July 25, 2019
I Love Mozart: My First Sound Book. By Marion Billet. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $9.99.
Giraffes Can’t Dance. By Giles Andreae. Illustrations by Guy Parker-Rees. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.
How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? By Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $7.99.
How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? By Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $7.99.
The My First Sound Book series of musical board books, having already offered I Love Classical Music and I Love “The Nutcracker,” has now turned to one specific composer – certainly one of the greatest of all – and is, as usual, using happy-go-lucky, upbeat animals of all sorts to introduce the youngest children to the six works excerpted in Marion Billet’s simple, happy presentation. I Love Mozart has the same structure as the other books in this delightful series: the back cover is very thick, because it contains the circuitry to produce the musical sounds and an on-off switch that parents throw to make the music audible when children press a button on each page. The batteries are replaceable, using a jeweler’s screwdriver to get to them – a setup made deliberately so that only adults can get the batteries out. The nice thing about the on-off switch is that simply moving it to the “off” position after each reading of the book means the batteries will last a really long time – perhaps until children have outgrown I Love Mozart altogether and moved on to listen to his music elsewhere. Certainly that is the intent here, because the six works within the book are so wonderful in highly excerpted form that children will likely find them delightful and want to hear more. There is a violin-and-piano sonata, a bit of Mozart’s only clarinet concerto, a touch of a piano sonata, an excerpt from Symphony No. 40, a little bit of the serenade known as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and then just a smidgin of Mozart’s variations on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star – yes, he really did write such a piece, although he described it as variations on Ah! vous dirai-je, maman, which is the same tune with different words. Learning that Mozart wrote a piano piece based on so familiar a tune is but one of the pleasures of this little book. Another is seeing how nicely Billet’s illustrations fit the music: teddy bears in old-fashioned costumes dance in the moonlight for Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, four animals in band costumes show off four different instruments that are heard in Symphony No. 40, and so on. The combination of great music, even in tiny portions, with cute animals of all sorts, makes I Love Mozart a nearly irresistible introduction to some nearly irresistible music.
Animals tend to be so gosh-darned endearing in children’s books that the books can come out in new editions long after their original publication and be every bit as entertaining as they were in the first place. Giles Andreae’s Giraffes Can’t Dance dates to 1999 (and to 2001 in its first American edition) and is just as enjoyable in its new board-book form as it was when it first became available. Andreae’s pleasant rhyming story about a giraffe that cannot dance at all until he finds just the right music – with the help of a cricket fiddler – is as apt a tale of self-discovery as ever, and the Guy Parker-Rees illustrations (especially the one of Gerald turning a backward somersault, which is also on the cover) complement the narrative adorably. The point here is that Gerald does indeed have knees that are “awfully crooked” and legs that are “rather thin,” and he may indeed be clumsy when he tries “to run around,” but no matter what the other participants in the Jungle Dance think, no matter how they tease Gerald, he can dance under the right circumstances: “But sometimes when you’re different/ you just need a different song.” Gerald finds his particular song when he learns to “listen to the swaying grass/ and listen to the trees,” when he is able to “imagine that the lovely moon/ is playing just for you –/ everything makes music/ if you really want it to.” It is the wise cricket (unnamed, but Pinocchio lovers will think of Jiminy) who speaks those words to Gerald, but it is Gerald himself who must take them in and apply them. And he does – so well that, as the other animals walk by after the end of the official Jungle Dance, they marvel at Gerald’s moves and poses and deem him “the best dancer/ that we’ve ever, ever seen!” Find your muse, Andreae and Parker-Rees advise (although not in exactly those words), and you will find a way to express yourself that is just right for you. That is as lovely a thought now as it was two decades ago.
There is, of course, such a thing as throwing oneself a bit too enthusiastically into whatever one is doing – and that is the constant message of the marvelous How Do Dinosaurs… books by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague. Their winter-holiday pair – How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? and How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? – dates to 2012, and this year is available in board-book form. Like all the books in this long-running sequence, these two contrast appropriate behavior with inappropriate, showing both types displayed by amazingly lifelike and realistically drawn dinosaurs (stand-ins, of course, for courteous vs. unruly children). Parents and other characters in these books are human, but the central child protagonists, whether behaving well or badly, are dinosaurs performing their activities in hilariously anthropomorphic ways. The books include the real, scientific, long and difficult name of each dinosaur, both on the page where each appears in the story and with smaller illustrations on the inside front and back covers. So there is a heaping helping of learning available in these books to kids who are scientifically inclined – but it is also just fine to read these books simply for their lessons in manners, delivered so amusingly that they barely seem like lessons at all. The Christmas book, for example, uses a Tyrannosaur-like Guanlong and similarly shaped but differently colored Erythrosuchus with the “misbehavior” questions, “Does he eat all the cookies left out for Saint Nick,/ giving each candy cane one sloppy lick?” And the Chanukah book features a gigantic flying Nyctosaurus with the question, “Does he snatch away dreidels so no one else plays?” Yolen and Teague are careful to make the well-behaving dinos just as interesting and attractive as the ones behaving badly. So in the Christmas book there is a sort-of-Triceratops-like Einiosaurus with the statement, “He carols with care,” and in the Chanukah story a truly enormous, long-necked Camarasaurus “sings every prayer.” These books wear extremely well both because of the lessons they teach and because the dinosaurs are portrayed with such amazing anatomical realism, based on the latest scientific research – although their frequently bright and brilliant color schemes are on the speculative side. Manners, after all, may change, but the basics do not go out of style, and there is no more stylish a way to learn about them than through the How Do Dinosaurs… books – no matter what the season and no matter which holidays a family celebrates.
Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite; Spring Song; Suite from “Belshazzar’s Feast.” BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Chandos. $18.99.
Contemporaries of the Strauss Family, Volume 4: Oscar Fetrás, Johann Schrammel, Siegfried Translateur, Franz von Blon, Josef Bayer, Karl Kratzl, Richard Eilenberg, Carl Millöcker, Béla Kéler, Karl Komzák III, Max Heinecke, Josef Gung’l, Iosif Ivanovici. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis. Marco Polo. $16.99.
Fikret Amirov: Six Pieces for Flute and Piano; Cécile Chaminade: Autumn; Sigfrid Karg-Elert: Exotic Impressions; Kenneth Frazelle: Blue Ridge Airs II. Beth Chandler, flute and piccolo; Paulo Steinberg, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The numbering of years is an arbitrary human construct, but it has been so thoroughly absorbed into so many societies that changeovers from one hundred-year period to the next tend to take on more than casual significance – in music as in other areas. Certainly the works of Sibelius are among those that seem a significant bridge between the 19th century and the 20th, just as the composer’s life spanned much of the 1800s and more than half of the 1900s (although his compositional life was much shorter). The three works on a new Chandos CD featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo all have a feeling of the end of one time period and the start of another. Actually, Sibelius’ music almost always has a sense of tristesse about it, and it is this, seen retrospectively, that helps create the “end of an era” feeling in these pieces. But the music itself carries most of the freight. The Lemminkäinen Suite was begun by the composer as early as 1893, but this is one work that he continued touching up long after he essentially stopped writing new music in the 1920s: the last version dates to 1939. From a changing-sensibilities standpoint, what makes the work interesting is that Sibelius did not use it to trace the exploits of the headstrong and occasionally foolish hero of Nordic legend. Instead, he created four movements of varying atmosphere, inspired by the tales of Lemminkäinen rather than depicting them in any sort of explicit detail. Thus, the Lemminkäinen Suite is a form of Impressionism, although Sibelius certainly never called it that. It is the atmospheric nature of the music that Oramo excels in binging forth in this recording, not only in the famous The Swan of Tuonela movement (featuring lovely cor anglais playing by Alison Teale) but also throughout the other three. Oramo does, however, make one odd choice in the suite: he places The Swan of Tuonela third in the sequence, as Sibelius himself did at the first performance of the piece in its original form. But Sibelius eventually discovered that that arrangement did not quite work, and so when the entire suite was published, he placed The Swan of Tuonela second (which also makes more sense from a narrative standpoint, to the extent that that matters). Oramo’s decision means the first two movements, together lasting 31 minutes, overbalance the suite significantly, since those played third and fourth, The Swan of Tuonela and Lemminkäinen’s Return, together last only 15 minutes. This arrangement is very much a matter of taste – but it is certainly very well-paced and well-played. It is followed by a work that is much of an end-of-the-century piece, Spring Song, to which Sibelius appended the distinctly melancholic French subtitle, “La Tristesse du printemps.” Seeing spring as a sad season seems like a peculiarly Sibelian trait. The gentle, somewhat nostalgic and crepuscular sound of this short tone poem of 1894-95 fits the subtitle very well. Also here is the suite that Sibelius arranged from his early-20th-century music to the Hjalmar Procopé play Belshazzar’s Feast (1906-07). Here too the composer’s distinctive moodiness is much in evidence: two of the four movements represent quiet and nighttime, while the opening “Oriental Procession” is a march as different in tone and effect from those of, say, Sousa, as possible. Even the final movement, “Khadra’s Dance,” is anything but intense and frenetic, for all that its second part is a “dance of death” in the play. Sibelius seems in all these works to straddle a time of musical sumptuousness and point the way toward a new set of emotional evocations.
