May 30, 2019


Just Like Us! Birds. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Just Like Us! Plants. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Just Like Us! Fish. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Just Like Us! Cats. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     The predictable unpredictability of the continuing Just Like Us! series by Bridget Heos and David Clark is one of its major pleasures. These short factual paperbacks all begin the same way, by choosing an animal (or, in one book, plants) and stating all the ways the chosen subject is obviously not like us at all. But maybe it is like us…hmm…let’s find out. That is always Heos’ setup – and the mixture of Clark’s cartoon illustrations with photographic material is the same time after time as well. And all the books are enjoyable as well as informative, thanks to the simple reality that they engage young readers in finding ways in which so many living things, however different they may be, also have so much in common.

     Sometimes Heos and Clark use anecdotes to make their points. There is a famous one in the book on birds, about Mozart adopting a pet bird that he heard whistling a theme from one of his piano concertos – a work not yet revealed to the public. This is a small and appealing mystery in Mozart’s life – probably he hummed the tune on an earlier visit to the shop and the bird overheard it and imitated it, but no one really knows – and it neatly makes the point that birds and humans (even humans who are not genius composers) have some musical things in common. This book also includes information on how bird parents (some of them, anyway) care for their young in ways similar to those used by human parents, and how parent birds have to clean up the avian equivalent of dirty diapers when their babies are small. Clark’s illustration here, which includes a real bird removing a fecal sac from a birdhouse but is dominated by a tired-looking cartoon bird carrying a basket of just-washed diaper-like items to be dried on a clothesline, is a particularly good example of the blending of reality and fantasy that makes all these books both fun and useful.

     The book on plants stands out because it is about, well, plants – not animals. Even here, though, Heos and Clark find ways to relate plant life to human life. One page is headlined, “Be Sure to Drink Eight Thousand Glasses of Water a Day,” and explains, “An NBA player produces more sweat than a kid shooting hoops, and the bigger the tree, the more it ‘sweats’ too.” This is a bit of a stretch, but a clever way to explain that tall trees can lose hundreds of gallons of water per day and must constantly replenish their supply from underground. The overall narrative here helps young readers think of things in ways that they probably haven’t: “With the right mix of sunlight, water, and nutrition, plants grow up and have babies – just like people. A plant baby is a seed!” That is both accurate and interesting, as are a great many items here. For instance, one page focuses on the durian, a fruit whose “smell has been compared to that of pig poop, rotten onions, and dead people,” but nevertheless attracts animals that eat its flesh and eventually deposit its seeds so new plants can grow. In addition to showing a photo of a chimpanzee enjoying a durian, this page features Clark’s drawing of a super-happy cartoon pig joyfully hugging the fruit as flies swarm everywhere and a bird on a nearby branch wears a clothespin on its beak. The pages on how plants, like humans, defend themselves, and how they, also like humans, sometimes wage war on other plants, are also fine mixtures of real-world and cartoon illustrations, all in the service of sort-of-like-us facts.

     Fish do not appear to be much more like people than plants are, but Heos and Clark make this case effectively, too. Of course they talk about fish schools, explaining that these large groups protect small fish in two ways: by providing many eyes to watch for predators and by making it hard for most predators to focus on a single fish to attack and consume. They also explain that both people and fish need oxygen – we just have different ways of obtaining it. There is an interesting explanation of the biology of the mudskipper, which “spends up to 90 percent of its time on shore” rather than in the water and can do this even though it “doesn’t have a tiny fish scuba mask” – the sort of thing people would need to spend a lot of time in water – but instead “fills pouches in its cheeks with water” so its gills can absorb oxygen from the stored liquid. There is information here on fish that, like humans involved in warfare, use armor, such as the porcupine fish’s spines, which are not only sharp but also contain poison. And Heos observes, “People dress to impress, and so do fish,” explaining that 25% of ocean species visit coral reefs at some point and often sport “bright colors and bold patterns” to stand out and attract mates. There are also examples of fish that, like human parents, care for their babies – many do not, but seahorses and cichlids do, although not in human-like ways (seahorse fathers have a front pouch to contain babies, while cichlids hold their young in their mouths). The point is not to make fish seem much like people, but to show some ways in which they resemble humans, despite the obvious differences.

     The book on cats may seem to have easier points to make, since many people do share their homes with cats and some sort of resemblance therefore seems logical. But cats are not pack animals like dogs, and even house cats retain a great deal of the wild, efficient-hunter predation instincts that lions, tigers and other big cats possess. In fact, as Heos points out, cats are “the world’s most effective carnivores,” and a lot of feline life in the wild is brutal, with cats “ruthlessly conquering other lands” just as humans sometimes do – with invading males overthrowing others and killing their cubs so as to mate with the former ruler’s females. The behavior of wild, big cats certainly has a lot in common with that of house cats, including plenty of sleep (up to 20 hours a day) and lots of playtime-by-wrestling by cubs (babies of big cats) as well as kittens (babies of small cats). There is information here not only on ways cats are similar to humans but also on ways they are quite different – for example, because they “lack the gene that allows other mammals to taste sweetness,” which means they have little interest in any human food that has even a slight hint of sugar. On the other hand, just as humans enjoy swimming, so do some cats – such as jaguars, which actually hunt underwater and are good distance swimmers.

     The point of all these pleasant, easy-to-read nonfiction books is that humans are similar in a number of ways to pretty much all the denizens of the planet that we all share – one earlier volume in the series even dealt with ants. Although Heos and Clark certainly stretch the narrative and illustrations a great deal of the time in order to make the parallels with humans seem more significant than they really are, the concept here is worthwhile: to tell and show young readers just how much we do have in common with the natural world around us, and in so doing, hopefully, to give them more respect for other residents of Earth and a greater inclination to treat the environment with care and concern.


The Ghost Network, Book One: Activate. By I.I. Davidson. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

My Life in Smiley 3: Save Me! (or not…) By Anne Kalicky. Translated by Kevin Kotur. Illustrated by Tim Jones. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.

     Whether told at breakneck pace with adventure-movie intensity or unfolded in a leisurely manner in which pictorial elements are as important as narrative, books for and about middle-schoolers have certain things in common: awkwardness, self-discovery, team building, stretching one’s comfort zone, and finding out that adults are pretty much useless and/or not to be trusted – among other narrative characteristics. The Ghost Network by I.I. Davidson (pen name of Scottish author Gillian Philip) is a cinematically paced story of magical intrigue and wand-waving battles against evil by young wizards – oh, wait, that’s the Harry Potter series. But in the first book of a planned trilogy, The Ghost Network is redolent of J.K. Rowling’s deservedly famous sequence. True, the four 12-year-olds at the center of the story – the largely interchangeable John, Slack, Akane and Salome – are hackers, not wizards in training, but the computer-focused elements here are handled exactly like the magical ones in Rowling’s works and innumerable others. That is, there is no multi-hour, many-day grinding away at a problem to solve it, there is no extended collaborative effort, there is no building on what others have done – there is generally quick and generally easy discovery of back doors, ways into and around protections, and methods of accomplishing marvelous feats. It all seems like magic and has no more basis in reality than magic does. But because this is a book about and for middle-schoolers, the details of extreme hard work and lengthy, boring experimentation and searching simply do not fit. What does fit is the discovery and solution of multiple mysteries, handled in ways that are absolutely typical of adventure books for this age group. For example, since John’s father’s disappearance and presumed death are formative for John, it is obvious that John will eventually find out that his dad did not die after all, but escaped the nefarious clutches of wizards…err, computer experts who wanted to turn his good-guy findings toward evil. Since John, Slack and Salome end up together at a super-isolated, super-secret hacker school on a small and extremely cold island off the coast of Alaska, it is a given that they will somehow have to escape – and a given that their magical powers…err, computer-based powers will provide their way out. Since Akane is half a world away, in Japan, and since the tentacles of the evil coder network reach everywhere, it is obvious that she will have a harrowing flight from evil minions and eventually have to escape to – well, Alaska, of course, because these preteens have far more magical…err, computer-based resources among them than the entire evil network of adults possesses. Throw in a certain amount of middle-school-style jealousy and bullying at the super-secret school, which is called the Wolf’s Den, and add the inevitable locked door in the basement that readers will know does not lead to a broom closet as soon as the author says it apparently does, and you have Project 31, which is what the Wolf’s Den is really about – and which only John, Slack, Salome and Akane can stop, maybe with a bit of help from John’s not-really-deceased father. It turns out that the four quickly-bonding friends have one crucial thing in common: all suffered extremely severe accidents in earlier life, accidents that should have been fatal, that were fatal until John’s father – a brilliant surgeon – rescued the four, including his own son, using experimental methods that essentially turned their human brains (which store far more information than any computer possibly can) into computers that store far more information than any human brain possibly can. Wait…that can’t be right. But it is – and it is only one of the absurdities here. However, Davidson paces the book much too quickly for its intended readers to pick up on any of the multiple impossibilities that give the book a veneer of science fiction but really relegate it as firmly to the realm of fantasy as anything involving Harry Potter. Activate does a neat job of setting up the basic story line of The Ghost Network, and is packed with enough thrills and chills (some of them literal: this is Alaska in winter, after all) to pull adventure-seeking middle-schoolers into the tale without allowing them to question the whole framework too closely. This is pure and simple escapism, and fun as long as readers do not think too much about it.

