April 26, 2018
Monsters Unleashed No. 1. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Mark Oliver. Harper. $6.99.
Monsters Unleashed No. 2: Bugging Out. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Mark Oliver. Harper. $16.99.
Fly Guy Presents: Police Officers. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.
The second book in John Kloepfer’s entertaining, if formulaic, Monsters Unleashed series ratchets up the ickiness quotient of the sequence by introducing something even worse than the monsters found in the first volume: bugs. Lots of them. Billions, in fact. And not just any bugs. No, these are 3D-printed thingies created by one of Freddie Liddle’s classmates, and they are about to be a big challenge to Freddie, his buddies, and their pet monsters. But first – well, anyone who wants to get the full flavor, so to speak, of Bugging Out, really needs to start with Monsters Unleashed No. 1, originally published last year and now available in paperback. It falls squarely into the typical-preteen-fantasy-adventure mode, in which groups of kids (largely indistinguishable from each other) band together to deal with issues that are much simpler and more straightforward to handle (although admittedly somewhat ickier) than the problems and difficulties of everyday real life. Kloepfer, a virtuoso at this sort of tale, starts the series (amply illustrated by Mark Oliver) by assembling the team, making sure there are a few nods to differing appearances and ethnic backgrounds. The primary protagonist is sixth-grader Freddie, who is the opposite of his name, being big (six-feet-four-inches tall) and rather klutzy. The child of divorced parents, he has moved to New Mexico and found only one friend, a small Hispanic boy named Manny Vasquez. The three other members of the “inner circle” here start out as Freddie’s enemies: they are bullies – a jock and jerk named Jordan, an “evil mega-nerd” named Quincy, and a black wannabe actress named Nina. Trying to handle his feelings about his tormentors, Freddie draws three monsters based on them, and then, with Manny’s help, uses, yes, a 3-D printer to make actual physical versions of the creatures – called Kraydon, Mega-Q and Yapzilla. But there is something mysterious and magical about this particular printer (never explained; why bother?), and the monsters it makes come to life – and start growing enormously as soon as they come in contact with water. Soon enough, mayhem ensues throughout the school, where as usual the adults are oblivious and/or clueless and/or invisible. Eventually, though, Freddie tames the monsters by understanding how they think. To do that, he has to enlist the kids on whom he modeled them – Jordan, Quincy and Nina – in the anti-monster brigade, with the result that the kids, working together in newfound friendship, rescue the town. The monsters are returned to a harmless state, shrunken to adorable size and cooperativeness – and hence are available for the onslaught of insects in the second book. The problem is that the 3D-printed bad bugs are strong, fast and nasty – and growing. And try as they might (and they do try), the kids and the now-nice monsters cannot smash and stomp the baddies quickly enough to save the town this time. Oh no!! What can they do?? “It’s like we are in our own video game, Freddie thought. Except there are no do-overs in this game of monsters. This one is life-and-death.” So everybody dies and – no, just kidding! Of course the kids and monsters emerge triumphant, and in fact there are more monsters here than in the first book, notably including one that the kids vote four-to-two to name Slurp (the losing two votes are for Filburt). Slurp, an “octovarkephant” (figure out what animal bits he contains!), has “huge waggling snouts” that are “like vacuum cleaners,” a big help in sucking up the bad bugs, known as “entomons” because the first two are “parentomons.” There is also an “entomonster” that, err, is really big. Anyway, everything works out just fine, with cupcakes for everyone at the end and the miraculous 3D printer taken out of action but not actually destroyed – after all, who says the second book of Monsters Unleashed needs to be the last one? Certainly not Kloepfer and Oliver – who, by the way, has an absolutely classic-of-its-type illustration in Bugging Out, showing the team members staring directly at the reader, wearing determined get-the-bugs expressions while holding weapons ranging from cans of bug spray to lacrosse sticks and a double-sided oar.
Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy tends to have much milder adventures with his boy, Buzz, than Freddie Liddle and his friends have. But Fly Guy has some of his experiences in the real world as well as in fiction, specifically in the Fly Guy Presents “field trip” books. The latest of these, Police Officers, follows the pattern of earlier books (Space, Firefighters, Castles, White House and others) in using the drawings of Fly Guy and Buzz along with real-world photos to give Fly Guy’s young fans a simple but accurate introduction to everyday topics. One of the best things about these short books is the way Arnold presents surprising information along with the basics. In Police Officers, for example, he has Buzz mention that Hawaii is the only U.S. state that does not have a statewide police force; and he has Fly Guy get upset about the SWAT team because he thinks they carry “swatterzz,” giving Buzz the chance to explain that the letters stand for Special Weapons And Tactics. The basic narrative of the book is suitably simple: “A law is a rule. …When someone breaks these laws, they have committed a crime.” And some of the photos are particularly helpful for children who may hear adults discussing police activity – for example, one photo shows what a dashboard camera looks like in a police car; another shows the size and shape of a body-worn camera; and there are two pictures of officers riding on horseback: “Mounted officer patrols are useful in crowds since they have a better view than officers on foot.” There is good information on when to call 9-1-1 and what to do if you call it by mistake (“stay on the phone to let the dispatcher know you are okay”). And there are even brief explanations, with photos, of uniformed services that sometimes assist the police, including the National Guard and United States Marshals Service. Fly Guy Presents: Police Officers should take a lot of the mystery, and perhaps some of the fear, out of any encounters that young children might have with the police. And it can open the door to a family discussion of what the police do in the family’s own neighborhood – multiple photos show police-community interactions, and Arnold even has Buzz remark, “A police officer might be your neighbor.”
Carl Friedrich Abel: Symphonies, Op. 1 and Op. 4. Kölner Akademie conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Paganini at the Piano: Arrangements and Variations by Hambourg, Busoni, Zadora, Friedman and Papandopulo. Goran Filipec, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) is a footnote in most musical histories, but a somewhat longer footnote than might be expected. He interacted and intersected with genius without possessing a notable degree of it himself. He succeeded Bach as orchestra director in Köthen and was recommended by Bach to Johann Hasse’s Dresden court orchestra, which Abel duly joined and in which he served for 15 years. Nor did Abel’s involvement with the Bach family end there: he and Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian, became friends in the 1760s and jointly established the Bach-Abel concerts in London. These were England’s first-ever subscription concerts and thus a matter of considerable historical importance. Furthermore, a symphony from Abel’s Op. 7 set became quite famous for a time because of a misattribution: Mozart, at the age of eight, had copied the whole thing, apparently to study it, so it was wrongly attributed to him – and still appears in the Mozart catalog as his Symphony No. 3, K. 18. So to the extent that Abel is remembered, it is more as an impresario or the creator of a misattributed work – or as a performer on the viola da gamba, on which he was highly proficient – than as a composer. This is unfortunate, because although Abel’s six sets of six symphonies apiece – 36 such works in all in a total output of more than 40 with the “symphony” label – broke little new musical ground, they have some distinctive elements that make them very much worth reviving. And they show quite clearly where the symphony – at the time equally identified as “overture” – stood stylistically as the Baroque gave way to Classical times. The first two sets of Abel’s symphonies, published in 1761 and 1762 respectively, are now available in exceptionally fine performances on the CPO label. Michael Alexander Willens and the Kölner Akademie are exactly the right match for this music: they perform on period instruments in historically accurate style, and the entire ensemble is essentially an expanded chamber group that includes two oboes, two horns, six violins, a single viola, one cello, one double bass, and harpsichord continuo. The sure-handed and beautifully balanced music that emerges from the group shows both the similarities among Abel’s symphonies and their distinctive elements. All the works in Op. 1 and Op. 4 are in three movements, all in major keys and fast-slow-fast form, and all really do seem more like three-part overtures than like what came to be known as Classical symphonies: none lasts as long as 10 minutes, and several of the works run for only about six. Furthermore, the finales of all the symphonies are formulaic (generally dancelike), and the middle movements usually eschew use of the winds – which are relegated to accompaniment and doubling roles almost throughout. On the other hand, those same middle movements contain many felicitous touches, such as the “drooping” theme in Op. 1, No. 5, and the chromaticism in Op. 1, No. 2. There are also numerous instances showing Abel’s familiarity with the then-new techniques of the Mannheim school: Op. 4, No. 6 contains a very Mannheim-like crescendo, and Op. 4, No. 5 uses quadruple stopping in the violins (which are deftly handled throughout all these works). Like other transitional figures – Hummel comes to mind – Abel suffers from seeming neither here nor there when his works are viewed retrospectively: a bit too Baroque for comparison with Haydn, a touch too Classical to be mentioned in the same breath as Handel. But as this first-rate release shows, Abel’s symphonies are finely honed and filled with pleasantries; and if they are rather inconsequential when compared with the far more developed works of Haydn and, in particular, Mozart, it is worth remembering that Mozart developed as he did in part because of his close study of Abel’s music.
