August 04, 2022

(++++) WALL-TO-WALL ENJOYMENT

Calendars (wall for 2023): Heart and Brain; A Year of Snarky Cats; Coffee. Andrews McMeel. $15.99 (Heart; Cats); $17.99 (Coffee).

     Most people may not repaint or re-wallpaper very frequently, but there is one wall decoration that is easily and enjoyably updated every year: the wall calendar. Never mind the fact that everybody seems to track everything electronically all the time these days – technology has its place, but that place is not on one’s wall. There is something especially enjoyable about changing the look of a room by simply hanging a new calendar there – although, given the fact that the change is quite noticeable, it is important to pick just the right calendar, one that you will enjoy looking at day after day, month after month, throughout the year to come. The good thing is that there are lots of wall-calendar options out there, from the clever to the amusing to the clever and amusing. Heart and Brain, for example, is one of those “combo” types. Nick Seluk’s decade-old comic cleverly imagines our internal organs (specifically those of a blue, furry, bow-tie-wearing character known as “The Awkward Yeti,” who is a bit like Cookie Monster with neuroses) in constant combat, despite their obvious need to work together to keep the body functioning. Although Seluk has, over the years, created anthropomorphic versions of multiple organs (eyes, spleen, stomach, tongue and many more), it is Heart and Brain that remain the center of his cartooning, and they are the exclusive focus of the 2023 version of the Heart and Brain wall calendar. The heart/brain idea works so well not only because Seluk’s conceptualization of the organs is so good – huge-eyed, ever-enthusiastic Heart and spherical pink square-eyeglasses-wearing Brain – but also because the conflicts between the organs are ones with which it is so easy to identify. Heart simply wants to go and do and enjoy without regard to consequences – or even any awareness of them. Brain wants to plan and think and analyze, evaluating everything and being very careful about what the body does, how and when. This 16-month calendar – the last four months of 2022 on a single page, followed by individual pages for each month of 2023 – has several illustrations that fit both cartoon heart-and-brain and real-world heart-vs.-brain situations perfectly. One illustration, for instance, shows Brain atop a ladder, pouring from a container labeled “Hard Earned Money” into a glass jar labeled “Savings” – while Heart has used a mallet to knock a hole in the bottom of the jar and is throwing its contents down a hole labeled “Frivolous Nonsense.” Anyone who does not find that both funny and wry is missing a bit of heart, a bit of brain, or both. And then there is the panel in which Heart tells Brain, “I’m ready to try that one again,” and Brain exclaims loudly (in all caps) that “we can’t go back in time after you make a terrible decision!” Also here are several four-panel offerings, such as one in which Heart unexpectedly announces, “I feel motivated,” and Brain tries to channel that into getting something productive done, only to have Heart explain that “I mean I feel motivated to do nothing today.” In addition to the large single-panel or four-panel presentations atop each month, there are smaller four-panel strips at the bottom: a double helping of Heart and Brain monthly, plus occasional small renditions of the characters within the squares allocated to the days of the month. Walls in homes containing people with hearts and brains will be appreciative of anyone who hangs this calendar on them.

     Homes containing cats are the place for the 2023 A Year of Snarky Cats calendar by Dan DiPaolo. This too is a 16-month item, with one large illustration for the final four months of 2022 and one apiece for each month of 2023. In this case, though, every month gets just a single flair of felinity atop the dates – one that will be instantly recognizable to anybody who shares space with cats (without owning them: no one owns a cat, as cats continuously make clear). DiPaolo has the “cat-eye glance” down pat: these cats do not look directly forward, making eye contact, but off to one side or the other, as if deigning to give the calendar user some attention but never full attention. And the words given to each cat seem like just the ones that real-world cats are already thinking, if not saying: “Let’s play the stop talking game.” “I wasn’t hungry but I see you have sushi.” “Why don’t you have a seat and explain to me why you smell like another cat” – that one featuring a cat wearing glasses and assuming a lawyer-like pose. And then there is the comment that encapsulates felinity-with-humans-present most clearly: “I’m just here to sprinkle happy glitter on your soul – and also control your life.” Well, yes. These cats are certainly snarky, but there is no malice in their snark, just as there is no malice in cats’ habit of tormenting small creatures while satisfying the ancient feline hunting instinct. Snark and hunting are just things cats do, and the fact that DiPaolo has managed to overhear (or imagine overhearing) some of cats’ snarkiness, suitable for contemplation throughout the year, makes this calendar an excellent fit for any home whose cats allow humans to co-occupy the space and operate the can opener. There is even one cat here that manages to mix felinity with being a morning person or not being one: sitting with a steaming cup ready for drinking, this cat is putting forth the thought, “Coffee first – then I’ll pretend to listen to you.” (If you’re lucky!)

