June 25, 2015
The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles. By Dave Wasson. Harper. $17.99.
B. Bear and Lolly: Catch That Cookie! By A.A. Livingston. Illustrated by Joey Chou. Harper. $15.99.
Freddy and Frito and the Clubhouse Rules. By Alison Friend. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Kids ages 4-8 like to think big – they do not even realize there is a box outside of which to think, because they are too busy with their wide-ranging, unboxed thoughts. Dave Wasson’s The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles is a celebration of just this sort of thinking. Buster is as imaginative as they come, waking up in a chaotic room containing everything from a dinosaur attacking a toy train to a snare drum played with one drumstick and one fork, and immediately thinking of all sorts of things. Unfortunately, his ideas run afoul of mundane reality: instead of plopping fried eggs onto his face to give himself “EGGS-ray vision,” he is supposed to be getting ready for school. Things are not much better there: Buster’s show-and-tell offering of a rampaging robot (with, yes, fried eggs for eyes) only brings him mockery. After school, to help Buster feel better, his mother drops him off at the laboratory of his Uncle Roswell (name taken from supposed alien-landing site definitely intentional) – where there is a brand-new “What-If Machine” that cannot work unless someone feeds it big ideas. But alas, Uncle Roswell is fresh out. What to do? Buster is in his element now, and soon he and his uncle are walking on the ceiling, watching a rain of guinea pigs, flying a rocket-powered cow, and living in a world made of ice cream. Buster’s ideas get bigger and bigger until – well, obviously there is going to be trouble, and of course there is, but it is not terribly troubling trouble, and clever Buster soon thinks his way out of it and returns to school with a show-and-tell presentation that the class will never forget. Wasson’s drawings look a lot like stills from modern cartoons, on which he has in fact worked for Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. So The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles will be especially enjoyable for kids who watch those animations and will immediately “recognize” Buster and the plot of this book even before they have seen it. But even kids unfamiliar with today’s cartoons will be captivated by the sheer enthusiasm with which Buster imagines just about everything – the more impossible, the better.
Imagination is somewhat more restrained in A.A. Livingston’s fairy-tale-based B. Bear and Lolly: Catch That Cookie! But only somewhat. The story starts with the title characters (formerly known as Baby Bear and Goldilocks, although that is not explained within this book, which is the second featuring their adventures) making porridge that just does not come out the way it should: it is too thick, slick, lumpy, jumpy, sticky and altogether icky. Suddenly the Gingerbread Man comes running right past them, toppling their Porridge Perfecter and speeding off. B. Bear and Lolly give chase, but the cookie is just too fast for them, and the traps they set for him misfire – until the two friends figure out a way to use the inedible porridge to stop him in his tracks. They quickly assure the Gingerbread Man that they do not want to eat him – they just want him to clean up the mess he made. He apologizes and does just that – and then shows them how they can make perfect porridge after all. So the book ends with three friends, not just two, all of them enjoying porridge and sharing it with a bird, bear, squirrel, pig and dragon. Might as well get all those fairy-tale types in there! Joey Chou’s gently rounded illustrations are a big part of this book’s attraction (and a big contrast with Wasson’s in his book). There are plenty of other fairy tales out there, and B. Bear and Lolly seem sure to return to mix and stir up more of them.
Mixing and stirring, and friendship, are prime ingredients in Freddy and Frito and the Clubhouse Rules as well. Freddy, a fox, and Frito, a very large mouse (or perhaps an endearingly drawn rat), are best friends with a problem: each enjoys playing at the other’s house, but their respective parents make too many rules, interfering with the friends’ enjoyment of Jumping Jelly Beans, Rock Star Pirates and other games they have invented. So Freddy and Frito decide to create a place of their own, where there will be no rules at all: a treehouse, which they furnish with many of their favorite things. Or try to furnish: it soon turns out that Freddy does not like some of Frito’s stuff, and Frito does not like some of Freddy’s things, and everything is crowded and headache-inducing and smelly and just no good. The friends quarrel and run home to their families, but then decide the thing to do is to make the clubhouse bigger, so everything will fit and both of them will have places for whatever they want. Freddy and Frito are so excited after expanding their just-for-them place that they decide on a grand-opening celebration for the tree house, inviting lots of family members – and Alison Friend’s illustration of the grand-opening scene is so big that kids have to turn the book sideways to see everything that is going on. In fact, though, some of what is happening is not to Freddy and Frito’s liking, and they start to realize that it makes sense to have some rules after all. This is where the mixing and stirring come in: to get the guests to go home and stop messing everything up, Freddy and Frito prepare a “special dinner” consisting of pond water, an old shoe, a dead fish, and some moldy cheese. Sure enough, the smell of the stinky stew leads everyone to decide to go somewhere else for supper – giving Freddy and Frito the time and space they need to clean up, calm down, relax for a while, and create “the only rule they needed,” which is simply, “Freddy + Frito RULE!” Freddy and Frito and the Clubhouse Rules is a well-told story with more complexity than is often found in books for this age group. And the drawings of the friends, their families, and the unintentional (and intentional) messes that everyone makes all fit the tale and characters exceptionally well – not only in the bigger events but also in the smaller ones, such as a scene showing a “shortsighted neighbor” (a mole) taking a bath in a cooking pot that he has mistaken for a bathtub. Friendship, family, frustration and fun: Freddy and Frito and the Clubhouse Rules has them all.
Spurious Correlations: Correlation Does Not Equal Causation. By Tyler Vigen. Hachette Books. $20.
It is the bane of every scientist, every researcher: the eager journalist, blogger, or other non-scientist who is so excited about that new study that proves Phases of the Moon Cause Cancer! Or Eating a Pound of Blueberries a Day Keeps You Alive for 200 Years! Or Drinking Wine Protects Your Liver!
Or, more seriously: eating eggs will raise your cholesterol…too much salt endangers your heart…blood pressure above 140/90 is an invitation to cardiovascular disease and early death.
The first three correlations are ludicrous, and it is hard to imagine anyone believing them. But the second, reasonable-seeming three are no more believable – and in fact, scientists have recently reversed these supposed “scientific discoveries,” saying that eggs and other foods are not major culprits in too-high cholesterol; too little salt may be a bigger danger than too much; and systolic blood pressure in the 150 range is probably just fine and does not require the lifetime medication that doctors prescribed to so many people under the 140/90 standard.
There is no evil conspiracy behind this sort of scientific study and re-study, determination and re-determination. And it is perfectly fine to scoff at ill-reported findings that say high calcium intake causes eye disease, heartburn causes esophageal or stomach cancer, and red wine keeps you alive longer. Virtually all reporting outside scientific journals falls victim, through ignorance and/or space limitations, to the confusion of correlation and causation.
To put it simply: just because two things are both observed in people or in life in general, that does not mean one of them causes the other. People who take large amounts of calcium supplements are indeed more likely to have advanced macular degeneration, a serious eye disease, in later life – which could mean that they have a systemic condition or genetic predisposition to the eye disease and just happen to be calcium users; it does not mean that calcium causes the disease. Heartburn is sometimes seen in people with esophageal or stomach cancer, but most heartburn is simply a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease, and heartburn does not cause cancer. There is a correlation between drinking red wine in moderation and longer life in some people – but their overall lifestyle may be what leads them both to drink the wine and to have longer lives. Correlation Does Not Equal Causation, as the subtitle of Tyler Vigen’s book states.
Indeed, as the book’s title states, it is extremely easy to find Spurious Correlations – apparently connected events or circumstances that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Some of these are so well-known that they have passed into common parlance in their fields: the hemline indicator and Super Bowl indicator are well-known on Wall Street, for example, each of them supposedly predicting the future direction of the stock market (based, respectively, on the length of women’s dresses and whether a team from the old AFL or original NFL – or, in a variant, a team from the current AFC or NFC – wins the Super Bowl). Interestingly, traders scoff at these correlations but sometimes also weave elaborate stories to explain how they might, just might, have a grain of truth in them. These specific items are not in Vigen’s book, but he does produce a graph showing an 81.4% correlation between closing values of the New York Stock Exchange Composite Index from 2004 to 2011 and the ranking of the TV program Two and a Half Men against that of other CBS shows.
