August 15, 2019
Just Like Us! Crocs. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Earth by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Dinosaurs by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
No one is ever likely to accuse the long-running Just Like Us! series by Bridget Heos and David Clark of profundity. These short factual books, by combining photography with Clark’s art work, are designed to engage children in nature by pointing out ways in which various animals – and even plants – are a lot like humans, despite the many other ways in which they are quite different. The “a lot like us” concept is, of course, just a hook to get kids interested: those things can’t possibly be much like us, can they? The books’ appeal lies in a response of “you’d be surprised!” And so it is in the latest series entry, which is about crocodilians – not only crocodiles but also alligators, caimans, gharials and muggers, those last being a particular type of crocodile. With their elongated heads, big teeth, and long tails, crocodilians are excellent subjects for caricature, and Clark takes advantage of all their characteristics in his drawings, while the photos throughout the book show how these powerful reptilian water predators really look (for one thing, they are not nearly as big-eyed and bug-eyed as Clark makes them!). Heos does her usual fine job of finding things that these critters have more-or-less in common with humans: they have multiple ways to communicate with each other, from bellowing to making a slapping noise by clamping their mouths shut on the water’s surface; they protect their young, with both mothers and (sometimes) fathers taking care of the little ones; and they love spending time in the sun. The specifics of the comparisons, of course, show how different crocodilians are from humans rather than how similar they are: that sun-basking, for instance, is used by crocodilians to adjust their body heat, since these animals are “ectothermic, or cold-blooded” – kudos to Heos for using both the correct scientific term and the more-common but less-accurate popular one. Heos does her usual good job of mixing interesting facts with the compared-to-us information: again using sun-basking as an example, she points out that because crocodilians do not sweat, they keep their mouths open while sunning so the air can cool them enough to stabilize their body temperature. This neatly explains the very commonly seen pictures in which on-shore crocodilians have their mouths wide open. The lineage of crocodilians is a long one, far longer than the measly one of human beings: Heos points out that modern crocodilians are directly descended from ones that survived the worldwide catastrophe that nearly wiped out the dinosaurs. By the end of Crocs, young readers will likely conclude that crocodilians are not really very much like us after all – but the real point here is not to emphasize similarities that, to the extent that they exist, are very much surface-level. The point is to get kids interested in delving more deeply into the topic – and the fine bibliography at the back of the book provides a number of good places to start doing just that.
Steve Jenkins’ books of infographics – diagrams, charts and graphs – are no more in-depth than the Heos/Clark series, but they too communicate a good deal of interesting factual information in an appealing, easy-to-grasp form. Books such as Earth by the Numbers and Dinosaurs by the Numbers fit well into our video-focused age by being visually striking, very easy to look at (all the illustrations “pop” against plain white backgrounds), and just informative enough to provide the basics on various subjects and point children toward sources with more-in-depth material (the bibliographies of Jenkins’ books are short, but the sources are well-chosen). Earth by the Numbers contains some material that will likely be genuinely surprising both to young readers and to parents. For instance, it is well-known that most of Earth’s surface is covered by water, and Jenkins shows that visually, but his next visual shows that fresh (drinkable) water represents only a tiny, tiny portion of all the water on Earth, and the visual after that shows that of the very small amount of potable water worldwide, the vast, vast majority is either underground or frozen. Parents and children alike may pause to consider the implication of this – one of many times in Earth by the Numbers that Jenkins visually displays evidence of the fragility of our world and our place in it, without ever saying directly just how delicate our existence is. Earth by the Numbers also includes an explanation of the reason that Mount Everest is Earth’s highest mountain but not its tallest: that distinction goes to Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which is more than 4,000 feet larger in vertical measurement but which has its base deep under the ocean and is therefore highest but not tallest. There are some excellent explanations of natural processes here: “A speedy glacier moves about as fast as a snail crawls.” And there are some genuinely surprising facts: the driest place on Earth is the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, where no rain has fallen for thousands of years. (Chile’s Atacama Desert, which gets about one-twelfth of an inch annually, earns an honorable mention.) And just like Heos and Clark, Jenkins includes a timeline in Earth by the Numbers – starting with our planet’s formation in the unimaginably distant past of 4.5 billion years ago and proceeding to the comparatively recent first appearance of dinosaurs (235 million years ago) and to and beyond the time 66 million years ago when “an asteroid hits the earth and wipes out the dinosaurs.”
Jenkins’ statement on dinosaurs in Earth by the Numbers is not quite correct, though, and he is well aware of that, as shown in Dinosaurs by the Numbers, which says at the very start that “about 66 million years ago, almost all of them vanished.” That “almost” is important, not so much because crocodilians are still around – they did survive the end of the dinosaur age, but they are not dinosaurs – but because birds are everywhere today. “Birds are living dinosaurs!” exclaims Jenkins, and this is just one of the intriguing pieces of information in Dinosaurs by the Numbers – although it is one that parents and even some children may have heard already. Still, the infographics format of Jenkins’ book makes the facts visually interesting: Jenkins shows a dinosaur skeleton that looks much like the skeleton of a modern bird, and he gives a size comparison among that feathered dinosaur, a modern pigeon, and a human hand. The ability to put things in perspective – whether through timelines or illustrations – is a strength of Jenkins’ books. His creative timeline for “when did the dinosaurs live?” is made up of circles, each representing a million years, and therefore shows in a very striking way just how long the age of dinosaurs lasted and just how short the age of humans has been (humans get just two circles, and that includes going back to the very earliest forms identifiable as human, not the much-more-recent start of Homo sapiens). The scale drawings comparing dinosaurs with modern-day animals also show size in a visually compelling way, including one illustration indicating that the largest dinosaur discovered to date, Patagotitan, was a bit longer than a modern blue whale but definitely less hefty: the blue whale remains the largest animal Earth has ever seen. Dinosaurs by the Numbers includes intriguing comparisons, examples being one of the skulls of extinct and modern creatures, and one of the speed of dinosaurs and that of modern animals – with an explanation of how scientists figure such things out. A two-page “dinosaur facts” presentation after the infographics is a useful feature of Dinosaurs by the Numbers, giving more details on specific dinosaurs and showing how to pronounce the animals’ scientific names. Jenkins’ presentations in his infographics books are not always 100% accurate: the “wipes out the dinosaurs” remark in Earth by the Numbers is one example of this, and another, in Dinosaurs by the Numbers, is his definition of reptiles as “a group of egg-laying animals with scaly skin” – many reptiles give birth to live young (and some dinosaurs may have, too). Nevertheless, Jenkins’ attractively designed, easy-to-look-through books can be a fine foundation for families that want an introduction to some difficult and complex topics – and these books, like those of Heos and Clark, may well inspire parents and children alike to move on to the many more-thorough studies that can be found elsewhere.
Calendars (page-a-day for 2020): Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff; Church Signs; Turn Your Smile Upside Down; Shakespearean Insults. Andrews McMeel. $15.99 each.