Niccolò Paganini was born during Abel’s lifetime, in 1782, but the comparatively sedate virtuosity of Abel on the viola da gamba bears as little relationship to Paganini’s violin pyrotechnics as the Baroque/Classical interface does to the Romantic era – which Paganini was instrumental in introducing on the performance side, as Beethoven was in terms of compositions. Paganini was scarcely a great composer, but he was extremely adept in writing works that would showcase his own astonishing talents – and just as Liszt was so influenced by Paganini’s performing style that he modeled his own pianistic prowess on it, so other pianists have been inspired by Paganini to adapt his works to their particular interests and abilities. Goran Filipec explores a few of the works that resulted from this Paganini fascination in an unusual Grand Piano CD whose six works include four world première recordings. These are all 20th-century compositions, but most partake to at least some degree of the Romantic temperament as well as the Romantic inclination to mold music around the performance characteristics of those presenting it. Busoni’s Introduzione e capriccio (Paganinesco) (1909/1925), the last of four works written by Busoni in an imitative/transformative sequence, draws on Paganini’s 11th and 15th Caprices but updates them harmonically. This is one of two works on the CD that have previously been recorded. The other is Studies on a Theme by Paganini (1914) by Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948), a 16-minute set of variations on the famous Caprice No. 24 in which Friedman explores the coloristic possibilities of the well-known theme through his own clearly substantial pianistic abilities. It is a tribute to Filipec’s musicianship that he manages to channel both the Busoni sound and the very different one of Friedman’s work. For that matter, Filipec is equally adept in handling the four première recordings here. One is as extended as Friedman’s: it is Variations on a Theme by Paganini (1902) by Mark Hambourg (1879-1960), which compares fascinatingly with the Friedman work. Both use the same Caprice No. 24 as their basis and vary it about the same number of times (16 for Hambourg, 17 for Friedman). But the sound of the pieces is quite different, with Hambourg’s having the flavor of a grand fantasy while Friedman’s seems more like an extended group of miniatures. Also here are two works by Michael Zadora (1882-1946), Eine Paganini-Caprice of 1911 (based on Caprice No. 4) and Paganini-Caprice No. 19 of 1913 – both of the pieces arranging, or rather rearranging, Paganini’s music in far denser form than would be possible on the violin. The final work on this CD is 3 Capriccios after Paganini (1981) by Boris Papandopulo (1906-1991), and it as different from the others as might be expected from its much later date. The three Caprices used here are Nos. 18, 14 and 5, and Papandopulo treats them all with a kind of neoclassicism that gives them a very different sound from the Romantic and post-Romantic effects presented by the other composers. The five composers represented on this CD are far from the only ones to have been inspired by Paganini to produce works taking the great violinist’s music into other realms; and none of the music played by Filipec can match, for example, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. But this scarcely matters: this disc offers a chance to hear some fascinating reinterpretations of Paganini’s music on an instrument for which he never wrote, but one that is able to produce effects as impressive in their way as Paganini’s own were on the violin.
Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42; Liszt: Grandes Études de Paganini; Haydn: Piano Sonata in C, HOB. XVI:48. Jooyoung Kim, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The Eloquent Saxophone: Music of Jean Françaix, Alexander Tcherepnin, Gene DiNovi, Paule Maurice, Claude Debussy, Robert Schumann, Paul Bonneau, Charles Koechlin, Felix Arndt, and Leslie Bassett. David Tanner, alto, soprano, tenor, and baritone saxophones; Marc Widner, piano. Navona. $14.99.
The Fifth Row: An Acoustic Tour of Historic Theaters. Stuart Weber, guitar. Ravello. $14.99.
New Music for Flute—Works by Roger Dannenberg, David Stock, Tony Zilincik, Elainie Lillios, Linda Kernohan, Randall Woolf, Roger Zahab, and Judith Shatin. Lindsey Goodman, flute. Navona. $14.99.
There is an interesting connection, beyond their Romantic style, between two of the works performed by Jooyoung Kim on a new piano-solo CD from MSR Classics. Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli uses a theme that is not by Corelli, although he did use the theme (known as “La Folia”) as the basis of a set of variations of his own – for violin and continuo – in 1700. But just as Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn retains its title even though Haydn did not write the theme, so Rachmaninoff’s work maintains its designation despite the historical inaccuracy. The intriguing “connection” element is that Liszt also used “La Folia” as a theme in one of his works: Rhapsodie espagnole. Beyond this tidbit of history, there is no particular relationship among the works here, except that Kim has clearly selected them to show her pianistic prowess – which two of them, the Rachmaninoff and Liszt, clearly do. Kim makes full use of the capabilities of a modern concert grand in these works, and this is particularly effective in the Rachmaninoff variations, which Kim plays with considerable finesse and a fine sense of contrast from piece to piece. Some of those contrasts are especially effective, such as that between variations 7 (Vivace) and 8 (Adagio misterioso). Kim is also strong in Liszt’s Grandes Études de Paganini, which she performs, as most pianists do, in the somewhat less difficult (but still formidable) 1851 version. These pieces are actually harder to play (either in the 1851 version or the original from 1838) on a modern piano than on one from Liszt’s time: mid-19th-century pianos had a lighter action and shorter key travel, making some of Liszt’s demands in these pieces simpler, if scarcely easy. Kim handles the material well, and her light touch in the third étude, “La Campanella,” is particularly welcome, as is her handling of the arpeggios in the final étude. The one piece on this disc that does not come across as effectively as it might is the two-movement Haydn sonata, whose delicacy of sound fits poorly with the fullness of the piano here and whose poised first movement, Andante con espressione, seems less congenial for Kim than the more overt emotionalism of Liszt and Rachmaninoff. On the whole, though, Kim shows herself here to be an impressive performer and an effective interpreter of the Romantics.
Solo-piano CDs are quite common, solo-saxophone ones much less so. The new Navona release featuring David Tanner – actually a re-release of a recording from 1988 – is both a solo offering and a multi-saxophone one, with Tanner, thanks to the magic of multi-tracking, playing four separate saxophones in two of the works recorded here. Although Kim’s piano recording is one to which listeners who especially like the music may well turn to hear her performances, it is more likely that fans of Tanner and/or saxophones in general will be interested in this CD than that they will select it because of the specific pieces Tanner plays. That is true even though the work opens with a real gem, Serenade comique by Jean Françaix, an under-appreciated composer whose music shows real wit and style. This is a two-and-a-half-minute quartet that bounces along so stylishly that one wishes it would go on considerably longer. The other quartet here, La Blues by Gene DiNovi, is at the opposite end of the expressive spectrum, being melancholy, reserved and crepuscular. The other works here showcase effects from the traditionally classical (in Sonatine Sportive by Tcherepnin, another underrated composer, and in Debussy’s Syrinx, Schumann’s Romance No. 1, and Koechlin’s Etude No. 8) to the jazzy and pop-influenced. Tanner is at home with pretty much every style of which the saxophone is capable, and he receives very able backup from Marc Widner in the saxophone-and-piano works. It would be overstating things to call any of the music here especially profound, and even the longest work, Maurice’s impressionistic Tableaux de Provence, lasts less than a quarter of an hour – with Maurice getting there via five very short movements. But every piece gives Tanner a chance to show the moods and colors of which the saxophone is capable. In addition to the pieces already mentioned, the CD includes Arndt’s Nola, Bassett’s four-movement Music for Alto Saxophone and Piano, and Bonneau’s Caprice en Forme de Valse, which is a real charmer for saxophone solo. Tanner’s saxophone playing is exuberant and always sure-handed, and if none of the works heard here is highly significant in itself, all of them give Tanner a chance to display not only his own multifaceted performance capabilities but also those of the instrument itself.