There is not even a micro-grain of veracity in the correlations that Vigen has dug up for his book – but they are so amusing that Spurious Correlations manages both to teach a matter of genuine importance and to insist that readers laugh about it. Vigen’s approach is a wonderful one: he provides graphs that show eerily parallel patterns between entirely unrelated sets of data – graphs that seem to prove that one thing causes the other, or at the very least is intimately related to it, when in fact they prove absolutely nothing. Thus, there is a definite correlation between cheese consumption in the United States between 2000 and 2009 and the number of people who died by becoming tangled in bedsheets during the same period – the graph shows it with 94.7% correlation. And margarine consumption during the same decade is even more clearly correlated with the divorce rate in the state of Maine: a 98.9% correlation. Also – oh my – there was 96.4% correlation between E-mail spam and the use of genetically engineered soybeans between 2001 and 2010. Quick! Someone pass a law! And let’s boost our competitiveness in information technology by making graduate school free for comic-book readers: there was 99.5% correlation between computer-science doctorates and comic-book sales between 2003 and 2009.
Vigen’s charts are highly amusing – and they are also highly instructive. There are so many statistics available about so many things that finding correlations between unrelated events is just a matter of doing a well-directed search. Then, to show those correlations clearly enough to imply causation, be sure to choose the right scale for your graph (Y axis) and the right time period (X axis). This is exactly what Vigen does – but other people do the same thing for far less humor-inducing reasons. Politicians and issue advocates are experts at manipulating statistics to try to make people think there is causation when there is only correlation: debates about everything from illegal immigration to abortion are filled with manipulation of this sort. And even when correlation and causation are confused only through ignorance or space limitations, rather than through malice, there are serious consequences. Journalistic credibility, to the extent that that phrase still means anything, is seriously damaged by stories reporting that A leads to B when the research says only that A and B both occur under the same specific circumstances or in the same group of people. Scientific literacy, to the extent that that phrase still has meaning, is badly undermined by widely disseminated reports that lead people to believe some important causality has been discovered, when all that has really been found is an interesting correlation.
Vigen clearly intends Spurious Correlations as a humor book, giving his graphs amusing headlines: “Save the planet! Knock down the old bridges!” “A ltr 4 u.” “Beer always makes basketball better.” “Money doesn’t grow on trees, unless that money is for bingo and those trees are houseplants.” So by all means laugh at the absurdity of the unconnected connections that he offers on page after page. There is, indeed, causation here: many of these graphs will certainly elicit amusement. But remember that this book has appeared at a time when more people than ever are ignorantly sounding off on the Internet and elsewhere about all the causes of all the terrible things happening in the world. That is only a correlation – right?
When the Earth Shakes: Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Tsunamis. By Simon Winchester. Viking. $18.99.
There have been many books for young people about the wonders of the world, about how nature works, about the amazing and sometimes frightening things that occur regularly on our planet; and there have been plenty of profiles of the scientists who study these things, try to make sense of them, and help (in the case of natural disasters) to predict dire events and restore order after they occur. Simon Winchester’s When the Earth Shakes, for ages 10-14, is similar to these books, but it is different, too, for it is a highly personal account of natural disasters by someone whose primary role is that of journalist – someone who takes readers where he has himself gone to explore the wonders and fearful power of geological forces.
It is not until his Afterword that Winchester states explicitly what is implicit throughout his narrative: “Each of these activities [earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis] happens as a normal part of the functioning of planet Earth. …Part of being a responsible custodian of our planetary resources must also include a respect for the way the planet itself operates.” Everything in the book revolves around this: the enormous human cost of natural disasters must be set against the reality that these are natural events, ones endemic to Earth and ones that will occur again and again, as they have been occurring for millennia beyond count. We humans live as if Earth is stable – even those who live in unstable parts of the world do this, such as those along the San Andreas Fault in California and around the Ring of Fire in the Pacific. But the planet is inherently unstable: what appears otherwise “over time…cannot and will not last.”
When Earth shrugs, when natural events intersect with human life, it is human life that is bound to be lost. It may be the 185 lives lost in February 2011 in an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, or the 57 who died when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, or the 40,000 killed when Krakatoa blew itself to smithereens in 1883, or the 230,000 who lost their lives in the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman Tsunami. These lives are huge to us humans but insignificant to a planet that is unaware of them and that dances to its own tune. Indeed, Winchester shows that plate tectonics, which are responsible for many of the most frightening and dramatic natural disasters, really are a sort of dance, with molten rock below the Earth’s surface causing 15 huge, solid plates and about 50 smaller ones to move slowly, constantly and steadily.
Winchester expertly mixes his personal experiences and knowledge with scientific explanations, photographs both modern and historical, and highly informative graphics – one of which, for example, shows where all 15 of Earth’s major plates lie. He explains the Richter scale and volcanic explosivity index, discusses (and shows in photos) the devastation of the 2011 tsunami in Japan (contrasting its horrific effects with the grandeur of the famous Hokusai painting of a great wave), briefly and tellingly profiles a couple of the victims of the Mount St. Helens eruption, mentions the heroic and unnamed telegraph operator who died immediately after telling the world in Morse code about the Krakatoa eruption, and is generally very effective in meshing the small, human and personal stories occurring in the course of gigantic natural disasters with a discussion of the scientific study and understanding of what occurs.
When the Earth Shakes is part of a series created in collaboration with, and using information from, the Smithsonian Institution. This is what gives the book much of its scientific gravitas. What comes through, page after page and photograph after photograph, is the astounding power lying just beneath our feet and bursting through again and again, always unpredictably despite increasingly sophisticated efforts to anticipate (if not control) its effects. What also comes through is the resilience of human beings affected by these disasters – not individually, perhaps, but collectively: the refusal to give in to Nature’s might despite the fact that humans are grossly overmatched when it comes to events that are literally earthshaking. Winchester is at his best when describing, first, what people saw and experienced during horrendous natural disasters; and, second, how they responded afterwards. His comments on Japan after the March 2011 tsunami are particularly telling – he notes that the Japanese “did not give up in the face of nature’s onslaught. They did not wait for government to help. …They rationed food and medicine, found fresh water, repaired roads, cleared debris and sorted it into neat piles, reopened schools with volunteer teachers, and kept the children amused and as content as possible. The spirit of Japan in the face of a tsunami catastrophe is something that disaster planners all around the world have come to admire and hope that their own communities might use as a model.” In the final analysis, it is the contrast between what is awe-inspiring and fear-inspiring in nature and what is admirable and determined in humans that makes When the Earth Shakes a book that fascinatingly balances the nearly unlimited potency of the forces that shape Earth with the indomitability of the human spirit – although not of individual humans – confronted by that overwhelming power.
Brahms Inspired. Orli Shaham, piano. Canary Classics. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Poulenc: Complete Music for Winds and Piano. The Iowa Ensemble (Nicole Esposito, flute and piccolo; Mark Weiger, oboe; Maurita Murphy Marx, clarinet; Benjamin Coelho, bassoon; Kristin Thelander French, horn; Alan Huckleberry, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Poetry in Motion: Music by Adrienne Albert, Dan Locklair, Claude Debussy, Manuel Moreno-Buendia, and Sonny Burnette. Fire Pink Trio (Debra Reuter-Pivetta, flute; Sheila Browne, viola; Jacquelyn Bartlett, harp). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Peter Lieuwen: Overland Dream; Sonata for Guitar; Windjammer for Woodwind Quintet; Rhapsody for Violin and Piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
James K. Wright: Letters to the Immortal Beloved; Michael Oesterle: Centennials; Brian Current: These Begin to Catch Fire; Andrew Staniland: Solstice Songs. Julie Nesrallah, mezzo-soprano; Gryphon Trio (Analee Patipatanakoon, violin; Roman Borys, cello; Jamie Parker, piano). Naxos. $12.99.
