September 19, 2019

(++++) ART FOR KIDS’ SAKE


I Love Me. By Sally Morgan & Ambelin Kwaymullina. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

Little Big Nate Draws a Blank. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $7.99.

Limelight. By Solli Raphael. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     The art of creating successful books for young readers and pre-readers lies largely in – well, in art. The pictures need to attract the youngest children, or the words that go with the illustrations will have no chance to tell a story or otherwise have an effect. It helps, of course, if the story that goes with the pictures is simple enough so it can be quickly and easily absorbed – and what could be simpler than expressing happiness with one’s own body and being? That is what Sally Morgan and Ambelin Kwaymullina put forth, both in art and in words, in I Love Me, a new board-book version of a work originally published in Australia in 2016. The two human characters may look somewhat unusual to some families: Morgan and Kwaymullina are from the Palyku people of Western Australia, and their drawings reflect their heritage not only through very dark skin but also through hair that is quite distinctive (“I love the way my curly hair grows,” the text says at one point, although the illustration shows the hair looking distinctly stringy and two-colored, as if highlighted). Some elements of I Love Me transcend cultures, including the cover – which shows the two characters and a dog, the humans wearing clothing with a big heart on the front and the dog shown with a red heart on its front as well. And the Aboriginal-and-manga-influenced art is both unusual and attractive, with every two-page spread having a different multicolored border and the story panels themselves appearing in different sizes and shapes. I Love Me is a very busy book, visually speaking, and that is one reason it works well for very young readers and pre-readers: there is lots going on, visually, at all times. The words are sometimes straightforward: “I love the inside me. I love the outside me.” (“Inside” gets an impressionistic drawing of what is inside people, while “outside” gets a super-colorful picture focused entirely on clothing and decorative display.) At other times, the words are a touch surprising: “I love the way my toes make art” (the two characters are shown using their feet to apply paint to paper, with examples of finished “toe drawings” on the wall behind them). And Morgan and Kwaymullina seek a kind of cadence in the writing by using repeated words on some pages: “Thump, thump, thump,” for example, and “Zing, zing, zing.” Those words are then attached to the narrative: “Dash, dash, dash. I love the way my feet splash” (with the characters running barefoot through puddles). Through its words and its art, I Love Me transmits its message of self-acceptance both vibrantly and playfully.

     The playfulness is with the art in Lincoln Peirce’s new board book, Little Big Nate Draws a Blank. Peirce here puts his familiar preteen character, Big Nate, into a time machine, sending him back to early childhood and what is clearly an early interest in drawing (in the Big Nate comic strip, sixth-grader Nate is, among other things, a cartoonist). This board book is not really for Big Nate fans, although the strip has been around so long that it could be for the children of Big Nate fans who have enjoyed the strip for a quarter of a century. Peirce connects Little Big Nate with the familiar sixth-grade character through personality traits and Nate’s trademark spiky hair – although the character creation falters a bit when it comes to the mouth, with Peirce giving Little Big Nate just two teeth, both of them semicircular uppers and each as big as Nate’s nose (resulting in a rather weird look for what is otherwise a pleasant character). The art here is “by” Little Big Nate, and that is a lot of what makes this book fun to see and read. It is about all the things Little Big Nate considers drawing but decides not to draw – each of them, however, being shown in a Nate-style drawing, indicating how they would look if the young artist did draw them. This is harder to describe than to see: it is quite clear in the book and works very well. For each possible thing to draw, Little Big Nate gives a reason not to do so: “A toad? TOO BUMPY! A cricket? TOO JUMPY!” But each non-drawing (presumably from Nate’s imagination) looks like what he would draw if he did decide to draw it. The result is a lot of Nate non-drawings that let kids see what Nate drawings would look like if he created them – a convoluted notion that is distinctly amusing. The drawings themselves are a lot of fun, too, from the “too hairy” dog shedding everywhere as it runs, to the “too inky” octopus that smiles broadly while emitting a huge black cloud. At the end of the book, undecided Nate is just “too sleepy” to draw anything and is napping on the floor, crayon to paper, imagining the “too creepy” (but smiling) snake that he has decided not to draw. The way Peirce uses his art here – and Nate’s imagined art – makes the book highly enjoyable.

     It is the art of poetry, not representational art, that is featured in Limelight, a book for kids who are roughly the age of the original Big Nate character. And this book, like the one by Morgan and Kwaymullina, has an Australian connection: author Solli Raphael is Australian, and became instantly famous when he won the Australian Poetry Slam at age 12 and then put together Limelight at age 13. Now Raphael is 14 and is actively engaged in promoting his poetry and his book – and the messages he seeks to convey in both. Raphael has some knowledge of how poetry works, having learned about it from his mother, and offers several explanatory chapters on the topic in Limelight. But they are not the book’s focus and, in the main, not especially relevant to the actual poetry that Raphael creates. The poems, unsurprisingly for someone of Raphael’s age, are all about how badly things need to be different from the way they currently are, and how important it is for him and others in the same age group to get involved to make change happen: “Since the day of our arrival, we’ve been killing our own survival, and it’s vital, that our sidle title is put aside, so we can become ONE with our rivals.” And (another example among many): “So next time you go into the shops,/ think about all the crops, ripped-off farmers, plastic bags, and those who dedicate their lives to the war on waste they pursue.” And (one more): “The floods have finished, and the fires have burned out./ Suicide rates climb higher and higher/ and this is something we should all be worried about.” The poems read mostly like polemical pamphleteering, certainly filled with all the sincerity and angst of a preteen or young teenager, and intended for an audience that has grown well beyond board books and currently seeks something beyond (or other than) entertainment from the art of poetry (or at least from slam poetry). Limelight is part of the “celebrification” of sociopolitics, with Raphael being presented (in many media, not just this book) as the sort of committed young person who can and should attract others to the cause of – well, of just generally making things better and less messed-up. On its own, this is a (+++) book, but if it reaches its intended preteen or young-teenage audience, it may be seen as a clarion call to (nonspecific) action and may – if Raphael has his way – inspire others to get down to the hard work of actually making things better.

(+++) THE FASCINATION OF THE DESPICABLE


The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition’s Evil Genius. By Bob Batchelor. Diversion Books. $27.99.

     It is safe to ask why an author would write an almost-400-page biography of a man dubbed a “little German hysteria-peddler” in a sentence written in such a way that the opinion seems to be that of the author himself, not just the view of one of the people he is writing about. The answer in the case of Bob Batchelor seems to be that George Remus, a “tenacious grappler” (among other things), is just so doggone fascinating that his story asks to be written and Batchelor cannot but oblige.

     It is scarcely an obliging tale. From its title – an echoing, ironic reference to the powerful Bourbon kings of France, including “Sun King” Louis XIV – to its standard “what happened afterwards” conclusion, The Bourbon King proceeds at a headlong pace that at times goes beyond the cinematic into the realm of TV advertising (in which a 30-second ad may have more than 30 scenes). In other words, there is a lot going on in Batchelor’s book, and the breathlessness of the telling seems to reflect not only the Prohibition era in which most of the biography is set but also the overall life of Remus (1874-1952).

     It is abundantly clear that Batchelor neither likes nor approves of Remus or much of anything that Remus did or stood for, but he tries to place his distaste in context by writing that “while Remus may have been singularly violent and dangerous, his utter disregard for Prohibition put him in accord with how much of American society felt about the dry laws.”