Even in lighter musical fare, there was noticeable change between the late 19th century and the early 20th. Johann Strauss Jr. died on the cusp of the new century, in 1899, and while Eduard Strauss continued the family legacy for a time, and some of the Strauss family’s compatriots and competitors kept writing music of a similar type, tastes were certainly evolving. That is one impression left by the fourth and final volume in the Marco Polo series, Contemporaries of the Strauss Family, which includes one work as early as 1868 and another as late as 1926 – with the 12 others’ dates falling somewhere in between. Most of the now-nearly-unknown composers heard here appeared on one or more of the three earlier entries in this excellent series, in which John Georgiadis leads the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice with just the right blend of enthusiasm and piquancy. As was the case with the three earlier releases, all the pieces heard here are world première recordings, several of them reconstructed or resurrected by Georgiadis himself. The fact that the sensibilities of the 19th century did not disappear all at once is abundantly clear by, for example, contrasting Sibelius’ “Oriental Procession” with the high-stepping and brightly scored Juchhei Tirolerbub! Tyrolean March by Oscar Fetrás, written seven years after the Sibelius, in 1914, but retaining the panache of the Straussian waltzes of decades earlier. Its spirit is shared by the Deutschmeister Regiments-Marsch of 1896, by Josef Bayer; by Richard Eilenburg’s utterly charming 1887 parade-passing-by Die Wachtparade kommt, Characteristic March; and by a march written the same year as Sibelius’ “Oriental Procession,” Adlon Marsch by Max Heinecke. Several of the dance forms so inextricably associated with the Vienna of the soon-to-be-eclipsed Austro-Hungarian Empire are heard here, including Diabolo, Galop by Siegfried Translateur; the particularly engaging Sempre Crescendo Galop by Béla Kéler; and Céline, Polka Mazurka, by Iosif Ivanovici. And of course, and most prominently, there is the waltz: half the 14 pieces here are waltzes, and all are very well-made and quite danceable. They include Im Wiener Dialekt by Johann Schrammel; Mein Ideal by Franz von Blun; Die letzte Tropfen by Karl Kratzl; Mein Jugend by Carl Millöcker; In der Zaubernacht by Karl Komzák III (the third and least-known of his family bearing that name); Pandekten-Walzer by Josef Gung’l; and, at the very end of the disc, a second work by Kéler, the only composer represented here twice, Von Rhein zur Donau – Kéler’s last waltz, and a piece that quotes from Suppé’s famous O du mein Österreich. This is the longest work on the disc, and although it dates to as far back as 1881, it somehow seems fitting that its Rhine-to-Danube connection helps bring to a close the Viennese era of the 19th century and makes way for what was to come in the 20th.
Whatever the century, seasons, folk music and impressions of nature intrigue composers – in fact, the Kéler waltz incorporates folk tunes from both Germany and Austria. And the one 19th-century work on a (+++) MSR Classics CD of music for flute and piano is seasonal, while the remaining works, all from the 20th century, have folk and nature-focused elements. Autumn by Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944), which dates to 1886, is a typical piece of Chaminade’s salon music, slight and charming and, in this arrangement by Trevor Wye, lying nicely on the flute. Moving into the 20th century, Exotic Impressions by Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933) includes five short tone paintings, mostly of specific natural scenes. Idylle champêtre (“Rustic Idyll”), Danse pittoresque (“Picturesque Dance”), and Colibri (“Hummingbird”) tie directly to nature, with the third portrait especially effective in displaying hummingbird-like sounds, played by Beth Chandler on a piccolo. Lotus, the fourth piece, is evocative in a different way, tying to the spirituality of the concluding Evocation à Brahma (“Evocation of Brahma”) in its sensibility. Dating to 1918, this Impressionistic suite partakes of some, although not a great deal, of the sounds that emerged in the 20th century in reaction to the opulence of the late 19th. Six Pieces for Flute and Piano (1976) by Fikret Amirov (1922-1984) combines natural scenes with elements of folk music. The whole work is based on Azerbaijani melodies, but Amirov uses them in a variety of different ways in movements whose titles clearly reflect their intent: Bardenweise (“Song of the Ashug”), Wiegenlied (“Lullaby”), Tanz (“Dance”), In den Bergen Aserbaidschans (“In the Mountains of Azerbaijan”), An der Quelle (“At the Spring”), and Nocturne. The first movement uses the piano to good effect (Paulo Steinberg is a fine partner for Chandler throughout); the second is a bit dour for a lullaby; the third is upbeat and quite short; the fourth is suitably atmospheric; the fifth features some uneven rhythms that make this water flow seem rather turbulent; and the sixth has more of the gentleness and quietude that might have been expected in Lullaby. Stylistically and harmonically, Amirov’s work is not much different from Karg-Elert’s despite the half-century-plus between them. The final and longest piece on the CD, Blue Ridge Airs II by Kenneth Frazelle (born 1955), takes listeners to the cusp of our present century, dating as it does to the year 2000. Running a substantial 23 minutes, this is a work that takes Impressionism to contemporary times and invokes nature – specifically, the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Shenandoah Valley – at considerable length. There is certainly beauty here, intermittently, but while the work is one that flautists will surely find both challenging and attractive, it is somewhat less so for a general audience: there are extended sections that are more monotonous than meaningful, and the flute’s leaps and bounds wear thin after a while. This single-movement piece is 50% longer than either the five-movement Karg-Elert or six-movement Amirov, and does not really sustain audience interest throughout. Some of its unexpected elements do stand out, such as a piano outburst and transition about a third of the way through, but as a whole, it is rather thin for such an extended piece. Indeed, flautists are likely to find more to enjoy throughout this disc than are listeners who do not play the flute – but individual elements of all the pieces here are certainly attractive, no matter in what century the works were created.
Quadrants, Volume 3: Music for String Quartet by Bruce Babcock, Nora Morrow, Gary Smart, Jonathan Newmark, Alastair White, Janice Macaulay, Beth Mehocic, and Phelps Dean Witter. Altius Quartet (Joshua Ulrich and Andrew Giordano, violins; Andrew Krimm, viola; Zachary Reaves, cello). Navona. $14.99.
David Haney: Birth of a City; Variations on a Theme. Jason Kao Hwang, violin; Melanie Dyer, viola; Adam Lane, bass; Tomas Ulrich, cello; Julian Priester and Steve Swell, trombones; Dave Storrs and Bernard Purdie, percussion. Big Round Records. $14.99.
Elliott Miles McKinley: Six Movements for Brass Quintet; Aria for Saxophone Quartet and Fixed-Media; Four Grooves—A Chamber Concerto. New York Festival Brass Quintet and Estrella Consort. Navona. $14.99.