Solo and small-ensemble works, both classics and contemporary, have their own form of communicative expressiveness, inviting listeners into a more intimate relationship with the performers than larger-scale pieces usually do. Orli Shaham’s highly personal Brahms Inspired recording is even more strongly personal than solo recitals usually are. Shaham’s two-CD Canary Classics release explores late Brahms piano music in juxtaposition with works that inspired Brahms and ones – including three world première recordings – that were inspired by him. The way in which Shaham mixes and matches the pieces is noteworthy. The first CD starts with Brahms’ six piano pieces from Op. 118, to which Shaham brings vigor, delicacy and a rather old-fashioned willingness to employ rubato – at times a touch more than needed to make these works fully effective. She does especially well in capturing the ardor of the Intermezzo in F minor, brings nobility to the Romanze in F, and nicely controls the concluding Intermezzo in E-flat minor, with its Dies Irae quotations. Shaham follows this with My Inner Brahms (an intermezzo) by Bruce Adolphe (born 1955), which takes off from Brahms’; Op. 118, No. 6, and gives it a decidedly dissonant slant. Next is Schubert’s Impromptu, Op. 90, No. 3, handled in no-nonsense fashion; then Schumann’s Romanze, Op. 28, No. 2, played reflectively and thoughtfully; and, next, Chopin’s Berceuse, Op. 57, a lullaby here performed very affectingly. Then Shaham turns back to Brahms to conclude the first disc with Three Intermezzi, Op. 117, effectively “bookending” the CD with expansive readings that parallel her handling of Op. 118 at the disc’s beginning. The second CD opens with After Brahms – 3 Intermezzos for Piano by Avner Dorman (born 1975). The first of these turns Brahms’ Op. 118, No. 1 into a more-chromatic work; the second adds a bluesy feel to Brahms’ Op. 119, No. 1; and the third and most interesting is wholly original, starting as simply as Brahms might have and building gradually in complexity and with some distinctly non-Brahmsian dissonance. Shaham follows this with a rather unfortunate reading of Bach’s Partita No. 1, which she handles with Romantic-era rubato that may be intended to show parallels with Brahms but that does not match the music very well. The next piece, though, is as elegant and poised as can be, and very effective as a result: Sechs kleine Klavierstücke by Schoenberg, a great admirer of Brahms. The final work on this disc is actually two interwoven compositions: Brahms’ six-movement Op. 119 pieces with Hommage à Brahms für Klavier by Brett Dean (born 1961), which was specifically written to be performed within Brahms’ Op. 119. This is an audacious move by Dean, leading to a seven-movement dual-composer work in which Dean’s pieces are the second, fourth and sixth. The first and third of Dean’s pieces are called Engelsflügel (“Angel Wings”) 1 and 2, while the second Dean piece is decidedly more earthy and is called Hafenkneipenmusik (“Harbor Pubs Music”). Dean comments on and contrasts with the four Brahms pieces, and the full seven-movement work that results certainly expands upon Brahms’ original and broadens what it has to say. But even in Shaham’s able hands and with her sensitivity to the music, the totality seems more like a gimmick than a fully realized interpretation or reinterpretation of Brahms. Taken as a whole, the disparate yet related pieces on this fascinating release are not all of equal interest, but the material by Brahms himself is very well performed, and Shaham does manage to shed light interestingly on a number of Brahms’ influences and influencers – just as this collection intends to do.
There is expressiveness of a different sort, more straightforward and in some ways more immediately appealing, on a new MSR Classics recording of the complete wind-and-piano music by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). This is witty and well-written music, more effective in the main than are Poulenc’s chamber works for strings, for which he did not write particularly well. These seven pieces span much of Poulenc’s career and provide some fascinating stylistic contrasts. Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano dates to 1926 and is rather mischievous. Sextet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, French Horn and Piano is from 1932 (revised 1939-40) and is similarly lighthearted, although there is greater expansiveness here – especially in the first movement – and some very effective contrasting writing for individual instruments as well as the ensemble. The other major works on this very well-played CD are considerably later: Sonata for Flute and Piano dates to 1956-57, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano to 1962, and Sonata for Oboe and Piano also to 1962. There is more beauty, more sense of looking inward, and a greater exploration of the technical capabilities of the wind instruments in these works than in the earlier ones. They retain the fluidity and fluency of Poulenc’s earlier compositions for winds, but they expand it into new realms of expressiveness and technical challenge. Also on this CD are a very short Villanelle for Piccolo and Piano, a kind of miniature intermezzo, and a moving Elegy for French Horn and Piano that was written in 1957 in memory of justly famous horn player Dennis Brain (1921-1957), who had recently died in a car crash. A distinguishing feature of this heartfelt work is that it contains a rare-for-Poulenc use of a Schoenbergian tone row. The Iowa Ensemble makes all this music highly attractive, and the contrasts among the pieces themselves make the disc as a whole a fascinating one to which to listen.
The Fire Pink Trio plays exceptionally well, too, on a new MSR Classics CD entitled Poetry in Motion, but most of the music here is of somewhat less interest – although the CD still deserves a high rating for its sheer exuberance, its willingness to juxtapose interestingly related pieces, and the delightful and infrequently heard sound of an hour of music for the unusual combination of flute, viola and harp. Debussy’s 1913 Sonata is, not surprisingly, the highlight of the disc, its three movements showing the composer’s ever-present sensitivity and its patterns being typical of his late style. It flows now sinuously, now resolutely, and gives the players many opportunities to showcase themselves individually while producing expressive ensemble sections. Two five-movement suites by contemporary composers bracket the Debussy, which has the central position on the CD. These works are less fully integrated then Debussy’s, but they feature nicely contrasted movements and mostly successful forays into music outside the traditional classical realm. Dream Steps – A Dance Suite (1993) by Dan Locklair (born 1949) has a bluesy central movement and opening and closing movements that both include barcaroles. The scoring is attractive and the pacing winning. Suite Popular Española (1985) by Manuel Moreno-Buendia (born 1932) is a more old-fashioned collection of short dancelike movements that have enough Spanish flair to provide both performers and listeners with considerable enjoyment of their rhythmic features. The CD opens and closes with shorter contemporary works that are pleasant but less immediately appealing than those by Locklair and Moreno-Buendia – although each of them has engaging moments and uses the instruments cleverly. Doppler Effect (1998) by Adrienne Albert (born 1941) is the curtain-raiser here, while Cruisin’ with the Top Down (2000) by Sonny Burnette (born 1952) provides a suitably enjoyable conclusion to an off-the-beaten-track recording that hits a number of high points and more than a few high notes.
Another MSR Classics release, featuring the chamber music of Peter Lieuwen, is somewhat less engaging, although here too there are interesting moments within all four works – all receiving world première recordings. Lieuwen’s music tends to have familiar inspirations, including nature and legends, and like that of many other contemporary composers, it reaches beyond traditional classical roots into jazz and non-Western music. Lieuwen is also a fan of minimalism, which at this point is a rather tired technique; but thankfully he does combine it with other compositional approaches rather than employing it in reasonably pure form. Lieuwen has his own approach to the traditional conversational nature of chamber music, expanding that conversation so that it occurs not only among the musicians but also between the players and the audience. He essentially invites listeners to make up their own narrative (or forgo narrative altogether) when hearing his music, while at the same time he challenges the performers’ technical abilities. The result can be intriguing but can also come across as somewhat dry and studied, as it often does in this (+++) recording. Lieuwen does not so much put drama into his music as invite players to find it and listeners to discover it – a reasonable enough position if the music seems to have considerable depth to it. But by and large, the works here are on the straightforward side and do not evoke any particularly deep emotional resonance. The most interesting aspect of the recording is the way in which Lieuwen writes for four different sets of instruments. Sonata for Guitar (2009) is a virtuosic solo work (played here by Isaac Bustos) in the traditional three movements but with decidedly untraditional sound. Rhapsody for Violin and Piano (2013), performed by violinist Andrzej Grabiec and pianist Timothy Hester, is a somewhat over-extended duo that seems to meander rather than head anywhere in particular. Overland Dream (2011) requires four players: clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The SOLI Chamber Ensemble handles it nicely, and the clarinet writing, in particular, has some attractive elements. Windjammer (2009) needs the most performers among the works here, being for woodwind quintet. The Cumberland Wind Quintet takes its measure effectively, but here the blending of instruments seems more on the competitive than cooperative side, and the actual sound of the music can be off-putting. Hearing one or two works by Lieuwen on a CD might result in a better listening experience than hearing four – at least these four.