     The name of Remus is far less often bandied about than those of Al Capone, John Dillinger and other Midwestern bad guys of the Prohibition era. After going through The Bourbon King, some readers are sure to wonder why – especially readers fond of The Great Gatsby, for whose title character Remus appears to have been a partial model. Remus was certainly colorful as well as, apparently, wholly amoral (which is not the same as immoral, a more arguable word where Prohibition mores are concerned). He was not always a bad guy: early on, Remus quit school to support his family as a pharmacist. Later, he became, of all things, a criminal defense attorney, representing bootleggers in Chicago and becoming infamous for over-the-top courtroom tactics that saved more than one criminal from the death penalty. Deciding to get in on the big-money action himself – Remus had noticed the wads of cash with which his clients paid their fines and bills – Remus moved to Cincinnati and used his pharmaceutical knowledge and standing to work his way to the top of the illegal Kentucky bourbon world. Even during Prohibition, as readers may not realize, alcoholic beverages were legal – if made and distributed for medical reasons.

     Batchelor chronicles Remus’ various depredations with skill and ever-present antipathy for the man, whose undoubted business acumen gets short shrift while his criminal activities get extensive coverage. This is scarcely surprising in light of just how outrageous some of Remus’ doings were – not only the bribery and the rest of the deep-seated corruption of which he took advantage, but also the way he actually got away with murder in what would surely be a highlighted scene in any Public Enemy-style movie. Remus’ second wife, Imogene, was no angel herself. She deliberately set out to milk him for all he was worth and was willing to marry him if necessary – but when Remus was serving two years in prison after a conviction under the Volstead Act, she fell for a Prohibition agent and managed, with him, to run through most of Remus’ money. Once out of jail, Remus shot her dead – then used his criminal-defense background to stand up for himself in court, and was acquitted by reason of insanity. The prosecutor, Charles P. Taft, son of former President and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft, never fully recovered from a defeat that, as Batchelor describes it, sounds almost ridiculously like something from our current era of celebrity worship and courtroom antics: “Taft got stung by a strange convolution of sentimentality, cult of personality, duplicity, and flat-out wrongheadedness on the part of twelve jury members.”

     Batchelor’s headlong writing style sometimes gets ahead of the accuracy of his word usage and sentence construction: “The years in prison, he secretly worried, had deteriorated his intellect.” “Polls showed the Mabel Willebrandt was personally popular…” And the author’s evaluation of Remus is not always clear, beyond the element of personal dislike: one page refers to Remus’ “history of violence” and “quick, sadistic temper,” while the next says that “the viciousness of gang warfare did not suit Remus” and that for him, “the bootleg empire was as much an intellectual game – for excitement – as anything else.” The near-juxtaposition of these statements makes Remus seem to have been a more-complicated figure than the narrative itself ever asserts directly. But perhaps that is inevitable in a story like this one: the details of the weighted, gold-tipped cane that Remus carried and often used, and the pearl-handled pistol with which he killed Imogene, loom far larger than any discussion of the intellect that made it possible for Remus to succeed so well in several different fields, no matter how smarmily he did so. The Bourbon King is by no means the first book about Remus: he has previously inspired both nonfiction (Karen Abbott’s The Ghosts of Eden Park, that being the place where Remus shot Imogene) and fiction (Craig Holden’s The Jazz Bird). But neither those books nor Batchelor’s seems as fitting a tribute – if “tribute” is the right word – as an alcoholic beverage that Queen City Whiskey started making in 2014. It is called George Remus Bourbon. Ironically, however, it is now made not in Cincinnati, the Queen City where Remus once flourished, or by an eponymous manufacturer, but by a company called MGP – across the border in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

(++++) VIGOR AND QUIETUDE


Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2; Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet—excerpts. Fabio Bidini, piano; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Beau Fleuve. $20 (2 CDs).

Jeffrey Jacob: Symphony No. 5, “Dreamers”; Sanctuary I; Adagietto; Epitaph; The Persistence of Memory; Final Sanctuary. Navona. $14.99.

Mark John McEncroe: Musical Images for Chamber Orchestra—Reflections & Recollections, Vol. 1. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     The notion of Brahms’ two piano concertos being, in effect, symphonies with piano obbligato, is not a new one, but performances that treat them that way are less than common. But the new one by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, interestingly, does handle the Concerto No. 2 in an essentially symphonic way. That certainly does not diminish the importance of pianist Fabio Bidini’s involvement and skill, but this reading is at its best when the orchestra is in charge and those grand Brahmsian themes and swells are washing over the audience in waves (an appropriate metaphor for a live recording on the orchestra’s own Beau Fleuve label). The concerto actually begins rather slowly and almost tentatively, as if gathering strength, but by the time the main theme of the first movement arrives, the music is at full flow, and the expansiveness of the first movement is heightened by the exceptionally warm sound that Falletta draws from the orchestra – notably in the strings and brass. Bidini is rather too much given to rubato in this movement and, indeed, pretty much throughout the performance: some tempo fluctuation is normal (for better or worse) in this concerto and other works of its time, but Bidini stretches a phrase here, compresses one there, just a bit too often. Falletta, however, when not keeping up with the pianist’s alterations to the score, moves the music ahead with vigor and tremendous warmth. The middle movements both benefit from this approach to a considerable degree, with the Andante spun out at length in a way that makes it the emotional centerpiece of the entire work. The finale, though, is a bit of a comedown, not only because there is again a bit too much inattention to tempo consistency, as in the first movement, but also because the very end of the whole work is simply taken too fast – it almost sounds as if Bidini and Falletta have had enough after 50 minutes and cannot wait to wind things up. Apparently the audience could not wait, either: applause starts during the final chord – a major faux pas in a recording and one that apparently could not be edited out. There are many beauties in this performance, enough to make it yet another of a number of recent showcases for the increasing excellence of Falletta and the Buffalonians. But the whole thing does not quite gel as a concerto experience, even though as a symphonic one it is impressively played. The second disc in this two-CD set is another live recording, this time of excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. This is not one of the three suites that the composer extracted from his ballet – instead, it is a mixture of movements from all three. Falletta chooses nine pieces in all: six from the second suite, two from the first, and one from the third. She arranges them in an order designed to maximize a dramatic presentation, not in a sequence reflective of Shakespeare’s story or Prokofiev’s ballet. This works well for listeners who are not familiar with the music already, although those who do know it may find some of the juxtapositions a trifle jarring. Still, here as in the Brahms, Falletta brings forth exceptional playing from the orchestra – the very opening of the whole sequence, The Montagues and Capulets, is especially impressive – and she conducts with considerable flair for drama and a willingness to go all-in emotionally, notably in the concluding excerpt, Romeo at the Grave of Juliet. The sheer sound of the Buffalo Philharmonic makes this entire recording a pleasure to hear, even if some elements of the pieces fit together not quite seamlessly.

