July 25, 2013
Your New Job Title Is “Accomplice”: A “Dilbert” Collection. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
The Birth of Canis: A “Get Fuzzy” Collection. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Beginning Pearls. By Stephan T. Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. But a consistent foolishness is the angel of first-rate cartooning, and if you don’t believe that, then maybe you will be convinced by the latest Scott Adams and Darby Conley collections. Adams’ Dilbert has been consistent for two decades (after flailing about somewhat for the first few years after its 1989 debut). It has now reached the point at which the greatest exaggerations in the strip seem entirely logical within the context of big-company business, where Dilbert’s misadventures take place. Thus, in Your New Job Title Is “Accomplice,” it makes perfect sense for Alice to claim “territorial waters” extending 12 feet from her cubicle, build a robot shark to patrol the area, and then claim it is only a dolphin when people complain. It makes sense for Dilbert to be named Project Leader and told that the title gets him a three-inch-wider cubicle, but since the company does not have any, he has to lose weight so his current cubicle appears bigger. There is a “cash cow” wandering the hallways – that seems right, too. Speaking of cash, Wally gets a billion-dollar settlement when he claims the company discriminates against “short, bald, nearsighted guys,” is admitted to the “top 1% club,” but then soon finds himself right back where he started – yup. Asok the intern reads the Pointy-Haired Boss’ list of “25 focus areas for next year” and decides that “this misunderstood man is a brilliant comedian. He is only pretending to be an angry idiot.” Dogbert continues to exhibit his consulting prowess while showing the boss how to “imbue your staff with a sense of urgency” while avoiding “a creepy vibe.” Catbert tells Dilbert that the poor employee parking arrangement is designed to prevent people from running personal errands, and when Dilbert asks if he is intentionally making life more difficult, Catbert responds, “What do you think management is?” Ah yes, this is reality – filtered and refined and perhaps skewed just a little bit, but consistently skewed, so that any relationship between Dilbert and the real working world is purely intentional.
The world in which Get Fuzzy takes place is a little harder to pinpoint. On the surface, it is the workaday (rather than working) world, with the activities of Bucky Katt, Satchel Pooch and hapless human Rob Wilco taking place in an ordinary Boston apartment. But there is something consistently skewed here, too, and it is not just the fact that the cat and dog converse with the feckless Rob and every other human who shows up in the strip. Darby Conley has solidified the odd relationships among his characters at this point and now turns his strip into an ongoing series of puns (some of them barely comprehensible) and riffs on peculiar interactions. In The Birth of Canis, for example, the longstanding dispute between Bucky and Fungo Squiggly, the ferret in a neighboring apartment, advances to the point at which Bucky creates his own reality TV show – which is a predictable mess – while Fungo manages to set up a genuine reality show on the Ferret Television Network by planting tiny cameras in the walls of Rob’s apartment and letting viewers (other ferrets) observe the goings-on. This results in Bucky getting fan mail, which makes him happy, until he finds out it is from ferrets, which makes him ill. And Rob’s role in all this is to act as dumb as usual, with lines such as, “Shhhh! Man, the walls will hear you!” and “We have to get out of here!” Rob is supposedly an advertising executive, but given the fact that his intelligence and creativity are well below those of Bucky (even though Bucky’s abilities are always misused), there is room for a role reversal here. It won’t happen, though, because Conley has settled the characters so comfortably into their roles and their appearances. When there are personality changes, they are invariably incremental: Satchel talks back (and talks smack) to Bucky more often now, although Bucky still gets the better (or worse) of him more often than not. Conley enlivens the strip these days with a series of subsidiary characters, the most notable being Mac Manc McManx, a scene-stealing British feline and distant Bucky relative who talks a nearly incomprehensible blend of Cockney rhyming slang and Manchester idioms. The Birth of Canis introduces Ibid Q. (that is, I.Q.) Muttly, a strange little dog who speaks more intellectually than all the other characters put together, calling Bucky “a textbook delusional egotist with anger management issues,” which pretty much nails it, especially when I.Q. adds, “You exhibit symptoms of being what is colloquially known as a ‘jerk,’” which nails it even more strongly. Throw in some Bucky-designed composites – mixed-genre movies such as “Freaky Friday the 13th” and mixed-use inventions such as a fork attached to a lamp cord so you can plug in the sofa and drive it around the house – and you have consistently offbeat and consistently entertaining silliness occurring in a world very much like ours, and very foolish indeed.
The world of Pearls Before Swine is a lot like ours, too, but even darker and simultaneously funnier for anyone who enjoys the frequent death of cute comic-strip characters, god-awful puns, lots of beer drinking, herbivore-carnivore conflict, homicidal gingerbread men, homicidal sea anemones, and….hmm. This seems like one comic strip that is emphatically not for kids, which makes it somewhat odd to discover Beginning Pearls, an entry in Andrews McMeel’s “amp! Comics for Kids” series for middle-grade readers. What will the kids introduced to Pearls Before Swine through this book be reading and/or doing by the time they reach high school? (Shudder.) Well, Stephan Pastis (who includes the middle initial “T.” in his name here, but not in his regular collections – presumably looking for some sort of deniability) does manage to select some of his more kid-friendly offerings for this book (in fact, he selects one twice and another out of order, repeats a panel within one strip, and omits some of Zebra’s introductory words – does he think kids don’t pay attention, or do his editors think that?). Anyway, among the child-safe strips here are ones about Rat’s “temper-prone sock puppet, Pepito,” one in which Death announces that the strip is not “dark and grim,” one in which Danny Donkey steals a Game Boy, ones in which Zebra’s relatives are devoured by crocodiles and lions, one in which one croc kills another and makes him into boots, and….wow. What will kids who read this book be doing in a few, a very few, years? Best not to think too much about that – best just to enjoy the book’s layout in five sections (focused on Rat, Pig, Goat, Zebra and the crocs), the introductory material for each section “written by” the relevant characters, and the generally skewed and sometimes overtly weird worldview that Pastis, with or without the T., creates and disseminates day after day. Pearls Before Swine remains a love-it-or-hate-it strip – it’s difficult to be indifferent to Pastis’ and the strip’s oddities – and presumably Beginning Pearls is intended to capture a whole new audience that will allow Pastis to continue creating the strip and not have to return to his former work as a lawyer. In fact, parents really ought to think seriously about buying more than one copy of the book, at least one per child – because would you really want someone like Pastis to go back to practicing law?
Splat and the Cool School Trip. By Rob Scotton. Harper. $17.99.
Pete the Cat: The Wheels on the Bus. Based on the creation of James Dean. Harper. $9.99.
Clark the Shark. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Harper. $17.99.
Charlie Goes to School. By Ree Drummond. Illustrations by Diane deGroat. Harper. $17.99.
Summertime is anticipation-of-school time in the publishing business, and as a result, there are some delightful new picture books using familiar characters – and some unfamiliar ones – to celebrate the early-grade school experience. Things are really cool for Splat the Cat in Rob Scotton’s latest adventure, for example. Splat and his class will be going to the zoo, but Splat’s best friend, Seymour the mouse, cannot come – because everyone knows that elephants are afraid of mice (they aren’t, in reality, but this is a standard plot element in many kids’ books). The absence of Seymour is all right, though, because Splat is so enthusiastically looking forward to seeing his absolutely favorite animals, the penguins. But Seymour’s absence is not all right with Seymour himself, and he comes up with a clever plan to join Splat after all – a plan that goes awry because of, yes, an elephant. And the elephant’s fright leads to a penguin crisis – this all makes sense in the book, really! So Splat never gets to see the penguins, and feels very unhappy as he drags himself home after the field trip. But Seymour, who feels bad about spoiling Splat’s day, has an idea, and his solution to the penguin problem is simply hilarious – the illustration of Seymour waddling so the penguins will follow him in a long waddling line is one of the many high points here. If school were this much fun for kids, parents would have trouble keeping them at home in the summer – they would want to hang out at the school building all the time. It is certainly worth considering a summer trip to the zoo, in any case, since kids who read Splat and the Cool School Trip will likely want to go there, whether they are in school or not.