     There is also little thinking needed for Anne Kalicky’s My Life in Smiley series. But this is much, much lighter fare, being simply a highly standardized chronicle of the trials and troubles of an ordinary middle-schooler named Max Cropin. The series is made distinctive solely by 12-year-old Max’s strong inclination – that is, Kalicky’s strong inclination – to include innumerable smiley faces throughout the diary-style narrative. These are not by any means only smiley faces: although they do sometimes smile, they more often frown or change into a panda or puppy or fish or three-eyed green Martian, or stick out a tongue or show big bright teeth or wear a crown or become a heart or an orange or…well, the possible variations on the simple, circular face seem nearly infinite, and a big slice of that infinity shows up here. There is a certain, rather mild degree of culture shock involved in North Americans reading these books, which were written in French and originally published in France (this one in 2018). But the surprises, such as they are, show up mainly in characters’ names and in occasional references to sports such as “American basketball.” The basic plots of My Life in Smiley emigrate from Europe very simply. The third series entry takes Max away from school and all its tribulations to summer camp and all its tribulations, which are entirely of the sort to be expected for middle-schoolers: outdoor activities, bug bites, lack of friends, heat, the absence of favored junk food, and so on. The story proceeds exactly as any similar one written in the United States would: Max lists all the things he hates about camp and then discovers, one by one, that they aren’t so bad after all, and there are even compensations for his two-week summer sojourn into the not-so-wild – such as a pretty girl camper and a mysterious diary that Max just knows he is going to figure out, with a little help, of course, from his friends (there must be friend groups in books like this). Max’s narrative skills, at least as translated into English, seem barely to be at his age level: “If I had to sum up my current romantic situation in one word, it’d be: heartbroken! [Sad-face emoji.] And believe me, it really hurts for Maxime Cropin the Great to admit something like that.” What saves the My Life in Smiley series from being simply dull is a combination of the many smiley-and-not-so-smiley faces with Max’s basically pleasant (if inept) personality – and some rather cute illustrations, such as one showing Max’s friend Mehdi telling jokes on stage, with Mehdi drawn as a stick figure, the jokes in cartoon-style balloons, and a couple of laughing smiley faces atop the whole picture. By the end of the book, unsurprisingly, Max finds he has had a good time at camp, the mysterious “Dindin Hood’s Journal” has turned out to be surprisingly useful, and pretty much everyone has become friends with pretty much everyone else – so of course everybody pledges to return to camp next year, Max declares that he has “some unforgettable memories,” and as soon as he gets home, Max starts crossing off calendar days in anticipation of his next trip to camp. All of this is about as corny and easy to anticipate as it can possibly be, but it is sufficiently good-hearted and well-intentioned so that young readers drawn in by the ample, even overdone smiley appearances and multiple illustrations will have a good time following Max to an upbeat if thoroughly unsurprising conclusion.


Beethoven: Triple Concerto; Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra. Alexandra Conunova, violin; Natalie Clein, cello; David Kadouch, piano (Triple Concerto); Bertrand Chamayou, piano; Sandrine Piau and Kristina Vahrenkamp, sopranos; Anaïk Morel, alto; Stanislas de Barbeyrac and Jean-François Chiama, tenors; Florian Sempey, baritone; Accentus (Fantasia); Insula Orchestra conducted by Laurence Equilbey. Erato. $13.

Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek: Karneval-Suite im alten Stil; Traumspiel-Suite; Symphonische Suite No. 1. Weimarer Staatskapelle conducted by Stefan Solyom. CPO. $16.99.

Josef Rheinberger: 12 Character Pieces, Op. 156; Reger: 12 Pieces for Organ—Toccata in D minor; Fugue in D; Mendelssohn: Organ Sonata No. 6; Brahms: Fugue in A-flat minor; Liszt: Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H. Felix Hell, organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     It was not so long ago that Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra were dismissed as oddities, unsuccessful experiments of little lasting value either to Beethoven himself or to those who came after, and worthy of only very rare performance. Times and thinking have certainly changed, with both works now seen as unusual, innovative and highly creative. The Triple Concerto does an admirable job of balancing the trio of solo instruments, perhaps making the cello – rather than Beethoven’s own instrument, the piano – something of a first among equals. This is a work of considerable poise, and it is that element that stands out in a finely played and well-conducted performance on the Erato label – a performance that does, however, have some peculiarities of which listeners should be aware. Chief among these is the use of a restored Pleyel piano from 1892 – an instrument that does not quite fit either the depth and aural strength of modern pianos or the delicacy and fine tone of the fortepianos for which Beethoven actually wrote these works. Since the Insula Orchestra is an original-instrument ensemble, this results in a rather curious hybrid sound in which the piano almost-but-not-quite fits into the texture that Laurence Equilbey creates so admirably in the Triple Concerto. That said, the enthusiastic and often quite lovely performance is a joy to hear, even if it is neither quite authentic nor exactly contemporary in sound. The Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra comes across beautifully, too, although, again, with some peculiarities. Here they relate both to the piano – the same 1892 Pleyel used in the Triple Concerto – and to the vocal elements of the piece. It used to seem odd that Beethoven created this work, calling for an extended piano solo (played originally by him) and a chorus, plus orchestra, but the Fantasia is now recognized as an extended and unusual encore to the famous concert of December 22, 1808, at which Beethoven introduced his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the concerto aria Ah, perfido for soprano solo, the Sanctus and Gloria from the Mass in C, and the Fourth Piano Concerto. The Fantasia followed all these – and the forces needed for it were on hand already, having performed the earlier pieces. Thus, the extended piano section that starts the Fantasia, and which in its structure gives hints of how Beethoven extemporized at the keyboard, makes perfect sense, as do the following orchestral and choral elements, including the solo quartet. Equilbey, however, uses a solo sextet of voices, doubling the soprano and tenor soloists for no clear reason. Add that decision to the one involving use of the 1892 piano and you have a reading that is distinctive in some strange ways as well as in its clarity, focus and attractive blend of vocal and instrumental material. Because neither of these performances is quite authentic or exactly modern in approach, neither is likely to be first-choice material for listeners unacquainted with these two works. But the combination of the two pieces, and the enthusiasm with which the performers present them, make this a winning CD that people who already enjoy the music will find very congenial indeed.