The third string-quartet anthology offered by Navona under the title Quadrants is, like the first two, a showcase for the performers and a chance for listeners to dabble in contemporary pieces from different composers, created in different styles and with different approaches to the quartet medium. Bruce Babcock’s single-movement The Present Moment is unafraid of being largely tonal and melodic, and Babcock’s use of two main themes – plus a third, recurring one – makes the work easy to follow. Nora Morrow’s Rose Moon, in three movements, is even more lyrical and warm, to the point of being a bit overly sentimental – unusual for a modern work. Gary Smart’s Three Fantasies on African American Songs, on the other hand, is determinedly contemporary in sound, to the point that “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Black Woman” and “Shortening Bread” pretty much disappear into the aural landscape. Smart’s work is an extended one, nearly 20 minutes in all, and is a bit more than the underlying material can handle – although, like everything on this disc, it is played with enthusiasm and strong involvement by the Altius Quartet. In contrast, Jonathan Newmark’s very short Tom Dooley without the fringe on top whizzes by speedily, its snippets of well-known tunes gone almost as soon as the ear registers them. Also short, Two Panels for String Quartet by Alastair White has much of the underlying speed of Newmark’s work but none of the tunefulness: it is entirely atonal. Three Pieces for String Quartet by Janice Macaulay, another atonal work, is mainly interested in soundscapes and extending the instruments’ ranges; it is more an intellectual exercise than anything with an emotional connection. Beth Mehocic’s Picasso’s Flight is not about the painter but about the composer’s parrot: the music paints an agitated picture of what sound like multiple unsuccessful attempts to take off. This is effective the first few times but wears thin after a while. Finally, Phelps Dean Witter’s three-movement String Quartet No. 4 returns to the emotional landscape of some of the earlier works on the disc, with a distinctly and rather surprisingly melodic second movement following a highly dissonant first, and with a finale that combines the sound worlds of the first two movements. Here, as usual on anthology discs, there will be something for many people interested in the basic idea of new string-quartet works to enjoy, but the CD as a whole will likely appeal to only a subset of the audience intrigued by a few of its elements.
The Big Round Records release of two extended works by David Haney seems to feature far more than a quartet of musicians, but in fact the disc is designated as including works for “string quartet and improvising quartet.” That is, Haney uses eight people in mix-and-match fashion in the eight movements of Birth of a City and the five of Variations on a Theme. It is Haney’s combinatorial prowess that is the most interesting element of this disc. Birth of a City starts with two trombones and two percussionists; moves to a trio of bass, cello and percussion; returns to the trombone/percussion mixture; continues with a section for violin, viola, bass and cello; and so on. The string-quartet portions are written out; the others are improvised (although the strings also play some improvised parts). The net effect is on the chaotic side, not so much because of the improvisatory elements (aleatoric music is nothing new) as because of the absence of any particular style or even styles, plural. There is a bit of blues here, a touch of more-upbeat jazz there, some largely nonmusical sounds emitted by musical instruments from time to time, some written-out material that nevertheless sounds improvisatory (which is surely part of Haney’s intent), and whole sections that are static sound blocks offered in contrast to segments that meander in no particular direction. This is music for listeners intrigued by the sound combinations that Haney devises – and not expecting too much communication beyond the sounds themselves. As for Variations on a Theme, it does not offer variations on a theme, but is one of those contemporary works whose title is not so much misleading as it is abstruse. Haney basically takes a theme and breaks it into pieces, then builds each of the work’s five movements from a different piece. What results is, perhaps, variations on pieces of a theme. But the theme itself is scarcely notable and does not really seem worthy of such extended treatment. And the instrumental combinations here, unlike those in Birth of a City, seem disorganized: the first “variation” uses violin, viola, bass, cello and percussion, but by the third there are seven instruments involved – the initial four plus two trombones and percussion. Yet there is no attention paid to the different sonorities of which the differing mixtures are capable, and the emphasis on improvisation – which pervades Variations on a Theme as well as Birth of a City – mainly draws attention to the underlying vapidity of the thematic material. Haney is primarily a jazz pianist, so his fondness for improvising is no surprise, but his approach on this CD simply seems over-extended and without the sort of rhythmic impetus that can make jazz so attractive.
There are a couple of “quartet” elements on a Navona release of the music of Elliott Miles McKinley. Aria is a work for saxophone quartet (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) plus an electronic background drawn from Glenn Gould’s 1955 piano recording of the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This is a very curious mixture and a surprisingly affecting one: the saxophones’ ranges overlap at times, overextend at others, and the blending of sax voices carries with it a warmth that provides a peculiar but frequently intriguing foreground for the background Gould. The piece goes on rather too long (12 minutes) and tends to get mired in its own cleverness, but it certainly proffers some intriguing sounds. The other “four” work here is a chamber concerto called Four Grooves, a very extended piece (running nearly half an hour) whose four movements clearly show what McKinley is after: “Marimba Madness,” “An African Dream,” “Heavy Metals,” and “A Different Drummer.” What is not a “four” here is the ensemble: the work requires seven players and a conductor. The four movements themselves are well-contrasted: the first is full, warm and melodic; the second, after a slow beginning, is strongly rhythmic; the third is indeed metallic in sound but is primarily light rather than heavy; and the fourth, opening with an extended snare-drum passage, is bouncy and percussive throughout, with a strong jazz beat. Also on the CD and also running nearly half an hour, Six Movements for Brass Quintet shows McKinley in what is generally much more serious mode. The movements are called “Glass Towers,” “Dirge,” “Fanfare,” “Dawn Breezes,” “Frozen Fire,” and “Elegy for Dad,” and are filled with stops and starts, portentous pauses and swells, and frequently complex interplay of the sounds of two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba. Structured as a suite of sorts – the movements are labeled “Introduction,” “Episode I,” “Interlude I,” “Episode II,” “Interlude II,” and “Epilogue” – the work, at least through four movements, leaves a primarily static impression, as if the players are building on each other chordally rather than progressively. The fifth movement retains some of that approach but also offers greater momentum, while the finale moves at a leisurely pace and seems less elegy-like than introductory – although to what is less than clear. The New York Festival Brass Quintet, which performs these six movements, is a first-rate ensemble, but the work itself never quite seems to gel or to know where it is going. Members of the Estrella Consort handle Aria and Four Grooves, and they have a somewhat easier time putting across what McKinley is trying to do in these pieces. All the music is skillfully put together, and all the works have elements that are worth hearing, but none of the three has a completely convincing totality.
July 18, 2019
Nugget & Fang Go to School. By Tammi Sauer. Illustrations by Michael Slack. Clarion. $17.99.
Teeny Tiny Ghost. By Rachel Matson. Illustrated by Joey Chou. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.
The mismatched-friends notion is a very common one in books for young readers, designed to teach acceptance of those who “not like us” in some way and also intended to provide plenty of opportunities for fun because the buddies are so different. Tammi Sauer and Michael Slack take this whole notion to extremes – making it extremely amusing – by pairing Nugget, a tiny minnow, with Fang, a huge shark. The whole concept is so outlandish that, at the start of Nugget & Fang Go to School, Sauer feels obliged to write, “They were best friends. Really.” Yes, with italicized emphasis.
Fang’s super-toothy grin is much in evidence here, scaring the daylights out of pretty much everyone even though Nugget assures the other fish that Fang is, of all things, a vegetarian. “Most fish never stuck around long enough to find out for sure,” writes Sauer, and a look at Slack’s illustrations of Fang is more than enough to show why. But Nugget & Fang Go to School is not about how the two unlikely friends got together – that was in the previous book, which introduced them. Instead, Sauer and Slack here offer a fairly straightforward school-worries story that is rendered funny and silly by the way the characters go through it.
It seems that Nugget and the other “mini minnows,” which really like Fang a lot because he “once saved them from being the catch of the day,” want him to go to school with them. Fang is suitably honored – he even sheds a tear at the prospect – but then he starts thinking that school might be too tough for him, “or weird…or scary.” The fun here comes from the nature of Fang’s worries: he tells Nugget that he might lose a tooth, or 20; or get algae in his eye; or “yawn and accidentally swallow someone.” These are scarcely the everyday concerns of the young readers who are the target of Nugget & Fang Go to School, but Sauer and Slack make Fang’s fears relatable even as they show Nugget leading him by the fin into school.
Fang doesn’t stop worrying. For instance, he thinks the teacher is crabby – no surprise, really, since she is a crab. And Fang just can’t get the hang of reading or math or science: Slack shows the many always-amusing ways he messes things up. Nugget keeps promising Fang that he’ll “be fine,” but Fang is just as mixed-up and nervous and unsure of himself as…well, as a human child might be when dealing with school anxiety, which of course is the point here.
