April 30, 2020
Soul Riders 1: Jorvik Calling. By Helena Dahlgren. Translated from Swedish by Agnes Broomé. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.
All the usual ingredients and one not-so-usual one: that is the formula for the Soul Riders series for preteen-to-midteen girls – which is based on the “Star Stable” online adventure game. The connection to the Web is not the unusual element here: interactions between Internet activities and printed books are increasingly frequent and common. It is the equine element that gives a slightly out-of-the-ordinary tinge to what is otherwise a straightforward, pleasantly formulaic story of girls bonding, learning about themselves, developing camaraderie, and, not incidentally, taking on grand forces of evil by riding forth as avatars of good. Literally riding forth, in this case – that is the horsiness of Helena Dahlgren’s plot.
Actually, the plot is nothing that will be unfamiliar to readers in the target age group, and that is part of the point: Soul Riders is written and paced as comfortable fantasy, not too scary or intense, not at all difficult to understand and follow, and not in any way blurring the distinction between good and evil. The central character here is 15-year-old Lisa, whose mother died tragically in a riding accident and who has therefore buried her former love of horses beneath layers of grief and general unhappiness. Seeking a new start, Lisa’s now-single father, Carl, takes a job (about which, unsurprisingly, there is some mystery) on an island called Jorvik. An unnecessary Prologue ensures that young readers know before the story even starts that Jorvik is an extremely important focal point for the eternal battle between good and evil. And obviously Lisa, willingly or not, is going to become involved in the struggle.
That means Lisa has to go on the usual journey of self-discovery. This one starts by ferry – the only way to reach Jorvik – and continues as Lisa begins to adjust to life on Jorvik by making friends and going to her new school. It turns out, very soon, that pretty much everything and everyone on Jorvik has something to do with horses: “Seriously, Lisa, I’m not even sure it’s legal to move to Jorvik if you don’t like horses,” one girl explains, in a statement that deserves to be taken at face value. What is important here is how closely the horses are bound to their riders, and vice versa. Each girl has a mount whose personality and appearance are very close to the girl’s own. That applies not only to the nice girls to whom Lisa feels immediately attracted – Alex, Anne, and Linda – but also to the inevitable dastardly characters who, of course, simply exude darkness and malice and, you know, evil. Would that real life could always be so simple! But the whole point of Soul Riders is to give readers something that is very definitely not real life: this is a world where you find your friends and hold fast to them, where your enemies are clear even when their exact motivations are not, and where the crucial elements of the good-vs.-evil battle are humans bonded to horses in a kind of figurative centaur relationship (yes, the girls and their mounts are so close that they almost seem to be compound creatures).
To become part of the Jorvik magic and Jorvik world, Lisa must, of course, overcome her terrible memories of her mother’s death – a topic she cannot at first even bring up to herself, and one she is later unable to bring up to her newfound friends. Getting past this awful event requires Lisa to find her equine soulmate, and of course one is available nearby on Jorvik – and has unusual physical characteristics of which Lisa has dreamed since she was a little girl.
Dahlgren gives slight hints, very early on, of what this horse will turn out to be named: Lisa finds herself drawn intensely to the “paling morning sky” as she arrives on Jorvik, and in particular notices a “giant star-shaped constellation” in which “the stars traced the outline of a large, four-pointed star.” There is no such constellation, Lisa is sure, but nevertheless, there it is. And, of course, her father cannot see it. And it later turns out that Lisa’s newfound friends and allies saw something on the same morning that Lisa did – but each saw a different something: “a big crescent moon,” a lightning bolt, and “a sun.” And then it turns out, courtesy of nothing less than a Google search, that “the sun, the star, the moon, and the lightning bolt are ancient symbols often associated with the legend of the four Soul Riders.” And there we have the summation of the plot of this first book in what clearly has the potential to be an extended series.
Oh, and as for that suitable mount for Lisa: well, there just happens to be a horse at the local stable named – what else? – Starshine. And it is love, or bonding, or adventure-in-the-making, at first sight. And will undoubtedly continue in the same vein for plenty of Soul Riders books to come.
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2; King Christian II Suite. Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Alpha. $18.99.
The second release in Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s Sibelius cycle on the Alpha label fulfills the promise of the first while showing this young Finnish conductor (born 1985) becoming more comfortable with his unusual and powerful vision of the symphonies of Finland’s most famous composer. The initial release, of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1, was unusual and dramatic – and very much a matter of taste. It was replete with rubato and emphases that turned Sibelius’ First into a highly energetic, craggy and often peculiarly phrased work that at times barely sounded like Sibelius at all. “Reconsideration” was almost too mild a word for Rouvali’s interpretative stance, which made Sibelius sound sometimes like Bruckner, sometimes like a tone-poem composer who inadvertently mislabeled an exceptionally episodic First Symphony. Rouvali’s was a polarizing interpretation – but there is much less of that level of controversy in his reading of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, and much more of the fine attention to detail and nuance that was the best part of his recording of No. 1.
Make no mistake: Rouvali is still eager to push Sibelius’ tempo markings to extremes, notably in the second movement of No. 2, where fast sections are very fast and slow ones practically stop in their tracks. He still takes full rests very seriously indeed, stretching them to such an extent that the music has a stop-and-start quality even beyond what Sibelius put into it. But Sibelius did put much of this into his Symphony No. 2, and as a result, Rouvali’s approach seems more organized and well-accentuated here than it did in the much smoother and more overtly Germanic Symphony No. 1. It is in his Second Symphony that Sibelius really began to find his unique compositional voice where symphonies are concerned, and Rouvali seems thoroughly attuned to the special characteristics that Sibelius brought to the symphonic form in this work. Indeed, in retrospect, it may be that Rouvali, in his reading of Sibelius’ First, was trying – with mixed success – to find an interpretation that would look ahead to the approach that Sibelius took in his later symphonies.
Be that as it may, Rouvali’s handling of Sibelius’ Second brings out the very best in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, whose brass growls, whose winds flit both pointedly and delicately about, whose strings have bite as well as warmth. The second movement, in particular, is quite marvelous: its intensity never flags, and Rouvali – given a tempo indication that actually calls for considerable use of rubato (the exact marking is Tempo andante, ma rubato) – lets his imagination fly, accentuating the different sections of the music to fine effect without ever overindulging to an extent that could easily become grotesque. This movement comes across as a dramatic tone poem within a larger tone poem, as if the entire symphony possesses an arc of storytelling within which this movement’s tale is told with particular drama and effectiveness.
The rest of the symphony has remarkable power. The first movement is strong and bright, structurally sound and elegantly poised. The third is marked Vivacissimo, and Rouvali pushes the opening tempo so determinedly that it is a real credit to the orchestra that it can keep up and maintain so high a level of clarity in intonation. Again, Rouvali looks for maximum contrast in this movement’s next section, essentially stopping the entire forward motion of the music so as to bring out the lyrical beauty that Sibelius offers here. The back-and-forth between fast and slow sections is somewhat jarring, but in a way that seems to accentuate Sibelius’ intentions rather than run counter to them. And as the third movement yields attacca to the finale, with its spectacularly beautiful first theme, Rouvali urges the orchestra to ever-higher levels of intense commitment, to such an extent that the fourth movement sounds not only like a tone poem but also like a film score for a particularly impassioned directorial odyssey. Yet Rouvali – a percussionist as well as conductor – is also sensitive here to the extreme care with which Sibelius uses small sections of the music and the orchestra to provide contrast with the massed sound of the ensemble (one of the few instances in which Sibelius utilizes a technique more closely associated with Mahler). Rouvali’s symphony-as-extended-tone-poem approach is even more apparent here than in the earlier movements, as he gives each section of the finale a clear beginning and conclusion even at the occasional expense of some forward momentum. As the conclusion of the symphony approaches through a very extended full-orchestra crescendo, Rouvali takes pains to allow a final dip into quieter, more contemplative waters before the genuine splendor of D major sweeps everything into a brilliant conclusion. It is quite a performance.