Like Tanner on saxophone, Stuart Weber on guitar offers a broad stylistic mixture of material and a playing technique that shows familiarity not only with classical guitar style but also with folk and pop performance. The title of Weber’s new Ravello CD, The Fifth Row: An Acoustic Tour of Historic Theaters, shows to how great an extent the specific music heard here is not the main interest. What Weber offers are 11 compositions, of various types, recorded in historic American theaters – thereby intending to give listeners a sense of what it would sound like if they were sitting in the fifth row of each theater during a guitar performance. This rather curious concept is all that really unites the various pieces here, beyond the fact that all are short: the whole disc runs only 37 minutes. Certainly the CD is a treat for guitarists and for listeners interested in just how varied the sound of an acoustic guitar can be. The classical composers heard here include Telemann (Bourée alla Polacca), Dvořák (Humoreske), 18th-century lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss (Passacaille), and Bartók (Evening in the Country). Weber also performs Randy Newman’s Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father and Samuel A. Ward’s America the Beautiful. And he includes five of his own works: Sacajawea, Spanish Creek, Jefferson Waltz, Toccata—Darkness, and Walk Away. The oldest music here, by Telemann and Weiss, offers a particularly strong contrast with the remainder of the material, moving in stately fashion through prescribed forms in a way that is very different from the sometimes unfocused emotionalism of Weber’s expressive pieces, among which the quiet beauty of Jefferson Waltz stands out. For those genuinely interested in the venues where these pieces were recorded, the CD helpfully provides that information: five works were recorded in Montana theaters, two in Colorado, two in Idaho, and one each in Utah and Wyoming. There are indeed sonic differences among the pieces, but it is difficult to know to what extent that results from the music itself rather than from the aural qualities of the venues where the recordings were made. Weber plays everything quite well, in any case, and listeners interested in this eclectic collection of material will find the disc quite satisfying.
Somewhat similarly, the music on a Navona CD focused on flautist Lindsey Goodman – in this case, eight contemporary compositions – is not the disc’s primary attraction: Goodman’s playing is (along with her voice in two pieces). But this is a more rarefied disc than Weber’s, because all the music goes out of its way to show just how “modern” (or post-modern) it is. This means that five pieces include electronics or computer-generated sounds: Separation Logic for flute and live computer processing (2013) by Roger Dannenberg (born 1955); I Asked You for solo flute and fixed media (2016) by Tony Zilincik (born 1967); Sleep’s Undulating Tide for flute in C and live, interactive electroacoustics (2016) by Elainie Lillios (born 1968); The Line of Purples for flute and pre-recorded electronics (2015) by Randall Woolf (born 1959); and For the Fallen for amplified flute and electronics (2017) by Judith Shaitin (born 1949). The remaining works here are A Wedding Prayer for two flutes (2004) by David Stock (1939-2015), Demon/Daemon for solo flute (2016) by Linda Kernohan (born 1970), and the all-small-caps-titled suspicion of nakedness for flute (2012) by Roger Zahab (born 1957). The titles’ attempts at profundity, or at least meaningfulness, are entirely in line with the preferences of many contemporary composers, and the use of various electronic and computerized “enhancements” of the flute’s sound – including amplification of the instrument itself – make the disc’s provenance abundantly clear. Thus, this is not a CD for listeners enamored of the traditional sound of the flute or of skillful performance on the instrument. It is only for people who wish to hear the flute in this particular context, whose interest is in 21st-century compositions that happen to employ the flute as part of their sonic texture, altering its sound and the form of its participation in the material as each composer wishes. All is carefully planned here. The genuinely unpleasant sound at the start of Separation Logic is entirely intentional, as is the percussive ostinato that opens I Asked You – and as are the words that pop out from within the musical line. So are the loud breaths, some sounding almost like gasping, in Demon/Daemon, and the dirgelike percussive background of For the Fallen. Goodman appears thoroughly satisfied to be performing this material, and certainly extracts from her instrument a very wide variety of sounds, some of which may come as a surprise to listeners not already familiar with the extent to which familiar instruments can be made to sound like something outside their inherent nature. So this is not a recording for listeners who want a chance simply to hear adept flute playing: context is everything here, and the CD is only for those attracted to this type of music and wanting to listen to the ways in which a flute can fit into it.
April 19, 2018
A Most Unusual Day. By Sydra Mallery. Illustrations by E.B. Goodale. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
We Love Our Mom! / We Love Our Dad! By Jan & Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $4.99.
Gentle and sweet, Sydra Mallery’s A Most Unusual Day is all about a series of mishaps and unusual elements of a little girl’s day – and just what causes everything to be somewhat topsy-turvy. It is a lovely book for families adopting or considering adopting children, for that is what its underlying topic is. Mallery, herself an adoptive parent, finds a way to capture the excitement, uncertainty and confusion that a girl in the book’s target age range (4-8) might well feel on the day that her new baby sister is supposed to arrive. From where? That is never stated; indeed, there is nothing here about the adoption process and nothing about the adoptive parents except their appearance at the end – in a charming scene in which it turns out that they are just as befuddled on this day as is Caroline, the girl at the center of the book. Mallery repeatedly contrasts what Caroline usually does, at home and at school, with what she does on this particular, special, exciting, rather unnerving day – from forgetting to wear socks and take her lunch from home, to accidentally knocking out another girl’s loose tooth (the girl is happy to have it gone), to making big messes when she tries to clean up small ones. Caroline’s preoccupation, excitement and tinge of nervousness all come through both in Mallery’s text and in E.B. Goodale’s illustrations, especially so when, after school, Caroline’s usually “calm and collected” parents are anything but that when they bring Caroline her new baby sister. The book’s audience is self-limited – families not involved in adoptions will find little to captivate them here on an emotional level, and even if they enjoy the book at arm’s length, they will not get its full flavor. A Most Unusual Day is about a certain specific kind of unusual day, one that Mallery knows from her own life and brings heartwarmingly to the fore in portraying a far-from-ordinary day for the imaginary Caroline.
The experiences of families of all sorts are reflected in a new, combined edition of two Berenstain Bears books: We Love Our Mom! (originally published in 2012) and We Love Our Dad! (originally from 2013). The combined edition invites kids to read one book, then flip it over and read the other, as the “back” cover becomes the front of the additional book. This is fun, and makes the combined volume suitable for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day – or, really, for pretty much anytime. Of course, it is suitable only for fans of the Berenstain Bears and of the rather overly sweet way their stories are inevitably told. For instance, at the start of the Mom book, “everything was fresh and fragrant” and the various animals are doing Berenstain-ish things: for instance, “Mama Frog was taking a jar full of tadpoles out for a stroll,” the jar being placed on a very small wagon-like stroller that the frog, walking on its hind legs, is pushing. The book includes plenty of examples of the way “Mama Bear took care of her cubs,” and the cubs’ determination to do something special for Mama Bear leads to creation of a scrapbook filled with family pictures that, of course, result in “a tear in Mama’s eye” and a trip out for brunch. In the Dad book, the cubs consider making Papa Bear his own scrapbook, but Mama Bear suggests “it would be a nice gift if you cubs did his jobs for him on Father’s Day and let him relax.” So the cubs make a series of we-will-do-your-chores gift certificates and give them to their dad – but when they actually try to do everything, they find out that chores are harder than they look, and Papa Bear has to pitch in and help out after all. Which he does, of course, with alacrity and enjoyment. The Berenstain Bears books in general, and these two in particular, are a bit too good to be true, a bit too idealized for many families to be able to accept them at face value. But parents and kids who enjoy the characters and are looking for tie-ins to the days on which moms and dads are supposed to get some extra attention from the family will certainly not be disappointed in this two-for-one paperback volume.
WhatsHisFace. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.
The always-reliable Gordon Korman serves up another heaping helping of standard middle-school angst with to-be-expected Korman humor, all in the service of a plot that is offbeat on the surface but really quite formulaic underneath, in WhatsHisFace. Korman is an expert at writing for middle-schoolers, always finding ways to complicate his protagonists’ lives (school and social), then over-complicate their lives, then eventually make everything come out just fine, so everybody is happy and the whole cast of characters (except, perhaps, some overbearing adult) is in better shape than before.
The formula creaks a bit in WhatsHisFace, though, because Korman goes rather too far into the fantastical. The title character’s actual name is Cooper Vega, but because his father is in the military and has to move every six months (a problem: that is not how military assignments work, although preteen readers are unlikely to know that), Cooper is constantly starting new schools in new towns where nobody knows his name or pays attention to him.
