February 26, 2015
Stick and Stone. By Beth Ferry. Illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
I Don’t Want to Be a Frog. By Dev Petty. Illustrated by Mike Boldt. Doubleday. $16.99.
Egg: Nature’s Perfect Package. By Robin Page and Steve Jenkins. Illustrations by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
It is always a pleasure to find books that communicate their messages easily, quickly and with charm – in both words and illustrations. Of course, those messages must be simple-to-understand ones for young readers, but “simple” is not the same as “simplistic,” and the themes of well-done books for ages 3-8 (more or less) retain their importance for children in later years. Stick and Stone, for example, is simply about friendship and how friends help each other, but it is also about helping people who may not be friends – but could perhaps become friends someday. Stick and Stone are just that, a stick and a stone, with dots for eyes and simply drawn mouths – yet Tom Lichtenheld manages to make them attractive and to give them personality even though you might think he has little to work with in Beth Ferry’s story. Ferry starts the book when Stick and Stone are on their own (yes, the story rhymes, although that specific rhyme is not in it). They are both lonely, looking like a zero and a one; but then they meet and play together, even though Pinecone makes fun of Stone – that is, until Stick tells Pinecone to stop, and Pinecone stomps off. Stick and Stone develop a growing friendship after Stick helps Stone – and then, after a windstorm that blows both Stick and Pinecone away (leaving Stone behind), Stone is alone again…but this time determined to find Stick. He rolls along until he eventually does – Stick is stuck upside-down in a puddle – and by leaping into the water and making a great splash, Stone rescues Stick, returning the favor that Stick did for him, and even earning an apology from Pinecone at the end. In a neat touch, the two friends who looked like a zero and one are shown standing together, “a perfect 10.” And the message about friendship rings true quite clearly.
The message in Dev Petty’s I Don’t Want to Be a Frog is that sometimes you just have to be what you are, even if you don’t want to – and there may be hidden advantages of which you are not yet aware. Young Frog wants to be just about any animal except a frog, repeatedly telling his father what he prefers to be instead. He first chooses a cat, but his dad points out that he can’t be a cat, because he’s a frog. So he decides to be a rabbit – after all, he can hop – but his father says he doesn’t have long ears, and besides, he’s a frog. Still, the young frog keeps complaining: being a frog is too wet, too slimy, and involves too much bug eating. No, he cannot be a pig or an owl, either, he is told. But then, who should show up but the neighborhood wolf – who hears the animals that Frog wants to be and comments that he loves eating all of them and “might just go gobble some up right now.” But, he says, there is one thing he never eats: frogs – because they are too wet, too slimy and too full of bugs. So it turns out that there are some very definitely good things about being a frog after all. Mike Boldt’s broadly conceived and highly amusing illustrations (including one of a lunch bag labeled as being packed with “2 dozen premium quality organic badgers”) neatly complement Petty’s text, and again there is a clear message here: you might as well figure out what’s good about being yourself, because “yourself” is what you are going to be.
Frogs are among the many animals that lay eggs, and they are therefore among the many included in a nonfiction, somewhat more complex book that is nevertheless brief and to the point. This is Egg: Nature’s Perfect Package, by Robin Page and Steve Jenkins. Kids who only know about eggs from the market and refrigerator will be fascinated to learn that almost every animal begins life as an egg – humans included. They will see well-conceived, well-drawn illustrations of little and big eggs, learning that “sometimes big animals lay big eggs, but not always. The egg of the kiwi, a bird smaller than a chicken, is thousands of times larger than the egg of a giant squid.” They will find out some of the fascinating places where animals lay their eggs: inside an acorn (the acorn weevil), on shore at high tide (fish called grunion), on a leaf overhanging the water (another fish, the splash tetra), and on a bare tree branch (the white tern, which lives where there are no egg-eating animals). The book explains about animals that lay very few eggs and ones that lay many (the fish tapeworm may lay seven billion of them in its lifetime). Page and Jenkins look at some egg eaters, and the strategies they use to get the nutrients out of the shell. And they discuss protective strategies against those egg eaters, from some amazing forms of camouflage to close monitoring of the eggs by one parent or both. Even adults will likely be amazed at some of the information here: warmer eggs in an alligator nest produce males, while cooler ones produce females; a mother platypus (one of two egg-laying mammals) keeps her eggs warm by “clutching them between her body and her tail”; the kiwi has to kick its way out of its shell, which is particularly thick; the eggs of brine shrimp can remain dormant for 50 years, then hatch when water temperature and salinity are just right. The book ends by portraying actual in-egg developmental stages, shown life-size, of a chicken and an alligator, and giving more-detailed information on 54 animals shown in the book as a kind of appendix. Egg: Nature’s Perfect Package conveys not only science but also a sense of wonder – kids who read it (and their parents) may never look at the mundane packaged-by-the-dozen chicken egg in quite the same way again.
Cat & Bunny. By Mary Lundquist. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Bunnies!!! By Kevan Atteberry. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $12.99.
Glamourpuss. By Sarah Weeks. Pictures by David Small. Scholastic. $16.99.
What makes Mary Lundquist’s Cat & Bunny so special is not so much the story, which is a simple one about friendship, but the way Lundquist chooses to illustrate her theme. Cat and Bunny are really children wearing animal costumes – no reason for this is given, and none is necessary. They live amid other children who also wear animal costumes, and each of those other children is also called by the name of the animal he or she is meant to look like: Quail, Giraffe and so on. Lundquist carries this theme not only through the book’s narrative pages but also onto the inside front and back covers, which show absolutely delightful pictures of kids dressed as, for example, a bee and a dragon. And the very opening of the book, the two-page spread that includes the title page, is warmhearted almost beyond words, showing the various animal-clad kids as newborns, all of them swaddled and sleeping peacefully, except that Cat and Bunny are wide-eyed and awake. So maybe they aren’t just in costumes after all? Well, whatever Lundquist intends with these lovely watercolor illustrations, the effect is magical, making the otherwise rather mundane story very wonderful indeed. The tale involves the close friendship of Cat and Bunny and the way it is threatened, or seems to be threatened, when another child asks to play with them in their favorite game, “the Made-Up Game.” Lundquist explains that “they played it every day and only they knew the rules to it,” so when Bunny allows Quail to join in, this seems like a betrayal to Cat, and when still more kids start playing, Cat is so upset that she runs away – and Bunny does not even notice. Then Cat finds a kitten, a real one, and the kitten becomes a new friend, and Cat creates a new Made-Up Game – and then Giraffe asks to join in. Cat has to think about it, but does decide to say yes – and soon other kids are playing this game with Cat and the kitten, and then Bunny comes over and asks to play, and the two friends are back together with a lot of other friends as well. The message about friendship is soft-pedaled and sweet, but it is the utterly charming illustrations that turn Cat & Bunny into a book to cherish.
The bunnies – four of them – are quite different in Kevan Atteberry’s very funny and minimally wordy Bunnies!!! These bunnies are plump, big-nosed, and brightly colored in shades never seen in nature: orange, pink, blue and green. In fact, they look more like stuffed toys than real bunnies – and so does the monster stalking them. But he is not stalking for any nefarious purpose. Yes, he has horns and a huge head that, with no neck, merges into his stocky body; and he has a big mouth stuffed with teeth; but his tail ends in a purple puff, and all he wants to do is walk along saying hello to things. “Hello, tree. Hello, clouds. Hello, butterfly.” And so on. When he sees the bunnies, however, his exclamation of delight fills two pages and his mouth opens so wide that it is almost half the size of his whole body. “Bunnies!! Bunnies!! Bunnies!!” he shouts, chasing the four of them as they, obviously thinking the worst, flee into the woods. The dejected monster searches for them but cannot find them anywhere (they are hiding behind trees). Finally, downcast, he says, “Noooo bunnies,” and goes on his way, still saying hello to things but no longer with the same happy expression he had before. Then he spots the bunnies again, and the whole chase-and-hide scene is repeated, except that the monster is even unhappier when they disappear this time – the butterfly that lands on one of his horns does not cheer him up at all. The bunnies now approach silently, tap him gently, and after another huge “Bunnies!!!” exclamation, everyone dances and leaps and laughs and has a wonderful time. The end – well, almost…because on the very last page, the monster spots “Birdies!” And the whole scenario is obviously set to play itself out again. Atteberry has a wonderful sense of storytelling absurdity that uses very few words, and his silly drawings are so expressively amusing that the tale barely needs any narrative at all.