     Congeniality is not exactly what listeners will find in a new CPO release of symphonic works by Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek (1860-1945), whose reputation this label has been burnishing for years through releases of his orchestral music – some of which is quite fine and undeservedly neglected. However, this recording by Stefan Solyom and the Weimarer Staatskapelle comes across as a bit of an afterthought, as indeed does the timing of its release: the performances date to 2012. The three works here will be “finds” for listeners who have become familiar with Reznicek, but they will be of less interest to anyone trying to understand why his reputation deserves rehabilitation. The best piece is the latest and shortest: Karneval-Suite im alten Stil (1931/1935) shows the composer’s skill in orchestration as well as highlighting his abilities in stage music, from which the suite is constructed. The seven movements are modernized and updated versions of Baroque forms; and with four of the seven lasting less than a minute apiece, they indicate the skill with which Reznicek could handle miniatures – not something for which he is particularly known. More in keeping with his overall approach to instrumentation and style is the Traumspiel-Suite (1916/1921), which also originates with a stage work but which, unlike the later Karneval-Suite, is fully late-Romantic in concept, sound and expansiveness. The six movements illustrate different scenes from a Strindberg play, but Reznicek rearranges the material so the suite has something approaching coherence and near-symphonic form, eventually ending with music that, on stage, goes with the play’s Prelude rather than its conclusion. This is effective and affecting music, familiarity with the stage work not being necessary for a listener to appreciate the dreamscapes that Reznicek weaves. Even more symphonic in structure, and indeed originally titled as a symphony, the Symphonische Suite No. 1 is by far the earliest piece here, dating to 1882, when Reznicek was 22. It was essentially a graduation exercise, and it is a good one in showing mastery of orchestration, mood creation and contrast both within and between movements. It is also somewhat overripe, and lacks the thematic inspiration found elsewhere in Reznicek’s music. It is thus a piece that in some ways points ahead to his later work while in other respects it simply shows how strongly influenced he was by the Wagnerian sound at this time of his life. This is less a CD for discovering an unjustly neglected composer than it is a disc for those who have rediscovered Reznicek already and are looking to fill out their knowledge and impressions of the creator of Donna Diana and Ritter Blaubart.

     Josef Rhineberger (1839-1901) is also well overdue for rediscovery, although organists have never really lost a connection with this organist/composer from Liechtenstein. General listeners are far less likely to be familiar with the works of Rhineberger, who wrote two symphonies, two operas and a fair amount of chamber music but was devoted primarily to the organ. A new MSR Classics CD (which spells the composer’s first name “Joseph”) provides a fine introduction to Rhineberger in addition to being a tour de force for Felix Hell, a performer of remarkable skill and agility in negotiating the complexities of Rhineberger’s music as well as the other material on this very interesting disc. The title of Rhineberger’s work, 12 Character Pieces, would seem to point to portraits of people, but in fact this is “12 pieces of varying character” rather than a directly illustrative work. Some of the pieces have more or less the character that could be inferred from their titles: the rather sweet “Romance,” pretty “Canzonetta,” and ethereal “Vision,” for instance. Others, though, have a greater communicative level and handle the organ in impressive ways: “Duett” really does have the effect of a duet, “In memoriam” is solemn and heartfelt, and “Abendfriede” (“peace at evening”) is a lovely three-minute tone poem that effectively paints a crepuscular scene. The longest piece is the concluding one, “Trauermarsch,” and it presents a suitably serious funeral cortège without ever trying to delve into tragic realms. Hell is quite clearly at home with the individual characteristics of each piece as well as the stylistic elements that they have in common, and his choice of registration seems completely apt throughout the sequence. He is equally skilled in presenting Max Reger’s Toccata in D minor and Fugue in D from 12 Pieces for Organ. Reger’s works can be turgid and often thorny in ways very different from those of Rhineberger, but here too Hell finds the internal structural elements of the pieces and uses them to build a highly satisfying performance. The CD also includes organ works by three much-better-known composers who, however, are not particularly associated with the organ. Mendelssohn’s six organ sonatas, like many works by Rhineberger, are quite familiar to organists but otherwise not well-known. The last of them, in D minor, includes a set of variations on Martin Luther's chorale, Vater unser im Himmelreich, and Hell is sensitive both to the music and to the underlying meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, on which Luther based his hymn. Brahms’ Fugue in A-flat minor is interesting mainly because of the unusual key and the sounds that result, but Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H is a substantial and impressive work – Liszt actually wrote a considerable amount of organ music of all types, from a fantasy and fugue on a chorale from Meyerbeer’s Le prophète to an organ version of the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser to several works for Bach cantatas and even an arrangement of the Agnus Dei from Verdi’s Requiem. Hell handles the Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H as an extended encore, a celebratory and triumphal piece celebrating not only Bach but also Liszt himself. Although built around the music of Rheinberger – 12 Character Pieces appears in the middle of the CD and is the longest work on the disc – this recording has insights aplenty throughout, along with some first-rate playing on a 1902 E.F. Walcker organ that was thoroughly restored in 2008 and has just the right sound for the sort of Romantic music on which Hell focuses.


Falla: El amor brujo; El retablo de Maese Pedro. Esperanza Fernández, cantaora; Alfredo García, baritone; Jennifer Zetlan, soprano; Jorge Garza, tenor; Perspectives Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Naxos. $12.99.

Petr Eben: Liturgical Chants; Four Choruses on Latin Texts; Catonis Moralia; Ten Poetic Duets; About Swallows and Girls. Jitro Czech Girls Choir conducted by Jiří Skopal. Navona. $14.99.

American Reflections: 20th and 21st Century Choral Music. St. Charles Singers conducted by Jeffrey Hunt. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Barbara Harbach: Orchestral Music IV—Symphony No. 11, “Retourner”; Hypocrisy—Orchestral Suite. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Angus. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Although generally deemed the greatest Spanish composer of the first part of the 20th century, Manuel de Falla remains something of an acquired taste outside his homeland. Really first-rate performances of his music, such as those led by Angel Gil-Ordóñez on a new Naxos CD, help explain why. The forms in which Falla wrote his best music were not the ones familiar elsewhere in Europe or around the world, and many of his works retain a kind of provincial tint that can be charming if viewed from one angle but limiting if seen from another. The original 1915 version of El amor brujo (“Love, the Magician”), for example, which is the one that Gil-Ordóñez uses for his performance with the Perspectives Ensemble, requires a theater orchestra rather than a full-fledged symphonic one – and a voice quality with which few outside Spain are likely familiar, that of the flamenco singer or cantaora. Esperanza Fernández not only offers unusual vocal qualities in her performance but also uses Spanish pronunciation that is outside the norm – for example, the “s” is not pronounced in the middle of most words, lending them an exotic sound that is not readily placeable in any particular region. On top of that, El amor brujo is based on legends and beliefs of the Romani, still sometimes called Gypsies; and it includes spoken material as well as sung elements and purely instrumental ones, thus having much in common with the zarzuela – itself a form with which most classical-music listeners are at best mildly familiar. In light of all this, the color, clarity and conviction that Fernández and Gil-Ordóñez bring to this performance are quite remarkable, and the ways in which Falla has the cantaora delineate different elements of the story are surprising and intriguing – for example, the “Song of the Will-o’-the-Wisp” sounds nothing like the rest of the vocal material. Hearing this version of El amor brujo, which of course includes the famous Ritual Fire Dance but places it in context, is a truly fascinating experience. So is listening to the other work here, the slightly later (1923) El retablo de Maese Pedro. Once again, Falla places cleverness and an interesting concept at the service of a story whose format is not one with which most listeners will be familiar. This is, first of all, a puppet presentation – the title translates as “Master Peter’s Puppet Show” – and, second of all, a tribute to Cervantes’ esteemed novel about Don Quixote, in the second part of which appears the scene that Falla illustrates by combining words and music. Knowledge of the picaresque novel is extremely helpful, if not 100% necessary, to understand what Falla produces: this is one of many scenes in which Don Quixote misinterprets reality because of his devotion to the long-gone days of the knights errant, resulting in turmoil for those with whom Don Quixote interacts even though he himself remains oblivious. As Falla proffers the material, Master Peter presents a puppet show about the rescue of an abducted Christian noblewoman from the Moors; the action is narrated by a boy (sung by a soprano) who is periodically interrupted by Master Peter or Don Quixote, until the latter loses all touch with reality and believes the puppets are real – so he joins in the “rescue,” with highly destructive (but quite amusing) results. Falla’s orchestration here is very clever, including a pedal harp as well as a harpsichord, both of them intended to make matters sound as if they took place long in the past. There are also strings, flute, two oboes, English horn, and clarinet – a wind-focused small orchestral complement that fits the material very well. And here as in El amor brujo, Gil-Ordóñez leads the ensemble with verve, understanding, and a fine sense of the subtle ways in which Falla evoked olden times while incorporating up-to-date (for the 1920s) harmonies. The music is charming; indeed, the whole of El retablo de Maese Pedro is filled with charm. Yet also like El amor brujo, this is a work of somewhat rarefied appeal: unless listeners know what it is about and where the material comes from, its full effect is diminished, especially when heard on CD. Many of Falla’s pieces, certainly including the two here, cry out for use of the visual elements that they were created to include. As fine as these performances are, they would be even better if they were part of fully staged versions, which would do even more than this disc can to bring Falla some of the praise that he is due.

