February 26, 2009


White Witch, Black Curse. By Kim Harrison. Eos. $25.95.

     Kim Harrison has become such a good writer, so adept at producing hair-raising adventures filled with complex characters with believable motivations, that her world of the Hollows throbs with reality even though it is populated primarily by the dead and undead, by witches and werewolves, and by all sorts of things that go bump in the night – and the daytime. Indeed, Harrison has gotten so good that even when she is not quite at the top of her game, as in White Witch, Black Curse, she still creates novels that are unstoppably good and nearly impossible to put down.

     As usual in Harrison’s stories of the Hollows (a supernatural enclave permeating, of all places, Cincinnati), the book’s title recalls a Clint Eastwood movie – in this case, 1990’s White Hunter, Black Heart, which Eastwood directed and in which he starred as movie director John Huston. Aside from being a director’s movie about a movie director, the film is about obsession, specifically Huston’s determination to hunt down one particular elephant. White Witch, Black Curse is about obsession as well: witch and bounty hunter Rachel Morgan’s continued determination to find out who killed her vampire lover, Kisten. But for much of the book, the Kisten-killer quest takes a back seat to a series of adventures involving a variety of supernatural beings who have not appeared before in Harrison’s Hollows series, in which this is the seventh entry. And that’s the problem here: Harrison has proved herself so exceptionally good at imagining both the outer and inner lives of living and dead vampires, witches, werewolves, elves, pixies, demons and her other primary character groups that there is something a little cheap about her suddenly dragging in such previously unsuspected entities as banshees and ghosts, then building large sections of the story around them. Because these new beings have not been, so to speak, fleshed out as well as such characters as the demon Al, the pixy Jenks, the vampire Ivy, the elf Trent, and many other memorable Harrison creations, White Witch, Black Curse teems with occurrences that have less depth and resonance than those in earlier books of the series.

     This is not to say that the new novel isn’t exciting. It is – often tremendously so. Rachel’s near-fatal encounter with a banshee, her increasing level of comfort with using black curses as well as white spells to accomplish her aims, and the interlocking complexity of her life with grand political and social machinations among the supernatural Inderlanders and the humans among whom they move freely, add up to an intricate and fast-paced narrative. But there is one scene – a slowdown in the midst of an escape – that shows Harrison at her very best and makes some of the other parts of the book seem a bit pale. Rachel, hospitalized, is determined to leave despite doctors’ insistence that she stay; and as Ivy and Jenks help her get away, the three find themselves in a ward of desperately ill children. In nine pages out of the novel’s 500-plus, Harrison manages to deepen Rachel’s own character (she nearly died as a child; the way she was saved precipitated subtly world-shaking events that keep coming up in these stories); bring new empathy and humanity to Ivy; show a level of deep emotion lying just underneath Jenks’ frequent bluster; and pinpoint one of the series’ main themes – whether doing evil, even repeatedly, means that you are evil. Seeing Rachel’s blackened aura, caused by the curses she has invoked, a girl asks whether Rachel is a black witch, and Harrison writes (in Rachel’s first-person narrative): “There was no fear in her, not because she was ignorant, but because she knew she was dying, and she knew I wasn’t going to be the cause of her death. My heart went out to her. She was seeing around corners, but not yet ready to go. One more thing possibly to see and do.” Ivy manages to get the kids to see how closely related to them Rachel is, and the children become co-conspirators; and the entire scene – which passes in an eyeblink, compared with the rest of the novel – so thoroughly humanizes (if that’s the right word) everyone in it that the grander dramas of the banshee, the ghost and even of what happened to Kisten seem one-dimensional by comparison.

     White Witch, Black Curse is an excellent book and a wonderful addition to the Hollows sequence. It deserves to be (and undoubtedly will be) a best-seller. If it is not quite up to Harrison’s very best, that is only because she has heretofore held herself to such an uncompromisingly high standard.


The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins. By Barbara Kerley. Drawings by Brian Selznick. Scholastic. $8.99.

Crocodile Safari. By Jim Arnosky. Scholastic. $22.99.

     A remarkable book about a remarkable man, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins is an exciting intellectual adventure that takes young readers back to a time before everyone was familiar with dinosaurs’ appearance – telling the tale of the man who first gave people an idea of what the prehistoric creatures looked like. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) was a British sculptor and natural-history artist who was commissioned in 1853 to create 33 life-sized replicas of dinosaurs under the direction of Sir Richard Owen and other leading Victorian scientists. Hawkins’ models were astonishing, and Barbara Kerley’s book – aided enormously by Brian Selznick’s illustrations, many of which are based on Hawkins’ own sketches – vividly brings them to life. The book brings Hawkins to life, too, and what a life it was. Kerley divides it into three parts: London, America and Home Again. The first includes Hawkins’ early career and his initial construction of dinosaur models – and climaxes with Hawkins’ most unusual idea of all, which was to hold a New Year’s Eve dinner for more than 20 people, on December 31, 1853, inside his iguanodon model. The second section is about Hawkins’ ill-fated trip to America, where he intended to create dinosaur models for a museum in New York City, but where he ran afoul of infamous Tammany Hall leader “Boss” Tweed, who wrecked his models and had the pieces buried somewhere in Central Park (where they remain, in unknown locations, to this day). The third section of the book involves Hawkins’ return to England and the emerging knowledge that some of his models were not accurate, in light of new scientific discoveries – a state of affairs that fascinated Hawkins rather than dismaying him. It did indeed turn out that Hawkins’ models – many of which are still viewable at a museum in England – were incorrect; but they were remarkable design and engineering achievements, and gave the public its first look at the extinct animals that ruled the planet for so long. The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins is, finally, an uplifting story about scientific discovery and the persistence, despite reversals, of those involved in it. Kerley’s and Selznick’s afterwords, and a final page comparing Hawkins’ models with what certain dinosaurs are now thought to have looked like, add to the fascination of a thoroughly engrossing book.

     Crocodilians are a kind of living dinosaur: they existed in the dinosaur age and survived its end. But the American crocodile – the subject of Jim Arnosky’s Crocodile Safari – almost didn’t make it through its encounters with human beings: fewer than 300 of the animals were left when the species was classified as endangered. It is no longer listed that way in the United States, where it has recovered smartly, although it remains endangered in other areas where it lives (Mexico, the Caribbean, and parts of Central and South America). American crocodiles remain elusive in any case. Arnosky takes readers through a South Florida safari in which he and his wife, Deanna, roamed the Everglades looking for crocodiles, eventually spotting 20 of them. American crocodiles are different from and rarer than American alligators, and Arnosky clearly explains and illustrates how they differ. Crocodile Safari reads a bit like a diary, with Arnosky noting time, weather and tide for each spotting and showing, through well-executed drawings, where he saw the crocodiles – starting with a group of three perched on the hulls of discarded rowboats. Arnosky works in information on the reptiles’ feeding habits and the flora and fauna amid which they live; and he talks about a couple of unusual finds, including a toothless crocodile (which had to be very old: the animals regrow teeth until they reach old age) and a foot-long crocodile baby. The book concludes with the music and lyrics of a song that Arnosky wrote about crocodiles, and a bonus 22-minute CD bound into the back cover gives Arnosky’s impressions additional life and liveliness. The mixture of observational seriousness with lighthearted enjoyment makes Crocodile Safari very pleasantly distinctive – hopefully encouraging young readers to plan their own in-the-wild viewings someday, since all the crocodiles counted by Arnosky were seen in areas that anyone can visit.


Tommaso and the Missing Line. By Matteo Pericoli. Knopf. $15.99.

Chicken and Cat Clean Up. By Sara Varon. Scholastic. $16.99.