     Contemporary composers often strive for the sort of impact that Brahms and Prokofiev produce, but their ambitions frequently fall short – at times because they are so determinedly earnest in trying to promote an extramusical agenda. That is the case with the music of Jeffrey Jacob on a new (+++) Navona release. Jacob’s Symphony No. 5, “Dreamers,” really is what Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 is often said to be: a symphony with piano obbligato. Jacob himself is the pianist in a performance by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jiří Petrdlík, and a heartfelt reading it is. But the work itself never quite makes the emotional connection that it seeks throughout. This is surely because it is a political work first and a musical one second: the title refers to children of illegal immigrants to the United States, ones who dream of a better life and may or may not be eligible for continued legal residence under a program that actually refers to them as “dreamers.” The immigration issue, in the U.S. and elsewhere, is a far more complex one than politicians acknowledge, requiring the balancing of legitimate national security and national financial interests against the desire of the oppressed to flee horrendous conditions and remake their lives. Jacob has no particularly profound or original thoughts on the matter – he simply creates a symphony designed to elicit sympathy and empathy for the “dreamers,” with movements called “Rain, Lagrimas (Tears),” “Fear; Grace,” and “Separation, Grief; Resolution, Triumph.” The music is primarily tonal and uses both the orchestra and the piano throughout to try to get the audience to feel a certain (one-sided) way about the plight of the “dreamers.” That is certainly Jacob’s expressive right, but considering the music simply as music – rather than as political argument – the work is rather monochromatic and not especially convincing. Sanctuary I is more of the same politically despite its different orchestration: it is played by the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Spalding, and includes extensive use of solo piccolo. The mood in the strings here is much the same as the mood in the full orchestra in the symphony, with the intent being to celebrate cities that oppose immigration authorities’ attempts to deal with illegal immigrants. Adagietto again features Jacob on piano, here with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by Joel Spiegelman. The piece has much the same mood as Sanctuary I, although it does not carry the same overt political freight. It also has a nicely wrought oboe part. Epitaph is yet another piece for piano (Jacob) and orchestra (the Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jon Mitchell). Lacking deliberate outward striving for consciousness-raising, it proves more effective than the symphony, Sanctuary I or Adagietto. Indeed, it is a work of considerable warmth and thoughtfulness, the piano undergoing a variety of uses, from the inward-focused and intense to the straightforward and music-box-like. Perhaps because this work has no designated program that listeners are supposed to follow, it opens a multitude of possible feelings and responses – the sort of connection that really good music provides and argumentative music rarely does. Also heard on this disc is The Persistence of Memory, again with Jacob on piano and this time featuring the Cleveland Chamber Symphony under Edwin London. Although not quite as effective as Epitaph, this work too is a strongly involving one, using passing references to the music of Brahms, Schumann, Schubert and Bartók as part of a two-movement  contemplation of the similarities and differences between older and newer compositional styles – a somewhat rarefied and academic concept that manages not to be off-putting thanks to Jacob’s skill in interweaving the varying approaches. The CD concludes with Final Sanctuary, featuring Jacob not on piano but on oboe and electronics. This is an odd work, the oboe part warm and meditative but the electronic elements joining with it uneasily – it is hard to be sure whether the intent here is placidity or a kind of artificial sense of wellness above a rather ill-fitting background. Jacob shows himself on this CD to be both a versatile composer and a versatile performer, at his best when he looks inward rather than putting his skill at the service of nonmusical matters.

     Another (+++) Navona release, a two-CD set of 20 works by Mark John McEncroe, offers chamber-orchestra arrangements by Mark J. Saliba of pieces that McEncroe originally wrote for piano. Unlike the multifaceted Jacob material, these works by McEncroe have considerable similarity among themselves, to the point that many titles could be swapped without significantly affecting listeners’ perceptions of the pieces. The two-CD set is not quite as lengthy as might be expected – the first disc runs 37 minutes, the second 44 – but it does wear thin quickly. Much of the material comes across as background music, suitable for listening to while doing something else: there is little here that commands full attention. Indeed, the music is so strongly tonal and so determinedly meditative that the recording could almost be classified as New Age, filled as it is with gentleness and little percussive tinglings that briefly draw attention beyond the quiet motion and even sound of the orchestra. It is scarcely a surprise that so many of the tracks refer to water: Ripples on Still Water, The Gargoyle Fountain, A Fish with the Blues, Shadows in the Water. There is a feeling of gentle flow, emphasis on “gentle,” almost everywhere here. The titles not including water references reflect a similar esthetic: Introspective Moments, Ghosts from the Past, Dancing in the Light, A Lazy Summer’s Afternoon, and so on. There is nothing wrong with any of this experiential music, certainly no problem with it for listeners who want something pleasant and unchallenging meandering through the background while they go about various quotidian tasks. It is mood music of a single mood, pleasantly soporific and engagingly undistinguished – nothing challenging or portentous here, nothing to make one’s ears perk up or one’s mind pay attention, but a great deal that can be used as an aid to meditation or to sleep, pretty much all of it at the same Andante Moderato tempo. Indeed, that is the title of one of the works here and could just as well be the label for all of them.

(+++) TRAVELS AND TRAVAILS


Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet; Vivaldi: Concerto in D, RV93; Joaquín Turina: La oración del torero; Boccherini: Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet in D, G448. Sharon Isbin, guitar; Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman, violins; Mark Holloway, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello). Cedille. $12.

Derek Bermel: Migration Series for Jazz Ensemble and Orchestra; Mar de Setembro; A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace. Luciana Souza, vocals; Ted Nash, saxophone and alto saxophone; Derek Bermel, clarinet; Juilliard Jazz Orchestra; Albany Symphony conducted by David Alan Miller. Naxos. $12.99.

Jimmy López Bellido: Symphony No. 1, “The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda”; Bel Canto—A Symphonic Canvas. Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Excellent playing in the service of some rather oddly assorted repertoire is the hallmark of a new Cedille disc featuring guitarist Sharon Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet. The sequencing of centuries – 20th, 18th, 20th, 18th – makes for some musical moments that would be jarring if the performances were not so smooth. As is, the individual pieces here are highly attractive and beautifully performed, but the CD as a whole is somewhat strange. The connective tissue is supposed to be the notion of music by Italian composers who have been influenced by Spain – a formulation that, being rather esoteric and also something of a stretch, clarifies pretty much nothing. It is best to hear the disc simply as an example of first-rate playing by a chamber grouping that is less than common. On that basis, it has many delights. The most interesting work on it, and the longest, is Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet, a work from 1950 that has far earlier roots. It flows beautifully and has a particularly moving slow movement marked Andante mesto that is more wistful than genuinely sad. The Allegro con fuoco marking of the finale is exactly right, however: with the exception of a contrasting middle section, this is forceful, even fiery music that shows Isbin at her best and the Pacifica players at their most intense. Vivaldi’s well-known lute concerto RV93 – one of only two such pieces that Vivaldi wrote – appears next, in an arrangement by Emilio Pujol, further modified by Isbin. It provides some respite, although Pujol’s recasting of the music is rather far from Vivaldi’s original. Then the disc returns to the 20th century for Joaquín Turina’s La oración del torero, a work with an “arrangement” past of its own: Turina originally wrote it for lute quartet and subsequently rescored it in several other forms, including this one for string quartet. It is an emotional, single-movement work intended to reflect a bullfighter’s prayer before entering the bull ring. The CD then moves back a couple of centuries to a Boccherini guitar quintet that is yet another arrangement, in this case Boccherini’s own, for a guitar-playing Spanish nobleman: the first two movements come from one earlier string quintet and the finale from a different one. The pastiche works well even though its two sources were written 17 years apart: the guitar plays a largely subsidiary role in the central movement, giving the whole work interesting balance, and then Isbin comes very much to the fore in the finale, whose slow opening leads to a Fandango that is very vigorous indeed and features castanets and tambourine (played by Eduardo Leandro). This makes a rousing conclusion to a disc that is more of a friends-making-music-together offering than a tightly knit recital – a circumstance that will bother lovers of this instrumental combination not at all.

     The notion of visits and vicissitudes is even more prominent on a new Naxos CD offering three works by Derek Bermel (born 1967). Bermel is a fine clarinetist who, in the creation-of-music realm, is one of those “fusion” contemporary composers, his style containing elements of jazz and blues as well as traditional classical approaches. Two of the three works on this CD lie more clearly in the jazz world than the classical one. Migration Series for Jazz Ensemble and Orchestra (2006) is full of standard jazz and blues sounds, all wails and yawps and wah-wah as it reflects the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North, painting various tone pictures that quite clearly have their roots in traditional spirituals as well as other elements that are foundational to the jazz/blues world. In fact, much of the piece is bluesy to an extent that wears thin after a while, although the fourth and shortest movement, “Riots and Moon Shines,” brings some musically welcome contrast to the underlying seriousness of purpose. The feeling of the blues carries over into Mar de Setembro as well, although this song cycle from 2011 is built around Brazilian rather than American texts: the words are by Eugénio de Andrade (1923-2005). Jazz singer Luciana Souza, for whom Bermel wrote the work, sings the primarily nostalgic and melancholy music – whose influence, both emotional and musical, is the Brazilian saudade – with strength both vocal and emotional. The latter quality is shown largely through restraint: much of the material is delicate and graceful in sound, in contrast to the emotions the words express. As in Migration Series, though, there is something a bit monochromatic about Mar de Setembro – which, however, is less inclined to overstay its welcome, since its five songs last 12-and-a-half minutes while Migration Series goes on for half an hour. The most interesting work here from a classical-music rather than “blend” standpoint is A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace (2009), although there is blending here as well – of a sort. This piece, whose three movements bear Hungarian titles, is a tribute to and commemoration of the last years of the life of Béla Bartók (1881-1945), who died in exile in New York after completing what would become his most famous work, the Concerto for Orchestra (which Bermel’s piece references musically). Bartók’s last years were creatively rich but otherwise poor – he was financially strapped and in rapidly declining health. It is the positive and negative elements of the end of Bartók’s life that Bermel effectively reflects in A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace, whose musical language – which is, to an extent, that of Bartók’s late works – is skillfully employed, resulting in a piece that sounds recognizably American while still showing some Hungarian roots. This is a sensitively conceived and intelligently written tribute, and the performance by the Albany Symphony under David Alan Miller is well-balanced, rhythmically astute and altogether convincing – as are the interpretations of the other Bermel works on this CD.