Another popular feline character, Pete the Cat, is at the center of a simpler book that uses the words of the familiar song, “The Wheels on the Bus,” as an excuse to show Pete, other cats and a dog riding in a school bus that does all the things the song describes: the horn beeps, the wipers swish, the signals blink, the motor zooms, and so on. Huge-eyed (and always rather sleepy-looking) Pete is a perfectly fine bus driver, not rattled at all even though the kitties on the bus say, “Come on, Pete!” all day long. The words of the song may not be quite what all parents remember, especially for the illustration in which the dog has taken over as bus driver while Pete sits atop the bus, electric guitar in his paws, and the cats are shouting “Let’s rock out!” (all day long). As an enjoyable variation on a well-known school-related song, Pete the Cat: The Wheels on the Bus has plenty of enthusiasm and will be fun for kids who enjoy Pete as a character.
For fun with an entirely new character, young readers can turn to Clark the Shark, whose joy at school is as oversize as his, umm, teeth. There’s nothing dangerous about Clark, and he’s not a bully, even though he is enormous in comparison to all the other students. He simply likes everything about school too much and cannot control his enthusiasm. Bruce Hale plays with the idea of a shark student for laughs, and Guy Francis offers super-toothy drawings (and one probably inevitable parody of the famous poster for the movie Jaws) in showing why the other kids end up refusing to play with Clark. “Clark loved his life,” writes Hale, but there is just so much of him! He shouts out enthusiastically about a book, leading the teacher, Mrs. Inkydink, to say, “Less shouting, more reading.” He eats the others kids’ lunches (but not the other kids!), he plays too roughly at recess, and his motto, as he explains to Mrs. Inkydink, is, “But life is SO exciting!” Well, clearly Clark needs a lesson in taking it easy, so Mrs. Inkydink provides the suggestion, “Stay cool!” And Clark figures out a way to do just that: “Maybe if I make a rhyme, I’ll remember every time!” So whenever he is about to overreact to something, Clark instead invents a short rhyme reminding himself to stay cool – and sure enough, the teacher and other students appreciate everything he is doing, and everybody learns and plays happily together. But there is a twist here, in the form of a very large new student who scares everyone and is so big that he even breaks the playground equipment. Clark to the rescue! He goes back to his hyper-enthusiastic ways just long enough to engage the new student – a squid – and the whole school learns that sometimes there is a time for overdoing things. This offbeat book should rev up kids’ enthusiasm for school, or at least for sharks – make-believe ones, anyway.
The antithesis of Clark is Charlie the ranch dog, who is as laid-back and calm as can be under any and all circumstances. Ree Drummond’s stories about Charlie are fun because what Charlie thinks of himself is so far out of alignment with what he really is and does. And yes, that applies to school as to everything else. Charlie Goes to School starts with Charlie being his usual “helpful” self around the ranch, napping while a tractor tire is repaired and a ranch hand is shoeing a horse, explaining that he is indispensable to getting the work done. Then Charlie wanders into the house, where kids are busy in the home-school classroom. Watching them – including snack time, in which he participates, and exercise, in which he does not – Charlie comes up with the idea of starting his own ranch school for his fellow animals: dogs, kitten, horses. And of course everything goes beautifully – or not. The animals just don’t appreciate the nuances of schooling the way the kids in the house do, and Charlie soon has a major mess on his hands…err, paws. Urging the other animals to handle cleanup, Charlie decides that he has worked so hard that he deserves a recess, and promptly flops into his dog bed for one thing at which he is really good: a nap. An end-of-book recipe for “Charlie’s Favorite Strawberry Oatmeal Bars” is a delicious concluding touch for a book that may not reflect the reality of school, but that certainly shows the world as Charlie the Ranch Dog sees it.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. By Chris Grabenstein. Random House. $16.99.
Amelia Bedelia’s First Library Card. By Herman Parish. Pictures by Lynne Avril. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Big Nate 5: Big Nate Flips Out. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $13.99.
Library cards open doors to worlds of wonder and adventure, worlds of science and fantasy, worlds real and worlds imagined – yes, even in our current digital, video-saturated age. They also open the way to Luigi L. Lemoncello’s library, which is entered through a 20-ton bank-vault door after various portentous announcements are made, such as “books…are windows into worlds we never even dreamed possible” and “an open book is an open mind.” Mr. Lemoncello is one of those eccentric billionaires who seem to people mystery/fantasy stories like this, and if he makes you think a bit of Willy Wonka, the resemblance is purely intentional; there is even a direct reference to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Mr. Lemoncello in fact has a place both in the world of traditional books – the whole story of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, which is intended for ages 9-12, is based on the Dewey Decimal System – and in several other worlds, his products including a number of “Lemoncello games and gizmos,” not to mention Anagraham Cracker cookies. Instead of a single golden ticket, Chris Grabenstein’s book features 12 library-card-based admissions to the new facility, and of course there is a challenge to getting one of those cards so you can gain admittance – but it is nothing compared to the challenge of getting out of the place once you are inside (hence the book’s title). The dozen 12-year-olds, each of whom gets a card with the names of different famous children’s books on the back, are told that they will be playing a live 3-D version of a classic Lemoncello game called “Hurry to the Top of the Heap.” The game is complex and amusing, filled with references to books of all kinds, and the contestants – one of whom is the book’s protagonist, Kyle Keeley – soon find themselves challenged not only by Mr. Lemoncello’s planning but also by their own rivalries, jealousies and personality quirks. After some players are eliminated, the remaining ones realize that they will do better by cooperating – to at least some extent – than by working entirely on their own, so they form teams, making the events easier for readers to follow than 12 separate stories would have been. Kyle’s team is opposed by one led by the arrogant and unpleasant Charles Chiltington, just to make sure readers know which group to root for. Of course Kyle’s group eventually wins, but that is really not the point here. The point is how they win and what they win and how many book titles and book excerpts Grabenstein can toss about for readers to enjoy as the story progresses. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is so much fun that readers will be disappointed when, at the end, they have no choice but to escape and return to the humdrum everyday world.
The world of Amelia Bedelia was never humdrum in Peggy Parish’s books, where the sweet-tempered maid was constantly taking figures of speech literally and making messes of all sorts, then winning everyone over by baking something delicious. Parish died in 1988, and her nephew, Herman Parish, started writing Amelia Bedelia books in 1995 – including ones about Amelia’s childhood, beginning in 2009. These are for ages 4-8, and the latest one, Amelia Bedelia’s First Library Card, introduces Amelia to the wonders of the library while (as in other Herman Parish books) showing her developing a mild degree of the literalism that Peggy Parish made the centerpiece of the original stories. Lynne Avril’s pleasant illustrations contribute to the atmosphere of a modestly amusing story in which Amelia inadvertently checks out a book about weather instead of the one she wanted – about cupcakes. Then she gets interested in the weather book, but then she gets distracted, and the result is that the book sits out all night in a thunderstorm and is ruined – but everyone forgives Amelia, whose mother pays to replace the book, and there is a cute-cupcake ending. The earlier part of the story, in which Amelia and her class visit the town library and learn some basics of how libraries work, is more instructive; the later part, involving the mistaken checkout and thunderstorm, is more amusing. This (+++) book will be enjoyable for young readers who know Amelia Bedelia only as a child, and for parents who may have fond memories of the adult Amelia and hope that these Herman Parish books will eventually lead to an interest in the Peggy Parish ones. That could happen – but in many ways, Peggy Parish’s world, in which Amelia is the maid for a wealthy couple, seems somewhat politically incorrect these days. And that is a shame, since the Peggy Parish books have a level of sheer delight in language and unintended consequences that the more-recent Herman Parish ones rarely possess.
