October 15, 2020

(++++) AH, FAMILY LIFE!

Breaking Cat News 4: Elvis Puffs Out—A “Breaking Cat News” Adventure. By Georgia Dunn. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

100 Ways Your Two-Year-Old Can Hurt You: Comics to Ease the Stress of Parenting. By Chen Weng. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     The ins and outs of living with kids and/or animals have always been of interest to cartoonists – and as anyone who does live with kids and/or animals is aware, a lot of things that happen in everyday living are very funny. And those that are not would benefit from being thought of as funny – a humorous perspective goes a long way when you are tired, stressed, overcome and overwhelmed by the needs and demands of children, pets or both. Some contemporary cartoonists have found new ways to plumb the depths of family life while skimming the surface of its more-serious elements. In a few cases, such as the Breaking Cat News series by Georgia Dunn, the artists have even figured out how to create comics that will appeal to kids while also having something to say to adults. The fourth of Dunn’s collections, Elvis Puffs Out, is best read by people (from preteens to adults) who already know the cast of characters from the three earlier books. That is because the basic setup is assumed here rather than explained, and some of the recurring characters have “back stories” that it helps to know when following their adventures this time. Still, it is possible to read this fourth book on its own – but if you do, be prepared to want to track down the earlier ones for a better sense of everything that is going on. The foundational premise here is that the Man and the Woman and their two children share their household with three cats named Lupin, Elvis and Puck, and the cats – who are nattily dressed in TV-anchor-or-reporter-style clothing – have their own Cat News Network that reports on matters of interest to cats (such as food, outdoor weather conditions, cats that live in another apartment in the building, troublesome mice that are “local rodent criminal masterminds” and somewhat resemble the thieving Beagle Boys of old Disney comics, and more). Using news-studio settings and remote cameras, to which the Man and the Woman are oblivious, the cats report on household events from a feline perspective, each cat displaying unique personality traits as well as a distinctive appearance and set of expressions (Dunn handles those particularly well). The adventures are, from a human perspective, mundane, but the “feline angle” on them makes them amusing and enjoyable. For example, after a big snowstorm blanks out the view through the home’s windows (“cats woke up today to find everything gone”), a tiny kitten turns up in the snow; and while the humans arrange with a friend who runs a cat rescue to take care of the little one – and end up agreeing to foster her – the cats take her into the fold as a news intern. She soon proves to be more determined and dynamic than anyone expected, and a better organizer of office supplies than Lupin, Elvis and Puck could have anticipated. The different but overlapping realities of humans and cats are a big part of the fun here. For example, the new kitten, Beatrix, keeps moving a particular plant a short distance along a shelf, for reasons that the Man and the Woman cannot understand, assuming this is just a cat thing. It turns out, as the friendly owner of a local bookstore explains when coming to visit the family, that “a maidenhair fern shouldn’t be in direct sun,” which is what Beatrix has been trying to show all week. A fine friendship soon ensues, leading to Beatrix becoming a “bookstore cat,” because she cannot stay with the Man and the Woman (who had to get special permission to have three cats: apartment rules allow only two). This then leads to additional Cat News Network reporting based at the bookstore, and – well, this is the pleasantly meandering, always amusing, sometimes heartwarming way things go in the Breaking Cat News adventures. Like the earlier books, Elvis Puffs Out is a great antidote to the dismal news reporting that goes on in the real world.

     Although both younger readers and adults will enjoy Dunn’s comics, the ones by Chen Weng are strictly for grown-ups – specifically, parents. Essentially, what Weng does is to chronicle, observe and comment on her own family’s life through cartoons that generally feature caricatures of herself, her husband and her children against a plain white background, ruminating on elements of being a family with kids or simply trying to cope with everyday realities. Parents will surely recognize many of the uncertainties and struggles in 100 Ways Your Two-Year-Old Can Hurt You, some of which are tied directly to the realities of 21st-century life. There is, for example, the “learn patience” talk in which cartoon Chen tells her daughter, “wait for your birthday” for a much-desired item, because “delayed gratification is a virtue” – after which, in a drawing labeled “later,” an infuriated cartoon Chen (red-veined eyes practically popping out of her head) is railing against Amazon’s two-day shipping because “I want it TODAY.” So much for that lesson. For lessons of a different sort, there are multiple then-and-now entries here. For example, “Packing for Vacation” contrasts “When I Was Young” (huge suitcase containing a different outfit for every day) with “Now” (big suitcase for kids’ stuff, tiny personal adult bag containing one pair of jeans, one pair of comfortable shoes and one warm jacket). And then there is “Noise,” in which a loud “thump” in the days before kids scares cartoon Chen and her husband into defend-our-home mode – with the fright even greater “after kids” when “it’s been quiet for an unusual amount of time.” Also here are several multi-page “First and Second” entries, showing different parental responses to the first child and the next – under “Hygiene,” for example, feelings go from being sure everything is “washed, sterilized, and air-dried” for baby No. 1 to noticing how funny it is that baby No. 2 is licking the floor. As for the book’s title – well, there may not be a full 100 ways a toddler can hurt her parents, but cartoon Chen and her husband experience a fair number, with each presented based on “weapon” and “target” and ranked with up to five stars for “damage.” For instance, the “weapon: feet” and “target: face” scene shows an adorable little one sleeping next to mom, then suddenly (while still sleeping) kicking full-force at mom’s nose, causing “damage: four stars.” And “weapon: poop” and “target: respiratory system” shows mom and dad inhaling and holding their breath while getting ready to change a particularly stinky diaper – which, when removed, causes “damage: four stars” in a scene that shows the parents nearly passed out, stumbling and retching and with eyes watering. All right, this sort of thing is an exaggeration – all good cartooning is – but it is not much of an exaggeration, as anyone who has been through this sort of thing (that is, any parent) will know. Weng is far from the first cartoonist to explore family life with a humorous touch and try to make some sense of the whole experience, and she will surely not be the last. But her immediately recognizable drawing style, and her considerable cleverness in rendering everyday activities in ways that are just unreal enough to give them an edge, result in a really delightful (and not at all mean-spirited) look at the many challenges (and some of the joys) of raising young children. There may be 100 ways a toddler can hurt parents, but Weng’s book is one way to help parents feel better fast.

(++++) HOW DIFFERENT IS IT?

The Best 386 Colleges, 2021 Edition. By Robert Franek with David Soto, Stephen Koch, Aaron Riccio, and the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/PenguinRandomHouse. $24.99.

     The four most-dangerous words on Wall Street are said to be “this time it’s different,” showing the folly of trying to out-guess the stock market and investors as a group by intimating that the fundamentals of investing have been upended by some dire event or other (or even some positive event or other). It is tempting to apply the same thinking when it comes to higher education: every year is different in some ways, but thinking that the overall field and the criteria for judging individual colleges have fundamentally changed is a mistake. Yet this year is different for the long-running The Best 386 Colleges book from The Princeton Review, and not just because last year’s book contained 385 colleges. Nor does the difference lie in the sorts of everyday tweaks that are customary in any long-lasting project, such as the decision this year to create a new “best” category called “Best Counseling Services.” Two of the top five schools in that category are, unsurprisingly, special-purpose military academies: the U.S. Military Academy and U.S. Air Force Academy. But the other three – Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt University and Washington State University – may get extra attention from families this year because of what really is different: the COVID-19 pandemic.

     Among the many elements of everyday life upended by the pandemic is education, including college education; and the ways in which adjustments have or have not been made is not always obvious. For example, colleges do have overhead costs for maintenance of their campuses and to pay their staff (academic and non-academic alike), which means they have a strong financial incentive to bring students to campus – thus creating a conflict with the need to create the safest possible environment for education, which is quite obviously a distance-learning model. The result is a lot of hybrid education (some done at a distance, some in classrooms), combined with the now-standard precautions involving frequent cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces (and people!), social distancing, mask wearing, and the rest of pandemic-driven life. This is certainly a good year for The Princeton Review to create that “Best Counseling Services” category, since the psychological effects of the pandemic will likely be deeper and longer-lasting for many people than its physical effects.

