching post (wearing a tie) in charge of Legal? Not really – he may not be prosecutable, but his company (here revealed to be called MiaoCo) is on the hook for so much in back taxes, interest and penalties that it goes bankrupt and is taken over by Business Cat’s hated rival, Business Dog (full name: Howard T. Business Pug). As is also revealed here, Business Cat and Business Dog are “manimals” (a wonderfully apt word), and they are not the only ones: after losing everything, Business Cat eventually ends up captured and imprisoned by Animal Control, and is placed in a cell with a big, beefy, heavily tattooed fellow inmate who has a teeny-tiny bird’s head and insists on being called “Princess Sparkle.” The way Business Cat gets out of stir and also arranges for Princess Sparkle to be freed, and the way the bird manimal repays the favor by undermining Business Dog, is just one of the bizarre delights of this strange and wonderful (maybe more strange than wonderful) book. Fonder fills the pages with sillinesses large and small – one small one, for example, is that assistants to the manimals who run major corporations are always name Jan (Janet, Janice, and Janine all make appearances). Another is that Business Cat and Business Dog are not the only manimal tycoons and rivals: there is also Business Crab, who engineers Business Cat’s eventual return to corporate life. But the point is that, no matter what these characters look like, their basic personalities are those of their animal parts. Thus, in the Animal Control prison, Princess Sparkle loses “jangly bell privileges” and is controlled by a guard who puts a towel over his bird’s head, resulting in instant sleep; and Business Cat is readily forced to be good by being threatened with a spritz of water. For those for whom the basic level of absurdity is not high enough, Fonder includes at the book’s end a series of additional panels showing what happens after the final panel of each sequence in the book. Some of those extra panels double the amusement of the strips, while others expand on individual strips’ themes. Business Cat: Hostile Takeovers is totally absurd, utterly ridiculous, and very much for adults – especially ones who have tried to share a home with a cat or have worked in an office where the boss just has to be some sort of manimal.
10 Women Who Changed Science and the World. By Catherine Whitlock, Ph.D., and Rhodri Evans, Ph.D. Diversion Books. $26.99.
We will know we have reached gender equality when someone writes a book called 10 People Who Changed Science and the World, all 10 of those profiled are women, and nobody finds that surprising or unusual. Needless to say, we are not there yet. So we get books such as 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World, in which the hagiographic biographical sketches are by definition of females and it is their gender that leads to their inclusion. In one sense this is a good thing, drawing attention to contributions that could otherwise be overlooked; in another it is unfortunate, raising the question of whether the accomplishments of these women really deserve the level of praise they receive from Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans, or whether the authors are bending over a bit too far backwards to showcase work that would get less attention had it been done by men.
Certainly some of the women here are household names regardless of their gender: Marie Curie, Rachel Carson of Silent Spring, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Virginia Apgar (creator of the APGAR scale to evaluate the health of newborn babies: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration). The seven other women profiled by Whitlock and Evans are little-known outside their fields of specialization: Gertrude Elion (pharmaceuticals), Dorothy Hodgkin (X-ray crystallography), Henrietta Leavitt (astronomy), Rita Levi-Montalcini (neurobiology), Lisa Meitner (nuclear physics), Elsie Widdowson (nutrition), and Chien-Shiung Wu (experimental physics). It is clear that the work of all these women did indeed change things within their respective fields, and indeed, some of the women won Nobel Prizes (not only Curie but also Elion, Hodgkin and Levi-Montalcini), while other cases brought Nobel nominations (e.g., Leavitt, who died before being nominated and was therefore ineligible, since the prizes are not awarded posthumously). It is also clear that the women faced barriers not only because of their gender but also because of the times in which they lived: Levi-Montalcini, for instance, lost her job when Italy’s Fascists cracked down on the nation’s Jewish population, and she barely avoided deportation to a concentration camp.
What Whitlock and Evans emphasize, however, is not so much the barriers that these women scientists overcame as their accomplishments when they did overcome them. That means discussing the support of their families – often their mothers – and the women’s own tenacity in pursuit of their goals even when, for example, finances were a significant deterrent to progress (as was the case for Apgar and Elion during the Depression years).
There is not, however, quite as much humanizing of these women as readers may wish. Hodgkin, for example, was heavily influenced by John Bernal and his “communist Utopian vision,” not so much politically as personally: the authors say she had “fallen for his magnetic personality.” But then they become rather coy: “Dorothy conducted their relationship in her characteristically unobtrusive fashion... The relationship was not to last, but they did remain friends and in close personal and professional contact for the rest of their lives.” A bit more personal detail, stopping short of titillation, would have been welcome in matters like this.