Well, they are going to pay attention to him in this town, for sure. It is named Stratford, because it houses a Shakespeare collection owned by a billionaire named Somerset Wolfson, who takes the overbearing-adult role here. Korman’s idea is that Cooper’s parents, to try to help him feel better about the constant moves, get him a super-special new smartphone that turns out to be, umm, haunted. And the ghost in the phone belongs to one Roderick Northrop, who died in 1596 and who wrote a play called Barnabas and Ursula on which Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was based. Shakespeare, you see, stole the idea from Roddy, who had just died of the plague, and now Roddy is back, in Cooper’s phone, learning about 21st-century life (including both the hip and hop of hip-hop) and generally complicating things. Oh, and Mr. Wolfson has the play that Roddy wrote, but he is keeping it secret because revealing its existence would somehow undermine the value of all the Shakespeare memorabilia that Mr. Wolfson has been painstakingly collecting for many years (this makes absolutely not a lick of sense, but, again, preteens will likely have no idea how ridiculous the whole thing is).
So somehow Cooper, called “Coopervega” by his friendly neighborhood ghost, has to negotiate the whole theft-of-ideas thing and also handle the everyday difficulties of being a seventh-grader. That means dealing with jock/bully Brock, who of course is cast as Romeo when the school decides to put on a play and chooses – what else? – Romeo and Juliet. And of course Cooper has a preteen-style crush on Jolie, the girl who will be playing Juliet opposite Brock. With a bit of unwanted help from Roddy, Brock is injured – just enough so he cannot play Romeo – and Cooper, who has been channeling Roddy just enough to be able to handle Shakespeare’s language with aplomb, takes over. And this eventually gives Cooper a way to make things right for long-dead Roddy, to the frustration of Mr. Wolfson; and Cooper even gets Jolie as a real-life girlfriend, at least until the family presumably has to move again.
In reality, Shakespeare did borrow much of Romeo and Juliet from earlier material, as playwrights often did in Elizabethan times. Whether or not Korman knows that is irrelevant – but adults (or young readers who get interested in the topic) will likely decide that Korman is playing a little too fast and loose with both facts and fancy. For instance, take the supposed date of Roddy’s death. Korman makes a point of saying that Roddy (the “real” author of what became Romeo and Juliet) died in 1596, presumably because Korman did enough research to know that the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s play dates to 1597. However, it is known that the playwright was working on this drama by 1594, and possibly as early as 1591. Oops. But of course Korman does not have to adhere to any sort of scholarship or truth in creating WhatsHisFace, and neither truth nor scholarship is his point in the book. It is simply another moderately pleasing, nicely paced middle-school romp that will please Korman’s many fans for a short time – and if it is not particularly memorable or likely to receive multiple readings, that is fine, since Korman will undoubtedly have another middle-school novel out soon enough. There is not the ghost of a chance that this will be his last foray into seventh-grade life.
New Music for Flute, Viola and Harp—Works by Stephen Paulus, Andrew Boysen Jr., Libby Larsen, Donald Harris, Dale Warland, and Stephan Main. Cosmos Trio (Katherine Borst Jones, flute; Mary E.M. Harris, viola; Jeanne Norton, harp). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Zhen Chen: New Music for Pipa and Western Ensembles. Lin Ma, pipa; Zhen Chen, piano; Cho-Liang Lin and Elmira Darvarova, violins; David Geber, cello; Liang Wang, oboe; Milan Milisavijević, viola; Howard Wall, horn. Navona. $14.99.
Moto Bello: Contemporary Music for Violin, Cello and Piano. Trio Casals (Sylvia Ahramjian, violin; Ovidiu Marinescu, cello; Anna Kislitsyna, piano). Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).
There are some CDs that are enjoyable to hear not because of the specific music they contain but because of the instrumental combination used to produce that music. Unusual instrumental mixtures, or ensemble works incorporating instruments with which many listeners may be unfamiliar, can make for quite pleasant listening even if the specific compositions presented are of interest more because of the way they are tailored to the instruments than because of any inherent communicative power. The entire MSR Classics CD featuring the Cosmos Trio is a sound-above-all example, with lovely, sometimes exquisite blending of the unusual mixture of flute, viola and harp throughout in an offering of six world première recordings. The pieces heard here are uniformly well-constructed and seem to lie ideally on and among the instruments – it is no surprise that the Cosmos Trio commissioned and/or gave the first performances of much of this material. All the works were written in the 21st century, and all the composers appear quite comfortable producing tuneful, largely tonal material in which the instruments blend to very fine effect. Petite Suite (2007) by Stephan Paulus (1949-2014) is mostly bright and open-sounding, the “air of melancholy” in the second movement sounding more wistful than depressive. Beautiful, Sweet, Delicate (2006) by Andrew Boysen Jr. (born 1968) lives up to its title, and in particular to the delicacy of which these instruments are capable. Trio in Four Movements (2006) by Libby Larsen (born 1950) and Columbus Triptich (2006) by Stephen Main (born 1963) both give individual instruments multiple opportunities to shine in solo passages – without, however, losing sight of the effectiveness with which flute, viola and harp can be balanced in light of their ranges and tonal qualities. Arise My Love (2007) by Dale Warland (born 1932) is a short and affecting work with more depth of feeling than several others here. And Letter from Home (2011/2013) by Donald Harris (1931-2016) offers an unusual sonic combination by including the voices of not one but two sopranos (Lucy Shelton and Christine Shumway Mortine) with the three gentle instruments – the result being on the somewhat plaintive side, albeit without lacking beauty. This is a disc for those interested in an unusual sonic combination as it is handled by adept composers and first-rate performers, and although there is nothing particularly profound in the material, there is nothing that is less than engaging to the ear.
The sound of the pipa, a popular four-stringed Chinese lute with 12 to 26 frets, may be less immediately appealing to listeners on a new Navona CD featuring music written by Zhan Chen. The pipa has been in use for thousands of years but remains infrequently heard in Western music (although variations on the instrument are popular throughout Asia). What Chen does here is to meld the pipa with various Western instruments, with results that range from startling to surprisingly affecting. The CD’s very opening, when a horn intones part of Dvořak’s Symphony “From the New World,” falls into the “startling” category. In this piece, Arrival, the pipa and piano – the only instruments heard in every single piece on the disc – are joined by violin, cello and oboe as well as horn. Instrumental combinations are quite varied here: Good Morning, the City uses oboe and cello; Dancing in the Rain includes string quartet; On the Roof has a violin and cello; Lost in the Midtown is only for pipa and piano; Lullaby again brings in the string quartet; Encounter has a cello; Cocktails is another work just for pipa and piano; Walk on the Fifth is especially interesting in its inclusion of soprano saxophone and drums; and Harmony, the final work on the disc, uses the string quartet plus horn. Much of the music is delicate, wistful and meandering, but not all: Dancing in the Rain is quite lively, Lost in the Midtown has tango elements, and Walk on the Fifth is jazz-inflected and bouncily involving. There is an underlying story for all the music, having to do with the immigrant experience in the urban United States, but, intriguingly, the music does not really need that “framing tale” to have its effect (except, perhaps, to understand what the touch of Dvořak is doing at the start). The issue for listeners here has to do with the sheer amount of pipa music offered on the CD. Despite its appearance, the pipa is not a lute in the Western sense, and its sound is (to Western ears) somewhat harsher and more penetrating than that of the lute of Dowland’s time. The CD is not a long one – only about 37 minutes – and the instrumental variations plus the changes of tempo and mood help carry it along. Nevertheless, the centrality of the pipa here quickly becomes a matter of taste, and not necessarily a taste that listeners unfamiliar with Chinese music will have acquired. Of course, some sense of discomfort and difficulty “fitting in” is part of the immigrant experience and therefore melds well with the concept of this CD. But to be heard simply as music, rather than as a soundtrack, the disc needs to stand on its own. It does, but the effectiveness with which it does will vary quite a bit from listener to listener.