     There are words in both these books, but they take a back seat to the stories’ pictures. The story's distinctive pictures, in the case of Matteo Pericoli’s Tommaso and the Missing Line. This book is quite different from the usual ones targeting ages 5-8, being filled with concepts of art and architecture – none of them ever mentioned overtly, but all of them permeating the story. The tale is about a young Italian boy, Tommaso, who realizes one day that a line from a picture he made has suddenly disappeared. It has not rubbed away or faded – it is just gone. And Tommaso wants it back – he doesn’t want to re-draw it or accept its disappearance; he wants that line back. So he starts a journey through the city, asking characters from a mechanic to a barber to a sleepy cat whether they have seen his line. No one finds Tommaso’s quest strange; they simply accept it and suggest various places that the line might be – in a car antenna, for instance, or in the many shapes of cut-off hair on the barbershop’s floor. But Tommaso, acknowledging all those lines, knows that none of them is his line, so he goes to visit his nonna (grandma), at whose home he made his drawing – and he makes a warm and gently surreal discovery there. Pericoli, an architect as well as an artist, imbues his cityscapes with the feeling of reality, using perspective dramatically and including enjoyable little visual elements just for the fun of it – such as the multiple reflections of the barber in the barbershop’s mirrored wall, and the positioning of the sleepy cat atop a Corinthian column amid Roman (or at least Romanesque) ruins. The illustrations are in black and white – except that the various lines and Tommaso’s drawing are in orange – and this adds to a certain elegance in the book. Interestingly, Pericoli does not show Tommaso’s grandma’s face – perhaps the book’s dedication “to the memory of nonna Mimia” explains that. What does not need explaining is the thoughtfulness and lovely detailing that Pericoli brings to every page of this very special book.

     Sara Varon’s illustrations for Chicken and Cat Clean Up are much more cartoonish than Pericoli’s – scarcely a surprise, since Varon is (among other things) a comics artist. This nearly wordless sequel to the nearly wordless Chicken and Cat offers a simple story with an affirmation of friendship and a moral about doing what you are really good at – without using dialogue to communicate any of its message. Best friends Chicken and Cat are working together in Chicken’s housekeeping business, even though Cat isn’t really very awake in the morning and isn’t very good at cleaning things. In fact, he is so bad at the job that he gets thrown out of an apartment after causing a variety of messes (broken glass, overflowing washer, spilled water). Cat is just too catlike for a housekeeping job – when he gets hungry, he starts eating a plant. But Cat is just catlike enough to catch a thieving mouse that he spots while waiting outside the apartment building where Chicken is still working. Cat ends up a hero, makes some money, and gives Chicken an idea for an expansion of the business to include mousecatching – a happy ending for all, except maybe the mouse. Cat even ends up with a pet that he has been wordlessly wanting to buy, and the stage is set for Varon’s next visit to a world where pictures consistently communicate more than words.


Milestones: 30 Years of Chandos. Chandos. $99.99.

     It is equally possible to be generous or curmudgeonly about this fascinating 30-CD set – and both reactions are equally valid. Chandos Records, the outstanding, independent classical-music label, has repackaged and re-released 30 of its CDs in celebration of its 30 years in business – a time that classical-music lovers worldwide should celebrate, since Chandos offers a great deal of unusual repertoire in mostly excellent performances that are very well recorded and generally presented with highly interesting background information.

     But the deserved high praise for Chandos the company does not necessarily translate into equally high praise for this handsomely packaged celebratory issue. One reason is that the 30 CDs appear to have been chosen more for the way they reflect on Chandos’ self-image than in any attempt to provide a comprehensive or carefully organized view of music in general – or even of the music that Chandos offers. Inside the substantial-feeling flip-top box are 30 CDs in individual sleeves, a short booklet listing the basic contents of all 30 and containing some comments by Chandos executives, and a 324-page book that a purchaser would likely expect to contain notes on the performances but that in fact is a Chandos catalogue, complete with price-code key – in British pounds. Notes on the performances are available as PDFs from the Chandos Web site, but given the fact that the notes are one of the things that have made Chandos special for the past 30 years, it seems odd to make Chandos enthusiasts – or newcomers to the label – do so much downloading if they want to read about the music and the recording artists.

     Actually, a little information does appear on each CD’s sleeve, but it is of the promotional sort: “This disc is a showcase for Collegium Musicum 90 and Simon Standage.” “This important disc of neglected French repertoire exemplifies Yon Pascal Tortelier’s remarkable tenure with the BBC Philharmonic.” “This disc is a testament to Richard Hickox’s memorable years at Bournemouth…” And so on.

     However – and it is a very big “however” indeed – once you get past the promos and the presentation disappointments, this box is filled to the brim with musical delights. Every single one of the 30 CDs has something to recommend it: sometimes unusual repertoire, sometimes an exceptional performance, sometimes a welcome insight into familiar music, sometimes an opportunity to explore pieces that only Chandos would have thought to issue. In this last category are the orchestral suite from Respighi’s Belkis, Queen of Sheba; three tone poems of war and the sea by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford; and music related to the novels of Louis de Bernières, best known for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (although to understand the professed relationships, listeners will need those PDFs from www.chandos.net).

     Among the more familiar music here are Chopin’s Études, sensitively played by Louis Lortie; Holst’s The Planets in a bang-up rendition by the Scottish National Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson; and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, played with knowing intensity by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra under Mariss Jansons – not a truly great performance, but a very interesting and convincing one. And then there are the vocal CDs, from Lili Boulanger’s Faust et Hélène and other works to Alexander Grechaninov’s Passion Week to highlights of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier to a disc of – what else? – Handel’s Chandos Anthems. The unusual nature of Chandos’ commitment to classical music comes through in these individual CDs, and also in some ways in the overall structure of the 30-CD box: the three composers to whom two CDs are devoted are Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams and Hummel, and there is no Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn or Brahms to be found anywhere in the set.

     Milestones: 30 Years of Chandos turns out to be as quirky as the Chandos label itself. At just over $3 per CD, the set is a tremendous bargain compared to the cost of buying the same CDs one at a time. Even if a listener dislikes half the discs, the box is a bargain. But at whom is it aimed? It seems like an introduction to the Chandos label, but does not really succeed on that basis. People who already know Chandos and want to celebrate it will enjoy this set more than anyone else will. The lack of notes and the self-promotional aspects may be off-putting to others. And that is a shame, since Chandos, both in this set and elsewhere in its ever-growing catalogue, has so much truly excellent music to offer.

February 19, 2009


Baby Nose to Baby Toes. By Vicky Ceelen. Random House. $6.99.

Mommy Calls Me Monkeypants. By J.D. Lester. Illustrations by Hiroe Nakata. Robin Corey Books. $7.99.

What a Good Big Brother! By Diane Wright Landolf. Paintings by Steve Johnson & Lou Fancher. Random House. $16.99.

Planet Earth: Wild Amazon. By Lisa L. Ryan-Herndon. Scholastic. $3.99.

     The youngest children, up to age four, are privileged to have some truly wonderful board books created just for them – including Baby Nose to Baby Toes and Mommy Calls Me Monkeypants. The first of these juxtaposes photos of human babies with ones of baby animals doing similar (or occasionally contrasting) things – and since the photos are big, clear close-ups, they will be easy for even very young children to see and enjoy. Some of the pairs are especially wonderful, such as “baby’s clean as clean can get” on the left (wide-eyed baby with a big smile and tongue almost hanging out) and “puppy’s dripping, sopping wet” on the right (big-eyed puppy with paws on the edge of a sink or tub and with tongue definitely hanging out). There is also a delightful left-page photo of two babies, both looking toward something obviously fascinating – contrasted with, on the right-hand page, two puppies also looking toward something fascinating…which, because of the angle of their heads, appears to be the babies on the facing page. But this is not to say that Vicky Ceelen’s book includes only puppies: there are pictures of a fawn, lion cub, elephant, frog, chimpanzee, and even a snail here, all of them delightfully framed to show similarities or differences between animals and people.

     Mommy Calls Me Monkeypants involves humans and animals, too, but not quite the same way. J.D. Lester’s book is about endearing nicknames: first, a baby wonders why his mommy calls him Monkeypants; then, various baby creatures describe their mothers’ nicknames for them in a series of pleasant rhymes. For instance, for horses, “Mommy calls me Giddyup…it’s lots of fun to ride me.” And then, for monkeys, “Mommy calls me Tagalong…I keep her right beside me.” Hiroe Nakata’s illustrations are pleasant and amusing, the ones of pandas and kangaroos especially so. And the book’s ending with a baby-and-mommy hug seems just right – and makes Mommy Calls Me Monkeypants a good choice for bedtime reading.