     The peregrinations and influences highlighted on the Cedille and Naxos discs pale beside the inspiration for the main work on a new MSR Classics CD: Jimmy López Bellido’s Symphony No. 1, “The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda.” There is no way this extended symphonic treatment of a literary source will appeal to a wide audience, despite its attentiveness to orchestration and its often-impressive use of rhythm and coloration. The reason is that very few people will know the source, which is the final novel by Cervantes – completed just days before his death. Like the far-better-known Don Quixote, Cervantes’ The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda is a picaresque tale of wandering and meeting a wide variety of oddball characters. The author himself thought his final novel his best – but the work remains very little known outside Spain, and even there (because of its use of language) is not especially popular (although the language of Don Quixote is at least equally complex). In terms of story, The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda is presented as four “books” that take the title characters on a pilgrimage from Scandinavia to Rome, where they are eventually joined in marriage at the feet of the Pope. During their extensive travels, the two pretend to be brothers, and this leads to much of the confusion and off-the-cuff comedy for which Cervantes is known. In interpreting the novel musically, López (born 1978) uses the traditional four-movement form of a symphony to portray events in the four “books” – but because those events will be unfamiliar to the vast majority of listeners (unlike those in, say, Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote), the question is whether the piece hangs together in strictly musical terms even for those who do not understand its references. It does, to an extent, and its impressive use of the orchestra – particularly notably in the third and shortest movement – makes much of it attractive to hear. It is not as tightly knit as a traditional symphony, however, and comes across more as a blend of symphony and suite, no doubt because of its illustrative elements. Still, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra under Miguel Harth-Bedoya plays the work with skill and enthusiasm in this world première recording. And they do an equally good job with Bel Canto—A Symphonic Canvas, also a world première on disc and, all in all, a more-effective work. This is a 30-minute, three-movement distillation of López’s 2015 opera Bel Canto, one of those works in which murderous guerrillas are deeply sensitive at heart and the Stockholm Syndrome runs rampant. Whatever the merits of the opera, López’s suite from it – which actually has elements of symphony, just as his symphony has elements of suite – is dramatically and emotionally very effective. The story – taken from Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel – revolves around young terrorists taking, as hostages, politicians and business executives; this is based on events at the Japanese embassy in Peru in 1996-97. The suite’s first movement sets the scene and builds to a climax associated in the opera with a killing; the second movement highlights the varied and growing relationships among the terrorists and between them and their hostages; and the third uses music from the opera’s final scene, in which commandos break in and kill the terrorists – also killing one hostage who tries to shield the guerrilla with whom he has fallen in love. This does indeed sound like a description of an opera – but what matters in this release is that the music works quite well as pure music, its blending and contrasting of drama and lyricism managed effectively by López and communicated skillfully by Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth ensemble. López’s firm command of the orchestra is evident throughout this CD, and much of the music here is exciting, with all of it being well-crafted.

September 12, 2019

(++++) ANGELS AND DEVILS


Saving the Tasmanian Devil: How Science Is Helping the World’s Largest Marsupial Carnivore Survive. By Dorothy Hinshaw Patent. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

     Tasmanian devils – the real ones, not the hilariously giant-mouthed version in Bugs Bunny cartoons – are not really devilish creatures, although their eerie-sounding screams and shrieks, heard at night by the first English settlers of Tasmania in the early 1800s, certainly seem devilish enough and are responsible for the creature’s common name. Scientifically known as Sarcophilus harrisii, the Tasmanian devil is about the size of a small dog – a bit more or less than 15 pounds – and has been the largest marsupial carnivore in the world since 1936, when the even larger thylacine (sometimes called the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf, although it was neither tiger nor wolf) became extinct. And extinction seemed to be on the near horizon for Tasmanian devils as well just a few years ago, when a horrific condition known as devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) swept through the population like wildfire.

     DFTD is a cancer, and most people believe that cancers are not contagious. In truth, most cancers are not: DFTD is one of the very few known exceptions. It is transmitted by face-to-face biting, which happens to be a big part of Tasmanian devils’ existence, both in play and in serious combat (often related to mating season). DFTD requires an open facial wound to spread to a new subject – and devils nearly always have minor wounds in their mouths, because they scavenge on sharp bones. They are a perfect host for DFTD – so perfect that the disease, discovered in the mid-1990s, was considered capable of destroying the entire population of wild Tasmanian devils within 20 years. They could all have been gone by now.

     That has not happened, and Saving the Tasmanian Devil is an excellent explanation, for young readers, of why not. Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, who is no scientist but is a prolific author of books for young people (she has written more than 100), connected with a college friend whom she had not seen for 50 years and who had become a geneticist specializing in Australian animals – and that led Patent to visit her friend, Jenny Marshall Graves, in Tasmania, and get the story of Tasmanian devils and DFTD in a form that a non-scientist such as Patent could easily understand and could then communicate to readers.

     The coincidence of the Patent-Graves connection and the excellence of Saving the Tasmanian Devil show that angels seem to be watching over these devils in their struggle for species survival. More prosaically, those angels are the scientists who have made significant headway against DFTD, and while the devils themselves are merely trying to get on with their lives, the scientists are attempting, so far with some success, to keep the species going. Like other books in the always excellent “Scientists in the Field” series, Saving the Tasmanian Devil does an exceptional job of showing how science is done on a day-to-day basis, not as glamorized by films and TV programs. It is full of drudgery and daily challenges, and a lot of it is frustrating – in the case of DFTD, because finding a way to stop the spread of the disease was a race against time, and one that researchers appeared likely to lose. Patent’s book focuses not only on Graves but also on other scientists involved in the fight for the devils: ecologist Menna Jones, cancer researcher Greg Woods, and a graduate student in genomics named Alex Fraik. The book not only shows their work but also explains, with considerable clarity, what cancer (in general) is and what DFTD (in particular) does. The many photos, from the scientists themselves and a number of other sources, shed light on devils’ everyday existence and on how scientists are working to save them. The single picture of a devil with DFTD is genuinely frightening, showing just how awful the disease looks and making the battle against it seem all the more urgent.

     There are sanctuaries for Tasmanian devils – Patent visits one – and for a time, it seemed likely that devils would become extinct in the wild and would have to be repopulated (hopefully) by captive populations. Now that has become more of a backstop plan than a genuine expectation, as scientists continue to make progress against DFTD. Sanctuary-kept devils have issues of their own: as Patent explains and shows, devils, which by their nature forage over a considerable distance, have something of a nervous breakdown when confined to small spaces – one of them is seen obsessively “running, running, running around and around, only stopping to sleep, eat, or drink.” So the angelic impulses of scientists have their own downsides. But those pale beside the ravages of DFTD, which spreads because devils’ “immune cells don’t recognize the cancer cells as ‘other,’ so these cells just keep dividing and dividing until they kill the host.” The answer to fighting DFTD appears to lie in awakening and modifying the devils’ immune system through genetic modification using an immunization technique akin to vaccination. An actual vaccine does not exist, but the gene-modification approach is already in use, with immunized devils released back into the wild and now being observed to test the efficacy of the approach. All this and more is to be found in Saving the Tasmanian Devil, a book that is as full of fascination as it is of initial despair, more-recent hope, and the reality – which young readers will understand clearly – that the fight for the devils is by no means over and by no means assured of eventual success.