There is also some awkwardness in the style and organization of the book. In the chapter on Apgar, for example, the authors write, “One of her mentors and good friend, Dr. L. Stanley James, described her as ‘a student until the day she died.’” Then, on the next page, they write, “One of her colleagues, Dr. Stanley James, later said, ‘Virginia was not just a doctor. She was also an educator.” There is no indication that this is the same Dr. James or that the second quotation comes with a second reference to the person quoted: it reads like a first reference. Something similar occurs later in the chapter, this time within a single paragraph: “…Dr. Joseph Butterfield at the Children’s Hospital in Denver suggested an acronym using Virginia’s surname…” is followed just a few lines later by, “Dr. Joseph Butterfield published this acronym…” This sort of writing is awkward at best and can be off-putting and confusing. It sometimes seems as if Whitlock and Evans are so determined to show the gravitas of the women they profile that they hold back from over-personalizing the stories for fear of trivializing them. Certainly the authors dwell at far more length on the scientific findings of their subjects than on the subjects themselves – with the result that 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World is rather dry reading, both as biography and as popular science.
Despite its stylistic shortcomings, though, this is a valuable book not only for redressing the gender imbalance that is still thought to pervade science itself and the books about it, but also for providing readers with information on a number of notable scientific accomplishments, in a wide variety of fields, that happen to be attributable to women. Certainly these are not the only women that the authors could have chosen to include – in fact, the dust jacket’s back-cover listing of the people profiled omits Carson and instead mentions astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who would indeed have been worthy to discuss (she proposed in 1925 that stars were composed mainly of hydrogen and helium, long before that was proven), but who was apparently dropped at some point in favor of Carson.
Still, it is worth pointing out that many men who contributed in important ways to science are as little-known as are most of these women – the focus tends to be on a relatively few “big names.” And petty jealousies and attention-seeking affect men’s competitiveness with other men in much the same way that they affect men’s handling of collaborations with women. There is certainly no question that there is injustice aplenty in the lack of recognition of some of the women profiled in 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World. For example, Otto Hahn, with whom Meitner worked, “couldn’t admit he’d been in contact with a ‘non-Aryan’” and therefore “took her groundbreaking insight and ran with it, publishing the discovery in January 1939” – understandable under the Nazi regime – but then, “long after the war had ended, Otto Hahn would continue to exclude her from his version of events,” and clearly that was a matter of professional jealousy or resulted from some other, equally unpleasant and invalid motive. But would Hahn have similarly excluded a male “non-Aryan” who helped him? There is no way to know, and it is important not to assume that male scientists who treated female colleagues badly would have treated comparable male colleagues well. Still, at this time we remain in “redress the balance” mode when it comes to giving women credit where credit is due: we remain far from any Utopian vision of gender equality. And as one entry among the many designed to show how much remarkable science some remarkable women have done, 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World is a worthy and worthwhile study.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9, with reconstructed Finale. Philharmonie Festiva conducted by Gerd Schaller. Profil. $22.99 (2 CDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (version by Michelle Castelletti). Lapland Chamber Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).
The one thing that can be absolutely, unequivocally stated as truth with regard to efforts to complete the final symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler is that every single attempt is wrong. That is to say that no matter how carefully, no matter with what attention to detail and style and academic/performance requirements and understanding a completion of Bruckner’s Ninth and Mahler’s Tenth may be made, it is 100% certain not to be what the composer himself would have done. Both these composers, throughout their lives and to a greater extent as those lives neared their ends, were pushing the boundaries of symphonic form, of harmony, of counterpoint, of musical structure itself, and both their incomplete final symphonies show them going even further in directions in which they had gone before. The chance that any existing sketches, drafts or partial forms of these symphonies would have led in the direction in which any well-meaning “completer” might take them is vanishingly small. But this in no way invalidates the attempt, because the alternative is to withhold these works from performance altogether (as Alma Mahler did with Mahler’s Tenth for a considerable time) or to perform only the portions of the symphonies that exist in finished or virtually finished form: the first three movements of the Bruckner and the first and third of the Mahler. Truncated performances have in fact been the norm for these works for decades, but while a three-movement Bruckner Ninth continues to be deemed acceptable by many conductors and listeners, the excerpted version of Mahler’s Tenth has long been deemed so unsatisfactory that great Mahler interpreters such as Leonard Bernstein and Bernard Haitink refused to play the remains of this work at all.