     The blending of old and new, albeit in a very different way, is also a feature of a new Navona CD featuring the Jitro Czech Girls Choir conducted by its music director, Jiří Skopal. The CD includes several works in which Petr Eben (1929-2007) explores anonymous medieval material (Four Choruses on Latin Texts) or reaches back even farther in time for words to set (Catonis Moralia, structured to include Baroque dance-suite elements: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Air and Gigue). There is a very strong and distinct spiritual flavor to these pieces, and also to the five Liturgical Chants, which focus on Psalm 29 (“Give unto the Lord, o ye mighty ones”) and feature organ accompaniment by František Vaníček. Indeed, these three works, in which the purity of the lovely massed voices of the young singers is ever-present, have all the effect of sitting at a traditional church service – an experience that some listeners will find very congenial indeed, although others may find it somewhat off-putting, especially if listening to the three pieces straight through. Staying with the CD after the third work, however, leads to a definite change of material, if not one of tonal beauty. This is because Ten Poetic Duets includes not only the chorus but also piano (played by Michal Chrobák) and, in one song, soloist Barbora Novotná. These are brief settings of Czech-language poetry by Vítězslav Nezval (1900-1958), and here Eben allows himself more-modern harmonies and pianistic effects that sometimes counter the vocal elements instead of supporting and underlining them as the organ does in Liturgical Chants. There is considerable uplift to be had in these miniatures as well, but it is different in kind from what Eben offers in his Latin settings. The Nezval material is sincere but slight – more evanescent than effervescent – but complements the Latin settings nicely. This (+++) CD concludes with another work in Czech, and one that is in some ways the most interesting on the disc. About Swallows and Girls sets nine Bohemian, Moravian, and Silesian folk songs – brief pieces, ranging from a minute in length to two-and-a-half – and here the naïveté of the material and the sentiments fits the pure, beautifully melded voices of the choir to perfection. The themes are pastoral and mildly oriented toward love, but the words scarcely matter in these gentle, sweet little songs as presented by young singers whose repertoire ranges from the angelic to the down-to-earth. Everything on this disc is treated in much the same light and lovely way, and all the works have a consistent sound, even though the choir members surely changed significantly during the time in which these pieces were performed: the recording dates range from 1995 to 2007.

     The words do matter – quite a bit, in fact – on a new (+++) MSR Classics CD featuring the St. Charles Singers conducted by Jeffrey Hunt. But here as with the Jitro Czech Girls Choir, the focus seems to be more on the singers than on what they sing: like the CD in Latin and Czech, this one in English is all about the sound of the voices and the way that sound adapts and adjusts to different material. The songs, in terms of their topics, are certainly multifaceted, including a number of folk and spiritual ones: Shenandoah, Long Time Ago, She’s Like the Swallow, Great God Almighty, and Bright Morning Stars, plus the traditional Shaker tune, I Hunger and Thirst. Interspersed with these works are songs from as far back as the 19th century (arranged in the 20th) and ones written as recently as the 21st. The longest work here, the five-song cycle Walden Pond (to words by Thoreau), is by Dominick Argento (born 1927). Then there are single songs: Water Night by Eric Whitacre (born 1970); Dirait-On by Morten Lauridsen (born 1942); Beautiful River by Robert Lowry (1826-1899); Why the Caged Bird Sings by Jake Runestad (born 1986); and Unclouded Day by Josiah Kelley Alwood (1828-1909). The repertoire is wide-ranging in time and subject matter, and the St. Charles Singers handle it all with smooth and very pleasant tone, skillfully highlighting the emotional high points of each piece. Sincerity is the watchword here: the singers do not sound as if they are just going through the paces of performances, but are genuinely trying to bring the emotional content of the words and music across to the audience. Nevertheless, there is a certain sameness to the emoting that underplays the differences in the material and thus understates the differing emotional effects of, for example, the overt religiosity of Great God Almighty and the quieter spirituality implied by Walden Pond. This is a fine chorus that sings very well, even if with a certain uniformity that keeps the repertoire from coming across in as varied a way as listeners might expect.

     It is not, of course, necessary to use voices at all in order to tell stories in and with music. That is the lesson of a (++++) MSR Classics CD offering yet more of the music of Barbara Harbach (born 1946). A great deal of her large output is available on this label: this is the 12th CD and the fourth devoted to orchestral music. It is also one of the best and most interesting of the series. Both the works here are world première recordings, and both use strictly orchestral means to communicate a series of emotions every bit as clearly as could be done by setting words. Symphony No. 11, “Retourner,” is a three-movement work based on the 1913 Willa Cather novel, O Pioneers! Not often read today, the book, set in Nebraska in the early 20th century, is about a young woman’s attempt to succeed with the farm she has inherited from her father even though many other immigrant families in Nebraska have given up. It has the sorts of family squabbles and traumas common in novels of its time – those of Theodore Dreiser come to mind – and climaxes with a husband killing his wife and her lover. There is a sense of pervasive nostalgia for a time that never was in the book (which is the first of a trilogy), and it is this characteristic that Harbach brings out effectively in her symphony. She is essentially a tonal composer, and that stands her in good stead in representing this period piece: only a section of the first movement called “Debate” has any real edge to it. The symphony gives no hint of the melodramatic/tragic portions of the book, focusing on its rather over-sweet romantic elements and, in the last movement, on a happy day at a country fair. Even more interesting is the other work on this disc, Hypocrisy, a 13-section suite written as the score for a notorious 1915 silent film called Hypocrites that was widely condemned and even banned because of its use of full nudity and its attack on traditional moral values as exemplified by organized religion. The film was made by Lois Weber, the most famous female director of her time, and was full of condemnations of the hypocritical elements of business, family life, politics, and social structures in general. As in the symphony, Harbach somewhat downplays the more-intense and more-compelling elements of Hypocrites, although movements called “Shock and Death” and “Sermon of Hypocrisy” (the latter concluding the suite) offer a certain degree of tension. By and large, the suite contains varied elements that call up all sorts of emotions, even if the specific ones will not always be clear to listeners who are unfamiliar with Weber’s film, which will be the case for almost the whole audience. The film, for example, contrasts a medieval monk named Gabriel, who is murdered after he makes a statue of Truth that turns out to be a naked woman, with a modern-day Gabriel who is pastor of a large, wealthy, hypocritical urban church. The suite’s section called “Gabriel the Ascetic” works better if one knows this element of the plot than if one does not. And so matters go throughout Harbach’s work. Nevertheless, the 55-minute suite sustains very well, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under David Angus plays both the suite and the symphony with dedication and obvious respect for what Harbach is trying to communicate. Both these pieces could be somewhat edgier and, if they were, would better reflect their source material; but as is, they both do a very fine job of using purely instrumental means to put across some, if not all, of the emotional concerns and impact of the works on which they are based.