     Yet even within this pandemic-tainted year, The Best 386 Colleges has managed to retain some stability of approach and presentation, and that is one area in which its value lies. What is different now is the way families are likely to handle the book’s information. Aside from giving weight to “Best Counseling Services” and the similar “Best Health Services” list (also featuring the U.S. Air Force Academy and U.S. Military Academy but in this case including Kansas State University, University of Utah and Rice University in the top five), families should look closely at categories such as “Best-Run Colleges” for a sense of which schools may be most able to adjust to pandemic-caused disruption (the top three in that category are Elon University, Vanderbilt University and Rice University). On the other hand, families may pay somewhat less attention to the “Best Classroom Experience” list (top three: Reed College, U.S. Military Academy, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering) at a time when classrooms are less central to the overall learning experience than they usually are. Similarly, “Best College Dorms” (top three: High Point University, Washington University in St. Louis, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering ) may be less important now than in the past. And in light of the significant spread of COVID-19 under circumstances that involve crowding, families may want to be extra-cautious about the top “Party Schools” (University of Alabama—Tuscaloosa, University of Delaware, Syracuse University) and ones where “Students Pack the Stadiums” (Arizona State University, Syracuse University, Auburn University).

     What is interesting about this, though, is that these changes in usage patterns are, foundationally, simply a revised instance of using The Best 386 Colleges as this book series has always been used. The “best” lists toward the front also include some “worst” lists: “Best Campus Food” is followed by “Is It Food?” and “Town-Gown Relations Are Great” by “Town-Gown Relations Are Strained.” And there are useful matter-of-opinion lists as well: “Most Conservative Students” and “Most Liberal Students,” “Most Religious Students” and “Least Religious Students,” and so forth. Every single list – as in previous years – serves as a starting point for families with their own hopes, worries, concerns and, yes, fears to use to explore individual schools in much greater detail in the two-page sections devoted to each one. Those pages are packed with information, as always, with everything from selectivity data to filing deadlines to financial facts and figures to the very helpful “applicants also look at and often prefer,” “and sometimes prefer,” “and rarely prefer” notes – giving families that may have heard of College X or may want to look at it for geographical reasons a cross-listing of others worth considering (or likely not worth considering). What The Best 386 Colleges does so well is to throw a lot of information, from numerical data to student opinions to comments by the colleges themselves, at prospective students and their families. There is so much here that the book can be overwhelming, but it is highly useful if the material is used as intended. The book does not point any individual student to any individual college; it never has. By intent, it is an unequaled starting point that families can use to explore a high-quality subset of the list of 5,000 or so U.S. colleges – getting plenty of information that will allow students and their families to narrow their search still further through that most time-honored approach, additional self-guided research. As it turns out, although “this time it’s different” in academia because of the depredations of the pandemic, it is reassuring to discover that thanks to the clarity and consistency of approach of The Best 386 Colleges, it is not in fact that different after all.

(++++) TRANSCRIPTION RATIONALES

Hummel: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano; Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 20. Aurélia Visovan, piano; Anna Besson, flute; Cecilia Bernardini, violin; Marcus van den Munckhof, cello. Ricercar. $18.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 0, transcribed for organ by Erwin Horn; Overture in G minor, transcribed for organ by Rudolf Innig; Philipp Maintz: choralvorspiel LI (kyrie XI, orbis factor – brucknerfenster I). Hansjörg Albrecht, organ. Oehms. $14.99.

     There were excellent reasons in the 19th century to take works that are now considered canonical and transcribe, rearrange and generally (by modern standards) do violence to them and to the composers who conceptualized them in specific ways. In the lifetime of Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) – student of Mozart, friend and sometime rival of Beethoven, famed virtuoso pianist in the days just before the super-virtuosi such as Liszt entered the limelight – orchestral concerts were few and far between. Access to the concerts was limited and often difficult. Travel to the concerts was time-consuming and sometimes impossible. Recordings did not exist. There was simply no way for most people to hear “canonical” works, which at the time were anything but commonly known and certainly not universally acknowledged as masterpieces. But this was also a time when amateur musical performances, both for the nobility and for the growing middle class, were increasingly common – a time when being a cultured European citizen meant playing at least one instrument at least passingly well. And thus Hummel, as a small but important part of his musical production, created versions of Mozart and Beethoven works that could be played at home or in small spaces by reasonably talented amateurs – spreading the word, spreading the music, in the only reasonably effective way available. The Hummel transcriptions are uniformly well-done, sensitive to their creators’ intentions, and produced with the adeptness of a composer who was quite skilled in his own right. These transcriptions are no longer “needed” for their original purpose, which has long been supplanted by recordings and easy access to live performances. But for their insight into the original works as they were seen in or near their own time, and for the simple pleasure of hearing skillful chamber-music reductions of wonderful music, the Hummel transcriptions are decidedly worthwhile.

     One of Hummel’s efforts that appears on a new Ricercar CD is especially creative and, in its own way, rather amazing: Hummel’s transcription of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, the amazing and deeply moving C minor piece that is the only piano concerto that Mozart ended in the minor key rather than the relative major. Hummel was here faced with a significant problem in needing the pianist to be both the soloist and a member of the accompanying quintet – and his solution is quite delightful, if (by modern standards) rather sacrilegious. Hummel used his own skill as composer/pianist to rewrite the concerto’s solo part into a more-virtuosic one – something more typical of the early Romantic era. He takes the piano through a wider range, a full octave above Mozart’s, and creates a whole series of embellishments and ornaments (especially noticeably in the slow movement) that very effectively distinguish piano-as-soloist from piano-as-ensemble-member. In the process, the changes alter the feeling and effect of the concerto – and not to its betterment, by the standards of a time when it is very well-known. But that was not Hummel’s time, and when this transcription was done, it surely seemed more a tribute than a graffito. It is quite fascinating to hear in Aurélia Visovan’s performance, doubly so because she plays it on a fortepiano of Hummel’s own era: a very fine Conrad Graf instrument dating to 1835. This is historically informed music-making at its best, providing a wonderful connection with a time long past and with music in a form long since supplanted – but filled with charms all its own. Also on the disc is Hummel’s transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, a more-respectful arrangement that hews more closely to the original because it can hew more closely to it: there is no dual role for the piano here, and Hummel can (in the main) simply give the wind parts to the flute, the string parts to the violin and cello, and the total-ensemble material to the piano. Even here, though, Hummel-as-composer finds small ways to emphasize elements that are clear in the full-orchestra version but would be difficult to communicate with only four instruments: he changes the flute line at the start of the symphony, for example, better to reflect an orchestral sound that the quartet cannot by itself duplicate. Anna Besson, Cecilia Bernardini and Marcus van den Munckhof play in fine chamber-music form with Visovan in both the Mozart and Beethoven transcriptions, both of which turn out to be worth hearing on their own in addition to offering listeners a kind of musical time travel. And the disc also includes one of Hummel’s own works, which helps put his transcription skill into perspective: his fantasia-like F minor sonata, Op. 20, which uses the darkness of its minor key quite differently from the way Mozart used C minor and which mixes early-Romanic intensity with a level of classical poise that Hummel retained throughout his compositional life. Unfortunately, this recording omits the exposition repeat in the first movement, offering it only in an alternative online version of the music. This was done, supposedly, because the repeat would not fit on a commercial CD – but CDs are no longer strictly limited to 80 minutes, and while this one does indeed run just under 79 minutes without the repeat, it would last only 82 with it, and that should no longer have been an issue. In any case, Visovan performs this dramatic and emotive sonata very well, and in it, Hummel shows how thoroughly he understood the abilities and limitations of the fortepiano of his time, using its capabilities to their fullest effect. This is a distinctive and unusual disc – and an unusually interesting one.