Inspiration comes in many forms, and it seems as if most of them can be incorporated into calendars. The page-a-day format lends itself particularly well to the notion of giving yourself a little pick-me-up daily and then keeping it at the front of your mind (by keeping it at the front of your desk or kitchen counter) for 24 hours, then turning to yet another little nugget of wisdom. Certain inspirational calendars are perennials, turning up year after year and being just as appealing in, say, 2020, as in any other year. The specifics shown change, of course, but the basic nature of each calendar, the way each of them offers something upbeat to make daily life a bit easier or more pleasant or more worth thinking about, remains the same. The result is that there is something very comforting about the everyday homespun thinking of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and the short and often amusing offerings in Church Signs. The advice in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff is always on the serious side and takes a bit of time to read and absorb. For instance, “When you stop sweating the small stuff about money, everyone benefits. You’ll feel better, and, what’s more, you’ll probably make more money, too. Any success we enjoy is despite our worry, not because of it! Worry and excessive stress are distractions that keep us from our dreams and from our greatest potential. So as we discover ways to worry less, to ‘not sweat it,’ we ignite that capacity within us.” That is a fair amount to read for a single day’s entry, and is typical of what this calendar offers: nothing epigrammatic, just life advice that takes some time to absorb and is worth glancing at repeatedly during the day to provoke additional thought on whatever that day’s topic may be. Another example: “Learning to be satisfied doesn’t mean you can’t, don’t, or shouldn’t ever want more than you have, only that your happiness isn’t contingent on it. You can learn to be happy with what you have by becoming more present-moment-oriented, by not focusing so much on what you want.” The commentary in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff has continuity – each day’s words, although complete in themselves, also tie into the words of previous and/or following days – so the self-help aspect of this calendar builds throughout the year, encouraging ongoing thinking about who you are, what you have, and where you are going.
In contrast, Church Signs is as pithy as would be expected for actual church-sign sayings that are meant to be read and absorbed quickly by drivers zipping past places of worship in their cars. Grabbing attention for spiritual and philosophical thoughts – not all of them directly religious – requires figuring out what to say in a few words that will have value and will stay with passersby. Of course, keeping the calendar nearby means you have plenty of time to read and re-read each day’s entry, but these “little sayings to help you on your way” (the calendar’s subtitle) are still meant to be absorbed quickly, then considered at more length when you have time and inclination. The spiritual connotations are sometimes overt here: “No amount of darkness can hide a spark of light.” And they are sometimes definitely worth thinking about: “God doesn’t give you patience, only the opportunity to practice it.” But some of the sayings are quite secular: “An open mind does not always require an open mouth,” and “Every storm runs out of rain eventually,” and “Love is making somebody else’s problem your problem.” A few of the Church Signs entries are to-the-point versions of the sorts of comments to be found in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: “You can have few possessions and still have immeasurable wealth,” and “May the best of your today be the worst of your tomorrows.” But most of the items in Church Signs are designed more for uplift than for traditional self-help: “Freedom is not the right to do as we please, but the opportunity to do what is right.” Not everyone will necessarily find every entry in Church Signs congenial – or every page of any other page-a-day calendar, for that matter – but one of the nice things about these calendar designs is that there is always something new on the next page, and if you do not care for one entry, you may well find that you like the next one a great deal.
Of course, if you find the whole notion of uplift in calendars such as Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and Church Signs unappealing, then you probably need an anti-inspirational page-a-day calendar. Oh yes, there are those around, too. Just as epigrammatic as Church Signs but considerably more devilish, Turn Your Smile Upside Down is packed with cynicism and negative thinking. “Your fortune cookie is empty. And stale.” So says one entry here – think about it (or, maybe, don’t). “Before you judge me, try walking a mile in my shoes so I can be a mile away from you,” says one page, in a negative spin on the notion of understanding people by putting yourself in their place. “Your workouts aren’t working,” says one bit of discouragement, and “If you succeed, it is only because others have failed more spectacularly,” says another. The relentlessly downbeat – if wry and sarcastic – nature of Turn Your Smile Upside Down continues through the entire year. “Life is just endless anxiety occasionally interrupted by moments of forgetting to have anxiety,” one page states, while another offers a heaping helping of self-doubt: “Has anyone ever really been happy to see you?” As for relationship advice, here that comes in statements such as, “A good partner is someone who hates the same things as you.” True, a little of this goes a long way, and some of it will be a definite turnoff because of the periodic use of four-letter words. But as with the positive-thinking calendars, this negative-thinking one provides just a single thought (or admonition or criticism) each day, which makes its occasional misfires more bearable. Besides, if you hate what you read in Turn Your Smile Upside Down, you are simply fitting the mood of the whole calendar.
There is a certain amount of creativity in Turn Your Smile Upside Down, to be sure, but for really creative negativism, there is absolutely no substitute for the Bard of Avon, as is abundantly clear in the 2020 version of Shakespearean Insults. Shakespeare was not above writing some really nasty things (and some really profane ones, too: there is even a book called Filthy Shakespeare). It is worth learning or refreshing your memory of Shakespearean English to get the full flavor of the entries in Shakespearean Insults, because in his bid to appeal both to the gentry and to the many lower-class people who attended his plays instead of the nearby bear-baiting and similar entertainments, Shakespeare came up time and again with perfect putdowns. There is the famous one spoken by Hamlet after the prince accidentally kills Polonius, thinking and hoping that he has killed King Claudius: “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell. I took thee for thy better.” There is the description of one character by another in The Taming of the Shrew: “A whoreson, beetle-headed, flap-eared knave!” There is the wish from Henry VI, Part 2: “Mischance and sorrow go along with you!” There is a comment from Titus Andronicus that would never make it onto a church sign: “If there be devils, would I were a devil/ To live and burn in everlasting fire,/ So I might have your company in hell,/ But to torment you with my bitter tongue!” A bit of knowledge of Elizabethan vocabulary helps in conveying the full flavor of some of the comments here, such as, from Twelfth Night, “An ass-head and a coxcomb, and a knave,/ a thin-faced knave, a gull!” But others are every bit as clear in the 21st century as in the 16th and 17th, such as, from Troilus and Cressida: “He has not so much brain as ear wax.” Shakespeare anticipated so much that some of the words in Shakespearean Insults could well appear in Turn Your Smile Upside Down, such as these from As You Like It: “Let’s meet as little as we can.” But on the whole, Shakespearean Insults offers far better language, far meatier thoughts, and far more piercing negative comments than anything to be found in modern-English attempts at snarky humor. The point, though, is that if you do choose to add a little of the snide and sarcastic to your day throughout 2020, you have a number of different ways to do so, whether your tastes run to the language of today or to those of 400-plus years ago.
Gounod: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Beethoven: Variations on themes by Grétry, Paisiello, Righini, and Winter; Piano Sonata in C, WoO 51; Waltzes, WoO 84 and 85. Larry Weng, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
What “everybody knows” about composers is often just wrong enough to be misleading. Everybody knows that Charles Gounod was an opera composer, and everybody knows that Beethoven was a grand and broad thinker in all his compositions, be they symphonies, string quartets, or piano concertos or sonatas. But the focus on what “everybody knows” has the effect of leaving intriguing portions of composers’ work neglected, unexplored, even dismissed out of hand because they could not possibly be worth hearing – they are just not in keeping with what “everybody knows” is worth listening to. This is a real shame, because it brings the risk of a hidebound “standard repertoire” beyond which listeners hesitate to go lest they be challenged or, more likely, disappointed to find out that what they have long thought about a composer is not quite right after all. It is also a shame because it leaves some fascinating music insufficiently heard – such as the two completed symphonies by Gounod. Dating to the mid-1850s, when Gounod was by no means an inexperienced composer (he was born in 1818), the symphonies are not only worth hearing in themselves but also interestingly reflective of Gounod’s predilection for operatic treatment of the orchestra. A new Chandos recording featuring the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier brings the works’ dramatic and, yes, operatic elements to the fore, and in so doing makes these symphonies more substantial than they might otherwise seem to be. This does not mean Gounod’s symphonies are substantial: nearly three decades after Beethoven’s death, they hark back in most structural ways to the Classical era despite using Romantic-era harmonies. The first, in D, clearly shows Gounod’s debt to Haydn, whom the later composer much admired – in fact, the third movement, although marked Scherzo, is really a minuet, and it uses a Haydn “surprise” characteristic by starting its second half in what sounds like the wrong key. This movement and the symphony as a whole are actually more in French than Austrian style, but some of the key progressions are evidence of Beethoven’s influence. Graceful and lyrical, the symphony has some characteristic Gounod touches, such as considerable use of the bassoon and a concern for establishing the sort of drama that was to appear at much greater length in his operas – here, notably, at the symphony’s very beginning. The second symphony, significantly longer than the first (36 minutes vs. 26), is more Beethovenian than Haydnesque, although here the pleasantly undulating Larghetto possesses pastoral elements more evocative of the French countryside than of anything Germanic. Again the bassoon is prominent, and again the symphony – in E-flat – contains elements of drama; even more, it proffers greater seriousness than does Gounod’s First, although the finale lightens matters up significantly. It would be a mistake to think of these symphonies as musical indiscretions of some sort, as wanderings from the operatic way that was Gounod’s great strength: Gounod continued to be interested in symphonies throughout his life, and an eight-minute fragment of a third symphony still exists – written some 35 years after his two complete works in the form. Certainly Gounod was not a major symphonist; but equally certainly, his Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 are deserving of the sort of elegant, poised interpretations they receive from Tortelier and the Iceland ensemble, and are worthy of being heard from time to time strictly on their own merits.
