September 27, 2018
Dog Man #5: Lord of the Fleas. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Soldier Dogs #1: Air Raid Search and Rescue. By Marcus Sutter. Illustrations by Pat Kinsella. HarperFestival. $12.99.
Dav Pilkey’s clever reworking of classic novels into the peculiar and silly Dog Man universe – “created” by fifth-graders George Beard and Harold Hutchins, Pilkey’s authorial alter egos for the series – goes especially well in Lord of the Fleas, which takes off very loosely (very!!) from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The fifth Dog Man book uses all the now-established characters, but in some new ways. Aside from Dog Man (the character with a human cop’s body and a K-9 cop’s head), the characters include the Chief, reporter Sarah Hatoff and her dog Zuzu, evil mastermind Petey the cat, and Petey’s clone Li’l Petey. Also starring this time are Li’l Petey’s robot, 80-HD, introduced in the previous book, and several new villainous and ridiculous characters who are so bad and awful and rotten and megalomaniacal and silly that they provide an opportunity for Petey to have a change of heart and soul and actually become a good guy. Or try to. The book features Li’l Petey arranging for Dog Man to dress as superhero The Bark Knight, the kitten himself to be Wolverine-clawed Cat Kid, and 80-HD to don a cape and become Lightning Dude. In those guises, aided (sometimes) and abetted (occasionally) by Petey and his giant robot, the good guys deal with the bad-guy trio of Piggy (the mastermind, or masterpig), Crunky the ape, and Bub the crocodile. Pilkey has a lot of fun playing games with the plot, the characters and his readers, with one chapter called “Something Dumb Happens!” and another titled “A Buncha Stuff That Happened Next” (and yes, he has used that chapter title in earlier Dog Man books). Some of Pilkey’s writing seems designed to appeal to adults as much as to kids: “You can’t do the same things – again and again – and expect to get a laugh! Ya gotta avoid repetition – shun redundancy – eschew reiteration – resist recapitulation – and also, stop telling the same joke over and over!” The context of this sort of thing matters, though, since that “same joke” to which Petey (speaker of all those lines) refers is a knock-knock joke whose punchline is invariably about someone or something pooping: it turns out that Li’l Petey, for all his fine qualities, is poop-obsessed. As for the plot of Lord of the Fleas, it is the usual Dog Man mixture of chases and narrow escapes, disasters that happen and un-happen, giant robots that are created and destroyed and that fight each other when not fighting the various characters, all while the non-robotic characters are explaining, as Piggy does, that “we’re the bad guys…because we have difficulty controlling our emotions.” The Dog Man series has sometimes overreached in its sort-of adaptation of classic novels – the use of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden in the previous Dog Man book was a bit too much of a stretch – but Pilkey definitely gets it right in Lord of the Fleas, and fans of the series will be even more delighted than usual at the twists, turns and absurdities that pile atop one another incessantly throughout the latest entry.
The dog-focused adventure is far more serious and is set in the real world in the Soldier Dogs series, which is based (loosely, but not as loosely as Pilkey’s books are on their sources) on the use of military dogs during World War II. Air Raid Search and Rescue, the (+++) opening book in the series, has a not-surprising mixture of wartime adventure and family conflict, with everything resolved and neatly tied up by the end. In Marcus Sutter’s story, protagonist Matt’s older brother has enlisted in the Army and left Matt his dog, a retired fire dog named Chief. Matt is delighted, but becomes considerably less so when Chief, a German shepherd, starts paying more attention to Matt’s foster sister, Rachel, than to Matt himself. That is the family-drama element here – a mild and rather contrived one, to be sure. Most of the interesting material in Air Raid Search and Rescue comes in the battle scenes. The book is set in 1942 in Canterbury, England, a city repeatedly bombed by the Nazis during World War II, and this means Sutter has plenty of chances to show Matt and Rachel fleeing from explosions and figuring out that they are important to each other even if they do not always get along perfectly. The whole family-issues matter eventually climaxes with worry about Matt’s brother, Eric, and Matt’s realization that “I know why my parents let Eric enlist. There are things you can’t ignore. Battles you can’t run from. Sometimes you have to fight. Sometimes you have to give everything you’ve got.” Since Eric turns out to be okay, the lesson is learned without too much emotional pain – and the relationship with Chief, who also gives all he has and is thus declared by Matt to be “a soldier dog,” is made very clear indeed. The heroism of the dogs involved in the war effort was real, and the simplification of the story here is perhaps inevitable in a book for young readers. Pat Kinsella’s illustrations make scary scenes look suitably troubling and make Chief look suitably heroic, especially in a full-color foldout poster bound into the middle of the book. Air Raid Search and Rescue ends with some facts that are at least as interesting as the cardboard characters in the narrative: the main jobs dogs did during World War II (sentry, patrol, search-and-rescue, messenger, mine detection); the seven breeds considered the best soldier dogs (German shepherd, Belgian sheepdog, Doberman pinscher, collie, Siberian husky, malamute, Eskimo dog); the total number of dogs used in the war effort (10,000); the number of buildings destroyed during the Canterbury Blitz (800, plus 6,000 damaged); the huge number of raids made against the city (135); and more. Air Raid Search and Rescue is a mildly exciting adventure drawing on actual history, and a book that may get young readers interested in learning more about the realities of World War II – perhaps even those involving people, as well as dogs.
Kid Beowulf #3: The Rise of El Cid. By Alexis E. Fajardo. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
As Alexis Fajardo continues developing his medieval multinational epic featuring twin brothers Beowulf (human) and Grendel (green, big and horned), the most surprising thing is the cleverness with which he reuses and recasts genuine stories from a thousand years ago and more, giving them distinctly modern twists that will make scholars cringe (understandably) while perhaps getting today’s young readers interested in exploring the sources from which Fajardo draws so much drama, intensity and amusement. The first graphic novel, The Blood-Bound Oath, established the nonsensical but crucial-to-the-plot brotherhood of Beowulf and Grendel; the second, The Song of Roland, took the now-exiled brothers from Daneland to Francia (essentially modern France) for often-ridiculous adventures involving not only Roland but also a weaponized elephant and a theme park with a roller coaster. In The Rise of El Cid, the Daneland brothers have wandered south from Francia into the land that will become modern Spain but that, in the 11th century, includes the Christian kingdoms of León and Castile, the Moorish Al-Andalus, and a largely lawless borderland known as La Frontera. Here Fajardo makes his putative heroes largely ancillary characters in a series of adventures in which they, by and large, are no longer central – an interesting development necessitated by Fajardo’s introduction of a host of new characters who interact in support of the story of Rodrigo Díaz, the warrior who would eventually become known as El Cid. The title is a Spanish pronunciation of the Arab al-Sayyid, meaning commander or lord, and it is only at the end of this book that the term is applied to Díaz by a Moorish commander whose life, along with the lives of his men, Díaz saves twice – despite the objections and distinct misgivings of other Christians.
Fajardo’s book begins as well as ends with “El Cid,” because it opens – as did the first two in this remarkable series – with the actual story on which the graphic novel is very loosely based. The tale of El Cid was set down in the 12th century. The form in which it is retold by Fajardo is greatly simplified but basically accurate, as was the case with the Beowulf story that opened the first book and The Song of Roland at the start of the second. In all three instances, Fajardo does something genuinely original by drawing the material from the actual legends in a very different style from the one he uses in his made-up reinterpretations – and using a different colorist for the two tales. The importance of this can scarcely be overemphasized: the start-of-book legendary material simply does not look like anything else in the graphic novel. The two colorists are thus significant contributors to the visual impact of the storytelling: Jose Mari Flores handles the main story, and renders it in suitable, attractive tones that complement the narrative well – while the prologue is colored by Brian Kolm with an entirely different palette, a striking one that brings those pages to life with exceptional skill.
The way Fajardo tells the main story includes too many complexities for easy summation, and indeed perhaps too many for young readers to follow with ease. This is a less-focused book than the first two, looking at internecine warfare and near-warfare in what would become Spain (there is an early reference to the War of the Three Sanchos, which took place from1065 to 1067); at disagreements and treacheries involving Christians and Moors and within the Christian and Moorish communities; and at the whole notion of becoming a mercenary: Díaz becomes one after being unfairly banished, and is clearly a good character, while the Moors who seek war against the Christian kingdoms call on Ibn Yusuf of Morocco and the Almoravids he leads to fight for their cause, an approach that backfires when Ibn Yusuf turns out to be something of an extremist Taliban-style figure more concerned with religious purity than with the spoils of war.