     Speaking of luck and coffee, the extra-elaborate, extra-large 16-month Coffee calendar for 2023 and the last four months of 2022 is even bigger than the Heart and Brain and A Year of Snarky Cats offerings; and it shows a different side of Dan DiPaolo’s art and witticisms. The illustrations here are ultra-simple, mostly consisting only of coffee cups or mugs and almost all done in shades of coffee colors, from very light tan to black. The underlying thought here is nicely summarized by the September illustration: “Life happens. Coffee helps.” But even though that is a perfect encapsulation for the entire year, DiPaolo serves others for other months, and some of them are especially notable, such as April’s “Coffee gives me the strength to screw up everything every single day – with passion.” That’s another darned good summation for true coffee lovers. Other months include straightforward reminders, worth noting for any coffee aficionado who happens to glance at the wall anytime: “There’s always time for coffee” (March) and “Me time” with a picture of a steaming mug of the brew (November). It is also worth remembering the way this particular calendar begins the upcoming year, with a January illustration featuring the words “COFFEE FIRST because…eew, people.” Of course, if you happen to be feeling generous with this calendar (if not with coffee), it comes enclosed in a specially made ultra-large outer envelope that makes the whole thing quite suitable for gift-giving. You know – that thing people do with calendars in December, a month in which this particular wall offering shows a pine tree in silhouette and some stylized snowflakes (the only month without a coffee cup or mug), and the words, “Drink more coffee, be more jolly.” Now that’s an espresso ho-ho-ho. Errr, expressive ho-ho-ho…

(+++) SMALL DISCOVERIES

Henri Tomasi: Trio à cordes en forme de divertissement; Jean Cras: Trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle; Émile Goué: Trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle; Jean Françaix: Trio; Robert Casadesus: Trio à cordes; Gustave Samazeuilh: Suite en trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle; Gabriel Pierné: Trois pièces en trio. Black Oak Ensemble (Desirée Ruhstrat, violin; Aurélien Fort Pederzoli, viola; David Cunliffe, cello). Cedille. $12 (2 CDs).

