January 21, 2021

(++++) DECADES OF DECADENCE

Dbury@50: The Complete Digital Doonesbury. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $125.

     What a difference a decade makes – and what a difference it doesn’t make. For the 40th anniversary of its syndication in 2010, Doonesbury appeared in a gigantic 695-page slipcased book at the then-exceptional price of $100, laid out as a series of 18 focuses (each with its own explanatory introductory pages) and containing an excellent central four-page foldout that both narrated and showed the tremendously complex web of relationships among the amazingly broad range of characters in the strip. And all this was done while downplaying the political focus for which Doonesbury had so long been known – since, after all, everyday politics plays mighty poorly for insight, much less humor, many years after the events and the participants in them are more-or-less forgotten.

     Fast-forward to the 50th anniversary of the start of Doonesbury in syndication on October 26, 1970, and you get an entirely different form of presentation that is very much in tune with modern ways of offering comics (that is, electronically) and modern ways of referring to just about everything (the name “Doonesbury” takes up so many letters). This is Dbury@50, and the only thing that hasn’t changed very much is the price: $100 in 2010 equals $119.17 in 2020, which remains excessive but does not really seem all that out-of-the-ordinary anymore – a typical cell phone price in 2010 was $199, equal to $236.81 in 2020, and that is decidedly low-end now, when the average price of a phone is about $580. So by some measures, Dbury@50 is quite a bargain.

     That depends, of course, on what is being measured. Doonesbury is a polarizing strip that has sometimes been placed by newspapers on the editorial page when its political stances have become a bit too hot for comics-page editors to handle. It is scarcely the first strip to have been treated this way: Walt Kelly’s superb Pogo, for example, ran afoul of editorial sensibilities as far back as the 1950s, and it too was sometimes exiled (if you can call it that) to the editorial pages. But Garry Trudeau (trivia: his first name is actually Garretson) tends to use a sledgehammer politically, while Kelly was more inclined to employ a stiletto – for instance, when Kelly was told not to let Communist-pursuing Senator Joe McCarthy show his face again in Pogo, Kelly drew a caricature with the face entirely covered by a speech balloon whose verbal style perfectly captured McCarthy’s way of speaking. Trudeau has never done anything that subtle or pointed – nor has he wanted to.

     In reality, the political material in Doonesbury is the least inventive and most predictable portion of the strip: the sentiments are reliably liberal and thoroughly lacking in the subtlety of thought that Trudeau brings to non-political societal matters. Above all, the political strips become dated very quickly, which is why politics was largely absent from the 40th-anniversary collection. But societal progress, in technology if not necessarily in other areas, has made it possible to understand and even appreciate the political side of Doonesbury – even for those who have no idea what Trudeau was talking about all those years ago and may not have been born yet. This is because Dbury@50 is not a book at all, although it contains a book. It is, instead, a multimedia presentation, offering all 15,000-some-odd Doonesbury strips from October 1970 through the middle of 2020 on a flash drive (protected by a neat screw-on cap and attached to a handsome woven lanyard for effect). But that’s not all! There is also a 16-inch-by-20-inch poster showing 63 of the strip’s main characters and the year in which each was introduced (the jacket copy for the package says there are 64 characters portrayed, so one is apparently invisible, or someone could not multiply seven rows of characters, containing nine characters per row, and come up with 63). But that’s not all! There is a book here – a spiral-bound User Manual that takes readers…well, ok, users…through the strip year by year, explaining what happened from 1970 onwards and providing a list by week of the primary topic of all the daily and Sunday strips.

     It’s nice to have a little fun with the elaborate and actually rather elegant packaging of Dbury@50, because the whole production seems to take itself so seriously – although the narrative material does not, and can be as much fun as the strip itself. However, one thing missing in Dbury@50 is introspection: Trudeau’s drawing style noticeably, dramatically, vastly improves with time, but nothing in this package indicates that his view of life (or politics) has changed very much in half a century. That makes Dbury@50 a highly attractive retrospective offering but not a particularly insightful one. Still, longtime readers and newly honed ones alike will discover some seminal and some crucial-in-context elements here if they only pay attention. There is, for example, the strip from May 1973 in which a campus radio host, talking about then-attorney general John Mitchell during the Nixon/Watergate years, addresses Mitchell’s legal problems by suggesting he is “guilty, guilty, guilty” – a very modest comment by 21st-century standards, but one that caused a huge uproar in its day. And there is the April 2004 strip in which the very first central Doonesbury character, who is not Michael Doonesbury but football player B.D. (named, or rather initialed, for a Yale quarterback), loses a leg while fighting in Iraq – and, equally astonishing to longtime readers, is seen without his helmet for the first time ever. There are many, many moments like these among an even larger number of less-trenchant strips and some that come across as propagandistic and rather simple-minded. Which are which? That is left as an exercise for the reader – or rather the reader-and-flash-drive-user.