May 23, 2019


Thank You for My Dreams: Bedtime Prayers of Gratitude. By HSH Prince Alexi Lubomirski and sons. Illustrated by Tracey Knight. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     We could all use a strong dose of gratitude every day, especially at a time when so many elements of social and societal cohesiveness seem to have frayed beyond repair. Even when things are going badly on a given day, if we can but remember that not all things go badly on all days, and can express our understanding of that reality and our appreciation of it, we can go some distance toward healing our own hearts, if not those of the people around us. Or perhaps we can start healing others by first healing ourselves – it is certainly worth a try.

     None of this is stated directly in Alexi Lubomirski’s Thank You for My Dreams, but all of it is strongly implied. Lubomirski, a fashion photographer of royal heritage who donates the proceeds of his books to the international humanitarian organization “Concern Worldwide,” certainly has his heart in the right place – and, apparently, the hearts of his sons, too, since he says that the statements in this book are given as his sons themselves say them. That does strain credulity a bit: at the very least, the statements show strong parental influence. But certainly it makes sense to encourage gratitude in our children as well as in ourselves – and being grateful for our children is one thing on which all parents would do well to focus, despite the innumerable everyday difficulties inherent in child-rearing.

     Thank You for My Dreams does have some elements of over-reaching, or perhaps under-reaching. The simple but apt, cutout-style silhouette illustrations by Tracey Knight are a big part of the book’s effect, but Knight gets no credit on the cover, title page, or anywhere inside except in the “Acknowledgments.” Some gratitude for the art would seem appropriate. Also, in its determination to be politically correct, the book includes some elements that are quite clearly parental impositions of the cause-of-the-moment: “Thank you for people who don’t use plastic straws because they are bad for the planet.” But at the same time, “Thank you for cars, buses, and trains because they help us get to school and the shops when we need to buy food.” And: “Thank you for planes that let us travel to see our family in different cities and different countries where they live.” There is no sense of irony here, or even one of understanding the complexities of modern life.

     And then there is this: “Thank you for people who invent things to stop pollution and for the garbagemen who take all the garbage away from our streets and they also take all our recycling away, which helps the planet.” The art for this comment is exceptional, showing a trash collector with the wings of an angel – scarcely a common image!  But the book also includes, “Thank you for all the countries in the world because there are seven billion people on planet earth and that’s where they all live.” And that’s where they all create pollution and garbage, as the book does not say. There is an underlying sense of unreality here that is not wholly attributable to the notion that the words of gratitude are those of children. Parents, after all, form children’s opinions, and parents shape children’s lives in such a way as to point to things for which to be grateful – or not.

     Still, the foundational concept of Thank You for My Dreams is a sound and welcome one, and it is far more of a full-day matter than the book’s subtitle indicates. Indeed, that subtitle is misleading, since the book is divided into three sections called “Morning,” “Day” and “Evening.” The focus here is scarcely bedtime, and the book is better for its full-day gratitude orientation. And many of the specifics are both childlike and quite lovely: “Thank you for that feeling I get inside my whole body when I feel love, like when Mommy and Daddy are smiling at me when I am not doing anything.” “Thank you for doctors and hospitals who make us feel better when we get hurt or get sick because sometimes lots of kids are sick at school and then we all get sick.” And, in nods to the benefits of technology, “Thank you for video chat so we can speak to Grandma and Grandpa even when they are living in a different country.” And: “Thank you for phones that let us talk to our family and friends when they are not in the same room.”

     There are occasional realizations in Thank You for My Dreams of just how fortunate the Lubomirski family is – indeed, how fortunate many, many First World families are: “Thank you for all the faucets in our house that let us get water whenever we want to drink or wash. Some people don’t have that, so we are very lucky.” And that, in a sense, says it all: the Lubomirskis, and the families that will read this book, are very lucky indeed, no matter what their everyday challenges and difficulties may be. There will always be someone who has more of something than you do, but there is one thing that anyone who picks up Thank You for My Dreams can have to just the same extent as anyone else who reads the book: gratitude. Becoming aware of that as a general matter, if not in all the specific ways expressed in this book, can go a long way toward making everyday life calmer, happier, and more appreciated.


Son of Havana: A Baseball Journey from Cuba to the Big Leagues and Back. By Luis Tiant with Saul Wisnia. Diversion Books. $25.99.

     If you are a baseball fan – a crucial, foundational “if” – you will find much that is thrilling and much that is uplifting in Luis Tiant’s story as told, at least partly by Tiant himself, in Son of Havana. It is hard to be sure how much of the sometimes hectic prose in the book comes from Tiant and how much from collaborator Saul Wisnia, but certainly the writing style has the sort of punch that fans of big-league sports will like: “On defense our guys tried their best, but sometimes it seemed we couldn’t hit or catch the ball. This put a lot of pressure on the pitchers. You knew every time out that one mistake could cost you the game. …I wasn’t just pitching good, I was dealing – allowing just 14 hits and seven walks while striking out 35 over the 36 innings of the streak.”

     The rather immodest tone here is somewhat at odds with the reputation of Tiant, whose baseball odyssey began with the Mexico City Tigers in 1959 and with winter ball with the Havana Sugar Kings. But those were not times when baseball was played in a political vacuum: in 1961, Tiant’s father, himself a onetime Negro League pitcher, warned his son not to return home to Cuba or he would risk not being allowed to leave again. Those were the early days of Fidel Castro’s Communist takeover of the island, a time of massive upheaval that remade not only Cuba itself but also parts of the United States, notably Miami and much of southeastern Florida.

     The political situation during Tiant’s lifetime is an inevitable part of Son of Havana, with the book’s subtitle referring to the fact that it was 46 years of exile before Tiant could make a return – by then a triumphant one – to his home island. But the book is not really about geopolitics and not really aimed at showing how baseball, among other things, became something of a pawn in the ongoing disputes between Cuba and its allies, on the one hand, and the United States, on the other. Son of Havana is about Tiant himself, about the racism he faced after joining the Cleveland Indians in the 1960s – when, to make matters more difficult, he could barely speak English – and about the crippling injuries that eventually brought him to the Boston Red Sox in 1971 with torn shoulder ligaments and little expectation of much of a remaining career. And then the book follows the typical arc of a down-and-out-and-back-up-again tale by showing how Tiant overcame his damaged arm, evolved a strange and very effective pitching style, and won over Red Sox fans to such an extent that they started calling him “El Tiante” and were celebrating his pitching and dedication with loud chants by the time of the 1975 World Series.

     For many potential readers of Son of Havana, the year 1975 will be ancient history. The book relies on the long memories and continuing fascination with the past that so many baseball fans possess. It was in 1975 that Tiant had a reunion with his family – Fidel Castro had allowed the family members to leave Cuba to see their son pitch. And this was in many ways the high point of Tiant’s baseball career: by 1978, he signed with the Red Sox’ arch-rivals, the New York Yankees, for reasons that Son of Havana delves into but that will seem mystifying to anyone not deeply committed to the whole major-league-baseball ethos and the intensity of the many-decades-long rivalries that the sport has spawned. By the 1980s, Tiant had retired and become a college baseball coach and a pitching consultant (for, yes, the Red Sox). And so matters stood for 20-some years until Tiant returned to Cuba in 2007. And then, to add triumph to triumph, Tiant got to throw out the first pitch for a U.S. spring exhibition game in Cuba – in 2016 – cementing Tiant’s cross-cultural importance to the sport and completing a journey that geographically covers only 90 miles (the distance from Cuba to the closest part of the U.S.) but that spans nearly five decades of political, social and personal upheaval.