Georg Goltermann: Nocturnes and Romances. Katherine Decker, cello; Eun-Hee Park, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     There may be missing masterpieces out in the unexplored wilds of classical music, but most works now being mined from long-fallow portions of the repertoire are of lesser quality – not dross, certainly, but not precious metals, much less gems. It can be pleasantly engaging to hear works that have long been neglected in performance and, in many cases, never recorded before, as long as one does not set expectations of originality or excellence of compositional execution too high. The seven pieces played by the top-notch Black Oak Ensemble on a very well-priced new Cedille release are all well-wrought, smooth, intermittently delightful trifles, finely crafted and serving well as salon or background music – but never genuinely gripping or enthralling enough to be likely to become repertoire mainstays for string trios. Three of the pieces – by Henri Tomasi (1901-1971), Robert Casadesus (1899-1972), and Gustave Samazeuilh (1877-1967) – are world première recordings, and are neither more nor less engaging than the other four. The title of this release, “Avant l’orage” (“Before the Storm”), refers to the period after World War I but before World War II, an interwar era during which all the music was created. The time period and the fact that everything here is French are among the elements that the works have in common. They also share a certain refined sensibility and pleasant urbanity, ruffling no feathers and offering a consistently pleasing, unchallenging listening experience. Tomasi’s four-movement trio (1938) includes an especially affecting, gently swaying second-movement Nocturne – whose sweetness is relieved by well-considered use of dissonance – and a bouncily folklike finale. The 1926 trio by Jean Cras (1879-1932), also in four movements, interestingly combines references to folk music with a tribute to Beethoven’s Op. 132 string quartet in its slow second movement – which also has the instruments imitating the sound of a Breton bagpipe. The three-movement offering by Émile Goué (1904-1946) dates to 1939 and has a more-modern sound than most of the other works heard here, with extended tonality, changing meters and unashamed dissonance even in the lullaby-like second movement. The four-movement trio by Jean Françaix (1912-1997), one of the best-known composers included in this release, is a work from 1933 that is especially well-constructed and filled with playfulness, energy, brightness, and agility, relieved in its slow movement by a charmingly songful melody. Casadesus’ 1938 trio, in three movements, is pleasant enough, although rather scattered in its effect. Samazeuilh’s 1937 Suite en trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle is a six-movement piece tied clearly through its sequence of dance forms to the Baroque era. It was originally written for piano – the “world première” element here refers to the first recording of the composer’s version for strings. The individual dances are well-constructed and reflect their Baroque origins nicely, with the somewhat overdone emotionalism of the third-movement Sarabande contrasting especially well with the bouncy, pizzicato-infused Divertissement that follows. The final piece offered in this recording is the three-movement set by Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937), which dates to the last year of the composer’s life. Pierné, like Françaix, is better-known than the other creators heard here. Pierné’s construction is particularly clever in light of the work being dedicated (as are several of the others in this release) to the once-renowned Trio Pasquier: Pierné musically spells out the notes of the first name of each brother in the trio (each in the clef played by the brother’s instrument), then builds the trio around the “brother” themes. Many composers indulge in this sort of structural cleverness, with the name of Bach often used and with composers such as Shostakovich incorporating numerous self-references into their music. What matters to listeners, though, is whether the music works and is appealing – it should not be necessary to study and analyze the thematic background in order to enjoy the piece. And indeed, Pierné’s work is enjoyable on its own merits, including an amusing finale based on a work by Honoré de Balzac that, again, one need not know in order to find the music pleasant and pleasurable. Pierné’s piece flows well, uses the instruments skillfully, and offers a winning mixture of lyricism and, in the finale, rather mild satire. All the music offered in this recording is performed with considerable skill and apparent enjoyment – and, in turn, it offers enjoyment of a mild and agreeable type to listeners, proffering nothing of great consequence but much that is abundantly entertaining.

     Music intended as pleasant rather than profound is sometimes referred to dismissively as salon music, but in fact there is much to be enjoyed in music written originally for performance in informal salon settings rather than formal concert or recital halls. Much of the music by Georg Goltermann (1824-1898), including everything on an MSR Classics CD featuring Katherine Decker and Eun-Hee Park, is of the “salon” type; and if nothing here is especially memorable, nothing is at all displeasing, either. Goltermann was a cellist of considerable skill, composing eight concertos for cello and orchestra as well as many shorter pieces for his chosen instrument. Decker, ably backed up by Park, offers a very good selection of the composer’s cello-and-piano nocturnes, romances and similar pieces. Goltermann was a skilled tunesmith – his melodies are invariably sweet, hummable and pleasant, if not genuinely memorable: many of these pieces, despite their different titles and provenance, could easily be swapped for each other. Decker and Park offer three sets of three pieces each: Trois Romances Symbolique, Op. 95; Trois Romances Sans Paroles, Op. 90; and Trois Nocturnes, Op. 125. The “symbolic” set includes the designations “Faith,” “Charity,” and “Hope,” but there is nothing particularly representational in any of these works or, indeed, in any of those in the other complete sets. The remainder of the disc is devoted to individual works taken from sets of Morceaux Caractéristiques, Morceaux Faciles, Morceaux de Salon, and so forth. There is nothing particularly challenging to the ear in any of this music – and, in truth, not much that is challenging to play, either: to the extent that Goltermann’s music is still heard, it is generally in teaching settings. Certainly the warm expressiveness that Decker finds in the cello parts of all these works was put there quite intentionally by the composer, who seems to have cared more about pleasing the aural palate than about trying to create music incorporating any particular creative spark or intensity. This may sound like damnation with faint praise, and to some extent it is; but really, there is no reason to condemn this inevitably ear-pleasing, pretty, sweetly lyrical if rather soulless music. It sounds good, it lies well on the cello, it does not strain performers or listeners overmuch, and it can be a restful experience – the sort of thing worth hearing on a grey, drizzly day, or perhaps as night begins to fall (some of the works have a crepuscular quality). By no stretch of the imagination is this great or even important music, but it never pretends to be: Goltermann clearly wrote to please and instruct, and the pieces here, inconsequential though they may be in musical terms, accomplish their aims with skill and sensitivity.