The delights of Lincoln Peirce’s (++++) Big Nate Flips Out are on an altogether different level, although here too a librarian plays an important role in the book – which is based on Peirce’s “Big Nate” comic strip and contains plenty of drawings and comic-strip sequences as well as a connecting narrative. This fifth adventure of self-important, self-unaware, sloppy, comic-strip-drawing sixth-grader Nate revolves around the yearbook, whose adviser is the school librarian, Mrs. Hickson. And Mrs. Hickson has some choice words for Nate regarding the horrendous condition in which he returns library books: Nate is a complete slob, a fact that becomes part of the plot here when he is temporarily hypnotized out of sloppiness (a recurring theme in Peirce’s strip). Mrs. Hickson arranges for there to be yearbook co-editors, a decision greatly frustrating to super-smart Gina, Nate’s nemesis, who had intended to rule the yearbook all by herself (as shown in a scene in which she selects only the candid photos in which she herself appears). Gina ends up as co-editor with Francis, Nate’s best friend, but then Nate and Francis almost come to blows when Francis agrees to get a school camera for Nate to use for yearbook photos, the camera disappears amid Nate’s generally sloppiness, and the whole thing leads to Nate revealing a secret about Francis that he had promised absolutely, positively never to tell anyone, ever. Later, Nate actually does come to blows with another student – who deserves it, but who, unlike Nate, goes unpunished. As for the library, it is one place where Nate tries to get an unflattering candid photo of Gina – unsuccessfully – and the way he eventually does get such a photo involves book learning and a trivia contest in which Nate reveals a never-to-be-told secret about himself to make up for the one he blurted out about Francis. The plot is complicated but easy to follow; the storytelling method – part graphic novel, part comic strip, part traditional book – is enjoyable; and Nate’s continuing niceness (which at one point involves the “neat Nate” returning a stack of library books that the usual sloppy Nate had misplaced somewhere in his mounds of stuff) makes up for a lot of Nate’s attention-getting and detention-getting behavior. Fans of Big Nate will definitely want to add Big Nate Flips Out to their personal library.
The Never List. By Koethi Zan. Pamela Dorman/Viking. $27.95.
Sometimes the formulas work. The Never List is a predictable thriller on which readers will look back with the realization that they could have figured out pretty much every major plot point in advance if they had thought carefully about what was going on. But while reading the book, most won’t figure out the answers, because debut novelist Koethi Zan knows how to keep the plot moving, the dialogue sharp, and the revelations coming at just the right page-turning pace. Most readers will simply be too involved in the story to realize the extent to which they are being manipulated on every page.
Zan’s manipulative skill may come from the 15 years she spent practicing law; her sure sense of theatricality may come from the venues in which she practiced it, which included film, theater and television. The title of her novel refers to a list of things that two super-cautious teenage best friends, Sarah and Jennifer, create after a car crash in which Jennifer’s mother is killed. The items on the list are exactly the sort of parental guidance that teens are usually assumed to scoff at, from “never ignore your gut” to “never leave your drink unattended,” “never look vulnerable or lost,” “never panic,” “never get in the car – even if they have a gun,” and so forth. There would be no book if the young women actually followed the list, of course, so the story is about the horrendous things that happen to them when once, just once, they fail to pay attention and tempt fate the slightest bit. They are captured, imprisoned along with two other women, held captive in a cellar for three years, and tortured by a sadist. Their captor is eventually caught and imprisoned, but 10 years later, he is up for parole, and Sarah finds herself reliving the trauma as she tries to find out what happened to Jennifer – for when the women were rescued, there were only three of them: Jennifer never made it out of the cellar.
It is pretty easy to see where all this is going, and that is exactly where it goes. Sarah, now 31, will be forced, bit by bit, to re-create what was done to her and live through the horrors again and again as she tries to get to the bottom of what happened to Jennifer and make sure that Jack Derber, their abductor, never gets out of prison. She will re-connect with the other women from the cellar – all of whom will be reluctant to have anything to do with each other after going their separate ways and trying to rebuild their separate lives. She will learn things about herself, including some she has repressed and desperately does not want to know. And there will eventually be a major, surprising twist that will knit all the loose ends together and provide readers with the shock ending that is de rigueur in genre books like this one.
Zan drops plenty of hints about things that will turn out to be not what they seem on the surface, and in fact drops them rather clumsily, as when Sarah goes to visit a religious organization, where she encounters two young administrators who “were clean-cut and eager. This didn’t seem like a cult at all. More like a YMCA. I felt my anxiety lifting. …The young man looked up at me and smiled. He seemed perfectly normal, except for a glint of heightened zeal in his eyes that made me a little uncomfortable.” Umm…yes…remember “never ignore your gut”? And how about a new Never List item, such as “watch out for overly normal seeming but really creepy pseudo-religious organizations and the people in them”? In some ways, Sarah has learned exactly nothing from the horrors she endured more than a decade before the book takes place.
In other ways, though, she has learned a lot, about resilience and self-reliance and facing fears (although she has not learned too much about that, as becomes clear in a late scene where she panics while with one of the other women with whom she was held captive). Sarah is determined and gutsy and bold – to the extent that her damaged psyche allows – and sees things more clearly than the medical and law-enforcement people who are supposed to be the experts in what is and was going on. All these characteristics are absolutely to be expected in the protagonist of a genre book like this. It is to Zan’s credit that Sarah seems more fully formed as a character than might be expected, with the book’s frantic pace smoothing over many of Sarah’s (and the plot’s) rough edges – or at least making them easy to ignore. The eventual climax will not surprise anyone who has seen the wholly typical sadism movies of recent years – Saw and its imitators, for example – but it is handled well enough, and cinematically enough, to provide a satisfying conclusion for a story that largely makes up in intensity for what it lacks in creativity and originality.
Massimo Giordano: Amore e Tormento—Italian Arias. Massimo Giordano, tenor; Ensemble del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino conducted by Carlo Goldstein. BMG. $19.99.
Lewis Spratlan, Jenny Kallick and John Downey: Architect. Julia Fox, soprano; Jeffrey Lentz, tenor; Richard Lalli, baritone; Mark Lane Swanson, music director. Navona. $19.99 (CD+DVD).
Voices of Earth and Air: Choral Music of Michael G. Cunningham, Alexandra Ottaway, Carol Barnett, David Dickau and Karen A. Tarlow. Navona. $16.99.
Fredrick Kaufman: “Guernica” Piano Concerto; “Kaddish” Concerto for Cello and String Orchestra; Seascape. Kemal Gekic, piano; Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marcello Rota (Guernica); Mark Drobinsky, cello; Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carlos Piantini (Kaddish); Czech Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hein (Seascape). Navona. $16.99.
Sydney Hodkinson: Potpourri—11 Very Short Pieces; Epitaphion; Piano Concerto No. 1—A Shifting Trek. St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande (Potpourri, Epitaphion); Barry Snyder, piano; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský (Concerto). Navona. $16.99.
There is always a certain joy at encountering the voice of a high-quality operatic tenor on his first solo CD, coupled with a certain frustration at hearing him sing the same standard arias that every other operatic tenor, new and experienced, feels obliged to deliver in order to prove his bona fides. Massimo Giordano goes a bit beyond the utterly standard standards in a new BMG recording, and he certainly does display a voice of warmth and intensity, but it is hard to recommend the disc wholeheartedly except to those seeking a permanent record of Giordano’s voice in the bel canto and related Italian repertoire at this time in his career. Actually, there is more verismo than strict bel canto here, with six of the 14 tracks devoted to Puccini, for whom Giordano clearly has substantial affinity: Non piangere Liù from Turandot is especially heartfelt. There are three tracks here from works by Umberto Giordano (no relation), not only the expected Andrea Chénier but also the less-often-heard Fedora and Marcella. There are only two Verdi tracks, which is a bit of a surprise, especially since they are from Don Carlo and Simon Boccanegra rather than, say, La Traviata; and there are two arias from Cilea and one from Ponchielli (not surprisingly, it is Cielo e mar from La Gioconda). Throughout the CD, Giordano (born 1971) shows a voice of fine, even range and considerable emotive capacity, not an exceptionally strong voice but one driven by intelligent musicality as much as by sheer sonic beauty. Existing fans of Giordano will welcome this first solo recording, as will collectors of discs by Italian opera tenors (there must be a cult like that out there somewhere). By and large, though, the music is too familiar for the CD to get an unreserved recommendation.