(++++) INTERESTS AND PREFERENCES


The Best 385 Colleges, 2020 Edition. By Robert Franek with David Soto, Stephen Koch, Aaron Riccio, Brian Saladino, and the staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $24.99.

     “Best” is a matter of opinion, and if there is one thing the latest edition of The Best 385 Colleges offers, it is opinions: 140,000 of them from students. That is a significant increase from the 30,000 surveyed when this long-running series of books began in 1992. But the actual list of “best” colleges, although it has grown, has not expanded all that much: the 2020 book features 385, while the guide from a decade earlier (2010) included 371. Finding the “best” appears to be a slow-growth industry.

     Data aggregation and analysis, though, have grown vastly more quickly, and a good thing, too, since readers will have enough to handle in this oversize more-than-850-page book without trying to wade through the details of those 140,000 students’ opinions. The Princeton Review (which has nothing to do with Princeton University but bears a name that certainly does not hurt when families go looking for college-related information) does its usual excellent job of assembling information on each college in the book in accessible, easy-to-absorb form. The key, though, is not to look at each college: the 385 here make up less than 13% of the 3,000-or-so four-year U.S. colleges, but even families that want to focus only on the schools in this book would find it a daunting task to read about every one of them.

     So the way to use this volume is to make a plan. That’s right: before planning for college, make a plan for planning for college. The first thing is for prospective students to decide whether college is right for them at all. This is not a trivial question: despite the recent spate of politicians offering to undermine generations of hard-working students and college graduates who have struggled successfully to pay their student debt – by raising taxes to forgive the debts of those who have not paid them off – families need to consider the financial realities of college attendance as they currently exist. And students need to think through how much benefit, financial and otherwise, they will likely obtain from a college education. This is by no means obvious: 89% of members of Generation Z (ages 15-21) and 79% of young millennials (ages 22-28) have considered education that does not involve going to a four-year college right out of high school, according to a recent study by TD Ameritrade; and 49% of young millennials have concluded that their degree turned out to be very or somewhat unimportant to their current job.

     Of course, all this can change over time (and has, as polls and statistics do); but it still makes sense for families to begin by deciding whether the sorts of colleges examined in The Best 385 Colleges, 2020 Edition are ones the student really wants to attend. If the answer is yes, a good place to start is with the front-of-book alphabetical lists of schools that are particularly noteworthy for students interested in specific topics: communications, computer science, engineering, marketing and sales, nursing, etc. It is unreasonable to expect most not-yet-college students to know what major they want, but by late in high school, most should know whether they have an interest in, say, criminology or environmental studies (two of the lists here) – and they can go through both lists if they have an interest in both fields. This helps narrow down the 385 schools in the book considerably.

     Also very helpful here are the marginal elements on all pages. The layout focuses on what the book’s editors believe will interest most prospective students: academics, student life, financial-aid issues, actual admissions-office comments, and so forth. But it is in the margins, where the statistics have been massaged and processed, that much of the value of The Best 385 Colleges, 2020 Edition lies. This is where the hard data on financial matters may be found, where there is a breakdown of the student body by race for those who deem diversity important in choosing a school, where a profile of the latest freshman class (test scores and high-school rankings) is located – and where there is an exceptionally useful set of alternatives, pretty much buried in the onslaught of information. This may be the key to a particularly helpful way to use The Best 385 Colleges, 2020 Edition. The words are as follows: “Applicants Also Look At and Often Prefer [names of other colleges]…and Sometimes Prefer [names of other colleges]…and Rarely Prefer [names of other colleges].” This looks like throwaway information but is far from it: these “also look at” colleges can present students with a trail to follow if they start examining any college in this book but decide it seems not quite right (or decide it does seem right, but still want to know what somewhat similar schools are out there). A random example: The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, is a sort of student-power school that emphasizes diversity and letting students create their own educational approach. But what if that sounds pretty good on paper but a little lacking in, say, structure and the sorts of opportunities that come from a nuanced but guided curriculum? Well, “applicants also look at and often prefer Western Washington University, University of Washington, University of California—Santa Barbara, Washington State University, Portland State University.” But those are all West Coast schools – is there anything more or less analogous elsewhere? Continue to “sometimes prefer” and “rarely prefer” to find out. And then check any of the listed schools to find additional “also look at” options. The result of doing this is a kind of trail of academic breadcrumbs that families can follow without worrying that the guidance, like Hansel and Gretel’s, will disappear before it can be used.

     The ultimate point of The Best 385 Colleges, 2020 Edition is that the book cannot possibly indicate the best school for any particular individual or family – in fact, educational counselors who charge thousands of dollars for college guidance are often hard-pressed to pinpoint a single “best” choice. But the book’s well-laid-out, carefully structured presentation of information on these 385 schools offers parents and students alike an excellent starting point for a search that is (and should be) time-consuming, but that has no definitive outcome for any individual. The bottom line is that this book can help turn up a number of good possibilities for further exploration – and if it does not, there are always the other 87% of four-year U.S. colleges that families can consider.

(++++) VOCALS, VARIED


Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem; Mason Bates: Children of Adam. Michelle Areyzaga, soprano; Kevin Deas, bass-baritone; Richmond Symphony Chorus and Richmond Symphony conducted by Steven Smith. Reference Recordings. $16.98.

Evan Williams: Emily’s House; Katherine Bodor: Absent an Adjustment; Evan Mack: Preach Sister, Preach. Katherine Jolly, soprano; Emily Yap Chua, piano; Christa Cole, violin; Rachel Mossburg, viola; Samantha Johnson-Helms, clarinet; Per Bjørkling, double bass. Navona. $14.99.

Lela Kaplowitz: Songs. Lela Kaplowitz, vocals; Elvis Penava, guitars; Dado Marinković, drums and percussion; Joe Kaplowitz, organ, piano, bass, cajón and back vocals; Marko First, violin; Davor Križić, trumpet, Lucia Kaplowitz, tap. Big Round Records. $14.99.

Sarah Rodgers: The Roaring Whirl—Music Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Character “Kim.” Bhasker Patel, narrator; Geraldine Allen, clarinet; Baluji Shrivastav, sitar, tabla and pakhavaj; Timothy Walker, guitar. Métier. $17.99.

Jennifer Fowler: Line Spun with Stars; Lady Maisry; Letter from Haworth; Streaming Up; From the Cave Mouth; Lament. Raphaela Papadakis, soprano; Lauren Easton, mezzo-soprano; Lontano conducted by Odaline de la Martínez. Métier. $17.99.