So now that we have seen Cat & Bunny and Bunnies!!! it seems only appropriate to have a cat-focused book. Enter Glamourpuss. There is much more narrative here than in the other books – but the message, about the importance of friendship, is exactly the same. Glamourpuss lives with “gazillionaires” called Mr. and Mrs. Highhorsen, and is waited on hand and paw by servants named Gustav and Rosalie. The humans’ faces are never shown, since the whole focus of the book is Glamourpuss, whose only job is to be glamorous, “and she was very good at it.” In fact, she is so glamorous that “instead of saying me-ow like an ordinary cat, she shortened it to just ME!” Everything is just perfect for Glamourpuss until, one day, Mr. Highhorsen’s sister shows up from Texas and brings along – Bluebelle. She is, of all things, a dog, a Chihuahua who comes with “tacky wardrobe and wagging tail” and a distinctly unhappy expression. Glamourpuss’ own expression quickly becomes even unhappier than Bluebelle’s, because the dog “did tricks” and is unaccountably charming to the Highhorsens as she stands on a ball, does flips, wears a fruit hat in Carmen Miranda fashion, even parades through the house dressed as a Southern belle (complete with parasol). Glamourpuss becomes so jealous that she even tries on one of Bluebelle’s outfits, but things just get worse and worse as Bluebelle hogs all the attention. Soon Glamourpuss is immersed in her very own “pity party.” But then, one day, Bluebelle tears up all her cute little outfits and makes a gigantic mess of the guest room and gets loudly scolded by Eugenia; and Glamourpuss is set to be the center of everyone’s focus again. Except that she spots Bluebelle practicing being glamorous – and realizes that Bluebelle hated all her forced performances and never really wanted anything but to be like Glamourpuss! So the cat takes the dog under her wing (or paw), and soon there are two haughty, stuck-up, ultra-dignified animals in the house – with Bluebelle even “shortening ‘bow-wow’ to the much more glamorous WOW!” Eugenia is not entirely happy with all this, but the Highhorsens are proud of Glamourpuss, and cat and dog end up best friends – very glamorous ones indeed. Sarah Weeks’ amusingly overdone story is perfectly reflected in David Small’s illustrations, which combine ink and watercolor with pastels and even some collages (the use of a famous picture of Theda Bara as Cleopatra in a scene where the Highhorsens are watching TV is an especially funny touch, at least for film buffs). Immersing a story about unlikely friends in the midst of a tongue-in-cheek look at how the ultra-rich might live, Weeks and Small produce a winning and offbeat story with some touches of surprising subtlety – such as one page on which costumed Bluebelle grimaces toward lounging Glamourpuss as the three super-rich humans toast the dog’s performance using three different drinks, each person holding a glass while elegantly extending his or her pinky. “WOW!” indeed.
Seeker. By Arwen Elys Dayton. Delacorte Press. $18.99.
I Remember You. By Cathleen Davitt Bell. Knopf. $17.99.
Arwen Elys Dayton’s Seeker, the start of a trilogy, is an unusual book cast in a very usual form. On the surface it is yet another coming-of-age fantasy with dystopian overtones (and an occasional, rather pointless reference to science, as if that turns it into science fiction). Also on the surface, it is a story of friends and friendship, of family squabbles and outright war (both between families and within them), and of the usual dread discoveries that people, things and life itself are not what the protagonists were led to believe before they all went through life-changing circumstances. What is different here is not so much the framework, not so much the story arc, as the characters. Dayton actually does manage to humanize the protagonists and keep readers interested as the tale veers from the perspective of one to that of the next and the one after that. It is certainly true that the episodes told from various characters’ viewpoints do not have particularly distinctive styles – in that sense, the characters are types and their language is always the same, rather than suited to each one’s individual personality. However, in an adventure novel for ages 14 and up, this is actually something of a strength, allowing focus on the action and the characters’ interactions rather than requiring readers to delve too deeply into motivations and personalities. The basic notion here is the typical one of a coming-of-age trial that turns out not to be what everyone expects: Quin Kincaid, nominal central character but more like the first among equals, is expected at age 15 to become a Seeker, a role she has been told is an honorable one that involves protecting people through special training and the use of a weapon called an “athame” (three syllables: ATH-uh-may). Quin has been training for her Seeker life with close friends Shinobu, who is also 15, and John, who at 16 should be too old to become a Seeker but who came to the training late, through mysterious circumstances that have allowed him to complete it. Or almost complete it: Quin’s father, who is in charge and is an especially unpleasant character even when compared with typical authority figures in genre books like this one, deliberately dangles the Seeker possibility before John so he can snatch it away at the last minute. This leads to a cascading confusion of events that soon reveals deep-seated, multigenerational animosity and what is essentially war among various powerful families, with John’s – which, interestingly, has its stronghold in an airship, a rarity in fantasies of this type – having suffered severe victimization that John may, just may, be able to do something to reverse.
A typical sort of love story also burbles along here, with Quin and John the usual star-crossed lovers from opposing families whose animosity is right in line with that of the Montagues and Capulets. But Dayton makes the Romeo-and-Juliet theme, along with several others, less conventional than usual in books of this sort, setting the characters themselves – not just their parents – against each other, and introducing complicating factors of all kinds and in all places (different parts of the book take place in different locales, although as with the characters themselves, the geographical places are not described in any particularly differentiating detail). At the foundation of the book is a set of three laws, whose resemblance to Isaac Asimov’s justly famed Three Laws of Robotics is likely deliberate: “First law: a Seeker is forbidden to take another family’s athame. Second law: a Seeker is forbidden to kill another Seeker save in self-defense. Third law: a Seeker is forbidden to harm humankind.” Indeed, the third of these is almost identical to Asimov’s “zeroth” law, introduced long after the first three; and this third law in Seeker lies at the heart of everything that occurs. Seeker lurches a bit in its narrative, and Dayton seems aware that her broad-brush opening section, while certainly exciting, leaves a few too many questions unanswered, because she next offers a section of background that explains the history of some of the characters more clearly. One such character, whose 15-year-old body belies her extension through time, is not a Seeker but something called a Dread, and as this character, Maud, becomes increasingly intertwined with others, Seeker takes on greater depth and strangeness. Because this is the first book of a trilogy, one of its primary requirements is to start the story with a tight focus and eventually widen the canvas so that there is much more to be revealed in succeeding books. Dayton handles this aspect of the novel quite well indeed, creating a satisfying teen-adventure fantasy here while also raising enough questions of the “what does it all mean?” variety so that readers will look forward to the second book, Traveler, due out next year. Ultimately, what sets Seeker above many other books in its genre is the skill with which Dayton keeps the narrative moving, refocuses its perspective, widens and broadens the story, and implies that, however serious and mysterious things may be, there are matters of even greater consequence still to be revealed. The story arc and actual writing style are not particularly distinguished, but the book’s pacing, skillful use of multiple viewpoints, and ability to interweave unexpected implications with what seem at first to be straightforward action scenes, are elements that set it apart.
Much more conventional and heart-on-its-sleeve romantic, Cathleen Davitt Bell’s I Remember You targets the same age group with a story that also includes fantasy elements masquerading as science fiction (here, a sort of time-travel-cum-telepathy) but that sticks in all its essentials to the longstanding trope of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl (or the other way around). There is nothing profound here at all, but there are many attempts, some of them successful, to tug readers’ heartstrings. It is tempting to call this too a Romeo-and-Juliet story, especially since the female protagonist is actually named Juliet, but in fact her romance with Lucas is approached from a somewhat different angle. True, the two of them come from different worlds – he is a star athlete, she a straight-A student; he plans to enlist in the Marines after high school, while she is certainly going to college. But the drama here comes not from these differences but from the fact that Lucas seems to remember things that have not happened yet – including falling in love with Juliet and eventually dying in war. This whole setup is pretty silly, and has been done many times before: future self may have returned in some way to relive the past, and can the future be changed with foreknowledge? However, Bell plays the whole scenario straight and as if it is new. Lucas and Juliet interact, express uncertainty, struggle to understand what is going on and if anything is going on, and so forth. Lucas’ flash-forwards – or memories, if that is what they are – come more often and grow increasingly ominous, and eventually Juliet decides that the memories are real, that Lucas will indeed die after joining the Marines and being sent to war, and that there must be some way to use the advance knowledge to prevent his death from happening. In real science fiction, paradoxes of this sort have long been explored from many angles, often with considerable thoughtfulness, but in I Remember You the whole “future memory” notion is simply a plot device within a teen-romance book. Eventually the young lovers break up, Lucas does join the Marines despite his apparent memories and Juliet’s deep-seated misgivings, he does get sent to war, and certain other “remembered” events begin to happen just as anticipated. By this time, teenage romance readers will be rooting desperately for there to be some way, somehow, for everything to work out – and it does not spoil anything to say that Bell, bending over backwards to deliver a happy ending, finds one. It may not be believable, but little in this (+++) book is – and believability is not the novel’s reason for being. This is a tissue-and-handkerchief book, one intended to mirror the deep yearnings teenagers so often feel during first love while providing a setting just sufficiently outlandish to yank those feelings here and there before offering a last-minute sigh of relief. Thoroughly predictable, efficient in its delivery of the chills and romance that its readers will seek, I Remember You is really not memorable at all, nor is it really meant to be: it is romance, with a fillip of time-travel fantasy, offered purely as entertainment.