Whether some of the minor music of Beethoven deserves more-frequent revival is a somewhat different matter. Were the pieces played by Larry Weng on a new Naxos CD not by Beethoven, they would surely be dismissed as inconsequential, perhaps as something even less than “salon music.” But they are by Beethoven and, for that reason, provide an interesting counterbalance to the image of him as always deep, powerful and heaven-storming in his creations. To be sure, most lovers of classical music do know that Beethoven did not develop his very intense and highly personal style, which would usher in the Romantic era, until his encroaching deafness ended his career as a piano virtuoso. Well, it was during that early career as a pianist that he wrote almost every work played by Weng – works that were intended to showcase a pianist’s abilities by creating pleasant-sounding and sometimes highly virtuosic variations on popular tunes of the day. This explains the skill and undeniable care lavished by Beethoven in 1795 on his eight variations on a theme from André Grétry’s Richard Coeur-de-lion that was one of the best-known arias of its time. It explains the seven variations from 1799 on a theme from Peter Winter’s then-popular Das unterbrochene Opferfest, and the nine from 1794 on an aria from La molinara by Giovanni Paisiello – who is now remembered primarily because he was the first to write an opera called Il barbiere di Siviglia, causing consternation both for Mozart (who wrote The Marriage of Figaro partly to avoid issues with Paisiello’s supporters) and for Rossini. And Beethoven’s variation sets on Grétry, Winter and Paisiello, all together, are only about the length of his 24 variations from 1790-91 on an arietta called Venni amore by Vincenzo Righini – a set whose average variation length is just one minute. All these variations show Beethoven’s skill both as composer and as pianist (although his technique at this time of his life is said to have been rougher and less nuanced than it later became). The variations are filled with different moods, tempos, dramatic moments, lyricism, warmth and out-and-out prettiness – that last being a characteristic in short supply in later and more-familiar Beethoven. Weng seems really to have enjoyed unearthing these little gems, which may be semi-precious rather than precious but which are, after all, by Beethoven, and which shed light on a time of his life about which most listeners may know little. And Weng plays three other unusual Beethoven works here as well: a partial sonata, featuring a complete first movement and a second one finished after Beethoven’s death by Ferdinand Ries, dating to 1794 but not published until 1830, three years after the composer’s death; and two waltzes – yes, waltzes! – written by Beethoven late in life (1824 and 1825). There is not much to the waltzes, one of which runs about two minutes and the other of which lasts just 36 seconds in Weng’s performance. But how many Beethoven lovers will ever have heard them before? Nothing here is great music, but it is all music by a great composer – and hearing it actually helps humanize Beethoven by proving that even a monumental genius had a side that could be light, playful, even trivial. Nothing that Weng plays here will add to Beethoven’s reputation, but certainly nothing will diminish it, either, and listeners will be charmed to find out that the well-known Rage Over a Lost Penny rondo was not a one-off in Beethoven’s oeuvre. Indeed, the sense of fun throughout this CD is a pleasing balance for the image of Beethoven as always being stodgy, scowling and super-serious.
Brahms: String Quintets Nos. 1 and 2. New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello); Maria Lambros, viola. Naxos. $12.99.
Jan Järvlepp: Woodwind Quintet; Ferdinando DeSena: Sonorous Earth—Quintet for Low Winds; David MacDonald: Stumpery; Craig Peaslee: Dirge & Second Line; Kenneth A. Kuhn: Variations on a Commoner Theme, No. 1. Arcadian Winds (Vanessa Holroyd, flute and alto flute; Jennifer Slowick, oboe and English horn; Rane Moore, clarinet and bass clarinet; Clark Matthews, French horn; Janet Underhill, bassoon and contrabassoon). Navona. $14.99.
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings; Dvořák: Serenade for Strings. Archi di Santa Cecilia conducted by Luigi Piovano. Arcana. $18.99.
Alla Elana Cohen: Music for Chamber Orchestra and Chamber Ensembles. Ravello. $14.99 (2 CDs).
Quartets tend to be more-common instrumental combinations in chamber music than quintets, with the result that quintets start off with a comparatively greater expectation of sonic exploration and higher aims for expressive potential. Among the composers fully aware of the significant additional expressiveness made possible by one added instrument were Mozart and Brahms, both of whom wrote string quintets using two violas – resulting in a richer, warmer sound than in their quartets, but one that never risks becoming muddy or gloomy (Brahms also wrote two string sextets, taking matters even further). Brahms’ two quintets are very different in structure and effect, requiring performers who can probe their intricacies in distinct ways while retaining an overall sense of Brahms’ stylistic characteristics. The members of the New Zealand String Quartet, with the addition of violist Maria Lambros, understand these works’ needs exceptionally well and play the quintets on a new Naxos CD with the warmth and density that both require – neatly highlighting both their similarities and their differences. Brahms’ music is often described as “autumnal,” and this adjective fits Quintet No. 2 – which, inexplicably, is placed first on the CD – very well indeed. This was the last chamber work Brahms wrote before discovering and becoming enchanted by the chamber-music potential of the clarinet, which figured in all his chamber music afterwards (one piece being his Clarinet Quintet). String Quintet No. 2 is a large-scale work with near-symphonic scope in parts (the first movement actually originated with Brahms’ sketches for a fifth symphony). It is a generally inward-looking piece that treats the five instruments, at times, as a kind of miniature orchestra, requiring full sound from the performers at the same time as clarity of individual lines. There is little that “cuts loose” here until the Presto conclusion of the last movement: the quintet is serious throughout, although not stolid, and these performers understand the distinction clearly. Quintet No. 1, written eight years earlier (1882), is an altogether sunnier work, in three movements rather than four – although the central Grave ed appassionato essentially contains a Scherzo in the middle. Brahms is almost never ebullient, but in Quintet No. 1 he is often good-humored, and the work as a whole is much less tightly knit than the latter quintet – which means performers have to hold things together in section after section while still moving the quintet toward a sense of unity that it achieves only in the finale. The skill with which these chamber players handle the two very different Brahms quintets makes this disc a particularly enjoyable one.