     The reason for transcribing Bruckner’s symphonies for organ is harder to come by – in simple fact, there is none. But that is not stopping various musicians from doing so anyway, and a new Oehms CD featuring Hansjörg Albrecht playing the Bruckner-Organ at the Stiftskirche St. Florian in Linz, Austria, is in fact projected to be the first of a series featuring all the symphonies except the “No. 00” that was written when Bruckner was a student. It is certainly true that Bruckner was himself an organist, and more famous as one, at least for a time, than as a composer. It is also certainly true that Bruckner’s symphonic style frequently has him using the instruments of an orchestra as if to duplicate organ sonorities: both his use of dynamics and his handling of orchestral sections show his familiarity with the organ and are evidence of his uniquely “organ-like” approach to symphonic construction. Yet despite these factors, it is undeniably the case that Bruckner wrote very little music for organ, only about half a dozen pieces. It was for improvisation on his chosen instrument that he was known in his time, and his improvisations have not been passed down. So this brings back the question of transcribing Bruckner symphonies for organ – and in truth, the only answer to “why?” is that performers like the idea of trying it. Matthias Giesen, for instance, transcribed Symphony No. 5 and recorded it, and that was an impressive endeavor even if, objectively speaking, a somewhat unjustifiable one. In the same way, this new set of Albrecht performances, which intends to use various organs with which Bruckner was associated, is fascinating in its own right, even with no very solid reason for being. Interestingly, Symphony No. 0 – composed after No. 1 but withdrawn by the composer – sounds quite good on the organ in Horn’s transcription, and Albrecht does a fine job of selecting registers and sonorities that reflect the emotional ebb and flow of the music. Pairing the symphony with the Overture in G minor, one of the composer’s student works, is an intriguing decision, allowing listeners to hear – perhaps more clearly on the organ than in the orchestral versions – just how far Bruckner had progressed between 1863 and 1869, the year he composed the symphony. Just to make this production even more interesting, it includes the first of what will be 10 newly created contemporary compositions collectively to be called “Bruckner Windows,” each by a different 21st-century composer and each planned to accompany the symphony with which it appears. The one by Philipp Maintz is certainly well-thought-through, incorporating material from some of Bruckner’s own Mass settings and producing a choral prelude that is effective enough, if perhaps a bit studied (or over-studied). As a five-minute break between the overture and symphony, though, it serves well enough, and adds to the attractiveness of a CD that is, on the surface, entirely wrong-headed, but despite that is very worthwhile to hear and will be of considerable interest to dedicated Brucknerians.

(+++) 20 TO 30 FINGERS, ONE TO THREE KEYBOARDS

Liszt: Two Scenes from Lenau’s “Faust”; Dvořák: Slavonic Dances Nos. 1, 2 and 8; Gounod: Love Duet and Waltz from “Faust”; Benjamin Godard: Berceuse from “Jocelyn”; Bizet: Overture from “Carmen”; Milhaud: Le Boeuf sur le toit. Zeynep Ucbasaran and Sergio Gallo, piano four hands. Divine Art. $18.99.

Luigi Dallapiccola: Musica per tre pianoforte; Ahmet Adnan Saygun: Poem, Op. 73; Server Acim: Fikir Hücreleri (Idea Cells); Edson Zampronha: S’io esca vivo (If I Escape Alive); José Zárate: Petit Nocturne Noir; Kamran Ince: Requiem for Mehmet. Zeynep Ucbasaran, Miguel Ortega Chavaldas and Sergio Gallo, pianos. Divine Art. $18.99.

     Sometimes the sheer quality of music-making makes a disc worth having even if the repertoire is on the light side and scarcely unfamiliar. Zeynep Ucbasaran and Sergio Gallo are such a wonderful piano-four-hands team that their new Divine Art offering of music by Liszt and Milhaud, with a few shorter works thrown in to fill out the disc, is a genuine pleasure. This is true even though the CD is rather oddly arranged: it has a distinct Faustian focus, but with material scattered somewhat arbitrarily. The two comparatively substantial Liszt works are heard first; then the three short ones by Dvořák; then the arrangement of O nuit d’amour from Gounod’s Faust; then the pleasant little Berceuse by Godard (1849-1895), that composer’s best-known work; then the Bizet; then Gounod’s Faust again, the opera’s famous waltz this time; and finally the delightfully jazzy Milhaud work, a piece more on the scale of Liszt’s. Ucbasaran and Gallo seem very much at home in the piano-four-hands material here, playing everything sure-handedly (so to speak) and complementing each other in exactly the right way to make these versions of the works as effective as possible, even if none comes across quite as well as in their more-familiar orchestral guise. The Liszt pieces are standouts: Der nächtliche Zug is far less familiar than Der Tanz un der Dorfschenke, better known as Mephisto Waltz No. 1, but both are excellently illustrative of their material (drawn from a Faust verse drama, not from Goethe’s version) and played very impressively. The more-lyrical short pieces also come across quite well: Slavonic Dance No. 2, Godard’s Berceuse, and the Gounod waltz. Where the performances pale a bit is in the brighter and more-upbeat or more-intense material: Slavonic Dances Nos. 1 and 8 could use more verve, the Carmen overture has less exoticism and menace than it can possess, and Milhaud’s often-silly foray into distinctly jazz-inflected composition really needs more insouciance and faster pacing than it gets here. The absence of familiar orchestral touches is also felt especially acutely in the Bizet and Milhaud works, in which the instrumentation is responsible for a considerable amount of the effect and effectiveness of the music. Ucbasaran and Gallo make a formidable piano-four-hands team, and the quality of their playing will be enough to endear this recording to pianists and to listeners who enjoy hearing the piano played with considerable aplomb, if not always with abandon.

     Joined by Miguel Ortega Chavaldas, Ucbasaran and Gallo offer a recital of a very different kind on another Divine Art disc, whose audience will likely be somewhat limited by the nature of the repertoire – but, again, certainly not by the very high quality of the playing. This CD bears the title “The 3-Piano Project,” and that designation helps explain the unusual material it offers: neither the works nor their composers (from Turkey, Brazil, Spain and Italy) will likely be well-known to most listeners. The attraction here involves listening to a little-used instrumental combination, since “ensembles” of pianos are something of a rarity: with the exception of the 5 Browns, there are no well-known groups specializing in multiple-piano offerings. The paucity of three-piano compositions is of course part of the reason for this; and while several of the works on this CD are interesting enough, at least in part, none is sufficiently compelling to make it likely that three-piano groups will spring up as regular concert or recital features. The best-known composer here is Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975), whose fame rests on his serial compositions but who was doing some aural exploration even before he wholeheartedly embraced the Second Viennese School. Musica per tre pianoforti, also called Inni (“Hymn”), is one of Dallapiccola’s earlier pieces, dating to 1935, and it shows considerable command of writing for the piano. The first movement is comparatively straightforward, but the second, with its deep, grumbling opening, shows what can be accomplished in the three-piano vein, and the third, which opens with a single line and gradually layers on greater and greater sonic complexity, is a fascinating blend of lightness and chordal strength. The other major piece on this disc is Poem by Ahmet Adnan Saygun (1907-1991), which here receives its world première recording. It is a pleasant enough work, well-constructed and attentive to the interactions among the three pianists, and it manages a degree of lyricism despite its use of sometimes-acerbic 20th-century compositional techniques. But it has a hesitant quality about it, as if not quite sure how poetic it wants to be, and it does not sustain especially well over its 15-minute length. The remaining four works here are shorter and less ambitious. Fikir Hücreleri by Server Acim (1961-2019) stops and starts at irregular intervals and does indeed seem to be a series of “Idea Cells” rather than anything developed in any significant way. S’io esca vivo by Edson Zampronha (born 1963) is scalar and repetitive, its dissonances used to no particular purpose. Petit Nocturne Noir by José Zárate (born 1972) is suitably moody and dark, slow-paced and repeatedly fading to silence, the reasons for its need for three pianos being less than apparent. Requiem for Mehmet by Kamran Ince (born 1960) is, in contrast, big-boned and strongly scored, dramatically portentous from the start and quite determined to use the full sonic capabilities of the three instruments. Unfortunately, it never really goes anywhere: it keeps hinting that it will, that it is building up to something, but all that happens, eventually, is a kind of dissolution. The attraction of this disc lies in its concept (three pianos) and the quality of the performances (excellent), but much less so in the music itself. Except for Dallapiccola’s work, nothing here is gripping enough or sufficiently intriguing in its use of the pianos to make a listener wish for a great deal more three-piano material of the same kind.

October 08, 2020

(++++) FROM CUTE TO CLEVER AND BEYOND

Calendars (wall for 2021): Carbe Diem! The Art of David Olenick; Suki the Adventure Cat; Mutts. Andrews McMeel, $14.99 each (Carbe, Suki); Abrams/Andrews McMeel, $14.99 (Mutts).