The Gluten-Free Vegetarian Family Cookbook: 150 Healthy Recipes for Meals, Snacks, Sides, Desserts, and More. By Susan O’Brien. Da Capo. $17.99.
With all the health-focused food books out there, you would think that by now authors and editors would know the difference between “healthy” and “healthful.” No such luck. A “healthy” recipe would be one that is robust, pink-cheeked and probably lifts weights when not doing cardio. Being “healthy” is an attribute of the thing itself. Something that is “healthful” is good for someone or something else. In other words, if you stop eating bacon-wrapped deep-fried pork lard and instead have some kale and quinoa, you are eating a more-healthful dish – because it is better for you. It is not healthier. It is more healthful.
And now that we have gotten past the “healthy recipes” error in the subtitle of The Gluten-Free Vegetarian Family Cookbook, we can consider how many other standard elements of food can be left out until everyone is essentially grazing on naturally grown grass. Well, no one is quite calling for that, yet, but it is certainly true that advocates of removing certain traditional elements of many people’s diets are now saying that even more such elements ought to disappear. Gluten-free is not enough, argues Susan O’Brien, author of several previous books about gluten-free eating. Gluten-free plus vegetarian is the way to go.
Leaving out the sociopolitical elements of this sort of dietary recommendation, readers should be very careful about adopting a gluten-free eating regimen unless they have been diagnosed with celiac disease. There is strong medical and scientific evidence that gluten-free diets are often lacking in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Reports on the risks of gluten-free eating from sources as diverse as Scientific American, WebMD, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and even Fitness magazine will not convince people who believe there is some vast conspiracy to force people to consume and be consumed by the evils of gluten. But those with a smidgen of objectivity should look into those reports seriously: unlike authors of books about the gluten-free life, the scientists studying dietary habits have no particular axes to grind and no additional personal profit to be made by taking a pro-gluten or anti-gluten position.
Assuming, though, that a reader has celiac disease and therefore should look into a gluten-free diet, O’Brien’s book provides some interesting options for going gluten-free because you must – and vegetarian because you want to. As a guide to preparing food meeting both gluten-free and vegetarian criteria, the book is fine. O’Brien provides the usual list of foods to have always on hand: sorghum flour, chia seeds, arrowroot, grapeseed oil, Earth Balance non-GMO spread, mung beans, seaweed, guar gum, kelp flakes and many more ingredients that will be unfamiliar to the vast majority of cooks but sensible for those at whom this book is targeted. The book’s readers will also presumably not be thrown by the large ingredient list for foods that most people would regard as simple. “Best Sunrise Breakfast Muffins,” for example, require 18 ingredients, including coconut milk (“not canned”), coconut palm sugar and almond meal or flour. “Raw Avocado and Corn Soup with Cilantro Pesto” has 20 ingredients, among them chopped raw cashews, maple syrup and chopped serrano pepper. This book is best for people who are not only determined to eat foods of the type O’Brien describes but also have plenty of time available to prepare them – and, indeed, enjoy spending time in the kitchen (although she does label some recipes “quick & easy”). There are recipes here for breakfasts, salads, main dishes, side dishes, desserts, and even snacks, with interesting and often appealing or intriguing names such as “Mochi Waffles,” “Jicama and Fruit Slaw,” “Tempeh and Veggie Bourgignon,” “Tandoori-Style Tofu with Sesame Tahini Sauce,” “Sauerkraut Stir-Fry with Kelp Noodles,” “Sesame Tahini and Lime Dressing,” and “Delicious Protein-Packed Strawberry-Blueberry-Tofu Smoothie.” O’Brien has certainly managed to assemble an extensive list of foods that have both gluten-free and vegetarian characteristics, and she couples the recipes with some useful information – for example, “Wine and hard liquor are…gluten-free, although there are many people who believe otherwise.” For people with an interest in gluten-free food that also fits vegetarian diets, The Gluten-Free Vegetarian Family Cookbook is certainly a useful guide. But the fact remains that gluten-free eating has become a fad rather than a matter of health and wellness, and there are dangers to switching to a gluten-free diet just because “it seems more healthful” (not “healthier”!) rather than because of a medical diagnosis that makes it necessary. O’Brien does not address this issue – her book is one of advocacy rather than considered balance – so readers should seriously think about it on their own before making significant changes in what they eat.
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Songs and Dances of Death; Night on Bare Mountain. Ferruccio Furlanetto, bass; Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Mariinsky. $18.99 (SACD).
Berlioz: Harold in Italy; La mort de Cléopâtre. Antoine Tamestit, viola; Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. LSO Live. $14.99.
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5; Triple Concerto. Mari Kodama, piano; Kolja Blacher, violin; Johannes Moser, cello; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Kent Nagano. Berlin Classics. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6. New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).
At the Hoffnung Interplanetary Music Festival back in 1958, one piece of musical humor offered for the delectation and delight of the audience was called Concerto for Conductor and Orchestra by Francis Chagrin. The point was that conductors have many ways, some subtle and some not so subtle, to take control of music and musicians – a fact that orchestral musicians know well, of course, but that is not always apparent to audience members at concerts, since the majority of a conductor’s work is done at rehearsals, not during performances themselves. One would expect the conductor’s input into the music to be even less clear in recordings, but in some of them, his or her influence is quite evident to listeners who pay careful attention. Although there is a certain blandness to many interpretations nowadays, abetted by the increasing similarity of the sound of many orchestras, there are some conductors who unfailingly put their stamp on the works they lead. Valery Gergiev is one of them. In addition to an exuberant podium manner, he has an unhesitating willingness to shape music for emotional ends even at the expense of literalness – resembling, in both these ways, Leonard Bernstein. But Gergiev is less prone to excess than Bernstein was, and many of his performances succeed in conveying a great deal of emotional impact while also elucidating the structure of the works. Gergiev manages to get this effect not only from his own Mariinsky Orchestra but also from those that he guest conducts, as is apparent in two new releases. The Mussorgsky disc on the Mariinsky’s own label is wonderful from start to finish. The Gergiev touch – which often means strong emphasis on percussion and sforzandos that are genuinely startling – serves Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition exceptionally well. Anyone who knows Gergiev would expect The Hut on Fowl’s Legs and The Great Gate of Kiev to be splendid, and indeed they are; but Gergiev also shows subtlety in his attention to detail in some of the smaller and less overtly splendor-filled sections. In Tuileries and Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells, for example, he varies the tempo considerably, drawing out some phrases and compressing others to shape the impact he is looking for. His slight extra pause at the end of the “chicks” movement gives the whole thing a wonderfully whimsical feel. But Gergiev is also quite capable of delving deeply into dark feelings, as in Songs and Dances of Death, which Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sings with sensitivity and involvement – although his voice is not as deeply resonant as that of some of the best Russian basses. In these four lugubrious but highly varied looks at different aspects of death, heard here in the 1962 orchestration by Shostakovich, Gergiev both follows Furlanetto’s lead and expands and enhances the words with an orchestral accompaniment that is fully participatory in the material. It is regrettable that the words themselves are not provided with the recording – they are absolutely necessary for an understanding of the music, and their omission is unconscionable. The CD concludes with Mussorgsky’s own orchestration of Night on Bare Mountain, not the far more commonly heard version by Rimsky-Korsakov. That one is better balanced and more satisfying as a tone poem, with a definite beginning, middle and end; Mussorgsky’s original, though, is wilder and altogether stranger, its segments spilling over one another and its conclusion inconclusive in a way that Rimsky-Korsakov’s beautiful “coming of dawn” ending is not. Gergiev skillfully contrasts the faster, more-pointed segments of Mussorgsky’s version with the slower ones, which are eerie rather than reassuring. The Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration is so familiar and in its own way so successful that listeners may have a hard time adjusting to the vagaries of the composer’s own approach, but Gergiev makes as good a case for it as one is likely to hear.