     Like the very differently packaged 40th-anniversary Doonesbury collection, the new Dbury@50 reflects the times in which it appears even as it reflects back on the times through which Trudeau has marched (and occasionally lurched) the strip. Trudeau has long been a wonderful storyteller when he is not sidetracked by political exigencies, and there are ways in which he is more innovative than he sometimes gets credit for being – not in the political sphere but in the structural elements of the strip, from having characters narrate their own stories (an early and very interesting concept) to bringing utterly fantastic creations into the “real” world (such as Mr. Butts and Mr. Jay, underground-comics-inspired personifications of tobacco and marijuana smoking, respectively). Whether Doonesbury survives the apparently inevitable death of (or at least dearth of) newspapers and makes it through another decade or not, Trudeau has produced an astounding and often fascinating volume of work that fully deserves the splendor of the presentation it receives in Dbury@50. But speaking of the dependence of Doonesbury on the fast-fading newspaper industry, it is accurate, if a bit churlish, to point out that if you stand up the handsomely designed, distinguished-looking box in which Dbury@50 is packaged and look at it from the front, focusing on the bright white lettering that elegantly adorns it, the whole thing looks remarkably like a tombstone.

(++++) MATCHLESS MUSIC, WELL-MATCHED PIANISM

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32 (complete). Konstantin Scherbakov, piano. Steinway & Sons. $49.99 (9 CDs).

     One positive thing that the year 2020 brought was a mass of excellent releases of Beethoven’s music on the 250th anniversary of his birth. In addition to “complete” sets purporting, more or less accurately, to present all the music he ever wrote, there were innumerable issues and reissues focused on his symphonies, piano concertos, string quartets, etc. etc., etc. – and, of course, his piano sonatas. And among the highest-quality and most compelling recordings of the sonata cycle is the nine-disc Steinway & Sons release featuring Russian pianist Konstantin Scherbakov.

     This is not a cycle focused on historically informed performance: Scherbakov unashamedly uses a modern concert grand and does not hesitate to bring forth its tonal and expressive capabilities when he believes they add to the impact and understanding of the music. However, this is an exceptionally carefully-thought-through cycle, reflecting not only Scherbakov’s comprehension of the music and comfort with its many technical challenges, but also his perception of Beethoven’s compositional progress throughout the sonatas: Scherbakov recorded the works in order between October 2019 and June 2020, they appear in numbered sequence on the discs, and there is a definite sense of development and continuity here that makes Beethoven’s experimentation – when it comes – all the more apparent and impressive.

     Certain elements of Scherbakov’s performances are scarcely a surprise: the technical mastery, the generally quick tempos that are almost always quite convincing, the ability to bring out left-hand and right-hand focuses with equal adeptness, the strength of chords and willingness to play them very forcefully indeed. Other elements, though, come as a pleasant surprise: many listeners do not realize how often Beethoven ended his sonatas softly, but Scherbakov skillfully draws attention to the times this occurs, with the result that when Sonata No. 32, the last of them all, ends both its movements quietly, this seems altogether fitting and a capstone for the cycle. By the same token, Scherbakov very skillfully makes the sonatas that are in only two movements – the early Nos. 19 and 20 (both of which he plays seriously and refuses to trivialize) and the later Nos. 22, 24, 27 and, yes, 32 – sound complete and as well-thought-out as the three-movement and four-movement ones. Scherbakov also treats every sonata as a character piece of its own, never allowing the less-known ones to be given short shrift simply because they are heard less frequently than the most famous pieces. Thus, Sonata No. 13, Op. 27, No. 1, which comes between the “Funeral March” and “Moonlight,” gets an exceptionally fine performance here that fully justifies Beethoven’s indication that it should be played “Quasi una fantasia.” And the unnamed Sonata No. 16, Op. 31, No. 1, comes into its own here and shines just as brightly as No. 17, Op, 31, No. 2 (“Tempest”) and No. 18, Op. 31, No. 3 (“The Hunt”).