     The tenuous connection between Vaughan Williams’ cantata Dona Nobis Pacem (1936) and Mason Bates’ Children of Adam (2018) lies in the composers’ use of the words of Walt Whitman, although neither work is drawn wholly from Whitman’s poetry. Vaughan Williams, writing with the memory of World War I still fresh and the ominous rumblings of another war becoming louder, combined texts from the Mass with three Whitman poems, a political speech, and bits of the Bible. In so doing he produced a highly moving plea for peace, in which the recurrent Agnus Dei theme of the opening part is used to unify a work whose middle is drawn from three Whitman poems, the first describing war’s disruption of civilian life, the second underlining the common humanity of those who are enemies in wartime, and the third offering a dirge for a father and son who have both died in war. After this, Vaughan Williams quotes from a speech by British politician John Bright (1811-1889) in futile opposition to the Crimean War, followed by quotes from the Book of Jeremiah – against which Dona nobis pacem is juxtaposed. And then the cantata concludes somewhat more optimistically, using, among other things, a setting in English of the Gloria from the Mass and, at the very end, yet another Dona nobis pacem plea. The elegant orchestration and skillful use of voices make this a very moving work when it is well performed, as it is on a new Reference Recordings disc featuring the Richmond Symphony Chorus and Richmond Symphony conducted by Steven Smith. Soloists Michelle Areyzaga and Kevin Deas handle their parts with both musical and emotional involvement, and Smith sets them off very well against the choral and orchestral forces. Yet despite their mutual use of Whitman’s poetry, Vaughan Williams and Bates do not fit together especially well, even for bicentennial purposes (Whitman was born in 1819). Bates uses Whitman’s line about “children of Adam” as connective tissue in a work that is far more celebratory than Dona nobis pacem and that bends over rather far to be inclusive, adding to Whitman elements from Carl Sandburg, two Psalms, Genesis, and – the longest section – a text from the Mataponi Indians of Virginia. Bates, like Vaughan Williams, orchestrates his work extensively and uses the instrumentation skillfully. He handles percussion especially well, notably in the Sandburg section of the piece. But while Vaughan Williams’ entire structure is tight, using the repeated words Dona nobis pacem to beg for peace for us, all of us, Bates’ work is more sprawling and more surface-level in its appeal. It is more self-consciously outgoing, more of a proclamation than an exploration – certainly quite effective in its own way, and performed just as well by the Richmond musicians as is Vaughan Williams’ cantata, but lacking the earlier composer’s emotional heft and his way of penetrating to the core of what unites all of humanity despite the many instances in which people turn against each other. The very fine interpretations on this very well recorded disc do much to put across the composers’ distinct and distinctive use of the words to the best possible effect. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting element of this release is the way it shows Whitman’s poetry being turned to such different purposes by two very different composers. Clearly there is much in Whitman that was musically inspirational in the 1930s and remains so today.

     A different “American original” poet, Emily Dickinson, provides the words for Evan Williams’ Emily’s House on a new Navona CD. Many of the 10 Dickinson poems used here are quite familiar, having been set by other composers – from The bee is not afraid of me to I’m nobody! Who are you? Williams’ idea is to set the words as if they are being sung by Dickinson herself, thereby painting a portrait of Emily’s house – construed possibly as a physical place, possibly as the place where Dickinson lived internally, in her mind. The idea is, however, more interesting than the execution: although most of the poems are short – three lasting less than a minute and three others less than two – the settings tend to make them seem more drawn-out than they really are. And some of Williams’ decisions on settings are rather odd, such as repeating “the bee” four times as if to make the words portentous, which Dickinson did not intend them to be. The piano’s involvement is sometimes quite effective, as in These are the days when Birds come back, the longest of these songs. But at other times, the piano is used only perfunctorily. And the overall sound of the song cycle is rather shapeless, with the words tending to be set more for display purposes than for clarity. The cycle has many pleasant moments and some effective tone painting, notably in Glee! The great storm is over! But despite the fine attempts of Katherine Jolly and Emily Yap Chua to bring Williams’ cycle cohesiveness, its totality is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Unlike Dickinson’s highly personal poetry, Absent an Adjustment is a socioeconomic and political treatise, based on a New York Magazine article on climate change by David Wallace-Wells that has been both praised for its forthrightness and condemned for its extremely alarmist tone. Katherine Bodor is quite clearly in tune (so to speak) with the piece, creating a dark and dismal-sounding extended setting (more than eight minutes long) that essentially says that every single thing individual humans as well as companies, countries and political systems do brings Earth closer to uninhabitability unless every single individual, company and country takes immediate action to deal with the issue. “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” says the text at one point, and that appears to be the main point that Bodor wishes to drive home in her setting – which takes a hectoring and impatient tone throughout and eventually attempts slight uplift, to little argumentative or musical effect despite the use here not of piano but of a quartet containing violin, viola, clarinet and double bass. The third work on this (+++) disc is, like Williams’, a song cycle: Evan Mack’s Preach Sister, Preach, which explores what it means to be a woman with some serious words and some lighter ones, a combination that makes the topic more approachable than Bodor ever manages to make hers. It helps, to be sure, that Mack chooses pithy comments by women from various time periods: Simone de Beavoir, Daphne du Maurier and George Eliot rub shoulders here, figuratively speaking, with Lucille Ball, Gilda Radner, Ann Landers, Tina Fey, Ellen DeGeneres and others. This is another soprano-and-piano work and another with snippets of thought, epigrams rather than anything more extensive – with the result that of the 14 movements, only the last runs a smidgen over two minutes, with eight lasting less than a minute and the remaining four just a bit over that. The jazziness used for Mae West’s comments, the torch-song-and-scat elements used for Gilda Radner’s, the throwaway cuteness for one of the two Lucille Ball bon mots, are just some of the ways in which Mack differentiates the comments and keeps the material interesting. This is the most successful work on the CD, not lacking substance yet communicating its thoughts effectively by not trying to bludgeon listeners into accepting them. Mack also does a better job than Williams or Bodor of making the accompaniment to the vocals an integral part of her piece.

     The pacing of the various Lela Kaplowitz songs on a (+++) Big Round Records CD is variable, but the 11 songs’ harmonic structure is musically almost identical. This is essentially pop music, with all the pluses and minuses that the designation implies: very simple harmonies, easy-to-listen-to themes and rhythms, a strong focus on intelligibility of lyrics, and words that are filled with the standard clichés of happiness and hope, here overcoming worry and woe. Listeners hear “You melted my soul, slow like honey” in You Gave Me Wings, “The whole world’s a family” in Human Tapestry, “There nothing you can’t do” in Everything Is Possible, “Now I’m ready for my voice to be heard” in 300 Years of Silence, and much more of the same in Liila, Love Is All There Is, Dreamland, You Will See, With Every Breath, Love Prayer, and Chant to One. The accompaniments of Kaplowitz’ vocals are essentially mild jazz, sometimes upbeat but more often middle-tempo to slow. The words are generally intended to provide uplift, to show that there are difficulties in life but that is best quickly to move past them, to assert one’s ability to overcome adversity by maintaining a positive attitude. Kaplowitz has a pleasant if not very distinguished voice, and it neatly fits music that is also pleasant but not very distinguished. Nothing here is revelatory either musically or in terms of human communication, and nothing is intended to be. The CD is a pleasant enough diversion for listeners who enjoy jazz-inflected pop expressiveness, but does not offer any material memorable enough to repay repeated hearings.

     A (+++) Métier CD of the music of Sarah Rodgers is more interesting both conceptually and in execution, although it requires familiarity with Rudyard Kipling to be fully effective. Here the voice is that of a narrator rather than a singer, while the music comes from a chamber group containing both Western and Indian instruments – an intriguing combination. Bhasker Patel makes a compelling narrator of the verbal material, from the wonder of daybreak and Kim’s morning perceptions in India Awakes to the boy’s joy during a lengthy walk in Seventh Heaven: “Kim’s bright eyes were open wide. This broad, smiling river of life, he considered, was a vast improvement on the cramped and crowded Lahore streets.” The purely musical material is dominated by the sounds of the instruments of India, but they are not used to create a false sense of exoticism – rather, they are employed to illustrate the narrative and comment upon it, and they fit that role quite well. The scenes continue with Little Friend of All the World, The Roaring Whirl, The Wheel of Life, The Man under the Hat, and Golden Spokes of the Sloping Sun. Not so much a musical presentation as an impressionistic addition to Kipling’s often-perceptive observational writings about Kim and India, the CD is very much a specialty item: a story with music rather than a musical story. Lasting more than an hour, the disc requires attentiveness throughout to absorb its intermingling of verbiage and musical illustration to best effect. And the specific relationship between the musical material and the words is far from obvious – Rodgers does not appear to intend the connection to be a close one. “He considered his own identity until his head swam,” for example, does not lead to any material that seems to show uncertainty or an attempt to find balance within the big world – it simply results in one nicely paced and well-played chamber section among many. “It was all pure delight,” Patel narrates at one point, and while that may be true for Kim’s experiences as Kipling and Rodgers tell them, it is less so for this presentation: fans of Kipling will find this illustrative journey at least intermittently fascinating, but only the most dedicated will likely enjoy every one of its steps.