A Navona CD of quintets – for woodwinds rather than strings – is highly enjoyable as well, and is one of those rare anthology discs on which all the composers’ pieces will likely be appealing to listeners who find that they enjoy any of them. The five contemporary composers heard here all write with skill for varying woodwind ensembles, and all have a fine sense of the capabilities – from virtuosic to humorous – of these instrumental groups. Jan Järvlepp’s three-movement Woodwind Quintet starts with a light and bouncy air about it, continues with something more sonorous and serious, and concludes with an athematic movement that neatly reflects its title, “Pyrotechnics.” Ferdinando DeSena’s Sonorous Earth uses lower-pitched wind instruments than are generally heard in ensemble: alto flute, English horn, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon – plus the more-standard French horn. The result is a work with very interesting sounds, almost harmonium-like at some times and often distinctively dark-hued. David MacDonald’s Stumpery is intended to reflect the intertwining roots of trees, but whether or not listeners perceive it as doing so, it is certainly a piece in which the various winds’ sonorities reach for, extend into and ultimately twine around each other in very intriguing ways. It does drag a bit, though. Dirge & Second Line by Craig Peaslee does not: an in memoriam piece intended to reflect some of the sounds of New Orleans jazz processions, it moves along at a deliberate pace for a while before bopping into a much-more-upbeat section of the sort for which New Orleans “jazz funerals” are known. Even more fun than this is Kenneth A. Kuhn’s Variations on a Commoner Theme, No. 1, which is a delight from start to finish. Kuhn’s idea is to create one of those “commoner” (not “more common” but the opposite of “noble”) themes and then have it strive, through a set of variations, to assert its underlying nobility. This is silly in exactly the right musical way: the theme is catchy but not especially distinguished, and the variations are all over the place in speed, accentuation and emotional impact (or lack thereof). Finally, and this is really well done, Kuhn takes this ordinary-sounding set of notes and creates a triumphant final variation that really does have a “noble” sound – success at last for the “commoner” and a thoroughgoing delight not only for listeners but also, it seems, for the Arcadian Winds players, who handle everything on the disc with first-rate style but seem to have reserved a fillip of additional enthusiasm for Kuhn’s work. To be ruthlessly pragmatic, this cannot be the case, since these pieces were recorded at different times and Kuhn’s was not the last, but so infectious is Variations on a Commoner Theme, No. 1, that it creates an uplifting conclusion for this entire delightful CD.
There is, of course, no particular reason for composers of chamber music to stop at an ensemble of five – or six, seven, eight or nine. At some point, though, chamber pieces start to shade over into the realm of works for chamber orchestra, which in their turn usually exist on a broader canvas than smaller-ensemble pieces and proffer a more-substantial sound world – although not necessarily more-complex ideas. The 24-member Archi di Santa Cecilia ensemble provides an interesting example on a new Arcana recording of the string serenades by Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. This is a (+++) CD that is filled with both charms and disappointment. The charms are, first, those of the serenades themselves, which are abundantly packed with beauty for its own sake and a sunniness that, although frequent in Dvořák’s music, is much less often heard in Tchaikovsky’s; and, second, those of hearing expert ensemble playing by highly talented musicians who are surely of soloist quality but who here go out of their way to subsume their individuality into a finely honed group. The disappointment lies in what conductor Luigi Piovano does with all the skilled musicianship at his disposal. All the notes are in place here, but the spirit of the works is lacking: these are expert but unidiomatic performances. In fact, although the Dvořák and Tchaikovsky serenades have some superficial similarities and date to roughly the same time (1875 and 1880, respectively), their sound worlds are as different as can be. But here they sound as if they were composed, well, not by the same composer, but by two much closer in temperament than Dvořák and Tchaikovsky were. The similar sound of the two works’ waltz movements makes this particularly clear: the waltzes both sound rather dreamy and placid, with neither the more-upbeat nature of Dvořák’s nor the slight melancholy of Tchaikovsky’s ever becoming clear. It is a pleasure to have these two highly pleasurable works together on a CD as well-played as this one, but this is nevertheless a (+++) release because of its failure to highlight the substantial differences between the pieces as well as their charming similarities.
A new (+++) two-CD Ravello set of music by Alla Elana Cohen mixes chamber-orchestra pieces with ones for much smaller groupings – and there is even a string quartet called Three Tableau Noir taken from a chamber opera. Here are a six-movement Partita for chamber orchestra, another chamber-orchestra piece called Inner Temple, plus two works called Prophecies for the same size-ensemble; the string quartet and a quartet called Querying the Silence for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano; a different Inner Temple for cello and piano; and a different Querying the Silence for oboe and cello. The confusing titling is one element that is a bit off-putting here, although the titles do have a purpose: Cohen collects her works in “volumes” and “series” according to what she is trying to communicate, so, for example, the oboe-and-cello Querying the Silence is Volume 1, Series 9, while the identically titled piece for piano and winds is Volume 1, Series 8, with both works having the same philosophical underpinning of trying “to listen to the echo of one’s own words and one’s own thoughts.” All this is well and good – although it could be argued that music in general helps people focus on their own words and thoughts, or distract them from both. But it seems unlikely that most listeners will plod through the 90 minutes of Cohen’s music on these two CDs seeking the specific forms of self-enlightenment to which she wants the works to be devoted. There is certainly cleverness here, notably in Cohen’s Partita, which has touches of humor throughout amid movements with titles such as “Stumbling Sarabande” and “Crazy Courante” – and not even a passing reference to Baroque style, despite those titles. There is some clever orchestration here as well, notably in percussion, but after a while, the piece seems to exist mainly to draw attention to that cleverness and becomes rather overdone. This is a descriptor for most of the music here, in fact: because Cohen writes atonally and with little interest in melody (except in snippets), the main distinctions among the works lie in their instrumentation rather than their musical content in terms of the notes that are played. The oboe-and-cello pieces have clarity that some of the larger-ensemble works lack, but the traditional conversational element of chamber music is always absent, as Cohen creates soundscapes in which the instrumentalists relate to each other only incidentally. In the larger-ensemble pieces, the sound often verges on being actually unpleasant, no doubt deliberately (and in service to the philosophical foundations of the music), but to the detriment of listenability. There is some ethereality to the piano-and-winds quartet that sets it apart from the rest of the music here, and this work’s comparative serenity also contrasts with the mood of most of the other music. But taking all this material as a whole, it is all so similar in sound and approach that listeners who are not already fans of Cohen’s work will likely decide that when you have heard a little of this chamber-and-beyond writing, you have heard it all, or at least enough of it.
August 08, 2019
Calendars (wall for 2020): A Year of Snarky Cats; Peanuts. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.
Companion animals, at least the felines and canines that come most readily to most people's minds in connection with the word “pet,” tend to be thought of as either snarky or sweet. And each individual's choice of a companion animal says something about his or her own snarkiness, sweetness, or aspiration to one or the other.
As with the animals, so with calendars featuring the animals. There is certainly no doubt as to how Dan DiPaolo thinks about cats: the word “snarky” is right there in the title of his 2020 wall calendar. And cats do have a well-deserved reputation for tolerating humans rather than engaging fully with their Homo sapiens companions. On the other hand, cats do not have a reputation for wearing purple sunglasses and sipping from a mug that bears the words, “I’m a lot of work,” which is how the cat on the front of the 2020 A Year of Snarky Cats calendar appears. Early purchasers of the calendar get plenty of time to form a special bond with this particular DiPaolo cat, since this is a 16-month calendar (September 2019-December 2020) and the front-cover cat adorns the page showing all four months of 2019 that the calendar displays. Humans who eventually tire of being stared down by this particular cat may be eager to turn to the January display even before the start of the new year, just to get some relief – which, however, is not forthcoming: it features a slit-eyed reclining cat glancing off to one side, beneath the words, “I’ll just be over here, judging you. So be nice.” Wow – a full year of cat condemnation! Who could possibly want anything more? Well, cat owners – and perhaps a few people who want to be reminded of the reasons they do not own cats – will find plenty to enjoy, or at least put up with, in A Year of Snarky Cats. Each month features a different DiPaolo drawing and different words that cat fanciers (and probably cats themselves) will find very apt indeed. These range from February’s forward-facing, yellow-eyed white cat saying, “Nope, not today,” to December’s Santa-hat-wearing-but-sly-looking black feline commenting, “I chase stuff that twinkles.” Cat owners will find plenty here at which to chuckle or to which to respond with a wry laugh, including one remark that pretty well sums up the entire human-feline relationship, at least where possessions are concerned: “What’s yours is actually mine. How many times do we need to go over this?”