There is even more variability of response likely to result from listening to another Navona release, this one a two-CD set of pieces by 10 contemporary composers. Here the instruments are conventional – violin, cello and piano – but the composers’ use of them differs considerably from work to work. This means that few listeners are likely to find everything in the release congenial, although many people who enjoy contemporary chamber music will discover at least a work or two here that they would like to hear again and again. Woman A/Part by Diane Jones, intended to reflect a series of photographs, is an ostinato/crescendo mixture. Somewhere between D and C# by Beth Mehocic tries to translate a poem by the composer into a sort of tone poem. Habanera by David Nisbet Stewart is a short interpretation of habanera rhythm. The three-movement Lines, Hockets, and Riffs by Sidney Bailin mainly has the three instruments pursuing their own lines and only occasionally forming an ensemble, “hockets” being melodic phrases split between instruments. Ocean Air by L. Peter Deutsch, the last work on the first CD, seeks to portray “Afternoon,” “Evening” and “Morning” during an ocean voyage, using contemporary musical language rather than Impressionism. On the second CD, Ondine by Giovanni Piacentini is not about the water nymph per se but instead is intended to represent a photo of a sculpture of Ondine, using a combination of shimmering and dissonant sounds. Nightfall by Adrienne Albert is dark and rather dour in effect. Palette No. 1 by Clive Muncaster is an episodic exploration of contrasting sonorities. Solo la Sombra by Joanne D. Carey is a song transcription with contrasting moods. And Imagined/Remembered by Bruce Babcock, with three traditionally labeled movements (“Allegro,” “Lento,” “Presto”), uses the cello particularly effectively both in establishing melodic lines and in prompting, in the finale, material of considerable virtuosity. There is really very little in common among the works here. The two CDs are in effect a sampler of contemporary piano-trio music and are therefore discs that will be of interest mostly to listeners who would like to experience variegated 21st-century material whose basic sonic composition is its primary attraction.
Mark Abel: The Invocation; Those Who Loved Medusa; In the Rear View Mirror, Now; The Ocean of Forgiveness; The Benediction. Hila Plitmann, soprano; Janelle DeStefano, mezzo-soprano; Tali Tadmor and Carol Rosenberger, piano; Bruce Carver, percussion; Mark Abel, organ. Delos. $14.98.
Margaret Brandman: Cosmic Wheel of the Zodiac—A Song Cycle for the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac. Barbora Polášková, mezzo-soprano; Matěj Chadima, baritone; Petr Ožana, piano; Prague Mixed Chamber Choir conducted by Jiří Petrdlík. Navona. $14.99.
Joanna Estelle: Umori [Moods}; Susannah’s Lullaby; Language of a Rose; Moyi mamij [For My Mother]; Qu’est-ce que c’est la vie?(Hommage à Diana, Princesse de Galles); Abwoon d’bwashmaya [Aramaic Lord’s Prayer]; Water Canticle; La chanson de ton coeur [The Song of Your Heart]; Child of the Manger; Song for Abwoon. Navona. $14.99.
John Alan Rose: Piano Concerto “Tolkien Tale”; Old Father Time; 25,000 Years of Peace; Ticket to the Theater. John Alan Rose, piano; JungWon Choi, cello; Moni Simeonov, violin; Sing Rose, soprano; Tyler Bunch, narrator; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
Art songs are an acquired taste even for many listeners who otherwise enjoy classical compositions. Modern art songs are even more rarefied, with composers rarely content to write “pretty” music or to explore fanciful stories or idealized romance – seeking instead to find significance and communicate their seriousness to an audience. Thus, even when well-thought-out and well-composed, contemporary songs often require more of a listener than attentiveness and enjoyment of the music and lyrics: they mandate acceptance of the composer’s worldview and an unspoken agreement to share it, at least for the duration of the performance. Certainly this is true of the music of Mark Abel on a new Delos CD. Abel’s music, which like that of many contemporary composers includes jazz and rock elements, is firmly in the service of the words he chooses to set – by himself, Kate Gale and Joanne Regenhardt. In and of itself, the music is not especially distinguished or memorable – but it gains stature in supporting and enhancing the verbiage, which is clearly what matters most to Abel in these songs. The songs’ topics are modern to post-modern, tied to causes-of-the-day that provide immediacy (especially for those who see the causes the same way Abel does) but that are unlikely to give the material much staying power. However, as songs and song cycles exploring issues-of-the-moment, the material is effective. After some rather obvious musing about the uncertainty of life in The Invocation, Abel uses Those Who Loved Medusa not to explore any lasting truths but to support strictly contemporary views of rape and rapine. The well-considered use of percussion here is the song’s most-effective element. The three-song cycle, In the Rear View Mirror, Now, in which Abel himself plays the organ, is about attachments, both personal and to the world, and how they change and disappoint. Its second element, The World Clock, is especially narrowly focused, having to do with the city of San Francisco and specifically with the ways in which technology has changed it. Soprano Hila Plitmann handles all the songs with care and emotive skill, but even more striking is mezzo-soprano Janelle DeStefano’s delivery of the emotionalism of The Ocean of Forgiveness, the cycle on this disc that reaches out most strongly to listeners. This cycle works because, although Regenhardt’s words are partly inspired by specific locales, such as a desert area near San Diego, the words do not insist on topicality or on dealing with straitened concerns of the current sociopolitical environment. Instead, they use highly specific occurrences – as in Sally’s Suicide, the second of the five songs – to try to connect with listeners facing their own turmoil and life difficulties. Abel’s musical support of the words is particularly effective in this cycle, whose final song, Patience, would have made a genuinely thoughtful conclusion for the CD. Unfortunately, the disc includes one more song, The Benediction, and it is an altogether lesser piece, starting with the words “from sea to shining sea” and dwelling on the notion of a country “crying out for truth and reason.” The eventual statement that “open hearts must point the way” trivializes some genuinely troubling elements of modern life and makes the finish of this recording less trenchant than it could have been.
Margaret Brandman’s Cosmic Wheel of the Zodiac comes at major issues of life in a different way – twice, once through solos and duets and once using a chorus to present the same musical material. Like Abel, Brandman goes beyond traditional classical music not only through extended harmonies but also by incorporating jazz and other styles, such as swing. The music itself is more interesting on this Navona CD than is the case on the Abel disc, partly because the words are of less consequence: they were written by an astrologer (Benita Rainer) and are supposed to present the characteristics of people born under the various sun signs. In strictly musical terms, it does not matter whether the lyrics are nonsensical, since Brandman uses them as a jumping-off point for a series of songs whose moods include the quiet and meditative (Libra), expansive (Sagittarius), bright and energetic (Capricorn), mysterious (Aries and Pisces), upbeat and light (Cancer), and more. The double performance of the material is rather odd: the cycle runs a bit more than 30 minutes in both versions, and the pacing of the individual songs is pretty much the same, with the choral version slightly longer and the solo-and-duet version offering easier-to-understand words. It is certainly not necessary to accept any of the tenets of astrology in order to enjoy the contrasting personality characteristics presented by Brandman (who apparently does take the material seriously). But listeners may well wish for somewhat more contrast among the songs: the pacing does vary, but the overall feel of the musical material is much the same throughout the cycle. Listeners familiar with Holst’s The Planets will know it is possible to characterize mythic and cosmic beings and features in highly differentiated ways, even without spoken words. Brandman’s songs offer fewer contrasts – which may encourage listeners to enjoy and relate to whichever ones fit their individual tastes, just as it is possible to select any horoscope one may wish and find elements in it that appear to fit one’s personality well.
Joanna Estelle’s music on another new Navona release has a more-personal feel throughout, as if the songs here reflect her own life even when ostensibly dealing with other matters. Listeners whose emotions gravitate to Estelle’s will find these works especially congenial, and not only in terms of the words that are sung: the first piece on the CD, Umori [Moods], is for piano solo, and its 10 very short sections clearly reflect and express their titles (“Ardent,” “Determined,” “Energetic,” “Whimsical,” “Shimmery,” “Repentant,” “Reflective,” “Wistful,” “Solemn” and “Hopeful” – no ambiguity anywhere here). The vocal material is similarly straightforward: Susannah’s Lullaby, subtitled “This Is a Face of Love,” offers an idealized portrait of family life; Moyi mamij [For My Mother] is simple and expressive; La chanson de ton coeur [The Song of Your Heart] is simple and happy; Child of the Manger is a moving choral carol, one of several works here with overt religious connotations; and so on. Unlike composers such as Abel and Brandman, Estelle works in what is essentially a pure tonal medium. Like Abel, she often sets her own words, although in two pieces here, Abwoon d’bwashmaya [Aramaic Lord’s Prayer] and Song for Abwoon, she uses Aramaic – the language spoken by Jesus – in an attempt to connect New Testament times with today’s world. Estelle has some interesting ideas about instrumental support for her words: Abwoon d’bwashmaya [Aramaic Lord’s Prayer], for example, is for soprano and cello, while Moyi mamij [For My Mother] is for soprano and baritone with cello and piano. The highly personal nature of the material on this CD means it will have strong connections for some listeners but little appeal for others.