There is just about nothing familiar in Architect, an unusual new opera that is highly ambitious but whose story and presentation may both be off-putting, at least to casual listeners. Many things about this effort are off the beaten track. Lewis Spratlan wrote the music that is for conventional instruments; Jenny Kallick and John Downey contributed electroacoustic material, which takes up seven of the recording’s 15 tracks; Kallick did the libretto; and Kallick and Michiko Theurer jointly produced video elements for the production. That this is an ambitious work should be obvious from the sheer amount of talent and the sheer number of elements it contains. On top of that, Architect tackles a highly ambitious subject: architecture in general and the specific architecture of Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974), including Kahn’s ideas and philosophy, and the interaction of sound and space – incoporating recordings made within some of the buildings Kahn designed. The notion of turning architecture and the architect-as-creator into opera is actually a very attractive one, and some famed fictional architects would seem tailor-made for operatic treatment: Halvard Solness of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder and Howard Roark of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead come immediately to mind. Architect, however, seeks not to look at Kahn (or architects in general) in terms of heroic, if often doomed, striving for the heavens – something different moves the plot here. But this is not to say that “the heavens” are absent: the whole libretto is propelled by the trickster god Momus, who has been thrown down to Earth by the other gods and must inspire the creation of buildings to glorify those gods – who will then allow him back into the Olympian realm. Momus accomplishes his aim by pulling the Architect away from his muse, Woman, for a creative journey in which Momus transforms himself into the Guide, the Engineer, and the Healer – providing different elements that the Architect requires. Eventually the Architect is renewed by a return to the experience of Woman and resolves that his created spaces will be filled with peace and love – a conclusion that sounds sappier in prose than in the opera itself. Architect carries too much weight and sags under it, attempting a combination of mythic trappings with modern sensibilities with elements specific to Kahn’s views of the field, all within a musical format that mixes the traditional and electroacoustic, juxtaposing arias and recitatives with sonic canvases created electronically. This is a fascinating experiment in many ways, but it feels like an experiment rather than a cohesive story in which music and narrative complement and supplement each other; and as a result, the whole thing comes across as rather contrived. It’s a fascinating contrivance, though. Navona’s release of Architect as both CD and DVD is an inspired decision, the DVD version of the Architect film being more coherent and cohesive than the purely musical CD. This self-described “chamber opera” may be a victim of its own ambition, but the ambition is quite interesting to observe.
There is nothing particularly poetic in Architect, whose eventual resolution is on the pat side. But there is poetry aplenty in the music of the five contemporary composers heard on a Navona CD entitled Voices of Earth and Air. The disc has the usual pluses and minuses of an anthology: the chance to hear a number of different pieces by multiple composers, but a relative lack of cohesion in the presentation – exacerbated in this case by the multiplicity of ensembles delivering the performances: there are 10 works in all, performed by six different groups. Michael G. Cunningham’s music is the most prominent, his nine-short-section Yeats Madrigals being a particularly well-constructed set of brief poetic explorations. Other pieces by Cunningham are Come, Holy Spirit; The Nightingale; and the four-section Posies, all pleasant works that handle their texts nicely if not in any particularly surprising ways. Also here are two brief, contrasting works by Carol Barnett, Song of Perfect Propriety and Winter, Snow; two similar-theme pieces by Karen A. Tarlow, Hope Burns a Flame and Be My Love; and one piece each by Alexandra Ottaway (the affecting Elegy on the L.C.) and David Dickau (the Shakespeare-derived If Music Be the Food of Love). The composers handle their vocal forces well, and the works are generally effective, although in most cases only moderately so. This is primarily a disc for those interested in the state of modern choral composition.
There is poetic intent in some of the music of Fredrick Kaufman on another new Navona CD, although this is strictly a disc of instrumental music. The featured work here is the “Guernica” Piano Concerto, inspired both by Picasso’s iconic painting and by the bombing of the town that led Picasso to create his masterpiece. This work is in the traditional three movements, which prove to fit the Guernica story rather well: “The Tragedy of Guernica” in the expansive opening movement, “Mourning” for the slow movement, and “Resurrection” as the finale. The arc of the story is a traditional one as well – from tragedy through sadness to triumph – and is often found in wartime works (think of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” symphony). Kaufman follows the emotions of the subject well and not too slavishly, although without any particular insight that would make this seem some sort of definitive musical treatment of the Luftwaffe’s 1937 Guernica bombing and its aftermath. This is a solid piece, not especially innovative but true to its subject matter and effective within its fairly constrained bounds. The CD also features Kaufman’s “Kaddish” Concerto for Cello and String Orchestra, a work that stands on the one hand in the same line as Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” symphony (No. 3) and on the other in the tradition of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra. Kaufman’s piece does not draw directly on either of these earlier works, but it shares some of their sentiments and some of the long-drawn cello lines of the Bruch. Again, this is a well-made work, a single-movement concerto that progresses through a variety of emotions and different degrees of virtuosity – with its devotional elements predominating (the piece was written in honor of the composer’s parents). Seascape, the final work on the CD, will make some listeners think inevitably of Debussy’s La Mer, with which it shares impressionistic contrasts between the calm and turbulence of the ocean – even though Kaufman is not at all like Debussy stylistically. The fact that Kaufman’s works seem tied to those of a number of other composers without directly imitating their styles points to a certain lack of strong individuality in Kaufman’s music, for all that it is intelligently constructed and well scored.
Sydney Hodkinson, on the other hand, does have a recognizable style of his own. Like many modern classical composers, Hodkinson has been strongly influenced by jazz; but beyond that, his works evince a genuine desire to connect with audiences both in their scoring and in the cleverness and sometimes ingenuity of their structure. A piano concerto dominates this Navona disc as it does the one of Kaufman’s music. Hodkinson’s is a four-movement work bearing the title “A Shifting Trek” – typical of his tantalizing hints about the music that, however, stop short of insisting on a specific program. A rather extended piece, running more than half an hour, the concerto uses traditional tempo markings for its movements and gives no hint of exactly what its overall title may mean – but the differentiation of its movements does indeed showcase a variety of musical approaches and a sense of meandering progress that eventually achieves a satisfying conclusion. More focused on a single mood is Epitaphion, a lament for orchestra whose title is a reflection of multiple meanings, from the Epitaphios icon for Good Friday and Holy Saturday in the Eastern Orthodox religion to the notion of a lamentation upon the grave (note the included word “epitaph”). This is a serious piece of largely uniform mood, but with enough variety in orchestration, structure and rhythm to sustain listeners’ interest. It is not, however, as accessible as the delightful Potpourri, whose 11 segments run from less than one minute to just over three, their moods flitting by in quicksilver fashion, listeners having just enough time to grasp what one piece is doing before it ends and is replaced by the next. The pieces’ generally whimsical titles reflect their content well and lead to some amusing juxtapositions: “Stuck” followed by “Spasm” and then by “Gruff,” for example, or “Cirrus” followed by “Hopscotch.” It is altogether fitting that the final, fleet miniature here is called “Scoot.” Hodkinson is not really a miniaturist – he actually seems quite comfortable in more-extended forms – but in terms of reaching out to an audience, the little bits that he collectively calls Potpourri are very effective indeed.
July 18, 2013
Sticky, Sticky, Stuck! By Michael Gutch. Illustrated by Steve Björkman. Harper. $17.99.
Ruff! And the Wonderfully Amazing Busy Day. By Caroline Jayne Church. Harper. $17.99.
Everything Goes: Good Night, Trucks—A Bedtime Book. By Brian Biggs. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $7.99.