July 28, 2022

(+++) LOOKING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD

Lettuce Get in Trouble. By Linda Kuo with Cynthia Benjamin and Paula Rees. Illustrated by Mariana Rio. Center for Design Books. $19.95.

Jobs of the Future: Imaginative Careers for Forward-Thinking Kids. By Sofia E. Rossi and Carlo Canepa. Illustrated by Luca Poli. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     A wonderful tribute and introduction to elements of design – but a book whose underlying premise ends up potentially confusing its intended young audience – Lettuce Get in Trouble is the first volume in what the publisher calls the “Sara Little Trouble Maker Series.” There is a fortunate confluence of name and reality there, since the series is based on the life and work of Sara Little (1917-2015), but kids and parents will likely read the series’ title as “Little Trouble Maker,” which is a rather endearing concept that fits the approach of Linda Kuo and coauthors Cynthia Benjamin and Paula Rees well. It is also rather neat to know that Sara Little really was little, weighing just 90 pounds and being only four feet, 11 inches tall (her real name was Sara Finkelstein: she was nicknamed “Little Sara” and called herself Sara Little professionally). As intriguing as all this information is, though, the point of any book for young children is to engage them in a topic in an age-appropriate way and help them see how that subject operates in the real world – their real world. Lettuce Get in Trouble, preoccupied as it is with being a Sara Little tribute book and an introduction to her way of thinking – and to being a series opener – falls short when it comes to what actually happens in the narrative. For instance, the narrative clearly states, and Mariana Rio’s illustrations clearly show, that Sara Little inevitably wore “one tiny upside-down clock on her black turtleneck.” That is an intriguing fact that will surely lead curious young readers to ask why she wore the upside-down clock. And the answer is – never provided. And this is just one of the small (and sometimes larger) frustrations of this trying-a-bit-too-hard book. It is initially difficult to tell just how realistic (vs. fairy-tale-like) the book is supposed to be. It says that Sara Little runs “the Little Laboratory,” which is located “in the Big Apple” (never stating that that means New York City); and that seems plausible and realistic enough. But then it turns out that Sara gets an important letter delivered by “a snowy white pigeon,” and now we are in the fairy-tale realm. And the letter leads to the primary plot of the book, which involves using creativity in design to solve this problem: “Children seem to have stopped eating vegetables.” Well, the tie-in to the real Sara Little’s life makes sense – her mother really did arrange fruits and vegetables in bowls to teach child Sara about design, and that information does appear early in Lettuce Get in Trouble. But as a major plot device, this kids-and-vegetables concept falls flat. The idea is that Sara gets kids involved in design using vegetables, and gives them enthusiasm by explaining about the colors of produce: “green for peace, red for love, yellow for joy.” And this then gets the kids intrigued by the notion of designing food-related things, such as “a meal where everyone eats using their fingers.” And soon kids from everywhere “arrive in hot air balloons” (the book is now firmly in the fantasy realm) for participatory activities: one “makes sushi with white onions and tiny purple grapes,” one “sprinkles mint leaves on tacos filled with bright orange carrots and red peppers,” and so on. All the designs are interesting and attractive, and everyone is happy to be involved in making new ones – even the curmudgeons of the Ministry of Food (again, a fairy-tale element). But Kuo, Benjamin and Rees never solve, or even get back to, the underlying issue of children no longer eating vegetables. It is implied that all this wonderful creativity leads to great happiness and understanding and peace and love and all that, but the thread of the story never gets fully woven into any sort of garment. Why exactly did kids stop eating vegetables? If they stopped, they must have eaten them before something happened – so what happened? Why the title Lettuce Get in Trouble? What exactly is the “trouble” into which kids should get? How does cleverness of design overcome whatever the vegetable-eating difficulty might be? Is the idea that if vegetables are entertainingly presented, kids will suddenly enjoy how they taste? (That would be a perfectly good, if arguable, premise, but it is never plainly presented.) In other words, how can sensitive, even clever design – the province of the real Sara Little – be brought to bear on this specific issue in a satisfactory way? That is a perfectly reasonable question that is never answered. Thoughtful design can solve many problems, but not all of them. Kids’ distaste for vegetables (after presumably enjoying them at some time before the start of the book) is not one of them – unless the authors want to suggest that attractive presentation, in and of itself, is enough to make children become (or return to being) vegetable lovers. They would be entitled to make just such an assertion, even if young readers (and parents) might not agree; but they do not do so. This is a book about how wonderful Sara Little was at solving problems through well-thought-out designs, but the specific problem invented for the story just does not connect very well with Sara Little’s specific talents.