     For slightly older kids, ages 3-6 – especially ones with a new baby at home, or expecting one soon -- What a Good Big Brother! offers some basics of childcare within a lovely, gentle story. Diane Wright Landolf’s story of Cameron and his little sister, Sadie, shows the various reasons Sadie cries – she needs changing, a nap, food – and then shows how Cameron helps Sadie stop crying. But what happens when Sadie cries and the parents cannot figure out why? At that point, Cameron really comes into his own, finding a way to calm Sadie down and giving everyone a big and happy surprise. The illustrative paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher nicely capture the watercolor warmth of a family adjusting to a new baby at home, and the smiles on the faces of Cameron and Sadie at the end of the book will have real-world families smiling as well.

     Some elements of the latest Planet Earth collaboration between the BBC and Scholastic are a delight in their own, nonfictional way, but Wild Amazon is something less than an unalloyed triumph. The photos – the BBC’s contribution – are absolutely marvelous, from the overhead view of the Amazon River and the forest around it to the close-ups of such creatures as the pirarucu, tucuxi and bullet ant. But Lisa L. Ryan-Herndon’s text is disappointing, partly for what it does and partly for what it omits. There are quite a few grammatical mistakes here that somehow got through the editing process. For example, “the river can look like it’s boiling” is wrong – it should be “look as if it is boiling” or “can seem to be boiling.” And “echolocation is when sound waves are used to find objects” should be “echolocation is a process by which sound waves are used to find objects,” or the sentence should be rewritten altogether. As for omissions, it is fine to include animals whose odd names children have probably never heard – the book is a Level 3 Reader, intended for first through third grade. But when an animal is unique to the point of being enigmatic, as is the case with the hoatzin, it would make sense to mention that fact and not consign the creature to dismissal by simply mentioning its nickname of “stinkbird.” A little context would help, too: saying that an acre of rainforest land may be home to three million ants means little without a comparison with the number of ants elsewhere. Planet Earth: Wild Amazon has enough fascinating photos and interesting facts to get a (+++) rating, but a better narrative would have ratcheted it up a notch.


Blood and Bone. By William Lashner. William Morrow. $24.99.

The Sharing Knife, Volume Four: Horizon. By Lois McMaster Bujold. Eos. $26.99.

     Here are two well-crafted books that will immediately appeal to the well-established fan bases of their authors, but that are unlikely to bring in new readers – simply because the slickness with which they are written does not quite conceal the formulaic level of their plotting and characterization. Blood and Bone is a standalone novel from the author of the popular Victor Carl series, and it shares some of the moral ambiguities of that sequence in its story of Kyle Byrne, illegitimate son of a well-known Philadelphia lawyer. William Lashner knows this territory well: he lives near Philadelphia and has been a trial lawyer for the Justice Department. Straightforward legal cases are not for Lashner or his characters – they don’t make very good novels, in any case – and Blood and Bone is anything but straightforward. Byrne is a slacker in his mid-20s, enjoying an unpressured life while still (rather unbelievably) feeling the pain of the death of his father 12 years earlier. Obviously, in a noir novel like this, the plot complications are sure to involve Byrne’s father, and so they do: Kyle’s dad’s law partner is murdered, and Kyle (again, rather unbelievably) becomes a suspect, so he has to try to clear his name by finding the real killer. Kyle, who has never been a detective, turns out to be a pretty good one, but of course he turns up information that he would rather not know about his beloved dad. And of course the usual sleazy suspects start crawling out of the woodwork: a U.S. senator with a secret to hide, a crime boss, and more. The problem with Blood and Bone is that Kyle, unlike Victor Carl, is not an especially interesting character. And some hard-boiled scenes are (apparently unintentionally) funny, as when two stereotypical thugs attack Kyle (“the lug slammed a forearm into Kyle’s back, denting his kidneys”) and, while being dragged to an alley, Kyle tells them, “Watch out for the suit.” Furthermore, some aspects of procedural matters just don’t make sense: Philadelphia Detective Ramirez, seeking the death certificate of Kyle’s father, has never heard of Union County, New Jersey or the town of Summit – an unlikely state of affairs. There are the usual overdone coincidences (“maybe it wasn’t a coincidence,” Kyle thinks when one of them occurs – well, duh). And there is the usual overdone dialogue: “I’m going to tell you a story, Kyle. …I’m going to tell you because I’ve been wanting to tell someone for years. And I’m going to tell you because it involves your father, and I think you have the right to know.” Whether readers will have the desire to know all these seamy little details will depend entirely on how they already feel about Lashner’s style. Blood and Bone moves quickly and requires little in the way of thought or emotional involvement. It’s a good read in its way, but not at the level of Lashner’s other books. Lashner is usually a better stylist than to write this: “Didn’t I tell you to stop stirring the pot?” “The pot kept stirring me.”

     It is the style that Lois McMaster Bujold brings to her lengthy sagas that especially pleases her fan base, which will surely be glad to read the conclusion of The Sharing Knife tetralogy. Bujold builds her heroic fantasies deliberately, assembling characterizations through the small actions of the people she creates as much as through their grand plans or heroic deeds. In fact, one attractive element of The Sharing Knife is the way it makes small in addition to great actions heroic. The whole premise of the series involves Dag Redwood Hickory’s rescue of Fawn Bluefield, the two falling in love, the reasons they should not do so, the consequences of their ignoring those reasons, and the manner in which their marriage and the increasing closeness it brings to both of them raises their powers. For there certainly are powers here, magical powers (as usual in modern heroic fantasy), and Horizon would be an ineffective conclusion if those powers did not need to mature and be brought to bear against an overwhelming threat. That is just what happens here – an easily anticipated ending to the four-book series, even if the specifics of what will happen and how are revealed only gradually. But it is quite clear, and was even before this final book, that Dag’s magical abilities would grow and he would find himself becoming something more than anyone expected – his uniqueness was obvious from the moment he and Fawn predictably fell in love. Fawn grows and develops, too, as the two together lead a band of friends and followers. They lead them, of course, into danger, as Dag develops a “ground shield” that may or may not protect against the evil of a “malice,” while Fawn – who is pregnant – focuses on their growing child. There are many menaces to be faced here, such as a mud-man (“malices make them up out of animals and mud by groundwork – magic”) and “a black cloud of about fifty…bat-things.” There are sacrifices and successes and failures along Dag and Fawn’s road in Horizon, but eventually – satisfyingly, if scarcely unexpectedly – all obstacles are overcome and a new future is forged. Horizon neatly wraps up The Sharing Knife, but even Bujold’s stylish presentation cannot disguise the fact that the road Dag and Fawn travel is one that, with variations, many other heroic-fantasy heroes and heroines have trod before. Bujold tells her tale well, but there is, finally, little that is new in it.


Wagner’s Mastersinger, Hitler’s Siegfried: The Life and Times of Max Lorenz. A film by Eric Schulz and Claus Wischmann. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2. Mikhail Simonyan, violin; Alexei Podkorytov, piano. Delos. $16.99.