Naturally, things eventually get better – but not before Fang has trouble with music (trying to play the bagpipes, of all things) and feels “just plain terrible” about “the Brief History of Minnows,” which includes a chart that shows a variety of extinct sharks with minnows in their bellies (an especially funny touch). And then, worst of all, school ends with “share time,” and Fang has nothing at all to share and is far too embarrassed even to consider talking to the whole class. The illustration of a super-nervous Fang cowering in front of all the tiny fish and the very small crab teacher, as everyone looks at him expectantly, is a perfect reflection of the way many human children feel about the prospect of getting up in front of an audience and saying something about themselves. So how do Sauer and Slack turn the day around for Fang – and their human audience? Well, Fang looks at Nugget, who is holding the “Fang: Our Hero” lunchbox that he brought along to school that morning, and Fang realizes that what he has to share is the fact that he has “the best friend in the whole underwater world!” And he announces that in huge letters and with his very toothy mouth so wide open that if he really were a ferocious shark – well, there is no need to go there, since Fang’s declaration is such a big hit that the teacher gives him a gold star (that is, a gold starfish: a nice touch). And then Sauer reaffirms, at the very end of the book, that these very unlikely buddies are, really truly are, best friends. Really.
The unlikely-friends notion knows no season: Nugget & Fang Go to School is a start-of-the-school-year book, and Teeny Tiny Ghost is, unsurprisingly, for Halloween. But in Rachel Matson’s book as in Sauer’s, the point is to bring together characters who are very unlike each other but who decide that their differences are no barrier to friendship. Somewhat echoing the old fairy tale of the teeny-tiny woman who ill-advisedly takes a teeny-tiny bone from a churchyard to make teeny-tiny soup for her teeny-tiny supper – but without the slightest hint of anything gruesome or frightening – Matson’s text emphasizes the teeny-tininess of both characters in this board book: the ghost in a barn and a mouse that lives there, too. Joey Chou’s pleasantly colored illustrations ensure that the text will not upset even the littlest children. This is about as strong as anything gets: “In the teeny tiny attic/ Of the teeny tiny barn/ The teeny tiny ghost/ Tried her best to cause alarm.” Unfortunately for the would-be-scary spirit, “The teeny tiny ghost had just/ A teeny tiny shriek,” which is not much good for scaring anyone or anything. But this little ghost – in addition to being quite adorable – is determined to create some sort of scare, and eventually manages “a teeny tiny: boo.” And sure enough, as a result, “The teeny tiny mouse/ Gave a teeny tiny yelp.” And the mouse jumps, startled, into the air. But then mouse and ghost get a good look at each other and have “a teeny tiny laugh” together, as Chou shows the hearts of friendship above both their heads. And so the book concludes with the two becoming best friends and playing together from then on, with nobody trying to scare anybody else. As a sweet Halloween story for the very youngest children, Teeny Tiny Ghost works very well indeed; and as an introduction to innumerable books for slightly older children, in which the focus is also on friendships that arise between odd couples, the book can claim a thoroughly non-seasonal place in family libraries.
Dvořák, Elgar and Schumann: Cello Concertos; Strauss: Don Quixote. Kim Cook, cello; St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arkady Shteinlucht (Elgar, Schumann) and Gerardo Edelstein (Strauss); Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gerardo Edelstein (Dvořák). MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).
Richard Danielpour: Talking to Aphrodite; Symphony for Strings; Kaddish for Violin and Strings. Sarah Shafer, soprano; Maxim Semonov, French horn; Evgeny Pravilov, violin; Russian String Orchestra conducted by Misha Rachlevsky. Naxos. $12.99.
Martinů: Memorial to Lidice; Penderecki: Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima; Karel Husa: Music for Prague 1968; Philip Koplow: For the Peace of Cities; How Sweet the Sound. Ravello. $14.99.
Performances of great warmth and sensitivity make a well-priced MSR Classics two-CD set featuring cellist Kim Cook into an almost unalloyed pleasure. The works of Dvořák, Elgar, and Richard Strauss spring, in some ways, from similar sensibilities, and Schumann’s Cello Concerto can be seen to an extent as a precursor of the others not just temporally but also in terms of the relationship it establishes between cello and orchestra. Yet these pieces, all of them technically trenchant and emotionally exploratory, require cellist and conductor to handle the balance between solo and ensemble in different ways and to use the wide range and mellow tone of the cello to elicit differing responses in an audience. These recordings come from very different times and places – the Dvořák dates to 2001 in the Czech Republic, the three others to 2016 in Russia – but Cook’s sumptuous tone, adept fingering and unending display of sonic beauty are the same throughout. The Schumann concerto (written in 1850, the year after he created five short pieces for cello and piano) is a work of considerable intimacy, with almost chamber-music-like handling of the cello among the larger ensemble in its slow movement. Cook’s careful pacing and willingness to share the spotlight with the orchestra make this a winning performance. The Dvořák is altogether grander in scale and is structured uniquely: no composer before or since has created a cello concerto that sounds at all like this one. It was Dvořák’s last solo concerto, dating to 1894-95. And it shares with Schumann’s work sections of intimacy (especially between cello and winds) that, in the case of the Dvořák, stand in stark contrast to the work’s impressive full-orchestra segments. The highly unusual finale, a rondo that is distinctly marchlike, finds its progress interrupted for an extended and very beautiful slower section in which Cook’s lovely lyricism is on full display – after which the big orchestral wrapup sounds forth to fine effect. The orchestra-solo balance is also crucial and also well-handled in Don Quixote (1897), in which Cook (representing the mad would-be knight-errant) shares the spotlight with violist Anna Vainschtein (playing the main instrument representing down-to-earth Sancho Panza). Cook and Vainschtein communicate their respective roles quite well, and hearing them in the context of Strauss’ lush orchestration is a particular pleasure. But here as elsewhere in this release, it is often the quieter rather than the more-monumental sections that stay with a listener: Don Quixote’s return to a clear mind just before death, always a touching moment, is especially well-done here. And the satire-plus-nostalgia of Strauss seemingly paves the way for the mood of Elgar’s concerto (1919: his last major work). This is dark and often distressing music, especially so in the first two movements, and it is only with the consolatory Adagio that Elgar conveys a feeling that, despite the horrors of the recently ended Great War, it is worth going on with life. That feeling is underlined in the finale, which is certainly not celebratory but which does produce a feeling of encouragement regarding the future. This is a difficult and subtle piece, and the way Cook works through its many moods is a measure of her very considerable skill. She works equally well with the two orchestras and two conductors here – although the St. Petersburg ensemble is a cut or two above the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic. The presentation of the recording, though, has more rough spots than are usual in MSR Classics releases. Its back cover lists both orchestras as playing the Dvořák and omits saying which plays the Strauss, and credits are given for tracks 1-16 on the first CD even though the disc actually has 17 tracks. The information is correct in the included booklet, but this sloppiness contrasts starkly with the care and concern that Cook brings to all the music here – and is readily enough forgivable in light of the quality of the performances.
Nothing on a new Naxos CD of the music of Richard Danielpour (born 1956) is even close to being as sumptuous as the cello-focused works played by Cook, but Danielpour has one important thing in common with the composers who get Cook’s attentive playing: he genuinely wants to communicate with an audience. This is by no means the case for all contemporary composers, and Danielpour deserves considerable credit for producing music that, even when not wholly engaging, nearly always shows an effort to reach out to listeners. The three works on this new CD express themselves in different ways – in two cases through the use of soloists, in one just through a small string orchestra (fewer than 20 players). Talking to Aphrodite is the most recent piece here, dating to 2016, and the most interestingly scored, being for soprano, solo French horn and chamber orchestra. The text consists of poems by Erica Jong – kudos to Naxos for including them in the booklet as well as making them available online – in which a woman who has given up on life decides, after a dream in which she meets the goddess Aphrodite, not to surrender to death after all. The dreamer does not exactly start out as a fan of the goddess of love: “My lady, Aphrodite, Venus,/ fairest of goddesses,/ you cover the world/ with your mischief,/ making populations burgeon/ beyond our poor earth’s power/ to bear.” But by the end of the song cycle, she sees Aphrodite – and herself – in a different way: “She is the goddess for whom/ the earth continues to spin –/ in her turning/ all endings end/ and all beginnings/ begin.” The poetry is on the facile side and the introspection is nothing special – there is no explanation of what has brought the dreamer so low, so it is difficult to empathize with her. But Danielpour, moving through music that mostly forces both the soprano and the horn player to the extremes of their range, eventually allows both to achieve something approaching a state of grace, or at least much-reduced anxiety. Sarah Shafer enunciates very well and sings the words feelingly, and is very well partnered by Maxim Semyonov – who in turn gets fine backing from the Russian String Orchestra under Misha Rachlevsky. The mood of Talking to Aphrodite continues in the Symphony for Strings, which bears the title “…For Love Is Strong as Death” and which is in origin a 2014 transcription of Danielpour’s 2009 String Quartet No. 6. Both this version and the original are much concerned with saying goodbye, not only to individuals and circumstances but also to life itself – hence the connection with the Aphrodite texts. But the almost unrelentingly dark mood of the Symphony for Strings becomes wearing, and it is only in the central Presto giocoso, a mere seven-minute movement in a three-movement, 34-minute piece, that Danielpour conveys any sense of value to going on (and even this movement, although fleet in pacing, is scarcely bright). To complete the mood of what is on the whole a dark and gloomy disc, there is Kaddish, referring to the Jewish prayer for the dead. This is heard in a 2011 version for violin (Evgeny Pravilov) and string orchestra, adapted by Danielpour from its original appearance in his Sextet for Strings. The whole score is supposed to encourage contemplation of death and life and, eventually, eternal peace; but it takes quite some time to attain what peacefulness it possesses, and many listeners will likely find this nearly-80-minute-long CD quite difficult to listen to straight through. Of course, the three pieces here, all being given world première recordings, were not written to be played back-to-back, and do not much benefit from being heard that way. Listeners who can tune into Danielpour’s earnest desire to bring them meaning through distinctly modern but eminently listenable music will give this release a (++++) rating, although its thematically dour outlook and somewhat over-extended handling of the material will make it a (+++) CD for others.