Also on this recording is the five-movement King Christian II Suite, which is somewhat earlier than the symphony (1898 vs.1902). The suite is drawn from music for a stage play and is more direct and less complex than the symphony, and in some ways more immediately appealing. Rouvali handles this material with a lighter and, in truth, less-intrusive touch than he uses for the symphony. The first two movements, Nocturne and Elegie, flow naturally and pleasantly, with expressiveness and thematic construction that are noticeably “Sibelian” even at this stage of the composer’s development. Elegie, originally the overture to the play (by Adolf Georg Wiedersheim-Paul, 1863-1943), is a particularly adept bit of scene-setting. The third and shortest movement, a bright little Musette, is followed by a Serenade whose rather martial character Rouvali emphasizes to good effect. The suite ends with a Ballade whose intense opening and scurrying middle section actually foreshadow the Second Symphony; indeed, this movement has something of the feeling of a brief tone poem about it, just as Symphony No. 2, in Rouvali’s performance, has a similar feeling writ large. The pairing of this suite with this symphony is a thoughtful one, giving this entire release a welcome cohesiveness that allows Rouvali to demonstrate the effectiveness of his approach in different but clearly related contexts.
April 23, 2020
Breaking Cat News 3: Take It Away, Tommy—A “Breaking Cat News” Adventure. By Georgia Dunn. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.
Lupin, Elvis and Puck, the three cats at the center of Georgia Dunn’s amusingly offbeat Breaking Cat News books, are joined by a whole passel of other felines in the series’ third entry, Take It Away, Tommy. The basic idea here is that cats have their own version of CNN – call it Cat News Network – that they use to communicate among themselves when anything that is noteworthy to cats happens to be going on. The cats dress up like TV reporters and use microphones and toss commentary back and forth while interacting with their humans, who appear to be oblivious to all the equipment (if it really exists) and interact with the cats simply as cats. The human family expanded in Dunn’s first two books, so it now includes a man, a woman and two children (toddler and infant), and everybody deals with the cats in his or her own way.
That, however, is not all, especially when it comes to Take It Away, Tommy. The title refers to a cat from another family who is now part of the Breaking Cat News team. He is a field reporter – and, more significantly in this book, a barn reporter. Tommy meets Burt, a barn cat, and visits the barn on behalf of Breaking Cat News. In the barn, Tommy and Burt encounter Baba Mouse, a cat who has “had over 90 kittens” and is “older than dirt” but is also quite formidable and proves, in the course of this book, to have a significant role to play in the ever-expanding story. Burt has more to do, too: he is “an AV cat” who helps hook together the various elements of Breaking Cat News programming. This involves Lupin, Elvis and Puck dealing again with the Spanish-speaking (actually bilingual) cats from the upstairs apartment, first introduced in the series’ second book. And there are other cats introduced in this book, in addition to Burt and Baba Mouse. One is Sophie, who lives in the same house as Tommy and is “beautiful” and “very smart” and, in fact, an artist – but who does not care for Tommy at all, at least through most of the book. Another new feline here – and this becomes a very unusual story indeed – is Tillie, a ghost cat.
Yes, ghost cat. Puck sees her and reacts as real-world cats sometimes do when they see things that nobody else can see. The other cats in the cast do not see Tillie, which thoroughly complicates matters. Tillie bounds around the house, knocking down things (for which Puck gets blamed), and asking, “Where is that new addition?” Since the house is an old one (now divided into apartments), Tillie’s quest is obviously for something from an earlier time – and gradually, through some delightful cat-and-human interaction, the mystery is explored and eventually solved. Elvis, sitting at the news anchor desk, says “things are getting strange” as this story develops, and they are indeed. For example, the two human women who try to figure things out try a Ouija board that keeps giving them the word “cat,” which they think is a mistake. A human ghost, a woman nicknamed Freddie, floats in asking, “Where is my cat?” But although Lupin sees Freddie, he cannot see Tillie and, well, things get pretty convoluted as the story progresses far beyond anything in Dunn’s earlier books.
Dunn seems determined to broaden and deepen the Breaking Cat News premise. Even when the mystery of Tillie and Freddie is solved, it leads to something else, involving Puck’s favorite toy, Buzzy Mouse, being mouse-napped and held for a cheese-wheel ransom by a mouse gang. That situation, which ties obliquely to the ghost-cat story, turns out to require intervention by Baba Mouse to bring the story to a warmhearted and happy ending.
There are Thanksgiving-related pages here, and Christmas-related pages, and Dunn does not entirely abandon the short-form vignettes that made up most of the first two books – such as, in Take It Away, Tommy, Elvis’ insistence on repeatedly taking a baby toy because he considers it a cat toy, and all the cats’ concern about the “little man trapped in the TV,” who is a video-game character. “The People are able to transmit instructions and send supplies to the little man through this electronic transistor,” Puck explains, but Lupin’s offer to pull the man out leads only to Lupin being carried away from the TV set, whose screen he is blocking while appearing (from the people’s viewpoint) to try to play with the video-game world himself. The different interpretations of the world by cats and humans are part of the fun in the Breaking Cat News books, and the way cats and humans deal with and help each other, often inadvertently, is another part (the ghost story is an especially well-done instance of that). Dunn has created some unusual, very amusing, grounded-in-reality scenes for this series – ones that cat owners in particular will appreciate (since the cats really do behave like cats some of the time), and ones that will tickle the funnybones and tug the heartstrings even of people who do not share their lives with felines.
Johann Strauss Jr.: Blindekuh. Robert Davidson, Kirsten C. Kunkle, Martina Bortolotti, Roman Pichler, James Bowers, Andrea Chudak, Daniel Schliewa, Emily K. Byrne, Julian Rohde; Sofia Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Dario Salvi. Naxos. $25.99 (2 CDs).
Vivaldi: Concerti per violino VIII (“Il teatro”), RV 187, 217, 235, 321, 366, and 387. Julien Chauvin, violin and conducting Le Concert de la Loge. Naïve. $16.99.
Johann Strauss Jr. had the most mundane of reasons for wanting to write stage works: there was a lot more money to be made from them than from his world-famous, enormously popular dance concerts in Vienna and elsewhere. And the idea of stringing together numerous polkas, waltzes, and other popular forms into a single extended work must have seemed, on the face of it, a reasonably easy path to greater profitability for what was, after all, the Strauss family business. All this may explain the notable lack of success of Strauss’ operettas: they are indeed packed with wonderful tunes, but Strauss did not have a very good sense of what would engage a theatrical audience, so he accepted, again and again, libretti that ranged from the serviceable to the execrable. Even Die Fledermaus, his most popular work by far, is oddly structured, with a climactic third act that is almost entirely spoken rather than sung. And Der Zigeunerbaron, his second-most-popular work, although its libretto is passable, has elements that do not quite gel and tend to lapse into incoherence. Strauss was by no means the only 19th-century composer to suffer from subpar libretti, which have afflicted operas for hundreds of years. But perhaps because the musical snippets in which he specialized offered no way to overcome the extended incoherence of the plots, Strauss’ stage works were notable again and again for their failure to sustain audience interest. And that was the case with Blindekuh (“Blind Cow,” the game known in English as “Blind Man’s Buff”), a work from 1878 that closed after 16 performances and disappeared until Dario Salvi revived it in a concert version in January 2019. The overture and five dance works that Strauss drew from Blindekuh have retained some popularity, indicating that the music here is not the problem – a fact confirmed by the new Naxos recording made from live performances under Salvi’s direction. The operetta’s plot is ridiculously over-complicated and difficult to follow, the libretto having been written by Rudolf Kneisel (1832-1899) based on his own stage work – a kind of Molière bedroom farce without the bedrooms and without French witticism. Essentially, there are a series of misunderstandings and mis-identifications of characters, some engineered and some accidental, until everybody is happy at the end. Under the circumstances, the fact that Salvi’s performance contains no dialogue is probably a good thing, since listeners get a chance to hear an hour and 45 minutes of first-class Strauss tunes, and some delicious vocal writing, without being encumbered by any attempt to understand the mishmash of what is going on. All the typical elements of Strauss operettas are here in abundance: couplets and choruses, dalliances and duets, and some deceptions that are silly enough to remain funny, such as one character’s fanciful description of life in America, from which he is pretending to have come. The game of Blindekuh does not fit the action in any particularly significant way, but it is used as an important plot device at the end of Act II, allowing a scene of mass confusion in which one character suddenly recognizes his wife and a court officer demands that another character reveal his true identity (which does not happen). More importantly, the Blindekuh scene gives Strauss an opportunity to offer one of those wonderful waltzes that seemed to flow unceasingly from him – a waltz whose tune first appears in the operetta’s overture, is heard in full as part of the big Act II conclusion, and then unites the whole work musically when it returns at the end of Act III. Strauss may have had little ability in choosing libretti for his stage works, but he consistently produced music that remains worth hearing even though the plots that the music is designed to further are eminently forgettable. And so it is with Blindekuh. The singers are all quite fine and all actually sound as if they are enjoying themselves in delivering this frothy bit of comedy. And Salvi leads the production with genuine enthusiasm, pacing all the music sensibly and sensitively and eliciting fine singing from the chorus and delightfully bouncy playing from the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. It is highly unlikely that Blindekuh will ever become a significant component of the Strauss stage pantheon, but the overture and five instrumental pieces that the composer drew from it will likely continue to enchant audiences, as they should from a strictly musical standpoint. And this very fine recording, by giving audiences a chance to know the context in which the instrumental material originally appeared, is worthy of Strauss lovers’ celebration.