     Intended much more as a real-world book looking into the time to come for the young people who will read it, Jobs of the Future makes various assumptions about how the world will change and how careers based on those changes – incorporating ideas or tools that may not even exist yet – will become available. There is, for instance, “the architect of impossible places,” who initially handles rising sea levels by building an underwater city, then collaborates with another architect to build a perfect city in the Sahara Desert: “No more roads or pollution; transportation will function exclusively through a system of elevated pipes filled with compressed air…and everything – absolutely everything – will be recycled.” It is hard to say which element of this is most Utopian: the notion that 100% recycling is or will be possible, or the idea that people from vastly different parts of the world will collaborate for the equal benefit of all, resulting in a perfect city packed with people from entirely different but perfectly complementary cultures. But Sofia E. Rossi and Carlo Canepa want readers of their book to consider this as a serious career possibility. They also assume that basic tropes of science fiction will merge with reality soon: one suggested career is explorer of faraway planets, complete with precision interstellar travel and perfectly functioning cryogenic equipment; another is that of DNA tailor, someone who can “reverse genetic diseases, prevent the replication of viruses, and determine the roles of newly discovered genes” – with not a smidgen of political difficulty or sociological pushback. There happen to be some really neat ideas here: nanotechnological reconstruction of ancient artifacts, development of a soccer-playing robot that uses human dreams to improve its skills, creation and maintenance of cars and ships powered by solar sails, and more. Not everything in the book is outside the realm of possibility, and it is inevitable that some forms of creativity will move further than anything dreamed of by Rossi and Canepa, and in different directions. The book’s main purpose, though, really lies in the pages after the ones suggesting possible future careers. These pages give the authors’ analyses and opinions on various challenges currently facing humanity, and a chance to put forward their viewpoints on those concerns. Thus, they warn against the possible extinction of more than 38,500 plant and animal species; explain the importance of “investing in renewable energy, such as solar and wind power”; tell readers to “limit water use in the home” and buy products such as “composting toilets”; and so forth. More interesting than these recommendations, and less unlikely than some of the suggested future careers, are some of the explanations of the scientific fields that today’s young readers may be able to explore in the future, such as biomimetics and scientific cuisine. Luca Poli’s illustrations for those explanatory portions of the book are also more engaging than the rather straightforward pictures elsewhere. Jobs of the Future is only in part about jobs of the future – and that is not its best part. More interesting is the way the book can help young readers explore the basics of fields about which they may never have heard before, and perhaps become intrigued enough to come up with their own career concepts in those areas after investigating the possibilities more thoroughly.

(+++) BY TWOS AND THREES

Respighi: Songs. Timothy Fallon, tenor; Ammiel Bushakevitz, piano. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Music for Piano Trio by Shawn E. Okpebholo, Augusta Read Thomas, Shulamit Ran, Mischa Zupko, and Stacy Garrop. Lincoln Trio (Desirée Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; Marta Aznavoorian, piano). Cedille. $16.