There is quite a whirlwind of activity in two of these books – making the calm of the third one a real pleasure. Sticky, Sticky, Stuck! is the extremely silly story of an always-sticky girl named Annie whose parents, brother and sister are so busy all the time that they never have time for her. Even when all Annie wants is a snack of her favorite sandwich – peanut butter and honey on white bread – no one has time to help her make it. So Annie has to do it herself – but she is not allowed to use knives, so how will she spread the peanut butter and honey? With her hands, of course! And of course her mother sees what Annie has done and is horrified, with the result that she loudly tells Annie to wash her hands, startling Annie so she falls onto the dog and gets stuck, and then her mother falls onto Annie and the dog and gets stuck, and then – well, whether or not you know the wonderful Grimm fairy tale, “The Golden Goose,” in which more and more people get stuck together as a simpleton walks along carrying a magical goose, resulting in a parade that causes a princess who has never laughed to burst into hysterics, you can imagine where Michael Gutch’s story is going. It’s the same plot, only without the goose or simpleton, without magic, and with firefighters – who are called in a very creative way by the stuck-together family, and who helpfully douse everyone with soap and warm water, only to find out that Annie and her parents and siblings keep re-sticking together each time the firefighters free an arm or a leg. Why? Well, it turns out that there is a great deal to be said for togetherness, even really sticky togetherness, and that ends up being the point of this wonderfully offbeat foray into the joys of sticky messiness (which adults need to be sure their children do not try to copy!). Steve Björkman’s marvelous illustrations fit the super-silly story beautifully, giving each family member real personality – with Annie having the most of all. Real-life families will surely get stuck on (rather than stuck with) this make-believe one.
But oh my, Annie’s family is not the only one in which everybody is busy, busy, busy! Ruff! And the Wonderfully Amazing Busy Day features a super-busy dog as the central character (the pup in Annie’s family plays a decidedly lesser role). Ruff rushes around all the time doing things, and he loves the pace that he sets for himself. He digs behind his house, pulls up weeds, plants flowers, and polishes and sweeps and generally tidies up everything in his home, humming along as he works and lacking only one thing – “someone to sing with him.” Well, we can’t have that, can we? So Caroline Jayne Church makes sure that when Ruff starts his next project – digging a small pond in the yard – he meets someone. Specifically, the someone is a mouse named Hubble, whose home Ruff inadvertently digs up. Hubble starts heading away to find somewhere else to live, but Ruff stops him by promising to build him a new house – and Hubble decides to stick around, especially when he sees what good work Ruff does. The enterprising and fast-working Ruff is as much fun to watch as is Hubble, who occupies the time by exercising, knitting and playing the trumpet. When Hubble’s house is complete, there still remains the original pond to be dug, but now there are two friends at work, singing together and having a great time. What more could Ruff want? Well, how about someone to live in the pond? And wouldn’t you know it? Someone drops in – really drops in, from the sky – in the form of a small duck named Lottie whose wings were too small to carry her to a new home with the other ducks, and who is now all alone with nowhere to live. Of course, Ruff and Hubble invite Lottie to stay in the newly dug pond, and of course, Lottie accepts, and at the end of this super-busy day, Ruff lies in bed thinking of how “wonderfully amazing” the day was and looking forward to a future with his friends.
And if your family feels all tuckered out by the frantic pace of those two books, how about something a little slower for bedtime? The Gutch and Church books are for ages 4-8, and Everything Goes: Good Night, Trucks—A Bedtime Book is a board book for up to age four, but still, this is a pleasant way to calm down after some seriously sticky and speedy reading. Brian Biggs’ books are always charming in a simple, straightforward way, and this one is no exception. It is merely a series of scenes of people closing up trucks for the evening and saying good night: a firefighter says good night to a fire truck, a construction worker to a dump truck, the operator of an ice-cream truck puts out a “closed” sign as one last boy customer walks away with a very big two-scoop cone, and so on. The last truck is actually a motor home, and the final scene in the book shows an RV park with several recreational vehicles shut down for the night and no people visible at all. Even if this particular book does not suit a child who has gone through reading about the rather frenetic activities of the Gutch and Church books, it may be useful to find something to slow young family members down before bed. Certainly for kids at the younger end of the age range for the books about Annie and Ruff, the latest entry from Biggs should work as a calming influence so everyone – parents included – can sleep as peacefully as Ruff does.
The Beginner’s Guide to Running Away from Home. By Jennifer Larue Huget. Illustrations by Red Nose Studio. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Dig, Scoop, Ka-boom! By Joan Holub. Illustrated by David Gordon. Random House. $3.99.
The words are good and the illustrations are knock-your-socks-off amazing in The Beginner’s Guide to Running Away from Home. Jennifer Larue Huget takes on the voice of a frustrated boy in the 4-8 age range targeted by the book, and has him explain the really good reasons you may have to run away, the things you need to pack, the goodbyes you need to say (to pets more than people), and the importance of leaving a note and making lots of noise on your way out. The writing has just the right level of poutiness – you might, for example, run away because “your mother threw away your entire collection of candy wrappers that you’d been saving forever and planned to wallpaper your bedroom with,” and just before you do storm out forever, you need to holler and “see if you can work in a little sob.” This is great stuff – but not as great as the three-dimensional visuals, complete with forced perspective and bizarre effects (such as a word balloon literally spewing out of the narrator’s mouth). The 3-D models look like something out of a claymation movie, but without the animation. They seem about to burst into life at any moment, whether the narrator is being ordered to bed by his finger-pointing mom or his “big warty slug” of an older brother is simply sitting and reading. The 3-D elements are so good that they make the non-3-D elements stand out all the more, as when the narrator reaches the park and imagines everything kids do there (the other kids are essentially pencil scrawls), or when he plods onward and tries not to think of the good things about his family (shown as more pencil scrawls). The narrator’s decision to “give your folks one last chance – even though they don’t deserve it” is inevitable and makes perfect sense in the story, and here the 3-D model making really hits a high point as the boy and the wagon of his belongings that he is pulling rush downhill toward home so quickly that everything (including the boy) is actually airborne. Of course, the book ends with the boy thinking that if things get worse at home, he can always run away again – and readers see him planning an escape by airplane for next time. Readers will realize that there is clearly a pattern here – an amusing one of which the boy himself may not be aware, but one that kids will observe and enjoy discovering…as indeed they will enjoy the entire book.
Dig, Scoop, Ka-boom! is a lesser book, by design, and gets a (+++) rating. This is a Step 1 entry in the “Step into Reading” series, intended for preschoolers and kindergartners just getting ready to read on their own. There is real information here, presented in large type and very simple rhymes about construction machinery: “Rocks are big. They can’t stay./ Loader lifts them all away.” And then, midway through the book, a clever change of perspective shows that the huge construction equipment is really toy size, and the construction site is a sand-filled area of a park, where five children have been playing at building things. The rest of the book is clean-up-and-head-home time, and then, at the very end, there are two pages of stickers that kids can use within the book or put on their own construction equipment or other toys. Very simple and straightforward, Dig, Scoop, Ka-boom! is at exactly the right level for children who are just figuring out how to read words and put them together to understand stories. The minimal plot and clear illustrations are enough, together, to give kids a sense of accomplishment when they get through the book, and the stickers are a nice reward as well as a way of reinforcing children’s memories of what dozers, diggers and dump trucks do in real-world construction.
Clawback. By Mike Cooper. Penguin. $15.
Full Ratchet. By Mike Cooper. Viking. $27.95.
Tough talk, tough action, off-the-grid living, hard-boiled tactics – all the ingredients of typical thrillers are to be found in these two books by Mike Cooper (pen name of Michael Wiecek, who apparently wanted something more slam-bang for these works than for his short stories and Exit Strategy). Suspend all your disbelief and climb aboard for thrill rides riddled not only with bullets but also with Wall Street jargon, and you will thoroughly enjoy these nonsensical, fast-paced, self-proclaimed “Silas Cade Thrillers,” Cade being the protagonist in an unlikely mixture of high finance, low shenanigans and plenty of rough stuff and gunplay.