The London Symphony Orchestra may not be as instantaneously responsive to Gergiev as the Mariinsky Orchestra, but the LSO Live release of two Berlioz works nevertheless bears the conductor’s strong imprint. Harold in Italy is episodic and requires, for its full effect, some knowledge of its poetic source, much as is the case with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, which is also based on a work by Byron. Gergiev does not try to minimize the somewhat disconnected score, preferring to treat each movement essentially as a separate tone poem. This works quite well: the finely nuanced playing of Antoine Tamestit helps keep things together as the orchestra produces sounds ranging from the pastoral and almost folk-like to the highly dramatic – to call Gergiev’s handling of the very ending of this work “emphatic” is greatly to understate the case. Harold in Italy is nicely complemented by La mort de Cléopâtre, which Karen Cargill has made something of a specialty: she also recently recorded it with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Robin Ticciati. In that version, mezzo-soprano and conductor focused on the work’s lyricism; with Gergiev, the focus is on the dramatic intensity of the story. Both approaches work quite well – there are enough emotions in this Berlioz piece to accommodate varying ways of handling it – but there is no doubt that the work’s conclusion under Gergiev, as the composer offers a tone-painting of the fatal bite of the asp and Cleopatra’s final gasping words, is nearly operatic in its impact. Again, though, where are the words? They are not included with the CD (they were with the Ticciati version); and the fact that listeners can find them online does not excuse the producers of the recording from providing such basic material.
The conductor’s influence can be strongly felt even in some recordings that are true collaborations, such as the new release of Beethoven’s piano concertos on the Berlin Classics label. Here the conductor and soloist are husband and wife, which renders the whole issue of who influences whom and what particularly interesting. The reality is that the collaboration of Mari Kodama and Kent Nagano is a highly successful one in most of this repertoire, with some passages sounding amazingly intuitive in their mutuality: the coda of the finale of Concerto No. 4 is an especially striking example. This three-CD set is actually a compilation of performances recorded over the better part of a decade: the readings of the first three concertos date to 2006, that of the Triple Concerto to 2010, and those of Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 to 2013. Actually, those most-recent performances are the best of the bunch: Kodama plays with power, assurance and a strong sense of the concertos’ structure, and Nagano leads the excellent Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin at a fine pace with excellent attention to detail. The recordings of Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 are a bit more tentative and include a few unnecessary instances of rubato or what sounds like outright hesitation. No. 3 is fine, but has a surface-level sheen that makes it sound as if Kodama and Nagano have not quite plumbed its depths. Yet all this is really nitpicking: these are excellently played performances throughout, with soloist and conductor clearly in rapport with each other as well as with the music. Beethoven did not write these concertos for the modern piano or a full-size modern orchestra, so these versions must be deemed rather old-fashioned in their use of today’s instruments and techniques. But they are certainly effective. The second-movement “dialogue” of No. 4 is a high point, with the drama and lyricism of orchestra and piano, respectively, brought into high relief. And all of No. 5, the “Emperor,” is excellent: the work’s anticipation of later Romantic-era concertos is especially clear in this reading. The sole disappointment here is the Triple Concerto, a work still so under-appreciated that it is not even mentioned in the accompanying booklet – and is wrongly listed in three separate places as being heard on the second CD after Concerto No. 3 (it is actually heard before that work). Although Kolja Blacher and Johannes Moser play their stringed instruments well, they sound somewhat timid in comparison with Kodama’s piano. It can be argued that the piano is preeminent in this concerto, but in fact the work benefits from roughly equal prominence of the three soloists. There is nothing really wrong with this performance, but it is rather wan and pallid, which this music certainly does not have to be. The five solo concertos, on the other hand, are bright, almost effervescent at times, as conductor and soloist alike approach them with enthusiasm, understanding and what is clearly first-rate technique.
Sometimes a conductor can make an imprint on an orchestra without necessarily making one on particular pieces of music. That is the case with Alan Gilbert’s Nielsen cycle with the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra itself has not sounded this good since the Bernstein era: Gilbert clearly knows how to extract the maximum warmth, precision and sectional balance from an orchestra that has often been rather ragged and unruly under a variety of conductors – to the detriment of music and audiences alike. However, Gilbert’s readings of Nielsen’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, which complete his cycle for Dacapo, suffer from the same malaise as his performances of the other symphonies. He tends to make the works too bland, smoothing their sharp edges and generally taming their frequently outré orchestrations, rhythms and harmonies (even Nielsen’s First, his most-straightforward symphony, is harmonically odd, never deciding which of two keys it is in). Thus, in the Fifth, where the timpani player is at one point famously instructed to play ad libitum and try to disrupt the rest of the orchestra, Gilbert keeps things under such tight control that this aleatoric, highly provocative section becomes merely noisy. That was not Nielsen’s idea at all. As for Symphony No. 6, which Nielsen called “Sinfonia semplice” with tongue firmly in cheek, this is a genuinely bizarre work, as strange in its way as much of Ives’ music was in its. Deliberately crass, overdone, silly, mocking, sarcastic and at times just plain weird, Nielsen’s Sixth invites a conductor to pull out all the stops and really show what he or she can get an orchestra to do. Gilbert may be up to the challenge, but if so, he chooses not to rise to it: this Nielsen Sixth is very mild indeed, its jagged edges smoothed to such a degree that even the very end (when the bassoons keep playing after everything is finished, as if the conductor failed to cue them to stop) sounds intentional. It is intentional, of course: Nielsen knew exactly what he was doing. But here as with the timpani in Symphony No. 5, what the composer wanted was a kind of chaos within an overall atmosphere of control – control that eventually asserts itself in the Fifth but that falls apart in the Sixth. Ironically, Gilbert’s skill at controlling the New York Philharmonic here stands in the way of delivering fully satisfying performances – although this SACD still gets a (+++) rating in recognition of the very fine playing of the ensemble and the excellent sound with which the disc is endowed.
Vivaldi: L’Estro Armonico—12 Concertos, Op. 3. Federico Guglielmo, violin and conducting L’Arte dell’Arco. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).
Vivaldi: Mandolin Concerto in C, RV 425; Transcriptions of concertos for violin, lute, flautino, and violin and lute. Avi Avital, mandolin; Venice Baroque Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon. $18.99.
Hummel: Piano Trios Nos. 1-7 (complete). Alessandro Deljavan, piano; Daniela Cammarano, violin; Luca Magariello, cello. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).
Against the famed Germanic composers of the Baroque era are arrayed a large number of equally prominent Italians: Corelli, A. and D. Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Locatelli, Gabrieli, Tartini, Galuppi, Sammartini, Geminiani – and of course Vivaldi. So influential were Vivaldi’s works, so familiar are some of them today, that to many he stands as the Baroque composer, with only J.S. Bach at his level. Yet Vivaldi himself, far from encapsulating any particular tradition, was constantly innovating both in his compositions and in his own violin performances (which were controversial in their day: not everyone liked or appreciated his style). One small matter of creativity among many: L’Estro Armonico was the first collection of concertos ever to appear in two volumes. These 12 concertos were published in 1711 to great admiration, and along with Vivaldi’s Op. 8 (Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, the set that includes The Four Seasons) are arguably the composer’s most important printed works. Yet it is only now that they have been recorded using a critical edition that scrupulously returns to and adheres to Vivaldi’s original intentions. Federico Guglielmo, an outstanding solo violinist who also acts as concertmaster of the group he founded in 1994, L’Arte dell’Arco, performs all the concertos attentively, fervently and with an absolute command of Baroque style and ornamentation on a new Brilliant Classics release. These performances give the lie to the notion that all Vivaldi concertos are essentially the same: eight of these are in three movements, four in four; six are in major keys, six in minor; there are two in D and two in A minor, but the others are in eight different keys – A, E, F and G major and B, D, E and G minor. Even the instrumental combinations differ among these works: four feature a single solo violin, four call for two, and four require four. Admittedly, the decidedly odd arrangement of the concertos on this new recording makes it difficult to see how carefully Vivaldi formulated and arranged the set of 12: the concertos are presented in the order 10, 1, 5, 7, 8, 4, 9, 2, 12, 6, 11 and 3, for no stated or readily discernible reason. Still, with the exception of this unexplained oddity of presentation, the performance here is wonderful from start to finish. This is essentially chamber music, although it was not deemed so in its time: there are only 11 players here, including Guglielmo, and not all of them perform all the works. So the music has always been intended to have a lightness, a transparency, a clarity as great as it has in this recording. Individual movements are invariably short, some less than a minute and none longer than three-and-a-half, but each is a complete package in itself, and each fits perfectly – in tempo, rhythm and key relationship – with the others within a given concerto. No wonder so many consider Vivaldi to be the Italian Baroque composer. And no wonder Bach and others made so many transcriptions and paid so many tributes to Vivaldi – there is perfection of form here, as well as profound understanding of the musical capabilities of the instruments for which these works were written.