The urge to completion of both these masterpieces – and make no mistake, they are masterpieces – has become increasingly strong in recent years. Among the thoughtful, careful and well-considered versions of the finale of the Bruckner are ones by William Carragan, Nicola Samale and Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, Sébastien Letocart, Nors S. Josephson, Ernst Märzendorfer, Roberto Ferrazza and others. Some of these have been “re-completed” numerous times: Carragan’s 1983 completion has been revised four times, and the original Samale version, created with Giuseppe Mazzucca, exists in two versions – and then Samale and Mazzucca joined John A. Phillips and Cohrs to produce a third completion that itself exists in five different versions. It is all a bit bewildering, and would be frustrating to listeners if there were a “correct” version toward which everyone was striving. But there is not. And everybody who tries to produce a unified, coherent and performable Bruckner Ninth knows this. Certainly Gerd Schaller does. A Bruckner specialist and an absolutely top-notch conductor, Schaller created a meticulously crafted, thoroughly convincing and elegant, even beautiful version of the fourth movement of Bruckner’s Ninth in 2016, and offered it in a very fine recording of the symphony. Then he set to work to hone and change it, and the modified version, from 2018, is now available on a superb two-CD set from Profil – a live recording of a genuinely revelatory concert. Schaller is an amazingly erudite and skilled advocate of this symphony and his part in it, both as a conductor and verbally: his booklet notes, which explain and analyze the finale in very considerable detail, are easily the best discussion of this material ever offered to the general public. Schaller himself founded Philharmonie Festiva – a collection of top-notch musicians from various German orchestras – for the specific purpose of furthering his own musical explorations, and it is a splendid Bruckner orchestra with all the Germanic warmth that an audience could wish and all the sectional and individual skill that a conductor could desire. The details of what Schaller did and did not do in completing (and then re-completing)Bruckner’s Ninth are many and complex; they are also arguable, as are the details of any attempt to finish this work. But for the vast majority of listeners, what is going to matter is whether the Schaller/2018 version of the symphony a) sounds like Bruckner, b) holds together cohesively, and c) presents a conclusion that is in keeping with the first three movements and at the same time takes them to a higher plane. It does all these things, and does them surpassingly well: Schaller’s experience as a conductor is a major reason, since both his versions of the finale needed to take into account what Bruckner asked of musicians in the first three movements of the Ninth and in his earlier works, and what more he was likely to have asked of them in the completion of his final symphony. There are merits to all the attempted completions of Bruckner’s Ninth, and there are intriguing differences in the approaches underlying them – for instance, how much music from earlier in the symphony or from earlier symphonies to include in the finale, and how many of Bruckner’s numerous but ill-assorted manuscript pages should be included and how many should be discarded as early drafts or as incompatible with other pages. These are matters for scholars and conductors, though, and not, by and large, for listeners. Schaller is both a scholar and a conductor, and as such has created an exceptionally well-crafted, wholly convincing finale to Bruckner’s Ninth that results in an entirely satisfactory and emotionally trenchant conclusion, as uplifting as anything that Bruckner himself lived to complete. The fact that what Schaller has done is incontrovertibly wrong is, in terms of the impact of the music, pretty much irrelevant.
Michelle Castelletti is also both conductor and scholar, although she is not the conductor of her version of Mahler’s Tenth that is heard on a new SACD from BIS. That is something of a shame, because John Storgårds is not a very idiomatic Mahler conductor, and it is hard to tell whether the recording would have been more effective with Castelletti at the helm of the orchestra. It is effective, and in some rather surprising ways, but whether it could have been more so is difficult to determine. What makes this issue even more complex than that of “merely” completing Mahler’s Tenth is that Castelletti not only creates a performing version but also turns the symphony into the sort of chamber work that could have been performed at one of Schoenberg’s famous but short-lived Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen concerts – places where, from 1919 to 1921, then-modern, then-forward-looking music was offered in chamber arrangements made by Schoenberg himself or by one of his disciples. Mahler’s music was heard in these concerts – in fact, Das Lied von der Erde was arranged by Schoenberg himself – so there is some fascinating history behind what Castelletti does with Mahler’s Tenth. And Mahler’s handling of the symphony orchestra makes his works peculiarly susceptible to chamber arrangements, since Mahler – one of the greatest conductors of his time – wrote for very large orchestra for the express purpose of utilizing the sound of parts of the ensemble through much of his work, reserving the gigantic full-orchestra pronouncements for climaxes and special occasions. That is to say that Mahler, who wrote almost no chamber music, created mini-chamber-music ensembles within his large orchestral forces, which means that much of the music in his symphonies fits surprisingly well with a 24-piece ensemble such as the Lapland Chamber Orchestra. Much is not all, however, and where Mahler drew on the substantial forces at his command – as in the famous dissonance that climaxes the first movement of the Tenth and recurs in the finale – the Storgårds performance is less than fully convincing. Or perhaps it is the Castelletti arrangement that falls a bit short here; it is hard to know. What makes this recording very much worth hearing and very much worthwhile for Mahler lovers to own is the fact that in most of the symphony, the completion and arrangement are exceptionally effective and deeply intriguing. This is truest in the parts of the symphony that are the most forward-looking, the ones in which Mahler himself almost seems part of the Second Viennese School as he strains tonality to and beyond the breaking point. The odd, angular rhythms that pervade this symphony may not come across as well here as in some other performances, but the extreme dissonances and the tonal misdirections, and the repeated refusal to allow this often-anguished music to settle into any sort of pleasant harmony, come through exceptionally well. It was Theodore Roosevelt who said, in a very different context, that the person who counts is the one “who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without shortcoming…and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” The “completers” of Bruckner’s Ninth and Mahler’s Tenth, most emphatically including Schaller and Castelletti, are incapable of producing what these great composers would have created if they had finished these works. But by daring greatly, these “completers” give us insight, emotional uplift, intelligent thoughts about music, and greater understanding of the composers whose work they so admire that they strive to make performable what would otherwise be left unperformed or, at best, played as a shadow of what it could be. This is the sort of failure that, philosophically as well as musically, is well-nigh indistinguishable from success.
Schubert: Octet; Berwald: Grand Septet. Anima Eterna Brugge. Alpha. $18.99.
Mozart: Music for Keyboard (harpsichord or fortepiano) Four Hands. Patrick Ayrton and Wolfgang Glüxam, harpsichord. Fra Bernardo. $18.99.