There are four contemporary composers represented by one work apiece on a new Naxos CD featuring music by Canadian musicians – and here too there are some interesting and attractive elements, but also some that tend to drag or that simply seem to be trying too hard. The Gryphon Trio commissioned all these works, all of which are world première recordings. The most interesting of them is Letters to the Immortal Beloved (2012) by James K. Wright (born 1959). The three pieces, sung by mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah, are attempts to delve emotionally into Beethoven’s relationship with his Immortal Beloved, the still-unknown woman to whom he wrote passionately in 1812. Taking extended excerpts from Beethoven’s prose as its basis, the work explores the composer’s intense longing and becomes a codicil of sorts to the mystery still surrounding the woman to whom Beethoven wrote – although it is a touch odd to have these passionate words sung by a female performer. A tribute of another sort is Centennials (2012) by Michael Oesterle (born 1968). This piece’s three movements mark what would have been the 100th-birthday year of three very different people: chef Julia Child, American composer Conlon Noncarrow, and painter Jackson Pollock. The pieces are best heard as homages rather than direct attempts to reflect the work and lives of the people whose names they bear. Also here is the intriguingly titled These Begin to Catch Fire (2012) by Brian Current (born 1972). This is a sun-focused tone poem inspired by sunlight patterns on Lake Muskoka in Ontario – a kind of miniature version of Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture, but written for much more modest forces and accordingly making its impression with greater delicacy and less sense of brilliance and grandeur. The fourth piece here is also sun-related in a way: Solstice Songs (2011) by Andrew Staniland (born 1977). Despite the title, there are no words here – the three-movement work is intended to evoke the passage of time through purely instrumental means, its first and longest movement flowing in almost congealed fashion, its second a brief Interlude, and its third a brighter, almost perky conclusion. The Gryphon Trio members throw themselves into all these works with enthusiasm, and it is fair to say that these performances are as close to definitive as any reading is likely to be. However, the CD is, as a whole, rather uneven and disconnected, with parts of each work more involving than other sections and with the four works themselves having little to tie them together musically except for the fact that the Gryphon Trio commissioned them all. In its totality, this is a (+++) recording that will, however, be of particular interest to listeners who want to familiarize themselves with some of the music of contemporary Canadian composers.
Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II: Show Boat. Heidi Stober, Michael Todd Simpson, Bill Irwin, Patricia Racette, Morris Robinson, Angela Renée Simpson, Harriet Harris, Kirsten Wyatt, John Bolton; San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by John DeMain. EuroArts DVD. $29.99.
The decade of the Roaring Twenties in the United States and the Weimar Republic in Germany was one of tremendous musical as well as social ferment. One central trend was the increasing seriousness of operetta, which had been largely fluff and nonsense in the years leading up to World War I. Leading the push to give operetta some of the heft of Puccinian opera was Puccini’s friend and colleague, Franz Lehár, who in this decade produced Paganini (1925), his first collaboration with tenor Richard Tauber, and then Der Zarewitsch (1926), Friederike (1928), and Das Land des Lächelns (1929), all of them bittersweet works with ambiguous and pathos-drenched endings, all of them reflective of a darker and less frothy world than that portrayed in Die lustige Witwe and Der Graf von Luxemburg.
In the United States, where there was little tradition of homegrown operetta despite the contributions to the form by John Philip Sousa, darker and more-serious themes emerged on Broadway, led in large part by Show Boat (1927), whose handling of racial prejudice and poignant love stories – all taken from Edna Ferber’s novel – offered a level of seriousness that was as new to the Ziegfeld Theater in New York as Lehár’s important 1920s works were to Vienna’s Johann Strauß-Theater and Berlin’s Deutsches Künstlertheater and Metropol Theater.
Show Boat paved the way for many musicals that later handled complex and difficult themes, such as South Pacific. And it is certainly arguable that a work like Show Boat gets its full due only in a full-scale operatic production like that delivered by the San Francisco Opera and now available on a EuroArts DVD. Indeed, the leitmotif of the river’s theme, so memorably captured in that most classic of Broadway songs, Ol’ Man River, recurs so frequently, tying so many strands of the plot together, that the overall feeling of Show Boat is distinctly operatic – especially when a full orchestra performs the music, as it does here.
What works beautifully in this production is that orchestra, led by John DeMain with enthusiasm, involvement, majesty and rich musical color. What works are the sprawling sets created by Peter J. Davison, along with perspective-bending stage pieces that contain the action while at the same time framing and focusing it. What works are Paul Tazewell’s bright and attractive costumes, many of them in red, white, and blue, emphasizing that this is a quintessentially American story.
What works rather less well is Michele Lynch’s choreography: there is a lot of dancing here, but after a while the steps and patterns start to seem repetitious, no matter how enthusiastically the San Francisco Opera Dance Corps performs them. As for the overall direction by stage director Francesca Zambello, it is solid and generally lively, making for fine entertainment. The solos, ensembles, and larger choral scenes generally mesh well, as is important for the dramatic effect of Show Boat. The splashiness seems overdone at times, almost veering into triviality here and there, but that is arguably an effective way to prevent the production from becoming too gloomy – even if the approach creaks a bit.
The singing and acting here are where matters do creak. There is considerable dialogue in Show Boat, as in the operetta form and the Singspiel before it – but here the area mikes used to amplify the words do their job with varying levels of effectiveness. The miking is not a benefit to the singing, either. Bass Morris Robinson, the emotional heart of the work, brings barely controlled anger and a deeply moving sense of acceptance with forbearance to Ol’ Man River, making the river’s indifference to the petty fates of those plying their trade upon its waters the anchor of the entire production. And baritone Michael Todd Simpson, whose role is normally sung by a tenor, makes a fine flawed hero, his voice firm and full and melding elements of operatic and Broadway style, his untrustworthy character both realistic and overdone in an appealing way. Also highly engaging is Angela Renée Simpson, notably when singing Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’.
Other singers, though, are not at this level. Patricia Racette is disappointing as Julie, victimized by a charge of miscegenation: her two big numbers, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man in Act I and Bill in Act II, are stiffly sung and have far too much vibrato. Kirsten Wyatt as Ellie Mae Chipley is too far on the lighthearted side to be fully effective. And as Magnolia Hawks, Heidi Stober projects a remote, almost chilly personality, and her acting is more posed than poised – she is distanced from the other characters and thus from the audience.
The chance to see Show Boat performed in an operatic setting by a first-class American opera troupe is a welcome one, and the gravitas of the show’s themes is certainly communicated well in this production – although the DVD’s bow to political correctness in a note that “this production contains occasional explicit racial language” is simply dumb. Half an hour of interviews with performers is included on the recording, making for a thorough vision both of Show Boat as a stage work and Show Boat as a period piece that nevertheless speaks to concerns that have persisted into the 21st century. This is a substantial work that showed how far Broadway could go in exploring significant societal issues if it so chose. Like Lehár’s later operettas, it brought depth to a field that had almost always been pleasantly shallow before: it seems altogether fitting that the primary image of Show Boat is that of an ancient and powerful, if ultimately indifferent, river.
June 18, 2015
Galaxy’s Most Wanted #1. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Nick Edwards. Harper. $6.99.
Galaxy’s Most Wanted #2: Into the Dorkness. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Nick Edwards. Harper. $12.99.