     Scherbakov’s handling of Sonata No. 16 also brings out something specific that many performers underplay or miss altogether: humor. The second movement of this work, marked Adagio grazioso, is exceptionally funny, a parody of the overdone styles of other composers of Beethoven’s day and of Italian opera in general. The movement – Beethoven’s longest slow movement except for those in Sonatas Nos. 29 and 32 – is full of unneeded cadenzas, overdone technical display and multiple cascades of ornamentation. Scherbakov handles it with exactly the right light touch, refusing to try to make it any more serious than it is. The result is exhilarating and provides a wonderful counterbalance to the many much more serious elements in Beethoven’s sonatas. The exuberant handling of the first three sonatas, Op. 2, is another of the many instances when Scherbakov’s willingness to present the sonatas light-handedly pays substantial dividends.

     Where Scherbakov sometimes misfires a bit is in the best-known sonatas, as if he is determined to put his personal imprimatur on hyper-familiar music and perhaps trying a bit too hard to do so. Thus, in No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2 (“Moonlight”), he interrupts the flow repeatedly by holding notes just a touch too long. And he employs similar mannerisms, such as holding back briefly before proceeding to the next phrase – not always, but occasionally – in No. 21, Op. 53 (“Waldstein”) and No. 23, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”). In the latter case, though, the overall performance is so praiseworthy than it seems like carping to notice the small instances of inelegance. Scherbakov is also exceptionally thoughtful in most of the late-period sonatas. No. 28, Op. 101, is a standout, and No. 31, Op. 110, is also highly impressive, despite somewhat overdone bass octave sforzando playing – a consequence both of Scherbakov’s interpretation and of the sound of a modern piano. No. 29, Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”) does not fare as well: often accused of simply going on too long, that is how it sounds here, with a very intense and driving first movement and a somewhat too-heavy-sounding second-movement Scherzo – although the playing in the concluding Fuga is exceptionally clear. Scherbakov also tosses off the variations that conclude No. 32, Op. 111, with trills that sound nearly effortless – testimony to his remarkable technical prowess.

     The Beethoven 250-year celebration proved to be far less than it would have been if 2020 had not also been a year of pandemic and international societal upheaval. In fact, Beethoven’s music can be and ideally would have been a unifying force for the disparate elements so often at odds, and even at war, throughout the year: that is how Leonard Bernstein handled Symphony No. 9 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to cite just one famous example. Troubling events unfortunately got the better of most of humanity during the 250th-anniversary year, leaving the uplift and affirmation of Beethoven – including some music, for piano and other instruments, in which he is clearly heard progressing from illness to health – with insufficient impact. Over time, though, Beethoven’s struggles and successes will surely become transcendent again, and that means that performances such as Scherbakov’s Beethoven piano-sonata cycle will resound and impress, and will move audiences, far beyond the tumultuous time period in which these recordings were made and released.

January 14, 2021

(+++) AGAINST TYPECASTING

When Sharks Attack with Kindness. By Andrés J. Colmenares. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     Sharks represent so much to so many people. In the main, they are fearsome creatures, top predators, unstoppable marine killers, to be avoided if possible, killed if necessary, and feared at all times. These are the sharks of Jaws and its innumerable sequels and spinoffs. At other times, they are fascinating creatures about which much remains unknown, cartilaginous fish dating back 400 million years, a thousand species of which many remain virtually unstudied. These are the sharks of scientific inquiry. At still other times, in a far more lighthearted way, they can be comic-strip characters with strong personalities that bear zero resemblance to anything in the real world but that make for all sorts of amusement as the cartoon sharks interact with many other underwater creatures that also bear zero resemblance to anything real. These are the sharks of Jim Toomey’s long-running, ecologically aware Sherman’s Lagoon – and, in a very different way, of Andrés J. Colmenares’ Wawawiwa Comics, from which the new collection, When Sharks Attack with Kindness, is drawn.

     Talk about playing against type: Colmenares here creates an entire book (indeed, actually an entire strip) in which sharks are sweet, kind, loving, helpful and friendly – and surrounded by lots of other sweet, kind, loving, helpful and friendly marine creatures, all sporting rather realistic-looking bodies with not-realistic-at-all smiling faces. Although a great white shark is central to the strip and the book – Toomey’s central character is also a great white – Colmenares also peoples his world (and “peoples” is the correct term for characters as anthropomorphic as these) with a hammerhead, a whale shark, and critters ranging from octopus and jellyfish to penguin, polar bear, seagull, pelican, clam (yes, a smiling clam), and even a “sea human” who explains at the outset that he is “not supposed to be here.” Well, not if “here” is underwater, where the strip takes place, but the little boy fits neatly if “here” is a realm where kindness rules and all interactions are modest, sweet and non-threatening.