Beethoven’s Septet and Mendelssohn’s Octet get plenty of attention and frequent performances, but other works for chamber groups of this size tend to get short shrift. And there are more such works than many listeners realize: pieces for mixed groups of winds and strings were something of a fad in the early 19th century. Beethoven’s work dates to 1799 and was a primary source of inspiration for Mendelssohn’s of 1825. A new Alpha recording featuring members of Anima Eterna Brugge now offers a chance to hear other works of this type from the same decade as the Mendelssohn: Schubert’s Octet (1824) and the Grand Septet by Franz Berwald (1828). The Schubert is at least mildly familiar, and deserves to be: it is a very substantial six-movement work that often lasts more than 60 minutes in performance – although less than an hour in this speedy but not rushed-sounding reading. The work’s length and virtuoso requirements are among the reasons it is not played more frequently. In some respects the Octet is a study for Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony, much as Brahms’ two Serenades were studies of a sort for his Symphony No. 1 later in the century. Schubert’s great fondness for winds, and considerable demands on them, is much in evidence in his Octet, starting in the very first movement – and his tremendous melodic gifts are evident in the second movement, a lovely Adagio. This is followed by a scherzo (although the movement is not marked as such) and then an extended theme-and-variations movement based on a piece from a singspiel that Schubert had written in 1815. The fifth movement is a relaxed Menuetto, but the finale is anything but genial at its opening, which is strong and has genuinely eerie-sounding effects. That opening eventually gives way to a much pleasanter Allegro, but the strange elements return before the work eventually ends, creating a somewhat quizzical conclusion. The Octet is more suite-like than symphonic in terms of the relationships among the movements, but the scoring is decidedly orchestral in style and scope, and Anima Eterna Brugge’s members do a first-rate job of balancing individual virtuosic elements of the score against tutti sections that sound as if Schubert is reaching for a stronger and deeper sound than would be expected in a chamber piece. It is something of a relief to have the Schubert paired with the much-less-familiar Grand Septet by Berwald (1796-1868), a Swedish composer who fell into obscurity for more than a century until his four remarkable symphonies were rediscovered in recent decades. Outside his home country, he is still almost completely unknown for chamber music, but the Grand Septet is also a worthwhile discovery – or rediscovery. Scored for clarinet, bassoon, horn, single violin (Schubert uses two), viola, cello, and double bass, Berwald’s three-movement work is much lighter in tone and much more clearly imbued with chamber-music sensibilities than is Schubert’s. But it is scarcely “light music.” In its 24 minutes, Berwald’s Grand Septet is filled with delights – and some touches quite characteristic of the composer. Notable among these is the inclusion of the scherzo within the slow movement – an approach Berwald also used symphonically. This means that the beautifully expressive opening and closing of the second movement enclose a bright, witty and very speedy (Prestissimo) central section. The first movement of the Grand Septet is more relaxed than virtuosic, and the finale – well, the finale as heard here has a higher dramatic level and more virtuosic demands than anything else in the piece. The reason for saying “as heard here” is that the performers make an interesting choice by playing an early version of the finale, not the shorter and somewhat milder one on which Berwald eventually settled. It would have been wonderful to have the later finale appended to the disc as a bonus, allowing easy comparison, but since the CD already includes 80 minutes of music, that was not possible. This earlier finale does somewhat overbalance the Grand Septet because of its sheer intensity – that may well be why Berwald later altered it – but it also makes for an exhilarating listening experience that will likely make audiences eager to hear more of this still-neglected composer’s chamber music.
Mozart, of course, is anything but neglected – but some of his works are much less often heard than others. The piano concertos, at least some of them, are extremely familiar to music lovers, and the 18 piano sonatas are well-known to pianists even though not many are frequently heard in recitals. But Mozart’s music for piano four hands is so little-known as to be genuinely obscure – especially when played as Mozart intended. A fascinating new CD on the Fra Bernardo label includes most of the four-hand keyboard music – performed on the harpsichord. And this is absolutely authentic: two of the sonatas heard here were designated by the composer as being for un clavecin ou piano-forte, while the third sonata and a set of variations were stated by Mozart to be written pour le Forte-piano, ou clavecin. These were not works for grand public performance: most likely they were mainly played in private by Mozart and his talented sister, Nannerl. And there is an intimacy and camaraderie inherent in the pieces that argues strongly for them as close-knit conceptions – not to mention the simple fact that harpsichords and fortepianos of Mozart’s time were small enough to require dual players to be very near to each other indeed. Two of the sonatas, K. 358 in B and K. 381 in D, are roughly of the same scale as most of the sonatas for piano solo; and both receive upbeat, bright, forthright and rhythmically assured readings from Patrick Ayrton and Wolfgang Glüxam, whose choice of registration is always apt and whose skill is evident throughout. The third sonata here, K. 521 in C, is more extended than either of the others, lasting nearly half an hour, and it has an especially impressive first movement that is almost as long as the second and third put together. Actually, this sonata’s final movement is not one of Mozart’s more-engaging achievements, but it does sound better and more interesting on harpsichord than on a modern piano. The CD also includes the Andante with Variations, K. 501, a slight work that nicely separates two of the sonatas; and the disc ends with a fugal fragment, K. 401, which breaks off abruptly after about three minutes – just as it is getting interesting. The entire disc is a most intriguing one, excellently played and providing a perspective on Mozart that is very seldom encountered: he is simply not thought of as a composer for the harpsichord, but he quite clearly knew how to write for that instrument just as skillfully as he did for the “modern” fortepiano.