     The choice of a wall calendar for the coming year is different from the choice of a desktop planner, which is primarily a functional book and only secondarily an artistic one, and also different from the choice of a page-a-day calendar, whose relatively small size and frequent changes of display mean that if any particular page misfires in its effect, there will be another one soon enough. Wall calendars, though, take up prominent and highly visible space in a home or office (or home office), and each display confronts the viewer for an entire month, so every one of them had better be something worth living with for one-twelfth of the year. Fortunately, there is no shortage of 2021 wall-calendar choices created or distributed by Andrews McMeel, which means there are plenty of ways to make your walls attractive for a year that will hopefully be much pleasanter than the year 2020 has turned out to be.

     As a matter of fact, you can start decorating your walls with an eye toward a better future immediately if you choose new calendars from David Olenick or landscape photographers Martina Gutfreund and Kenneth Hildebrandt – because their offerings are 16-month wall calendars, with the final four months of 2020 on one page and individual pages for each month of 2021. If your tastes resonate to these forms of expressiveness, you can indulge them as soon as you like. Olenick’s calendar is called Carbe Diem! It is a celebration of contemporary absurdities in the form of talking carbohydrate-rich foods (most of the time) and various shapes or critters (the rest of the time). Olenick likes to draw huge googly eyes on pretty much everything, and he manages to make them amusingly expressive in a wide variety of ways. For example, one month in the calendar features the all-too-familiar admonition to “Eat Your Greens!” But this is no typical guilt trip: all six smiling green foods are sweets, from a hard candy to a lollipop to a frozen ice pop. Another month has a similar urging: “Eat More Hole Foods!” But notice the spelling “hole.” The recommendation this time is coming from a smiling, pink-icing-with-sprinkles doughnut. A big, happy slice of cake shows up on this calendar as well, saying, “Shut up. It’s my cheat day.” Now that’s a message for a full month! And there are non-carb comments here as well, such as the especially clever one that goes with the four-months-of-2020 page. It shows two metal screws, one of them having gone fully down into a surface and one still sticking most of the way out of it – with that one saying, “Sorry, I screwed up.” That’s punny as well as funny. And then there is the December cartoon of two Christmas tree bulbs, one green and one red, with the following dialogue: “‘Working over the holidays?’ ‘Off and on.’” That takes a moment to register and is just right when it does. The amusements here are chuckles rather than belly laughs, and they are all good-humored and not a bit snarky or sarcastic – making them a real relief from far too many comments on far too many events of everyday life.

     Another way to get beyond everyday living is to join Suki the Adventure Cat on a photographic journey to – well, to 13 different beautifully pictured places, one for the last four months of 2020 and the rest for the months of the new year. Suki is a Bengal cat with striking green eyes and an expression that always says, “I am attentively looking around and studying this place and finding it fascinating.” This is a completely wordless calendar, and its beautiful landscapes are as big an attraction as Suki is. Suki’s humans are Canadian, and a number of the photographs accordingly show the cat amid Canadian scenery, but this feline is definitely a world traveler – or at least, for 2021, a traveler around North America (Canada, the U.S., and Mexico). One photo shows her beautifully framed by one of the famous stone arch formations in Utah. Another portrays her on a Mexican beach, with palm trees picturesquely displayed in the background. One of several photos from Alberta, Canada, shows Suki amid a field of yellow flowers that contrast interestingly with her tawny coloration. Another, especially striking pose in Alberta has Suki perched atop a rock outcropping with a beautiful blue lake behind and beneath her and mountains farther in the background – and with Suki’s upward gaze making it look as if she is searching the skies. Somewhat similarly, there is a Suki pose at Dead Horse Point, another attraction in Utah, but in this case the background is a set of canyons and arroyos that are typical of the area and that complement Suki’s coloration to very fine effect. Gutfreund and Hildebrandt have obviously taken Suki to plenty of places that are highly attractive on their own – and adding Suki to the geography produces an effect beyond the landscapes themselves, one that cat lovers will enjoy as wall art throughout the coming year.

     Combine cartooning in the Olenick mode with a cat in the Suki mode and you get something a little bit like Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts, one of the great comic strips of recent times and the most animal-friendly of them all. The cat Mooch and dog Earl are the central characters in this tremendously charming, heartwarming and exceptionally well-drawn strip, in which McDonnell shows, again and again, how carefully he has studied not only the history of comics and cartoons but also a considerable amount of museum-worthy fine art. These soft-pedaled, exceptionally well-drawn tributes to great art of all kinds show up primarily in the Sunday “title panels” of Mutts, which unfortunately do not always show up in the 700 newspapers that run the strip. Those start-of-strip panels connect only slightly with the story lines of the Sunday strips and are expendable if papers, which are shrinking at a continuing and alarming rate, do not wish to run them, for reasons of space. But book collections of Mutts, of which Andrews McMeel has published many, are very much enhanced by these panels – and the 2021 Mutts calendar from Abrams offers a full year of them. McDonnell is often inspired by Oriental art, as in a wonderful panel based on Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” which McDonnell renders with his character Crabby the crab within the wave’s curl. Western art gets its due as well, as in a beautifully drawn bedroom scene, featuring both Earl and Mooch, that pays tribute to Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom.” In fact, McDonnell’s inspirations are legion: one delightful panel shown in the 2021 calendar features Earl, Mooch and several other Mutts characters posed in front of seven stylized cobras and an equally stylized sunburst, the whole thing having been inspired by the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s album cover for “Axis: Bold as Love.” Art is where you find it, and McDonnell finds it everywhere – and makes it his own through his exceptional drawing skill and unusual attentiveness to form, color and detail. He is himself a remarkable artist whose medium just happens to be comics. The 2021 Mutts calendar offers a full year of large-size Sunday title panels combined with a generous number of complete Mutts strips contained within each month and carefully positioned on each full-month-of-dates page. The combination is just delightful, giving lovers of cats, dogs, comic strips, fine art, artistic skill, and animals in general a year-long visual feast – more than enough pleasure, hopefully, to balance whatever trials and tribulations 2021 may bring, which (also hopefully) will be far fewer than those dumped on the world’s doorstep in 2020.

(+++) COURAGE, REAL AND FICTIONAL

Generation Brave: The Gen Z Kids Who Are Changing the World. By Kate Alexander. Illustrated by Jade Orlando. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

Creature Campers #3: The Wall of Doom. By Joe McGee. Illustrated by Bea Tormo. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.

     Every generation has its heroes; every generation needs them. Every generation comes to its own conclusion that we are not living in “the best of all possible worlds” (apologies to Voltaire) and sets out in search of ways to bring Earth closer, if not to Utopia or Paradise, then to a better Earth. Of course, every generation defines “better” differently, which is one reason for the so-called (or used-to-be-so-called) “generation gap.” So things are not very different for Generation Z, usually defined as people born between 1997 and 2012. Yet of course things are different for this group, just as every group before them encountered apparently intractable problems and deemed those different from what previous generations had dealt with. What is interesting now is that instant worldwide communication has enabled young people to gather followers by the thousands or more in a very short time period – “virtual” followers, anyway – and promote their version of a better world to people everywhere. (OK, not to places where communication is banned or heavily censored, such as China, North Korea and Iran, but more widely and more quickly than has ever been possible before.) Generation Brave offers members of Generation Z a hagiographic look at young people who are making or trying to make a significant difference in five areas: “Challenging the System,” “Creating a Safer World,” “Stopping the Clock on Climate Change,” “Lifting Each Other Up,” and “Taking Care of Each Other.” The divisions are quite arbitrary and certainly overlap, but they give Kate Alexander a way to subdivide the book for a generation not known for its long attention span or inclination to read old-fashioned books at all. And each portrait of a person or group is kept quite short, with just three pages of text and a full-page drawing by Jade Orlando. Since “diversity” (a malleable concept) is itself one of the causes promoted by Generation Z activists, Alexander is at pains to present people of all genders (the notion of “all” rather than “both” genders being itself a Generation Z cause), many countries, and multiple races and backgrounds. The portrayals are in many cases of groups rather than individuals: “The Students of IntegrateNYC,” who demand that New York City provide “a diverse and inclusive environment for all students”; “The Newtown Activists” and “The Parkland Survivors,” fighting for tighter restrictions on U.S. gun ownership; and others. And then there are the individuals. A few are well-known enough to be inevitably included in the book, such as Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. But some who are not household names are often more interesting, such as Fionn Ferreira, who won the 2019 Google Science Fair for his method of removing microplastics from water and says he wants “to get other people inspired to look at creative thinking and creative ways to solve problems.” That mature and inclusive sentiment contrasts strongly with the rabble-rousing of some others profiled in Generation Brave, such as clean-water advocate Autumn Peltier, who says that “kids all over the world have to pay for mistakes we didn’t even make,” which has been true of every generation. Some activists take a very direct us-vs.-them position, such as those who unquestioningly advocate the so-called Green New Deal no matter what its cost and no matter how many (older) people’s livelihoods it destroys. Others have a far more nuanced and less confrontational approach: “LGBTQ+” advocate Sameer Jha, who is half Indian and half Pakistani, sees the U.S. as a source of hope and pride rather than a fount of evil, saying, “As a queer person of color who traces my heritage to a country in which homosexuality is punishable by death, I want to use my privilege as an American citizen with a supportive family to raise awareness and fight for the people who can’t.” Although it is impossible to predict which people and which causes in Generation Brave will ultimately succeed – no generation has a 100% success rate – it is likely that the young people who demonize their elders and their countries will do far less well than those who enlist members of earlier generations to assist in solving problems that may be extremely difficult but that need not be intractable when people of multiple generations work together rather than at cross-purposes.