     The ability of art and artists to survive and even thrive in the worst conditions is a source of ongoing amazement and, perhaps, an indication that there is hope for humanity even in the depths of despair. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp for the instruments available there (clarinet, violin, cello and piano), is often cited as a flicker of artistic light in the midst of widespread atrocities. But the story of Hitler’s favorite tenor, Max Lorenz, is more remarkable still – and is beautifully told in the 54-minute documentary by Eric Schulz and Claus Wischmann. Lorenz’s survival in Hitler’s Reich was extraordinary on many levels: the singer was a homosexual with a Jewish wife and mother-in-law, and he chose to stay in Nazi Germany and use his favored status not only to protect his own family but also to save others from death. And he was a wonderful singer, with the sort of imposing stage presence that the Nazis cultivated as a way to showcase their own self-image. Wagner’s Mastersinger delves intelligently but non-academically into the various elements and contradictions of Lorenz’s life, including interviews with the singer himself; plenty of archival footage, including some showing Lorenz working with Bayreuth Artistic Director Heinz Tietjen; and commentary by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, tenors Waldemar Kmentt and René Kollo, soprano Hilde Zadek, and other artists and critics. The astonishing survival of Lorenz and those around him – which became increasingly difficult as the Nazi era progressed – becomes part and parcel of this story of music, which is particularly about Wagner as presented in Bayreuth. Lorenz (1901-1975) not only survived the war but continued to perform on stage until 1962. Yet his glory days clearly coincided with those of the Third Reich, as the music within this film abundantly shows – especially the excerpts from Götterdämmerung (1934), Siegfried (1937) and Rienzi (1942). There is also the evidence of a wonderful, 74-minute bonus CD included with the DVD. It contains a 1938 performance (not from Bayreuth but from Buenos Aires) of the entire first act of Siegfried and part of the second act. Sound quality becomes almost immaterial here: this is a masterful characterization by a Heldentenor who, in real life, did not at all fit the mold into which Wagner’s music and Hitler’s support poured him.

     Yet Hitler was not the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century – that dubious distinction belongs to Joseph Stalin, and it was in Stalin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that Sergei Prokofiev chose to live and produce much of his greatest music. In a new Delos recording, Prokofiev’s two Violin Sonatas get splendid performances by two artists from modern-day Russia: Mikhail Simonyan and Alexei Podkorytov. Both these sonatas were written for David Oistrakh during or close to World War II: No. 1, begun in 1938, was completed in 1946; No. 2 originated as a flute sonata in 1942 and was arranged by the composer for violin a year later. One of Oistrakh’s students, Victor Danchenko, is Simonyan’s mentor, giving these performances a direct line back to the sonatas’ origins. Equally important is the quality of Simonyan’s playing: the 22-year-old violinist has impeccable technique and considerable emotional fire, and pianist Podkorytov partners with him very effectively. The very dark Sonata No. 1 comes off particularly well here, with Podkorytov not afraid to ratchet up the intensity even at the risk of overwhelming Simonyan (although that never quite happens). Sonata No. 2, a more lyrical work with more strongly classical form and balance, is less well suited to the intensity and emotionalism of these performers, but they play it with strength and elegance in a performance that is highly convincing even if parts are not quite as relaxed as they could be. This meeting of modern Russia, which has its own authoritarian issues, with Stalin’s far more brutal USSR, is a testament to the ability of composers and performers alike to transcend geopolitics and present something of greater, more lasting value than the latest argumentative rhetoric.

February 14, 2009


Puccini: Tosca. Virginia Opera production conducted by Peter Mark. Director: Marc Astafan. Scenic Designer: Michael Yeargan (design modified by Marc Astafan and Chris Kitrell). Lighting Designer: Chris Kitrell. Presented at George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax, Virginia, February 13, 2009.

     It has to be one of an opera company’s worst nightmares: the lead tenor loses his voice during a performance. And that is just what happened during Virginia Opera’s Friday the 13th presentation of Tosca, resulting in a production that creaked and stuttered throughout despite Artistic Director Peter Mark’s sure-handed conducting and the strengths brought by Mary Elizabeth Williams to the title role.

     It was obvious from the start that something was not quite right: Michael Hayes, as Cavaradossi, had far too much vibrato in his lower range, then sounded strained and breathless in “Qual occhio al mondo.” His unevenness throughout the first act served to highlight the vocal clarity of Christopher Temporelli as Angelotti and the particularly adept comic timing of Jason Budd as the Sacristan – but this sole light character in the opera ought not to become the center of attention by virtue of out-singing the lead tenor in “Scherza con i fanti e lascia stare i santi,” as happened here.

     Before Act II, it was announced that Hayes had a cold and could not continue singing – but would still act the part of Cavaradossi while Kevin Perry, who had sung Spoletta in Act I, would sing Cavaradossi’s words (and Johnny Lee Green would take over as Spoletta). This on-the-fly attempt to handle Hayes’ illness produced a series of embarrassing moments in Acts II and III, as Hayes strove to lip-synch his arias while Perry, who was quite visible in the orchestra pit, actually produced the words – frequently with slight but disconcerting differences in tempo or emphasis. The result was what looked like one of those badly dubbed old Japanese monster movies: the drama of Tosca was thoroughly vitiated. Closing one’s eyes whenever the Hayes/Perry pairing was singing was not a good option, either, since that meant missing what drama there was in the action. Perry did a more-than-creditable job in his thoroughly thankless task, although his light tenor is thin on top and not really up to the demands of the Cavaradossi role. “E lucevan le stele,” normally such an emotional high point in Act III and the opera as a whole, teetered on the edge of comedy in this dual performance.

     It was left to Williams as Tosca to carry the entire opera, and while she certainly gave it a try, there is more to Tosca than “Vissi d'arte,” which Williams delivered with strikingly intense emotionality and considerable vocal power. Elsewhere, though, her voice was less sure and her acting only so-so. Her lower register was her strongest in Act I, but in her confrontation with Scarpia in Act II, she repeatedly came perilously close to sounding shrill. Hopefully the numerous kisses she exchanged with Hayes in the first act – and presumably in rehearsal – had not given her a cold as well. By the end of Act III, when Tosca jumps to her death, Williams seemed tired and rather awkward. She did not outrun the soldiers on her way to the parapet – they stopped in their tracks and let her go there. Williams has considerable potential as Tosca, whose human side she seems to appreciate, but neither her singing nor her acting is yet as good as it could be.

     As Scarpia, Stephen Kechulius made a highly dramatic entrance in Act I, dressed in black and with a Dracula-style cape, flanked by his two also-dressed-in-black henchmen. He initially sang well, but his acting quickly turned Scarpia into a kind of parody of Victorian-era evildoers, along the lines of Sir Despard Murgatroyd in Ruddigore. Kechulius strutted and stamped and eventually crushed a flower, first petal by petal and then all at once, as he proclaimed that Tosca’s beauty made him forget God. He did everything but cackle. The result was that the character was too overdone to have the sense of real-world menace that the best Scarpias produce. This was true as well in Act II, where Kechulius dialed back some of his over-the-top acting to the point that Scarpia seemed more a government functionary ordering waterboarding than the man before whom all Rome trembled. The Scarpia-Tosca confrontation, so rich in drama and intensity, here became a conflict of unequals: Williams had Kechulius vocally overmatched and also seemed significantly stronger physically.

     Virginia Opera’s staging is usually so good that it helps buoy even indifferent singing, but this production was not one of its best. The church in Act I was impressive, with a real sense of grandeur and scale, and there were some good lighting effects as the mood changed during the act. But Scarpia’s room in Act II, its walls mostly red, was mundane, and some sort of electrical problem caused the supposedly candle-filled wall sconces to go out from time to time. There was also no door to the torture chamber, which was behind a moving bookcase; so when Scarpia ordered the door opened so Tosca could better hear Cavaradossi’s cries, there was no door to open (and the bookcase had already been slid partially aside, so an opening into the chamber already existed). As for Act III, the setting was simply dull, being entirely open-air, with the inevitable parapet at the rear of the stage.

     Virginia Opera is much better than this Tosca, and Michael Hayes is surely a better Cavaradossi than he was able to show at this performance. But perhaps the evening’s mishaps will start a new tradition for this company. Just as many Shakespearean troupes will not even say the name of the play Macbeth, calling it “The Scottish Play” to allay fears associated with the drama, so Virginia Opera may want to avoid Tosca on Friday the 13th in the future – or perhaps refer to it as “The Singer’s Opera.”

February 12, 2009


Magic Pickle and the Planet of the Grapes. By Scott Morse. Graphix/Scholastic. $5.99.

Magic Pickle vs. the Egg Poacher. By Scott Morse. Graphic/Scholastic. $5.99.