None of the primary events in The Rise of El Cid has Beowulf and Grendel as central characters, but one ancillary one does: they meet some proponents of an ancient and little-understood Roman religion called Mithraism, and those people decide that Beowulf and Grendel are reincarnations of their gods, or aspects of them. And one of the travelers, who are from Britannia, is a girl named Boudi, who turns out to be the ancient Britannic warrior leader Boudica (or Boudicca). The historical Boudica lived a thousand years before the events of The Rise of El Cid, but that matters little in Fajardo’s mashup of multiple histories.
What is particularly important in these exemplary graphic novels is the way Fajardo uses the narrative form to re-tell, often in tremendously changed fashion, some of the great histories and legends of an increasingly dim past. Yes, he gives female characters greater strength, solidity and prominence than those legends did, and more than females had in medieval times; and yes, he emphasizes characters’ relationships and interrelationships for a 21st-century audience in part by having them use modern slang and have adventures that are as likely to be comic as serious (a self-aware pig named Hama continues to accompany Beowulf and Grendel and to have a small but significant role in some events). But some genuine thoughtfulness and real scholarship underlie everything Fajardo does. Like the first two books, this one contains some fascinating material after the story ends, including discussions of Mithras and Boudica; a page explaining and showing Destreza (a specific art of fencing practiced in Spain hundreds of years later than the time of The Rise of El Cid but used in this book for dramatic effect); notes on tributes that Fajardo includes, just for amusement, to Peanuts and the children’s story of Ferdinand the bull; and a good deal more. The Rise of El Cid has no more validity as an introduction to the historic El Cid and his role in Spanish history than The Song of Roland had to the history of old France or The Blood-Bound Oath to Anglo-Saxon Britain. But it shows, again and again, that there were heroes and villains in those long-ago times, political and social upheavals galore, and plenty of chances for adventure, drama and occasional silliness. Fajardo’s books are not history – far from it – but they bring history alive in a highly intriguing way, and in so doing raise the graphic-novel format to a level of literacy and literary merit that is thoroughly remarkable.
I Love You Through and Through at Christmas, Too! By Bernadette Rossetti-Shustak. Illustrated by Caroline Jayne Church. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.
Bobs and Tweets 3: Trick or Tweet. By Pepper Springfield. Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell. Scholastic. $5.99.
How to Draw a Unicorn and Other Cute Animals. By Lulu Mayo. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Every holiday offers new opportunities for bringing out books filled with adorableness. The family focus of secular Christmas celebrations is particularly well-suited to the sort of warmth and sweetness offered by Bernadette Rossetti-Shustak and illustrated in hyper-cute style by Caroline Jayne Church in I Love You Through and Through at Christmas, Too! There is nothing surprising or unusual in the text: “I love you when you are laughing and giggling,” for example, and “I love you with bells and wreaths” to offer some seasonal words. It is the pictures that are the real joy here, as a little boy and his beloved (and alive) teddy bear enjoy winter both indoors and outside. The “laughing and giggling” page, for instance, shows them sliding down a long hill – or maybe bouncing, since they have no sled, or flying, since they leave no tracks in the snow – while holding hands (or hand-and-paw) with mirrored expressions of joy. The “bells and wreaths” page has the little boy, mouth wide open, ringing two bells while wearing a third on a ribbon around his neck, while the teddy bear holds his ears (well, the sides of his head) in reaction to what is obviously a lot of seasonal noise. Other pages offer the same mixture of straightforward text with sweetly special illustrations: “hugging and snuggling,” with the eyes-closed teddy bear tightly swaddled and the boy hugging him close, the two of them wearing matching Santa-style caps, is especially adorable, but all the pictures are similarly seasonally sweet. An easy-to-hold, easy-to-read, easy-to-enjoy board book, I Love You Through and Through at Christmas, Too! is strictly for one specific time of year, but is enjoyable enough to be put away after the Christmas season and brought out again a year later to bring warmth all over again.
Equally seasonal in focus, and sweet in its own way – and not just because of all the candy – the third Bobs and Tweets book by Pepper Springfield, with illustrations by Kristy Caldwell, takes what is now a well-established set of suburban circumstances and gives it Halloween twists. Trick or Tweet is for kids who are already familiar with the inevitable conflicts between the Bobs (boys who are slobs) and the Tweets (girls who are neat) – conflicts that played out amusingly in the series’ first two books. Although those disagreements do emerge late in Trick or Tweet, the book is mostly about the two family members who do not fit in and have therefore become fast friends: Dean Bob (who insists on being neat and orderly) and Lou Tweet (who prefers things to be scattered and messy). Along with Dean’s dog and Lou’s cat, the friends go trick-or-tweeting…err, treating…along Bonefish Street, where both families live. The setup of the story makes the family contrasts clear: the Bobs are costumed as slobbery and messy zombies, while the thin and tidy Tweets are dressed as string beans (and kids who come to their house get light-up toothbrushes, not candy). Most of the book, though, follows Dean and Lou (who dresses up her family’s obligatory bean costume by wearing some vampire fangs with it) as they and their pets go house-to-house both for candy and to enter the Best Halloween Block contest, for which they have to visit all the homes on their street and keep a running list of what each is giving out. That is not much of a contest, but its point is simply to organize the book a bit and give Dean and Lou a chance to re-meet characters from the earlier books and encounter some new ones – leading, at the end, to a new friendship built on Halloween fun. Before that happens, though, there is a power outage that affects the whole street and brings out both the Bobs and the Tweets to check on Dean and Lou, the result being a lifestyle confrontation that of course then turns into cooperation in the name of holiday fun. Trick or Tweet is rather sloppily written – rhymes are often a touch off, and even when they work, lines frequently do not scan well: “‘The prizes are really awesome,’ adds Dean./ ‘We can win free costumes for next Halloween.’” But it is all in good fun, and kids who enjoyed the first two, non-seasonal books will also have a good time with this holiday-themed one.
Certain forms of the adorable reach to and beyond specific holidays – such as the cartoon drawings of Lulu Mayo. And now there is a guide by Mayo showing kids how to do their own Mayo-style art – a book that could be a great deal of fun during holidays that might not work out as planned (rainy Halloween, too-icy Christmas, etc.). Almost everything Mayo creates is plump-bodied, and even though the eyes are always dots or other filled-in shapes, the characters are expressive thanks to other facial features and their body postures. Cartoonists in general use simple-to-draw shapes as the basis for their characters, then modify the shapes to give each character personality. And that is just what Mayo does in How to Draw a Unicorn and Other Cute Animals. The pages use a simple-to-follow pattern. The left-hand page shows the shapes used to create a critter and takes kids through several steps to finish a basic outline. Then Mayo colors in and decorates the animal – and then leaves a blank space where kids can “have a go” or “doodle your own.” The right-hand page has one or more fully-drawn animals, sometimes in costume or with background art, plus plenty of space for kids to add their own creations to the scene: “Fill this page with cats in hats,” for example, or “Draw more gorillas having a workout.” Whatever animal kids create will start with the basic shapes in ways that Mayo makes very clear. A flamingo, for example, has a circle for a head, a long and thin rectangle for a neck, and a raindrop shape for a body; the titular unicorn – a very plump one, not the sleek and elegant sort kids may see elsewhere – starts with a small oval for a head with a larger one, slightly bent into kidney shape, for its body; a panda starts as a big rectangle, on top of which two small circles become ears, two rounded triangles are used for feet, and two small ovals are arms; and so on. The panda pages also show kids how to take basic body shapes and modify them to give different animals of the same type their own personalities: Mayo shows a baby panda, cuddly panda, squatty panda and stretchy panda, all recognizably created with the same method but all looking quite different even though all are recognizably panda-ish. The nice thing about How to Draw a Unicorn and Other Cute Animals is that even kids with limited artistic skills will find animals here that they can create – and unlike some artists, Mayo does not make her finished versions of creatures so super-complex that kids will despair of doing anything similar. The whole book has a pleasant let’s-draw-together feeling about it that should be fun for kids during any holiday, or no holiday at all.
Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Loved to Tell About It. By Brian Murphy with Toula Vlahou. Da Capo. $27.
The horrors of the sinking of the Titanic after collision with an iceberg in 1912 are well-known, as are the maritime-safety reforms developed after the tragedy and the remarkable fact that since then, the number of deaths under similar circumstances is exactly zero. But if the famed five-star liner and its many wealthy and distinguished passengers marked the end of death-by-iceberg during crossings of the North Atlantic, what about earlier sinkings and deaths? Discussions of the Titanic rarely, if ever, go there, but that is exactly where Brian Murphy and his wife, Toula Vlahou, go in Adrift. It is an extremely well-researched account of the voyage of the John Rutledge, which was sunk by an iceberg on February 20, 1856 – leaving a single survivor, seaman Thomas W. Nye, who was interviewed about his more-than-harrowing experience in 1903, two years before his death.
Nye’s narrative is the core of Adrift, and it is the stuff of horror beyond anything authors and filmmakers have conjured up in dramas and movies about the Titanic and other famous disasters (Hindenburg, Lusitania, etc.). Passengers did get to lifeboats after Nye’s ship hit an iceberg, but all those boats, except the one carrying Nye and 12 others – each of them “about twenty-five feet long and without any kind of cabin or nook for shelter” – were swept away as the John Rutledge went down and were never seen again. For nine days, having food for only one day aboard, the few pitiful survivors froze in gale-force winter winds and frigid swells, became desperate for water, in some cases even drank sea water (which poisoned them, driving some to delirium before they perished), and eventually succumbed to the incredibly harsh conditions – all except Nye, who was eventually picked up by a ship called the Germania.
The story sounds thrilling, if terrifying, and as a short story (or newspaper article: Murphy works for The Washington Post), it would be. But there is not nearly enough in Nye’s 1903 interview (with a journalist of that time) to carry an entire book. Therefore, Murphy and Vlahou make the survival story the middle of Adrift, using the first part of the book to set the scene and discuss the middle of the 19th century in general and its shipping in particular, and using the last part of the book for the usual “what happened to them later” look at people and events in the years after the John Rutledge went down.
Unfortunately, the meticulous detail and the book’s very meandering style vitiate the power of its central story, turning Adrift into an extended history lesson (replete with footnotes), a discussion of the out-migration of people from starving countries at the time (the John Rutledge carried some 100 Irish passengers in steerage), a listing and analysis of ships of the era and their ownership, biographies of sea captains and their families, and so on. This larger background leads to a choppy, frequently confusing presentation in which the material that is not germane to the central narrative takes over and more or less becomes the book’s reason for being. Students of the 19th century, of shipping in general, of disasters at sea in any form, and of unusual weather conditions (the winter of 1856 was exceptionally cold and the sea unusually ice-packed), will find the many tangents fascinating. Most readers, though, will likely deem them distractions – although, given the relative paucity of central material with which Murphy and Vlahou could work (including the ship’s log and some newspaper coverage as well as the interview with Nye), it is hard to see how they could have focused the story more effectively on its most-intriguing elements.
Obviously, this disaster took place before there was a way for lifeboats to communicate with each other; before they could signal their locations to anyone; before there was any practical way to make a small boat stand out in the vastness of the sea – all of which makes the fact that Nye was rescued something of a miracle. But Adrift makes Nye’s tale far from miraculous: Murphy and Vlahou, in placing it squarely in context and surrounding it with so much else, render it mundane. Perhaps, objectively speaking, it was mundane for its age – that, it can be argued, is why safety-focused reforms occurred only many years later, when more people of wealth and prominence were directly affected. Yet if the sinking of a small ship by ice in the North Atlantic was nothing remarkable in the middle of the 19th century, the survival of anyone aboard such a ship was remarkable: the John Rutledge was scarcely the only ship to disappear beneath the waves in the winter of 1856. Accordingly, the Nye-focused parts of Adrift are frightening, horrendous, thrilling and heartbreaking, while the rest of the book, the part that sets the context and goes into tremendous detail about irrelevant matters (such as the family history of the woman who bandaged Nye’s legs after his rescue), is far too unfocused and discursive to hold much interest for most readers. Adrift is impressive for its research but much less so for its storytelling.
Bach: Goldberg Variations. Wolfgang Rübsam, lute-harpsichord. Naxos. $12.99.
Greg d’Alessio: Chamber Music—Veil; Thread; Sono Solo; Now’s the Time; After Ending. Ars Futura Ensemble (Shuai Wang, piano; Luke Rinderknecht, percussion; Madeline Lucas Tolliver, flute; Benjamin Chen, clarinet; Yunting Lee, violin; Daniel Pereira, cello); William Bender, viola; Robert Nicholson, cello; John Perrine, alto saxophone; Gunnar Owen Hirthe, clarinet; Victor Beyens, violin. Navona. $14.99.
Arthur Gottschalk: Benny, Zoot and Teddy (Play Richard and Lorenz); Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano; Oh, More or Less; Sonata for Bass Clarinet and Piano; Shalom. Mario Ciaccio, alto and tenor saxophone; Sauro Berti, clarinet and bass clarinet; Naomi Fujiya, piano; Eccher School of Music Vocal Ensemble. Navona. $14.99.
Bach’s Goldberg Variations have been performed and recorded so often, on so many instruments and in so many styles, that it is justifiable to wonder what could be brought to listeners by yet another version. Often, the answer is “not much,” but in the case of a new Naxos CD featuring Wolfgang Rübsam, the answer is “an extraordinary amount.” There are two reasons for this: Rübsam himself and the instrument on which he performs. The lute-harpsichord looks like a harpsichord but has gut strings rather than metal. And it is known to have been one of Bach’s own favored instruments: he owned at least two, although neither they nor any others of Baroque vintage have survived. What the lute-harpsichord does that a standard harpsichord does not is to give music a warm, mellow sound that allows, indeed encourages, a level of emotion in performance that is the opposite of the statelier and sometimes foursquare approach offered by performers using the traditional harpsichord. But the emotionalism is Baroque emotionalism, and must be communicated with considerable delicacy and sensitivity – and without moving outside the strictures and expectations of Baroque forms. And that is where Rübsam’s excellent performance comes in. This is an exceptionally involving version of the Goldberg Variations, structurally sound and highly knowledgeable regarding the elegant and sophisticated layout of the music. It is a carefully paced version of the work, considerably slower than many others, but without ever dragging. That is, it is expansive rather than bloated, with Rübsam giving the material plenty of chances to penetrate listeners’ consciousness and be understood by them with both the head and the heart. This is marvelously involving music, and what Rübsam shows is that it does not have to be involving only on an intellectual level, as it is in many very fine performances. The emotional communicativeness of this reading, which adheres strictly to Baroque stylistic practices (to the point of varying the many repeats, as would have been the standard expectation in Bach’s time), is brought out to wonderful effect by the subtleties of intonation of which the lute-harpsichord is capable. The instrument used by Rübsam, built to Baroque specifications by Keith Hill – who is well-known for the quality of his instruments, of which he is one of the few modern creators – has a splendid depth and solidity of tone that is nevertheless clearly in the harpsichord family (the strings are plucked, not struck). As Rübsam moves with careful pacing through the many variations – the total performance runs more than 78 minutes – the coloration capabilities of the lute-harpsichord emerge and surprise again and again, and Rübsam finds multiple ways of evoking its emotive and expressive qualities. By the time of the longest element of the Goldberg Variations, Variation 25 – which here runs more than eight minutes – listeners have been regaled with a remarkable set of sounds and effects that have only become more intricate and winning as the piece has progressed. All the way to the work’s end, Rübsam and the lute-harpsichord show themselves a beautifully matched pair, evoking sounds and feelings that Bach put into this sublime music purposefully and that it takes tremendous understanding, as well as technical skill, to extract so beautifully.