There is plenty of digging-up still to be done among the works of even the best-known composers. Naïve has been doing this for nearly two decades in a series of presentations of Vivaldi music held at the National University Library of Turin. The 63rd Vivaldi Edition release is the eighth to focus on concertos for Vivaldi’s own instrument, the violin, and as in all the earlier releases, it contains some wonderful music and some excellent period-instrument playing – here by a violinist and ensemble not heard before in this long-running series. Julien Chauvin and Le Concert de la Loge are poised, even elegant in their handling of the six concertos on this CD – and as always, although the concertos follow Vivaldi’s familiar three-movement pattern, each has its own unique character and its own particular pleasures. RV 187, in C, has a strong stop-and-start opening with judiciously placed rests that give the music an emphatic character that contrasts well with the ornamental solo part. RV 217, in D, has a slow movement whose opening has an almost eerie, ghostly sound. RV 235, in D minor, has a particularly heartfelt slow movement. RV 321, in G minor, opens with ensemble flourishes that contrast strongly with solo passages, and has a finale that is more than usually intense. RV 366, in B-flat, has a slow movement that opens with a plaintive solo that could pass muster in one of Vivaldi’s operas. And RV 387, in B minor, has a slow movement in which the soloist offers an extended aria-like presentation as the ensemble provides ostinato-like backup – after which the stormy finale brings the work to a decidedly dramatic close. Listeners will discover their own highlights in all these works, and there are plenty of literally noteworthy elements in all of them. Here as elsewhere in the Vivaldi Edition, the performers show that historically informed performance practice need not mean persnickety attention to minor details, or an overly academic approach to the music in the name of authenticity. Careful attention to 18th-century style is certainly present, but the overarching purpose here is to bring forth what Vivaldi wanted his music to communicate to an audience. The quality of that communication has not diminished over the centuries, with this recording and its predecessors doing a wonderful job of giving music lovers the feeling that they are encountering the concertos, if not necessarily for the first time, then in a new and thoroughly captivating way.
April 16, 2020
Pearls Goes Hollywood: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
The first thing to know about the latest Pearls Before Swine collection is that the strips in it have nothing to do with Hollywood. However, cartoonist Stephan Pastis goes into a major bout of self-love in the four-page introduction to the book, extolling at length his own virtues as a “movie mogul” in connection with a film project that is not based on Pearls Before Swine but on Pastis’ other work, the Timmy Failure series for children. Pastis’ love of his movie experience translates, in typically overdone Pearls Before Swine fashion, into inside front and back covers showing 50, count ’em, 50 photos of Pastis costumed as an Old West gunslinger; a front cover with Pastis tied to railway tracks as a train approaches, while various members of the Pearls Before Swine cast get ready to film his incipient demise; a back cover in which love-starved Elly the Elephant gazes longingly at Pastis-as-gunslinger as portrayed on a movie-theater poster advertising “El Desperado de Santa Rosa”; and a fold-out (or tear-out) version of that very same movie poster, bound into the back of Pearls Goes Hollywood.
Wretched excess is a stock-in-trade for Pastis, as it is for Hollywood, and the excess is even more wretched than usual this time – and the wretchedness is even more excessive. Yet none of that will bother Pearls Before Swine fans in the slightest – or interest anyone else in any way whatsoever. Pearls Before Swine is an acquired taste that many people never acquire, and that is actually fine with Pastis, who appears to carry a good deal of the darkness and snarkiness of the strip into the real world. And that is only fair, since he carries a good deal of the darkness and snarkiness of the real world into the strip in the first place.
The strips in the book, not to be confused with the new, Hollywood-themed material, offer the usual mishmash of not-very-well-drawn characters with no names except ones explaining what they are: Rat is named Rat, Pig is called Pig, Goat is Goat, and so on. Pastis often makes fun of his own drawing skill, or lack thereof (“it took me 45 minutes to draw that dartboard and it still looks terrible”), but he is laughing all the way to the bank: the strip remains distinctly bankable despite the fading of so many newspapers. Pastis also makes fun of himself: one strip talks about people taking selfies because they do not have friends to take the photos – because everyone spends so much time on the phone. Beneath that strip, Pastis, who offers commentary on many of his strips, says that this one “doesn’t apply to me. I had no friends even before smartphones.” He also creates some strips that younger readers will not understand, such as one featuring a communist from the former Soviet Union – Pastis says “if it were still 1975, you’d find this joke hilarious.”
Pearls Before Swine works – for those for whom it works at all – because it is very much for adults despite the rather childlike appearance of the characters. Pastis draws “cartoon Pastis” as a regular, unappealing-looking character, for example, and has his alter ego constantly creating strips that result in really bad puns, after which other characters in the strip insult or attack him. That sort of cartooning-about-cartooning “meta” angle gives Pearls Before Swine part of its unique approach. Another part, accentuated in this collection by the beneath-strip comments, comes from Pastis’ attitude toward modern technology. In addition to the selfies/smartphone strip, there is one in which Goat, the resident intellectual among the characters, tells Rat, the resident cynic, that he is simply standing atop a hill enjoying the moment, not tweeting about it or posting it on Instagram or at Facebook. Rat says that means Goat has lost his mind. Beneath the strip, Pastis writes, “I posted this strip on both Facebook and Instagram.” There is the “meta” matter again, along with a certain combination of self-aggrandizement and self-criticism. It’s a heady mixture if you like that sort of thing.
Pearls Goes Hollywood zips in and out of the many types of stories that Pastis has going at any given time. In some strips that pop up occasionally, Rat is president of the United States, making unending inane and nasty comments and bad decisions. In other strips, the top-hatted “Comic Strip Censor” loudly objects to something the characters are saying, or almost saying – as in one strip about security for religious groups that contains the phrase “unprotected sects.” And in some strips, the influence of Peanuts comes to the fore, as when Pig is seen within a version of Lucy’s “Psychiatric Help” booth that simply has the word “Help” on it. Rat asks what kind of help Pig is offering, and Pig replies, “None. I’m crying out for it.” And just to drive the point about Peanuts home, Pastis writes underneath these particular panels, “In strips like this, you can really see the influence that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz had on me.” And then there are the “croc” strips, in which Larry, the father in the neighborhood crocodile family, “speaks” in different lettering from that used everywhere else, to emphasize the way he expresses himself: “Dis muss be best hiding place ever.” Larry also turns up in the “Rat as president” strips as press secretary, making comments such as, “Kees Larry butt, journilleests!”