     This material is certainly the stuff of an impressive memoir, although a very narrowly targeted one. But much of the style of Son of Havana is so determinedly inner-workings-of-baseball in its orientation that the book is less compelling than it could be. There are certainly emotional high and low points here, but the book’s focus is on a great deal of name-dropping – including comments by Carlton Fisk, Johnny Bench, and other notable players – and on insider comments on elements of many specific games: “A rotation of me, [Ferguson] Jenkins, Bill Lee, Rick Wise, and Reggie Cleveland, plus our powerful lineup and depth, made us the favorites to repeat as AL East champs in ’76. Darrell Johnson said he was worried I’d be out of shape when I got to Florida, but I surprised him just like I used to surprise Al Dark.” The ongoing tone of self-praise, whether it comes from Tiant himself or from Wisnia, makes it harder to root for Tiant as he goes through his many challenges and emerges, by and large, victorious. The truly interesting story here for non-baseball fans is the one about an unwilling exile from his homeland who makes good despite many reverses, then returns in triumph to the place where his roots lie. And that story is certainly present in Son of Havana, but much of it is buried beneath mounds of detail that limit the book’s appeal to anyone who is not largely familiar with Tiant’s story already.


Alkan: Symphonie pour piano seul, Op. 39, Nos. 4-7; Grande Sonate “Les Quatre Âges de la vie,” Op. 33; Super flumina Babylonis—Paraphrase du psaumme 137, Op. 52. Yury Favorin, piano. Muso. $18.99.

Jeff Adler: A Path of Light and other works. Hevreh Ensemble (Jeff Adler, bass clarinet and Native American flutes; Judith Dansker, oboe and Native American flute; Laurie Friedman, clarinet and Native American flute; Adam Morrison, piano and keyboards); Shane Shanahan, percussion; George Rush, double bass; Naren Budhkar, tabla; ensemble Ethel (Ralph Farris, viola, vocals, and minimoog; Kip Jones and Corin Lee, violins; Dorothy Lawson, cello). Ansonica. $9.99.

Matt Frey: One-Eleven Heavy. Jenny Ribeiro, soprano; Karim Sulayman, tenor; Hotel Elefant conducted by David Bloom. Navona. $14.99.

     Fewer and fewer young virtuoso pianists are intimidated these days by the music of Charles-Valentin Alkan. That is both a good thing and a bad. It is good because Alkan’s astonishing music, neglected for so very, very long, is now heard much more frequently, and far more people have been given the opportunity to discover just how amazingly creative Alkan was. It is bad, though, because so many top-notch young pianists see only the extreme difficulty in what Alkan wrote and the need for tremendous technical virtuosity and manual dexterity to play his music. This undervalues Alkan, whose works go well beyond mere display. Alkan was a thoughtful and highly innovative composer, some of whose pieces – such as one prelude from Op. 31, Chanson de la folle au bord de la mer – have a sound that no other composer has ever matched. Alkan was a connoisseur of piano developments during his lifetime (1813-1883), creating, for example, a number of works for the piano-pédalier, whose pedalboard resembles that of an organ and is played with the feet. But Alkan did not need his instruments to be “prepared” à la Cage or played with a wooden board à la Ives – he used them just as they were manufactured, plumbing the depths of the sound and effects of which they were capable. It is this element of Alkan’s compositional and performance prowess that today’s young pianists too often miss. Happily, Yury Favorin, who performs Alkan on a new Muso CD, has a clear understanding – whether studied or intuitive – of the elements of Alkan that go beyond the purely virtuosic. Favorin finds in Alkan a composer/performer who not only pushed the limits of the piano as an instrument but also brought forth the piano’s emotive capabilities in ways unmatched even by Liszt (who admired Alkan). Thus, Favorin opens this disc with Super flumina Babylonis, based on the Psalm with the famous lines about the exiled Jews weeping by the waters of Babylon – and Favorin makes the contrasting episodes, which range from the despairing to the utterly furious with anger, into emotionally trenchant expressions as well as chances to show off pianistic skill. Next is one of Alkan’s more-familiar works, the Symphonie pour piano seul from within the composer’s 12 studies in minor keys. Truly symphonic in scope, this work – each movement in a different minor key – is unremitting in its technical demands. But it also requires some delicacy and sensitivity to the abrupt contrasts with which Alkan’s music abounds – for example, in the main portion of the Minuet and the movement’s contrasting trio section. Favorin changes the emotional tone of these sections as well as their pacing and overall sound, and that is just the right way to approach the music. The CD concludes with another major, large-scale work, the Grande Sonate representing four different ages of a man’s life: 20, 30, 40 and 50. Alkan was 33 when he wrote it and already prone to depressive thinking, so in a sense it is not surprising that the sonata becomes gloomier as it progresses. But the sound as well as the speed of the four movements is quite unusual: the first and second are quite fast (the second, Quasi-Faust, is sometimes heard on its own); the third and most content is considerably slower; and the finale is very slow (Extrêmement lent, Alkan marks it) and bears the heading Prométhée enchainé – a gloomy outlook indeed for someone in his 30s looking toward life at or after 50. Favorin, born in 1986, made this recording in 2017, so he was about the age at which Alkan wrote the piece. But whatever Favorin’s personal outlook on later life – not that 50 is “later” nowadays – he manages in this performance to convey all the worries and fears that Alkan put into the latter part of the sonata, including the sense of being chained and tormented as Prometheus was after bringing fire to the human race. Alkan was a very complex thinker, a considerable Biblical scholar as well as a brilliant composer and performer, and his multifaceted music reflects his personality. When a young performer such as Favorin manages to get in touch in some way with Alkan’s thinking as well as his compositional and performance prowess, the result is a recording of substantial interest.

     Alkan was unusual in his ability to take a known (although fast-developing) instrument, the piano, and find ways to make it sound quite different from the way other composers had made it sound. Today, composers seeking unusual sounds in their compositions are more inclined to bring in unfamiliar instruments or even nonmusical elements – the latter concept actually dating back at least to the fire siren in Edgard Varèse’s 1929 Amériques. Jeff Adler is in the unusual-instruments camp, employing Native American flutes, the Indian tabla, the minimoog synthesizer, vocals and other elements to bring color and unusual aural experiences to the 10 tracks on a new (+++) Ansonica CD. Two of the works here are the keys to the entire set: the title track, an upbeat work played after a bright and jazz-inflected opening piece, and the penultimate item, Speed of Dark, the longest work on the disc and the only one with a distinctly downbeat and rather somber (if obvious) cast. Adler clearly intends not to let Speed of Dark become the dominant impression of his music, however, since he follows it with an Epilogue that seems to convey a warning about allowing darkness to triumph. The human-voice-like elements of the instruments in some of the pieces here, as well as parts that really do include vocals, point toward the CD being a kind of inward journey that also has external elements, indicated by the use of instruments and sounds from a variety of cultures. Some of these are difficult to decipher, such as Wudeligv, while others seem more straightforwardly communicative, such as the bright and forthright Amor Caritas and the very jazzy Sweetgrass, Cedar and Sage. The CD conveys the constant impression that Adler is trying hard to mean something with the individual pieces and with their totality, but the music itself does not make any particular meaning clear. There is a lot of pleasant-sounding material here, with the frequent juxtaposition of winds and percussion giving the whole disc a distinct aura of bounce and jazziness. But as an exploration of light vs. dark, which in any case is scarcely a very original concept, the music falls short. In fact, the individual pieces are, by and large, of the pleasant “background” type that is more-or-less what passes these days for a kind of salon music. They sound good and are certainly well played, with Adler himself and his fellow performers engaging in very pleasant back-and-forth give-and-take. But little of the material will likely stay with listeners after the disc ends: it may try to be meaty, but offers more sizzle than steak.