Another day, another world-threatened-by-aliens situation. So it goes at Northwest Horizons Science Camp, where Kevin Brewer, Warner Reed, TJ Boyd and Tara Swift encounter and must cope with various reptilian and/or four-eyed and/or fuzzy and/or tentacled and/or blobbish beings and keep Earth safe for Earthlings. Hence the naming of this redoubtable quartet as the Extraordinary Terrestrials (ETs – get it?). And hence the plot of John Kloepfer’s Galaxy’s Most Wanted series for ages 8-12, whose first entry appeared last year and is now available in paperback, and whose second hardcover offering is brand-new. That is, the book is new, but the plot, like that of the first entry, is an old one. Galaxy’s Most Wanted starts as a standard preteen group of not-very-distinguished and not-very-distinguishable friends makes contact with actual alien life and gets to meet an actual alien named Mim, who is cute and purple and fuzzy and four-eyed (literally four-eyed; this has nothing to do with wearing eyeglasses). But Mim tells the kids he is in trouble because of some galactic baddies who are after him, so the Earth kids have to hide him (they have him put on a hoodie) and help him. Soon enough, a pursuer shows up, yelling “‘Gluck-gluck-Mim-yim-yarkle’” and being as scary as only a giant extraterrestrial insect can be. Mim explains that the “space poachers” are after his entire species, “hunting us down and killing us for our fur so they can make coats out of us. It can get really cold in outer space.” So now the kids really need to help Mim, and they do a pretty darned good job of it, too, until they begin suspecting that maybe Mim is not telling them the whole truth, as in maybe not even 1% of it – and soon there are issues involving positron force fields, a “half-cyborg ET tracker,” a holographic rap sheet, a giant spiderish thing named Poobah, and all sorts of other nonsensical goodies that will undoubtedly delight preteen readers who are tired of earthbound zombies (like the ones in Kloepfer’s Zombie Chasers series) and looking for alternative amusements. This first book is neatly summed up at the start of the second: “Over the course of a few days, they had summoned the galaxy’s most wanted alien, a purple fuzzy creature named Mim with an appetite for destruction, fought off a giant arachnopod – a humongous half octopus, half tarantula – and saved the world from annihilation.”
But life can’t be that easy (well, all that world-saving seems easy) in a series like this. So, having set up the basic premise of Galaxy’s Most Wanted in the first book, Kloepfer – abetted by Nick Edwards’ illustrations, which do little to add to the action but certainly nothing to detract from it – brings the kids up against different alien bad guys in Into the Dorkness. This time Mim’s associates show up, set off a freeze-ray bomb, and learn about the heroic foursome because of tattletale “Alexander Russ, Kevin’s longtime science camp nemesis,” who is a “nerd bully.” Then the Extraordinary Terrestrials, accompanied by alien space cop Klyk (who looks like a toy and for a while pretends to be one), get together with a soccer-camp girl named Marcy – who happens to be a big fan of Max Greyson comics, which happen to contain some important clues to what is going on all around the intrepid preteens. Soon there are encounters with a brainwashed camp counselor and a swarm of robotic wasps that inject nanotech-based mind-control serum into their victims. And in case that is not enough drama and utter ridiculousness, the wasps inject the serum into “the entire all-girls soccer camp,” after which all the girls resemble the zombies in Kloepfer’s other current series, just to be sure kids get enough of a dose of Type A so they will also enjoy Type B (or, in the case of zombies, Type AB – or is that vampires?). There are occasional funny lines here: “You don’t seriously think humans invented Google, do you?” But by and large, both the action and the writing are quite straightforward and very much in line with the easy-to-follow, easy-to-read formula of series like this, in which the characters are virtually identical and the plots are packed with just enough fun to keep preteens reading. Into the Dorkness includes a chase scene in which Warner’s video-game capabilities help him steer an alien spaceship to victory – and, more interestingly, a search for the aforementioned Max Greyson, during which it turns out that the cartoonist disappeared a year and a half ago, but “‘Max’s comics have continued to be delivered even after his disappearance,’” as his former assistant explains. The assistant continues, “‘I’m pretty sure he was abducted by aliens. But I’m not supposed to talk about that. Every time I start talking about it, it just seems so unreasonable.’ ‘You’d be surprised how reasonable it sounds to us,’ said Kevin.” And there you have it: the intricacies (if that is the right word) of the plot of the second book, and also the setup for what will become the third. Galaxy’s Most Wanted is harmless, lighthearted (and lightheaded) entertainment, especially suitable for young readers who are thrilled by dialogue such as, from the first book, “‘Umm, hey, nimrods… There’s kind of more important stuff going on here than the Invention Convention. Like saving the world.’” And, from the second, “‘They’ve just taken over Oregon and pretty soon the entire planet!’”
When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully—and Enjoy Being a Parent Again. By Sean Grover, LCSW. AMACOM. $15.
Today’s parent-child dynamic, many people argue, is out of balance, with some parents “helicoptering” above their kids at all times and supervising their every move, while others take a hands-off approach that leads to kids without any sense of personal or social responsibility, much less morals or ethics. Into the fray of this discussion comes psychotherapist Sean Grover with something else to worry about: circumstances in which matters are so far unbalanced that kids, not parents, are in charge of family dynamics, bullying and even oppressing adults in ways that are highly detrimental to older and younger alike.
Grover is not quite sure whether he wants to call bullied parents to arms or sit them down for some tea and a nice chat. In a section on parental burnout, he makes comments that apply to the book as a whole: “This book is meant to challenge you, to start a revolution in your parenting and empower you. Its ultimate goal is to end bullying in your household. But before we can do that, I’m going to need you to take better care of yourself. Standing up to your kid’s bullying will require more energy and stamina, both of which are impossible to master when you’re burned out. …It will be impossible to transform your relationship with your kid unless you transform your relationship with yourself.” So, overstressed and overworked parents whose kids take constant advantage of them: here’s one more thing for your ever-growing list of must-dos. Four more things, actually: put time aside for yourself, exercise more, find ways to express your inner creativity, and take a break from your kids to go out of town or otherwise make time for adult friendships and activities.
Whatever the merits of these suggestions may be, they are likely to come across as additional burdens to parents who are already so time-pressed and stressed by work and home life that they have allowed their kids to take control. Or perhaps “allowed” is not quite the right word. Grover himself seems to think bullying by children is normal, as in his comment about an instance of it involving his own child: “My daughter had every right to bully. She’s a kid, and that’s what kids do. The problem was my reaction to her bullying.” This is, at best, arguable. Yes, parental reaction to children’s behavior is always an issue, but whether bullying is simply “what kids do” is by no means self-evident. Nor is Grover’s simplistic assessment, again using himself as an example, of ways to control kids’ demands that reach the level of bullying: “If I wanted her to be more patient, I had to be more patient. If I wanted her to be more mindful, I had to lead the way.” Furthermore, Grover significantly undermines his own claim to analytical expertise when he marvels at his discovery that the underlying reason for his own daughter’s unacceptable behavior is nothing more unusual than sibling rivalry: his daughter is jealous of and in competition with her recently arrived parental-time-hogging baby sister.
The fact that this “revelation” will be a “well, duh” moment for many parents shows that the reasons for kids’ behavior are by no means as difficult to fathom – at least in many cases – as Grover considers them to be. Nor is it necessary, to benefit from this book, to accept his self-congratulation in the form of self-abnegation when he mentions that he is “a therapist who works with children, who leads parenting workshops, publishes parenting articles – and I [didn’t] have a clue what to do with my own kid!” For there is certainly material here from which readers can benefit. Grover says that children have several different “bullying styles” and that understanding them is one step required in dealing with them. Kids, he writes, may be defiant (“in-your-face” and “exceedingly confrontational and oppositional”), anxious (tending to “oscillate between clinging to their parents and pushing them away”), or manipulative (“extort[ing] his wants and needs from his parents by preying on their anxieties and generating self-doubt”). In addition, certain types of parents are more likely to be bullied: those who are guilty, anxious or determined to fix everything. Grover explains what each child-bullying style may mean and how it may interact with each parenting style – and then makes suggestions, based on case histories, of ways to improve family dynamics and move beyond bullying to better communication and improved relationships.