     If only real life were as simple as fiction! But one of the pleasures of fiction is that it does simplify matters and thus make them bearable. Besides, it can provide a means of escape, however briefly, from real-world difficulties into ones that are far more manageable. That is what young readers get in the Creature Campers series in its celebration of differences (among species, not just humans), forthright advocacy of teamwork, and assertion that even bad guys are basically all right at heart and can be converted to goodness. The setting of these books is a camp whose denizens include Oliver, a human boy; Norm, a young Bigfoot; Wisp, a fairy who can barely fly because of a wing problem; Hazel, a jackalope; counselor Zeena Morf, an alien; and camp director Furrow Grumplestick, a gnome. Also present is Barnaby Snoop, a nefarious (but not too nefarious) collector of unusual species, especially Bigfeet. In the second book, Snoop was rescued by the campers from a problem largely of his own making, so he shows his gratitude in The Wall of Doom by providing unseen help to the young people as they negotiate an obstacle course whose elements, Grumplestick insists, all involve “doom” (but they really don’t, as Zeena Morf points out). All the campers have to do is negotiate some monkey bars that pass above a lot of mud; get through a set of half-buried tires whose openings become smaller and smaller as the course progresses; and climb a wall that has the habit of not always being visible. The catch is that they have to do all this while blindfolded – that is, all but one must wear blindfolds, giving each camper a chance to get the others safely through and prove his or her leadership ability. It is a simple plot and a simply written book, with no really major challenges or difficulties present – only minor ones that Barnaby Snoop, flying above the course in a hot-air balloon that everyone is conveniently unable to see at the crucial moments, readily helps the campers overcome. A funny climactic scene involving “a rare red-bellied flying porcupinesnake” lets Barnaby use his knowledge of strange and unusual creatures to good effect and then lets the campers rescue him yet again, with the book ending as the onetime bad guy is appointed the camp’s “newest animal expert.” The idea here is to keep everything light and amusing while teaching the importance of bravery, teamwork, self-reliance, and a willingness to help others – a set of lessons that results, inevitably, in everything turning out just fine for everybody. That is about as far from a real-world outcome as it is possible to get, but it makes for light and pleasant reading before the inevitable necessity of a return to real life.

(++++) STRINGS IN TWO CENTURIES

Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-5; Adagio for Violin and Orchestra, K. 261; Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 269; Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373. Baiba Skride, violin; Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Eivind Aadland. Orfeo. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Szymanowski: Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 9; Andrzrej Panufnik: Piano Trio, Op. 1; Grażyna Bacewīcz: Sonata No. 4 for Violin and Piano. Huberman Duo and Huberman Piano Trio (Magdalena Ziarkowska-Kołacka, violin; Sergei Rysanov, cello; Barbara Karaśkiewicz, piano). Divine Art. $18.99.

     There is something pert and perky about the way Baiba Skride handles the cycle of Mozart Violin Concertos, something wholly in keeping with the spirit of music that Mozart wrote mostly as a teenager. Skride’s touch is quite light and her willingness to take the music at considerable speed, as in (for example) the final Presto of Concerto No. 1, lends a fleet feeling to the material that in no way trivializes it but allows it to flow joyfully and without any of the introspection that Mozart was later to employ in his concertos (the piano ones) to such telling effect. The violin concertos are elegant trifles in Skride’s hands – or perhaps not quite trifles, but divertissements that flow constantly with beauty and ease and allow the soloist some chances to display virtuosity but none to over-extend herself or over-deepen the musical communication. Skride’s cadenzas (Mozart did not leave any of his own) are very much in this spirit: they are brief, true to the movements within which they appear, and virtuosic – but not to an extent that would lead to thinking of them as “display pieces.” This is not a period-instrument performance, and some of the brightness of the readings surely comes from the higher tuning employed in modern practice; but in spirit, the readings seem very much in keeping with the18th century. Skride plays a superb Stradivarius that has absolute evenness of tone throughout its range, and the three dozen members of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra complement her in truly wonderful fashion: Eivind Aadland and the engineers of this Orfeo release achieve absolutely perfect balance between soloist and ensemble, with precise miking that brings complete clarity to every instrument and allows Skride to spend most of her time as primus inter pares, first among equals. There is almost a feeling of the Baroque concerto grosso in the first two concertos, with the violin’s increasing prominence, starting with Concerto No. 3, coming across as a significant and very logical development. Skride emphasizes this change by altering the form of her cadenzas beginning with the first movement of No. 3: they become somewhat more extended and complex. But not too much so – this is a subtle change, as indeed is the overall development of the concertos themselves. And there is never any doubt that these are youthful works, largely untroubled and optimistic, designed for listeners’ pleasure as well as for Mozart’s own enjoyment in performing them. Indeed, both Skride and Aadland, although certainly serious in their approach to the material, bring a combination of warmth and relaxation to the music that makes the concertos seem like works performed by good friends for an audience of colleagues and close acquaintances. It is the kind of music-making encountered more often in chamber-music recitals than in concertos and other orchestral works, and it makes the concertos into a truly shared experience between performers and listeners. This is especially evident in the movements that contain surprising contrasting sections, the finales of Nos. 3 and 5: Skride and Aadland are genuinely playful in the suddenly appearing Andante in the last movement of No. 3, and they bring out the strong contrast between the Alla turca section of the conclusion of No. 5 and the remainder of the movement. The brightly bouncing cadenza in the first movement of No. 4 is another highlight. Actually, there are highlights aplenty throughout this recording – not only in the concertos themselves but also in the three additional single-movement works: K. 261 is an alternative slow movement for Concerto No. 5, K. 269 is an alternative finale for No. 1, and K. 373 is Mozart’s last work for violin and orchestra – even though it dates only to 1781, when the composer was 25. All in all, the verve, balance, careful phrasing, and rhythmic vitality of this Skride/Aadland collaboration serve the music exceptionally well.