We tend to think of dogs as being nicer than cats, or at least more accommodating. But surface-level fawning may conceal a rich and varied interior life, as readers of Peanuts learned time and again when Snoopy would refer to owner Charlie Brown only as “the round-headed kid” but had no trouble figuring out whether, on a given day, to battle the Red Baron, transform himself into Joe Cool, perch vulture-like in a tree, take a few turns on the ice (doing either hockey or figure skating), run for political office, or otherwise behave in a distinctly non-beagle-like manner (at least as far as humans know). During the half century in which Charles Schulz created Peanuts, Snoopy’s character grew and changed and managed to become both more and less doglike at the same time – just one of the remarkable elements of this strip, which is 70 years young as of 2020 and continues to delight readers even though Schulz died in 2000 at the age of 77. Snoopy’s extensive fantasy life is only mildly present in the 2020 Peanuts wall calendar, with Snoopy appearing just five times in the 13 large illustrations (13 because this too is a 16-month calendar covering the last third of 2019 and the entirety of 2020). What is especially interesting about this particular calendar is that it shows how well Schulz, whose dialogue was always exceptional, could communicate entirely without words. The large illustrations here are silent, leaving it up to Peanuts lovers to fill in, remember, misremember, or make up the dialogue. One panel shows Snoopy and Charlie Brown, both wearing winter hats, looking off to the right and staring at – what? Snoopy is holding a hockey stick, if that helps. Another shows Snoopy holding his water dish upside-down above his head – which means the dish is empty – while Woodstock sits nearby on the ground, looking even more befuddled than usual because – why? Was he just now under the dish, or in it, or what? The meaning of some panels is clear enough: the only one with letters in it, a sound rather than a word (“BONK!”), shows Schroeder pulling his piano away from Lucy, who is flipped upside-down and has obviously just made one of her usual over-affectionate comments or has managed to insult Beethoven. And some panels need no explanation whatsoever, such as the one for December that shows Snoopy reclining in his famous pose atop his doghouse, which is bedecked with Christmas lights. Snoopy is not much like a real dog – he was, in the early days of Peanuts, but Schulz moved him further and further from “dogness” over time, and in so doing accentuated some canine features while giving Snoopy a personality all his own. The thing is, just as cat lovers and people who know just why they are not cat lovers can enjoy DiPaolo’s snarky cats, so dog lovers and people who are canine-deprived can enjoy Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang. Either of these calendars makes a delightful wall hanging for late 2019 and all of 2020. And of course those who are undecided between cats and dogs – or who prefer, say, axolotls – can get both the DiPaolo and Schulz illustrations and hang them in different rooms. Or in the same room, facing each other in suitably competitive spirit.
Fearless Felines: 30 True Tales of Courageous Cats. By Kimberlie Hamilton. Scholastic. $9.99.
Think of an animal that helps humans in many ways, in times of war as well as peace, that assists and inspires and is beloved far and wide, and you probably won’t think of a cat. As delightful as they are in many ways and for many people, cats have a well-earned reputation for being self-willed, standoffish and often downright indifferent to the humans among whom they live.
Like other generalizations, this one contains enough truth so that the book Fearless Felines will likely come as something of a surprise – even to cat lovers. Kimberlie Hamilton actually offers far more than 30 stories about helpful and, yes, courageous cats, because in addition to the 30 full-page profiles of specific felines, she includes page after page listing other cats that also did remarkable things of one sort or another. And some really are remarkable. For example, a cat named Oscar, who lives in a New England nursing home, has an uncanny but apparently not uncatty ability to know when someone there is about to pass on. Far from frightening people, Oscar appears to soothe their last hours – although, as Hamilton points out, no one knows quite how Oscar knows what he knows. Hamilton follows the story of Oscar with a couple of pages on genuinely spooky cats, such as one that used to haunt the basement of the United States Capitol and another that is still seen from time to time at a hotel in Arkansas.
The stories here – illustrated in multiple styles by 16 different artists – take place in many times and many countries. There is the “theater cat” named Beerbohm, who once lived behind the scenes on London’s West End and famously appeared in the limelight at least once during every show’s run – always at a completely unpredictable time. There is a cat named Sam who, during World War II, survived the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck, was adopted by the crew of a British ship, survived the sinking of that ship, was taken aboard an aircraft carrier, lived through the torpedoing of that ship as well, and finally – after three shipwrecks in a single year – was moved to land and became the governor of Gibraltar’s chief mouser. Nor was Sam the only politically connected cat: one named Humphrey actually bore the official designation of “Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” and ended up serving three British prime ministers.
There are also cultural cats profiled in Fearless Felines, and while “fearless” may be an overstatement for them, their stories are certainly interesting. A Philadelphia cat named Nora spontaneously started playing the piano at her home one day and was soon the subject of some of those notorious online cat videos that seem to have sprung up everywhere, but – this is what makes her special – actually inspired a human composer to write a piece called CATcerto that is acknowledged as the first piano concerto ever composed for a cat. And then there is Polar Bear, the stray cat adopted by writer Cleveland Amory that inspired him to write the well-known book, The Cat Who Came for Christmas. And for a story of a different type, Hamilton tells about a Canadian cat named Snowball, whose hair was found at a murder scene and used, through genetic testing, to catch the killer – the first time animal DNA was ever used in a criminal-court trial.
Hamilton mixes these stories with snippets of information on all sorts of feline accomplishments: the largest known litter of cats was 19, born to a cat in Britain; two cats in Thailand had a 500-guest wedding that cost $24,000; the loudest cat purr ever recorded came in at 86.3 decibels; the oldest known cat was a Texas feline named Creme Puff, who lived to be 38 years and three days old; and so on. There are also a few cat questions here, asking why cats hate getting wet (not all cats do, but many find wet, heavy fur uncomfortable) and why cats love catnip (no one knows, and not all cats find it enticing). And there are fascinating facts in Fearless Felines: Napoleon and Julius Caesar were afraid of cats; cats face more danger when falling from a low place than from a high one; adult cats meow only to communicate with humans; some cat hairballs are the size of baseballs; cats have just 473 taste buds, while humans have 9,000. But the point here is not so much to collect tidbits of factual information on cats in general as it is to learn a bit about 30-plus specific cats and the sometimes surprising and unexpected ways in which they have helped (or at least interacted intriguingly with) humans. And “fur” readers who want to find out even more about these and other fearless (or feckless) felines, Hamilton helpfully provides, at the back of the book, some suggestions for “Furr-ther Reading.”
Truman Harris: Concertino for Horn and Chamber Orchestra; Concertino for Flute and Chamber Orchestra; Rosemoor Suite; Aulos Triptych; Flowers; Sonata for Two Bassoons and Piano. Alice Kogan Weinreb, Aaran Goldman, Carole Bean, Leah Arsenault Barrick, flutes; Nicholas Stovall, oboe; Paul Cigan, clarinet; Truman Harris, Sue Heineman, Steven Wilson, bassoons; Laurel Bennert Ohlson, horn; Audrey Andrist, piano; Eclipse Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sylvia Alimena. Naxos. $12.99.