It will come as no surprise that the one most-recurrent recommendation from Grover is to go into therapy – sometimes individual, sometimes as a family, sometimes on a parent-and-child basis. Other suggestions involve fundamentally remaking the adult relationship that allows bullying by children to gain a foothold – for example, at one point Grover says, “Edward needs to step back and allow his wife to share more parenting responsibilities. …Edward’s doting…shuts out his wife and creates an imbalance in the parenting Teddy receives.” Unfortunately, as is always the case in self-help books that try to address deep-seated and complex interpersonal issues in a couple of hundred simplistic pages, Grover’s counsel is far, far easier to give than it is for parents to act upon. And the fact that it is given so matter-of-factly, even glibly, makes it all the more difficult for parents to try to follow it. By the time Grover announces a chapter in which “I’m going to give you the essential tools for undoing bullying behaviors and restoring balance in your relationship,” parents will likely feel so swamped by the analyses and action points in When Kids Call the Shots that they will have little ability to understand, much less accept, what Grover presents. What that is boils down to three steps that sound good but are enormously, overwhelmingly difficult to implement in the real world: “1. Stick to your vision. 2. Tale responsibility for your behavior. 3. Manage your feelings.” Certainly these are worthy goals, and certainly they are clearly presented here. But Grover is simply too dogmatic, and often too emphatic, for parents depressed, repressed and suppressed by family life and the rest of everyday living to be able to tackle many of these notions: “STOP Relying on Faulty Coping Mechanisms and START Standing Up for Yourself,” for example.
The book also has some irritating errors in the writing and/or editing: “Let’s delve into Dorothy’s pasts [sic],” for example, and “Abandoned by her mother, her Grandma Pat was Dorothy’s only family” (which says that Grandma Pat was the one abandoned, which is not what Grover means). Also, to cite another example in this single section, Grover – who has certainly changed all names of people he writes about and/or created composite case histories – unaccountably omits what would clearly be something crucial to understanding the situation: “Dorothy’s one brief romantic relationship (too awkward to describe here) produced Stewart.” Describing, explaining and dealing with awkward matters is, after all, supposed to be a major point of When Kids Call the Shots.
There is much trenchant analysis in this book, and there are many good ideas about handling serious imbalances in parent-child relationships. But there is little if any acknowledgment of just how difficult it is to make fundamental, foundational changes in one’s marriage or partnership and, indeed, in one’s entire way of interacting with the whole world. Ultimately, what is missing in When Kids Call the Shots, despite Grover’s attempt to say he himself has “been there, done that,” is a dose of empathy sufficient to make some extremely difficult prescriptions seem positive and worthwhile, even if distinctly unpalatable.
The Long Earth 4: The Long Utopia. By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Harper. $26.99.
The late Terry Pratchett will be remembered for his creation of the thoroughly wonderful and bizarre Discworld, which rides through space on the backs of four elephants (there was once a fifth) that in turn ride on Great A’Tuin, a truly enormous “star turtle.” Although the most-recent Discworld books have not quite been up to the quality of earlier ones, the series as a whole, with its thoroughly winning and decidedly peculiar mixture of magic, science, fantasy, sarcasm, satire and stylishness, is a gem. And it is good that Pratchett’s memory will long be tied to Discworld, because otherwise it might be too strongly attached to The Long Earth, a co-production with Stephen Baxter that is as lurchingly unattractive as the Discworld books, taken as a whole, are admirable.
The third Long Earth novel, The Long Mars, showed some promise in pursuing multiple plot threads in ways that actually became periodically intriguing, but the fourth book, The Long Utopia, is back to the large-scale incoherence of the first two, compounded in this case by an altogether predictable (and overdone) “space-age Christ” story; the death of a couple of key characters (so dully handled that it is the end of the cyborg animal, not that of the human, that is genuinely affecting); and the introduction and eventual dismissal of yet another significant plot strand, this one involving aliens that suddenly show up on one world of the Long Earth and that, while not actively hostile, are busily engaged in a cataclysmic enterprise that could eventually spell doom not only to that particular world but also to all the others – however many millions there are.
One significant misstep here is the authors’ decision to downplay the importance and role of Lobsang, the artificial distributed intelligence who in some ways has godlike powers but in others is all too human – indeed, in The Long Utopia he decides to die, then reincarnate himself in entirely human fashion, only to discover eventually that his more-powerful form is needed to counter the incipient (if largely unintentional) alien threat. Lobsang also comes to terms here, in rather too facile a fashion, with the Next, post-human denizens of the Long Earth who turn out in this volume to be just as purblind in their way as ordinary humans, whom they usually dismissively call “dim-bulbs” or “these others,” are in theirs.
It is hard to know how much of what happens in The Long Utopia is from Pratchett and how much from Baxter, but certainly the plodding pace and formulaic characters point more toward the latter than the former – which would scarcely be a surprise near the end of Pratchett’s life. The book, when it is not actually bad, is simply ordinary. Take the title: the story offers more of a dystopia than a utopia, but it is not even very convincing on that basis. “All humans needed, some Next argued – all they needed to turn the Long Earth into a true Long Utopia – was a little gentle nudging from their intellectual superiors.” Or, as one character asks a member of the Next, “A Long Utopia. Is that your goal?” The response: “We don’t have a goal.” Neither does this novel, at least much of the time. The opening chapter sets the tone, more or less, of the whole: “It was only a coincidence, historians of the Next would later agree, that Stan Berg should be born in Miami West 4, the Low Earth footprint city where Cassie Poulson had grown up. Cassie Poulson, on whose High Meggers property the primary assembler proved to be located – an anomaly which, in the end, would shape Stan Berg’s short life, and much more.” Berg, a thoroughly uninteresting character, is this book’s Christ figure, so identified quite explicitly by other characters. He is thus heroic in a way different from that of Joshua Valienté, a recurring central figure who has less to do in this novel than in the three previous ones: his main contribution here is to inspire another character to research the Valienté family tree, the setting-forth of which produces the most interesting sections of the book. But all this eventually leads only to a meeting between Valienté and his father, after which another character comments, “You atoned with your father, Joshua. Important step on your spiritual journey as a mythic hero.” Oh, please.
The other “mythic hero” here, Stan, is more unidimensional than Joshua, his obvious Christ-ness made super-explicit in his very own Sermon on the Mount type of scene, which occurs beneath an under-construction space elevator that is known as the Beanstalk. This is a place where some listeners call him Master and, as one character observes – just to make things blindingly obvious – “I think we just heard the Sermon Under the Beanstalk, delivered by a messiah called Stan.” And of course a messiah must conclude his earthly (or Long Earthly) mission by dying for a great and grand cause, and of course must go to that death willingly after satisfactorily being offered the world by Satan and turning it down (the Next actually make an offer much like this to Stan). And so things happen here, after Stan delivers with down-home pomposity a three-part philosophy that a member of the Next says is “the basis of a creed that even the Next could embrace.” It is all so well-meaning and so very, very trivial, and it is all so far beneath the brilliance that was (at least for many years) the work of Terry Pratchett that The Long Utopia ends up as a kind of footnote of embarrassment for a fine writer in precipitous decline. The (+++) rating for this book actually includes one (+) in memoriam. But there are so many other Pratchett works (including collaborations) that are far better than this that readers need not court disappointment here unless they are quite determined to read as much by Pratchett as they possibly can.
Brahms: Sextets. Soloist Ensemble of the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam (Ursula Schoch and Nienke van Rijn, violins; Vincent Peters and Jeroen Quint, violas; Johan van Iersel and Benedikt Maria Enzler, cellos). Bayer Records. $19.99 (SACD).
Ives: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Quincy Porter: String Quartets Nos. 5-8. Ives Quartet (Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier, violins; Jodi Levitz, viola; Stephen Harrison, cello). Naxos. $12.99.
Alkan: Trois Petites Fantaisies; Minuetto alla tedesca; Marche Funèbre; Marche Triomphale; Petits préludes sur les 8 gammes du plain-chant—No. 6; Capriccio alla soldatesca; Le tambour bat aux champs; 25 Préludes, Op. 31—No. 8; Esquisses, Op. 63—No. 49. Vincenzo Maltempo, piano. Piano Classics. $13.99.
Reynaldo Hahn: Le Bal de Béatrice d’Este; Concerto provençal; Sérénade; Divertissement pour une fête de nuit. Ensemble Initium and Orchestre des Pays de Savoie conducted by Nicolas Chalvin. Timpani. $18.99.