June 13, 2019
The Blue Day Book: A Lesson in Cheering Yourself Up—Illustrated Edition. By Bradley Trevor Greive. Illustrated by Claire Keane. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Apologies That Never Came. By Pierre Alex Jeanty. Andrews McMeel. $10.99.
Thank goodness there is still so much goodness, and thank simplicity that there is still so much simplicity, in Bradley Trevor Greive’s 20-year-old “cheer yourself up” meditation, The Blue Day Book. Were it not for the continuing need for something upbeat to counter the ever-present sense of being relentlessly downtrodden by life nowadays (and 20 years ago, and 10 years ago, and so on), the book would long since have outlived its usefulness and would have fallen victim to well-intentioned rethinkings such as the new “Illustrated Edition.” The reality is that The Blue Day Book has always been illustrated, and a great part of its charm and effectiveness came and still comes from its use (in earlier editions) of wildlife photographs in which animals seem to reflect, comment on, think about, or otherwise respond to the human concerns expressed in Greive’s simple prose (the book contains fewer than 100 sentences). What is different in the new edition is that the illustrations are done cartoon-style (or graphic-novel-style) by Claire Keane, the animal photos are absent, and the narrative now has a single central character in the form of a woebegone elephant (no doubt as in “the elephant in the room”) who eventually “snaps out of it” (the “blue day,” that is) and is thereafter seen against light-colored backgrounds rather than the dark-colored ones that dominate the first part of the book.
What could possibly be wrong with this? The answer depends on how you see the value of The Blue Day Book, whether in its early incarnation, its 10th-anniversary edition, its version for children, or in any other guise. The book is certainly a worldwide phenomenon in terms of sales and therefore, presumably, in terms of its ability to connect with diverse audiences. But for that very reason, it has become a place, in this 20th-anniversary illustrated edition, for Greive to hold forth rather immodestly: “Writing this little book in the winter of 1998 helped me smile at a time when I needed it most, though of course I had absolutely no idea that it would eventually become the world’s bestselling gift book of all time.” Um, yes, there is that – and it is, um, a bit full of oneself to draw attention to it this way rather than to, say, let one’s publicists do it. It also makes perfect sense to draw one’s attention to the need for perspective on one’s life, the notion that as bad as any “blue day” may be, someone else is surely having a worse one, and there is always an opportunity to have a brighter tomorrow. And the animal photos were a big part of that, helping keep the book’s message light and serious at the same time, making it easier to laugh at one’s problems by imagining how, say, a grumpy-looking toad must feel. But what have we now? We have one person’s (or animal’s) story; we have a narrative structure in which the same imagined person/animal endures the various depredations of life and eventually overcomes them. In other words, we have personalization of The Blue Day Book, which is exactly what it does not need. What if a reader does not identify with the elephant as an apt central character here? What if the “turnaround” two-page spread, with the disheartened elephant in the dark on the left and a smiling human woman carrying a guitar case and seen against a light background on the right, doesn’t work for a reader? Well, too bad – because that is the turnaround two-page spread, and the elephant is the character with whom (or with which) it is necessary to identify. The Blue Day Book still carries its marvelous message of keeping downbeat times in perspective, its wonderful realization that there is always tomorrow until, eventually, there isn’t: “Live every day as if it were your last, because one day it will be.” Greive’s message, simple and thoughtful and meaningful specifically because it does not pretend to be profound, continues to resonate through all editions of The Blue Day Book, including this new one. And it really can be a recipe for getting through the inevitable “blue day” that we all encounter from time to time. Whether the message works better with Keane’s illustrations is a matter of opinion. Happily, for readers for whom it does not, plenty of earlier editions of The Blue Day Book continue to be available.
To see just how valuable the uplift of The Blue Day Book is in any form or edition, consider Pierre Alex Jeanty’s (+++) Apologies That Never Came, another book dealing with the tribulations of everyday life and attempting to give readers ways to cope with them. This is a book of short poems about love and loss, and one of them is actually called “Perspective,” beginning as follows: “Cloudy days are nothing to love unless/ you’ve known the loneliness that will try to/ swallow you through dark nights.” Greive would never put it that way – and never did – but Jeanty is getting at much the same issue as Greive, namely that even when some days are cloudy (literally or emotionally), others will not be, need not be. Being unillustrated, Jeanty’s poems succeed or fall short solely because of their words, which are certainly heartfelt but tend to lapse into cliché, even when Jeanty knows he is starting out from a cliché: “You hear that time heals all wounds, but/ your clock seems to have the seconds/ mixed with the hours and the hours with/ the months./ The days come like molasses dripping,/ the minutes like a snail traveling.” Some of the sentiments in Apologies That Never Came directly address the same issues that Greive explores: “Grow from your failures,” Jeanty writes at one point, and at another, “There are phases in our lives that will drag us down. …The bad is not that it’s happening, the bad is staying in it and allowing it to destroy you.” There is no humor in Apologies That Never Came, no attempt at lightness despite the recognition of the importance of perspective – instead there is wallowing in might-have-beens with the intent, having wallowed, of emerging cleansed. Whether this works better than the admittedly simplistic “brighter days to come” notion underlying The Blue Day Book depends entirely on each individual reader’s response to heartache and heartbreak – depends, in short, on different people’s differing perspectives.