The mood is no less dark – indeed, in many ways it is darker – on a new (+++) Ravello CD that intends, like the Danielpour recording, to provide uplift, but that succeeds mainly in showcasing just how many awful things have happened to just how many people over just how many years. The actual arrangement of the CD is almost completely reverse chronological, with a focus on the two works by Philip Koplow (1943-2018). But the effectiveness of the music and of the disc’s overall theme is clearer if the CD is heard in pretty much the reverse of the order in which it is presented. That means starting with Martinů’s Memorial to Lidice (1943), offered in a splendid 2005 recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach. The orchestra’s exceptionally warm sound, its first-rate brass, its beautifully massed strings, combine to make this memorial for the victims of the wartime massacre at Lidice, Czechoslovakia, in 1942, a deeply moving experience. Penderecki’s still-terrifying Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), heard in a 1998 performance by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit, makes it impossible to forget that the war-ending nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was, even if deemed necessary and even if it prevented far greater casualties anticipated under other scenarios, a human tragedy of monumental scope. Next chronologically is Music for Prague 1968 by Karel Husa (1921-2016), a four-movement suite written in the same year that the Soviet Union crushed an uprising against its domination – a rebellion still commemorated as the Prague Spring, but one whose wintry memory is kept very much alive by Husa’s music. This is a very fine 2008 performance by the Rutgers Wind Ensemble under William Berz. And then, after hearing these commemorations of terror and tragedy, it makes sense to listen to Koplow’s two pieces at the start of the CD. For the Peace of Cities (1998), heard in a 1999 performance by the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra under Paul Nadler, features violinists Jorja Fleezanis and James Braid. It commemorates the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995 that ended the Bosnian War, and it has more lyrical and even pastoral elements than do the works of Martinů, Penderecki and Husa – yet there is plentiful dissonance here, and the brass fanfares and other triumphal elements seem to hint at the fact that the Dayton Accord was, and to some extent remains, controversial. Koplow’s other work here is How Sweet the Sound, heard in its 2001 world première performance by the Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul John Stanbery. This is an interestingly conceived work, based on the hymn “Amazing Grace” and featuring a number of variations on that music, each in a different key. The idea is to indicate musically that grace, and by extension peace, can be found in all keys – that is, in all circumstances, by all people. The message of hope and uplift is a welcome contrast to just about everything else on a CD that is otherwise downbeat and at times out-and-out depressing. How Sweet the Sound does not actually communicate its intended meaning particularly well, but in this context of memories of horror and turmoil, it is welcome – and is best heard by listeners as the last of these pieces rather than in its placement second on the disc.
Moto Quarto: Chamber Music by David Nisbet Stewart, Emma-Ruth Richards, Joanne D. Carey, Allyson B. Wells, L. Peter Deutsch, Christopher Brakel, Clare Shore, Keith Kramer, and Mathew Fuerst. Trio Casals (Sylvia Ahramjian, violin; Ovidiu Marinescu, cello; Anna Kislitsyna, piano). Navona. $14.99.
Resonating Colours 5: Hong Kong Composers’ Guild—Music of Wong Hok-yeung Alfred, Chan Chin-ting, Lee Kar-tai Phoebus, Chen Yeung-ping, Ng Chun-hoi Daniel, Au Tin-yung Alex, and Wong Chun-wai. Navona. $14.99.
McCormick Percussion Group: Soli for Tuba, Zheng, Horn, with Percussion by Tyler Kline, Chihchun Chi-Sun Lee, Michael Standard, and Matthew Kennedy. McCormick Percussion Group (Robert McCormick, director; Joseph Alvarez, tuba; Haiqiong Deng, zheng, Jay Hunsberger, tuba; Eric Hawkins, horn). Ravello. $14.99.
The sound worlds of contemporary composers are as often expressed through new uses of traditional instruments as they are through use of non-traditional ensembles or a mixture of material from different cultures. Anthology discs make the differing approaches of various composers abundantly clear. The nine works by nine composers that are played by Trio Casals on a new Navona CD all use the instruments of a traditional piano trio, but each composer handles them – singly or in combination – in a different way. Three for Three by David Nisbet Stewart is a three-movement, three-instrument work that sounds a bit like a throwback to the mid-20th century, or a tribute to the composers who flourished then. It is acerbic rather than melodic and makes its points clearly, cleanly and not at inordinate length: the whole piece lasts just 10 minutes. Dark Radiance for Solo Cello by Emma-Ruth Richards is indeed dark, even dismal in sound, spinning out long lines alternating with abrupt chords or sounds in the extremes of the instrument’s range. Running six minutes, it matches Joanne D. Carey’s Piano Trio No. 2 in length, but Carey’s single-movement work is more varied structurally, not only because it features the sound of three instruments but also because Carey changes moods and tempos repeatedly and unexpectedly throughout. Heard next on the CD is Since Then by Allyson B. Wells, a more emotive work than those earlier on the disc and one that spins out the violin and cello lines to good effect. Sunset at Montélimar by L. Peter Deutsch, which at four minutes is just half the length of Wells’ piece, is even more emotionally expressive and sounds like a distinct revisiting of Romanticism and Impressionism – which, in its placement on this CD, gives it the feeling of a pause or interlude. Poem for Violoncello Solo by Christopher Brakel returns to a more-overtly-contemporary musical language, with thematic snippets here and there and abrupt contrasts of volume and mood. The two movements of Day Tripping by Clare Shore, “Peace at Dawn” and “Juniper Run,” are intended to reflect kayak paddling on two rivers. The water sounds come through clearly, with rather generic “reaction” music – now percussive, now lyrical – complementing them. Suspension of Disbelief by Keith Kramer is a journey of a different sort, into materials from Eastern music – common enough travel for today’s composers, here handled in the kind of Western contemporary context that involves stops and starts and unexpected silences. The CD concludes with Mathew Fuerst’s Totentanz, whose title is either wry or ironic: rather than a mournful dance of death, it is a rather upbeat (if rhythmically irregular) sonic mixture in which the piano’s percussive elements play a large part and the “trickling” sounds midway through could almost be those of one of Shore’s watery journeys. There is a fair amount in Fuerst’s work that is eerie and some material that is quite dissonant, plus the obligatory piano-pounding chord that is followed by exceptionally quiet string passages – just a few of the many effects that Trio Casals brings out with considerable skill here and throughout the CD.