Some Pastis remarks in Pearls Goes Hollywood are considerably more useful than other comments. For example, his direct statement that “I use Rat to get out all my aggressions in life” is a useful encapsulation that explains a lot of Rat’s behavior. But Pearls Before Swine is passive-aggressive as often as it is overtly on the attack. Thus, “probably the most popular strip of the year,” says Pastis, is one in which Rat asks Pig why Pig is still in bed at noon; Pig replies, “Because nothing that will happen today will be better than the warmth and comfort that I have here”; so Rat climbs into bed as well, saying, “You may have solved life.” Rat may be aggression channeled, but Pig is the resident idiot savant when he is not being the resident idiot. And while Pastis’ primary characters may be unnamed and have stick-figure arms and legs, they are very much in tune with, and tuned into, the real world that Pastis views through a funhouse mirror in Pearls Before Swine. That is why he manages to get away with all the atrocious puns, almost-profanity and less-than-optimal art: none of those flaws seems like a flaw to people who share Pastis’ admittedly skewed but often unerringly on-target view of the world.
My Pet Slime 2: Cosmo to the Rescue. By Courtney Sheinmel. Illustrated by Renée Kurilla. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw 2: The Friend Thief. By Gina Loveless. Illustrations by Andrea Bell. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.
Once series for young readers get going, they tend to proceed along the same lines. And that applies even when series are not generated directly as book sequences but represent a mixture of online and traditional-book elements – as is the case with ones based on a digital library called “Epic!” (complete with exclamation point). Both My Pet Slime for third-graders and Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw for fifth-graders come from this source, and both are now up and running in ways that should allow them to continue for some time as long as they continue to stick to easy-to-read stories and formulaic plotting and characters.
The second My Pet Slime entry features even more magic and fantasy than did the first, in which mysterious “space dust” brought to life an ultra-cute homemade “slime pet” created by an eight-year-old girl named Piper Maclane and visible as a creature rather than just a slime ball, in true “it’s magic” fashion, only to Piper and not to her parents. Then it turns out that Cosmo (the slime pet) is actually visible as well to super-popular and rather stuck-up Claire, and thus becomes the basis of a friendship between her and Piper. And in the second book of the series, the girls discover that Cosmo’s magical visibility works in whatever way is most convenient. So do his (its?) other magical powers. For example, when Piper and Claire go on a rescue mission aboard Claire’s scooter, Cosmo develops jet-engine skills to get them where they need to go super-quickly, and remains visible even on crowded streets because the scooter goes so fast that everyone and everything on it is a blur rather than clearly visible. And later, it turns out that one adult can in fact see Cosmo as alive. Oh, and Cosmo can also unlock locks, slide under doors to open them from inside, and more – whatever advances the story in a convenient way. The plot this time involves the kids’ determination to find and rescue Piper’s Grandma Sadie, who provided the “space dust” that brought Cosmo to life and who works for some sort of top-secret space-exploration organization (apparently the book is set somewhere in the future, despite everything appearing to be present-day). Grandma Sadie has gone missing, and it turns out that she is being held captive. Piper learns that when she gets magical E-mails that magically disappear shortly after being read but are written by an evil organization so stupid that the messages include the group’s name. And, when the bad guys don’t get what they want, one of them shows up unannounced and undisguised at Piper’s door to deliver an actual letter. It turns out that the super-smart-but-amazingly-dumb bad characters are from a place where Claire’s Uncle Ricky just so happens to work, only he is a good guy, so Piper and Claire head to the bad-guy headquarters (conveniently located right in their town and within Cosmo-powered-scooter range) to locate Grandma Sadie. And they do just that in Cosmo to the Rescue, although they do not actually get her out of captivity in this book – a cliffhanger ending means “wait until next time.” The simplistic language and plot and the obvious tossing about of bits of education (such as the names of constellations) make this book, and the series of which it is part, perhaps more suitable for readers even younger than third-graders.
Similarly, despite its title, the Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw series feels and reads as if it is for kids younger than fifth-graders. In fact, the type size of this book is significantly larger than that used in My Pet Slime. The protagonist in Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw is Robin Loxley – a distinct nod to the Robin Hood legend, whose central character was the outlaw Robin of Loxley (or Locksley). Hence the overall series title, the connection with old legends made clear because Robin wears a hood (well, a hoodie). The Friend Thief briefly recaps the first book in the series, which had to do with Robin besting an arrogant classmate at basketball and being victimized by the nasty school bully, Nadia, whom Robin overcame after some mild difficulty. Oh – the school’s name is Nottingham Elementary, which makes Assistant Principal Johnson, in effect, the sheriff of Nottingham. That is another Robin Hood reference that most fifth-graders (or younger readers) will not get. Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw could actually become a teachable book if parents used it to encourage their children to read about the Robin Hood legend and find all the ways in which this book draws on it. But that is not the series’ structure. So in the The Friend Thief, Robin initially has her onetime best friend, Mary Ann, back, after repairing a misunderstanding between them, and a school fair is planned for the near future, and it seems that all will be fine for Robin and her friends – until Nadia re-emerges in new guise and starts getting all of Robin’s friends to be friends with her. Uh-oh. Things get complicated in terms of friendships and bullying and “taxing” (in another nod to the Robin Hood tale, Nadia had been making other students give her their school “bonus bucks” until Robin stopped the scheme). The fair starts well, but between trying to figure out Nadia’s latest nefarious plan and eating too much (and vomiting as a result), Robin says that “the fair had been totally ruined for me.” And then things get even worse on the friendship front, until eventually Robin confronts Nadia and accuses her of stealing Robin’s friends – which leads one of them to say, “You can’t steal friends,” and another to remark that “you can earn them, and you can lose them.” Well, that is the “teachable moment” here – nothing about history and legend and England in the 12th and early 13th centuries (the time of the Robin Hood tales). So modern-day Robin, after initially walking away from everybody and deciding that she is better off without friends, realizes that she has “really, really messed things up,” comes up with sincere apologies to everybody, and gets accepted back into her friend group. And then the group needs a name, so what the kids settle on is “The Merry Misfits,” since that is another echo of Robin Hood’s “Merry Men.” And so the second entry in Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw ends not with a cliffhanger but with the promise of further adventures to come – and with Nadia now being included as a friend rather than an enemy. Like the My Pet Slime series, Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw is clearly designed to be “relatable” and “inclusive” and to teach, with little subtlety, the lessons that are considered crucial today about cooperation, friendship, family ties, and so on. There is something rather manipulative in the way these series are designed for social/education purposes, with the stories hung onto the intended lessons rather than being tales from which those lessons emerge naturally. But the lessons themselves are unexceptionable, and for young readers – especially ones a bit younger than the official target age range for each of these series – the stories should be engaging enough to maintain interest so that their purpose comes across as planned by “Epic!”
Haydn: Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra in F; Hummel: Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra in G. Solomiya Ivakhiv, violin; Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Theodore Kuchar. Centaur. $18.99.
Il Tigrane: Arias from Operas by Hasse, Vivaldi and Gluck. Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano; Kaunas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $14.98.
James Lentini: Sinfonia di Festa (1996); Through Time and Place—Symphony No. 1 (2010); Three Sacred Meditations (2000); The Angel’s Journey (1998); Dreamscape (1994). Navona. $14.99.