Some composers seem to have thought in pairs, Brahms definitely being one. His four symphonies are essentially pairs, with Nos. 1 and 2 strongly contrasted and written just a year apart, after which six years passed until No. 3 – which strongly contrasts with No. 4, written two years later. Brahms wrote two serenades for orchestra, two piano concertos, two sonatas for clarinet or viola and piano, and other paired pieces – including his two early sextets (1859-60 and 1864-65). Unlike the very different symphony pairs or paired serenades, though, these sextets have a great deal in common in their sound and approach, with a richness that is often described as “autumnal” where Brahms is concerned even though they are music by a man in his late 20s and early 30s. The Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, one of the world’s finest ensembles and one with exceptionally well-burnished strings, has a nearly ideal sound for the music of Brahms, and the six players offering these sextets are true to the orchestra’s quality: the music sounds warm, at times almost glowing, and the structural approach that Brahms took here – using formal classical models but altering them through, among other things, asymmetrical musical subjects – comes through very clearly and not at all academically. These are major-key works (in B-flat and G, respectively), but as so often in Brahms (and in an even more pronounced way in his later music), they have periods of minor-key-like melancholy that never quite becomes sadness but instead presents a kind of wistful pathos. There is probably some biographical reason for this where the sextets are concerned: they were written after Brahms, who never married, precipitated a breakup with a woman to whom he had secretly become engaged, and there is some evidence in the musical themes themselves that this subject was on the composer’s mind when writing these works. Yet whatever autobiography Brahms may have inserted here is irrelevant to enjoying and being moved by the music, which the Concertgebouw players handle on a new, very well-recorded Bayer Records SACD in a way that beautifully melds their formal structure with their emotional underpinnings.
The pairing of Ives’ first two symphonies is a convenience of recording rather than anything integral to the works themselves, but in fact they make a fascinatingly contrasted duo – and share certain elements as well as containing some that are strikingly different. Ives is in many ways a quintessentially American composer, but a very fine Chandos SACD featuring the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis shows just how internationally understandable his music has now become: these are first-rate performances that thoroughly explore the essentially European nature of the first symphony and the much more overtly nationalistic American elements of the second. Symphony No. 1 dates to 1898 and was Ives’ graduation project at Yale, under the supervision of the very conservative and by all reports prickly Horatio Parker, an important composer and educator of the time but by no means one willing to encourage Ives’ experiments in tonality, hymn-tune use, popular songs or other forward-looking elements. Redolent of Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Dvořák, Ives’ First has little of the composer’s unique personality about it, yet it is a very well-made work with some fine melodies, and it shows a thorough mastery of sonata form, counterpoint and other traditional compositional techniques that Ives was later to jettison – but with which he was clearly quite familiar (and at which he was certainly adept). Symphony No. 2, which spans the 19th and 20th centuries, dates to 1897-1901, and its slow movement may be the one that Ives originally planned for the earlier symphony but had to remove because it was too harmonically daring for Parker’s taste (although it scarcely sounds that way today). The themes of Ives’ Second, unlike those of his earlier symphony, are often drawn from hymns, folk songs, marches, even student songs, and even listeners who do not recognize the specific tunes will sense a level of humor and playfulness here that is absent in Symphony No. 1. Yet by and large, the lighthearted elements are encased in traditional, serious symphonic form, and it is this that makes the pairing of these symphonies and their first-rate handling by Davis so intriguing: Ives knew quite well how to write conventional Romantic-era symphonies, and very deliberately tuned his back on them and on this type of music in general. In a sense, the final chord of Symphony No. 2 – an 11-note dissonance added by Ives decades after he initially composed the symphony – is a perfect metaphor for looking both back and ahead. Its sound is as startling as can be and in that sense seems very much of the 20th century, but its origin is in a 19th-century dance-band custom of ending an evening by having every player play any note at all, as loudly as possible.
As the 20th century progressed in American music, the influence of European-focused composers and teachers such as Parker (1863-1919) faded, being replaced by that of other composer-educators such as Quincy Porter (1897-1966) – who, like Ives, attended Yale University and was taught by Parker. Ives himself was always an outlier in American music, his works almost wholly unknown until close to his death in 1954 – but today it seems quite apt to have music by Porter performed by a quartet that takes its name from Ives. A new Naxos CD of Porter’s String Quartets Nos. 5-8 (he wrote nine in all) complements a 2008 release by the same performers of Quartets Nos. 1-4; in fact, parts of the new recording date to 2008, although the performances were not completed until 2012. These are mid-century quartets (1935, 1937, 1943 and 1950), and all look back in exactly the way that Ives’ music did not. They are short, none running even 19 minutes, and uniformly well-constructed. All were written after Porter returned to the United States from three years in Paris, and all show solid familiarity with string writing and a rather modest use of dissonance (which became more pronounced in works that Parker wrote later than these). The eighth quartet, the shortest of these four, is the most structurally interesting, being in two movements (the first featuring slow-fast-moderate sections) and concluding with an Adagio molto espressivo rather than the expected quick finale. Porter’s chamber music is not as well-known as his orchestral works and not as influential, but this CD shows its strengths clearly and in well-balanced, idiomatic performances that fully explore the quartets’ sophistication and careful construction.
The notion of pairing is not a significant one in the Porter quartets, but it is important in a new Piano Classics recording of music by Alkan. Vincenzo Maltempo, a first-rate interpreter of this repertoire with a deep understanding of Alkan’s peculiarities, excellent qualities and limitations, here offers a recital that seems at first glance like a hodgepodge: a collection of largely unrelated works taken from various sets of Alkan pieces, composed at different times in the composer’s life (1813-1888). There is, however, method rather than madness to Maltempo’s selection for this recording. He performs here on a restored Érard piano – Alkan’s favorite instrument. The specific piano used by Maltempo postdates Alkan – it was built in 1899 – but it is still constructed in the Érard manner, and the manner of other pianos designed prior to the Steinway innovations of the 1850s. For example, Steinway created cast-iron frames made in a single casting, and invented crossed strings that produce wonderful evenness and purity of sound. But Alkan did not initially have access to such instruments and had long since stopped giving public recitals by the time they became available. Like Bach writing for the harpsichord or clavichord – rather than the piano – Alkan wrote for an instrument different from modern ones, a piano whose bass and highest treble ranges had an inherently different sound from that of the middle range. And Alkan incorporated the effects of those sonic differences (which it would be wrong to deem limitations) into his piano works. Maltempo has chosen for this recording a group of works that he feels showcase to particularly good effect the advantages of playing Alkan on an Érard. Among them are two pairs: Marche Funèbre and Marche Triomphale (Opp. 26 and 27) and Capriccio alla soldatesca and Le tambour bat aux champs (Opp. 50 and 50bis). Maltempo makes an excellent case for using an Érard to show the contrasts between these paired pieces: the drum effects alone in the Marche Funèbre are enough to show the special qualities of this piano. Equally impressive is the concentrated tragedy of Le tambour bat aux champs, which, like its companion piece, subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) undermines the notion of military glory. Every work on this CD showcases elements of the special sound and percussive – and expressive – qualities the piano Maltempo uses. For example, there is distinctive near-modernity in Trois Petites Fantaisies, especially in the first and third pieces, with the near-childlike sound of the middle piece serving as a strong contrast. And in the eighth of the 25 Préludes, Op. 31, there is an absolutely stunning level of originality in expressing the work’s title, which is, with quotation marks, “Chanson de la folle au bord de la mer” (“Song of the madwoman on the seashore”). The tone painting here is truly remarkable, and a considerable amount of its effect comes from the sound world of the Érard on which Maltempo performs the piece. This is a fascinating disc from start to finish.