The mixture of Eastern and Western material in contemporary classical music tends to be thought of, at least in the West, as involving Western composers adopting Eastern scales and rhythms or including Eastern thematic elements in traditional Western forms. But as members of the Hong Kong Composers’ Guild show clearly on a Navona CD called Resonating Colours 5, the East may adopt Western elements just as skillfully and seamlessly as the West adopts Eastern ones; indeed, the boundaries of East and West have become blurred in our highly interconnected world. The nine works on this disc, by seven composers, all use Western instruments, and generally in traditional ways: there are two pieces for solo violin; one for solo piano; one for cello and piano; one for violin, clarinet and cello; one for string quartet; and one for orchestra. The remaining two works are slightly more unusual in instrumentation: one is for two guitars and the other, the most unusual of all, is for contrabass quintet. The oldest work here is not very old at all: it is November Winds, a string quartet by Ng Chun-hoi Daniel, and dates to 1991. A short, single-movement work, it is as dissonant and athematic as would be expected in modern music, with wind sounds more implied than duplicated. All the other music here dates to the 21st century. Night Poem for cello and piano (2001), by Wong Hok-yeung Alfred, is, harmonically and emotionally, reminiscent of earlier music, its expressiveness clearly presented. The two solo-violin pieces here, both by Chan Chin-ting, are Cross-Currents (2015) and Postcards (2017), the first of them a kind of étude pushing the violin to its tonal limits, the second a series of miniature declamations that also have the flavor of studies but spend more time exploring the instrument’s expressive capabilities. Pyrus Flower in Rain (2011), by Lee Kar-tai Phoebus, is for solo piano, using the instrument in minimalist mode to produce a slow-paced, drifting quality. Appearing next on the disc is the work for contrabass quintet, Chen Yeung-ping’s Stretch of Light (2013-15), which has the most exotic sound of anything on the CD despite its use of well-known Western instruments. Of course, a quintet of basses is scarcely a common feature in recitals, but the sound here is mostly quite far from the massed heaviness of which these instruments are capable: the music mixes the upper reaches of the basses with their lower ones in intriguing ways, and the linear-vs.-chordal construction is interesting as well. The sound ends up being rather monochromatic, however, and the piece feels longer than its 11 minutes – but its experimental nature is apparent throughout. Ng Chun-hoi Daniel’s Prelude II (Wuxing Interaction) dates to 2013 and is the work on the CD for two guitars. Unlike the composer’s two-decades-earlier string quartet, this piece is unashamedly tonal and – despite its use of percussive techniques such as tapping on the guitar body – is essentially melodic, interrelating the two instruments to good effect. Heard next is Dyeing (2017) for violin, clarinet and cello, by Au Tin-yung Alex. An attempt to replicate in music the process by which dyes change fabric colors, it mixes the aural qualities of the three instruments in ways that do not really blend particularly well, but that do draw attention to the differing sounds of which each participant is capable. The final work on the disc is the one for orchestra: Clouds in Twilight (2015) by Wong Chun-wai. This is almost pure Impressionism, a slow-paced work building bit by bit from a decidedly crepuscular-feeling opening into use of the full orchestra, both massed and in sections, expressively capturing the feeling of the piece’s title. Like anthology discs in general, this one is a mixed bag, in which different listeners will gravitate to different pieces and few will likely embrace all the music equally. However, everything here is well-performed, in some cases by the composers themselves, and the CD is an effective demonstration of the cross-pollination of Eastern and Western influences at a time when the world seems, musically if not politically, to be closer than ever before.
The use of traditionally Eastern instruments within traditional Western ensembles is particularly clear on a new Ravello CD featuring the McCormick Percussion Group, one of whose members plays the zheng. That is a Chinese zither known for some 2,500 years, but all the music here is quite recent, with two of the five works on the disc – both by Chihchun Chi-sun Lee – featuring the zheng prominently. Double Concerto for Tuba, Zheng and Percussion Orchestra (2015) moves from a first movement whose most salient element is gong-like sounds, to a second in which tuba and zheng are more prominently featured and contrasted, to a third in which percussive effects come not only from the percussion complement itself but also from the solo instruments. A sort of oom-pah humor in the finale is a welcome change from the usual ultra-seriousness of contemporary music. Lee’s other work here, Zusammenflusses (Confluence), dates to 2013, and it also shows the composer focusing on ways in which disparate sounds complement and contrast with each other. Here that means use of the vibraphone and cymbal playing with, and sometimes against, the zheng. The sounds themselves are the attraction here: the piece does not really go anywhere, but if it is static, at least it is stationary in an interesting place. Also on the CD is Loam, a 2017 concerto for tuba and percussion ensemble by Tyler Kline. This is a work that is intended to explore aspects of soil and tilling but that goes on much too long (half an hour) and with only intermittently involving use of the solo instrument: there is a pervasive pomposity about this four-movement piece that does not fit well with what is essentially a modest (if far-reaching) topic. Michael Standard’s Stamina (2018) is also a concerto, a three-movement one for horn and percussion quartet, but here at the modest and more-suitable length of 10 minutes. The movement titles are “Fracture,” “Rehabilitation,” and “Capacity,” and the musical structure is standard avant-garde stuff – the first movement breaks things apart, the second uses glissandos to pull elements together, and the third (which lasts just one minute) finally allows some aural progress, albeit in a strictly atonal and non-rhythmic sense. The sounds emanating from the instruments are of some interest even though the work as a whole is underwhelming. There is yet one other concerto on the CD, In Pursuit of Ghosts (2018) for tuba, percussion sextet, and piano, by Matthew Kennedy. Commissioned by and written for the McCormick Percussion Group – which plays it, and everything here, with considerable finesse and an impressive blend of individualism and ensemble – Kennedy’s work intends to reflect the journey through life and what is preserved or lost over time. Whether the philosophical framework comes through in the music is very much a matter of opinion, and the movement titles (“Heartland,” “Cat’s Cradle,” “Spirits”) help, at most, only a bit. As with any autobiographical or semi-autobiographical piece of music, what matters is whether the material connects as music with an audience that filters it through its own background and experiences. Kennedy is at least middlingly successful in making connections with listeners; for example, the mostly quiet and dour second movement makes an apt contrast with the brighter focus of the finale, although here too a quiet middle section brings with it a feeling of stasis. Like the other works on this CD, Kennedy’s has considerable interest for the sheer sound of the instruments performing it, even if – also as with the other pieces here – it is not always clear in what way that sound is at the service of the intended extramusical communication.
July 11, 2019
Look Again: Secrets of Animal Camouflage. By Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
There is a constant arms race within the animal kingdom, in which an adaptation that protects prey animals favors predators that happen to be able to see through the adaptation – so they can still catch prey. Then prey animals with a different adaptation become more successful, until predators that happen to be able to see through that adaptation have a higher success rate. And so it goes in the eternal food web – in which prey and predators alike sometime use the same adaptation. That is the case with camouflage, which – just as humans have discovered in warfare – can be used both to stay concealed from enemies and to make it difficult for potential victims to know that a predator is lurking.
Steve Jenkins and Robin Page explore both sides of this prey-predator camouflage match in Look Again, and they do so with a cleverness made possible by their very careful creation of illustrations consisting of collages made from cut and torn paper, seen against digitally created backgrounds. In truth, photographs of real animals in real settings would also show just how effective camouflage can be for concealment or as a weapon, but by accentuating its workings through their art, Jenkins and Page make their points about how camouflage functions crystal-clear. They create their scenes so carefully that even after a young reader knows exactly where to look, it can be hard to see the camouflaged creatures.
Jenkins and Page accomplish this by first presenting scenes in which animals are shown against backgrounds that make them almost invisible, and then – on the following pages – showing the animals in identical positions but without the digital backgrounds. Thus, readers can look at the size and shape of the animals, then turn back to the previous page and see, or try to see, where the animals are. The whole book becomes a puzzle; and even though matters are somewhat different in the real world – where, for example, coral reefs and their denizens are in constant motion, not static as they must be in a book’s pages – Look Again does an excellent job of showing as well as explaining how various creatures’ appearances keep them safe or make them hard for their prey to spot.
The coral-reef environment is well-known as a camouflage spot. Here, Jenkins and Page highlight such denizens as the whip coral shrimp, which really looks like coral, and the trumpet fish, a long and thin predator that hovers with mouth facing down so it looks like a harmless frond. Even more interesting are the environments that are all around the book’s readers but not usually thought of as camouflage “hot spots,” including trees and their roots, flowers and plants, leaves and vines. The creatures shown in these settings have some truly remarkable ways of blending in: “The wings of the leaf-mimic katydid resemble decaying leaves, right down to their veins and dark spots,” for example. And: “The tulip-tree beauty moth almost disappears on a lichen-covered tree trunk.”
Jenkins and Page also explore places where camouflage would seem to be difficult, if not impossible, including the vast white expanse of the Arctic and locations that are mostly rocks. Here too they find amazing adaptations, such as the wrybill, a wading bird that lays its eggs on rocky riverbanks – with the eggs being the size and color of the rocks amid which they lie.