It should be no surprise, given Vivaldi’s importance, that Vivaldi transcriptions continue to be made even in the 21st century. Mandolinist Avi Avital even includes one from L’Estro Armonico on his new Deutsche Grammophon CD: No. 6, in A minor. Hearing it as a mandolin concerto shows clearly that Vivaldi, like Bach, wrote music that in a sense transcends the instruments for which it was written – even though it lies so well on those instruments. The sound of Avital’s transcription is certainly different from that of the original solo-violin concerto, but the purity, elegance and poise of the music come through just as clearly here as when Guglielmo plays the same music. Vivaldi did write concertos specifically for mandolin, and the one heard here – in C, RV 425 – in some ways is the highlight of the entire disc: Avital plays it with flair as well as understanding, and the overall effect is delightful. In other ways, though, a highlight here is the mandolin transcription of “Summer” from The Four Seasons – this music is so well-known that it may seem quixotic to perform it on an instrument other than the violin, for which it was written. Yet here as in the transcription of Op. 3, No. 6, Avital makes a convincing case for playing this as a mandolin concerto, not because it is in any sense authentic but simply because it works and manages to sound so good in this alternative arrangement. The rest of the pieces on this disc are also transcriptions: Concerto in D for lute, RV 93; the Largo movement from Concerto in C for flautino, RV 443; and the Trio Sonata in C for violin and lute, RV 82 – with Avital here joined by Mahan Esfahani on harpsichord, Ophira Zakai on lute and Patrick Sepec on cello. At the end of the CD, as an unusual bonus, tenor Juan Diego Flórez sings two 18th-century Venetian Gondolier songs, with Avital here playing not his usual mandolin but an 18th-century variant called the mandolin lombardo – and with support from Ivano Zanenghi on lute, Daniele Bovo on cello, Lorenzo Feder on harpsichord and Fabio Tricomi on Baroque guitar. The Venice Baroque Orchestra performers, who play on period instruments or reproductions of them and are steeped in historically accurate performance practices, complement Avital’s playing beautifully throughout this disc. The result of all the virtuosity is a chance to hear Vivaldi from a new and fascinating angle, and to understand the capabilities of the mandolin not only in Vivaldi’s music but also within the Italian musical tradition in general.
That tradition also includes first-rate performing, sometimes by the composers themselves and often by others interpreting their music. The performance tradition has come down to the present day largely unscathed, and has resulted in excellent handling of a great deal of non-Italian music as well as that of Italy itself. One particularly enjoyable recent example is the recording by a trio of first-rate Italian performers, on Brilliant Classics, of the complete piano trios of Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a composer long neglected because he straddles the Classical and Romantic eras without fitting fully into either, and therefore sounds “too derivative” of the earlier era and “not anticipatory enough” of the later one. At least that is how the neglect of him and his music have long been justified – but as more of his works become available, the prejudice against him is showing itself as just that: unjustifiable bias. Hummel knew and interacted with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and his performances as a piano virtuoso helped pave the way for Chopin, Liszt and others, and he is scarcely responsible for living in a time of transition. He wrote in just about every musical form except the symphony, and that is one reason for his music’s neglect: there are no symphonies to revive – as there are ones by, for example, Ferdinand Ries and Louis Spohr. But Hummel’s chamber music is, or should be, a fertile field for modern performers, including the trio of Alessandro Deljavan, Daniela Cammarano and Luca Magariello. Hummel’s seven piano trios (not counting a very early eighth, labeled as a sonata) date from about 1804 (the year Haydn helped Hummel obtain a post with Prince Nikolaus Esterházy) to the early 1820s. The Deljavan/Cammarano/Magariello recording offers them, intelligently, in order of opus number, which may not be wholly accurate chronologically (the exact dates of composition are not entirely certain) but gives a good general sense of Hummel’s musical development in this form. The first four trios, with opus numbers 12 (in E-flat), 22 (in F), 35 (in G) and 65 (also in G), beautifully balanced and unending tuneful, are shorter and generally lighter than the later ones, the earlier works’ lyricism well-controlled and their counterpoint (at which Hummel was adept) frequently lively. The first three are very much in the spirit of the 18th century, witty and well-mannered if perhaps, structurally, a trifle on the conventional side. The most original of the four is Op. 65, which has a comparatively substantial first movement and more formal and harmonic adventurousness than the others. Yet none of these compares with the three later trios. Op. 83 in E, the longest of the seven, has intensely lyrical sections and is distinguished for the way it significantly expands sonata form. Op. 93 in E-flat features a dramatic opening to the development of the first movement and a very Mozartean finale. And Op. 96, also in E-flat, shows considerable originality in the first movement’s design, includes a number of unusual instrumental twists in its second-movement variations, and concludes with a Rondo alla russa reflective not only of Russia but also of Poland – two nations that Hummel visited as a virtuoso. The easy camaraderie in the Deljavan/Cammarano/Magariello performances and Hummel’s frequently sparkling writing for all three instruments combine to make this recording of Hummel’s trios another piece of evidence, if another is needed, that a great deal of fine music by this unjustly neglected composer has been rediscovered – and more is surely to come.
February 19, 2015
Lunch Wore a Speedo: The Nineteenth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Pieces and Players. By Blue Balliett. Scholastic. $17.99.
Giving readers what they expect in terms of character and plot can be a great way to build a fan base and keep it satisfied. This is a staple of forms from detective fiction to character-based comedy, and it certainly works in cartooning – comic strips such as Sherman’s Lagoon rely on readers’ knowledge of the basic setting and characterizations, with Jim Toomey using that familiarity to produce theme-and-variations strips that may take some getting used to for those who have not seen his work before but that are instantly recognizable (and very funny) for those who have. The latest Sherman’s Lagoon collection, the 19th, has an in-joke in its title and on its cover: you have to know that Sherman, the dim-witted shark, often calls human beachgoers “lunch” because that is, after all, what they are to a shark (this shark, anyway). Less happily, the collection also has a typical element on the back cover: the strip shown there, about multiple unlikely occurrences happening all at once, talks about someone on the beach being “struck by lightening [sic]” – Toomey is not always the world’s best speller, and apparently his editors did not notice that he meant “lightning.” It is easy to forgive the occasional faux pas like this, though, because Toomey has now honed and refined his characters to a point at which their misadventures are always worth at least a chuckle and often a guffaw. In the latest collection, perpetual schemer Hawthorne the hermit crab creates “Crab Growth Formula” to help other denizens of Kapupu Lagoon bulk up – but it also gives them crab claws and antennae. Sherman, Hawthorne and Fillmore (the sort-of-intellectual sea turtle) are temporarily turned into humans by Kahuna the Easter Island god statue (hey, you have to be there!) – so they can go to the Super Bowl. Later, back in the lagoon and their usual forms, the three take a ride in an undersea Volkswagen left there as part of an “art installation” on the sea floor. Ernest, the eyeglasses-wearing fish who is the strip’s computer whiz and hacker, reprograms a data-collecting robot so it can, among other things, operate a blender for perpetually lazy polar bear Thornton during his never-ending beach vacation. Later, Hawthorne accompanies Thornton to the North Pole, where Thornton’s mom has arranged a marriage that of course does not come about. Also here are Sherman and Hawthorne’s visit to Lake Nicaragua to see the freshwater sharks and incidentally join an armed uprising, a visit to Kapupu by a bluefin tuna that Hawthorne wants to sell as sushi, a touch of cloning, Sherman’s interpretation of the term “flash mob,” and various other forms of silliness that are amusing precisely because the characters and personalities here have been formed and polished (well, maybe not exactly polished) in 18 previous collections. Toomey’s undersea world takes some getting used to for those not yet familiar with it, but those who, umm, take the plunge will soon find themselves, err, sucked into a great deal of hilarity.