No contemporary composer handles any keyboard instrument in a manner like Bach’s, but even in the 21st century, composers continue looking for ways to use the keyboard – usually the piano – to bring a combination of expressive and percussive elements to their work. Greg d’Alessio uses piano for a variety of purposes in his chamber music on a new (+++) Navona CD. The works here are arranged chronologically, from Veil (2001) to After Ending (2017). There is little particularly distinctive about Veil, which employs the same sharp sonic contrasts and extended instrumental techniques used by many other contemporary composers. The overall pacing is slow, and the overall mood is a sad one, emphasized by the addition of a viola to the instruments of the Ars Futura Ensemble. Thread (2002) is in a somewhat similar vein, with a focus as much on individual instruments as on groups of them; here the piano has a larger role than in Veil, but none of the members of the ensemble ever really takes the lead. Thread meanders, twisting here and there, without any particular sense of direction. Sono Solo (2011) treats the piano more interestingly: it opens the work and dominates the musical discourse for a time, but gradually fades toward the background as the other instruments pick up and make use of the material – so that the piano nearly disappears by the work’s end. There is a greater sense of structure here than in the earlier works. Now’s the Time (2015) has reasonably clear structure as well: it is a two-movement work with strong jazz elements and a greater sense of melody (and even, periodically, lyricism) than d’Alessio offers elsewhere. Alto saxophonist John Perrine, for whom the work was written, features prominently in it, giving the piece almost the flavor of a chamber concerto at some times, and of a duet at others (notably between alto saxophone and piano in the second movement). As for After Ending, another two-movement piece, it has a fairly typical structure for two-movement works: contrast. The first, longer movement is generally slow-paced and rather stolid, while the second is considerably more energetic, using percussion (including a percussively scored piano) to good effect. D’Alessio’s works seem written more to express his own feelings than to reach out and try to connect with listeners, but they do make contact from time to time, especially when they seem less studied and more lucid – as in the second movement of After Ending.
The piano is largely relegated to a supporting role in the music of Arthur Gottschalk on another (+++) Navona release. Saxophone and clarinet, individually and together, are the focus here, making the CD enjoyable for listeners who like the sounds of these instruments and for performers intrigued by some of the ways in which contemporary composers handle them. Benny, Zoot and Teddy (2012) includes clarinet and tenor saxophone; Oh, More or Less (2011) features bass clarinet and tenor saxophone; and Shalom (2015) uses bass clarinet, tenor saxophone and choir. These three works, although not as substantially developed as the two three-movement sonatas, provide most of the aural interest here: Gottschalk skillfully interweaves the sound of the winds and sets each instrument’s unique tonal qualities against those of the other. The result is music in which expectation is hard to come by: Gottschalk never quite lets listeners know what is coming next and which instrument will be delivering whatever-it-is. The sonatas are more straightforward. The one for bass clarinet is more interesting and, not coincidentally, gives more prominence to the piano: there is a genuine sense of interplay rather than the lesser role of accompaniment that is accorded the piano in the alto-saxophone sonata. Indeed, the piano establishes the underlying mood of the bass-clarinet sonata’s second movement, with the wind instrument commenting on and enlarging the material, and the sonata’s finale (Green Dolphy Street Boogie) possesses considerable verve as much because of the piano’s rhythmic portions as because of the bass clarinet’s bouncy lines. The final work on the CD, Shalom, built around choral intonation of the Hebrew word for “peace,” stands in great contrast to Benny, Zoot and Teddy, which opens the disc with a constant parade of bright and upbeat melodic interjections in which the two winds and piano paint a variegated and lively musical picture of no specific scene but of considerable joy as well as virtuosity. Mario Ciaccio and Sauro Berti both offer smooth tone and a fine sense of rhythm throughout the recording, whether playing separately or together; and if Naomi Fujiya’s piano role is on the somewhat limited side, she makes the most of what Gottschalk gives her and provides very fine support throughout.
September 20, 2018
Squidtoons: Exploring Ocean Science with Comics. By Garfield Kwan and Dana Song. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
From the Films of Harry Potter: Hidden Creatures Scratch Magic. Scholastic. $12.99.
The Last Kids on Earth No. 4: The Last Kids on Earth and the Cosmic Beyond. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $13.99.
Although there are still plenty of cute single-panel comics and amusing multi-panel strips out there, the value of cartoons as a communication device and enhancer has led, in our increasingly visual age, to their use in a variety of ways beyond the traditional ones. Squidtoons is an example. The book by Garfield Kwan and Dana Song is a serious – well, mostly serious – excursion into the ocean realm, filled with information on a randomly assembled but always interesting coterie of sea dwellers. Sections and presentations differ, but all are cartoon-focused and cartoon-guided. “Anatomy of a Coho Salmon,” for example, shows accurately rendered pictures of the fish and explains the meaning of scientific terms for parts of its anatomy: “Operculum (where water exits)” and “Kype (hooked jaw; males only),” for instance. Kwan and Song are careful to lighten things up on a regular basis so Squidtoons does not come across as an illustrated textbook: “Scales (fish chain mail)” and “Pectoral Fins (the steering wheels)” are examples. And sometimes they deliberately introduce a surprising and outlandish cartoon to make a scientific point: they explain that after the salmon dies, its decomposed body is eaten or absorbed by insects, crabs and even trees – and they show a picture of a tree stump whose top looks exactly like the sort of salmon found in supermarkets and fish shops, with the note, “Artistic rendition: They don’t actually look like a salmon fillet.” Turning the pages of Squidtoons means encountering familiar and less-familiar creatures again and again, in no particular order. One section is called “Anatomy of the mouthless, gutless, acid-oozing, bone-eating Osedax” and is about the tiny creatures that “can dissolve whale bones and absorb their nutrients.” Another “anatomy” sequence is “Anatomy of the Market Squid (tastes great with fried batter and lime,” with a cartoon illustration that includes “Siphon (jet propeller)” and “Fin (guides its movements)” but also shows one squid arm holding up a “Fake Mustache (where did that come from?).” The amusing elements are deliberately made so outlandish that readers will not confuse them with the serious ones, and Squidtoons as a whole trades on the notion of cartoons as amusing entertainment to keep things light while making them informative. The blending is very clever indeed, as in “6 Ways to Check If You Are a Lobster,” which includes factual “check your blood” and “check your relatives” suggestions, with well-presented explanations of why to check various things: “Check your voice. Lobsters don’t have vocal cords. Try to scream and see if you can hear yourself.” The unusual cartoon usage in Squidtoons makes its communication of science particularly clear.
Cartoon characters are infinitely malleable, and that fact can be used to turn them into drawings that reach out to different ages. The Harry Potter films are not for very young children, but the early J.K. Rowling novels were written for preteens (the later, darker ones were more focused on teens and adults), and kids even younger than preteens may be intrigued by some of the additions to the original sequence of seven books and eight films – such as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which takes place in Rowling’s universe at a time before Harry’s birth. One way to get the youngest children – even pre-readers – interested in the Harry Potter universe is through cartoons that simplify the characters by making them look much younger and cuter than they are on film or were in the novels. Then put some of the characters in a spiral-bound, open-flat book packaged with a not-too-sharp wooden stylus, create pages reflecting some movie themes, and you have Hidden Creatures Scratch Magic. This is a nicely done introduction-to-fantastic-beasts book whose (+++) rating primarily reflects the fact that it is a one-time-use item: once you scratch off where indicated, there is nothing more to do except reread the text, and since the main point of the writing is to instruct kids to scratch things off, it is not very useful. Still, this is an enjoyable single-use item. One cartoon shows a very childlike Newt Scamander, who, like all characters shown in this book, has a head as big as the rest of his body and sports big, round, solid black eyes. The facing page shows a piece of luggage he has brought with him, containing binoculars, a magnifying glass, a clock – ordinary, non-magical things. But scratching away these items reveals some distinctly magical ones hiding beneath them. Another page shows a very baby-ish Harry Potter, his round eyes complemented by big round glasses, his lightning-bolt scar plainly visible in a “z” shape, wearing his invisibility cloak and being, in fact, partly invisible. The facing page is all black and is said to show a magical creature called a Demiguise, from which many invisibility cloaks (although not Harry’s) can be made. Scratching around on the all-black page reveals the creature. Some pages ask kids to use the stylus to draw rather than scratch – that is, yes, it is used to scratch an all-black page, but kids make their own pictures instead of uncovering pre-existing ones. One page, for example, is for drawing what a dragon might be guarding for you if you had a top-secret vault at Gringott’s Wizarding Bank. The simply drawn cartoons here are entirely nonthreatening (even the dragon and scowling merpeople are on the cute side), and the book offers a set of pleasant single-use diversions whose focus on the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films will likely lead the very young children at whom the book is aimed to want to explore Rowling’s creations, including both the originals and the spinoffs, more closely.