     Vocals are present in just half of the pieces on another new (+++) Métier CD, this one featuring world première recordings of six works by Jennifer Fowler. Lady Maisry is a very extended (12-and-a-half-minute) work for soprano and piano, in which the voice enters after a 90-second piano introduction written in standard contemporary style, which is to say it is disconnected and without a tonal center. The vocal elements are more Sprechstimme than song, the voice being treated instrumentally, essentially as a piano partner, rather than as central to the piece, which would have been more effective at half its length or less. The same may be said of Letter from Haworth, which is actually a minute longer than Lady Maisry and features a mezzo-soprano. Here the material is somewhat more interesting, however, largely because the accompaniment includes clarinet and cello as well as piano, and the broader soundscape results in a more-involving tonal palette even though Fowler’s basic style is the same: there is no attempt to create music that is either illustrative of the words or a commentary on them. Letter from Haworth does not even bring the voice in for two-and-a-half minutes, at which point the opening words (“Mr. Taylor has returned”) prove scarcely worth the wait. Lauren Easton’s rich voice serves this music well, but she, like Raphaela Papadakis, is at the mercy of material that is not really designed to showcase anyone’s vocal qualities. Papadakis gets an additional chance in From the Cave Mouth, which is for soprano, clarinet and violin, and which is the longest vocal work of all on the CD, running more than 15 minutes. But while the accompaniment is more effective here than it is when Fowler uses piano – she has a good sense of the atmospheric possibilities of clarinet and violin – the work just does not wear well, meandering and swooning seemingly at random without communicating much of anything very meaningfully. The three non-vocal pieces on the disc are, on the whole, more substantive, although Line Spun with Stars – for flute, cello and piano – could have made its points in a good deal less than its 15-and-a-half minutes. The instruments here do not so much play together or play off each other as they play their individual sections, which are frequently solos, and intersect from time to time for no apparent reason. The two remaining works here are the shortest on the disc and, partly for that reason, the most appealing. Streaming Up is for flute, oboe, clarinet, cello, and piano, and unlike most of the rest of Fowler’s works on the CD, it starts with several instruments playing together, propelling the material forward and resulting in some instrumental combinations that are interesting to hear even though, taken as a whole, the piece does not seem to make any particular point. Still, the members of the ensemble Lontano, who handle all the music on the disc skillfully and with apparent commitment to Fowler’s style, make Streaming Up particularly interesting simply because its athematic atonality is entertainingly passed among the five players. The CD concludes with Lament, for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, and this work too has interesting aural elements, largely because it is the only one on the disc using the bassoon. That instrument nicely underpins the higher winds – which in turn are often called upon to play in their lower ranges, resulting in a sound mixture that works well even though it does not reflect the work’s title in any significant way. Fowler’s music is an acquired taste: listeners who generally enjoy contemporary chamber compositions may want to give it a try, although it will not likely lure in anyone who has previously sampled works written with typical modern techniques and has found those pieces wanting.

(+++) LANGUISHING IN OBSCURITY


Bengt Wilhelm Hallberg: Symphony in F; Concert Overture No. 2; Joseph Dente: Symphony in D minor. Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Per Engström (Hallberg); Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ola Karlsson (Dente). Sterling. $18.99.

The Heritage of Wilhelm Stenhammar. Collector’s Classics. $18.99 (4 CDs).

     The words “Sweden” and “symphony” are not often paired by listeners, although the four excellent examples by Franz Berwald (1796-1868) have received some well-deserved attention in recent years. There are many reasons for the neglect of Swedish symphonists, not the least of which is that only one city, Stockholm, was sufficiently cosmopolitan in the 19th century to offer important concerts; and Sweden had only one professional orchestra, the Royal Court Orchestra – in Stockholm, of course. This did not stop composers from symphonic writing altogether, but it meant that their efforts were few and far between, since in the days before recordings, there was little value to creating music that would not be performed for an audience. Thus, Swedish composers after Berwald’s time, even if they studied with Berwald himself, might well end up trying the symphonic form only once – and that is what happened with both Bengt Wilhelm Hallberg (1824-1883) and Joseph Dente (1838-1905). Performances of these composers’ symphonies remain excruciatingly rare: a new Sterling disc had to reach all the way back to 1992 for the Dente symphony and even further, to 1984, for Hallberg’s. But for those interested in some of the less-known byways of Romantic music, the CD is certainly worthwhile, both for what it illuminates about Swedish Romantic composers and for some of the music in its own right. In the case of Hallberg, his Concert Overture No. 2 (also recorded in 1984) proves more interesting than his symphony: the overture is tightly constructed and technically skillful, showing the influence of Berwald – with whom Hallberg studied in 1849-50. Hallberg primarily wrote church music, but this overture shows him to have been quite capable in purely instrumental pieces. It sounds like a curtain-raiser for a drama even though it was written as a standalone piece. Hallberg’s symphony is less effective: primarily gentle and lyrical, it features some well-thought-out wind writing but does not generally move much beyond Haydn’s time in structure or approach (although it does in instrumentation). Dente’s symphony, although also derivative, is more successful. Dente did not study with Berwald – a violinist, he studied with several of the best virtuoso players of his time – and his work shows little influence from Berwald but a great deal from Mendelssohn. It is quite a short symphony for its time (1887, nearly two decades after Hallberg’s), but its intensity is very clear. It remains in the minor almost throughout, including at the very end; and in common with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Dente’s work reserves trombones (in Dente’s case, three of them) for the finale. The work exudes seriousness of purpose but not of emotion: its not-too-slow slow movement, Andante, brings respite from more-serious matters without ever delving into any depth of feeling. The symphony is more interesting than impressive, but it is interesting, and shows the value of seeking out works by well-trained if scarcely first-order composers.

     In the years after Hallberg’s and Dente’s symphonies, one Swedish composer who took up the form – and became better-known for it than either Hallberg or Dente – was Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927), who composed two completed symphonies and a portion of a third. But Stenhammar was not particularly satisfied with his work in symphonic form: he withdrew his first symphony (1902-03), which he decided was too imitative of the works of Wagner and (particularly) Bruckner. His second symphony (1911-15), much more heavily influenced by the works of Sibelius (especially that composer’s Symphony No. 2), is the one symphonic work for which Stenhammar remains well-known. Stenhammar was also a first-rate pianist and a conductor, and remains important in those roles – more so than as a symphonist. He is not, however, particularly familiar to audiences outside Sweden – and even listeners who do know him and his music will have to be dedicated aficionados if they are to appreciate a four-CD set on the Collector’s Classics label with the title The Heritage of Wilhelm Stenhammar. In 1905, Stenhammar recorded five piano rolls for Welte-Mignon, so some of his pianism is preserved; but none of his conducting. However, performances led by his successor, Tor Mann, and by Mann’s successor, Sixten Eckerberg, were recorded, and they form the basis of this release. There is quite a bit of Stenhammar’s Second here: the first disc consists entirely of Mann’s rehearsals of the first, second and fourth movement – at quite some length in the case of the first movement and finale. The second disc is an actual Mann performance of the first movement of the symphony, with additional Stenhammar music filling out the CD. The third movement features Symphony No. 2 again, this time led by Eckerberg, together with other Stenhammar works. Mann, a cellist, played Stenhammar’s music under the composer’s baton, so there is certainly authenticity to what he offers, but Eckerberg’s pacing of the first movement of Symphony No. 2 is more satisfactory, lasting just over 12 movements vs. 16 for Mann. How Stenhammar himself handled the movement is, of course, unknown. The most salient characteristic of this release for the majority of listeners is that it truly is a historical document: the Mann recordings were made between 1938 and 1959, and the Eckerberg ones date to 1945-48 and originally appeared on 78-rpm discs. Although the remastering of the material is certainly adequate for purposes of historical remembrance, nothing on these discs will be of much interest to listeners who have only mild familiarity with Stenhammar (as symphonist, composer for piano, or anything else). This release offers very early recordings of Stenhammar’s music for those enthusiasts who know him and his compositions so well that they want to listen to readings by some of the people who knew Stenhammar personally or were directly influenced by him. That is a small and highly rarefied group – even more so outside Sweden than in it. For almost everyone outside that inner circle, Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2 and some of his other works heard here – such as his Serenade, Op. 31 – are far better served in more-recent performances, which make a better case for Stenhammar as a composer whose works are worth at least an occasional hearing outside his homeland.