Hotel for Dogs. By Lois Duncan. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Ah, the visual possibilities! It is only a matter of time before Dreamworks or another animation studio creates a movie based on Scott Morse’s Magic Pickle character – just as Dreamworks has already made a film of Lois Duncan’s Hotel for Dogs. The pickle movie has a ri-pick-ulous number of possible scenarios, all of which can be easily drawn from Morse’s series of graphic novels, including the two newest and the original (which was simply called Magic Pickle and was basically an “origin story”). Magic Pickle, the result of a scientific experiment gone wrong (of course), lives in a secret lab under the bedroom of Jo Jo Wigman, and spends his time fighting the Brotherhood of Evil Produce, created in the same misguided experiment (by – who else? – Dr. Jekyll Formaldehyde). Just think of the scenes! In Planet of the Grapes, Magic Pickle blows up a lemonade stand that is causing strange behavior in people who drink the beverage – notably in Jo Jo’s classmate, Jarek, who shows up at school with a strange machine that “will replicate the diametric pentrosilius combustion present in all forms of transformation.” The result of this is the creation of an all-new evil-produce character called The Razin’ – whose objective is to turn everyone on Earth into grapes (hence the book’s title). The Wrinkled Wretch proves no match for Jo Jo and the Magic Pickle, of course. (And there’s the film’s title: Jo Jo and the Magic Pickle!) Nor, in Egg Poacher, can the Onion Ringer or the Rhyming Lime (who, of course, talks entirely in rhymes) overcome the dynamic duo (oops – that phrase is taken). This episode briefly introduces new bad guys, the Animal Crackers, defeated by Magic Pickle’s use of electricity – which unfortunately also manages to scramble, fry and boil an egg all at once. “He mustn’t be allowed to mix it up with the Brotherhood of Evil Produce,” warns Magic Pickle. “Together they could create some horrid Omelet of Evil.” But MP and Jo Jo are on the case, and in this case, there is actually some good information in the book in addition to the hijinks, because Jo Jo and her class go on a trip to the zoo and learn stuff (such as the scientific name of an egg-eating snake and the fact that boa constrictors are harmless and smooth). The Egg Poacher is of course eventually beaten (beating eggs – get it?), and there are plenty of puns and lots of action along the way. Just what moviegoers need.

     Of course, there is no guarantee that a Magic Pickle film would be a success. Hotel for Dogs, the movie, didn’t go over very well, with critics saying it was too full of implausibilities (even for a light comedy) and didn’t have much of a plot beyond what viewers could glean from its title. Lois Duncan’s book doesn’t have much of a plot, either, but in print, the plot that it does have works pretty well. Andi Walker and her family are moving temporarily into Aunt Alice’s house because Andi’s father just got a promotion at work and has to go to a new town – where Aunt Alice lives – for training. But Aunt Alice is highly allergic to dogs, so the Walkers have to leave their dog, Bebe, behind until they find out where Dad will be working after the training period. So when Andi and her brother, Bruce, find an adorable stray who soon has puppies, they can’t bring the brood to their current home – but there just happens to be an abandoned house down the street into which they can move the dog, which Andi names Friday, and the puppies as well. And it soon turns out that there are other dogs in need of a caring place to stay, including one that is mistreated and one that begs for scraps at school and – you get the idea. Andi, who is 10 and loves to write poetry, is soon mixed up with lots of dogs and lots of kids in her new school – and things get more complicated as Friday’s puppies get old enough to be weaned and adopted, and dog howls start to disturb the peace of the neighborhood, and then Andi’s father gets his assignment, which will let him live right in the same town…so the real-estate agent takes him to see a certain house that’s available just down the street from Aunt Alice’s... And of course the whole dog-hotel plot unravels, but revelations upon revelations mean that all nine dogs (10 if you count Bebe, who will soon be moving to the new town) end up with fine futures ahead of them – and Andi’s poetry gets a big boost, too. It’s as heartwarming as can be, with all the elements neatly buttoned up at the end – maybe a trifle too neatly, but that’s what makes the book the sort of pleasant fantasy that, one would think, would work as a film. Whether it does or not, Hotel for Dogs, the book, is sure to please preteens who love dogs – especially ones who love poetry as well.


Ugly Guide to Being Alive and Staying That Way. By David Horvath & Sun-Min Kim. Random House. $5.99.

Return to Sender. By Julia Alvarez. Knopf. $16.99.

     The meaning of life is all in one’s perspective – and, to a certain extent, in a child’s age. The popular Uglydolls – 24 of them so far – are for ages six and up, and so is Ugly Guide to Being Alive and Staying That Way, in which Uglydoll characters take kids through everything from birth to old age to “see you next time” in the Uglyverse. Like Frank and Ernest in Bob Thaves’ comic strip, the Uglydolls assume multiple roles and personalities as the story goes on, while their husband-and-wife creators come up with all sorts of amusingly offbeat details to illustrate one aspect of life or another. In the “Grade School” section, for example, there are two pages on “Bullies and Other Reasons to Run,” including six examples of bullies, from “bully with all the excuses” and “tough-clothing guy” to “honest bully” (“I chase you because I’m very afraid deep down”). Elsewhere in the book, there are “Ugly Strollers,” such as the “Coin-op Wedgehead Pricey Wicey” and “Eaty Feed Speeder” (featuring seven appendages equipped with everything from baby bottles to hamburgers); and “Kids Games,” such as “hide-and-seek and snack” and “one-player truth or dare” (“I dare me”). Much of the pleasure here is in the silly ideas and writing, but an equal amount is in the drawings. All 24 Uglies are displayed on two pages near the front of the book, and it can be a lot of fun to see which ones are chosen for which roles in various scenes. Besides, the drawings themselves are cutely ugly: Peaco has three eyes in a row and a tongue sticking out; Uglyworm has one eye, two teeth and the apparent ability to stand on his tail; Wedgehead has a wedge-shaped head and a single eye; Ox has two eyes, one in a round shape and the other just an X (so they spell his name); and so on. Some kids may find the Uglyverse a little more confusing than intended (although the book does say it is “disorienting and dizzying”). And the real-world connections of the book can be a tad depressing if kids think about them too much: life after college consists largely of a boring career of some sort and the chance to shop at Price Hike. By and large, though, the odd characters and skewed visuals keep the book light and enjoyable.

     There’s nothing light about Return to Sender, which Julia Alvarez aims at much older kids – ages 10 and up – and uses to address the significant real-world issue of immigration. This is the story of 11-year-old Tyler, his family, and the illegal Mexican immigrant family that keeps Tyler’s family farm going after Tyler’s grandfather dies and his father is seriously injured in a tractor accident. The book works by juxtaposing Tyler’s real-world worries with the equally real ones of Mari, a daughter of one of the workers. Mari is as frightened of her family being sent back to Mexico as Tyler is of either losing the farm or keeping it by continuing to break the law. Poverty is the overarching fear that connects Tyler and Mari: he is afraid of his family falling into it, while she is afraid of being sent back to it if her family is discovered and deported. The chapters are numbered in both English and Spanish, but the narrative is all in English, although Mari’s contributions – largely in the form of letters to relatives, to the Virgin of Guadalupe and even to the President of the United States – are sprinkled with Spanish, and Alvarez occasionally has Mari mention that she is writing in that language. Even early in the book, it is clear that there is, or will be, a bond between the farm family and the Mexican workers: “Mom’s theory is that the three Mexican girls have filled her mother-in-law’s life with company and someone to care for.” But there is no straight line to happiness for Tyler, Mari or their relatives. Real issues involving immigration are raised in Return to Sender, although in a somewhat one-sided way: “We got laws in this nation and anyone hiring illegals ought to be put behind bars,” says one character – who is shown not only to be ignorant in his speech but also to be an overall curmudgeon “who wanted to veto Grandma’s church group’s selling refreshments.” And there are moral issues here beyond immigration, as when Tyler finds more than $800 in a bathroom and has to try to decide what to do with the money, which has no identification with it and could solve all sorts of problems. There is no simple, happy ending to the story, which Alvarez clearly intends to have as much meaning as possible (even the overtly anti-immigrant character turns out to have unexpected depth). Return to Sender raises serious issues and often raises them well, but it does have a tone of unending earnestness, and Alvarez simplifies, for the sake of emotion, some very thorny political and economic issues. This is nevertheless a book that should make its young readers think about a significant societal problem – not only for United States society but also for that of Mexico.