Most creatures in Look Again will be unfamiliar to readers, and Jenkins and Page help give a sense of them not only by their accurately created representations but also by showing a human hand or adult human body next to each illustration, to provide a sense of scale. The fact that animals of many sizes use camouflage as a protective or hunting technique makes Look Again all the more remarkable – for instance, both the two-inch-long Namibian stone grasshopper and the five-foot-long marine iguana have ways of remaining unseen in the very different rocky areas where they live.
At the back of the book, Jenkins and Page provide four pages of additional information on every creature they have shown, plus a list of books and Web sites where readers can get more information – and even (a nice touch) a set of “useful Internet search terms” for those who would like to explore further on their own. Jenkins and Page are experts at showing young readers fascinating aspects of the world around us, and Look Again is another case in which they have produced a book worth looking at again and again.
I Am a Tiger. By Karl Newson. Illustrations by Ross Collins. Scholastic. $17.99.
One of the great things about childhood is the ability to transform into anything, to believe, or seem to believe, that you are something that you can never, ever really be. This is the concept underlying I Am a Tiger, and Karl Newson gives it a particularly amusing twist by having the central character – a mouse – insist that he really is a tiger, and never mind what all the other animals say about it.
The raccoon, to start with, points out that tigers are much bigger and louder, but the mouse says “tigers can be small, too,” and gives out with a suitably tiger-ish “GRRRR!” The fox comments that tigers have stripes, but the mouse remains blasé: “Some do. This one doesn’t. So there.”
Well, this is going nowhere fast, so a snake, hanging from a branch, comments that a tiger can climb a tree – to which the mouse says he could climb a tree and in fact could climb to the moon if he wanted to, because “most tigers can.” So a bird asks for a climbing demonstration, but the mouse says he cannot give one because, like any tiger, he has to hunt when he wants to eat, and it happens to be lunchtime.
And then who should show up but a tiger! And he proclaims loudly just what he is, as the other animals – except the mouse – huddle together in fear. The mouse just laughs: “You’re not a tiger. You’re a mouse!” Climbing onto the tiger’s head, he talks (somewhat unrealistically) about the tiger’s “tiny, twitchy nose,” and (even more unrealistically) about its “little hands and feet.” Juggling acorns, the mouse reiterates that he is a tiger who can do tiger-ish things (apparently including acorn juggling); and then he drives the point home by hanging from a tree branch by his tail and showing the tiger something else that the tiger cannot do but the mouse-tiger can. By now thoroughly confused, the tiger glances over at the other animals and asks the mouse-tiger, “If I am a mouse, what are they?”
Well, the mouse has great answers to that question, and in the funniest part of the book, he explains that the raccoon, being “furry” and “stripy,” is a caterpillar. The fox, being long and red and enjoying bouncing, is obviously a balloon. The snake, which is “thin” and “pointy” and “hangs in trees,” is certainly a banana. And the “tiny” and “colorful” bird, which “sits on a stick,” absolutely has to be a lollipop.
Kids will be laughing out loud by this point in the book – in which the illustrations by Ross Collins help carry Newson’s silly story along beautifully. But there is more, as the mouse heads away from the now completely befuddled group of animals, only to wander onto a rock at the edge of a pond and see his reflection. “GAH!” he exclaims. “I am NOT a tiger! How could I be so wrong!?”
Well, of course he is not a tiger, the mouse realizes, gazing at the reflection of his teeth, claws and tail. Clearly there is only one thing he can possibly be: a crocodile! And as the mouse says this, Collins shows him perched on top of a very scaly brown head out of which a big yellow eye stares balefully. But have no fear: the mouse is sure to talk his way out of this situation, just as he did when the tiger showed up.
I Am a Tiger teaches no lesson and offers no particular point about make-believe, fantasy and reality: Newson and Collins play the story strictly for the sake of amusement, of which it has plenty. But there is a point to be made here, and parents who read this book with young children can enjoy making it once the laughter stops. After all, it is fine and fun to pretend to be anything you want to pretend to be, but it also helps to know who you really are and what you can really do. Whether the mouse has known all along and is just having fun with the other animals, or has taken his pretending a bit further than he should (since tigers and crocodiles do, after all, have big teeth and big appetites), is a matter completely ignored by Newson and Collins. Parents and kids, though, can have fun playing around with the whole idea.
Hugo Alfvén: Symphony No. 3; Bergakungen Orkestersvit; Uppsala Rhapsody. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Łukasz Borowicz. CPO. $16.99.
Weber: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings; Rózsa: Sonatina for Clarinet; Glazunov: Rêverie orientale; Erland von Koch: Monolog 3 for Solo Clarinet; Heinrich Joseph Baermann: Adagio for Clarinet and Strings; Willson Osborne: Rhapsody for Clarinet. Robert DiLutis, clarinet; Mellifera Quartet (Catherine Gerhiser and Christina Wensel, violins; Nicholas Hodges, viola; Benjamin Wensel, cello). Delos. $14.98.
Ravel: Shéhérazade; Debussy: Ariettes Oubliées; Fêtes Galantes; Maurice Delage: Quatre Poèmes Hindous; Poulenc: Deux Poèmes de Louis Aragon; Fiançailles pour Rire; Deux Poèmes d'Apollinaire (Montparnasse; Hyde Park). Raquel Camarinha, soprano; Yoan Héreau, piano. Naïve. $16.99.
John Knowles Paine: Piano Music. Christopher Atzinger, piano. Delos. $14.98.
Richard Carr: Places I’ve Walked. Ravello. $14.99.
Mendelssohn was scarcely the only composer to be inspired by Italy or, for that matter, the only one to write an “Italian” symphony. Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) created one as well, although he did not officially call it that. It is his Symphony No. 3, a work filled with Northern European enjoyment of sunny Mediterranean landscapes and the pleasures associated with them – extra pleasures in Alfvén’s case, since he visited Italy with his mistress (and, later, wife), Marie Triepcke Krøyer, who at the time was married to someone else. A new CPO recording – the second in a series that will eventually offer all five Alfvén symphonies – presents a well-paced, pleasantly upbeat reading of the Symphony No. 3 with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Łukasz Borowicz. This work has all the brightness expected from its E major home key, percolating along pleasantly through all four movements and concluding the first of them in a manner that can only be called cute (scarcely a common term in connection with symphonies!). Alfvén’s skill in orchestration is everywhere apparent, and if his sound in full-orchestra passages is strongly reminiscent of that of Richard Strauss, his themes and their development elsewhere have a Nordic sturdiness that, in the case of his Symphony No. 3, mixes surprisingly well with the bucolic strains that Alfvén associates with Italy. The composer’s instrumental adeptness is even more strongly in evidence in Bergakungen Orkestersvit (orchestral suite from “The Mountain King”), which includes four movements taken from one of the only two stage works written by Alfvén. The opening of the first piece, “Sorcery,” is highly dramatic, with some of the rhythmic impetus of a Stravinsky ballet but decidedly different thematic construction. “Dance of the Troll-Girl” is extended and moderately sensuous, while “Summer Rain” is an effective bit of scene-painting. The final movement of the suite, “Dance of the Herdmaiden,” includes some of Alfvén’s best-known music in its opening and closing pages, whose bright delicacy frames a well-constructed contrasting middle section. There is drama and charm aplenty in this suite. The CD concludes with Alfvén’s version of an academic festival overture, written for an occasion similar to the one that elicited Brahms’ and built along similar lines, featuring a variety of student songs. These Swedish tunes may be less-known to most listeners than the ones employed by Brahms, but they are no less hardy and enthusiastic, and Alfvén creates some amusing “down the hatch” instrumental imitations of a student game built around imbibing. This whole CD is upbeat and good-humored, showing that despite Alfvén’s more-serious and academic sides, he was also quite capable of producing pleasantly laid-back music that takes an audience skillfully to both Italy and Sweden.