Although exceptionally well-known as a symphonist, Haydn is much less familiar as a creator of concertos – which, in truth, were not his primary area of expertise, partially because he was not himself a virtuoso performer. Very few of Haydn’s concertos are heard with any regularity, and certainly his double concerto for violin and piano is even less common than others. That is a real shame, as Solomiya Ivakhiv and Antonio Pompa-Baldi show on a very fine new Centaur CD on which they are accompanied and very ably backed up by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra under Theodore Kuchar. Full appreciation of a concerto such as this one by Haydn requires turning back one’s mental clock a bit, to a time when virtuoso display for its own sake was not the aim of concertos – the idea was something closer to the Baroque notion of primus inter pares, the soloists being first among equals but never placed in competition with or opposition to the ensemble. Like Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, the Haydn dual-instrument concerto is a study in balance: between the two solo instruments and between the soloists and orchestra. It is this characteristic that Ivakhiv and Pompa-Baldi bring out especially clearly in their performance, thanks to the pianist’s willingness to hold back the power of his modern piano, for which this music is not intended. It would be all too easy for the keyboard instrument to overwhelm the violin, but both soloists are at pains to prevent this. The result is an easygoing and altogether pleasant reading of an unassuming and very charming work. Charm abounds in Hummel’s violin-and-piano concerto as well, in a structure that is more Mozartean than Haydnesque. Hummel’s work is more than 50% longer than Haydn’s, although still in the traditional three movements. It is a gallant work, not in the galant style but exuding elegance, poise and balance throughout. Hummel was a famous pianist (and, for a time, Beethoven’s rival in performance), and the instrumental balance of the concerto tends somewhat to favor the keyboard, but not to an inordinate degree. Hummel was an absolute master of careful construction and was highly sensitive to the way his works would sound to an audience – one of the variations making up the middle movement of this concerto, in which horns feature to as great an extent as the solo instruments, shows this clearly. Hummel’s mastery of form and unwillingness to delve deeply into emotions tend to make him under-appreciated as a composer, but hearing a work such as this double concerto without preconceptions about how a concerto “should” sound allows the exceptional qualities of the music to come through clearly: it is, very simply, a delightful listening experience, not so much superficial as designed to please rather than to engage deeper feelings. It would have been nice if Centaur had deigned to provide information on the Haydn and Hummel concertos: the entire brief booklet is solely about Ivakhiv, Pompa-Baldi and Kuchar, and is little more than a listing of the various awards each has won and the venues in which each has performed. That is useless information for listeners who do not know the music, as will usually be the case with unfamiliar works like these. The celebrities here should be Haydn and Hummel, not the people who present their compositions.
Opera-excerpt recitals tend to exist as much to showcase performers as the music they perform, but there is actually a better balance than usual between composers and singer on a new Delos CD featuring soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and the Kaunas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constantine Orbelian. The reason is that this is not a disc filled with well-known arias, but one focusing on three different operas called La Tigrane, all from the 18th century and all telling the same story of King Tigranes II of Armenia and his eventual consort, Cleopatra of Pontus (not to be confused with Cleopatra of Egypt). Fascinatingly, all three operas use the same libretto by Abate Francesco Silvani (1660-1728), so the CD offers a chance to hear the different ways in which the same basic material is highlighted by Vivaldi (whose work, actually the second act of a multi-composer three-act opera, dates to 1724) and two composers whose music on this CD has never been recorded before: Gluck (whose Il Tigrane is from 1743) and Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783), whose version is from 1729. Of course, the words of the arias are not identical, but the emotions underlying them pretty much are, so this recital lets Bayrakdarian – a fine vocal actress as well as a skilled singer – hold forth with similar feelings through music that is always recognizably mid-18th-century but sounds quite different in ways reflecting each composer’s vocal and instrumental predilections. Gluck, for example, uses two oboes and two horns in addition to the strings and continuo called for by Hasse and Vivaldi, resulting in more richness to the sound of his material. The greatest amount of music here is by Hasse, including eight vocal excerpts plus his opera’s overture. Hasse was a prolific opera composer and was himself a singer (a tenor), and his familiarity with the stage and with vocal ranges shows clearly here: whether in accompanied recitatives or the strongly emotional arias to which they lead, everything lies well within the compass of the singer’s voice while at the same time displaying her vocal abilities to very fine effect. Instrumental introductions are also handled very skillfully, with the one to Che gran pena, from the finale to Act I, being particularly noteworthy. The four Vivaldi excerpts on the CD reveal a high level of skill in blending voice and instruments, and a willingness to offer vocal display even in the midst of declamatory recitatives, as in Squarciami pure il seno. Gluck is represented here by just three excerpts, all of which are more forward-looking both emotionally and instrumentally than the pieces by Hasse and Vivaldi. Priva del caro bene, from Act II, has an especially warm instrumental introduction and emotionally effective delivery. This disc is a considerable treat for opera fans, thanks to its very fine performances of music that is rarely heard – and to the way the CD shows just how distinctively composers of the same time period have handled similar, even nearly identical, works for the stage.
Some of James Lentini’s music on a new Navona CD is also vocal, while some is expressive in other ways – reflecting not only the different purposes of the five works on the disc but also the different times at which they were written. This (+++) CD will primarily be of interest to listeners who are already familiar with the music of Lentini (born 1958) and would like to hear the different ways he constructed pieces over the 16-year period in which these works were composed (the recordings were made between 1994 and 2012). Three Sacred Meditations is the vocal work here, featuring soprano Diana Lentini and the Wayne State University Symphonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Norah Duncan IV. The three pieces use texts from John 14:27, Psalms 51:10 and Proverbs 3:1-6, respectively, communicating their messages emphatically, sometimes a touch too much so (“Renew a right spirit within me” comes across as a demand, not a plea, in the second piece). The works are effective although not, in the main, especially inward-looking: they move forward with greater intensity than one would expect of meditative works. Quieter and more intimate is The Angel’s Journey, performed by the Wayne State University Wind Symphony under Douglas Bianchi. At times eruptive with percussion, at others flowing with gentleness, this nonvocal work reaches out toward a feeling of peacefulness that it never quite attains, even though a final percussive blast clears the way for a quiet conclusion. Lentini’s predilection for percussion fits better into the celebratory Sinfonia di Festa, which makes a pretty good curtain raiser (it is heard first on the CD) and includes some unexpected instrumental touches for a work of this type, such as a bit of a violin solo and some soulful expressiveness before the work builds to a suitably rousing finale. The performance here is by the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Iannacone. Yet another ensemble, the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ricardo Averbach, performs Lentini’s two-movement Through Time and Place—Symphony No. 1, which starts with “Reflection” and proceeds to “A New Destiny.” The first movement has some of the feeling of an extended chorale, while the second has a propulsive opening and overall bright feeling, and makes considerable use of percussion, of which Lentini is quite obviously fond. The last work on the disc, Dreamscape, is somewhat different in character from the others, with an ebb and flow both in the instrumental combinations and in the pacing. Jerzy Swoboda leads the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra in this piece, which brings to an end a recording that provides an extended opportunity to hear Lentini’s skill in orchestration, his propensity for contrasts both of instrumentation and of rhythm and tempo, and his skillful blending of tonal and dissonant material.
April 09, 2020
How I Broke Up with My Colon: Fascinating, Bizarre, and True Health Stories. By Nick Seluk. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
This has to be one of the strangest cartoon books of all time – and a book that, while certainly top-quality, can be strongly recommended only for those who are stalwart of heart and settled of stomach. Nick Seluk is the cartoonist responsible for the extremely clever “Heart and Brain” concept, originally part of something called “The Awkward Yeti” but long since having become more important than the idea from which it was spun off. Seluk neatly encapsulates the constant internal conflicts we humans feel between being impulsive and wish-driven, on the one hand (heart), and being rational and cautious, on the other (brain). What Seluk has done so well that it’s a wonder no one thought of it before is to make Heart and Brain into genuine characters, their personalities shaped in some expected ways (Brain wears glasses) and some unexpected ones (Heart almost always has a butterfly flitting around, a delightful metaphor if there ever was one). The interactions (frequent disputes and occasional agreements) between Heart and Brain make up a never-ending series of comic sequences that are funny in large part because they so well encapsulate what everyone goes through all the time – even though our actual organs are not nearly as cute as the cartoon ones Seluk creates.