     This all sounds a little too good to be true, and indeed there is something a bit treacly about When Sharks Attack with Kindness, whose message is essentially the same on every page. However, Colmenares’ sincerity and nicely honed drawing style keep the book interesting, and even though the amusement here is mild, the book is amusing – and that is worth something. In one strip, the great white shark is seen in typical tooth-showing terrifying pose, but turns out only to be waiting for his morning cup of coffee. In another, the shark urges a catfish not to eat a slice of pizza, but the catfish eats it anyway, ending up pizza-slice-shaped (essentially a triangle), and the shark says, “You’ve changed species” – to which the reply is, “Totally worth it.”

     A lot of the strips in When Sharks Attack with Kindness do lay on the supportive and positive elements a bit too thickly and obviously. For instance, there is the strip in which a young shark complains that he is bad at drawing because he can only make a bunch of wavy lines, so the main great white shark swims in with a compliment: “Wow, buddy! You drew an ocean!” For another example, the great white takes his friend, a pilot fish, to see “my most valuable treasure,” and they are seen swimming toward a treasure chest piled high with gold. Then the shark indicates what is next to the treasure chest and says, “It’s the rock where we met!” A little of this niceness goes a long way; a lot of it goes, well, a bit too far, even during a time period when we can all use as much niceness as we can possibly get.

     Colmenares is so darn well-meaning, though, that it seems churlish to complain that he is somewhat too sweet – given all the things in life and the world that are a great deal too bitter. So When Sharks Attack with Kindness works as a counterbalance to a lot of the mean-spiritedness that the book’s readers surely deal with on a regular basis. Seen that way, as an antidote for nastiness and negativity, Colmenares’ pleasantries are a great deal more welcome than they might otherwise be. The electric eel that helpfully recharges the great white’s cell phone, the birthday candles that turn out to be happy angler fish, the flounder whose “good side” is the one with both his eyes visible – these become characters showing readers a kinder and gentler way to view things than is usually available in the not-undersea world. And from time to time, Colmenares comes up with notions that are cute and funny enough to produce a genuine chuckle, as when the big (adult) great white advises the small (young) great white to “try to reach for the stars,” and the young shark responds to the clichéd advice by picking up several starfish and saying, “Done! Now what?” When Sharks Attack with Kindness may not be great cartooning or great thinking, but these days, any heaping helping of kindness is more than worth its weight in – well, in pearls, like the one Colmenares shows inside a clam, even though pearls actually grow in oysters. Shhhh…don’t say anything about that. Be kind.

(+++) THE USES OF PASTICHES

The Little Tin Box: A Collection of Childhood Memories. The 5 Browns. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Vivaldi: Argippo. Emőke Baráth and Marie Lys, sopranos; Delphine Galou and Marianna Pizzolato, contraltos; Luigi De Donato, bass; Europa Galante conducted by Fabio Biondi. Naïve. $20.99 (2 CDs).