     For fine violin playing of a different kind, in service of some very different music, listeners can skip from the 18th century to the 20th and hear a new Divine Art recording featuring chamber works by three prominent Polish composers, performed by two or all three members of the Huberman Piano Trio. The best-known composer here is Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), represented by his D Minor Sonata for Violin and Piano of 1904 – a work as youthful in its way as Mozart’s violin concertos are in theirs. The Szymanowski way in this earliest of his chamber compositions is clearly in the process of abandoning Romanticism and almost escaping traditional tonality. Cast in the traditional three movements (the second combining slow-movement and Scherzo elements), the sonata is front-weighted, the opening Allegro moderato full of violin expressiveness that never quite allows lyricism to enter the sound world. However, in the Andantino tranquillo e dolce, which begins in much the same mood in which the first movement concludes, there is a certain amount of genuine tranquility and perhaps even sweetness – although the chromaticism gives the material an edge, as do the pizzicato passages that are well-contrasted in this recording with the legato ones. The finale has some characteristics of perpetuum mobile and a variety of nervous-sounding tremolo effects that highlight the violin’s thorough dominance of the material – the piano is distinctly subsidiary in this sonata, although it often helps ground the violin, allowing it to produce flights of fancy. Three decades separate this sonata from the 1934 Piano Trio, Op. 1 by Andrzrej Panufnik (1914-1991), but this trio too is a work of its composer’s youth. Panufnik revised the work in 1977, and the Huberman Piano Trio uses that version, but the compositional explorations of a young man still come through clearly. The trio takes some of the elements of Szymanowski’s approach a good deal further, lying easily within what had by the 1930s become standard forms of modernism. But it actually seems more comfortable with old-style Romanticism than Szymanowski does in his sonata, as if the clear break from that tradition is now so firmly ensconced in music that it is acceptable to return to it to produce a certain number of effects. Panufnik’s trio is also strongly influenced by jazz, which throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s was such a significant element of classical composition. The piano riffs in the Presto finale, for example, show the jazz influence quite clearly, as does the trio’s overall rhythmic fluidity, which sometimes makes the music sound improvisational even though there is nothing aleatoric in it. The flourish at the work’s very end seems entirely in character for the piece as a whole. Also on this well-played CD is the highly interesting Sonata No. 4 for Violin and Piano by Grażyna Bacewīcz (1909-1969). This is a four-movement work from 1949 that incorporates mid-20th-century notions of tonality, rhythm, and instrumental contrast, but does so in a context that, like that of Panufnik’s trio, is not averse to looking back at the Romantic era. That is especially evident in the second movement, an Andante ma non troppo that sounds both emotional and expansive in this recording and that is then very nicely contrasted with the Scherzo: Molto vivo that follows. That movement is almost Mendelssohnian in its lightness and scurrying, although scarcely so in its harmonic palette. The finale of this sonata balances the first movement effectively – this is the only work on the CD that does not have a dominant opening movement – and the concluding movement’s Con passione marking is taken seriously here, lending the finish a degree of intensity that would not be out of place in Romanticism, even though the actual sound of the material is very much of its time. Whether interested in Polish music, 20th-century chamber pieces or simply in very fine small-ensemble playing, listeners will find much to enjoy here, including a presentation in which violin, cello and piano are all handled with a very high level of skill and a great deal of involvement in the music.

(+++) DELIGHT AND CONFUSION

Lehár: Cloclo. Sieglinde Feldhofer, Gerd Vogel, Susanna Hirschler, Ricardo Frenzel Baudisch, Daniel Jenz, Matthias Störmer, Frank Voß; Chor des Lehár Festivals Bad Ischl and Franz-Lehár Orchestra conducted by Marius Burkert. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     There was a lot more to Franz Lehár than Die lustige Witwe, and the Lehár Festival Bad Ischl is on a determined course to explore just how much more, reviving a wide variety of the composer’s very-rarely-heard works and presenting them with enthusiasm. Lehár was a far more versatile composer than he is usually credited with being, creating – in addition to sonatas, marches, waltzes and symphonic poems – stage works that go far beyond the traditional notion of operetta, and indeed are rather difficult to describe without coming up with new terms to characterize them. Sort-of operettas with sad endings, almost-musical-comedies, operas that are not quite operas – Lehár wrote them all, including six (from 1925 to 1934) specifically to highlight the voice of tenor Richard Tauber, whose training was operatic rather than in anything lighter. The first “Tauber work” was Paganini (1925), and it marked several new directions for Lehár in its focus on the fictionalized life of a famous historical character (later works in the same vein include Der Zarewitsch and Friederike) and in its less-than-upbeat conclusion. While composing Paganini, Lehár almost literally bade goodbye to the lighter comedic fare with which he had been so successful: he interspersed the composition of Paganini with work on Cloclo, which was first performed in 1924 and was to be his final work in his older, frothier style.

     So obscure is Cloclo that it apparently had not been staged since 1971 when the Lehár Festival Bad Ischl put on performances in 2019 – renditions used for the live recording now available on CPO. Whether the nearly half-century wait for Cloclo was worthwhile depends on how much a listener enjoys Lehár and how well audience members speak German – because as usual in Lehár releases from CPO, the performance is exemplary, but the CD production is well-nigh useless for non-German speakers, since no libretto is provided, there is no link offered to one online, the words are simply not to be found, and the very brief summary of the action (three-quarters of a page) gets less attention than the information on the individual singers, actor/narrator Frank Voß, and conductor Marius Burkert. Focusing on the participants in this revival is all well and good, but what is being revived surely deserves a degree of attention – considerably more than it receives here.

     This is a particular shame for Cloclo, because this operetta, light as it is, scarcely resembles others among Lehár’s less-serious works: there is no playing off of two disparate couples against each other and no psychological conflict involving any of the characters. Musically, there are no significant choruses, although there is yet another of those marvelous Lehár waltzes, so suffused with warmth and eroticism, that seemed to flow so effortlessly from the composer. There is also some particularly sparkling orchestration, including Lehár’s first use of saxophones. Cloclo is really a modernized Singspiel, the action carried along by extensive text that frequently lasts longer than the musical numbers between which it is heard. This eventually gets to such an imbalance that, in this performance, the work’s final six minutes include only 40 seconds of music!

     The lack of access to a translated libretto is especially unfortunate in this case, because for Cloclo and other less-known Lehár to have a hope of survival, never mind revival, the wonderful music needs to be accompanied by an understanding of what is going on. In the case of Cloclo, the story is a very up-to-date one for its time – and the music reflects that: Lehár delightfully includes and/or adapts newer dance forms, such as the foxtrot, along with popular tunes. The title character, with the unlikely name of Cloclo Mustache, is an up-to-date young woman of the 1920s, a sexually liberated dancer with bobbed hair and short skirts. She has a young but poor lover whom she supports by getting money from an older, married lover whom she addresses as “Papa,” leading his wife – who accidentally obtains a letter from Cloclo asking for money – to believe that her husband has a child from before their marriage. Since they have no children of their own, the wife decides to “rescue” Cloclo and bring her to live with her and her husband in the country. This results in an amusing series of misunderstandings, at the end of which the truth is revealed and the wife, herself quite an up-to-date thinker, accepts her husband’s misadventures provided that he remain faithful to her in the future.

     So Cloclo is a bit of a bedroom farce and a bit of a commentary on the “modern morality” of a century ago. It is a period piece, for sure, but not a museum piece. It needs to be taken pretty much at face value, perhaps as something of a fairy tale but not as a work of irony or social commentary; it possesses neither of those. To their credit, the performers, as usual at Bad Ischl, appreciate the liveliness, frothiness and silliness of the ins and outs of the plot, not taking anything they are doing particularly seriously but never descending into self-mockery or a kind of “meta” stance on the material. It helps that Burkert, a veteran at handling works such as this, conducts with such fine pacing and such a good feel for the Lehár style, with its warmth, easy flow, and tunes that seem danceable even when not in actual dance forms. Voß keeps the plot points flowing (for those with the ability to follow the language), while Sieglinde Feldhofer as Cloclo and Susanna Hirschler as Melousine play quite well off each other: in some ways, Cloclo is as much about the “wronged” wife as about the young libertine. Gerd Vogel as Severin does a fine job of being caught between the two women, and caught within his own web of deceit; and the other characters handle their smaller roles skillfully. The pleasures and frustrations both abound in this latest Bad Ischl foray into much-less-known Lehár: Cloclo is scarcely a masterpiece, but it is clever, well-paced, amusing and very tuneful. And it would be so much better if people other than fluent German speakers could understand it.

October 01, 2020

(++++) ON THE LIGHTER SIDE

Calendars (page-a-day for 2021): Non Sequitur; Medical Cartoon-a-Day. Andrews McMeel. $15.99 each.