     Although Respighi was determined to show ways in which Italian music could be purely instrumental without being beholden to the Germanic tradition – breaking listeners’ identification of Italian composers almost solely with opera – he nevertheless created a considerable number of vocal works (including nine operas of his own). Among his music for voice, his songs are highly personal and most are not at all well-known. Timothy Fallon has assembled an interesting and wide-ranging collection of Respighi songs for a new BIS recording in which he is very ably accompanied by his longtime recital partner, pianist Ammiel Bushakevitz. The songs chosen by Fallon were composed over a period of nearly 30 years: the earliest, L'ultima ebbrezza, dates to 1896 (when Respighi was 17); the latest, Quattro arie scozzesi (“Four Scottish Songs”), were written in 1924 and use English-language texts. These temporal bookends show that Respighi early developed great sensitivity for the cadence of words and never lost his concern with using the piano to underline and highlight the text: the earliest song here practically oozes Romantic-era lyricism, while the Scottish songs are all declamatory in folk-like manner – and the last of them, “The Piper of Dundee,” has a particularly effective and contributory piano part. There is much to discover and enjoy elsewhere on the disc as well. Deità silvane (“Woodland Deities”) is a five-song cycle with especially effective tone-painting in the fourth, “Acqua,” and the fifth, “Crepusculo” (which has a wistful twilight sound throughout). There is one other cycle on the disc, and it showcases Respighi’s long-lasting interest in music of olden times: Cinque canti all'antica is not at the level of his Ancient Airs and Dances in its approach to music of the past, but is sensitive throughout to the texts by Renaissance poets. Indeed, sensitivity is the hallmark of all the songs on this disc, which includes a couple of comparatively well-known works (Stornellatrice and Nebbie) along with many rarities – more than two dozen songs in all. Fallon has an admirably well-controlled voice and considerable sensitivity to the varying emotions underlying these works, and he sings everything with commitment and a fine sense of style. That does not, however, quite make this a general-interest release: a few of Respighi’s creations are exceptionally popular (notably the Roman Trilogy), but much of his oeuvre remains comparatively obscure, attractive for its Impressionism, its explorations and reinterpretations of pieces created centuries earlier, and its overall stylistic clarity and directness – but not widely popular. Art songs as a genre tend to be limited in their reach, with the exception of a few of the acknowledged masterpieces of the form; so while this Respighi recording is welcome for its finely attentive approach to generally obscure music, it is not likely to attract a significant audience to this element of the composer’s work.

     Contemporary chamber music is even more rarefied, and a disc whose unifying principle is a combination of modernity with geography – focusing on five composers from Chicago – is by definition reaching out only to listeners with a specific set of interests and concerns. The Lincoln Trio’s performances on a new Cedille CD are admirable throughout, though. The disc opens with one of its three world première recordings, city beautiful (one of those lower-case titles – this is an affectation for some of today’s composers) by Shawn E. Okpebholo (born 1981). This is a three-movement work whose opening “aqua” (all the movements have lower-case titles) is a more strongly rhythmic piece than Respighi’s song “Acqua” but does not convey the sense of water as effectively (it is actually intended to portray a city skyscraper). The other movements, “prairie” and “burnham,” deploy the instruments effectively but will have full meaning only for listeners fully aware of the portions of Chicago to which the music refers. Augusta Read Thomas’ …a circle around the sun… (a double affectation: lower-case title with surrounding ellipses) is in two contrasting, equally atonal movements – Thomas (born 1964) seems mainly interested in highlighting each individual instrument against the other two. Soliloquy by Shulamit Ran (born 1949) is the most-lyrical work on the disc, comparatively old-fashioned in its expressiveness and connecting to listeners to better effect and with greater warmth than other, more-extended pieces. Fanfare 80 by Mischa Zupko (born 1971) is the second world première recording here, and is scarcely fanfare-like, although it is certainly dramatic and fraught with rhythmic intensity. The final world première recording ends the CD. It is Sanctuary by Stacy Garrop (born 1969), a two-movement piece that lasts almost half the length of the entire disc (23½ minutes out of 52). Perhaps because the work has a highly personal underlying story – it is a tribute to Garrop’s father – it comes across with considerable emotive power and takes listeners through a wide variety of moods and feelings. Its foundational reason for being is not required to appreciate and become involved in it. The movements are called “Without” and “Within,” the first intended to portray a child searching for a lost parent and the second being the parent’s response from within the child’s heart. But unlike much contemporary music, Sanctuary does not require advance study and analysis to have its effect: an audience that has no familiarity with Garrop’s intent or “plot line” will nevertheless be engaged in and moved by the varying moods and throughgoing expressiveness of the music. This work and Ran’s Soliloquy are the highlights of the CD; the other works have elements of interest, and everything on the disc is played with fervor and a high level of involvement, but only Garrop and Ran seem genuinely to reach out and seek hoped-for connections between themselves and listeners.