Brahms: Complete Organ Works. Anne Horsch, organ. CPO. $16.99.

Offenbach: Piano Works, Volume 3—Musette; Les Amazones; Les Arabesques; Berthe; Brunes et blondes; Les Fleurs d’hiver; Les Trois Grâces; Le Voyage de MM. Dunanan père et fils—Polka des bravi; Le Voyage dans la lune—Valse favorite; Cascoletto--Quadrille; La Chanson d’Olympia. Marco Sollini, piano. CPO. $16.99.

     One no more thinks of Brahms as a composer of organ works than of Offenbach – a fine cellist before he hit it big in operetta – as a piano composer. But both men did make some efforts in these unfamiliar territories, and what they produced is well worth hearing when played as well as the pieces are on these two new CDs.

     Brahms’ debt to and appreciation of Bach is clear in many of his works, most notably in the Fourth Symphony, so it is scarcely surprising that many aspects of Brahms’ five organ works are built on Bach’s models. The Chorale Prelude and Fugue on “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid,” WoO 7, possibly written in memory of Robert Schumann, is impressively worked through and clearly echoes Bach’s form and approach. The Prelude and Fugue in A minor, WoO 9, and Prelude and Fugue in G minor, WoO 10, are essentially contrapuntal exercises, well constructed but (despite their minor keys) not especially deep. The Fugue in A-flat minor, WoO 8, however, is fascinating and has elements unique to Brahms. Written in the darkest of all minor keys, with seven flats, and originally with the tempo indication “gloomy” (later changed to “slow”), the work is highly chromatic and filled with rests that almost seem like breaths – or gasps. There is real profundity here, and real sorrow, but there is also a slow climb toward hope, so the work ends consolingly if not exactly peacefully. There is consolation as well in the longest work on this CD – and the longest of all Brahms’ organ works: Eleven Chorale Preludes, op. posth. 122. This is the very last work Brahms wrote, consisting of settings of nine chorale preludes (two are set twice) that collectively constitute a heartfelt meditation on death. Brahms was not religious – a fact that caused his famous split with Dvořák – but in this final work he turned to religious themes for comfort and as an expression of attitudes toward life’s end. The eleven works are highly varied, from the simplicity of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen to the two settings of O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, showing a gradual rather than abrupt removal of the self from the world. Anne Horsch plays the pieces quite beautifully, on an organ in Munich that was built in 1887 and probably played, or at least heard, by Brahms himself. Although the organ has since been expanded and refurbished, it provides an almost mystical feeling of connectedness to some Brahms pieces that show a little-known side of his work.

     Offenbach’s piano music is as light as Brahms’ organ music is heavy. The third and last of Marco Sollini’s CDs of these works combines ones originally written for piano by a very young Offenbach with a number of arrangements – including Sollini’s own version of La Chanson d’Olympia from Les Contes d’Hoffman. Four of the six waltzes on the CD date to the 1830s, when Hoffman was a teenage cellist and just starting out as a composer; the others date to the 1840s. All are pleasant salon pieces with some nice melodies, but are otherwise not especially distinguished. Musette is a piano arrangement of a work originally written in 1843 for cello and piano, and it has a certain wistful charm. As for the piano pieces extracted from Le Voyage de MM. Dunanan père et fils, Le Voyage dans la lune, Cascoletto, and La Chanson d’Olympia, all are bits of Offenbach stage works. The arranger of the first of these is unknown, but the arranger of the second was Offenbach himself – an unusual circumstance that shows how the composer wanted his “lunar waltz” to sound on piano. The third arrangement is by Eduard Strauss – and, interestingly, it was Vienna’s Strauss family that helped popularize Offenbach’s Parisian music. The most intriguing arrangement is Pollini’s, since the coloratura “doll’s aria” includes sections where the clockwork mechanism runs down -- giving Pollini opportunities to let the music collapse. None of these piano works is central to Offenbach’s oeuvre, but all show a rarely heard side of his compositions, and the pleasantly hummable melodies provide new evidence, if any is needed, of the reasons for Offenbach’s very considerable popularity.


Holst: Orchestral Works, Volume 1—Ballet from “The Perfect Fool”; The Golden Goose; The Lure; The Morning of the Year. Joyful Company of Singers and BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Richard Hickox. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Reznicek: Symphony No. 1, “Tragic”; Four Songs of Prayer and Repentance. Marina Prudenskaja, mezzo-soprano; Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Frank Beermann. CPO. $16.99.

     Here are some good and interesting early-20th-century works by some good and often-neglected composers – but there is nothing especially compelling on either disc. Gustav Holst wrote a number of interesting orchestral pieces, but the first volume of Chandos’ series of his music for orchestra does not contain any of them, with the possible exception of the ballet music from his opera The Perfect Fool (a rather clumsy sendup of Wagner’s Parsifal). This entire CD is devoted to ballet music, and some of the pieces have considerable verve and charm; but the two longest works, The Golden Goose and The Morning of the Year, are “choral ballets” whose texts are thoroughly inane and detract from the quality of the music accompanying them. The Golden Goose (1926) is based on the fairy tale by the brothers Grimm, about a princess who could not laugh until she saw a parade of people all stuck to an enchanted goose. The Morning of the Year (1926-7) is a rather naïve celebration of seasonal renewal and “the mating ordained by Nature to happen in the spring of each year.” Holst’s music for these ballets is appropriately bright, lively and surface-level, but The Perfect Fool (1918-22), whose ballet represents the spirits of Earth, Water and Fire, remains a more impressive piece of tone painting. The fourth work on the disc, The Lure (1921), is a short and thankfully wordless ballet about moths dancing around a candle flame, with lively but not particularly distinguished music. The late Richard Hickox leads the Joyful Company of Singers and BBC National Orchestra of Wales with enthusiasm in all these works, and the pieces are certainly of interest in the context of a comprehensive survey of Holst’s orchestral music, but there is not much here that will sustain itself over repeated listenings.

     Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek, nowadays known almost entirely for his opera Donna Diana – particularly its sparkling overture – actually produced a substantial body of music in a wide variety of forms. Intelligent and well-versed in other composers’ works, he suffered from never developing a style that was uniquely his own – or, to be more precise, he developed a large number of styles, but seemed to keep discarding them. His orchestral structure and color are always impressive, but his music rarely plumbs the emotional depths that he apparently wanted it to reach. His “Tragic” symphony (1902) is a case in point. Running nearly an hour, it opens with a large, 23-minute movement that clearly delineates “masculine” and “feminine” themes, includes a fugue and ranges stylistically from neo-Baroque to neo-Brucknerian. But the movement seems to have no central purpose – and the remaining three movements seem largely unconnected to it. The Scherzo is nicely balanced, the slow movement has elements of both Wagner and Mahler, and the finale builds a set of variations around a Berlioz-style idée fixe. The symphony’s ending does have tragedy, or at least pathos, but the work as a whole seems to sprawl without ever becoming focused – even when interpreted with as much sensitivity as Frank Beermann brings to it. The Four Songs of Prayer and Repentance (1913) are far simpler, more direct and more successful. They feature a reduced string section and lovely instrumental touches, such as a harp in the second song and winds and horns in the third. The songs’ sentiments are straightforwardly biblical, but the to-the-point construction – the songs last two to four minutes – gives this work a compressed solemnity that goes beyond the words themselves. Marina Prudenskaja sings effectively and forthrightly, allowing the songs’ sentiments to flow naturally. The songs may not be great music, but they are thoughtful and meaningful, and more successful than Reznicek’s larger-scale First Symphony.

February 05, 2009


The One and Only Marigold. By Florence Parry Heide. Illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Loose Leashes. Poems by Amy Schmidt. Photographs by Ron Schmidt. Random House. $16.99.