     Since 2020 has been, Lord knows, as unfunny a year as pretty much anybody can remember, it is only natural to want a great deal more amusement in 2021. Nobody can promise that, of course (darn it). But some page-a-day calendars from Andrews McMeel can at least guarantee a small dose of lightness every day of the year, which means that if you tear off the previous day’s page in the morning of the next one, you get to start that day with a smile. What you do with it later, or what it does to you, is a matter beyond the scope of any calendar to arrange. Let’s take what we can get, though, and one thing we can get every year with great regularity and enjoyment is the exceptionally well-drawn, socially observant Non Sequitur, which is often wry but never mean-spirited (hey, you try that: it’s not easy). Created by Wiley Miller, who uses the single name Wiley, the comic strip – most often a single panel, which adapts particularly well to the page-a-day calendar format – claims through its Latin title that “it does not follow,” meaning there is no continuity from day to day. That is not quite true: certain sequences follow the misadventures of a little girl named Danae and her extended family (which includes a “pygmy Clydesdale” horse named Lucy). When Danae and Lucy and others appear, the single panel is subdivided into four, and those four-panel groupings tend to extend over multiple days – as in one offering for 2021 in which Danae falls down the proverbial rabbit hold and, unlike Alice in Wonderland, finds it occupied not by a white rabbit but by an identity-stealing hacker. This is not Wiley’s only nod to modern technological foibles: one day’s panel shows Moses bringing two tablets, as in electronic tablets, down to his people, creating understandable bewilderment. But there is much more here than fantasy-world and biblical matters. Wiley has a way of handling real-life seriousness with skewed humor, as in a panel featuring a corporate boardroom, showing the traditional chart pattern moving downwards, with the chairman listening while being told “critical mass” is approaching regarding “Board members to be held accountable for CEO’s decisions” (and sure enough, most of the chairs around the table are unoccupied). Then there is a variation on the traditional psychiatrist-with-patient-on-couch scene, in which the patient is a pachyderm and the doctor is asking, “Did you ever consider that you’re the elephant in the room?” And the traditional scene at the altar, above the caption “full-disclosure wedding vows,”  where the officiant is saying, “I now pronounce you husband and oversight authority.” And the panel showing “The Willful Ignorance State Fair,” complete with signs pointing toward the “Chocolate Weight Loss Booth” and “Fried Health Food.” That particular cartoon also includes one of Wiley’s periodic forays into a touch of sociopolitical commentary: one sign points toward the “Trickle Down Wealth Ride – Perfectly Safe!” You don’t have to accept the critique to find that amusing – which is one thing that makes Non Sequitur special, since it simply refuses to be nasty even when it has ample opportunities to be. Wiley’s humor is a gift you can give yourself all year with this calendar.

     However, Non Sequitur paints matters of amusement with such a broad brush that it may be a little too non-specialized for anyone who needs a dose of day-in, day-out humor in a specific field. Healthcare is even more in need of a touch of the funny now than usual, which is where Jonny Hawkins’ Medical Cartoon-a-Day calendar comes in. Hawkins is not even close to the artist or wordsmith that Wiley is, but for those suffering daily through everyone else’s suffering, that may be exactly the point in the coming year. It is nice to have something simple and straightforward when everything medical is even more complex and convoluted than usual, and that is what Hawkins offers through his series of one-panel one-liners. It might not seem funny to look at a hospital admissions desk behind which a woman is sitting and telling someone who just came in, “You’re right, Mr. Grant, healthcare costs are skyrocketing and are already astronomical” – but the scene takes on an amusing coloration when you notice that Mr. Grant is an astronaut wearing a spacesuit. Elsewhere, a doctor and nurse stare disapprovingly at a pharmacy wall sign offering “Nacho Cheese Flavored Meds!” Then there is the distinctly overweight fitness-band-wearing man telling his wife, “I get ten-thousand steps in just walking back and forth to the refrigerator.” And the self-proclaimed medical “super-specialist” who announces, “I deliver babies and pizzas.” And the drawing of a stress clinic right next to a “mothers-in-law club” – and yes, that’s unfair, but it is intended to be in good fun (for anyone who remembers what that means). Then there is the cardiologist who is almost late for surgery because he drove and “all the arteries were clogged.” And the dog doctor telling his canine patient with a memory problem, “Bone loss is common at your age.” And the chicken reading a book called “Fear of Frying” – and although that one doesn’t quite fit the “medical” theme, most here do, such as the one that shows a patient arriving on the roof of a trauma center, being brought by “the new Medi-Vac Drone.” In this cartoon world, it also makes sense to see someone who appears not to feel very well going to the “Entomology Division” and finding room doors labeled “Bugs That Are Going Around,” “Butterflies in Stomach,” and “Ants in Pants.” There is nothing particularly profound or even very meaningful in the Medical Cartoon-a-Day calendar, but for anyone involved with healthcare who has been finding a laugh, or even a chuckle, dismally hard to come by recently, this little daily dose of the upbeat may be just the thing to make the days of 2021 at least a bit lighter than those of 2020.

(++++) GAIN AND LOSS

Screentime: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     The final proverbial nail in the proverbial coffin of newspapers may have been driven when Berkshire Hathaway sold its 30 daily and 49 weekly newspapers early in 2020: Warren Buffett has been a vocal longtime proponent of newspapers, particularly for their ability to cover local news with more depth and understanding than other media can or choose to bring to such stories. The papers are not going out of business yet – the group was sold to Lee Enterprises, of which Buffett spoke highly, and that company now owns 75 dailies and about 350 specialty publications. But to buy the papers from Berkshire Hathaway, Lee Enterprises had to get financing from…Berkshire Hathaway. So even though the financing is not a gift but a loan (at 9% interest), the whole thing amounts to Berkshire Hathaway lending Lee Enterprises money to take the newspapers off its hands. And this from a huge company whose chairman speaks proudly of delivering newspapers as a boy.

     It is not just news, local or otherwise, that disappears when newspapers do. Less discussed, perhaps less noticed, but in many ways equally important, the demise of newspapers destroys non-Internet comic strips, one of two quintessentially American art forms (the other being jazz). It has been a long slow downward spiral for newspaper comics, longer and slower than the one for the papers themselves: the size of comic strips inexorably shrank for decades, boosting the market for super-simple, quick-gag strips and ones with art that, to put it politely, is not just simple but simplistic – and therefore easy to shrink (think Garfield and Dilbert). To see graphically (that is, visually, in the way comics themselves do) just what has long since disappeared, it is only necessary to pick up one of Peter Maresca’s Sunday Press books offering reprints of hundred-plus-year-old comics: in one, every single Sunday strip of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo measures 15 x 20 inches. Wow!

     And wow, is that depressing to contemplate while surveying the strips of the 21st century – except for a very, very few, such as Zits. Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman are among the last of the Old Guard cartoonists, and although that probably makes them both feel ancient, it is meant as a compliment. Very, very few cartoonists working today know how to build to a final panel as effectively as Scott does with his ideas and words; very, very few know how to produce art that tells a story and limns its characters as well as Borgman does. Every Zits book – which shows all the strips much larger than they ever appear in newspapers nowadays – confirms anew just how good this strip is, how inventive it remains, how fresh its ideas and drawings are even after almost a quarter of a century (see? Old Guard).

     Zits does keep up with the times, witness the title Screentime, but also has a timeless quality to which anyone who has ever raised a 16-year-old (or been a 16-year-old) can relate. Yes, the new collection has Jeremy agreeing only to text his mom in full sentences, because it takes her too long to look up the abbreviations. Yes, Jeremy finds that he can scroll through social media with either thumb and is therefore “instagrambidextrous.” Yes, mother Connie tries to explain what a postcard is and comes up with the formulation, “It’s like Snapchat on a rotary phone.” Yes, dad Walt tells Jeremy to swat the wasp in his room with something like a newspaper, and Jeremy ends up with “wasp parts on my N.Y. Times app” (that particular newspaper is still around, for now). But up-to-date Zits elements like these coexist with non-time-bound ones, such as a strip in which Sara is worried that she might have a facial wrinkle, Jeremy says they should consult an expert, and he calls his mom over (Connie’s expression is one of the many that Borgman draws with absolute perfection). Jeremy complains that he feels as if he ate a whole buffalo, his mom is concerned and asks what he actually ate, and he says, “Half a buffalo.” The food thing, an ever-present issue with teenagers, looms large in Zits: the strip in which Connie starts to ask Jeremy if he is hungry, only to turn around and see him literally taking bites out of the refrigerator, is a perfect example. The feelings of parents as their kids grow are also a source of continuing amusement, plus occasional levels of real warmth, as in a four-panel Father’s Day strip showing Jeremy at various ages, hugging his dad each time – with the final panel showing Walt standing barely as high as Jeremy’s waist and Connie observing, “Get used to it.” And there is plenty of character-driven comedy (along with touches of seriousness) in Zits as well. Notably, in Screentime, much-pierced and much-tattooed Pierce creates a hover app and sells it for a billion dollars. Yes, a billion. He then uses the proceeds for “giving away three hundred million pairs of prescription eyeglasses to the rural poor in India,” explaining, “If I have a choice between hoarding money I don’t need and helping millions of people, I choose helping.” Pierce is a superb disproof of the notion that weird-looking, bizarre-acting teens have no value and no values. In a later billionaire-related strip, Pierce looks at his phone and complains, “GAH! More stock dividends,” then makes a call and says, “Evelyn, eradicate hunger in another sub-Saharan country, please.”