     Matt Frey’s very short chamber opera One-Eleven Heavy, on the other hand, is nothing but intensity. Offered on a (+++) Navona CD whose total length is less than 15 minutes, the opera – for which Frey wrote both libretto and music – is about the fatal crash of Swissair Flight 111 (“heavy” means the plane was a jumbo jet) on September 2, 1998. Nobody survived: all 229 people aboard died when the plane went down in the Atlantic Ocean near Nova Scotia. The cause of the disaster was faulty wiring that caused the plane’s insulation – which was flammable – to burn. But Frey is not concerned here with why the flight crashed. He casts this chamber opera in four very short parts, giving it a sound world that includes original Air Traffic Control recordings, the sounds of the ocean, and the words of family members of some of the people who died. The idea is both to commemorate the flight and to raise existential questions about humans aloft and the fragility of their environment – if something goes wrong, passengers can literally do nothing and must very quickly come face-to-face with their own powerlessness and, in the worst cases (such as that of Swissair Flight 111), their own mortality. This is scarcely a new notion, and thus the pervasive gloom of the very short opera is scarcely a surprise. The affecting images – of, for example, hundreds of shoes left behind by those aboard the doomed aircraft – are juxtaposed (in song) with the matter-of-fact narration of those trying unsuccessfully to get the flight safely to the ground. The thoughts of lives cut short, plans destroyed, families sundered forever, are presented in a context that will likely make anyone with a fear of flying even more reluctant to board any aircraft, of any size, for any reason, ever. That does not seem to be Frey’s intent, but it is the effect of what he has created here. In seeking to honor the victims of this crash, or at least remember them, Frey has written and composed something that will likely be too painful for families of the victims to experience – and likely too pointlessly frightening for anyone who was not affected by this tragedy, but is aware of the fact that flying remains an undeniable and real risk, one that no actuarial assurance of the rarity of problems can do much to assuage.


Villa-Lobos: Sonata Fantasia No. 2; Arnold Bax: Violin Sonata No. 2; William Bolcom: Duo Fantasy. duo526 (Kerry DuWors, violin; Futaba Niekawa, piano). Navona. $14.99.

Steven A. Kennedy: Marian—Sonata for Violin and Piano; Allen Brings: Duo for Flute and Piano; Lee Actor: Duo for Violin and Cello; Peter Greve: Aria; Sidney Bailin: Blue Plea. Vit Mužík, violin; Lucie Kaucká and Stephanie Watt, piano; Christopher Morrison, flute; Petr Nouzovský, cello; Ondřej Jurčeka, trumpet; Karel Martínek, organ; Sauro Berti, bass clarinet. Navona. $14.99.

Thad Anderson: Withheld; Route; As We May Think; Five Messages; Withhold; Re-Cite; Mechanization; Outside, Looking In; Through-Line; By-and-By; Within. Ravello. $14.99.

     Fine playing of works with deeply contrasting uses of violin and piano creates something of a puzzle in a new Navona recording featuring violinist Kerry DuWors and pianist Futaba Niekawa. Why these works, individually and collectively? The question is reasonable and perhaps inevitable, given the composers’ stylistic variety and the specific pieces’ extremely different moods and approaches. From Villa-Lobos comes Sonata Fantasia No. 2, a 1914 work of pervasive lyricism in which the piano frequently seems at odds with the broad singing quality of the violin, almost as if the instruments occupy different sound worlds that are joined together at best uneasily. Yet the confluence works in subtle ways, pulling listeners in different directions at the same time but layering those differences into a unified whole unlike either of its components. In its expressivity, the piece is very much of its time, its first two movements conveying weightiness while its third, concluding one is for the most part lighter, more elegant and more graceful in its flow. DuWors and Niekawa hold the piece together well – but it is hard to see why they follow it with Bax’s Violin Sonata No. 2 of the same time period (1915, revised in 1920). The four-movement Bax work is not only much longer than that of Villa-Lobos but also much darker and more portentous: it is significant that it was first written during the Great War and then revised after it. The titles of the four movements show much of what Bax is trying to convey here: “Fantasy: Slow and gloomy,” “The Grey Dancer in the Twilight: Fast Valse,” “Very broad and concentrated,” and “Allegro feroce.” There is nothing here with the gentleness or lyricism of Villa-Lobos or of his periodic playfulness. The Bax is a work of high, if unstated, purpose, and one requiring the performers to engage in often-anguished dialogue instead of trying to pull disparate musical elements together. The intensity of Bax’s work is nearly unremitting, and its raw emotions rarely relieved. DuWors and Niekawa acquit themselves well here, if perhaps not quite as comfortably as in the Villa-Lobos: the half-hour-plus of the Bax is wearing on performers as well as, to some extent, on listeners. The ironic bite of the second movement is a bit attenuated here, but the darkness of the first and third comes through clearly, and the finale does have intensity, if not quite ferocity. It is an admirable performance, if not quite as convincing as that of the Villa-Lobos. But it is hard to go from both these works to Bolcom’s Duo Fantasy of 1973, which occupies an altogether different sound world and calls on altogether different emotions. It is a wry, ironic piece that parses a variety of styles and calls on sometimes self-conscious modernity in its harmonies and the way it juxtaposes contrasting and sometimes deliberately ill-fitting themes – for example, in a lovely, lyrical section that sounds altogether misplaced. If chamber music tends to be thought of as conversational, this Bolcom work can be deemed chatty. It is not exactly lighthearted, but it does mix rather rough humor with a certain amount of sarcasm. DuWors and Niekawa play it very well indeed, allowing its deliberate excesses all the space they need for their effect. But Bolcom is a subtle composer, and it is his subtlety that gets somewhat sparse attention here: he is using humor for a purpose, and even if that purpose is not entirely clear, its existence needs to be acknowledged. That is, however, a bit much to ask of performers – or listeners, for that matter. On the whole, this CD showcases two first-rate performers trying, mostly successfully, to wrap their talents and thoughts around three works that are just a little too different from each other to make for a wholly satisfying listening experience.

     The violin-and-piano sonata on a new Navona anthology disc of modern chamber music is quite different from anything played by DuWors and Niekawa. It is a four-movement programmatic work bearing the title Marian and intended as an encapsulation of the life of Christ. The movements, played with skill but on the whole rather emotionlessly by Vit Mužík and Lucie Kaucká, depict Advent, the walk to the Cross, the Resurrection and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Steven A. Kennedy includes bits of hymns, carols and antiphons in the sonata, and its sincerity is undoubted, but strictly as music, it is rather undistinguished. The three-movement Duo for Flute and Piano by Allen Brings is, on the whole, more interesting. The piece has some structural echoes of Bach but is quite contemporary in its handling of the instruments and in its treatment of tonality and of thematic presentation and development. The first movement has the instruments in rather competitive mode; the second is filled with contrasts between peaceful (but not lyrical) sections and intense, fragmented ones; the third is brighter and more upbeat – in it, the instruments seem to be chasing each other as much as cooperating. The three other works on this CD are single-movement ones for various instruments. Lee Actor’s Duo for Violin and Cello is emphatic in its dissonance and demanding in some of its techniques. It sounds thoroughly contemporary if not particularly individual. Peter Greve’s Aria is for the interesting combination of trumpet and organ. It is broadly conceived, uses the instruments’ contrasting sonorities very well, and does a good job of combining an expressive opening and closing with an exceedingly dissonant and displaced-sounding middle portion. This is, in fact, the most intriguing work on the disc. Also here is Sidney Bailin’s Blue Plea for bass clarinet. It is unusual to hear a solo work for this instrument, but once the element of the unexpected wears off, the piece proves somewhat less compelling: the central riffs provide good contrast to the opening and closing sections, but the work as a whole is more interesting sonically than in terms of its musical material. Like other anthology discs, this one has its ups and downs: listeners who enjoy contemporary chamber works will likely find something congenial here, if not everything.