And Seluk has expanded the Heart and Brain repertoire by introducing many other personified bodily organs as well as the two primary ones. Sometimes a liver appears, or some teeth, maybe a tongue, sometimes a gall bladder that is super-cute and wants only to give gifts in the form of stones to the body (supposedly the body of The Awkward Yeti: that is the tie-in to Seluk’s original idea). And that brings us to How I Broke Up with My Colon. This is a collection of two dozen real-life medical stories, told in the words of the people who experienced the incidents, illustrated by Seluk with the cartoon characters he has created for his tales of Heart and Brain.
The weirdness level here is high, driven even higher by Seluk’s occasional use in the illustrations of an always-sweating, always-overwhelmed doctor character and, at times, the character of The Awkward Yeti (with two-tone blue fur, wearing square glasses and a bow tie). Seluk adds his own dialogue to the stories to make them funnier and/or stranger, but most of their strangeness and humor (yes, there is humor here) come in the telling by the unfortunate people who experienced these peculiar medical circumstances.
The title story, for example, is about a colectomy – surgery to remove the entire colon (large intestine). Seemingly no topic for cartooning, this is a tale about ulcerative colitis, which the storyteller endured for two-and-a-half years during which he “lost half my body weight” and “went on so many medications it was crazy.” Scarcely a subject for humor, this is made amusing (in its own way) because Seluk structures it as a series of discussions and arguments between the person and his colon, which is eventually removed during surgery and seen walking out the door carrying two pieces of luggage. The story continues, “My small intestine was there for me through the entire thing,” with the storyteller explaining how three surgeries were needed to replace the large intestine without requiring use of an external bag. In one panel, the befuddled doctor character looks at the patient holding his smiling small intestine and says, “We should also consider putting that on the INSIDE of your body.”
Not peculiar enough? Well, a chapter called “The Geologist” is about a, yes, geologist, who ironically develops multiple, extremely painful kidney stones (“multiple staghorn calculi, my own stalactites!”). First one kidney, then the other, must be surgically removed: “Medical students were sent to study me, and the doctor who performed the original ultrasound fetched her boss to see it because it was so weird.” (Here Seluk introduces his doctor character, who exclaims, “I concur with the weirdness!”) This story ends with the information that now the storyteller’s “gallbladder has been a busy little thing making its own pebbles” and that she has had no luck telling her body “that the rocks should be on the outside, not the inside.” And the big-eyed kidneys and even-bigger-eyed, plump and adorable gallbladder are seen cherishing what they have made.
All the stories are filled with awfulness that Seluk’s approach transforms, rather miraculously, into a combination of not-quite-entertainment and not-quite-education. There is “Palpitations,” in which the Heart character gives a human a “harmless, though annoying” condition called supraventricular tachycardia – which is cured, astonishingly enough, when the patient is hit by lightning, leading Seluk to portray the formerly freewheeling Heart as a docile clerk in an office-supply store. There is “Attack of the Spine,” in which a woman explains that she had a spine so badly curved that surgeons had to break it in nine places to repair it with glue and metal screws and bars. And then there is “Where’s Waldo?” That is about a woman whose organs are all in the wrong places by conventional human anatomical standards – and who has seven spleens (technically, splenules). “We laugh, we cry, we bleed, we vomit,” explains Seluk at the start of the book, noting that all this is “only human.” True, but these elements of being human have never been shown the way he shows them in How I Broke Up with My Colon. Readers should be forewarned: this is a remarkable, thoroughly bizarre book, one that may not make you bleed but likely will cause you to laugh, cry, and in a couple of the more-extreme stories, feel like, yes, vomiting.
Ignite Your Light: A Sunrise-to-Moonlight Guide to Feeling Joyful, Resilient, and Lit from Within. By Jolene Hart. Running Press. $23.99.
You can’t get much more New Age-y than this unless you start collecting crystals and chanting to them. “Be the light you want to see,” urges Jolene Hart in the first chapter of Ignite Your Light. “If you’re on a healing journey, so much of the process is in your own hands,” she states a bit later. “Morning is the time to put on your energy armor,” she opines. “If life’s work and the creativity journey were all sunshine and heart-eye emojis, we definitely wouldn’t be talking about them here,” she admits. It helps to indulge in “ideal food for daylight energy: slow-burning fuel that will power your body through a long stretch of activity, like beans and lentils, raw nuts and seeds, protein-rich chickpeas, or wild salmon; mildly stimulating teas or chocolates that encourage energy and focus; ample liquids for hydration.” Oh – and speaking of crystals, they “have been prized for centuries for their energetic influence, and this perspective continues to dominate in [the] present day.”
And so on, and on. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this if these sample thoughts are ones that you find congenial, helpful, even meaningful. In times of great stress and trouble, and we are certainly in one of those now, grasping for any source of comfort, anything that promotes resilience, anything that brings a feeling of control to an almost entirely out-of-control world, makes perfect sense. Hart does overdo things a bit, though, through trying to take assertions that are at best unprovable and at worst flighty and silly and attempting to give them some sort of solid underpinning – by including occasional references to carefully chosen, out-of-context scientific matters. “Thoughts and moods (which, when repeated, have the power to reprogram the pathways of your brain, thanks to neuroplasticity) can be altered with small shifts.” “Quantum entanglement demonstrates that the tiny particles that make up energy become connected, or entangled, with each other when they come into contact, and then subsequently remain entangled even when separated across great distances. Applying this to our lives, it means that the separation we feel from one another may only be a perception, not reality.”
It is best not to think too closely about anything in Ignite Your Light that purports to have a testable scientific foundation. It is better, and far more useful, to decide whether Hart’s style is one you will enjoy experiencing for 200-plus pages; and, if it is, to accept what she suggests at face value and try her approach to see whether it works for you. Thus, for example, she writes, “The energy that makes up our bodies and everything around us is constantly in vibrating movement, giving us all that ‘vibe’ that you’ve likely heard of in reference to your personal energy. …[T]he vibrations of specific emotions, objects, states of health, and the like are often labeled ‘high vibe’ or ‘low vibe.’” Instead of those terms, though, Hart says “I use words that describe light – ‘bright energy’ and ‘dim energy’ – to discuss the overall spectrum of effects that the energy influencers in our lives have on the way we feel, the way we look, and the way we respond to and experience life.” Ignite Your Light is intended to identify various energy boosters and energy depleters tied to specific times of each day (sunrise, daylight, sunset and moonlight) and help readers be more productive, happier and more connected with their inner selves and the world around them during each portion of the day. In Hart’s formulation, sunrise is a time for “the energy of your mindset,” daylight for “the energy of work and creativity,” sunset for “the energy of play and laughter,” and moonlight for “the energy of spirituality.” Readers need to find out just how she uses and defines each word and each time of day to judge whether her approach to enhancing a particular form of energy seems helpful. Each of the book’s sections concludes with “recipes to nourish” each specific form of energy, and here too, readers need to decide what will work for them: “Vacation Vibes Avocado Smoothie Bowl” for sunrise and “Savory Chickpea Pancake with Spinach and Sun-Dried Tomato” for sunset, for example, may or may not be appealing to all readers; and, even if they seem worth trying, they may or may not be energy-enhancing in the way that Hart says they will be.
Ignite Your Light, like so many other self-help books and New Age tomes, takes itself very seriously and really, really wants to give readers ways to cope more effectively with the troubles and stressors of everyday life. If any of these many, many books had the answer, it would be the only one that anyone needed to read; but of course there is no panacea for trouble, trauma, uncertainty, stress and everyday negativity of all sorts. So, like all other books of its type, Ignite the Light will likely prove useful to people who enjoy the author’s style and believe that her light-based formulation of an approach to energy enhancement will work for them. For anyone who does not find the book’s “vibe” satisfactory, there are plenty of other equally well-intended ones to try instead.