One thing comics have spawned is graphic novels, where the whole narrative impetus is carried by (in the best cases) a cleverly interwoven set of drawings and words, neither of which tells the story fully without the other. In their turn, graphic novels have spawned – or evolved along with – a kind of hybrid form of illustrated novel whose pictorial content goes well beyond that of traditional books with occasional illustrations. These works are nevertheless laid out more as traditional books than in the extended-comic-strip format of graphic novels. Some authors of books for preteens handle the amply illustrated novel particularly well, if they have good illustrators who get fully into the spirit of the tale-telling. The Last Kids on Earth, a series by Max Brallier with illustrations by Douglas Holgate, is a good example of using the illustrated-novel format successfully – even though the fourth book in the sequence, The Last Kids on Earth and the Cosmic Beyond, is weak from a storytelling perspective and therefore gets a (+++) rating despite its attractive presentation. An overview of the series makes it seem more stereotypical than it is: there is a zombie apocalypse, and only four preteens appear to have survived it – Jack Sullivan, the books’ narrator, who sees the world as a vast video game for him to play and win; Quint Baker, Jack’s best friend, a brainy inventor type; June Del Toro, Jack’s crush and the token savvy, as-good-as-any-boy female in the novels; and Dirk Savage, hulking brute and onetime bully who has abandoned his former dark side to bring the foursome some muscle. The first three books developed the premise in ever-enlarging ways that brought in a mysterious radio transmission indicating there are other survivors after all, plus various mutated creatures and transdimensional aliens that may have been responsible for setting the whole apocalypse thing in motion or may simply be caught in it themselves. Unfortunately, as the books have gotten more complicated, their basic kids-bonding-to-handle-disaster theme has been stretched to an almost unrecognizable degree, and the whole series lurches, in somewhat zombielike manner, almost out of control in the fourth book. This is supposed to be, of all things, a Christmas story, in which the kids are determined to show the aliens – some of whom are now allies – what Christmas spirit is all about. To do this, the kids completely turn their backs on the notion of taking a trip to find other survivors – the plan as of the end of the previous book. There are several misadventures as Jack tries to create just the right post-apocalyptic Christmas gift for June while helping the aliens understand the (entirely secular) meaning of the holiday. But that is not complex enough for this video-game world. This book also introduces another human survivor of the same age as the fearless foursome – but she is evil (as readers will immediately know from her name, Evie Snark) and wants to help the transdimensional bad guys overcome the transdimensional good guys. This involves some manipulation of the ever-present post-apocalyptic zombie population, which leads to some traps and escapes and whatnot. And then Dirk gets bitten by a zombie and needs to be rescued from zombification, a task that turns out to involve a transdimensional character who is something of a hermit but who eventually agrees to help out by providing a huge eyeball whose juices will counteract the zombie bite if Dirk drinks them in time. The increasing ridiculousness of the plot strands here is not the book’s main issue – it is the flailing about of the story, its unfocused nature, that keeps The Last Kids on Earth and the Cosmic Beyond from being as entertaining as its predecessors. It does, however, have a neat climax, involving a gigantic rat imbued with the consciousness of a transdimensional super-baddie, that clearly sets up the series’ continuation and that fans of these books are sure to enjoy. In fact, readers who liked the first three books will either have fun with this overly complicated fourth one or will, at the very least, put up with it for the bizarre elements of the story and the highly effective and very extensive use of cartoon drawings of the characters that propels the whole thing along.
Bigger Than You. By Hyewon Kyung. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Right Now. By Jessica Olien. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Books that teach manners and self-image to pre-readers and young readers – that is, kids ages 4-8 – can lay things on pretty thickly or more modestly, depending on the predilections of the author/illustrators. Hyewon Kyung opts for a soft-pedaled approach to the notion of cooperation and playing nicely with peers in Bigger Than You. The book is simply a playground story, in which kids mount one end of a see-saw or the other and brag to each other about who is bigger. But the plot is less the point than the presentation: these kids are all dinosaurs and similar creatures, drawn endearingly and moderately accurately from the point of view of current scientific knowledge. And their see-saw is a tree balanced on a rock. The whole “bragging” element of the story becomes entertaining, and rather difficult to take too seriously, when the “kids” involved are pint-sized dinosaurs and other extinct creatures. First a baby Dimetrodon asks someone to play on the see-saw; then a Minmi climbs on and mentions being bigger, so the Dimetrodon walks away – to be replaced by bigger-than-Minmi Therizinosaurus. And so it goes through seven creatures, the sixth being Tyrannosaurus – who resents being upstaged by even-bigger Brachiosaurus and lets out a fierce roar. And then Tyrannosaurus’ mother steps in, calming things down and preventing any ill will. So everyone plays with everyone else, no matter who is bigger or smaller than whom. Since all the dinosaurs have big eyes and expressive faces, kids will easily relate to all of them as they transform their see-saw into a slide by simply repositioning the tree trunk so one end of it, rather than the middle, rests on the rock. Kids who enjoy going a bit beyond the story itself will get more information on each character at the back of the book – and then, on the very last page, information on a lever (see-saw) and inclined plane (slide) and how these simple machines work. Kyung’s pleasantly pointed portrayal of her characters makes it possible for the underlying message of being cooperative to come through clearly and go down easily, rather than sounding like a lecture or a behavioral demand.
Jessica Olien’s approach in Right Now is more overtly didactic and insistent, with the result that this self-esteem-focused book gets a (+++) rating. Olien’s basic message is that every child, certainly every child reading or hearing the book, is perfect just as he or she is. Olien’s inclusive, multiethnic, multiracial illustrations tell children all the things they are, or that they can be by engaging their imagination: “You are a cloud and a ray of light” (the picture shows a girl lying in the grass, arm gently wrapped around a dog); “You are a spiderweb” (a girl sits on a fence looking at a large web nearby); and so on. The “message” nature of this “message” book is driven home repeatedly: “You are a big puddle, and sometimes people will go around you like [sic] they wish you weren’t there” (boy dressed in rain gear, although it is not raining, standing on a crowded sidewalk as adults, their faces unseen, walk around him). But even if “they don’t see your beauty,” that is all right, because it is still there. The book bends over backwards to be reassuring: “You are not bad,” even if you feel bad, even if you do something wrong. The point is that whatever you are is just perfect: “You are big and small and loud and quiet,” and all of that is just as it should be. The sentiment is a sweet one, but Olien tends to overstate and over-dramatize it: “The whole universe lives inside you. And inside everyone else, too.” In other words, you are perfect and everyone else is equally perfect – a lesson that, however admirable, is somewhat at odds with kids’ (and adults’) everyday experiences. Right Now is intended to be warmly reassuring, to build up kids’ self-image and give them the confidence to be themselves without worrying if they are “good enough.” The goal is admirable, but the unrelentingly upbeat delivery of the message is rather cloying and becomes, like treacle, sweet but somewhat difficult to swallow. Parents should go through Right Now on their own and then decide whether its tone will be appropriate for and appreciated by their children, who may – even when very young – have a touch more worldliness and even a bit more cynicism than is required in order to accept Olien’s book at face value.
Prime Time Parenting: The Two-Hour-a-Day Secret to Raising Great Kids. By Heather Miller. Da Capo. $15.99.
Education-firm director Heather Miller deserves tremendous credit right off the bat for her authorial approach in Prime Time Parenting. Virtually all self-help books – or, more accurately, self-improvement or self-betterment books – are primarily focused on the descriptive, on identifying a problem or issue, showing its impact on people’s lives, detailing the difficulties it causes, and explaining why it needs to be altered/improved/remedied. Only toward the end do most books enter their prescriptive phase, explaining just what readers, in the opinion of the author, need to or should do to solve the problem or ameliorate the condition that has been described at length.
Not so Miller in Prime Time Parenting. This is a prescriptive book virtually from the start, stating quickly and directly that digital-age parenting is uniquely difficult, with stresses never seen before, and that there is a way to overcome those stresses through careful implementation of a series of plans during the crucial two hours of early evening. Then Miller goes on to say, in detail and for most of her book, exactly what parents need to do and exactly how they should do it.