Boo, Boo, I Love You! By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Five Little Pumpkins on Halloween Night. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
Camp. By Kayla Miller. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $24.99.
Most of Sandra Magsamen’s hyper-adorable board books are suitable for enjoyment anytime, but Magsamen occasionally comes up with ones that are strictly for a specific purpose – such as Five Little Pumpkins on Halloween Night and Boo, Boo, I Love You! The latter is superficially designed just like most of her other books, with a tightly bound-in feature, in this case a felt triangle projecting from the top of the book and being incorporated into the writing and pictures on every page. But unlike most Magsamen works, this is really a Halloween book, as is clear not only from the title but also from the fact that the cover illustration shows a ghost with a big smile appearing to wear the felt triangle as a hat. The sentiments in the book are classic Magsamen, but all are given appropriate seasonal twists relating to Halloween-ish costumes: “You can be a raccoon singing to the full moon” (with the felt triangle taking the place of one raccoon ear), or “a cat and wear a witch’s hat” (now the felt triangle looks both like a cat’s ear and like a witch’s peaked hat). The cutest illustration here shows a broadly smiling spider in a web, sporting a bow tie and wearing the felt triangle as a hat whose brim is drawn to match the bow-tie pattern. But all the pictures are adorable, not the slightest bit scary, and the concluding “boo, boo, I love you” (the first two words shown with each of their three letters in a different color) is strictly in line with the endings of other Magsamen board books. The final message is similar in Five Little Pumpkins on Halloween Night, which lacks a special bound-in feature but combines two topics, Halloween and counting. Each of the five pumpkins simply has something to say to young children, within Magsamen’s rhyme scheme: “The second one said, We shine so bright!/ The third one said, Yes, we’re a beautiful sight!” And so it goes through all five brightly smiling and not-even-a-tiny-bit-scary pumpkins, until Magsamen has the final one deliver a line that fits with everything she includes in all her books: “We spread a lot of love, that’s what we do!” In both these attractive little board books, the specifics are timely, but the message is timeless.
Kayla Miller’s Camp is for a different season, summer, and is much more extended (more than 230 pages), more elaborate, and more serious in intent. A graphic novel, Camp is Miller’s second exploration (after Click) of the everyday world of Olive, a middle-school girl whose mundane life and adventures are clearly intended by Miller to provide a series of teachable moments. The story of Camp is encapsulated in the one-word title: Olive goes to camp, engages in camp activities with other campers, and returns home after camp is over. But of course there is more to it than that. Attending camp with Olive is her friend Willow, whose mother is shown at the start of the book to be rather overprotective – with Willow shown to be far more nervous about camp than Olive is. Sure enough, although things go well for Olive, and although a helpful counselor tries to smooth camp life for Willow, Olive’s friend does not adjust very well, and clings to Olive instead of getting out there and playing sports, interacting with other campers, and so forth. The clinginess cause a rift between the girls that is resolved only after they have a heart-to-heart talk in the middle of the night – and eventually everything ends happily, with both Olive and Willow having great camp memories and looking forward to returning next summer. What could be wrong with such an uplifting story? Well, nothing when it is summarized – but there are some issues in the telling that turn Camp into a (+++) book that parents should look through carefully to decide whether or not it will be a pleasant, upbeat and perhaps even encouraging read for middle-schoolers about to have their first sleepaway-camp experience. One difficulty here is that Willow clearly does have real health issues – she needs an inhaler and must take medicine regularly – but these are minimized and are used by Miller primarily to make it seem that Willow’s mom is just too worried about her daughter. But genuine health concerns are quite legitimate matters, not symptoms of over-protectiveness. In addition and even more significantly, Miller, intentionally or not, shows Willow as a classic introvert, preferring to be alone much of the time, enjoying reading, not wanting to participate in team sports, and so on. But instead of using the book to show the real difficulty that introverts have when thrust into a super-extroverted community such as a summer camp, Miller manages the story so that it is only when Willow stops being an introvert – when she joins a band, suddenly starts making friends, etc. – that she and Olive can re-cement their friendship. The underlying message here, intentional or not (presumably not), is that introversion and genuine health issues are problems to be overcome, that introversion is somehow not as “good” as extroversion and makes people unhappy. Certainly introverted children will be unhappy in situations that force them to be outgoing, dealing constantly with new people and new activities and group requirements. And Camp could have had valuable teachable moments if Miller had chosen to show how both extroverts (Olive) and introverts (Willow) can find ways to negotiate the challenges of a new environment. But Miller takes the easy and unrealistic way out: she simply shows that the way to do this is for introverts to become extroverted – which is at least deeply uncomfortable and at most flat-out impossible. So Camp will be great fun for extroverted middle-school girls looking forward to a new summertime experience, and it may be useful for families that want to show more-introverted children what will be expected of them in a camp setting. But “teaching” introverts that the “right” way to behave at camp (or elsewhere) is to become something that they are not is a losing strategy that may well make inward-focused children even more uncomfortable and unhappy when they are thrust into an outward-focused environment such as summer camp.