September 05, 2019

(++++) TEAR-OFFS FOR ALL TASTES


Calendars (page-a-day for 2020): Squeeze the Day; What the Cluck?; Johanna Basford 2020 Coloring Calendar. Andrews McMeel. $15.99 each (Squeeze, Cluck); $18.99 (Basford).

     One of the great things about page-a-day calendars is that no matter how odd you think your preferences may be, there is likely to be a calendar that fits them. And it is reassuring to know that even if your unusual likes and dislikes are so outré that some tear-off pages of a calendar will not appeal to you, other pages of the same calendar probably will. Take, for example, Squeeze the Day, which is based on Instagram postings and bears the subtitle, “A 2020 Calendar of Punny Doodles.” What exactly does that mean? Well, the cover of the box gives a pretty clear example: it shows a lemon that has tiny, upraised stick arms, two little dots for eyes and an upward-curving line to indicate a smiling mouth. “Squeeze the day,” get it? If that concept works for you, you will find plenty more to enjoy here. And if it only sort of works for you, you will still find a lot to enjoy – and can have the satisfaction of simply tearing off the pages that do not meet your standards and finding ones underneath that, in all likelihood, will. There is no particular theme to this calendar beyond puns. “I’ll never Lego,” says one illustration, showing two of the famous fit-together plastic pieces firmly attached. “Thorn to be wild,” says another picture, showing a bright red rose whose stem bears prominent thorns. “I lava you” is a fairly straightforward assertion – beneath a picture of an erupting volcano. “You got what I knead” goes with a rolling pin that has two eye dots and a smiling mouth drawn right in the middle. “Miss you pig time” accompanies a picture of a pink cartoon pig with huge, wide-open eyes. “See you ladder” offers – what else? – a ladder, with stick arms wide open as if about to embrace someone. “You’re a cutecumber” goes with a cucumber that has the typical eye dots and smile. “Love me tender” has two smiling chicken nuggets cuddling close. “I love you cherry much” is the same idea, except with two cherries attached to the same stem. “Let’s get nauti” shows a smiling rope tied in a nautical knot. In a similar watery vein, “You’re pierfect” simply shows – a dock. “Weed get along great” goes with a marijuana plant, while “you’re amaize-ing” gets a plant of a different sort: a smiling ear of corn. Get the idea, or ideas? Day after day, there are personal puns, relationship puns, cutesy puns, silly puns, puns of all sorts here – it’s a punderful life, if you happen to go for that sort of thing.

     And what if you don’t? What if you have an even more specialized interest – such as, for example, chickens? Well, then you simply must have What the Cluck? This collection of “chicken lore, chicken facts, chicken trivia & chicken love” (so says the cover), assembled by Stacia Tolman, is packed to the gills, or wattles, with information and pictures that poultry lovers will find simply ducky…err, chicken-y. This really is an information-packed calendar rather than one in which the topic is played for laughs, although there are occasional touches of amusement: “A good cackle can reset your whole day.” Most of the calendar includes serious information, such as “breed spotlight” pages that highlight, for example, the lamona, “a snow-white chicken with a flowing tail” in which the cock weighs about nine pounds and the hen about seven. One page explains that eggs were used to soften leather in Victorian England in a process called “tawing.” Another delves deeper into history to note that the first artificial egg incubators were invented in Egypt four centuries before the birth of Christ. You will find here an explanation of why a film prize in China is called the Golden Rooster Award: it was started in 1981, the Year of the Rooster in the Chinese zodiac. There is fascinating anatomical information in this calendar: “A chicken breathes with its skeleton,” having some bones that “are hollow and have air sacs connected to its respiratory system.” But you do have to be careful with the calendar: factual it may be almost all the time, but occasionally it lapses into outright, deliberate inaccuracy for the purpose of bringing a smile – as when it misquotes patriot Nathan Hale as having said, “I only regret that I have but one chicken to give for my country.” Most of the time, though, there are good, solid facts offered in What the Cluck? For example: the egg carton was invented in 1911 by a Canadian newspaper publisher; China produces 160 billion eggs a year, more than twice the U.S. production of 75 billion, but the top egg exporter is the Netherlands, which sends 66% of its eggs out of the country; positions within the pecking order “are established within days of hatching and remain until death, even if a ‘head hen’ becomes old or weak”; the ancient Romans considered it a good omen if a chicken entered from the left; the Chicken Ranch brothel in Texas allowed customers to pay with chickens when times were tough – and then supplemented its income by selling eggs; and so on. And on and on. There may not quite be everything about chickens in What the Cluck? But there is plenty in the calendar to keep lovers of the Gallus gallus domesticus informed, interested and entertained throughout the year.

     Even if you prefer to create some of your calendar entertainment yourself, rather than having it brought to you daily through the simple act of tearing off a page, you can find a page-a-day calendar just for you. The Johanna Basford 2020 Coloring Calendar is a particularly attractive example. Unlike most tear-off-the-pages calendars, which stand up on plastic backs, this one is packaged inside a keepsake box decorated with rose-gold foil. Basford, a pioneer in creating coloring books for adults, makes hand-drawn pencil-and-pen illustrations in black and white and has produced a number of popular books: World of Flowers, Ivy and the Inky Butterfly, Magical Jungle, Johanna’s Christmas, Lost Ocean, Enchanted Forest, and Secret Garden. Pictures from all seven of those books appear in the Johanna Basford 2020 Coloring Calendar. And if you enjoy coloring, you likely know Basford’s work already, because coloring is exactly its point: she supplies the illustrations to be colored, and you color them as you wish. The pictures are always intricate and look perfectly attractive in their original black-and-white form, so there is no compulsion to color them if you do not want to. But if you do want to, this calendar offers you a year of chances to do so. When the box is open, the pages representing days to come are in the main, bottom part. You simply pick up the top page and place it inside the box’s open lid, and there you have the illustration-of-the-day to look at – and color – whenever you wish. There is no pressure here and no obligation: you can display the pictures as Basford created them, in black-and-white, and they look very attractive indeed. Or you can color little bits of them – perhaps just some flower petals, leaving other petals and all the stems in an illustration in black-and-white. Or you can color an entire day’s picture, either all at once or at various times during the day – this can be a great stress reliever and calming influence. Of course, if you are not in the mood to color on one day, you can simply do nothing that day and color the next day’s picture – or the one after that, or the one after that. You could go through the entire year simply enjoying Basford’s pleasantly pictured, intimate outdoor scenes, or you could spend some time every day making that day’s picture entirely your own through the unique colors you select for it. Johanna Basford 2020 Coloring Calendar is just the right calendar for adults who love to color and love Basford’s art-of-nature illustrations – further evidence that whatever your interests and preferences may be for the year to come, you can find a page-a-day calendar that fits you just about perfectly.