It is all utterly ridiculous, but approach it as a fantasy with bits of wish fulfillment for those who still relish the idea of “taking out” the high-and-mighty of Wall Street, and you will have a great deal of fun. Both Clawback, published last year and now available in paperback, and the new Full Ratchet give readers plenty of opportunities to identify with Cade, imagine him as a movie hero (it would be surprising if he doesn’t become one), and laugh or at least smile along with scenes such as the one in Clawback that combines fighting, a chase and the inevitable helicopter. It’s fun, it’s formulaic as it can be, and it’s filled with enough financial jargon to give you a headache if you don’t care for monetary matters – or give the whole thing a thin veneer of plausible authenticity if you do care about them.
Clawbacks have become newsy in recent years as attempts to recover money from executives whose deals later went bad. That is part of what the title of the first book refers to, but of course there is more to it than that: someone is bumping off big-money money managers whose hedge funds are disintegrating, and Cade is hired by one investment banker to find out why several very unsuccessful money manipulators are being killed. Cade’s a fixer of sorts, kind of on the wrong side of the law or just barely on the right side of it – a character type long-established in the detective and thriller genres but given some new wrinkles here. His determination to live off the grid is one of those – and his difficulty at doing so is one of these books’ more interesting elements. However, the new wrinkles bring new absurdities with them: Cade uses throwaway cell phones by the dozen to get in touch with people, but how do people get in touch with him, since he disposes of each phone after one use? Cade’s own explanation is unconvincing – and besides, since he buys the throwaway phones in big batches in a single transaction, wouldn’t that come quickly to the attention of, say, law-enforcement types looking for, say, drug dealers? Think about it – or don’t; too much thinking is anathema here.
Then there is Clara Dawson, the smart and savvy woman (you know what type is typecast for the role), here not a journalist but a would-be journalist and, wouldn’t you know it, a blogger – who is such a good investigator that she makes connections that no one else can find, thereby getting involved in the Clawback case and, inevitably, in Cade’s life. They actually make a good team and have some better-than-the-usual-banter interactions, plus some real chemistry – this relationship is above average for a genre book like this. But it is not the main point, of course. That main point involves a lot of action, a certain amount of mystery (the solution to which is actually pretty fair), tension both romantic and of the courting-danger variety, and a certain degree of paranoia (some of Cade’s actions to stay off the grid really are overdone, such as using stolen credit cards to rent cars and then changing the cars’ license plates before leaving the lot).
Clawback was always planned to start a series – that was clear when Cade’s long-lost brother, Dave, was introduced early in the book and summarily ignored thereafter, surely having been destined to be a recurring subsidiary character. Full Ratchet is the series’ second book, and it changes the venue from Wall Street to Main Street while not changing Cade’s modus operandi at all. Cade is an experienced auditor – did that somehow go unmentioned? – and is using his green-eyeshade skills for a friend when he discovers, shockingly to everybody except every single reader, that the entire manufacturing company he is auditing is corrupt to the core. And there just happen to be Russian Mafiosi involved, and a very attractive blonde femme fatale (very fatale) named Harmony (!!), and yes, wonder of wonders, Dave gets pulled into Cade’s latest caper. And there is eventually a showdown around a boardroom table in which a hostile takeover is consummated through careful deal structure. Ha! Just kidding!! Of course the actual showdown involves blazing guns, a super-wealthy bad guy, mercenaries, a wholly unsurprising (but exciting) driving scene, armored assaults and various gun battles, and the inevitable James Bondian attraction between bad-boy good guy and girl – sorry, woman – who maybe isn’t as bad as all that, unless she is.
Take none of this with an iota of seriousness, assiduously avoid looking for plot holes, pretend that the financial jargon is meaningful in this context, and just go along for the thrill ride (several of them, actually), and you will find these two Silas Cade novels fast-paced, periodically funny, easy to read and generally enjoyable. Ignore that little whisper telling you that they are so formulaic that you must have seen every element of them somewhere else in the past. So what? These are not great literature, nor are meant to be. In case you were wondering, that’s a deliberate garbling of a line from a poem by a guy called T.S. Eliot, referring to a play called Hamlet, by some character called William Shakespeare. In case you were wondering. Yeah, the whole Silas Cade thing doesn’t just take place in a waste land – it is a waste land. But look what you get for the price of admission: an adrenalin-pumping way to waste (or at least spend) some time finding out how Cade wastes (or brings to justice) some of the super-rich folks that it has become fashionable to hate, if not, in the real world, to waste.
Real Talk for Real Teachers. By Rafe Esquith. Viking. $26.95.
One hopes that Rafe Esquith did not come up with his own subtitle for this book, because it is not only lengthy but also pretty awful in everything from sentiment to punctuation: “Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: ‘No Retreat, No Surrender!’” Um…how’s that again? Is this an advice book? A suggestion to regard the classroom as a military exercise? An all-things-to-all-people (or at least all-things-to-all-teachers) tome? What exactly is going on here?
What is going on is that Esquith, himself a teacher with nearly 30 years of elementary-school experience, wants to share lessons, thoughts, ideas, ramblings and mental meanderings with fellow teachers everywhere, whether they are beginners, at mid-career, or “old hands” like Esquith himself. Subdividing his book into “Once Upon a Time” (which should really be “Once upon a Time”), “Growing Up” and “Master Class,” Esquith shares notions, experiences, and happy and sad moments from his own experience, and tries to generalize them in ways to which other teachers will relate.
There is some very good material here – a lot of it, in fact, although the folksiness of the whole presentation sometimes makes it hard to pick out the genuinely useful ideas. They are there, though. In one of his many talks about the “Hobart Shakespeareans” (Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles is where Esquith teaches), Esquith laments students’ unwillingness to ask questions, tying it into “the number one fear on their hit parade, [which is] that of being laughed at by peers.” Then he intelligently suggests what can be done about this: “There is one thing a teacher can do that might be the most underrated first step in helping the kids understand that they are safe in your class. You can smile.” And then, through explanation and anecdote, he explains how and why this works – a salutary experience and a high point here.
Later, sharing feelings that are quite common among teachers nowadays, he discusses the frustrations felt by good teachers whose ratings depend on test scores that may or may not reflect their classroom abilities and may or may not even be accurate. “For young teachers, overemphasized test scores can lead to painful and frustrating moments, and sometimes a loss of income. For a veteran, they can make you question your entire life’s work.” Esquith has strong opinions about the overuse of standardized tests, although he does pay lip service to their value: “Parents have a right to know about teacher quality. After all, they are the ones paying our salaries. However, as is so often the case when complex problems are oversimplified, this [sic] ‘data’ was [sic] not nearly as accurate as it [sic] claimed to be.” Hmm. Well, the opinion is pretty clear, and the position has some merit (although the alternative to some form of standardized measurement is by no means clear). But, umm, the word “data” is plural (“datum” is singular), and just because a plural is often misused as a singular, it would be better if a teacher with decades of experience used the difference as a, shall we say, teachable moment, wouldn’t it?
Anyway, Esquith’s position on the testing issue comes down to this: “Teachers, stay strong. Go in every day…and be a positive role model for your students. Always remember that test scores matter, but your students matter more, Students and their test scores are two very different things. Test scores will eventually fade into oblivion, but your students will always remember you.” This is the eternal call of the good teacher, the one who works much more for love than for money (of which there is far too little in the teaching profession, a situation oft bemoaned but apparently unchangeable). And there is no question at all that Esquith is a good teacher – sensitive, concerned, involved, thoughtful. Esquith is also a teacher who has had his share of bad experiences as well as good ones – which is scarcely a surprise. Some of the bad times are recounted in this book, and Esquith’s discussions of them show his overall attitude toward teaching, students and even morality. At one point, he talks about three girls who stole hair dryers from a hotel during a visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – and his sense of hurt is palpable. “Their actions were unconscionable and I could not find an answer to why this had happened. There were no warning signs in the past and none of the girls had been going through any sort of crisis that could have forced them into a desperate cry for attention. It was simply greedy, awful, and wrong. ...[T]hose three haunt me still. It was a wake-up call reminding me that despite every effort possible, there are kids who will make terrible decisions and thumb their noses at you. As teachers, we like to think we can have an effect on the kids, and we do, but not always. …Teaching hurts. Teaching is pain. Disappointment comes with the territory.”