Spinning in the Wheel: Music for Berimbau Sextet. Projeto Arcomusical. National Sawdust Tracks. $20.
Piano Music from Romantic Manila. Sally Pinkas, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Renderings: A Musical Landscape for Violin and Harp. Crimson Duo (Matt Milewski, violin; Jaymee Haefner, harp). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Bach: Goldberg Variations—arranged for Baroque ensemble. Repast Baroque Ensemble (Amelia Roosevelt, Baroque violin and viola; Emi Ferguson, Baroque flute [traverso]; Katie Rietman, Baroque cello and piccolo cello; Stephanie Corwin, Baroque bassoon; Gabe Shuford, harpsichord). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Defiantly different: here are four excellently performed CDs that may be well outside the musical mainstream but that invite hearing and rehearing simply because they offer sonic discoveries. Spinning in the Wheel presents sounds that listeners will not have heard before and may even find bizarre – unless they are Brazilian or familiar with Brazil’s culture. Projeto Arcomusical is a sextet of berimbau players, and the berimbau is a musical bow – a single-stringed instrument with a gourdlike resonator attached to the string, the size of that object determining how high or low the string sounds. The berimbau is revered in Brazil because of its connection with, of all things, a martial art that is nowadays performed as a kind of multifaceted game: Capoeira, originally learned and practiced by slaves and developed by them as a form of resistance and a battle-worthy manner of repelling troops sent to wrest control of escaped-slave enclaves from those who had set them up. The history is fascinating and so, to some extent, is the music on a new National Sawdust Tracks release. The reason for the “to some extent” qualifier is that there are expressive limits beyond which single-string musical bows, however well played, cannot go: the sounds here, highly intriguing at first, tend to blend into sameness as the disc progresses. This is so even though Projeto Arcomusical has arranged the CD cleverly in a wheel-like sequence of “sextet – trio – duo – solo – duo – trio – sextet.” The recording opens with the four-movement Roda by Elliot Cole and then proceeds to six single-movement works by members of the ensemble: Ondulaçāo by Alexis C. Lamb; Berimbau Duo No. 6, Berimbau Solo No. 5, and Berimbau Duo No. 2 by Gregory Beyer; Echoes by Kyle Flens; and Berimbau Sextet No. 2 by Beyer. The concept here is to make music modeled in part on a wheel, because the wheel is an important symbol in Capoeira. This is all very well thought out, but for listeners not steeped in Brazilian culture, and interested primarily in how the music sounds as music, there is less depth in the hearing than in the design of the presentation. Certainly Projeto Arcomusical is highly adept with its instruments, and certainly there are nuances of sound from piece to piece – Echoes, for example, really is filled with echoing effects. But for most listeners, the attraction here will be the sheer unfamiliarity of the berimbau and the discovery that this apparently simple instrument is capable of producing a wide variety of individual and combined sounds, some bowed and some percussive, with the pieces on the CD displaying the performers’ skills at varying tempos and in rhythms that, for all their differences, attain a certain degree of familiarity as the disc progresses. An audience without the cultural background or interest underlying the berimbau may not find this a disc to which it will return often, but it is worthwhile hearing once or even twice simply for the opportunity to expose oneself to a new-to-most-listeners musico-cultural environment.
The nation on which a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Sally Pinkas focuses is half a world away from Brazil: it is the Philippines, whose musical heritage will likely be just as little-known to many listeners as is that of Brazil. Although the instrumental sound here is very familiar, being simply that of the piano, the material that Pinkas performs is definitely not. Written during 80-plus years, from the 1870s to 1960, these short salon pieces are grouped on the disc not by year or decade but by type: three “Literary Inspirations,” seven “Danzas Filipinas,” three “Romances,” seven “Waltzes,” and three “Civic Pride” works. The composers’ names will be wholly unfamiliar to most listeners. The one heard most often here is Francisco Buencamino Sr. (1883-1952), while others whose music is offered by Pinkas were born as long ago as 1846 (Ignacio Massaguer, who died in 1906) or died as recently as 1960 (the long-lived Julio Nakpil, born in 1867). When a composer here is responsible for more than one work, the pieces are scattered according to the category into which Pinkas places them, so there is little chance to develop a feeling for individual composers’ styles. But that is not the point of this disc. What Pinkas does here, and does very well and very stylishly, is to sample works of both the Spanish and American colonial periods in the Philippines, showing both how the nation’s music reflected that of other lands and how it differed. The differences are especially clear in the habanera, which in these pieces is a Cuban-originating dance of considerable delicacy, and the waltz, which is not at all like the famous Viennese variety but instead has its own kind of piquant swirl. Indeed, one of these waltzes, Gratitudo by Buencamino Sr., has something Brazilian about it; but another, In the Orient by Francisco Santiago (1889-1947), blends Oriental colorations with Latin ones to fine and rather amusing effect. Another Santiago work here, a Nocturne in E-flat minor that is included in the “Romances” section, offers an attractive adaptation of European Romantic models. Each listener will easily find different works congenial, and those familiar with Philippine history will enjoy hearing the differing influences on the music from the days of the Spanish and American periods. Nothing here rises much beyond the level of a trifle, or tries to: these are, by and large, drawing-room and occasional pieces of no great consequence and no substantial length (only one lasts more than five minutes). However, there are charms aplenty here, undiscovered ones that Pinkas has done a fine job of displaying in the best possible light.