The use and reuse of familiar characters is not, however, enough, in and of itself, to make a story work. The limitations of the approach are apparent in Blue Balliett’s new novel, Pieces and Players, which gathers characters from several of her earlier books and sends them into an adventure reminiscent of ones that Balliett has offered before. The plot involves the theft of 13 art masterpieces – one of course being a Vermeer, recalling Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer – and the assembly of a group of five preteens to figure out what has happened and recover the art. The young sleuths include Calder, Petra and Tommy from The Wright 3 and The Calder Game, Zoomy from The Danger Box, and Early from Hold Fast. And there is the requisite mysterious adult who may be playing a game of her own (Mrs. Sharpe): she has not appeared before, but her type is familiar from earlier books. Balliett reintroduces her young characters clearly, so there is no need to have read the earlier books to understand who is who – and in fact, readers of the earlier books may find the reintroductions rather dull. But Balliett is clearly going for some sort of resonance here by reusing existing characters from her books rather than creating new ones – and, for that matter, reusing plot elements that she has explored before. The importance of art comes through as clearly in Pieces and Players as in other Balliett books, although the passages emphasizing this may be a little heavy-handed for some readers; and the descriptions of museums and settings in Chicago are nicely done, although, again, may not be to the taste of those unfamiliar with or not particularly interested in details about the city and its landmarks. The real flaw of this (+++) book, however, is that much of its effect depends on the interaction of characters who are, in this context, only mildly interesting and not always well differentiated. Because their personalities were formed in other books, readers looking to read more about them in a different-but-familiar mystery environment will have fun visiting with them again and seeing how, again, they piece clues together to solve a mystery that itself has many echoes of those in earlier Balliett books. Readers new to Balliett’s work will, however, finds Pieces and Players rather pale in plot and its characters something of an “in” experience – not an “in joke,” since this is not character comedy, but more of an “in mystery.”
Clark the Shark: Tooth Trouble. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Harper. $16.99.
The Genius Files #5: License to Thrill. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $16.99.
There are several different ways for authors to keep series books and their characters going and keep them interesting to young readers – and, hopefully, to newly emerging readers who will then seek out existing series entries. One method is through a book such as Clark the Shark: Tooth Trouble. This actually keeps two series going: the one about toothy, well-meaning but easily intimidated and socially awkward Clark, and the “I Can Read!” series for ages 4-8 – in which this is a Level 1 book featuring “simple sentences for eager new readers.” Many books in this early-reading series are created by authors and illustrators other than the originators of the characters featured – but in this case, Bruce Hale and Guy Francis do the book themselves, and the result is pleasantly consistent with other Clark the Shark books. Clark looks, talks and reacts here just as in the books about him outside the “I Can Read!” series, and this low-key adventure fits well with his others. The idea here is that Clark has a loose tooth and needs to visit the dentist, but one of his friends warns him about all the terrible things dentists do, so timid Clark becomes frightened and does not want to go. Of course, when he does have his appointment, everything is fine, and the dentist proves to be a very small fish who favors humor as a way to relax patients. This works just fine for Clark: Doctor Pia “had the gentlest fins and the silliest jokes.” Soon the loose tooth is out, Clark is back to his usual very toothy smile, and everything ends happily – with Hale being good enough to explain, on the last page, some things about real sharks (such as the fact that “they never run out of” teeth and “some lose up to 30,000 teeth in their lifetime!”). Hale’s usual pleasant plotting and Francis’ typically amusing drawings help the underlying lesson here go down easily, all within a series that gets new readers into the, umm, swim of things.
In other cases, a series for young readers builds on itself by taking the same adventure, or series of adventures, through not one or two but three or more books. Trilogies are especially common, but sometimes authors push things beyond that and create tetralogies. Dan Gutman goes even farther with The Genius Files, for which he has written a five-book series (quintology?). The standard perils-of-Pauline plot, with the twin protagonists (a boy named Coke and a girl named Pepsi, mercifully shortened to Pep much of the time) subjected to torment after torment and mystery after mystery, has worn rather thin by its finale, License to Thrill. There is a sameness to the diabolical-traps-barely-escaped narrative that even some of the target readers, ages 8-12, may find wearing by now. Others, though, will revel in yet more escapades and more dangers and more troubles to be overcome – and more parents so hopelessly clueless about what is going on that they strain the already very modest credibility of parental participation in all books of this type. The parents of Coke and Pep spend most of their time in the books being beyond oblivious and all the way into brain-dead, although at the very end they finally say, “We thought you were just putting us on. …You know, the way teenagers do.” And this leads the twins to recite, for readers who may have forgotten, all the things they endured on the cross-country trip chronicled in these five books, during which they were “almost frozen to death, boiled in oil, pushed into a sand pit…thrown into a vat of Spam, kidnapped, blasted with loud music…swarmed by bats, abducted by aliens, sprayed with poison gas, [and] had stuff dropped on our heads.” You get the idea. So do the twins’ parents, very belatedly indeed. And it is clear from the list of perils that Gutman knows one sure way to make a series as ridiculous as this one work: humor. That is the best thing about The Genius Files, and there is certainly plenty of it in the concluding volume, often couched in comments to the reader: “At this point, you’re probably starting to feel a little angry that Coke hasn’t been thrown into a volcano yet. I mean, I promised back in chapter 1 that Coke was going to get thrown into a volcano. And here we are in chapter 11, and the twins are nowhere near a volcano.” No worries, though, for the author delivers what he promises, in his own time and his own way. And he delivers it with frequent asides and nudges that make it clear he knows exactly what he is doing: “I know what you’re thinking, dear reader. You’re thinking that this story is totally preposterous.” Well, yes. But in a series like this, that doesn’t really matter. In fact, it is pretty much the point of the whole thing – a point that Gutman, a prolific writer for this age group, clearly understands, and uses as a building block to lengthen the series and eventually, with License to Thrill, bring it to a conclusion that fans will find quite satisfyingly absurd.
Moody Bitches: The Truth about the Drugs You’re Taking, the Sleep You’re Missing, the Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy. By Julie Holland, M.D. Penguin. $27.95.
From its deliberately provocative main title through its over-extended and over-involved subtitle, and thence through more than 400 pages of advice that lurches (sometimes uneasily) from the witty to the with-it and back, Moody Bitches seeks to communicate, in essence, one single thought (ellipsis in the original): “Loving your body, trusting its signals, and inhabiting it fully… This is the way back to health.”
The rest of Moody Bitches is just exegesis, some of it fervent, some of it entertaining, most of it plain-spoken, and all of it drawing on New York City psychiatrist Julie Holland’s experience as a therapist – delivered with the kind of slam-bang intensity on which New Yorkers pride themselves. Beware of full immersion if you are someone for whom a little of this style goes a long way.
Holland argues that women’s moodiness, often considered a defect or problem, is in fact entirely natural and a good thing, being a sign of women’s sensitivity and adaptability. Moods, she says, are the body’s feedback system and can be managed in such a way as to let women lead healthier lives. Therefore, the use of mood-altering medications, which by design reduce mood swings even if they do not eliminate them, is in general a bad thing, damping not only extremes of emotional instability but also empathy, passion and sensitivity. Even in a bad situation, says Holland, medicine can make matters worse – by making matters seem more tolerable than a woman ought to deem them to be, and deflecting or undermining her natural understanding of the need to change the circumstances.
To say that Holland is no fan of medication is to understate her antipathy toward it. As a medical doctor, she acknowledges, rather half-heartedly, its importance, but when it comes to specific medicines that women take, she has little positive to say. Birth-control pills, for example, are “destabilizing” for many women and “can really cut into your sexual desire. I tell my patients this is the ‘dirty little secret’ of the Pill. For some women, being liberated from the fear of unwanted pregnancy may allow them to relax and experience sexual pleasure more, but a slew of other women are unhappy to discover that their desire for sex and their ability to achieve orgasm are muted by being on the Pill.” This is stylistically typical of Holland, as she minimizes positive matters (“some” women “may” benefit) while emphasizing negatives (a “slew” are “unhappy”).