The overly certain tone of her prescription aside – some of her writing approaches the smug – Miller here offers a sensible, clear and efficient way of handling family evenings for people who accept her underlying premises and whose work schedules make it possible to make use of her recommendations. “While adhering to an explicit structure may strike some as confining and exacting,” she writes, “the reality is it liberates and lifts us.” Miller tries not to minimize the difficulties she sees of two straight hours of child focus every school day – “in practice the refusal to text, chat on the phone, or sneak in a bit of work can be surprisingly difficult” – but by and large, she sees the value of her approach as so self-evident that it needs little defense, if any.
Prime Time Parenting is for parents of school-age children and is focused on school nights. Miller at one point mentions how much screen time parents have daily and says that she is referring to parents of kids ages 8-13, and that is a pretty good approximation of the age range of children for whom Miller’s overall prescription is intended – although at one point, later in the book, Miller states directly that her approach “is designed for children between the ages of five and twelve.” Whatever the specific age range, what matters here is Miller’s explanation that the two-hour window referred to in the book’s title needs to run from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. because kids, even middle schoolers, need to be in bed by 8:00 or 8:30 to ensure “better concentration, stronger memory, improved emotional regulation, and overall physical and mental health.” Difficult enough in the preteen years, this notion is hard to imagine for, say, teenagers or very young children.
Miller concocts a series of straw-man questions to respond to imagined (and in some cases likely) objections to her ideas. On the bedtime matter, for example, she imagines a parent asking about a night-owl child and says that “a child who seems energetic and alert at 8:30 p.m. needs sleep just as much as a child who is visibly cranky from fatigue” and will probably fall asleep in school if not put to bed at the time Miller recommends. Thus, overtly tired or not, the child needs to go to bed in accordance with Miller’s arrangement: it is necessary to accept Miller’s approach completely, not piecemeal, in order to benefit from it.
Parents who want to use Prime Time Parenting get a step-by-step, half-hour-by-half-hour guide here. From 6:00 to 6:30 they will check in with kids, get them started on homework, and cook dinner – yes, dinner must be home-cooked and must involve, for school nights, “five simple and nutritious meals,” with each including “at least two vegetables. Vegetables are the mainstay of healthy eating.” So there are dietary as well as behavioral prescriptions here. From 6:30 to 7:00 there will be a half-hour dinner that will be “relaxed and nutritious,” in which parents will “have rich conversations” with kids and will encourage good table manners after giving appropriate thanks for the family’s good food and good fortune. From 7:00 to 7:30 the parent sits with the child while he/she does homework, monitoring progress and supporting his/her organization while checking messages sent home from school. Also in this half hour, parents will remember to praise children for their efforts – to support and enhance their self-esteem – and help them pack their school bags for the next day. “Emphasize persistence and effort, not talent,” Miller says, and offers details on making a “homework kit” whose most intriguing component is a timer that parents should set “for the amount of time [a child] can reasonably concentrate.” Then, from 7:30 to 8:00, Miller has parents spending 30 minutes preparing children for bed, giving them a bath, reading to them and tucking them in.
There are many, many families for which this level of precision will not work. To her credit, Miller tries, through her straw-man comments and responses to them, to take certain elements of these families’ concerns into account. If a sixth-grader gets two hours of homework a night, for example, Miller says that child needs to start work earlier in the afternoon or perhaps go to bed a little later. And if there really is a great deal of homework (as is common in gifted-and-talented programs, among other special ones, although Miller does not mention this), well, “having so much of it that it eats into a child’s sleeping hours is counterproductive” and the matter should be brought up “with your child’s teacher or principal.” For parents who find this unrealistic, well, here is where glibness and over-certainty creep into Prime Time Parenting, which does tend to be dismissive of any “excuses,” from parent or child, to the effect that “our child/family/situation is different.”
Children do tend to thrive when there is some structure to family time, and to the extent that parents can try Miller’s approach, there is potentially a lot of good to be gained from it. Miller does herself no favors, though, by minimizing or being contemptuous of anything that might lead to more than a slight deviation from what she recommends – two parents who work entirely different schedules, for example, or have jobs that never bring them home until 7:00 p.m. or later, or children with learning difficulties or various physical challenges. It is in the certainty of her responses to any situation that does not fit her predetermined mold and allow her predetermined model to be tried as she outlines it that Miller is least helpful and most argumentative. However, for parents with children in the right age range, jobs with the right work schedules, and school systems with the right approach to homework to make Prime Time Parenting a realistic possibility, it is certainly worthwhile to give Miller’s well-meaning and carefully presented prescription a try.
The Lost Books: The Scroll of Kings. By Sarah Prineas. Harper. $16.99.
Any book lover will have high hopes for this preteen fantasy/adventure novel. The main protagonist is a librarian! And librarians are quickly established as keys to a mystery that is pervading the usual quasi-medieval kingdom! And books themselves are characters! In fact, Sarah Prineas explains early on that librarians have “pages,” but not in the traditional faux medieval sense: these are actual pages that fly about helping librarians and tending to their wants and needs – although, being rather simple-minded, the pages cannot handle complex tasks.
These are wonderful ideas, so it is a shame that Prineas, in developing them, shoots herself in the foot so often (or stabs herself: swords, as in other formulaic sort-of-medieval fantasies, are the weapons of choice here). Where do those librarian-assisting pages come from? Do they tear themselves from books? If so, which ones and why? Or do they come from somewhere else? Where? How is the number of pages attending a librarian determined? By the pages themselves? Much is made early in the book about teenage Alex, an apprentice who is sure he is meant to be a librarian, getting a librarian’s job through a bit of deceit but having no pages to help him – but then, later in the book, he has far more pages than any other librarian, a fact that emphasizes his special nature but is never explained.
As for that “special nature,” Alex is marked with letters on his wrist by a mysterious book from the library of his distinctly un-bookish warrior father – a book that conveniently disappears when Alex tries to show it to his dad and is never seen again during the novel. What was it? Whence its power? Why did it mark Alex? How? Who knows?
Then there is the puzzle of the title of Prineas’ novel. It is not until midway through the book that a librarian makes an intended-to-be-mysterious reference to “LBs” with mysterious powers – but anyone who has read the title of Prineas’ book will know what the letters must stand for, so the mystery falls flat. The subtitle refers to a specific book that does not appear until late in the novel – why the subtitle at all? These and many other questions seem to indicate that The Lost Books is the start of a series, although that is never stated. It had better be Book 1 of something, because it is woefully weak as a standalone novel.
As for the non-Alex characters, the best of them is the teenage queen, Kenneret, who has only recently ascended the throne. She gives Alex a chance to prove himself at the royal library, somewhat against her better judgment and to the considerable annoyance of her uncle, the former regent – a character so obviously the chief bad guy that the only surprise is his lack of a mustache to twirl menacingly. Kenneret’s troublemaking but, it turns out, intelligent and clever brother, Charleren, is a good enough character to be a bit of a scene-stealer when he appears, but the obligatory secrets-revealer, a former librarian’s assistant called Bug, is such a cardboard creation that she can practically be folded into origami.
There are so many unanswered questions in The Lost Books that it is hard to understand why an experienced author such as Prineas would introduce theme after theme without expounding upon them or explaining much of anything. The underlying mystery of the book involves librarians’ deaths – they are actually being killed by books. Why? Never explained. It eventually turns out that the “lost books” were written in the past and contain the essences of their creators – how did that happen? Never explained. The point is made, specifically about the scroll of the subtitle, that the king was good but the book is bad. How come? Never explained. The entire nation has been on a downward slope since the libraries were locked up to prevent the LBs from wreaking havoc – which they would do, well, why? Never explained. The letters on Alex’s wrist periodically rearrange themselves into words in ways that are inevitably less than helpful. How and why does this happen? Never explained. And on and on the never-explained elements of The Lost Books go. The pacing of the novel is very good, several characters are memorable, the underlying premise is fascinating, and all those positive things make the numerous explanatory disappointments stand out all the more. If this is not the start of a series, Prineas will have a lot to answer for when readers realize how enticingly she has led them into a potentially wonderful world and then abandoned them there.