     Thematically related but somewhat thrown-together musical programs can be a lot of fun to listen to, provided that the audience finds their overall themes congenial. The Little Tin Box is a highly personal presentation by the 5 Browns (Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody and Ryan) of music remembered from childhood and, in the case of these top-quality pianists, likely performed then: each of the five started studying piano at the age of three. The memories are sanitized, with the Steinway & Sons release calling them “a reclaiming of [childhood’s] sweetness and beauty” involving “finding greater meaning in the light by having survived the dark.” The three female siblings were sexually abused by their father for nearly a decade, so their assertion of positive childhood memories through this music has something that is more than a touch plaintive about it. However, the music itself has little in it that is bittersweet: most of it is familiar encore-like material, either written for solo piano and arranged for the 5 Browns or created for orchestra and heard here in piano arrangements. It is not necessary to know the “through darkness to light” undercurrent of the CD in order to enjoy it – indeed, it may help not to know it, since the music is mostly plain and simple and is played expertly and without apparent chiaroscuro. The 5 Browns are heard individually as well as in two-piano and five-piano arrangements. The works include Smetana’s Vltava (Die Moldau); Grieg’s Anitra’s Dance from Peer Gynt; Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca from the K. 331 solo sonata and Allegro con spirito from the two-piano sonata K. 448; Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum from Debussy’s Children’s Corner; Emile Waldteufel’s Skater’s Waltz; the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5; The Current, a work written and played by Ryan Brown; Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses from the second book of pièces de clavecin; five of the 13 Kinderszenen by Schumann; and a delightful (but, in context, somewhat odd) improvisation by Desirae’s six-year-old daughter, Poppy Luch, called I Wish I Could Turn Back into a Kid. The pleasant pastiche feeling of the recording makes specific comments on its contents somewhat irrelevant. The flowing-water material in the Smetana may not sound particularly convincing when heard on five pianos; the very slow start to Rondo alla Turca and the jazzy improvisations within it are scarcely Mozartean (although the movement from the two-piano sonata is first-rate); Beethoven’s Fifth is delivered with high drama and contrasts nicely with the comparative calm of The Current immediately afterwards; Schumann’s Bittendes Kind (“Pleading Child”) takes on unintended darkness in this context, and the simple beauty of Träumerei (“Dreaming”) comes with more seriousness than the music itself holds; and it is hard to know how to respond to the concluding I Wish I Could Turn Back into a Kid – Poppy’s voice, introducing it, is full of enthusiasm; the music itself is scarcely significant except in context; and the underlying sentiment, again in context, is a trifle puzzling. The title The Little Tin Box speaks to the concept of opening a tinkly little music box and hearing whatever melodies may emerge from it – a sweet notion, and one that fits this mishmash of a musical mixture well enough. The disc, for those who can hear it strictly on the surface level with which the music is delivered, is quite enjoyable. For those who, knowing something of the family history of the 5 Browns, cannot hear it that way, the CD is jarring in ways that neither the composers nor the performers could have intended.

     Pastiche was actually a musical form of its own for a time: it was a common and respected approach to opera in Vivaldi’s era, and a form that Vivaldi himself used. To create pasticcio, an impresario/composer would assemble material from multiple composers, write some connective-tissue music, work from a libretto that could itself have elements of hodgepodge about it, and have the resulting assemblage performed by itinerant opera companies. This is how Vivaldi’s pasticcio opera Argippo (1730) was offered in productions in Vienna and Prague. The original version of the opera is lost, which makes the work fit rather uneasily into Naïve’s long-running and always excellent Vivaldi Edition, which is designed as a set of presentations of Vivaldi music held at the National University Library of Turin. But awkward or not, the Vivaldi Edition has now made a version of Argippo available as the 64th entry in the two-decade-long series – the numbering itself being a trifle odd, since this two-CD set comes out later than the 65th release, Il Tamerlano, which itself has elements of pasticcio through its inclusion of arias by other composers: Geminiano Giacomelli, Johann Adolf Hasse and Riccardo Broschi. Argippo as heard in this recording is a critical edition prepared as recently as 2019 and including in its 19 arias music by Giovanni Battista Pescetti, Johann Adolph Hasse, Nicola Porpora, and others. Bernardo Ticci, who reconstructed the opera from manuscript material, has produced about as coherent a work as can be expected in a Vivaldi-era pasticcio or, for that matter, in some of Vivaldi’s own operas – which is to say, it is not very coherent at all. The libretto by Domenico Lalli overflows with the same elements heard in many operas of the time by Vivaldi and others: political and personal intrigues, family rivalries and conflicts, lovers’ passion and misunderstandings, and outsize emotions that overflow and are by and large over-the-top. This is the stuff of which opera, especially Italian opera, would consist for hundreds of years, so the improbability of Argippo is largely irrelevant to the quality of its music – much of which is very high-quality indeed. Among the high points are the always-reliable Delphine Galou singing an aria di furore in Act I, Se lento ancora il fulmine, and Marie Lys warmly presenting an Act III love tune, Vado a morir per te. Fabio Biondi directs the singers and the ensemble Europa Galante with skill and a determination to keep the music plowing bravely ahead even when the plot thickens or thins for little reason, as it does repeatedly. The result is a recording that will be of considerable interest to Vivaldi fans and to listeners interested in some of the byways of operatic history, even though Argippo is not, in and of itself, particularly noteworthy. It does, however, demonstrate that contemporaries of Vivaldi were as capable as he was of producing effective operatic material – and that Vivaldi could function with considerable skill as a musical assembler and theatrical producer, not just as a composer.