To be sure, Holland’s plain-spokenness is welcome, and there are flashes of humor in what is essentially a humorless narrative here, such as a parenthetical remark in the midst of her discussion of the Pill: “(FYI, when you’re perimenopausal, your belly starts to store fat because your estrogen levels are waning. Beware the menopot.)” Holland uses personal experience as a teaching tool when she feels it will help: “I can’t get rid of my menopot and it’s driving me crazy. …After two kids and waning hormones, I am now the not-so-proud owner of a ‘muffin top.’” By and large, though, she attacks topics – and “attacks” is the right word – with ravenous enthusiasm, either devouring them or (to mix metaphors) beating them into submission. She calls food “a drug we can’t resist” and explains the mismatch between our modern world, in which “high-calorie foods are abundant,” and our genetic makeup: “our bodies were designed to hoard calories now for hard times later” and “the dopamine circuitry would light up like a pinball machine” at the sight of an available food source. In a chapter called “Your Body: Love It or Leave It,” which is neither more nor less than a pro-exercise argument, Holland includes subheads called “Brain Fertilizer,” “This Is Your Brain on Obesity,” “Pretty Ugly” and “Love That Body: Hips, Boobs, and Pubes.” All this is there just to urge women to move more and understand that “the hips and thighs of swimsuit models and celebrities are unattainable for the average woman on the average American diet, without a personal trainer, personal chef, plastic surgeon, and, most crucial, Photoshop.” Holland writes about “Inflammation, the Key to Everything” (yes, that is the chapter title) in discussing stress, depression and emotional resilience. But, as in many of her chapters, stripping away the cleverness and flood of verbiage leads readers to some very familiar and not-always-helpful places: “Don’t Stress about Stress and It Will All Be Okay,” says a subhead, within which Holland urges, “Reappraise a stressor as a challenge, not a threat, and see how you feel. …[F]ollow your joy to enhance resilience and reduce stress.” Nothing new there – and no suggestions on how to “reappraise a stressor as a challenge.”
This is where Moody Bitches ultimately disappoints. Pretty much everything Holland says, bar some fairly extreme positions regarding modern life and medicine, is sensible, intelligent and often very well put – reading her book is like listening to an especially well-educated friend hold forth on a variety of topics germane to modern everyday living in the developed world. But getting from what Holland correctly identifies as women’s (and men’s!) stressed, overworked, exhausted, anxiety-ridden everyday existence to a better, calmer, happier, drug-free, reduced-stress and far more idyllic life is extremely difficult, and the way to do so is by no means clear. Eat better, exercise more, sleep better, enjoy the delights of the everyday, have good sex, feel less stress, and your life will be better. Yes, it will. But how do you get to such a utopian state from where you are now? There is little guidance on that to be found in Holland’s book, which turns simplistic far too often in addressing the difficult realities of getting from where you are to where you want to be: “Accepting yourself, your natural self, in all its splendor, is key to being happy and healthy.” Why, yes. And to gain that acceptance, you – what? Become one of Holland’s psychiatric patients? Hmmm…that’s a thought…
Wagner: Preludes and Interludes—“Parsifal”: Prelude; “Götterdämmerung”: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Siegfried’s Funeral March; “Die Walküre”: Ride of the Valkyries; “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”: Prelude; “Tristan und Isolde”: Prelude and Isolde’s Liebestod; “Lohengrin”: Prelude; “Tannhäuser”: Overture; “Rienzi”: Overture; “Das Liebesverbot”: Overture; “Die Feen”: Overture. Philharmonia Zürich conducted by Fabio Luisi. Philharmonia Records. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique. Philharmonia Zürich conducted by Fabio Luisi. Philharmonia Records. $18.99.
Verdi: Rigoletto. Saimir Pirgu, George Petean, Aleksandra Kurzak, Andrea Mastroni, Judith Schmid, Julia Riley, Valeriy Murga; Chor der Oper Zürich and Philharmonia Zürich conducted by Fabio Luisi. Philharmonia Records DVD. $24.99.
Turn loose a fine opera conductor and a first-rate opera orchestra on symphonic repertoire and very interesting things happen, as quickly becomes clear in the first three releases from the new Philharmonia Records label of Philharmonia Zürich. Fabio Luisi, the Zürich Opera’s general music director, brings operatic sensibilities not only to opera-related orchestral music but also to dramatic music not tied to opera at all. For a two-CD set of Wagner preludes, overtures and excerpts, Luisi treads a great deal of familiar territory plus some that remains little-known – and except for a peculiar arrangement of the material and one strikingly ill-considered omission, this is an outstanding release. Luisi here shows his familiarity with and understanding of almost all the 13 completed operas by Wagner, and it is quite striking to hear the ways in which the very early Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot look ahead in some ways to Wagner’s later work – and, in other ways, go in directions that the composer decided not to follow. If there is a primary emphasis in Luisi’s interpretations, it is grandeur: he looks for and finds it in Rienzi and Tannhäuser as well as in Die Meistersinger and Siegfried’s Funeral March, and he balances it with a fine sense of atmospheric tone painting – very well performed by the orchestra – in the music from Lohengrin and Parsifal. It is slightly odd to include the thrice-familiar Ride of the Valkyries without also offering the equally well-known and upbeat Act III Prelude from Lohengrin, but that is not the truly disturbing omission: the distressing one is the decision not to offer the overture to Der fliegende Holländer, Wagner’s fourth opera, despite including the openings of his first three. Indeed, there is music here from 10 operas, and it is understandable that there is none from Das Rheingold or Siegfried, which are notoriously difficult to excerpt. But no Der fliegende Holländer? That is beyond strange in a set like this one. Also, the arrangement of the music is apparently random – it would have made a great deal more sense to present the material chronologically, but in fact Luisi offers it in something closer to reverse chronology, with Parsifal starting the first disc and Die Feen concluding the second. If there is a rationale for all this, it is far from apparent. What is apparent, though, is that Luisi and Philharmonia Zürich are a marvelous team, the orchestra being highly responsive to whatever the conductor calls for, and the conductor himself clearly being steeped in the meaning as well as the orchestration of Wagner’s music, resulting in performances that are clean, very well balanced, paced at just the right speeds, and exciting in highly individual ways – from the intense to the exalted. Yes, there could have been more music here – there is plenty of room for it on the CDs; and yes, the arrangement could have been better thought-out. But so much pleasure and so much understanding come through on this recording that its positives far outweigh its negatives.
The same is emphatically true for Luisi’s interpretation of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. This is, in fact, an exceptionally operatic reading of one of the most Romantic of all symphonies. Luisi overdoes the tempo changes – and gets away with it every time, because he does so in a way that heightens the drama and intensity of the music. He goes for really big climaxes and really quiet soft passages – and, again, this works every time, accentuating the extremes of passion delineated in the music and heightening the listener’s experience of it. This symphony is episodic and even disconnected in many ways, its idée fixe notwithstanding, and Luisi makes no attempt to cover up its structural irregularities – instead, he embraces them, turning the work into something like an extended tone poem (it would be fascinating to hear him apply this technique to Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony or Symphony No. 4). Here as in the Wagner release, Philharmonia Zürich plays simply beautifully, with excellent sectional balance, piquant winds, and an overall sound that is wonderfully robust. But also here as in the Wagner CDs, there are some oddities about the release. Musically, the strangest part of it is the finale, in which one would certainly expect Luisi to pull out all the stops and produce a hectic, hyper-dramatic conclusion. Instead, he here offers a movement more restrained than in many other performances, letting it build carefully and avoiding the feeling it sometimes has of nearly spiraling out of control. This is an effective way to handle the movement, but a rather strange one in light of the presentation of the four that come before it. Also, in terms of presentation rather than musical decisions, this CD contains only the symphony – and it is hard to imagine, with so many fine versions of this work available accompanied by other Berlioz music (frequently one or more of his wonderful overtures), why a listener would gravitate to a disc, even a very well-played one, that contains only the symphony and nothing else.