The only vocal piece on a Navona disc featuring the music of John Alan Rose is much more theatrically structured and much less personally intense. It is Ticket to the Theater, a very post-modern sort of stage-oriented work (albeit with faint echoes of Mozart’s The Impresario). In Rose’s piece, a narrator expects to host a performance that, it turns out, does not exist, so a soprano and orchestra “improvise” a formulaic theatrical plot from scratch, and the whole thing eventually ends with a “Waltz of the Ushers, Janitors and Custodians.” The concept is silly and overdone and quite funny, with pompously delivered lines such as “tragedies remind us of the impermanence of life” being quite appropriately (in context) overmatched by meaningless singing and instrumental elements. Thankfully, the work does not overextend its welcome, lasting only about 17 minutes. Rose’s whimsicality is less in evidence in the remaining, purely instrumental works on this disc, although there is some playfulness in the first movement of his Piano Concerto “Tolkien Tale,” a movement that Rose says he composed after reading The Hobbit. The concerto’s second movement is quite short, really just a brief and warm intermezzo preparing the way for a forceful finale that is a tad on the pretentious side, at least until matters lighten up considerably toward the end. Between the concerto at the start of the CD and Ticket to the Theater at its end are two extended single-movement works. Old Father Time, for cello and orchestra, uses the solo instrument both in the forefront and as first-among-equals in the ensemble, with Rose focusing on the cello’s capacity for warmth as well as its exceptional range. Yet the work, although well-wrought, never quite seems to have a specific point of view or to be on a journey to anywhere in particular; as a result, it seems dragged-out beyond the capacity of its ideas. More unusual structurally, 25,000 Years of Peace features a two-minute solo-violin introduction that sounds like an out-of-place cadenza – followed by what is almost a pastiche of musical styles that are vaguely Copland-esque or Ivesian, hymnlike, and somewhat self-consciously dissonant. This is a work that repays at least a second hearing in an attempt to figure out just what the composer is trying to do – although a listener may well conclude, after that rehearing, that the piece is more form than substance. This CD does not start with the voice – instead, it concludes with it – but it certainly shows ways in which vocal works as well as purely instrumental ones can be used by today’s composers in uniquely communicative ways, even if not necessarily in a manner that will connect effectively with audiences that are not already predisposed to enjoy serious contemporary compositions.
April 12, 2018
Night Out. By Daniel Miyares. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
It is almost impossible to overestimate the influence that Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are has had in the more than half century since it was published in 1963. Again and again, other authors of children’s books – and some authors of adult books, too – have used Sendak’s dream-fantasy of an overly rambunctious young boy who becomes king of huge, toothy but distinctly unthreatening monsters as a jumping-off point for imaginary journeys of their own. When an author does this with care and sensitivity, as Daniel Miyares does in Night Out, the result can be as delightful and striking in its own way as Sendak’s original book was in its time – if perhaps not quite as groundbreaking.
The framing story for Night Out actually occurs outside the pages of the story proper – a very neat touch. What happens is shown on the inside front cover pages and the inside back ones: the front ones show empty chairs at a communal meal table, and the back ones show the chairs occupied by young boys, only one of whom has a visible face; he sits in the middle of the group, looking out from the picture. The two-page illustration just after the title page fills in a bit more of the story – still without a single word. The empty chairs from the inside front cover pages are now occupied, but the boy who is face-forward at the book’s very end is seen here sitting very far from everyone else, eating all by himself, his expression downcast.
How do we get from the glum front-of-book scenes to the upbeat back-of-book one? That is where the Sendak influence comes in. Using spare text and delightfully surreal drawings, Miyares shows the boy, tired but still awake in his bed at the end of a row of beds in which the other boys are all sleeping. He looks slightly disconsolate, and the two words on the page, “All alone,” immediately capture his feeling. But he is not quite alone, since there is a fishbowl on a chair next to his bed, and a small turtle is just finding a way to climb out of it. And suddenly, looking at the bowl, the boy sees an envelope resting next to it. “An invitation?” asks Miyares’ text. Oh, yes – “the honor of your presence is requested.” That is all the card in the envelope says, but it is enough to get the boy out of bed as the full moon shines brightly outside his window. Soon he himself goes out the window, and “a journey begins” as the boy rides his bike – from what is apparently a boarding school, through the woods, to a very deep ravine above which a small footbridge stretches. Then it is over the bridge and to the edge of a body of water in which “a friend,” his turtle, swims toward him. But this is his turtle made gigantic, coming to shore only long enough for the boy to climb on his back for a journey to a cave where a chair looking exactly like the one by the boy’s bed and the ones by the dinner table stands ready for the boy – offered to him by a motley collection of animals: full-size bear, oversize owl, really big bunny, and a goose and a fox, all welcoming the boy to a tea party that is less Sendak than it is Lewis Carroll.
After tea, sandwiches, cookies and cake, it is time for “a song,” with the boy dancing as the animals play instruments – fox on banjo, owl on flute, bear on washboard, rabbit on harmonica, and goose on tambourine, as the giant turtle claps along. And then it is time for a ride back to shore, back to the bike, back to the boarding school, with the boy sleepily climbing in through the window as the now-small-again turtle climbs back into his fishbowl. And then? Well, then it is time for “a story to share,” which the boy does as five other boys listen attentively, apparently enthralled. And that explains why, at the book’s very end, the formerly lonely boy is eating right in the middle of the group, now sporting a satisfied smile. Sweetly offering its message of inclusion, Night Out is a delightful bedtime story for ages 4-8 as well as a lovely tribute to the thoughts and sensibilities of Sendak’s justly famous, somewhat wilder and more boisterous story of more than five decades ago.
Floundering Fathers: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Evil Emperor Penguin #2: Evil Emperor Penguin Strikes Back! By Laura Ellen Anderson. David Fickling Books. $8.99.
Because so many animals are so all-fired gosh-darn cuddly and adorable, especially when drawn as cartoon characters, it only makes sense that some people will take them to the opposite extreme and make them decidedly uncuddly and unadorable. Stephan Pastis has been doing this for years in his Pearls Before Swine comic strip, so it is no surprise that he continues doing it in the strip’s latest collection, Floundering Fathers. Pastis is quite determined to make his central animal characters less attractive than…well, than any other characters in the strip. Which is really saying something. Take those stick arms and legs that Pastis creates for Pig, Rat, Goat, the crocs, et al. Pastis knows how to draw more-realistic-looking limbs – maybe not much more realistic, but somewhat more realistic – and does so when portraying his own in-strip cartoonist character and a wide variety of single-use entrants, such as the farmers being sold at a farmers’ market and the people to whom presidential candidate Rat speaks about his campaign, who are seen in that strip’s final panel holding a pitchfork and torch. So Pastis is clearly being quite deliberate in giving his primary characters as little potential cuddliness as possible. He then extends that plan by what he has them say and do. For instance, Rat challenges Goat to drink a beer “every time a CNN political analyst begins their [sic] answer with the word ‘look,’” and one panel later, both Rat and Goat are completely buried in beer cans. For another instance, cartoon Pastis presents “a syndicated cartoonist’s top ten list of topics that generate the most complaints,” among which are race, religion, sex, drugs, Fox News, and praise for or criticism of Barack Obama; and in this strip’s final panel, Rat says, “I saw that Black Muslim Obama on Fox News,” and Guard Duck chimes in, “Do you think he has sex while on drugs?” Clearly animal matters in Pearls Before Swine are cast about willy-nilly, if not like pearls before swine, then like cubic zirconia before – hmm, no, that would probably insult someone somewhere somehow, and that is part of Pastis’ job, self-created. The rest of Pastis’ job is to think up awful and outrageous puns and wordplay and have his characters react a smidgen negatively when cartoon Pastis presents the material. For example, there is a strip about a man named Richard who names a potato company in Decatur, Georgia, after himself and now has so much money that he controls the town; so the whole scenario, cartoon Pastis announces, refers to “the Dick’s Tator Decatur dictator,” leading Rat to suggest, “Let’s go punch him in the face repeatedly.” Oddly enough, all this is considered family humor, more or less, to the extent that it must be “family humor” to be included in the slow death spiral of newspapers, whose demise is possibly being hastened by defining Pearls Before Swine as “family” anything. So much for using animals to appeal to people’s warm and welcoming side.