Mozart: Variations on “Unser Dummer Pöbel Meint,” K. 455; Haydn: Andante with Variations in F minor, HOB. XVII:6; Beethoven: “Eroica” Variations and Fugue, Op. 35. Leslie Tung, fortepiano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Ed Martin: Three Pieces for Piano (2006); Swirling Sky (2014); Journey (2015-17). Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
Dennis Kam: Piano Sonata No. 1 (2002); D-Bop—Sonata No. 2 (2010); String Quartet No. 1 (1966); String Quartet No. 2 (1986). Mia Vassilev and Amy Tarantino-Trafton, piano; Sirius Quartet and Pedroia Quartet. Navona. $14.99.
Quadrants, Volume 2: Music for String Quartet by Paul Osterfield, David T. Bridges, Ferdinando (Fred) De Sena, L. Peter Deutsch, Katherine Price, and Marvin Lamb. Pedroia String Quartet. Navona. $14.99.
Beethoven was famously hard on pianos – a fact usually attributed to his encroaching deafness. But there was surely another factor involved as well: the inability of pianos of Beethoven’s time, such as the five-octave fortepiano, to produce the intensity and sheer volume that he sought as his music progressed into new and largely uncharted areas. Earlier Beethoven, such as the “Eroica” Variations and Fugue of 1802, sounds quite wonderful on the fortepiano, especially when played with as much understanding of historic style – and appropriate-to-the-era virtuosity – as Leslie Tung shows on a new MSR Classics CD. Tung elicits all the nuances of the fortepiano, using its unique sound – which partakes as much of the harpsichord as it does of the modern piano – to good effect. He gives each variation its own character and lets the music flow naturally throughout, despite the inherently episodic nature of the variation form. The well-known theme was used by Beethoven in four works, the last being most famous: as the main theme of the finale of his “Eroica” symphony. The piano variations are the theme’s third use: earlier, it had appeared in The Creatures of Prometheus and in the seventh in a set of 12 Contredanses. Tung takes full advantage in his performance of the fortepiano’s relatively thin keys and lesser key travel than modern pianos have: the instrument he uses, built in 1983, is based on one from about 1795, and approximates what Beethoven would have had at his disposal. The delicacy and inventiveness of the variations are their primary characteristics here, and the set sounds all the more intriguing because of the way Beethoven experimented with its conclusion, which includes a fugue and an Andante con moto. Also on this disc, Tung plays two somewhat earlier variation sets. Haydn’s dates to 1793 and is composed with the fine sense of balance and contrast for which Haydn’s music is justly renowned. It pushes no boundaries, but it uses its F minor home key to good effect, with pleasantly warm touches of melancholy expressiveness. Haydn’s work contrasts exceptionally well not only with Beethoven’s but also with Mozart’s 1784 variations on Unser Dummer Pöbel Meint from Gluck’s 1763 opera, La rencontre imprévue, ou Les pèlerins de la Mecque. The opera may no longer be familiar, but the tune that Mozart uses is, and his clever variations pay homage to the original while stamping the music with his own style. As in the Beethoven, Tung handles the Haydn and Mozart works with aplomb and shows just how well they work as fortepiano rather than modern-piano pieces, with the basic instrumental sound and the cleanness of ornamentation being especially noteworthy.
Today’s composers, of course, see the piano very differently and use it – in standard modern form or in “prepared” or otherwise altered guise – for very different purposes. On a new (+++) Ravello CD, two Ed Martin piano works clearly show how some contemporary composers regard the instrument. Three Pieces for Piano has three titles that bear no particular relationship to the sounds of the pieces: “Fanfares,” “Reflection” and “Soar” (although the quietness of the middle movement does help offset the pervasive dissonance of the work as a whole). Swirling Sky is intended as an impression of clouds, and if it is not especially evocative of them, it is a pleasant enough reverie. The third work on the disc, Journey, shows how different the variation form is today from what it was in the Classical era. The 11-movement work is better described as transformations than as variations, and here there are titles that do reflect the musical sounds. The opening “Soul” is built on a simple minor third, but the motif – it falls short of being a theme – is reused and altered and built upon and transformed through movements called “Lament,” “Revelation,” “Vexed,” “Regret,” “Obsession,” “Manic,” “Conviction,” “Metamorphosis,” “Grit,” and “Transcend.” The titles are an odd mixture of parts of speech, with a couple of verbs and an adjective (“Manic”) among the nouns. The music is something of an odd mixture, too: there is little sense of lamentation or revelation, for example, although the rhythmic intensity of “Vexed,” the repeated figures of “Obsession,” and the leaps of “Manic” are effective. Pianist Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi handles all the works with apparent ease and brings a welcome bounce to some of the lighter material. Nothing on the CD is especially memorable or intricate, but the music mostly lies well on the piano and will be of interest to listeners who enjoy hearing the ways in which today’s composers emphasize the percussive aspects of the instrument to at least the same extent as its harmonic and rhythmic capabilities.
Martin’s comparative expressivity contrasts with the more jagged and self-consciously modernistic approach to the piano in the works by Dennis Kam on a (+++) Navona CD. Elements typically associated with music of the 20th and 21st centuries are pervasive here, including emphasis on the extremes of the piano’s range and an attempt to substitute rhythmic variety and abrupt transitions for any form of flow or expressiveness that could be a way to connect with listeners. Kam’s first sonata, from 2002, has a more-grandiose opening than his second, from 2010, but the basic musical techniques and approaches of these one-movement works are similar. Both are well-played, by Amy Tarantino-Trafton and Mia Vassilev, respectively, but neither has enough formal or expressive attractiveness to engage listeners to a significant degree. The piano is clearly not the only instrument to which Kam applies a modernistic, non-tonal approach that, realistically, has changed little since the days of the Second Viennese School. The single-movement String Quartet No. 1 is filled with the plucking and vibrato and Webernesque swellings, crescendos and diminuendos familiar from the works of many composers in the middle of the 20th century. It is well-performed by the Sirius Quartet (Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Hueger, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; Jeremy Harman, cello). But even at its modest length of 10 minutes, the work seems to overstay its welcome. The second quartet, a three-movement piece, is more substantial and uses ensemble rather than individual-instrument playing to a greater extent. Kam’s basic technique is pretty much the same here, though, the music being entirely atonal, filled with fits and starts, and sounding like the sort of work that draws attention to the composer’s technical ability rather than to any attempt to communicate with an audience with any sort of specificity. As with many similar-sounding works, the quartet is engaging for a time because of the instrumental interplay, but ultimately comes across as vapid. It is, however, played enthusiastically by the Pedroia Quartet (Jae Cosmos Lee and Rohan Gregory, violins; Peter Sulski, viola; Jacques Wood, cello).
The Pedroia Quartet also shows its mettle on another (+++) Navona disc, an anthology release that features half a dozen works of varying intent by six different composers. Khamsin by Paul Osterfield bears some resemblance to Kam’s second quartet, but with a greater reliance on extreme dissonance and on having instruments play with, or against, each other in different tempos and with different thematic bits. This Fragmented Old Man by David T. Bridges is loosely based on the children’s counting song, “This Old Man,” pulling the song apart in a myriad of ways that render it largely indistinguishable – it is a sort of anti-variations, using basic material as variations do but preventing listeners from connecting the music with the original through pulling elements of it in extreme directions. String Quartet No. 1 by Ferdinando (Fred) De Sena is something of a departure for a composer best known for his electronic music. Its three movements have titles with distinctly religious connotations: “Alma Redemptoris Mater,” “Salve Regina,” and “Ave Regina Caelorum.” But while the titles point to a Marian hymn, the work’s sound – although richer and more vibrant than that of other pieces on this CD – has little apparent connection with Mary or, indeed, with Christianity. However, parts of the middle movement are, rather unexpectedly, touching, although anyone seeking depth of feeling will not find it here. L. Peter Deutsch’s Departure is a four-movement work that connects clearly with the notion of a journey: “Anticipation,” “Preparation,” “Leave-Taking,” and “Setting Sail.” The first movement makes it sound as if the traveler is not quite certain about the coming trip; the second is more upbeat, with a pleasant pizzicato opening; the third is quiet and rather wistful; and the finale has an anticipatory mood, as if the traveler is now actually looking forward to the travel ahead. For a contemporary composition, Departure is surprisingly communicative of what is promised in its overall title and in that of each of its movements. Also on the CD are two rather inward-focused works that stand in contrast with the more outgoing (if scarcely ebullient) piece by Deutsch. They are Hymnody by Katherine Price, a very slow-paced piece in which the sound of unison strings predominates, and Lamentations by Marvin Lamb, an extended single-movement composition that sets a dark and dour mood at the start and stays with it throughout. Lamb’s work makes for a decidedly downbeat finale for a disc that, as usual in anthology recordings, offers a variety of unrelated works containing disparate elements that may appeal to listeners here and there but that are unlikely to find a significant audience in their totality.