Géza Frid: Trio à cordes; Dick Kattenburg: Trio à cordes; Sándor Kuti: Serenade for String Trio; Hans Krása: Passacaglia & Fuga for String Trio; Tánec for String Trio; Gideon Klein: Trio for violin, viola, and cello; Paul Hermann: Strijktrio. Black Oak Ensemble (Desirée Ruhstrat, violin; Aurélien Fort Pederzoli, viola; David Cunliffe, cello). Cedille. $16.
There is a somewhat unfair perception that many contemporary composers care more about impressing other composers and/or performers of their music than about reaching out to a wider audience. Like many behavioral generalizations, this notion has a grain of truth at its core in some cases but is a vast overstatement when applied to all cases. Indeed, there are composers such as Truman Harris (born 1945) who, while clearly interested in creating music that will appeal strongly to performers, are also hoping that an audience of non-performers will find the works worth hearing even if the listeners do not realize just what goes into the playing. All six Harris works on a new Naxos CD are interestingly scored and written to intrigue and challenge the performers – indeed, the players on the disc are the ones for whom Harris wrote the pieces. But all the works also have much to recommend them simply as music and, on that basis, will appeal to listeners who enjoy woodwinds (which dominate these pieces) and are open to hearing some unusual instrumental combinations. Harris’ music has something of pastiche about it, with noticeable (that is, audible) influences both from classical composers (Stravinsky, Poulenc and others) and from popular music (ragtime, tango, etc.). This music generally lies quite well on the wind instruments, which is scarcely surprising in light of Harris’ lengthy career as a bassoonist with the National Symphony Orchestra, the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra (heard on this recording), and other ensembles. The string writing here is also fine, although piano parts, when that instrument is used, are rather pedestrian. The longest and most expansive pieces here have the most conventional scoring. They are the two concertinos, for horn (2015) and flute (2003). Both offer the soloists plenty of opportunities to stand out within a traditional three-movement structure. In fact, despite their dates of composition, both these works could have been written decades earlier – and that is not a criticism but a measure of the skill with which Harris has absorbed earlier influences and put them to good use in producing well-balanced, intricate but eminently listenable music. Still, the four non-concertino pieces, although slighter than the concertinos, are more aurally interesting through their use of unusual instrumental combinations. The five-movement Rosemoor Suite (2015) is for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, with Harris himself playing the last of these instruments. The work pays direct homage to some of Harris’ musical inspirations by including a Charleston and a “Silent Movie” movement that does indeed sound as if it could accompany a film from the pre-sound era. There is also an attractive, brief theme and variations here, called “Fantasia.” Even more engaging is Aulos Triptych (2015), for four flutes and piano – quite an ensemble! – whose three movements’ grace, reminiscent of Poulenc, is nicely expressive of the titles “Light and Color,” “Dreams of Fancy Places,” and “A Warm Day in Winter.” Harris has considerable skill as a miniaturist, as is clear not only in Aulos Triptych but also in Flowers (2006), whose six movements are very short indeed: the longest, “Tulips,” lasts less than 90 seconds. Like Rosemoor Suite, this work is for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon (Harris again). The daintiness and delicacy of Flowers are admirable and are effectively communicated. And then there is the fascinating Sonata for Two Bassoons and Piano (2008), another work (like the concertinos) in the traditional three movements, but one whose sound is decidedly unusual. The piano’s three chords in “Until Three [o’clock]” are its most noticeable contribution here, with the bassoons weaving a lovely sonic tapestry in “Moon in the Water” before cutting loose in a jazzy, waltzing rondo finale in which Harris does not perform, perhaps preferring in this instance to sit back in the role of composer and delight in the many moods of which he knows his instrument to be capable. Even though the bassoon is often relegated to a kind of comic role, Harris knows that it, and the other instruments for which he writes, have a far greater expressive capability – and one that does not require the sorts of artificial “extensions of range” that engage many contemporary composers but few contemporary audiences.
There is an underlying playfulness, and occasional whimsy, in Harris’ music, which therefore stands in stark contrast to the string-trio works played by the Black Oak Ensemble on a new release from Cedille. This is a “tribute” disc, the sort of thing that can easily be overdone and can quickly become tiresome. Titled “Silenced Voices,” it pays homage to the many Jewish composers who perished in the Holocaust, as did five of the six whose works are heard here (the sixth fought in the Resistance and long survived World War II). The usual difficulty with well-meaning CDs such as this one is that the music, in and of itself, tends not to be particularly noteworthy beyond the circumstances in which it was written, or those in which the composers lived and died. However, matters are different here, sufficiently so that the disc really does shine a light on how much was lost in cultural terms (among others) because of the Nazis’ “final solution.” All the pieces on the disc are serious, well-constructed, carefully composed to fit the sound and expressive potential of a string trio, and indicative of compositional skill that could clearly have developed in a significant way had the composers’ lives not been cut short. As it happens, the longest work here is by the longest-lived of the composers, Géza Frid (1904-1989). But Trio à cordes is an early work, redolent of the decade of the 1920s, when it and other pieces here were created – and although this is Frid’s Op. 1, this is the trio’s world première recording. Like several other pieces on this CD, Frid’s is strongly influenced by Hungarian folk music, with the first and third movements in particular drawing on Hungary’s traditions (the finale is actually marked Allegro giocoso all’ungherese). The second movement, though, is the most interesting, its essentially peaceful nature interrupted by an agitato section in different meter. The other work here with the same title as Frid’s is by Dick Kattenburg (1919-1944), and it is also an early work, written when the composer was just 19. A short (five-minute), single-movement piece, it is well and tightly structured and shows compositional maturity beyond what would be expected from a 20th-century teenage composer. When Sándor Kuti (1908-1945) composed his Serenade for String Trio, which dates to 1934, he was not much older than Kattenburg at the time of his Trio à cordes. As in Frid’s work, the influence of Hungarian folk music is clear in Kuti’s, but this three-movement trio has a distinct personal stamp not only in style but also in organization: the very short and dynamic second movement is succeeded by a concluding Adagio ma non troppo whose sorrowful depth is something of a surprise after the less-intense earlier material. The two pieces by Hans Krása (1899-1944) have a very direct connection to his fate and that of the other Holocaust victims whose works appear on this disc: both the Passacaglia & Fuga and Tánec (“Dance”) were written in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the final year of Krása’s life. The two paired Baroque-form movements are solid and strong, while Tánec belies its title by being a rather frenetic (although not quite Mahlerian) invitation to something more ominous than any traditional dance. The three-movement Trio for violin, viola and cello by Gideon Klein (1919-1945) is also a product of Theresienstadt, dating to 1944 – when Klein was 25. It is a curious and moving work, its two short outer movements proceeding blithely if not quite merrily but framing a central Theme and Variations that is longer than both of them put together and is clearly the heart of the music, being built around a Moravian folk song and bearing all of this trio’s emotional weight. Strijktrio by Paul Hermann (1902-1944) is a shorter, single-movement work, and an earlier one, dating, like Frid’s trio, to the 1920s. Hermann was a cello virtuoso, and it would have been unsurprising to hear that instrument dominating this piece, but in fact the three strings are pretty much evenly matched in a work whose main musical attraction is its unusual form, which combines elements of rondo and theme-and-variations. The Black Oak Ensemble members play all this music with intensity and involvement as well as technical skill, and the seriousness of purpose underlying the recording is apparent throughout. Such seriousness, common in anthology discs intended as tributes or recognition of one sort or another, does not always serve the music particularly well. Here, though, it does: all these pieces are fully deserving of rising at last above the obscurity in which most of them have languished since the untimely deaths of all but one of the composers represented here.