Laura Ellen Anderson’s graphic novels about Evil Emperor Penguin and his minions do not go quite as far into the world of anti-cute as do Pastis’ comic strips – after all, Anderson is reaching out to children as readers, while Pastis’ work is emphatically not for kids. Why, Anderson even has a unicorn in Evil Emperor Penguin Strikes Back! True, the book’s back cover shows abominable hench-snowman and top minion Eugene riding the unicorn while shouting, “To the lair of evil!” But both Keith the unicorn and Eugene are drawn in a rounded-enough way to retain vestiges (in fact, more than vestiges) of cuddle-ability; and besides, who can dislike a book whose contents page features the art that Eugene draws and tapes to “the Fridge of Evil” in Evil Emperor Penguin’s Antarctic lair? Like the first book in this series, this second one gets a (+++) rating because, as much fun as it delivers, it tries so hard to be clever that it repeatedly trips over itself. The cast of characters remains the same here as in the first book: EEP himself; the small and adorable Eugene (who loves hugs, rainbows and unicorns, but still hangs around with EEP and supports EEP’s plans for world domination); the very tall, intellectual, monocle-wearing purple-octopus henchthing named Number 8, although referred to as “Squid” by EEP; and scowling, mustachioed Evil Cat, mastermind of all things that are anti-EEP but still evil. Kids who had fun with the first book will enjoy this one equally, with its “super computer of evil” running “OS-evil” and utilizing the “USB of evil.” The “paint palette of evil” is enjoyable, too, especially when Eugene ends up within a number of famous paintings (the Mona Lisa, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Munch’s “The Scream,” and more) that kids probably will not know but that parents will enjoy seeing in this context if they happen to dip into the book. The eventual outcome of the interrelated adventures here – told chapter by chapter – is that EEP, of course, fails to take over the world; and Evil Cat also fails; but Eugene succeeds, sort of, thereby proving that niceness and being “cute and fluffy” can conquer all. More or less. Apparently there is room for cuteness, even in works featuring critters who are determined, at all costs, not to be even the slightest bit cutesy.
Gregorian Chant Sampler. The Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France. Paraclete. $16.95.
Gregorian Chant Anthology. The Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France. Paraclete. $16.95.
Hannah Lash: Requiem; David Lang: statement to the court; Ted Hearne: Consent. Yale Choral Artists and Yale Philharmonia conducted by Jeffrey Douma. Naxos. $12.99.
Among the many church leaders who took the name Gregory or Gregorius – 16 popes and two antipopes – two are associated with gifts to the world of nearly inestimable value. It was Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585) who commissioned the Gregorian calendar that is now used virtually throughout the world. And it was Pope St. Gregory I (590-604) during whose papacy the liturgical music now called Gregorian chant was codified – although not quite in the form we know it today, which blends the type of chant collected in St. Gregory’s time with a chant known as Gallican. Whether the calendar or the chant is of greater value to humanity depends largely on one’s point of view. The calendar is of exceeding secular importance and so integral to everyday life, whatever one’s religion may be, that it is scarcely imaginable to get along without it. The chant, however, although originally created to accompany the Mass and divine office of Roman Catholicism, eventually became no less than the foundation of Western music – an emotional and spiritual experience that is every bit as crucial in some ways as the calendar is in others. Pure Gregorian chant is very rarely heard outside abbeys and some very conservative Catholic churches – a fact that makes its beauty and immense spiritual power when sung by the Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes, France, all the more striking. Because Gregorian chant involves unison singing, it tends to sound simple to modern ears, but it is anything but simplistic. There were eight modes originally, expanded to 12 in 1547, and from them (especially the Ionian mode) derives the entire later system of tonality. These days there are actually 14 modes, and even in the 21st century, composers use them to give a particular “feel” to their music beyond what is provided by keys containing sharps or flats – modes do not have these. So how do modes sound? That is what the Paraclete recordings called Gregorian Chant Sampler and Gregorian Chant Anthology let listeners find out: the 23 chants on Sampler and 26 on Anthology are as authentic as listeners will hear anywhere. The numbers of the chants’ modes are given, for anyone wishing to explore modal matters, and the Anthology disc provides specific connections between chants and feasts or seasons – what is known as the Proper of the Mass, in contrast to the Ordinary, which remains the same throughout the year. Anthology offers chants for the entire liturgical year, including Christmas, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter and other celebrations; Sampler has chants connected with the Introit, Offertory, Responsory, Communion, Alleluia and more. But if all this seems impossibly abstruse for lay listeners – and even for many secularized Catholics – it need not be off-putting. In fact, the music is exceptionally inviting, engaging listeners’ ears with beauty and elevating their thoughts no matter what their spiritual or religious beliefs and doctrines may be. The beauties of Gregorian chant were intended to enhance and ease the connection of humans with the divine. And even in a primarily secular age, they encourage inward looking, contemplation, thoughtfulness, a kind of separation from mundane affairs that somehow makes it easier to return to everyday matters after spending time in an environment where Gregorian chant resonates. Yes, the sensitive, careful, beautifully measured performances here can be used as an entry point to an earlier time, if scarcely a simpler one; but they can also be heard, quite literally, as background music, providing a canvas against which one’s mundane life may be painted in more-beautiful and less-brassy colors.
Among the many contemporary composers who still find communicative value in the old Latin texts of Roman Catholicism and elsewhere in Christianity is Hannah Lash (born 1981), whose handling of the text of the Requiem is right in line with the approach of many moderns: she uses a new English translation, without the Credo, and she places her emphasis in different places, in different ways, from those used by composers in the past. The liturgical concept of the Requiem is acceptance and peace, and some composers have taken that a bit further into something approaching joy at the reunion of the soul of the departed with God. Not so Lash, who wrote this version in 2016. The Dies irae here is far from threatening or terrifying; it is at most a bit unsettled. The Sanctus includes some lovely writing for solo harp (played by Lash herself) and cor anglais (Lydia Consilvio), with an emphasis on the words “the sky is full of light.” And the Lux aeterna reintroduces the same mood after Agnus dei and Psalm: De profundis clamavi have taken the work in a different direction. Lash’s work is primarily choral, although countertenor Eric Brenner provides some affecting solos in three of its eight sections. The Requiem is traditionally for and about the deceased, but Lash’s version is more focused on those left behind and how death affects them – it is in some respects closer to a wake than to the traditional Mass. Jeffrey Douma leads the chorus and instrumental ensemble with feeling and understanding throughout in this world première recording. Another world première on this Naxos CD is statement to the court (2010), its title all in lower case, by David Lang (born 1957); but this is a work that is too aware of its supposed importance to be fully effective. Its text is the words of Eugene Debs, union leader and avowed socialist, made in court when he was charged under the Sedition Act of 1918, which extended the wartime Espionage Act of the previous year to cover more offenses – including some forms of speech. Lang sees Debs as an unvarnished hero and undoubtedly intends this piece as a warning against similar excesses, or potential excesses, in the United States today. Certainly the Sedition Act – which was repealed in 1921 – represents a level of government intrusion and censorship that deserves to be decried, although these days such censorship is more strictly enforced outside the government (on many university campuses, for example) than by act of Congress. Historically, though, Debs is not the best choice for a free-speech hero, and his words, while thought-provoking enough, do not ring with great emotional power – a fact of which Lang himself seems to be aware, since he uses a pounding drum to highlight their supposed dramatic importance. Of more interest is the shortest work on the disc and the only one that has been recorded before: Consent (2014) by Ted Hearne (born 1982). It juxtaposes four different texts to explore language, love and religion, raising some interesting questions even if it never quite answers them. In a sense, it does not have to: the uncertainty that underpins modern life is foundational here, and while religion does enter the picture, it does so very differently from the way it does in, for example, Gregorian chants – which were designed to organize the entire year carefully and help listeners, worshipers, understand exactly where they stood during their time on Earth and would stand in their anticipated life to come.
John G. Bilotta: Yeats Songs; Renaissance Songs; Three Sonatinas for Piano; The Hippocampus’ Monologue; Two Songs on American Poetry; Allan Crossman: 10 Songs; Sonata fLux, for piano. Navona. $14.99.