New Music for Flute—Works by Arthur M. Bachmann, Kent Kennan, Harry Somers, Henry Wolking, André Jolivet, Gabriel Fauré, and Efraín Amaya. Sara Hahn and Sarah Gieck, flutes; Laura Loewen, piano. Navona. $14.99.
New Music for Classical Guitar—Works by Michael Karmon, Richard Gibson, John Oliver, William Beauvais, and David Gordon Duke. Alan Rinehart, guitar. Ravello. $14.99.
Music for Guitar and Flute—Works by Manuel de Falla, Sergio Assad, Ástor Piazzolla, Narciso Saúl, Roddy Ellias, Celso Machado, and Sid Robinovitch. Duo Beija-Flor (Charles Hobson, guitar; Marie-Noëlle Choquette, flute). Big Round Records. $14.99.
The fact that some instruments are generally thought of primarily for their delicacy does not reduce their potential for virtuosic display and emotional communication, nor does it interfere with composers’ propensity for exploiting the instruments’ ranges and, especially in contemporary music, pushing them to their limits. The flute, in particular, is under-appreciated for the depths of expressiveness of which it is capable – one of many reasons that the instrument, then known as the transverse flute, largely supplanted the recorder after Baroque times. Sara Hahn, longtime principal flute of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, offers an unusually emotionally charged recital on a new Navona release that mostly contains recently composed music but that starts as far back as 1898. The CD is arranged not chronologically but according to emotions that Hahn sees the works evoking. But musically, it may be better understood when heard more or less in the order in which the pieces were created. There are two works here by fairly well-known composers, both originally written as Paris Conservatoire test pieces, including the earliest piece on the recording, Fauré’s Morceau de Concours for flute and piano. Simple, quiet and emotionally settled, it contrasts strongly with the intensity of Jolivet’s wartime (1944) Chant de Linos, also for flute and piano. Hahn is impressive in breath control and finger technique, her emotional connection with the expressiveness of these works – indeed, of all the pieces on the disc – being quite impressive. For instance, in another early work here, Kent Kennan’s 1936 Night Soliloquy for flute and piano, the mood is one of vague disquiet, with the piano’s dissonances rather unnervingly underlying the flute notes; and Hahn brings the feelings out effectively, aided by the very fine accompaniment of Laura Loewen, who is an adept partner throughout the disc. Hahn is equally effective on her own in the straightforwardly sad Etching (1964) by Harry Somers. The remaining pieces on the disc are more recent but no less emotive in Hahn’s hands. They include two works in which themes and feelings pass back and forth between performers: The Gate of Lodore, for flute and piano, by Henry Wolking, and Pathways, for two flutes (Hahn and Sarah Gieck), by Efraín Amaya; and two recent and quite moving works by Arthur Bachmann, both of which move emotionally from trouble and turmoil toward acceptance and optimism. One of Bachmann’s, The Curmudgeon and the Lark, is for flute and alto flute; the other, I Close My Eyes… for flute and piano, has a strongly personal connection for Hahn, having been written for her in connection with her mother’s battle with and recovery from cancer. It is certainly no surprise that Hahn plays this specific work with such deep feeling. But what this CD shows is how Hahn brings the same level of involvement to all the material, expertly evoking the composers’ intended connections with listeners and showing that the flute, for all its essentially gentle tone, can convey a wide range of expressions in the hands of a sensitive performer.
The feelings are less wide-ranging and more in line with what listeners are likely to expect from the solo guitar on a new Ravello CD featuring Alan Rinehart and built around him musically: four of the five works were written for him. Dreams Laid Down by Michael Karmon has a doubly personal connection to the performer, its six movements being inspired by poems by Rinehart’s wife, Janice Notland. The movements’ titles will have no meaning for people unfamiliar with the specific poems that led to them, but Rinehart’s pleasant and highly involving performance, which fully captures the nuances of the material, will be welcome to listeners interested in hearing a contemporary example of varying levels of emotionally evocative expression. The six movements of Ancient Heroes Suite by John Oliver are evocative in a different and somewhat more rarefied way, reflecting not the heroes of myth and legend but those of music: the movements reflect and pay tribute to Couperin, Dowland and other composers of prior centuries, and will be of particular interest to listeners familiar with the types of music that inspired them. Two other works on this disc focus to a considerable extent on guitar techniques and will especially appeal to performers. The brightness, thematic connections, juxtaposition of themes with accompaniment, and use of harmonics are all of interest in Beginning of the Day by William Beauvais, which includes an extended, improvisation-like first movement and a much shorter second one. Soliloquies and Dreams by David Gordon Duke is a set of seven very short movements (about a minute apiece or less) in which the guitar is often stripped to its essentials, heard in one-at-a-time linear note sequences rather than anything chordal or strummed. The fifth piece on this disc, and the only one not commissioned by Rinehart, is Variationes Sobre una Tema de Juan Lennon by Richard Gibson, based on a portion of a John Lennon song heard on the Beatles’ White Album. This is an unusually successful genre-mixing work, in which Gibson takes what is essentially simple “pop” material and twists and turns it in some traditional and some nontraditional ways associated with the “variations” form, expanding the original into new realms while keeping it as a foundational kernel. Listeners who know the original song will, of course, find the most to enjoy here.
Genre mixing is the heart and soul of an entire new CD featuring Duo Beija-Flor and released on the Big Round Records label. Instrumental mixing is a significant element here as well: the disc is an intriguing example of the way flute and guitar, both usually thought of as being among the gentler instruments, can move into new sound realms when combined and played off against one another. Charles Hobson and Marie-Noëlle Choquette directly describe their music-making as “ethno-classical,” and that is a clue to this disc even before a listener hears anything on it. Some of the music is well-known (although not in the form arranged by the performers); so are some of the composers; other material will likely be wholly new to almost all listeners; but everything is designed to reflect Hobson’s and Choquette’s interest in songs, rhythms and harmonies from various regions. At the same time, both performers expand and extend their instruments’ techniques in ways that are recognizably contemporary, frequently using the underlying gentleness associated with guitar and flute only as backdrop while taking matters into sonic realms beyond what the audience will likely anticipate. The many moods of Manuel de Falla’s well-known Siete Canciones Populares Españolas open the CD in suitably variegated fashion, giving the performers plenty of chances to display their virtuosity and flair for instrumental color. What follows is Summer Garden Suite by Sergio Assad – the music is from the soundtrack to a Japanese film but reflects impressions of South America. There are two arrangements here of works by Ástor Piazzolla: Escualo (Piazzolla’s only non-tango composition) and Oblivion. And there is the tango-inspired Boulevard San Jorge by Narciso Saúl. Next is Havana Street Parade, written for Duo Beija-Flor by Roddy Elias and taking good advantage of the performers’ abilities to handle jazz rhythms and changing dynamics. Even more interesting are two contrasting pieces by Celso Machado, based on two Brazilian candies: Pé de Moleque, which starts by using the guitar’s body as a percussion instrument, and Quebra Quiexo, a slower and more flavorful offering. The CD concludes with two sets of songs without words. Machado’s Dois Fados presents two updated versions of old songs sung by sailors during long voyages – the first quietly melancholic, the second opening wistfully before becoming more upbeat. Finally, Sid Robinovitch’s Four Sephardic Songs offers arrangements of songs that tell specific stories. Only listeners who recognize the songs will get the full flavor of this piece – others will simply hear the first song as sad, the second as bright and dancelike, the third as quiet and thoughtful, the fourth as moderately paced, with the flute weaving rhythmic changes above a guitar ostinato. Given the skill of the performers, there is enjoyment to be had here even for those who do not know anything about the songs whose feelings Hobson and Choquette are bringing forth.