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5. Stewart Goodyear, piano; BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Andrew Constantine. Orchid Classics. $33.99 (3 CDs).
Mieczysław Weinberg: Clarinet Concerto; Clarinet Sonata; Chamber Symphony No. 4. Robert Oberaigner, clarinet; Dresden Chamber Soloists conducted by Michail Jurowski; Michael Schöch, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Alicia Terzian: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Three Pieces for Strings. Rafael Gintoli, violin; Siberian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Navona. $14.99.
It would seem logical that, in a year celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, recordings of his music would be all about, you know, Beethoven. But someone apparently did not get that message to Stewart Goodyear and/or Orchid Classics, whose new release of Beethoven’s piano concertos focuses to an unseemly extent on the pianist, not the music. The three-CD foldout cardboard package displays four photos of Goodyear; the enclosed booklet displays five (one repeated from the package front). Yes, nine Goodyear photos in all. And the 16-page booklet contains not only those five full-page Goodyear photos, but also two pages of text about Goodyear and two pages of text by Goodyear. There is not a word about the BBC National Orchestra of Wales or about conductor Andrew Constantine. So, on the basis of presentation alone, this is clearly a “celebrity-ization” of Goodyear rather than a serious entry into the Beethoven catalogue. Oh, and the third CD contains only the “Emperor” concerto, despite there being plenty of room for something else, such as the early E-flat concerto or the piano version of the Violin Concerto. Apparently those would not add sufficiently to the star power celebrated here. Thank goodness Goodyear is as good a pianist as he is: the release proves worthwhile musically despite the overdone, inappropriate packaging. Listeners more interested in music than portrait photography and self-glorification will find a great deal to like in this cycle, particularly in the first three concertos. Goodyear not only has a pleasantly modulated, at times rather light touch (despite playing the work on a modern piano), but also has a fine sense of the rhythmic bounce and splashes of humor in the first two concertos – “humor” not being a word often associated with Beethoven. There is whimsicality bordering on puckishness in Nos. 1 and 2. And No. 3 comes across as more serious but still largely Mozartean in tone and emphasis – a worthy counter to the way it is sometimes performed as a kind of early Romantic piece filled with grand gestures. The handling of all three of the earlier concertos places them with pleasant firmness in the Classical era, or at least (in No. 3) on the cusp of something beyond that time period but scarcely all the way into Romanticism. A considerable amount of credit for these performances goes to Constantine and the orchestra, whose accompaniment is crisp, light, and very well-balanced with the sound of the piano solo: neither conductor nor orchestra may be mentioned in the release, but both have a very strong presence in it. The fourth and fifth concertos are also quite well-performed, but somewhat less successful. No. 4 has unusual structure and considerable lyricism, the latter getting rather short shrift here: there are no fireworks written into this piece, but there is plenty of expansiveness and some striving (notably in the slow movement) for a genuinely new form of communication with the audience. Goodyear’s playing is quite good but a touch on the cool side, with Constantine again going along with him effectively but not eliciting as much warmth as this music deserves. As for the “Emperor,” No. 5 can be presented as almost entirely a display piece, and that is basically how Goodyear handles it, delivering a striking but unsubtle performance that is all showmanship and splendor. His enthusiasm, and Constantine’s, may be infectious, but the overall effect is of a work rather closer to Liszt than is appropriate for the material or its provenance. Certainly there are many pleasures in this set, including the very fine collaboration between soloist and conductor, and the sensitive orchestral playing. The overall impression, however, is of a bit too much superficiality – the same impression conveyed even more strongly by packaging decisions that are really quite wrongheaded.
Neither the music nor the performers on a new Naxos CD could be said to have the “star power” involved in Beethoven’s piano concertos, but the recording of Mieczysław Weinberg’s three works for clarinet is nevertheless a very worthwhile and often fascinating one. The reputation of Weinberg (1919-1996) has been growing in recent years as his skill in multiple forms has become increasingly clear, and his clarinet pieces are further evidence of the quality of his music – and its resemblance to that of his longtime friend and champion, Shostakovich. The concerto is late Weinberg, dating to 1970, and shows the relationship with the late music of Shostakovich (who died in 1975) unusually clearly in its mixture of the lyrical and the sardonic. Alternately pensive and intense, the concerto is a work of varying moods, which tend to tumble over one another in somewhat helter-skelter fashion. Robert Oberaigner handles the material with empathy as well as skill, and the Dresden Chamber Soloists under Michail Jurowski provide well-balanced backup. Oberaigner also performs effectively with Michael Schöch on piano in the much earlier sonata, which dates to 1945. The sonata has more poise and classical balance than the later concerto, but a similar hodgepodge of emotions that often change quickly and unpredictably – a hallmark of much of Weinberg’s music. The overall mood of the sonata is rather bittersweet, and the ending seems more resigned than traditionally conclusive. The third work on this CD is Weinberg’s fourth and final Chamber Symphony, which dates to 1992 and was the last work he completed. It is designated, rather curiously, as being for clarinet, triangle and string orchestra, but anyone expecting ample use of the triangle will be disappointed: it appears only four times, all in the finale. There is nothing concerto-like about the clarinet’s part here (as there is in, say, Shostakovich’s 1933 piano-and-trumpet concerto, in which the trumpet has a prominent role): Weinberg’s work remains basically one for strings, with clarinet obbligato and triangle, as noted, providing just a few special touches. Structurally, the work is in four movements, but the movements are all played without pause, as are the different sections within each movement, leading to the feeling of a work consisting of a single half-hour-plus movement. There is particularly strong contrast – nicely managed by Jurowski – between the slow, subtly disturbed, often barely motionless first movement and the very hectic second, in which the clarinet is prominent. The third movement is again in thoughtful mode, while the fourth has some particularly effective writing for the upper strings and a mood that repeatedly strives for the upbeat but never quite achieves it. Like the clarinet sonata, this work ends in resignation – here, with string pizzicati and a triangle chime. The chamber symphony’s very beginning is marked Lento, its very end Adagissimo, and its pace is mostly moderate-to-slow, producing an overall feeling more of nostalgia and roads not taken than of anguish or deep despair. It is a rather strange peroration, but no odder (and in fact rather less odd) than Shostakovich’s final symphony, No. 15 (1971). This whole CD is a welcome opportunity not only to become acquainted with additional intriguing music by Weinberg but also to hear how skillfully he could interweave a solo clarinet into the totality of works in which his style comes through quite clearly.