Mark G. Simon: Ode on a Grecian Urn; Anniversary Sonata; Un Buen Piola Porteño. Linda Larson, soprano; Mark G. Simon, clarinet; Aleeza Meir, piano. Navona. $14.99.
James M. Stephenson: Liquid Melancholy—Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra; Colors; Last Chants; Fantasie; Étude Caprice; Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. John Bruce Yeh, clarinet; Lake Forest Symphony conducted by Vladimir Kulenovic (Concerto); Alex Klein, oboe; Chicago Pro Musica (Colors); Chicago Pro Musica (Chants); Patrick Godon, piano (Fantasie, Étude, Sonata). Cedille. $16.
Contemporary composers of vocal music are nothing if not eclectic in their choice of texts to set. Some of the works by John G. Bilotta and Allan Crossman on a new Navona CD draw on unsurprising sources, while others are considerably more unusual. Bilotta’s works dominate the disc. Yeats Songs (1977) are, as the title indicates, settings of five poems by William Butler Yates, performed here by baritone Andrew R. White and pianist Hadley McCarroll. “The Lover Pleads with His Friend for Old Friends” is suitably dismal, and “The Moods” continues in much the same vein. So does “A Drinking Song,” which is only half a minute long – just enough time for a slight nostalgic flavor. “The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water” is depressing, and it is only in “Maid Quiet” that a touch of tenderness creeps in to counter the generally downbeat mood of the whole cycle, which is darkened further by White’s rich baritone. Renaissance Songs (1976) is quite different, using five texts – by John Donne, George Herbert and others – and sung by tenor Justin Marsh, with McCarroll again on piano. The titles are “Prisoners,” “The Silver Swan,” “Aubade,” “Bitter-Sweet,” and “A Fancy,” and the songs run only about a minute apiece. The piano accompaniment here is more flowing than in the Yeats cycle, the emotions expressed more floridly in the language of the Renaissance and in music that brings them forward. In fact, Bilotta has some interesting ideas for piano expressiveness: the three three-movement sonatinas on this disc are more expressive, all in all, than the Yeats and Renaissance song cycles. Karolina Rojahn plays the sonatinas with suitable delicacy and an understanding of their miniature nature: each lasts less than four minutes, the first being dancelike, the second having a stronger sense of forward momentum, and the third offering some humor in its opening and closing movements (each under a minute long) with a contrasting two-minute Andantino sandwiched between them. Bilotta seems most comfortable creating miniatures, although his remaining two works on this CD are slightly more extended. The Hippocampus’ Monologue (2013), sung by Cass Panuska with McCarroll on piano, is an excerpt from an opera in which some characters are parts of the brain, while Two Songs on American Poetry (1976) uses texts by Carl Sandburg (“Lost”) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (“Prayer to Persephone”). Cass and McCarroll perform these as well, and the music has many of the same characteristics as the Yeats songs despite the very different textual choices.
Two works by Crossman are juxtaposed with those by Bilotta, and here too the composer’s choice of words to set varies quite widely. This is especially evident in 10 Songs, seven performed by mezzo-soprano Megan Stetson and three by bass Richard Mix, with Crossman himself on piano. Four of the songs use words by Federico García Lorca; the other six include an anonymous text from Renaissance Spain and works by Hermann Claudius, Ricarda Huch, James Joyce, Alexander Scriabin, and Louis Phillips. Where Bilotta uses his song cycles mainly to establish a single mood, Crossman uses this one to produce a variety of effects, from the pastoral (to the Spanish text) to the mystic (Scriabin’s words from his “Poem of Ecstasy,” which he later turned into his own music) to the simple and naïve (the text by Phillips, which begins, “Oh to be sixteen again”). Crossman’s other work on this disc is a somewhat too cutely titled piano sonata, performed by Keisuke Nakagoshi. It is a more-or-less impressionistic work, the title “fLux” having a capital L to indicate “Lux” (light) and the second movement following the same pattern, being called “fLight of the Firefly,” the spelling indicating the insect’s light. That movement proffers largely expected fluttering sounds, although some are produced in unusual ways. The first movement, “Moto Atlantico,” is one of the innumerable attempts to bring the feeling of a body of water – here, the Atlantic Ocean – into music. The finale, “Rondo a Pollock,” is by far the most interesting movement, including a touch of polka (in a pun on painter Jackson Pollock’s name) amid a kind of personalized pianistic pastiche that recalls Chopin, Hummel and Beethoven. The CD as a whole offers some interesting contrasts between the two composers’ handling of the piano in a support role for vocal works and as a focus of its own.
The voice appears in only one of the three works by Mark G. Simon on a new Navona CD, but the clarinet – which closely resembles the soprano voice in many ways – appears on them all, played by the composer. That makes the piece combining soprano (Linda Larson) with clarinet and piano (Aleeza Meir) especially interesting. This is Ode on a Grecian Urn (1995), using as its text four of the five stanzas of the familiar poem by John Keats. Simon’s third setting here, “Coming to the Sacrifice,” does a particularly good job of interweaving soprano and clarinet, then moves into an entirely instrumental section that includes a fugue – an especially interesting treatment of the text. The other works on the disc are for clarinet and piano without voice and are performed by Simon and Meir, who sound well-matched in their give-and-take. Anniversary Sonata (1998) is pleasant enough music, less striking than the Keats setting, and perhaps a bit too intensely personal to be readily comprehensible by listeners unfamiliar with its underlying story – which, Simon explains, has to do with his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and his mother’s heart attack. The third work on the disc, Un Buen Piola Porteño (2001), is personal in a different way, being connected with Simon’s interest in learning the Argentine tango. Inevitably, a “tribute” work of this sort bears comparison, for good or ill, with the music of Ástor Piazzolla. But in this case, there is little in common between Piazzolla’s creations and Simon’s. Simon offers three tango themes in a specific order, then “unwinds” them in the opposite sequence, in the middle creating an affecting slower episode. Simon’s music is easy to listen to, confidently tonal and redolent of pop influences. If it is never profound, neither is it ever difficult for the sake of difficulty.
The music of James M. Stephenson is similarly accessible, although less steeped in traditional tonality, on the basis of a new Cedille recording consisting mostly of world premières. Liquid Melancholy, although certainly concerto-ish, is neither particularly melancholy nor especially liquid-like – indeed, at times Stephenson seems to write against the natural flowing line of the clarinet in order to elicit a particular effect, as when he has the instrumental sound leaping about, oboe-like, in the work’s finale. The music certainly demands considerable control from the soloist, in all the clarinet’s registers, and John Bruce Yeh provides that to perfection: as a sheer display of technical skill (not merely virtuosity), this is a most impressive performance. Yeh does equally well in the other extended work here, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, which is also a world première recording. The able partnership of Patrick Godon makes this truly a work of cooperation, and the music is lyrically appealing to a greater extent than is that of the concerto. Actually, “liquid melancholy” is a phrase (originally from the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451) that is more applicable to the first two movements of the four-movement sonata than it is to the concerto that uses the words as its title. In the sonata, though, Stephenson does an abrupt about-face in the third movement, to such an extent that the opening of this movement sounds as if it is being played on a flute. The last movement, with its jazz inflections and high level of sensitivity to the clarinet’s warmth, is a charmer, and Yeh, the work’s dedicatee and its first performer, plays it with smooth beauty that is thoroughly appealing. The shorter works on the disc also show how adept Stephenson is at writing for all the sounds and moods of the clarinet. There are two more world première recordings here: Last Chants, which percolates along nicely in a blend of subtle percussive sounds with themes derived from Near Eastern music; and Fantasie, a blend of a different sort, mixing typical three-quarter-time forms such as waltz and scherzo in sensitive scoring that neatly partners the clarinet and piano. The other two works on the disc are the only ones that have been recorded before. Colors uses oboe as well as clarinet – Stephenson writes well for both – plus string quartet, in four movements that are intended (a bit like those in Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2, The Four Temperaments) to reflect the emotional connotations of specific colors. “Red,” of course, is angry; “Blue” is, well, bluesy; “Green” is pleasantly outdoorsy; and “White” is bright and upbeat. The work is very enjoyable to hear and best not taken too seriously. Also on the disc is the very short Étude Caprice, a delightful little encore (although not placed last on the CD) that gives Yeh a considerable workout that appears not to trouble him at all. Nor will it trouble listeners, who will find its compressed capriciousness thoroughly satisfying as a kind of auditory dessert.