It would be natural to expect the one actual opera among these new Philharmonia Records releases to be the most successful presentation of all, but even though Luisi interprets Verdi’s Rigoletto with passion and close attentiveness to details of the music, and the orchestra plays very well throughout, this DVD is a (+++) release – and scarcely a Rigoletto for the ages. The reasons are the staging and the unevenness of the singing. The stage director is Tatjana Gürbaca, who, like so many contemporary stage directors, insists on modernizing the opera, removing all those old-fashioned palaces and costumes, and indeed stripping the production of pretty much everything that might hold visual interest: the basic set throughout is a very large table, covered with a white sheet and with black chairs all around. The props of Rigoletto are entirely gone: no ladder, for example, and no blindfold (the abductors use pepper spray). Costumes are modern, and here is no way to understand, visually, just what Rigoletto’s job is or where he lives or works, because these matters have no connection with anything the audience sees. There is also no riverside inn for the final act of this grim set piece. The dull, essentially unchanging set forces a focus on the music, which would be a good thing if all the singers were of top quality. But they are not. Saimir Pirgu is a Duke of Mantua with little character, no visible acting skills, and no lyricism in his phrasing, although his voice itself has a fine tone and good volume. Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda has problems with her high range, but her acting is good: for example, she is initially excited at her abduction, even waving happily to the audience, but then gradually realizes the mob’s intent may be darker than she realizes. George Petean as Rigoletto and Andrea Mastroni as Sparafucile are all right, but neither is intense enough to ignite the drama. The closest this production comes to a bit of humor – which is admittedly in short supply in this opera – is Julia Riley’s gum-chewing Giovanna, a small role that proves something of a scene-stealer amid all the bleakness elsewhere. To be sure, this opera is bleak, and in fact the strongest elements of this Rigoletto production emphasize that: the chorus is positively eerie as it glides on and off stage, sometimes wearing golden crowns, made of paper, that seem both out of place and vaguely threatening. The overall sense of menace of Rigoletto comes through forcefully at times, imperfectly at others: all the skill of Luisi and the orchestra cannot conceal the fact that the visual aspect of this production is simply not very engaging – and, for that matter, not very clear in indicating just who the players are and just what sort of drama is being enacted. Luisi shows himself in all three new Philharmonia Records releases to be a strong, committed conductor who can find and pull out the drama and contrasts in operatic and non-operatic music alike. But each release has some oddities or inadequacies that make this newly created label seem a touch too self-indulgent.
Nielsen: Songs for Choir. Ars Nova Copenhagen conducted by Michael Bojesen. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).
A Billie Holiday Songbook. Lara Downes, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Lee Actor: Piano Concerto; Symphony No. 3; Divertimento for Small Orchestra. Daniel Glover, piano; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. Navona. $14.99.
Pamela J. Marshall: Through the Mist; Communing with Birds; Zoa; Dance of the Hoodoos; Examinate Variations; Waves and Fountains. Ravello. $14.99.
There is a great deal of very interesting music about, and much of it deserves to be better known; but realistically, certain releases are likely to reach out only to people with highly specialized tastes and interests. In fact, the providing of high-quality musical performances to a relatively small niche audience is testimony to the ability of companies to produce and market new releases that are either sufficiently subsidized or sufficiently low-cost to turn a profit (or at least break even) despite not likely being appealing to a mass audience. For example, Dacapo, which specializes in music by Danish composers, consistently offers high-quality SACD recordings of material that few people outside Denmark have likely ever heard – and that is true even when a composer is as well-known internationally as Carl Nielsen. Although Nielsen’s large-scale instrumental music, in particular his six symphonies, is often recorded and fairly often heard in concert, his vocal works – including his delightful opera Maskarade – are much less familiar outside Scandinavia. So the new recording of 20 of his songs, written between 1895 and 1926, is a welcome addition to the Nielsen discography – but is not likely to have widespread appeal. Although the choir members of Ars Nova Copenhagen sing the songs very well under Michael Bojesen’s direction, these short Danish-language pieces have less musical originality and less inherent interest for non-Danes than other music by Nielsen. Certainly, much of this is by design: the composer used and arranged many Danish folk tunes, and saw these songs as his attempt to preserve and revive the Danish song tradition. In that, they were successful: community singers in Denmark today continue to perform many of these works, which in general have pleasant melodies and are simply harmonized and written well within amateur or semi-professional vocal ranges. To those not fully immersed in Danish traditions, the music is rather bland, and the words – typical in folk songs from many nations – are of no major consequence. Therefore, although the disc is quite well performed and the sound is very good, this remains a specialty item for those focused on Danish music or on Nielsen’s works in particular.
Somewhat similarly, a new Steinway & Sons release featuring pianist Lara Downes is targeted only at people immersed in the legend and music of Billie Holiday. Downes brings a classical performer’s technique to 20 arrangements of Holiday songs by Jed Distler, one by Teddy Wilson and one by Marian McPartland. The arrangements are all quite well done, and the music will be highly enjoyable for Holiday fans interested in hearing it without vocals: standards such as God Bless the Child and Strange Fruit are here, along with less-known songs whose melodies frequently sound somehow familiar. Distler’s arrangements sound now like ragtime, now like film music, now like gospel, even sometimes like classical piano works; and he tries to bring inflections to the piano music akin to those that Holiday used when she sang. Whether or not he succeeds will not be apparent to anyone except diehard Holiday fans. What many listeners will notice, though, is that the songs collectively, in the order in which they appear, seem almost to trace Holiday’s life, although they are not arranged chronologically. Clearly the arrangers and Downes wanted a disc that would communicate about Holiday in ways that go beyond simply offering piano versions of some songs she made famous. Again, whether they succeed at this will depend on how well listeners know Holiday’s biography and how strongly interested they are in the singer as well as the music. Yes, Downes plays well, and yes, the arrangements of songs Holiday made famous are well done; but just as the Nielsen choral works have a certain sameness about them and seem in large part like pieces for a niche audience, so do the Holiday pieces heard here seem to reach out in only a very limited way.
Sometimes the “niche-ness” of a recording is caused simply by the potential audience’s lack of familiarity with the music or the composer. Lee Actor (born 1952) writes modern classical works of considerable verve and style, with particularly compelling orchestration and more attention to audience involvement in the music than is evident in the works of many other contemporary composers. The three Actor pieces on a new Navona CD are all appealing. His Piano Concerto uses the solo instrument very differently from the way it is used on the Billie Holiday tribute CD: Actor creates a work with considerable sweep, from the piano’s first cadenza-like entrance through an extended first movement, shorter Adagio and a finale aptly labeled Allegro feroce. Structured in traditional classical-concerto form, the work features particularly attractive orchestration and a number of pianistic challenges – with which Daniel Glover copes admirably. As a whole, the concerto is a workout for both the soloist and the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra under Kirk Trevor – but it does not feel like a stretch for a listener’s ears, despite its clever rhythmic changes and frequent emotional ups and downs. Somewhat similarly, Actor’s Third Symphony appears challenging to play but much less so to hear: its five-movement form is close to that of a traditional symphony, and the composer’s attention to instrumentation and rhythmic detail keeps the work propulsive and involving. Its two short scherzos (the second and fourth movements) are admirably contrasted and offer some Shostakovich-like drive and a certain level of ferocity not unlike that in the finale of the Piano Concerto. On the lighter side of things, Divertimento for Small Orchestra is a pleasant look-back of a piece whose rhythms and harmonies are distinctly modern but whose overall feel remains planted in the 18th century. There is nothing especially profound in any of these works, but there is a great deal that is thoughtful, and all the music is well-crafted and put together by a composer who writes well for all sections of the orchestra. Yet he is not an especially well-known figure, and for that reason, this CD will appeal mainly to listeners already familiar with his music and to those to whom it is carried by word of mouth (or word of ear).
Along the same lines, the chamber works of Pamela J. Marshall (born 1954) on a new Ravello CD are certainly well-written, but here the lack of familiarity with the composer is only one issue. Another is the attempt to portray various nature scenes through this music – an effort that leads to some earnestness but also to some predictable instrumentation and some sounds that come across more as background music than as material worthy of focused listening. Through the Mist for flute (Danielle Boudrot), violin (Elizabeth Whitfield) and harp (Barbara Poeschl-Edrich) is supposed to evoke scenes ranging from morning fog to sunset, but sounds only like countless other would-be evocative pieces. Communing with Birds for solo flute (Susan Jackson) offers sounds as expected as those used for water in Waves and Fountains for oboe (Jennifer Slowik), horn (Kevin Owen) and piano (Karolina Rojahn). Zoa for two flutes (both played by Peter H. Bloom) and harp (Mary Jane Rupert) is supposed to sound otherworldly but basically seems evanescent in expectable ways. Dance of the Hoodoos for oboe (Audrey Markowitz), violin (Whitfield), cello (Jane Sheena) and piano (Paul Carlson) is more attractive, its syncopations and mysticism (based on scenes at Yellowstone National Park) seeming less self-conscious in its two movements than the techniques in other works here. And Examinate Variations for flute (Ashley Addington) and cello (Rachel Barringer) seems like Marshall’s version of a Baroque suite, its seven short movements including some thematically and rhythmically attractive moments despite the limitations of the scoring. These last two works are the highlights of a disc that otherwise offers music whose nature evocations are certainly heartfelt but musically nothing special or revelatory. Those who know Marshall’s music will enjoy the CD, but it is hard to see it reaching out in any significant way to those not already familiar with the composer.