Jake Runestad: Choral Music—Waves; American Triptych; Why the Caged Bird Sings; Spirited Light; Let My Love Be Heard; And So I Go On; The Hope of Loving; Flower into Kindness. Conspirare conducted by Craig Hella Johnson, with Stephen Redfield and Caleb Polashek, violins; Bruce Williams, viola; Douglas Harvey, cello; Carla McElhaney, piano. Delos. $14.98.
Kile Smith: The Arc in the Sky. The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally. Navona. $14.99.
Extended works for chorus a cappella or with minimal accompaniment are very much an acquired taste, one more likely to come from church than from the concert hall. Indeed, the form is one of the oldest in Western music, and for many years it was very strictly religious in purpose and use. It does remain attractive to some composers today, however, and certainly to some performers and, by extension, some audiences. And much brand-new choral music has a distinctly old-fashioned sound that positions it very much in the age-old compositional line of which it is a part. This is certainly the case with the works of Jake Runestad heard on a new Delos CD in performances by the very fine choral ensemble Conspirare under Craig Hella Johnson’s direction. Runestad (born 1986) is very much text-driven in all the works here, creating settings through which the words and the sentiments underlying them can be displayed as clearly as possible. Those sentiments tend to involve social issues and reflections on human nature, but they also, sometimes almost in spite of themselves, reach beyond the mundanity of daily life toward something higher. Waves, to words by Runestad’s frequent collaborator, Todd Boss, oddly mixes cliché (“My sadness is enormous as the sea”) with originality (“Birds are made of bones of air,” the immediately following line). American Triptych uses words by Henry David Thoreau, Wendell Berry, and John Muir to celebrate natural scenes. Why the Caged Bird Sings is a rather straightforward setting of the familiar words by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Spirited Light is overtly religious, using words by Hildegard von Bingen, while Let My Love Be Heard invokes religious imagery as well, in the words of Alfred Noyes. These two songs speak of love and loss, and the one that follows, And So I Go On (words by Boss), does so in strictly contemporary language that again mixes commonplace expression with poetically effective metaphor. Next on the CD is the disc’s most-elaborate material, a six-song cycle called The Hope of Loving that crystallizes much of Runestad’s thinking and many of his interests through music that includes a string quartet and uses words by mystics Rabia and Hafiz as well as ones from St. Francis of Assisi, St. John of the Cross, and – at the end – Meister Eckhart, whose concluding line (“My soul has a purpose, it is to love”) sums up all that has gone before. The CD ends with Flower into Kindness, one part of a longer work called Into the Light, and again here the words (by Mechthild von Magdeburg, Peter the Apostle, and Rabindranath Tagore) focus on love and its intermingling with nature and spirituality. There is a certain sameness to all Runestad’s music on this disc, which is appropriate in light of its focus on essentially the same topics throughout but which makes the rather long CD (nearly 80 minutes) a bit wearing as it goes on, despite the many beauties of individual tracks. Runestad does, however, show skill not only in choral writing but also in the way he includes individual voices and weaves pieces around them: the tenor solo in Waves, tenor and bass in Spirited Light, soprano and tenor in And So I Go On, soprano and baritone in one part of The Hope of Loving, and so on. Runestad’s music does not always have the uplift for which he clearly strives – much of it is pretty rather than profound – but it is well-constructed and has many appealing elements for choral-music fanciers.
The Arc in the Sky by Kile Smith (born 1956) is more ambitious than anything on the Runestad disc: it is a more-than-hour-long, nine-part setting of texts by a single poet, everything sung a cappella. The new Navona CD featuring The Crossing under Donald Nally is not a disc to be listened to lightly. Everything on it was written by Robert Lax (1915-2000), best known for his association with mystic theologian, Trappist monk and social activist Thomas Merton (1915-1968). The words of Lax set by Smith convey some of the same feelings and desires as many of the words set by Runestad, but their presentation and effect are quite different. Lax wrote what was essentially minimalist and deliberately simplistic poetry, and often tried to connect mundane experience with the spiritual through meditations on topics as varied as the work of sponge divers and the experience of jazz. Smith’s settings, which are more an extended memorial tribute to Lax than an attempt to reach out to people unfamiliar with Lax’s work, are divided into three groups of three. The groupings are decidedly thematic: “Jazz,” “Praise,” and “Arc,” with the third “Arc” song concluding the entire work through a very extended 12-minute setting. It is extremely helpful, if not absolutely necessary, to be familiar with all Lax’s references in order to absorb both his poetry and Smith’s settings of it. For example, the very first piece, “why did they all shout,” repeats those five words for almost a full minute before revealing what is being shouted, which is “louie is de lawd.” The poem turns out to be all about Louis Armstrong, and anyone who does not know that – and does not also know Armstrong’s style – will get little from the words and nothing more from Smith’s choral setting. Other poetry here also requires an understanding of the people in Lax’s orbit – for example, “Cherubim & Palm-Trees for Jean-Louis Kerouac.” The best words, though, are those that seem most to reach out rather than focus on Lax’s inner circle – for example, “Psalm,” which opens, “It is you yourself/ who urges me/ to find you,” and never quite clarifies whether the “you” is another human being or a divine presence. Smith treats Lax’s poetry with great respect, and his settings allow the words to come through clearly so their analytical meaning and emotional impact can reach the audience directly and often effectively. Still, Lax’s work is not so distinctive or imaginative as to sustain well for more than an hour, and while Smith’s music handles the verbiage gingerly, there is nothing in it that makes these poems seem like important expressions of sentiment or meaning never felt before or never expressed so well. Choruses seeking contemporary music to perform will find sections of The Arc in the Sky useful for that purpose, and audiences familiar with Lax and the jazz and “beat” scenes will discover much here that is congenial. The totality of this extended work, though, will likely be a bit too much for listeners who are not among the “in crowd” members who will be familiar with and comfortable with its context.
August 01, 2019
Calendars (desk for 2020): Get It Together! with Sarah’s Scribbles; Marjolein Bastin—Nature’s Inspiration. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.
It is never too early, really, to start thinking about the year to come, and some desktop planners encourage thinking that way by beginning in the current year and carrying through into the next. Sarah Andersen’s amusing and often perceptive Sarah’s Scribbles cartoons are what tie together a 16-month, spiral-bound desktop planning book that runs from September 2019 through December 2020. And they are only part of the attraction of this well-designed week-by-week look at times yet to come. The back cover of the book features a pouch in which receipts, notes, and things that don’t quite fit into the categories of the planner can be neatly stored. The front of the book is a page of stickers that fit the many moods of Sarah’s Scribbles perfectly: there are, for example, three exclamation points and two jagged-edge proclamations of “DEADLINE!” There are also stickers (one apiece) of Andersen’s recurring animal characters (dog, cat, rabbit), plus a few stickers showing Andersen’s cartoon alter ego herself (e.g., one in which she appears on the verge of hysteria and is about to clash together a pair of cymbals as large as her entire body). The point of this planner, and of desktop planners in general, is neatly encapsulated on its first actual page (that is, the page after the stickers): Andersen’s character is balancing on a ball while juggling items representing the demands of everyday life (a book, an alarm clock, cooking implements, etc.). The whole notion of desktop planners is to make that mundane juggling act easier – and this is one way in which these open-flat books are superior to all the electronic tracking systems out there. It is simply simpler to see a week at a glance, and to turn pages quickly to the next week or next month, when using a printed book, than to do an electronic search by jumping ahead or back, and there is something about touching a desktop planner’s physical pages that promotes connection with the real world in which the listed events are going to occur (or did). One neat thing about the Sarah’s Scribbles planner is that each day of every week gets three rectangles for making notes and setting up meetings, not just one. One column is labeled “appointments/misc.,” one is called “stuff to do,” and one is headed “my social life.” Yes, there is bound to be overlap among the columns, and of course everyone using the book can interpret the headings differently, but just the existence of the subdivision is helpful for reminding you, day after day and week after week and page after page, that there is more to life than any single descriptor can indicate. Since every two-page spread also includes a Sarah’s Scribbles multi-panel story and a couple of amusing marginal drawings, there is a lot to enjoy throughout the planner. And there is just enough subtle thoughtfulness to keep users grounded: one cartoon story shows a door labeled “2018,” followed by a panel in which Andersen’s character is smashed by a boxing glove; then a door is labeled “2019” and the same thing happens; and then there is a door labeled “2020,” after which the character is shown banged-up and bandaged – but the final panel shows her, with a determined look on her face, wearing boxing gloves of her own. There is not a single word in the sequence, but the idea of being ready to take on the new year despite reverses in past years comes through loudly, clearly, amusingly, and with just the right touch of awareness of reality.