     Stories and pictures of young kids and dogs never grow old – certainly not for children ages 3-8. And the evidence indicates that Florence Parry Heide never grows old, either, even though she is now 89. The author of the Treehorn books (illustrated by Edward Gorey in his inimitable style) has created a brand-new heroine – a little monkey with expressive tail and hair that stands straight up, like a field of wheat – in The One and Only Marigold. The four linked stories in the book feature Marigold, a self-described “very loyal person,” refusing to replace her old purple coat; creating a new hobby of bugging her best friend, Maxine (Marigold’s previous hobby was inventing ugly faces); setting up a “treasure stand” instead of a lemonade stand; and refusing to wear new clothes to school because she “hated every single thing that was in her closet.” What is special here is the working-out of the stories rather than the plots themselves. In the final “clothing” tale, for instance (“Marigold’s New Dress”), Marigold ends up in her old purple coat and an orange hat pulled over her ears, while her best-friend-again Maxine (who, by the way, is a hippopotamus) shows up to go to school in a new skirt, jacket and knee socks. Marigold, embarrassed, starts saying all the new things she has on as well, but won’t show any of them. Her claims get wilder and wilder (“I dyed my hair purple and I have a new spike haircut”), and Maxine realizes what is going on, so Maxine goes home for a moment and returns in “a raincoat and a green cap that came down over her ears.” That’s what friends are for, and that’s what friendship is all about, but there’s nothing even the slightest bit preachy in Heide’s writing – everything flows naturally and charms throughout. Jill McElmurry’s wonderful illustrations capture Marigold, Maxine, Marigold’s mother and the other characters here just perfectly. One two-page spread – in which Marigold parades by while people of all sizes, shapes and colors say or think “who’s that?” – is absolutely hilarious, with every character given a unique personality, from the saxophone player to the pirate with the popcorn. Here’s hoping The One and Only Marigold will not be the one and only Marigold book.

     Loose Leashes is the first picture book by Amy Schmidt, but it is clear that she and her photographer husband, Ron, could go far with their approach. The book is a collection of photos of real dogs in amusing (or sometimes ordinary) postures, with poetic descriptions of what is, or might be, going on. Pictures and words intertwine beautifully, as in “Love,” which features a small dog, with flower in mouth, looking up at a Great Dane high above: “Can you feel my eyes upon you, melting you with my stare?/ I know we’re very different. We’d make an awkward pair.” And so on. Add in the dogs’ names, Moose and Mini, and the fact that Moose is the small dog, and you have a thoroughly delightful double-dog portrait. For a single-dog one, consider Honey, a pampered pooch seen perched in a sink, a towel entwined around her head, with a poem that starts, “I will not go to the groomer/ And won’t be washed outside./ To be bathed in a public place/ Is quite undignified.” Then there are Pip and Squeak, both holding onto a bone that seems to be bigger than either of them; Stinky, seen in the bathtub with a rubber duck atop his head; and more. The pooches’ expressions are beautifully captured in the photos, the poems are fun and funny, and the “furry facts” at the end add some amusing sidelights to the doggy doings. Four woofs!


As Time Goes By. By Abigail Trafford. Basic Books. $25.95.

We’ll Always Have Paris. By Ray Bradbury. William Morrow. $24.99.

     The iconic 1942 film Casablanca, and the song "As Time Goes By" by Herman Hupfeld that is a touchstone of the movie, continue to captivate American authors, as evidenced in these two very different books – each of which seeks to connect to readers through the same classic images and sounds. Abigail Trafford’s nonfictional As Time Goes By is about the new American way of love – specifically, love among the graying members of an aging population. Trafford, columnist and former health editor of The Washington Post and author of Crazy Time and My Time, uses the first-person accounts of numerous members of the over-50 set – only some of whom insist on having their names changed – to recount developing attitudes toward long-term marriage, divorce, rediscovery of old flames, and much more. When Trafford writes of an 84-year-old widow who meets a new man and subsequently confides to her daughter, “I went to the moon and back,” you realize this is no growing-old-gracefully tome; when she talks about long-term marriages ending “with a whimper, not a bang,” you realize she is describing new relationship models that do not fit the assumed societal norms of the past. Trafford’s book’s subtitle – “Boomerang Marriages, Serial Spouses, Throwback Couples, and Other Romantic Adventures in an Age of Longevity” – really tells only part of her book’s story. She talks about the inevitable health issues associated with aging, and the way being coupled – or uncoupled – can affect them. She analyzes the many reasons for “gray divorce.” She talks about being struck by Cupid’s arrow at midlife or older, when “here you are, about to receive Social Security and behaving like a lovesick puppy” – and what can go wrong if the object of your affection is unavailable or just lacks the same level of interest. “The way you were when you started out often bears little resemblance to the present,” Trafford writes, and it is in the difference between what was and what is that relationships deteriorate, crumble and re-form. The options for love in later years are many and varied, says Trafford, and so are the pitfalls (although she neglects to discuss sexually transmitted diseases – an issue at all ages nowadays). One of Trafford’s important points is that many people are determined not to “settle” for less than an ideal, but settling is in fact a necessity, involving “accepting the other person as she or he really is – and finding a comfort zone of closeness and pleasure together.” But that does not mean accepting a slow (sometimes not so slow) deterioration of a long-term relationship: “The imperative of living longer is renewal. For many, love is an agent of transformation.” As Time Goes By has the power to transform the way people 50 and older see their love lives – and the way those of younger generations perceive the couplings and recouplings of their elders.

     There are couplings, uncouplings and transformations in Ray Bradbury’s latest book of short stories, too, but We’ll Always Have Paris does not show that we’ll always have Bradbury at the very high level of emotion and intelligence that he has reached so often in the past. With 22 tales in 210 pages, this book represents rapid-fire Bradbury, although individual stories within it manage to be expansive (a Bradbury trademark) even within just a few pages. Some of the stories have the rare mixture of poetry and potency that is Bradbury at his best: “Massiniello Pietro,” the sensitive tale of a man who just won’t fit into society; “When the Bough Breaks,” a highly unusual work that turns out to be a ghost story about conception; and “The Reincarnate,” perhaps the most sympathetic-to-the-undead zombie story ever written. Other stories have promising premises but don’t quite work: “Un-pillow Talk,” in which lovers try to think their way back to the pre-intimacy friendship that, Bradbury indicates, is purer and finer; and “Fly Away Home,” the sole science-fiction story in the book, which suggests that only the power of old-fashioned, small-town living can overcome the inherent loneliness of space exploration. And a few tales simply fall flat, including the title story, a sort-of-mystery about what might or might not be a sort-of homosexual sort-of relationship; “A Literary Encounter,” which tries to be amusing in the tale of a husband too influenced by what he reads but which comes across as merely smug; and “America,” the final piece in the book, a prose poem in which Bradbury uncharacteristically devolves into cliché (“You miss the forest for the trees”). At his best – in this book and in general – Bradbury is a poet of the prosaic, his reminiscences of simpler times resonating even with readers who have never been to a small Midwestern town or been captivated by now-vanished radio serials. There are glimmers of Bradbury’s unique excellence in We’ll Always Have Paris, but not enough to prevent the misfires from dragging the overall book down to a respectable-but-not-top-notch (+++) rating.


John Corigliano: Circus Maximus—Symphony No. 3 for Large Wind Ensemble; Gazebo Dances for Band. University of Texas Wind Ensemble conducted by Jerry Junkin. Naxos. $8.99.

Vittorio Giannini: Piano Concerto; Symphony No. 4. Gabriela Imreh, piano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Spalding. Naxos. $8.99.