Yet Esquith stays with it, year after year, despite the pay and frustration and occasional significant setbacks and political interference and “helicopter parents” and the thousand natural shocks that teachers’ flesh is heir to. Ultimately, in this book for teachers by a teacher, the message that Esquith delivers is that it is all worth it. It may not always seem that way, it may not be worth it every day or for every student, but teaching is a meaningful profession, one of the most meaningful, and that is what Esquith wants his fellow teachers to understand – whether they are starting out or are long-term veterans like him. Real Talk for Real Teachers is not a guidebook, not a memoir, but a combination of the two; and although it wanders a bit and lacks real cohesiveness, plenty of teachers – at whatever stage they may have reached in their work and life – will appreciate knowing that no matter where they are, no matter what they are going through, Esquith has probably been there as well…and understands.
Bruckner: Masses Nos. 1-3; Te Deum. Isabelle Müller-Kant, soprano; Eibe Möhlmann, mezzo-soprano; Daniel Sans, tenor; Christof Fischesser, bass; Chamber Choir of Europe and Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen conducted by Nicol Matt (Mass No. 1); Magdaléna Hajóssyová, soprano; Rosemarie Lang, alto; Peter-Jürgen Schmidt, tenor; Hermann Christian Polster, bass; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Heinz Rögner (Masses Nos. 2-3; Te Deum). Brilliant Classics. $16.99 (3 CDs).
Einojuhani Rautavaara: Sacred Choral Works. Latvian Radio Choir conducted by Sigvards Klava. Ondine. $16.99.
Schubert: Octet. Markus Krusche, clarinet; Daniel Mohrmann, bassoon; Christoph Eß, horn; Alexandra Hengstebeck, double bass; Amaryllis Quartett (Gustav Frielinghaus and Lena Wirth, violins; Lena Eckels, viola; Yves Sandoz, cello). Genuin. $18.99.
The importance of Bruckner’s sacred music to his symphonies is often mentioned in passing but rarely considered in depth, perhaps because the intermingling of the sacred and secular is a difficult subject for many listeners and commentators to discuss nowadays. The fact is that Bruckner’s vision was above all a religious one, even when he found distinctly secular methods of communicating it – and he himself was intensely involved in the use of symphonic methods to develop and communicate his religious sentiments. Audiences these days are more comfortable with large-scale symphonies than with most large-scale traditionally religious choral works, and Bruckner himself moved wholly into the symphonic realm after completing his three masses and Te Deum over a 20-year period (1864-84, excluding some later revisions). Bits and pieces of the masses and Te Deum appear within the symphonies themselves, most notably in the Seventh and Ninth, and it is often said that Bruckner considered having the Te Deum used as the finale of the Ninth when he realized that he would not live to complete the symphony. Although that story may be apocryphal, it is insightful, and helps point the way for those who would seek and have sought to finish the incomplete fourth movement of Bruckner’s last symphony – for although the triumphal Te Deum does not really fit with the symphony’s first three movements, it begins with the same descending motif (a fourth and a fifth) with which the symphony opens, so it does produce organic unity; and the bright C major of the Te Deum indicates that Bruckner intended a positive and uplifting finish for the D minor symphony. In any case, the Te Deum and masses are remarkable accomplishments on their own terms, and having them available in very fine (if not always supremely polished) versions, as a Brilliant Classics three-CD set at an excellent price, is very welcome. It is interesting that all three masses are in minor keys: D, E and F minor respectively. It is also interesting how differently Bruckner handles the traditional Latin text and the instrumentation in these works. Nos. 1 and 3 are significantly overbalanced toward the Credo, whose words clearly had far more than formulaic meaning for the composer. No. 1 moves from its opening sustained pedal note to an evocative pianissimo conclusion, in between offering elements of mystery (especially in use of the horns) as well as tradition (the fugal writing is quite assured). No. 2 is an oddity, and a fascinating one, being written for soloists, chorus and 15 wind instruments – no strings, and none of the massive orchestral textures now generally considered Brucknerian. There are two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two trumpets, three trombones and four horns, and their combined sound provides a richness that is enhanced by the contrast between the modern-sounding wind writing and the rather old-fashioned vocal parts, in which the work’s six sections are reasonably well-balanced. In contrast, the longest mass, No. 3, follows its very extended Credo with a Sanctus that lasts less than two minutes. As for the Te Deum, its comparatively forthright triumphalism is of a different order from the expressiveness of the masses. This work has impressed performers and audiences in just about every possible form, from a première using two pianos rather than orchestra to an early U.S. performance that included 800 singers and 120 instrumental players. Mahler conducted the work repeatedly and deemed it written “for the tongues of angels,” and it does resound with passion and intensity worthy of the highest aspirations of the sacred.
Those aspirations remain even in our more-secular age, and composers such as Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928) continue to explore them. The eight chorus-only works here are dominated by Missa a cappella, a pronounced contrast with Bruckner’s masses, as Rautavaara explores essentially the same liturgical material at shorter length and in a more-direct way, the music clearly tying back to the harmonic language of Bruckner’s time but also including some more-modern elements. The Latvian Radio Choir under Sigvards Klava is a very fine ensemble indeed, smooth and polished and expressive throughout this work and the others here: Psalm of Invocation; Evening Hymn; the very interestingly structured Missa duodecanonica; the heartfelt Ave Maria, gratia plena and equally expressive Canticum Maria Virginis; Our Joyful’st Feast; and Die erste Elegie. Several of the works tend to blend together in their sound and sentiment, and although Rautavaara does have a style that effectively melds older and newer harmonies and structures, the CD starts to pale somewhat as it goes on and on in much the same vein; it therefore gets a (+++) rating. Bruckner shows that grand-scale religious works written well over a century ago can still resonate with modern audiences; Ondine’s Rautavaara disc, although its performers are of the highest quality, indicates that shorter, more-modern sacred works, heard one after the other, end up being of interest not so much to listeners in general as to those who remain predisposed to belief in and practice of organized religion.
For those for whom the communicative potency of music need not lie in the same sphere as that of traditional religion, Schubert’s Octet in F, D. 803, provides a perfect example of “staying power” and the use of a minimal number of instruments to attain it. Of course, as chamber music goes, an eight-instrument piece is on the large size, just as the 15-wind-instrument Bruckner Mass No. 2 is on the small size for a work of that particular form. But music’s expressiveness is ultimately dependent not on the extent of an ensemble but on the way the composer uses the forces at his disposal to put forth what he is trying to communicate both structurally and emotionally. The Schubert Octet is a longer work than any of the Bruckner masses, its six movements lasting a full hour, and it is a piece that can be difficult for an ensemble to sustain. Even harder can be exploring the beauties of the individual movements while keeping the overall structure in sight. For instance, the symphonic expansiveness of the first, second and final movements is contrasted with the somewhat lighter, more divertimento-like third through fifth movements, which means performers need to find a way to make the start of the third movement fit with the end of the second – and must return to greater intensity in the sixth movement immediately after finishing the fifth. This is a mature Schubert work, written in 1824, four years before his death – but it is also a youthful work, as is all Schubert’s music, since the composer died at age 31. Sometimes young performers seem to have a natural affinity for Schubert’s chamber music, and that appears to be the case with this new Genuin recording. The players were scholarship winners at the 2009 German Music Competition in Berlin, and they are no strangers to this music, having performed it more than two dozen times during the 2010-11 concert season. They are particularly well attuned to the humor and jocularity of the music, which is pervasive and is used by Schubert to leaven the seriousness of many sections. This is a nicely nuanced performance, the ensemble playing precise and poised, the individual voices bursting forth with elegant tunefulness and always excellent intonation. The pacing of each movement is just right, with the especially expansive opening setting a high standard that the rest of the work attains as well. Clarinet virtuosity (the work was commissioned by a nobleman who was skilled on the instrument) is evident throughout, but not at the expense of cooperation in ensemble playing. Playfulness is ever-present when appropriate, as in the Andante con variazoni, but when serious garb is donned again in the finale, the players are quite equal to the change of tone, showcasing the profundity of this movement as a suitable contrast to the lightness of the ones immediately preceding it. This is a top-notch (++++) performance of Schubert’s Octet, filled with sentiments that come through to the listener – using a small instrumental group and without words – every bit as effectively as do Bruckner’s religious musings in works combining verbal expression with the use of a substantial wind ensemble or a full orchestra.