Electronic organizers and planners tend to look very much alike, but one advantage to a desktop planner is that it can reflect your personal moods and preferences and allow you to indulge them all year. The beautiful 12-month, spiral-bound, open-flat Nature’s Inspiration planner by Marjolein Bastin, for example, is very different from the wry, cartoonish, take-life-seriously-but-not-too-seriously Sarah Andersen book. The whole focus of Bastin’s planner is the beauty of the animal world around us – not the large, majestic animals on which so many nature-focused illustrations are centered, but such smaller creatures as birds, butterflies, chicks, piglets, and the foliage surrounding so many of them and giving them places to live. Like the Sarah’s Scribbles planner, Nature’s Inspiration has a pouch for storing papers – here, inside the front cover. It also has features of its own, such as moon-phase notes and a built-in bookmark. And Bastin’s warmly evocative prose appears throughout, starting at the beginning of the year: “One of the benefits of a tradition is that you don’t have to think about whether you feel like participating. Tradition is tradition! And so we head out to go birdwatching on the floodplains surrounding the river IJssel in the Netherlands. It’s just something we do every first week of January.” The text, set in small script-like type, is scattered around each illustrative page, with the majority of each page taken up by Bastin’s absolutely beautiful art: paintings that often look more realistic than reality. One page shows a squirrel at the bottom right, a deer at the bottom left, and feathers in between them and elsewhere. Another page is entirely floral, each individual flower drawn lovingly: “Tired of looking at my empty desk, I felt the urge to pick some spring flowers and place them in a glass in front of me.” Another page shows three robins enjoying the fruit of a berry tree: “If you want to do your birds a favor you should plant some red chokeberry trees in your garden.” The little bits of advice and thoughtfulness complement the art wonderfully well – always on left-hand pages, while right-hand ones lay out each week at a glance, giving every day a lined rectangular space with enough room for notes, comments, or thoughts of your own to fill out the year as it progresses. In many ways, the Andersen and Bastin desktop planners are as different as can be: certainly their sensibilities differ significantly. But in other ways, they spring from the same impetus: to trace the year while looking ahead to the part of it that has not yet occurred, providing easy-to-use organizational space while also reflecting specific visual elements tailored to different users’ feelings about and attitudes toward everyday life and the events that make each day a different sort of challenge and, potentially, a different sort of pleasure.
Mr. Wolf’s Class #3: Lucky Stars. By Aron Nels Steinke. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
The non-adventures of the everyday fourth graders taught by Mr. Wolf continue in Aron Nels Steinke’s third Mr. Wolf’s Class graphic novel in much the same way in which they began in the first book and proceeded in the second. The books are so determinedly quotidian that it remains a bit hard to see their attraction: third-graders will find little to look forward to in this series, fourth-graders are already living most of it, and fifth-graders will find little about which to wax nostalgic. The main areas of interest are the way in which Steinke draws the various animal students and, for those so inclined, the care with which he adheres to tropes of political correctness. “Real life is boring. My life is boring,” says a frog student named Sampson in Lucky Stars. And in truth, much of what happens in these books is familiar to the point of being dull. But Mr. Wolf replies, “Real life is not boring,” and sure enough, Sampson is going to have an experience that is outside the norm – an unpleasant one, but one through which he will emerge with improved self-knowledge and a better self-image (of course).
Aside from positivity of that sort, Steinke does not always seem sure what he wants to do with these books – or where he wants them to go. The most interesting part of the second book, Mystery Club, had to do with the school’s rats, which (like all the other animals) wear clothes and interact in highly anthropomorphic ways – but which, unlike Mr. Wolf’s students, are treated as irritants and, well, pretty much as vermin, for no discernible reason. It eventually turns out that the rats have a kind of culture or subculture of their own – but it barely makes an appearance in the third book. There is a brief reference at the start to Mr. Wolf’s students giving the rats food and getting gifts from the rats in return, at unexpected times; there is a budding subplot in which the “gifts” are shown to be items that the rats take from one place or person and bring to another; and there is a conclusion, setting up the next book, in which Steinke shows that what the rats are doing is basically theft – which is perhaps going to cause significant problems at the school in the future.
But those elements constitute a brief throwback and a look ahead and are not the main point of Lucky Stars. Likewise, the delving into politically correct territory is only a small element here: one student, a cat named Randy, announces that she is going to Hawaii, but instead of this being for an innocuous vacation, Steinke goes out of his way to have her say, “My moms are finally getting married,” and everyone thinks that is just swell – although it is irrelevant to the story and is not mentioned again when, near the end of the book, Randy returns and wonders why people are not making a bigger fuss over her after her extended absence.
The reason Randy does not draw more attention has to do with what happens to Sampson and what is central to Lucky Stars. The book’s cover shows Sampson and another student, a rabbit named Margot, riding bikes together, of course with helmets carefully in place and tightly buckled – Sampson is actually shown touching his helmet. But the cover is not what Steinke shows in the story. What happens in the narrative is that while the bike ride does take place, Sampson dons his helmet but does not buckle it, with the result that when he has an accident, he is badly hurt and loses consciousness (for a time period shown by Steinke through the inclusion of 20 consecutive all-black panels). When Sampson awakens in the hospital, it is in a chapter called “Thank You Lucky Stars” – hence the book’s title. And much of the remainder of the book has to do with Sampson’s recovery from his broken arm (his worst injury), the way he learns to use his left hand for activities he had formerly done with his right (he is right-handed), and the eventual celebration when he returns to Mr. Wolf’s class (hence the less-than-overwhelming reception for Randy, who comes back from Hawaii just when Sampson starts school again).
This is a determinedly down-to-earth story, and subplots – such as one involving being a good sport while playing the playground game “four square” – are also handled in a straightforward manner. That is a characteristic of this entire series. So is the peculiarity with which Steinke draws the characters: sometimes they make perfect sense in a world of cartoons; sometimes the conventions of cartooning are used with skill (as when Mr. Wolf is shown with two noses and three mouths while talking to students, to indicate that he is turning his head from side to side rapidly); but sometimes Steinke literally loses his sense of perspective, turning characters into Picasso-ish cubist creations for no reason – and, in so doing, making them seem less “real” in an anthropomorphic sense than they are when he draws these clothes-wearing talking animals so they look as much like humans as possible. Of course, there is nothing “really realistic” about the characters in the Mr. Wolf’s Class books, no matter how they are drawn; but Steinke takes such pains to keep them and their activities ordinary and straightforward that his periodic “arty” drawings of some faces seem arbitrary and intrusive. It is never quite clear what audience Steinke wants for these graphic novels, but young readers who liked the first two will be pleased to discover that Lucky Stars delivers more of whatever they have found to enjoy.