Of lesser but still considerable interest is a new Timpani CD of music by Reynaldo Hahn, born the same year as Ives (1874) but, unlike the American composer – who essentially stopped creating music around 1920 – continuing to produce works until the end of his life in 1947. A naturalized Frenchman born in Venezuela, Hahn is best known for his songs. He was a child prodigy and for a time a considerable presence in the musical life of Paris, being not only a composer but also a conductor, music critic, diarist, theater director, and even a salon singer. Hahn’s music is well-crafted and pleasant, not particularly challenging, and generally – like Porter’s – something of a throwback to earlier times. One pair of pieces on this disc has been recorded before; the other pair is of world première recordings: the unpublished Sérénade for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, which dates to 1942, and Divertissement pour une fête de nuit for winds, piano, percussion and string quartet (1931). The former of these is pleasant chamber music with attractive interaction among the winds. The latter is atmospheric and interestingly scored, its four movements variously establishing nighttime, presenting a lakeside scene, and offering concluding al fresco waltzes. There is a certain persistent delicacy to Hahn’s music, which has some characteristics of Impressionism, coupled with a grace and neoclassical balance: Hahn as a conductor specialized in Mozart, and some of his music’s poise may come from that source. There is expert detailing in these works, akin to that in Hahn’s prose – a characteristic he shares with Marcel Proust, his lifelong friend and sometime lover. The early (1905) Le Bal de Béatrice d’Este, a seven-movement suite for winds, piano, two harps and percussion, shows this just as clearly as does the late (1944) Concerto provençal for flute, clarinet, bassoon and strings. This last work is a three-movement suite that sounds nothing like Respighi’s Pines of Rome but that pays similar musical tribute to trees, in this case in France rather than Italy: plane trees, pines and olive trees. There is something of the affected, occasionally even a touch of the effete, in Hahn’s music as heard on this disc: it seems more of the salon than of the concert hall. Smooth on its surface, much of the music sounds as if there is little if any depth beneath the well-polished exterior. The performances here are very fine and clearly committed to the pieces, but the works themselves make this a (+++) recording – albeit one of special interest to anyone wanting to explore some less-known French music of the early to middle 20th century.
Bach: Goldberg Variations—arranged for string quartet; Glenn Gould: String Quartet. Catalyst Quartet (Karla Donehew-Perez and Jessie Montgomery, violins; Paul Laraia, viola; Karlos Rodriguez, cello). Azica. $16.99.
Pierre Schroeder: Voyage. Navona. $14.99.
Michael Calvert: Rhapsody on a Riff (1994); Gaston Amoureux (2008); Lascivious Pleasing (1995); Eight Studies (1992); Fantasia in August (2011); Suma (1989). Matthew Marshall, guitar. Ravello. $16.99.
The Monks of Norcia: Benedicta—Marian Chant. Decca. $16.99.
All music is a journey – an internal one, a spiritual one if you like. And some music takes listeners on travels in a different way, whether to a geographical location (say, Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides overture) or an inward-focused one (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and many other works). Composers and performers alike are always seeking new places to which to take audiences, and nowadays that can mean exploring unfamiliar repertoire or looking at well-known music in new and different ways. Thus, the Catalyst Quartet combines its arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations with a performance of Glenn Gould’s sole string quartet (Op. 1, his only composition with an opus number). There is some historical significance to this mixture: Gould, who had previously written an atonal bassoon sonata, an unfinished piano sonata, and not much else, finished the ambitious quartet in 1955, just a few months before recording the Goldberg Variations – which promptly turned him into a piano sensation. The quartet is in no direct way related to Bach’s work, however. It is very chromatic, with severe intonation challenges occasioned by Gould’s lack of familiarity with string playing. There are lots of octave passages and an overall feeling of Schoenberg-like dimensions – the quartet is not particularly idiomatic, and is certainly uneven, and it goes on rather too long (more than 35 minutes). But it has sections of undeniable power, notably in its fugues, and is of considerable interest for string players – although rather less so for listeners, whom the work does not take on a journey as effectively as it escorts the performers through and into Gould’s mind. The quartet has been recorded a number of times, as far back as 1960, with its difficulties of balance and complexities of structure allowing each ensemble to make it sound quite different. The Catalyst Quartet’s reading is intense, dramatic and generally convincing, although the work itself never quite hangs together strongly – if it were not by Gould, it would likely be significantly more obscure than it already is. The string-quartet version of the Goldberg Variations is also very well-played on this Azica recording, but the arrangement itself will be entirely a matter of taste. Listeners well-versed in the music will find the handling of the material, especially the canons, quite interesting in string-quartet form, but the variations themselves are not served especially well when translated to four separate voices – their interweaving here does not seem very “Bachian,” although the playing itself is quite fine. Like many journeys, this one will be enjoyable based largely on what travelers – in this case, listeners – choose to bring along.
The journey in Voyage by Pierre Schroeder is a much more overt one. This is a Navona release offering an 11-movement suite whose elements range from the piano solos Vertigo and Mountain Veil to three ensemble pieces requiring a conductor to keep everything together: Late Harvest, Lowland and Snow. Like many modern compositions, this one uses elements of classical music but is primarily a blend of other forms, here including folk and, especially, jazz and blues. Bleu Nuit, for instance, with its alto flute above piano and double bass, is very jazz-like in its intended portrayal of a nighttime scene, while the longing expressed by mezzo-soprano and piano in Shores seems straight out of nightclub or lounge singing. There are some interesting instrumental combinations here, and the use of percussion is well-considered and effective in providing a foundation for many of the pieces. And there is some attractive lyricism and even yearning from time to time, as in Gypsy – a journey in itself – for violin, clarinet, piano and cello. But although Highway I opens the suite and Highway II appears halfway through, with Hourglass near the end symbolizing the passage of time during this particular instance of musical travel, there is not really any sense of development or progress as Voyage moves from piece to piece. The works are largely of the same type, many in very similar slow-to-moderate tempo, and for all the differences of instrumentation, the overall mood varies little from element to element. So there is some sort of travel, yes, but little feeling that one has arrived anywhere in particular when the nearly hour-long work has concluded.
Jazz dominates much of a Ravello CD of Michael Calvert’s music as well, but here it is blended with even more influences than those used by Schroeder. Among those are rock, pop, Japanese music, serialism, and some very specific classical elements: Lascivious Pleasing draws on John Dowland (as well as the Beatles), Gaston Amoureux on Debussy, Fantasia in August on Britten, and Eight Studies on Messiaen. Calvert himself is a guitarist, and his writing for the instrument is intelligent, well-considered and well-adapted to guitar players’ capabilities. It is not always, however, very interesting. Eight Studies sustains well, with none of its pieces lasting more than two-and-a-half minutes, but the longer works – including Rhapsody on a Riff and Suma, each in the seven-and-a-half-minute range – simply do not have enough variation of sound to keep non-guitar-playing listeners involved throughout. The travel here is through various forms of music, to various classical composers’ sensibilities, and to some extent geographically to New Zealand, on whose culture Calvert consciously draws in an attempt to create guitar music that is not European in focus or sound. Whatever the value of this nationalistic impulse, it does not, from the standpoint of listeners encountering the music without preconceptions and without personal performance capability on the guitar, make the works heard here particularly compelling or distinctive, despite the very fine performances they receive from Matthew Marshall. Guitar players will likely find the CD far more intriguing than will listeners who play other instruments or none.
The journey on a new Decca CD featuring chants by the monks of Norcia is emphatically an inward one as well as one to the monks’ monastery in Italy. This disc samples and reproduces the music that the 18 members of this monastic order sing day in and day out as they go about their devotions and their secular activities (they operate a craft brewery). This particular community is unusually young for a cloistered group, with average age of just 33. As a result, there is a freshness to the sound of the voices here, and there is certainly strong devotional feeling that comes through in the disc’s 33 tracks – many of them lasting a minute or less. Certainly there is historical interest in Norcia, the birthplace of Saint Benedict, and in these monks’ resumption of singing of Gregorian chant after such devotionals had been absent from the town for nearly two centuries. And yes, there is purity of sound and a kind of mystical beauty to the music. Yet there is little that is distinctive from piece to piece, with the result that the CD does indeed have a kind of timeless feeling – but it is one akin to that created by New Age recordings that are intended to lull listeners into a kind of peace, harmony and attunement to a form of spirituality greater than themselves. To be sure, the monks themselves would undoubtedly welcome the notion that their singing – here focused on the life of the Virgin Mary – transports listeners outside their humdrum lives and connects them spiritually with the greater and, to them, divine world limned by Gregorian chant. And the hypnotic quality of these pieces – including one, an antiphon called Nos qui Christi iugum, composed by the monks themselves – is pervasive. Listeners who come to the disc with the desire and intent to clear their minds of distractions and focus on the chants, whether or not they follow or understand the specific words, will find themselves absorbed and elevated. Ones seeking a more worldly sort of enjoyment in music, on the other hand, are more likely to find so extended a performance of this material to be as austere and monochromatic as a monk’s habit.