July 11, 2013
Brush of the Gods. By Lenore Look. Illustrations by Meilo So. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
The Tapir Scientist: Saving South America’s Largest Mammal. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.
For all the attractions of fiction for young readers, there are plenty of factual stories out there that are every bit as interesting and may be even more intriguing. There is, for example, the tale of Wu Daozi (689-759?), regarded by many as China’s greatest painter. Considered the first painter to present movement in figures – flowing scarves, for example – he created murals, scrolls and hundreds of frescoes, although none of the frescoes has survived. Lenore Look’s Brush of the Gods is an imagined biography for ages 4-8, using information from period sources and complemented by excellent Meilo So illustrations made with watercolor, ink, gouache and colored paper. Look imagines that Daozi could not help but create his unique art forms – try as he might to do what everyone else did, his work came out differently, imbued with motion and so captivating to him that “he painted so much that he knew not whether the sun was up or down or whether he was standing or sitting.” And then the tale becomes one of magical realism, as Look tells that Daozi started painting creatures that would actually come to life and move out into the world – first a gorgeous butterfly, then pigeons and crickets and birds and horses. Eventually given a commission by the Emperor, Daozi works for many years to fulfill it, finally creating such a marvel that all who see it are beyond astonishment – even the Emperor bows. And then Daozi, now elderly, walks into this portrayal of Paradise and simply disappears – and it is in fact part of his legend that he did not die but only vanished. Brush of the Gods falls short of biography but is certainly not a work of fiction, and its spirit, which So’s art communicates exceptionally well, does honor to its subject – and serves beautifully to introduce today’s young readers to an enormously important artist of whom neither they nor their parents are likely to have heard before.
Nor will most families be familiar with the tapir, whose story – on an entirely factual basis – is told by Sy Montgomery in yet another of the top-notch “Scientists in the Field” books for preteens and teenagers, The Tapir Scientist. Just as most art students are unfamiliar with Daozi, most people living where the tapir does – in and near the Pantanal, a huge freshwater wetland in Brazil – have never seen one. Although the tapir is the largest mammal in South America, as the book’s subtitle says, it is hard to find; and although it is known to be endangered, its very elusiveness makes it difficult to save. Nic Bishop’s superb photographs not only showcase the work of scientists who work with and for tapirs but also show amazing views of the animals themselves – such as one that includes a typically dull-colored adult female with her adorable striped and spotted infant. The book’s title is a trifle misleading in speaking of a scientist, singular, because in fact there is a “tapir team” here, a five-member, mostly Brazilian group that searches for tapirs and works to preserve the Pantanal, which is 10 times the size of the Florida Everglades. The tapir itself is an oddity, an animal largely unchanged for 12 million years, distantly related to rhinoceroses and horses but looking like a sort of elephant-hippopotamus. In addition to information on tapirs, the book includes slices of life in the areas where the animals live, with discussions of the drinking of maté tea from a cow’s horn, a close-up view of the deadly fer-de-lance snake, and a look at a caiman that especially enjoys snacking on piranhas. Many of the sidelights of this science story are as fascinating as the main one, such as a discussion of the ticks that infest tapirs and why it is important to study them, and one about the very-little-understood giant armadillo. These animals all deserve to be called exotic, but that does not mean they are so rare as to be unimportant – they are, in fact, crucial to the ecosystem in which they live; and The Tapir Scientist explains how, and why their preservation is important on multiple levels. Many matters in this book are as strange as anything in fiction for young readers, and the fact that the information is real makes it all the more amazing to read.
The Universe in the Rearview Mirror: How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality. By Dave Goldberg. Dutton. $27.95.
Physicists have better senses of humor and are pithier in expressing their views than most non-physicists realize. Some physicists, anyway. The oft-quoted Einstein remark that “God does not play dice with the universe” led Niels Bohr to snap, “Stop telling God what to do.” And Stephen Hawking has delightfully commented, “A tiny disturbance in one place can cause a major change in another. A butterfly flapping its wings can cause rain in Central Park, New York. The trouble is, it is not repeatable. The next time the butterfly flaps its wings, a host of other things will be different, which will also influence the weather. That is why weather forecasts are so unreliable.”
So Dave Goldberg, physics professor and director of undergraduate studies in physics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, comes by his irreverence honestly. And delightfully. The Universe in the Rearview Mirror is about the many ways in which, despite the apparent disorder of things, there is underlying symmetry to many processes that is crucial for understanding them – and for making sense of the universe and, not coincidentally, ourselves. This may seem like dry, heavily mathematical stuff, and it is just that for many scientists studying our universe, but not for Goldberg and therefore not for the lucky readers of this book. Just check out the footnotes: in one, Goldberg mentions the particle called a kaon and then offers “a kaon koan: What is the sound of a subatomic particle turning into its antiparticle?” This is typical of his writing: introduce complex subjects, explain them clearly, and then have some fun with them so readers will find them intriguing rather than off-putting.
A great deal of this book takes off from or is built around the work of Emmy Noether (1882-1935), a hugely important mathematician who, when not making breakthroughs in theoretical physics, was making them in abstract algebra. Noether’s Theorem specifically and elegantly explains the fundamental relationship of symmetry to laws of conservation – and it is a pleasant irony of the English language (despite the fact that Noether was born in Germany) that her name can be broken up into “no ether,” meaning the so-called “fifth element” of early physics, the material supposed to fill the universe above the terrestrial sphere, does not exist. “Emmy Noether Threatens to Overthrow All Academic Order,” says one subhead of a chapter here, and indeed Noether’s theorems – which are elegant in their simplicity and mind-boggling in their implications – were as challenging in their way as Einstein’s.
Actually, simply reading Goldberg’s subheads is a great way to start this book – before coming back and finding out what he actually says in the sections. “How Einstein Fixed Galileo.” “Why You Can’t Have an Ansible” (the famous science-fictional device that communicates instantaneously across interstellar distances). “Life in Antworld.” “Seriously, Are Black Holes Really Black?” “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.” Goldberg does not have all the answers to the questions he poses – neither does anyone else – but he poses them in such a direct, even charming way that readers will find themselves considering things in all seriousness that they may only have thought about before in passing, if at all. (Example: why don’t atoms explode?)
“The universe isn’t quite as obvious as it might seem at first,” Goldberg notes, and in many ways this is the core information in this book. Goldberg, who has a touch of the showman about him, cannot resist offering one example, just one, of how the universe is different from what we might expect: he presents a simple experiment called Feynman’s Plate in which the reader, armed only with a glass of water and an arm, gets to find out that a 360-degree turn, which should bring things back where they started, only gets them halfway there.
This is simplified physics, but readers should not expect it to be entirely simple, and certainly not simple-minded. Goldberg writes plenty of sentences like this one: “The Higgs mechanism was concocted to explain how it could be that the W and Z0 bosons had mass even though none of the other mediators do.” But Goldberg is always scrupulously fair in explaining his terms and, to the extent possible, presenting highly abstruse mathematical concepts in straightforward English. That this is not always possible is scarcely his fault. The Universe in the Rearview Mirror is a fascinating book about a fascinating subject – life, the universe and everything – and Goldberg is a simply wonderful guide to and through all the thickets of complexity and obscurity that one encounters along the road of trying to understand what makes everything tick. Rather than, say, tock.