Sweden is also one musical destination, a brief one, on a new Delos CD featuring clarinetist Robert DiLutis and the Mellifera Quartet. Erland von Koch (1910-2009) was a Swedish composer who included melodies from his country in his two-movement Monolog 3 for solo clarinet. The first movement begins and ends solemnly, while the second is considerably speedier and lighter, the two together creating a small suite along the lines of a sonatina. This disc also includes a work actually labeled as a sonatina, a 1951 piece – also in two movements – by Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995). Rózsa was Hungarian-American, and just as von Koch included Swedish elements in his solo-clarinet work, so Rózsa includes Hungarian ones in his. Best known as a film composer, Rózsa here, in the first of two works he wrote for solo clarinet, shows himself able both to create engaging tunes and to produce virtuosic and well-written material for a solo instrument. Even more engaging and significantly more substantial, Weber’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings is the longest piece on this disc and the most involving. Weber had a knack for delightful themes developed with high skill, and in this work he shows firm understanding both of the clarinet’s capabilities and of ways to involve it with a string quartet – sometimes interweaving, sometimes displaying like a soloist in front of an orchestra. DiLutis, whose skill in fingering and superb breath control are everywhere evident on this recording, is really at his best here, playing the quintet with tremendous polish and joie de vivre. It is an exhilarating reading. And the work has ties to another offering on the CD. Weber wrote it for clarinetist Heinrich Joseph Baermann (1784-1847) – whose Adagio for Clarinet and Strings DiLutis and the Mellifera Quartet play here. Formerly attributed to Richard Wagner, this short piece – actually the slow movement from Baermann’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 23 – is emotionally warm and sensitive, using the string ensemble as a group to set off the clarinet’s lyricism. The remaining two pieces on this CD offer brief travel-to-Asia experiences. Glazunov’s Rêverie orientale uses the imagined Orientalism included in much music of its time (1886) and gives it a feeling of tristesse in which the strings accentuate the clarinet’s melancholy. And the Rhapsody for Clarinet by Willson Osborne (1906-1979), which can also be played on bassoon, is a solo work that grows from a brief fragment of melody in an expansion that especially plumbs the clarinet’s emotional capabilities – with which DiLutis is particularly skilled.
Faux Orientalism lasted well past the time of Glazunov’s Rêverie orientale and was still much in evidence when Ravel wrote his song cycle Shéhérazade in 1903. Intended for mezzo-soprano or tenor and orchestra, the work gets a pretty but slightly “off” performance for soprano and piano on a new Naïve CD. Raquel Camarinha and Yoan Héreau are obviously comfortable performing together, and they handle their respective parts of the music with skill, especially the increasing intensity of the first and longest of the three songs, “Asie.” But much of the charm of this work, and much of its exoticism, comes from Ravel’s skillful orchestration, and the piano reduction is just that: it reduces the orchestral effects and turns this intended visit to the Orient into something closer to a nicely performed salon piece from France. Indeed, this entire (+++) CD is a French journey, largely one of rather fey Impressionism. Camarinha somewhat overdoes the swooning quality of Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliées, although the tone painting is more effectively conveyed in the composer’s Fêtes Galantes, where the pianism of Héreau tends to come to the fore more strongly. The Quatre Poèmes Hindous by Maurice Delage (1879-1961) were intended to use a chamber ensemble of two flutes, oboe or cor anglais, clarinet, bass clarinet, harp, and string quartet, and as in the three songs by Ravel, these four are designed to reflect the experience of a specific part of the world. In Delage’s case this is India, and the music partakes of both the time of the songs’ composition (1912-13) and some of the melodies and rhythms of Indian music. Camarinha sings these pieces particularly well, bringing forth their emotional landscapes just as much as their intended exoticism. The most-recent works on the CD are those by Poulenc, composed between 1939 and 1945, but Camarinha and Héreau seem especially interested in showing how they fit into the same earlier-20th-century atmosphere in which the other songs on the disc were created. Thus, in Deux Poèmes de Louis Aragon, the expressiveness of “C” seems more genuine than the somewhat forced-sounding “Fêtes Galantes.” The six songs of Fiançailles pour Rire proceed pleasantly enough and perhaps a touch over-delicately. And “Montparnasse” and “Hyde Park” – which constitute one of several Poulenc pairings of Apollinaire poems – come across, like the Aragon pair, as being of considerable sensitivity in the former setting but a somewhat forced brightness in the more-ebullient latter song. A pleasant enough song recital for listeners who want to be transported for a time to France, especially in the early 20th century, this disc will be a bit monochromatic for a wider audience.
The visit is to America, at a time when the United States was scarcely thought of as an important musical destination, on a new Delos recording of the piano music of John Knowles Paine (1839-1906). The 25 tracks here provide a generous sampling of the piano works of a composer best known for his orchestral compositions and his seminal importance in creating American classical music built on a substantial European framework but nevertheless reflecting the thinking of the New World. Having studied in Berlin, Paine naturally brought many influences from Germany back to the U.S. with him. These are apparent in some of the pieces heard here, such as the Brahmsian “Impromptu” from Four Characteristic Pieces, Op. 25; the Chopin-influenced Nocturne, Op. 45; and the early and distinctly Bachian Prelude in F-sharp Minor, Op. 15, No. 2. But Paine’s modification of European models into something more American shows here as well, notably in “Fuga Giocosa” from Three Piano Pieces, Op. 41, in which a popular late-19th-century baseball tune gets Bach-style fugal treatment. To be sure, most of the music here is salon-like and relatively inconsequential, which will make this a (+++) release for many listeners even though it will get a (++++) rating for those interested in 19th-century American piano music and in the development of the U.S. as a world musical center. Christopher Atzinger certainly conveys the impression that he both respects and enjoys Paine’s piano pieces: he captures all their moods, from the very serious (A Funeral March in Memory of President Lincoln, Op. 9) to the much more lighthearted (the aforementioned “Fuga Giocosa” and the other two pieces in the same set, A Spring Idyl and Birthday Impromptu). The longest work here by far, and the one that most constitutes a musical visit to Paine’s time and place, is In the Country: Ten Sketches for the Piano, Op. 26. These miniatures, most lasting less than two minutes and none as long as three, mix typical Romantic-era interests (“The Shepherd’s Lament,” “Gipsies”) with short, idyllic strolls and saunters through the American outdoors (“Woodnotes,” “Wayside Flowers,” “Rainy Day”), and eventually lead to a pair of genuinely impressive concluding pieces that extract emotion from their own simplicity: the gently melancholic “Farewell” and the brightly upbeat “Welcome Home.” Although Paine’s music provides a visit to what may be considered a single, limited place and time, this CD shows it exploring that location and era from many angles and with a great deal of sensitivity.
Another new CD, this one from Ravello, is intended to be far more wide-ranging. This (+++) release features Richard Carr as both composer and performer, promising listeners a tour of some of the many parts of the world to which he himself has traveled. This is an entirely personal journey: most of the tracks bear no discernible relationship to the locations to which they are supposed to transport an audience. Among those places are Fjordland (the South Island of New Zealand), Cordillera Blanca (the Andes in Peru), Jardin de Plantes (Paris), and Corridors of Light (Zanzibar). Carr divides his travels into four “parts,” grouping them that way to provide “resting places,” with Part 4 containing only a single piece that is a resting place of a different sort: Cementerio de la Recoleta, a necropolis in Buenos Aires. Carr plays a number of instruments here: violin and electric violin, viola, guitar, piano, keyboard, bowed and sampled strings, and more. For additional sound effects – many of the effects are more “sound” than “music” – he includes performances by other musicians on alto and tenor saxophone, fula flute and bansuri flute, harp, percussion, etc. And he uses the varying instrumental combinations to communicate not only outward journeys but also such inward ones as Both Sacred and Profane (which juxtaposes the sounds of a Moroccan street singer with those of a right-wing radio host) and Through Streams (intended to be streams of consciousness rather than water). Carr obviously is at pains to construct a substantial philosophical framework for Places I’ve Walked, but the question for listeners will be what sort of music comes into it. The answer is less imposing than Carr’s concept: the music simply sounds like much other chamber and enhanced-chamber music by contemporary composers, generally having a sort of minimalist feeling with overtones of gentle jazz and occasional inclusion of taped material from the real world (scarcely anything new: Respighi did it). It is certainly true that travelers bring themselves wherever they go, and that seems to be the message, intentional or not, in Places I’ve Walked: wherever Carr has gone in the world, wherever he has gone internally, he has come up with pretty much the same portrait of a place or a mode of thought or feeling, since everything reflects through him. The slightly more upbeat pieces here, such as Avenue C Rainstorm, bring brief but welcome respite from a journey that otherwise proceeds slowly and gently pretty much throughout. Whatever varied memories Carr has obtained from his many travels, what he offers to those who did not travel with him is a heaping helping of pretty much the same thing.