The Violin Concerto by Alicia Terzian (born 1934), featured on a new Navona CD, is another 20th-century concerto, dating to 1954-55. It falls quite early in Terzian’s output, in contrast to the comparatively late date for Weinberg’s concerto for clarinet. Yet Terzian’s work already shows her considerable skill in using the orchestra and contrasting it with the solo violin, whose part is quite difficult without possessing show-off qualities for their own sake. The first and longest movement has a sonic palette familiar from much mid-20th-century music, and engages in microtonalism to a certain extent, but its lyricism is something of a throwback – and a pleasant one. This movement’s cadenza, which Rafael Gintoli handles with sensitivity and skill, requires harmonics, double-stopping and the ability to reach the violin’s highest register without any loss of tonal quality – a considerable challenge. Terzian is Argentinian but of Armenian descent, and Armenian folk tunes find their way into many of her works, including this concerto, whose second movement is based on a gloomy folksong, presented with quiet sadness and considerable feeling. The finale provides a strong contrast, offering some complex violin figurations amid underlying, brass-heavy dance rhythms. There is a kind of lumbering quality to the orchestral part, creating a strong contrast with the more-flighty solo passages, with the entirety eventually resolved – after another elaborate cadenza that Gintoli delivers adeptly and with much feeling – in a speedy race that at last has soloist and ensemble supporting and dancing around each other. This is not a well-known concerto by any means, and Terzian herself feels she has long since moved beyond the musical approach in evidence here. But the concerto holds together very well indeed, and is worthy of being heard more frequently. Vladimir Lande and the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra make fine partners for Gintoli, and the performance as a whole is thoroughly satisfying. Lande and the orchestra’s string section do equally well with Three Pieces for Strings, which dates to exactly the same time as the concerto (1954). The Armenian folk influence is even stronger here than in the concerto, even when the specific tunes are not drawn directly from Armenian folk music. The three pieces are all intended to evoke scenes: “Sunset Song,” “Pastoral with Variations,” and “Rustic Dance.” The titles fit the music closely. The first piece flows with gentle nostalgia and has a crepuscular quality that is enhanced by fairly mild dissonances. The second opens with an old-fashioned-sounding theme that Terzian says dates to medieval times. The variations are straightforward, well-constructed and nicely contrasted among themselves. The third piece is a short (two-minute), rather Bartókian dance, strongly rhythmic but with a stop-and-start quality that gives it a kind of angular quality resolved, at the end, with a speed and decisiveness somewhat reminiscent of the conclusion of the great Hungarian composer’s Concerto for Orchestra – albeit on a far more modest scale. This is a highly satisfying release of music possessing considerable power and communicative substance, performed with élan and giving listeners interested in music of the 20th century a chance to hear some particularly well-made examples of it.
April 02, 2020
“Peanuts” Collection No. 14—Snoopy: First Beagle in Space. By Charles Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.
Creature Campers #2: Surprise under the Stars. By Joe McGee. Illustrated by Bea Tormo. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.
Undersea Mystery Club #2: Trouble with Treasure. By Courtney Carbone. Illustrated by Melanie Demmer. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.
Although Charles Schulz died 20 years ago, the characteristics that made Peanuts so special are every bit as evident now as they were during the strip’s remarkable half-century run. The latest Peanuts collection offers some especially interesting ways to become aware of that, because it focuses on strips associated with space travel – the first moon landing itself is now a 50-years-ago event – and includes, at the very end, six strips from the 1950s that show Schulz’s long-term interest in the heavens above and the way he handled material (and character design) in the early days of the strip. The main portion of the book includes all the usual characters having their usual opinions. Lucy decides that “the whole solar system needs adjusting.” Linus reads in a book that the moon moves away from Earth at the rate of about five feet per hundred years and comments that “I thought it looked a little farther away than before.” Snoopy declares himself “a great believer in our space program” because astronauts have discovered that there are no spiders on the moon. And Charlie Brown reassures a worried Snoopy that the moon will not fall on his head during the night. All the concerns and frustrations are entirely in character for the Peanuts cast, and that is one reason the long-running strip remained so excellent for so many years: it was low-key character comedy, an ensemble piece that could center for a time on any individual while having the others temporarily in his or her orbit. In the latest collection, for example, Charlie Brown’s enormous baseball expertise – that is, his ability to lose every single game in which he participates – is put to the test when top athlete Peppermint Patty lets him pitch when her team is leading 50-0 and there are two outs in the final inning. Charlie Brown accidentally hits her with a ball, so she has to go home, and when she later finds out the result of the game, it turns out that her team lost 51-50. That is just as much a part of Charlie Brown’s life as his never-ending quest to kick the football held by Lucy (one of those failures appears in the latest book). As for Peppermint Patty’s life, it revolves around sports – there is a sequence here in which she decides to become a pro golfer so she can avoid school until she is rich and famous, although her plan does not quite work out. However, she does discover that she enjoys a book – Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, an 1865 novel more familiar in the mid-20th century than it is today – and tells her teacher, “Thank you for forcing us to read it.” Elsewhere, Lucy decides that a picture is not worth a thousand words – only 810. And in a typical exchange with Beethoven fanatic Schroeder, Lucy reads from a paper she is writing, “Beethoven was born in 1770. He never played hockey.” It is true that some elements of Peanuts have not stood the test of time: Schulz did occasionally make specific references to people or events that were highly familiar in past decades but are comparatively obscure now. But thanks to the careful selection of strips in Snoopy: First Beagle in Space and other posthumous collections, what comes through again and again is how much of the gentle, somewhat wistful, slightly dark humor of Peanuts is just as enjoyable today as it was when Schulz first created it.
Schulz was by all accounts modest and unassuming, and the many later cartoonists he influenced have said he was never one to seek fame for himself or his creation. The situation is quite different with many creators today. For example, the avowed intent of “Epic! Originals,” an Internet-based reading platform for kids that now has some creations in traditional book form, is “to nurture a lifelong love of reading and learning in kids everywhere.” Certainly that is a laudable goal, but it tends to result in works whose lessons are laid on a bit too thickly and a touch too simplistically – even for kids in the 5-8 age range, for whom two new “Epic!” books are intended. These are second entries in (+++) series called, respectively, Creature Campers and Undersea Mystery Club. And the new books assume that kids are already familiar with the settings established in the initial volumes. This is especially true in the case of Surprise under the Stars, because there is not even a single page explaining who the campers are and how the ill-assorted (but supposedly well-assorted) group came to be. Readers will either have to pick things up in snippets as the book goes on or refer back to the previous volume to understand how a human (Oliver) has ended up at a camp in the same group as a bigfoot (Norm), a fairy who has trouble flying (Wisp), and a rather hyperactive jackalope (Hazel). The camp is run by a gnome (Grumplestick); the group’s counselor is an alien (Zeena). The characters’ appearances define them and become part of the “lesson” element, which is all about accepting and reveling in differences and learning how everybody (and everything) has different but equal skills that blend perfectly with everybody else’s (and everything else’s). The story, which gets going immediately, has to do with learning map and compass skills by following clues that require cooperation. For example, a map shows the number of footsteps needed to get to various places, but whose footsteps? Also, it is necessary at one point to catch (and release) a bullfrog, but who is best suited to do that, and how? Hovering just beyond most of the scenes is a non-frightening bad guy named Barnaby Snoop, who collects creatures for his carnival, is determined to capture Norm, and of course is thoroughly incompetent (and inclined to talk directly to the reader). The book’s climax involves Barnaby almost catching Norm, but instead being rescued by him and the other campers, and deciding by book’s end that maybe he should be nice instead of nasty. The way that plays out, if it does, will be the topic of the next book. Everything here is so earnest, so well-meaning, that it more or less asks adults for praise – which, however, is not quite the same as earning the kind of admiration that someone like Charles Schulz obtained through careful planning and long-term diligence.
The second Undersea Mystery Club has a specific lesson of its own to teach: history is important, the past matters, and today’s young people will enjoy learning about things that happened long ago if they will only focus on them instead of on the topic of the moment. Actually, Trouble with Treasure is careful not to criticize modern kids’ predilections in any way – one reason these series are a bit saccharine is that they do not really suggest that anything they favor is “better” than anything else, since that would apparently be too judgmental for “Epic!” The protagonists in Undersea Mystery Club are a mermaid named Violet and her buddy, a narwhal named Wally. The plot of Trouble with Treasure is designed as a “teachable” moment from the beginning: during spring cleaning, Violet sorts out her old drawings and photos to be thrown away; her mother says that is a bad idea, because history is important; later, Violet and Wally find a treasure chest that turns out to be a time capsule from their town, Aquamarina; everyone is happy to recover the town’s history; and Violet realizes how important it is to stay in touch with the past. After the story ends, there are several pages explaining what historians do and why they are important – and suggesting that kids make time capsules of their own. Undersea Mystery Club goes even further than Creature Campers in its determination to guide and instruct readers and get them to accept and appreciate specific things that they might otherwise be disinclined to care about. Trouble with Treasure is as much a lecture as a story: it is certainly well-intentioned, but whether the thin plot and little-developed characters will be enough to convince young readers of the joys of paying attention to history is very much an open question.