The unfamiliar sound combination of violin and harp is a major attraction on another new MSR Classics release, this one featuring six composers and seven pieces written as long ago as 1895 and as recently as 2017. The Crimson Duo opens with the oldest pieces on the CD, Andante Religioso and Scherzo-Fantaisie, both from 1895, by Henriette Renié (1875-1956). At the age of 20, Renié was fully and firmly steeped in Romanticism, and if these slight pieces break no new ground, they are effective in introducing the lyrical and pleasant sounds that characterize the entire recording. They are followed by one of the most-recent works here, Still/Nervous (2017) by Gary Schocker (born 1959). The juxtaposition is quite interesting, because just as the slower and warmer Renié work contrasts with the speedier and somewhat more intense one, so the two parts of Schocker’s piece produce a comparable contrast in a much-more-recent musical language. Also contemporary in sensibility is Violin and Harp Music (2015) by Patricio Da Silva (born 1973). This work’s three movements bear titles intended to help direct listeners’ perceptions: “West Is the Way,” “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore,” and “Hands On.” Whether those titles accurately reflect the music is a matter of opinion, but certainly the work offers a series of interesting contrasts and provides both violin and harp with opportunities for some virtuoso showcasing. This is the world première recording both of Violin and Harp Music and of the next work on the disc, Flutter (2017) by Kirsten Soriano Broberg (born 1979). Broberg’s piece is something of a short étude, pleasant enough but not very substantial. It is certainly less interesting than the piece that follows it and concludes the CD: a violin-and-harp arrangement of the Sonata for Flute and Harp (1937) by Nino Rota (1911-1979). Rota is far better known for the film scores he wrote for directors Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, and Francis Ford Coppola: he scored the first two Godfather films and won an Academy Award for his work on the second. But Rota also wrote a considerable amount of music in classical forms, and this sonata is a charmer and rather sweet. Written in the traditional three movements, it encourages camaraderie rather than any sense of competitiveness between the performers, and if the violin-and-harp version does not quite have the effervescence of the original, it nevertheless gives Matt Milewski and Jaymee Haefner plenty of chances to blend their respective sounds with skill and beauty.
And what could possibly be outside the aural mainstream in yet another recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations? Quite a bit, as it turns out on another MSR Classics release. This is a fascinating version of the music, in a performance by the original-instrument group called Repast Baroque Ensemble. It does not entirely turn its back on the harpsichord, for which Bach’s work was written: the closing Aria da capo is, intelligently, given to the harpsichord solo, as if to remind listeners of what the music was intended to be all about, and seven variations (Nos. 5, 11, 14, 20, 23, 28 and 29) are also played by the harpsichord – and very well, too. But no listener will want this disc for its solo-harpsichord elements: the fascination here, the sonic attraction, lies in the Goldberg Variations that are performed by the ensemble, or some portion of it. All the individual members get their own chances to shine forth, but it is the decisions made by the performers as to what instrument should be front-and-center in which variation that provide most of the enjoyment. For example, using the bassoon to open and close what Wanda Landowska called the “Black Pearl” variation – No. 25, the third and last in G minor – seems a decision that is sensible and almost, in this context, obvious. But within that variation, the decision to have the bassoon and the piccolo cello play at the extremes of their respective ranges is unexpected and quite affecting. The musical decision-making that underpins this performance is what gives the reading such a high level of interest. The flute-bassoon-cello mixture in Variation 4, to cite one example, is as interesting as the choice of a viola rather than violin in Variation 6, to cite another. This should scarcely be any listener’s first choice of a Goldberg Variations to own or hear: the recording is something of a connoisseur’s delight, most likely to be enjoyed by an audience that is thoroughly familiar with the music already and is intrigued by the notion of hearing it played in a totally non-authentic but highly knowledgeable form on correct period instruments or first-rate copies. Compared to hearing this work on a modern piano, hearing it performed by the Repast Baroque Ensemble is a joy: the players understand Bach’s style very well, and the overall instrumental sound, if not correct for this specific piece, is certainly right for music of this time period. This may not be a recording to which listeners who love the Goldberg Variations will return frequently, but it could easily become one to which Bach lovers turn if they ever feel the desire to imagine what might have been if Bach had chosen to arrange this music for a highly skilled and sensitive chamber ensemble.