     It is the writing that makes the Pierce-as-billionaire strips so effective and, in their own way, poignant. But sometimes Zits is purely a celebration of cartoon art. That happens most often in the color Sunday strips. In Screentime, there is a wonderful and hilarious four-panel one in which the first three panels show Connie as overly clingy animals where Jeremy is concerned: a constricting snake, an octopus, and a kangaroo with Jeremy in her pouch (leading to Jeremy’s fourth-panel observation that only one letter separates “mothering” from “smothering”). Just as marvelous and just as creative is a Sunday offering with a huge middle panel showing Jeremy’s many, many expressions and activities as he interacts with his friends and the world. To the left of this panel is a tiny one in which Connie sees him coming home, and to the right of the huge panel is another tiny one – in which Connie asks, “What did you do today, Jeremy?” and her quintessential 16-year-old replies, “Nuthin.’” That is parenting-of-a-teen in a nutshell. It is no wonder that, in a daily strip that sums up so many charms of Zits, Jeremy is telling Walt that he has no real plans for the day, “Just a pool party, paintball fight, burgerfest and a movie,” leading Walt to say to Connie, “I want to be a teenager again,” and Connie to reply, “Why? Aren’t you still tired from the first time?” Now there is a question for the ages, perfectly posed by, to and for the Old Guard.

(++++) PIANISTIC PROWESS

Bach: Goldberg Variations (live and studio versions). Lang Lang, piano. Deutsche Grammophon. $24.98 (4 CDs).

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 20: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120; 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $11.99.

     Lang Lang is a fine pianist, an international celebrity, a humanitarian, and a performer who tends to be deemed above criticism in light of his celebrity status. What he is not is a particularly subtle player: he is more inclined to pound loud passages than to present them judiciously, more likely to over-extract emotion from softer material than to play it in a work’s overall context. Or at least that was the case, for quite a few years. The new Deutsche Grammophon recording featuring two separate performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations shows Lang in a new and much more mature light and marks his emergence as a pianist of attentiveness to the music as well as the technical ability to handle whatever a composer requires of him. The double recording of the Goldberg Variations, both versions from March 2020 (with the live one recorded earlier in the month), seems on the surface like the kind of overdone celebrity focus so common where Lang is concerned. The packaging of the release, which is replete with photos of Lang looking thoughtful, engaged, emotionally involved, and even genuflecting at Bach’s tomb, is a bit of wretched excess of the sort typical in celebritization. But, and it is a major “but” indeed, Lang’s playing of the music transcends the rather tawdry presentation in every way. To get one thing out of the way immediately: it would have been better, and even more interesting, if the release had included Lang playing the piano for one version and the harpsichord (which he does know how to play) for the other. The Goldberg Variations are not piano music, and whatever the value may be of hearing them on a fortepiano or, as here, a modern full-size piano, there is no possible way to present them as Bach intended them to be heard without using a harpsichord. So insistent purists and historically informed listeners will not be happy with Lang’s handling of the music. However, anyone willing to accept hearing the Goldberg Variations on piano will find Lang’s handling, or rather handlings, quite remarkable – even, at times, revelatory. They are also quite different from each other, not so much in total time (the first 16 tracks of the two versions, heard on the first CD of each, are within a single second of each other) but in the feelings communicated by the music.

     In creating a piece designed to relieve a patron’s insomnia and provide a relaxing and involving experience on sleepless nights, Bach did something so remarkable with this work that it never ceases to astound and enrapture: the Goldberg Variations are extremely structured, to the point of being formulaic, yet are so amazingly different from each other that it is difficult to realize that they are variations at all without studying the score or listening to it very carefully. Lang has quite obviously done both those things. His technical pianism is impeccable, as usual, but here it is informed by a sense of the music’s purpose and structure and of the relative importance of the different variations – including the pronounced contrasts among them – that is new for Lang and definitely represents advancement in his musical thinking. The live recording is, oddly, a bit more mannered and stiff than the studio one, a bit more focused on the flourishes and ornamentations that help make each of the variations distinctive. Certainly it is extremely thoughtful when appropriate, notably in the justly famous Variation 25, the longest by far, famously called the “black pearl” of the group by harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. And certainly there is plenty of verve in the more-showy variations, such as Variation 14, with its toccata form and hand crossings, and Variation 17, with its scales and arpeggios. But somehow the studio recording digs a bit more deeply into the emotional heart of the music. Here Lang truly plumbs some depths, not only in Variation 25 but also in the other two G minor variations and in the sarabande of Variation 13. Interestingly, and significantly in terms of Lang’s development as a pianist, none of the emotional effects is achieved by overdoing the pedaling or other capabilities of a modern piano, or by forcing sustaining notes where the harpsichord would not allow them. It is certainly true that Lang’s readings – like any reading of this work on piano – are unable to duplicate in full the effects of contrapuntal passages as played on the harpsichord, or the subtle differences between the variations that Bach marked for a single manual or two. Given those inherent limitations of the piano, however, Lang does a really remarkable job of expressing the beauties and inward focuses of the Goldberg Variations without in any way swooning, overstating, overemphasizing, or otherwise overdoing his presentations of the music. This is a cherishable recording in its own right and, in addition, a remarkable testament to Lang’s development as a performer who is starting to reach beyond technique, beyond celebrity, beyond acclaim, to connect with the greatest music in the most meaningful way.

     Lang is 38 years old, not even half the age of Idil Biret (born 1941), so he likely (and hopefully) has a long way still to grow. Biret would actually make a remarkable role model for him or any younger pianist: she is every bit as technically adept in her new recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, made (like Lang’s recordings) in March 2020, as in her reading of the 32 Variations in C minor, recorded more than 40 years ago. Beethoven’s handling of variations, for which he was famous when he was himself able to perform at the keyboard, is quite different from Bach’s and to some extent on the cusp of the Romantic era, especially in the set based on Anton Diabelli’s rather trivial little waltz tune. Biret, whose “Beethoven Edition” on the IBA (Idil Biret Archive) label was released as a set of 19 discs recorded over a 23-year time span (1985-2008), now has this 20th CD to add to the earlier ones. It is quite a performance, sparkling at some times, subtle at others, filled with amusement when appropriate (as in the variation using material from Mozart’s Don Giovanni), quite serious in the three C minor variations that distinctly recall none other than Bach. What Biret does so well here is to emphasize the highly individual character of each variation while also showing quite clearly the way in which each of them ties to the original theme – something that is by no means always obvious, since Beethoven created variations not only in traditional ways but also through modifications of expressiveness, rhythm and more. For those so inclined, there is fascinating contrast to be had between the way Beethoven and Bach handle similar forms, such as fugue, fughetta and choral prelude. Interestingly, one of the Diabelli Variations, No. 29, directly echoes the Goldberg Variations, making for a most intriguing contrast between the composers. Biret’s handling of the Diabelli set contrasts in many ways with her muscular, no-nonsense approach to the 32 Variations in C minor, which Beethoven himself played in his performing-virtuoso days and which are much earlier than the Diabelli ones: 1806 vs.1823. These are powerful, assertive variations without the intricacy of the Diabelli Variations but with plenty of opportunities to showcase pianistic skill – which Biret has clearly possessed in abundance for many decades. Interestingly, Biret has eschewed the “celebrity-ness” in which Lang revels, as is clear from the contrasts in the packaging of these two releases. The Biret one is simple, with one small photo of Biret (with Wilhelm Kempff in 1958), and with some very basic writing about the music that is not entirely accurate and is sometimes confusing and even self-contradictory (the program notes say the C minor work was recorded in 1977; the back of the package says 1975). The Biret CD (unfortunately) does not even give timings of the individual variations in the Diabelli set, although it lists the tempo indications for all of them. Here the music is very clearly the focus, even though the label is named for the performer and features her. The Lang release is quite obviously designed to focus strongly on the pianist – but thanks to the skill shown on these CDs by both these estimable players, the music ends up being paramount in both cases, which is just as it ought to be.