     John Corigliano is something of a superstar among modern American composers. Corigliano, who turns 71 on February 16, has found a way to produce music that is uncompromisingly contemporary but still appealing to a wide enough audience so that it gets played repeatedly, in a variety of venues. This is no small accomplishment: even when a modern classical work gets programmed by an adventurous orchestra, it frequently gets only that one performance, or perhaps two, before being returned to the composer’s shelf. The appeal of Corigliano’s music is quite clear in the new recording of his Symphony No. 3, written in 2004 (following by three years his previous symphony, which was for strings alone and which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music). Circus Maximus is Corigliano’s first work written specifically for concert band, and it is highly impressive on multiple levels. It is spatially conceived – the band surrounds the audience – and includes eight sections played without pause. Corigliano fully exploits the unique sounds of which a concert band is capable: the work starts with trumpet and percussion fanfares, includes a saxophone quartet (in the concert hall, placed in the second-tier boxes), and comes across as a mixture of solemnity, social commentary (comparing contemporary American society with that of ancient Rome) and grand noise. In the third section, “Channel Surfing,” music constantly interrupts other music; in the fourth and fifth, both called “Night Music,” we first hear rural nighttime sounds and then hear the hectic noises of an urban area after dark; in the sixth movement, whose title is the same as that of the whole work, a band marches down the aisles while other performers play on stage and around the concert hall. The final two sections are prayerful and then, at the end, noisy (the work’s final sound is a gunshot). Circus Maximus begs to be recorded as an SACD, but the wonderful performance by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble under Jerry Junkin (who commissioned the work and to whom it is dedicated) sounds just grand in CD form. Jazz, hunting calls, circus music, many fanfares – all the elements come together and play against each other as Junkin and his ensemble dissect the work elegantly and put it back together beautifully. It’s quite a sonic experience. And the CD is filled out by Corigliano’s band arrangement of Gazebo Dances, originally a suite for piano four hands (and a work also arranged by the composer for orchestra). This is much simpler and more vivacious music than Circus Maximus, and complements the longer work nicely. The first movement has a Rossinian flavor; the second is a somewhat awkward waltz; the third, marked Adagio, is as expressive as the tempo indication implies; and the finale, a tarantella, is bright and bouncy. This is a top-notch CD that clearly shows why Corigliano is one modern American composer who has gained widespread popularity.

     The case of Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) is quite different. His music is more avowedly Romantic than Corigliano’s and has considerable emotional sweep and intensity. But little of it has caught on – although Giannini himself wrote a symphony for band (his third). Both Giannini’s Piano Concerto (1935) and his Symphony No. 4 (1960) have gone unperformed for decades. It is actually fairly easy to understand why – without in any way denying the many attractions of the works. The problem is that there is no distinctive Giannini “sound.” The concerto owes much to Rachmaninoff, while Symphony No. 4 sounds like a variety of other composers without ever establishing a unique thematic or sonic identity. The Bournemouth Symphony, one of the most versatile orchestras around, handles both works with fine attentiveness, its sections excellently balanced in the symphony and its accompaniment well proportioned in the concerto. Gabriela Imreh plays very well indeed, and Daniel Spalding is a fine conductor who seems thoroughly to understand Giannini’s music. The faster movements of the works – notably the concerto’s concluding Burlesca – are more interesting than the slower ones, whose emotions seem more borrowed than heartfelt. The Giannini CD gets a (+++) rating: this is music that is interesting but not compelling.


Rued Langgaard: Symphonies Nos. 15 (“The Sea Storm”) and 16 (“Sun Deluge”); Drapa (On the Death of Edvard Grieg); Sphinx; Hvidbjerg-Drapa; Danmarks Radio; Res absùrda!? Johan Reuter, bass; Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish National Choir and Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

The City: The Original 1939 Classic Documentary Film with a Newly Recorded Soundtrack of the Score by Aaron Copland. Francis Guinan, narrator; Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Naxos DVD. $19.99.

Two Films by Frank Scheffer: Music for Airports; In the Ocean. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

     Classical music splintered in the 20th century and started going in so many different directions that neither listeners nor, at times, composers seemed to be sure of where things would end up, if anywhere. Some composers looked back at the past, especially Romanticism, and tried to reinterpret it for more-modern audiences while retaining its emotional impact. Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) was especially committed to this approach – and, as a result, was something of an outsider in Danish musical life throughout his career. Langgaard’s final two symphonies, No. 15 of 1937 (revised 1949) and No. 16 of 1950-1, encapsulate his style and highlight his strengths and weaknesses. Both contain very short, very effective and surprisingly lyrical Scherzo movements, but in their slow movements – Adagio funebre in No. 15, Elegi (Elegy) in No. 16 – there is more that is Romantic in form than in emotional substance. Symphony No. 15 builds to a final movement for bass-baritone and male chorus, an effective tone painting of a poem called “Stormy Night” by Thøger Larsen. No. 16, which Langgaard himself saw as a summation of his life’s work, is more scattered, incorporating a variety of techniques and looking back at some of Langgaard’s earlier pieces. In some ways, the short works on Dacapo’s beautifully played new SACD are more interesting than the symphonies. Drapa (an Old Norse poem of homage) and Sphinx, both of whose final versions date to 1913, are atmospheric and show a strong command of orchestral color. The remaining works here, all dating to 1948, have never been recorded before. Danmarks Radio, a short series of fanfares, is nothing much, but Hvidbjerg-Drapa, for choir, organ and orchestra, is highly impressive. It recalls a 13th-century murder in a church in Jutland and is both grand and emotionally impressive – all within three minutes. The most “modern” (or modernistic) work here is Res absùrda!? for choir and orchestra. The words of the title are repeated, again and again, faster and faster, as the orchestra sends out a series of yawps in accompaniment. The piece seems an indictment of technique for its own sake, and a critique of composers who avowedly turned their backs on the Romanticism that Langgaard continued to embrace. But it is easy to imagine other mid-20th-century composers using its approach seriously.

     One composer who adopted 20th-century techniques for some pieces and avoided them for others was Aaron Copland, and the new DVD of The City shows how effectively he was able to work in media beyond the concert hall. Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke shot the film to a script by Lewis Mumford, with Copland providing the score. There is no dialogue – the movie was made for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and was designed to show how the increasing pace of modern cities ruined the qualities of life in rural America, with a hopeful ending about how those qualities could be recaptured in carefully planned communities. There is a hint of socialism in all this and more than a hint of nostalgia for earlier days: the Depression was still very much a fact of everyone’s life in 1939, and Mumford was an early and vocal critic of urban sprawl. The new DVD provides a well-presented version of the film’s narrative and an exceptionally well-played rendition of Copland’s music, which follows the visual landscape through scenes of uncertainty, despair and hope – the last in the form of the town of Greenbelt, Maryland, built as a federal experiment to try to implement Mumford’s ideals. Copland’s use of typewriters, a siren and other sound effects makes perfect sense in context, and if this is scarcely great music, it shows clearly how Copland adapted to the new needs and demands of the 20th century. One of the additional features on the DVD is especially noteworthy: a short documentary made in 2000 about Greenbelt and including interviews with three of its earliest residents.

     Go several steps beyond Langgaard’s musical explorations and Copland’s integration of music into film and you end up with the new DVD of movies by Frank Scheffer. Music for Airports was written by Brian Eno in 1978 and reinterpreted 20 years later by the group called Bang on a Can: Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe. In its new form, the work was performed at the 1999 Holland Festival, with digital photos of Schiphol Airport projected on an overhead screen. Now Music for Airports is again reinterpreted by Bang on a Can, this time with a variety of semi-abstract visuals created by Scheffer. The music, which includes voices, acoustic piano and synthesizer, was created by Eno to make airport terminals less irritating to be in. It is ambient music by design – unlike, say, Muzak, which takes works to which people were supposed to pay attention and changes them into background. Eno succeeded in making music that can be ignored as easily as it can be focused on, but in the context of a film, it would seem odd to let one’s mind wander. It does, though, because – like Eno’s music – Scheffer’s visuals can as easily draw attention or pass through the mind with little impact. As for In the Ocean, Scheffer’s second film on this DVD, its objective is to have contemporary composers discuss modern classical music, within the context of a history of the Bang in a Can musicians. In the Ocean is thus part biopic and part history-cum-analysis, but it is more interesting as the former than the latter. Although Philip Glass, John Cage, Steve Reich and other modern composers appear in the film, nothing they say adds any particular insight into the fragmentation of classical music during and after the 20th century, and there is little here to counter the impression that much modern classical music includes experimentation for its own sake and the sake of the composer, not for the benefit or involvement of the audience.