     Thad Anderson’s music on a new Ravello CD is for listeners whose definition of contemporary chamber works encompasses ones in which acoustic instruments are paired with electronics. That is the basis of most of the material here: some pieces are for fixed media and some include live processing; and then there are those that require tuned metals. The works are based on a compositional technique that Anderson calls “duration lines,” and as usual in material based on a composer’s invented concept, the pieces are intellectual exercises and applications of the underlying technique rather than works intended to impress themselves clearly on an audience not versed in the basis of their composition. Anderson’s music is certainly of interest to the sonically adventurous, however – at least in small doses rather than by listening to all 11 works (15 tracks) on this CD straight through. The specific choices of sound for the various pieces are the disc’s most appealing elements. The opening Withheld and closing Within are for tuned metals that sound rather like temple bells, while Withhold, heard midway through the disc, is for snare drum and fixed media. All the pieces overstay their welcome, but in all cases their initial presentation is quite fascinating, and the way in which Anderson blends and contrasts the various sounds is definitely worth hearing, if not at the full length to which these works go. Three pieces here are for multiple keyboards: As We May Think is for multi-keyboard and fixed media (using words as part of the texture), Mechanization is a duet for multi-keyboards, and By-and-By – the least mechanistic and most engaging of the three – is for two vibraphones and two marimbas. Continuing the percussive theme that permeates this disc, Five Messages is for two pianists and two percussionists; most of it sounds like extended telephone ring tones. And then there is Outside, Looking In, which is simply for piano solo – and here too Anderson is concerned mainly with the struck-key, struck-string nature of the instrument rather than with any of its expressive potential. Yet not everything on the CD is entirely percussion-focused: Route is for solo saxophone and fixed media; Re-Cite is for wind instruments and live processing; and Through-Line is for flutes and fixed media. However, the winds do not smooth or soften the electronics here – in fact, something of the opposite occurs, with the electronic elements tending to “electronic-ify” the acoustic instruments. Thus, for example, the flutes in Through-Line sound somewhat like the temple-bell metals heard elsewhere on the disc – a sonic transformation that may be exactly what Anderson is looking for, but that goes very much against the grain of the instruments’ expressiveness. That, however, is not the central concern on this disc, or very much of a concern at all: the CD is all about exploring percussive and electronic textures within structures dictated by a compositional approach that will likely be far too rarefied for a general audience, but that does not appear to be aimed at a large group of listeners in any case – it is really for Anderson himself and for people familiar with his work and the thought process that underpins it.

May 16, 2019


5 Worlds, Book 1: The Sand Warrior. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Boya Sun, and Matt Rockefeller. Random House. $12.99 (paperback).

5 Worlds, Book 2: The Cobalt Prince. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Boya Sun, and Matt Rockefeller. Random House. $12.99 (paperback).

5 Worlds, Book 3: The Red Maze. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Boya Sun, and Matt Rockefeller. Random House. $20.99 (hardcover).

     Inventive despite its constant echoes of other adventure stories, artistically consistent despite its collaborative nature, and told at a pace that allows both for plenty of action and for plenty of explanatory background, the 5 Worlds series of graphic novels is one of the best uses of the form in recent years. The novels are a true sequence, not standalone books: it is very difficult to pick up the series anywhere but the beginning, since the second and third books are continuations of the first with very little attempt to look back and fill in prior events. But that is just fine, because readers who do start with The Sand Warrior will not want to stop until they have gone through all three releases to date – and anyone who happens to pick up The Cobalt Prince or The Red Maze will soon realize that there is a rich vein of fictional history without which the stories do not coalesce very well, and will likely seek out the earlier volumes to understand the foundations of the tale.

     5 Worlds has echoes of innumerable fantasies set in the past and future, on Earth or on alternative worlds or somewhere in space. Star Wars is a dominant feature, one among many. But present-day, real-world ecological and economic elements also appear, lending a veneer of almost-realism to some of the characters’ concerns. The three main characters will be instantly recognizable to any fantasy fan as “unlikely hero” types: Oona Lee, goodhearted but not-very-skillful student at a prominent school called the Sand Dancer Academy, who does not remember her parents and whose older, apparently more-talented sister fled the school before the story’s start, for reasons unknown; An Tzu, a boy from the slums who knows how to trick and maneuver his way around the oppressive society, and who has a mysterious illness that means he will not live long; and Jax Amboy, a star athlete in a highly popular game called Starball, who has plenty of fame but no emotional connections worthy of the name – and who, it turns out, is not what he appears to be at all.

     The world building here is also of a familiar type: there are indeed five worlds, one of which dominated the others until a long-ago war of independence that resulted in the colonies splitting from the once-dominant Mother World. The worlds were settled by obscure, poorly understood ancient figures called Felid Gods; that race vanished long ago, and there are mysteries of all sorts attached to it. One of those involves five giant beacons, one per world, built for no known reason and now dark after having presumably been lit and important in some significant way in the dim past. 5 Worlds is, at its simplest, the story of the re-lighting of the beacons and of the three young people who – against the feckless and often venal forces of their elders – make the re-lighting possible.

     This is not, in truth, an especially inventive story arc, but the five creators of 5 Worlds handle it with very considerable skill that involves characterization as much as action – often more so, in fact. The reason the beacons need to be re-lit is that the worlds are overheating and becoming uninhabitable – for now, by wild creatures, but soon for humans. Or so some people say: this is a political universe (where politics has not advanced much beyond 21st-century Earth norms), and the adults have their own agendas and their own interpretations of what is going on. They also have a bizarre creature known as the Mimic that is manipulating them, or some of them, further complicating pretty much everything: this is a creature that is heartless, in fact literally heartless because of some of the events in the books, but that nevertheless appears unstoppable and, like all ultra-villains, is steadily growing in strength. The five worlds – Mon Domani, Moon Yatta, Toki, Salassandra, and Grimbo (E) – have characteristic colors associated with them and their beacons, and the re-lighting has to take that into account to produce a sequence of white, red, blue, yellow, and green. Why? Just because – although the reason may eventually be made clear. It is a characteristic of 5 Worlds that the story’s mysteries are pervasive but are not paraded for readers with portentousness: there is a genuine feeling here that Oona Lee, An Tzu and Jax Amboy are struggling to make sense of their quest even as readers are struggling along with them. That is a real strength of 5 Worlds.

     Another strength of the story is the clarity with which it makes sociopolitical points, but without lecturing or hectoring. The blue-skinned Toki, for example, are a servant class and deemed inferior – but it is the Toki who start the events that lead to the quest of re-lighting, and it turns out that Oona Lee is not of the dominant white-skinned class after all, in one of many surprises and reversals in the story. As for Jax Amboy, he is dark-skinned, but in his case the color is quite literally only skin-deep – another way in which 5 Worlds makes its point about heroic actions being the province of pretty much anyone and, indeed, pretty much anything: an entire race of “vegetals,” for example, plays a significant role, and its members can and do interbreed with more-recognizable humans, producing “mixed-sap” people. The art and coloring in these books is finely honed and always attractive, the background scenery unusual enough to convey a sense of alienness throughout while allowing the familiar elements of this extended quest story to come through clearly. 5 Worlds is a very considerable achievement already, even though it is incomplete and has quite a few questions still to be answered. Surely some of the murkiness will be clearer after the appearance of the fourth book, which will be called The Amber Anthem. But equally surely, that will not be the end of the 5 Worlds saga; and even when this epic graphic-novel series does end, it will have left readers so immersed in its skillful storytelling and highly attractive art that many will surely be eager to return to the beginning and re-live the re-lighting all over again.