September 26, 2019
Stellaluna. By Janell Cannon. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.
Friends: True Stories of Extraordinary Animal Friendships. By Catherine Thimmesh. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Nugget & Fang Race around the Reef. By Tammi Sauer. Illustrations by Michael Slack. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Whether they offer “oldies but goodies” or newly created stories, board books are a great way to get the youngest children started on a lifelong love of books – and the thematic gateway of friendship is a wonderful passage to eventual reading. “Unlikely friendship” is a more apt way of looking at things: the ways in which highly different characters bond and enjoy themselves together is a sure-fire source of offbeat events and happily amusing (and amusingly happy) stories. Stellaluna, originally published in 1993, uses this theme beautifully and works as well in its new board-book form as it did when it first came out. Parents who remember the book from their own childhood will be charmed anew at re-encountering Janell Cannon’s tale of a baby bat that is separated from its mother and finds its way into a bird’s nest – becoming the adopted child of the mother bird and adopted sister of three baby birds. Cannon’s art is beyond realistic: she starts with accurate representations of her animal characters and then tweaks them just enough to make them anthropomorphic without allowing them to be cartoonish. So little Stellaluna always looks just like the fruit bat that she is, but when she gets into discussions with the baby birds or a confrontation with Mama Bird, her wide eyes and pleading expression make her seem very human-like. That confrontation comes about because Stellaluna is, after all, a fruit bat, instinctively sleeping upside-down and flying at night and eating fruit, while Mama Bird and her babies sleep in the nest, fly in daytime, and eat bugs. Mama Bird makes it clear that Stellaluna must “obey all the rules of this house,” and the little bat does her best, even managing to choke down insects “without making faces.” But once the baby birds start to fly, and Stellaluna does so as well, the bat’s nature comes to the fore, and she stays in the air even after the birds return to the nest as darkness falls – eventually encountering other bats, who help her adjust to bat life. And one of those bats turns out to be Stellaluna’s very own Mother Bat. Reunited with her mom, Stellaluna soon learns all the tricks of the bat trade – but will not be satisfied until she returns to Mama Bird and the bird babies to show them everything she is now able to do. The reunion is a happy one, but also presents a puzzle: “How can we feel so different and be so much alike?” wonders one bird. The answer, of course – supplied by Stellaluna – is, “Because we’re friends.” As unlikely as this story may be in the real world, it makes a great friendship tale for the youngest children – and the handsome oversize board book shows Cannon’s wonderful illustrations in all their beauty.
But maybe the bat/bird friendship is not quite so unlikely after all. There are sometimes stranger things in real life than in fiction – and that is the point of Catherine Thimmesh’s Friends: True Stories of Extraordinary Animal Friendships, a book that actually works better in its new, standard-board-book size than it did when first published in 2011. The remarkable photos of unlikely animal pairs are as wonderful now as they were then, but now the only words are about friendship – and they are clearly aimed at pre-readers and the youngest readers. In the original book, excellent factual text explaining why the unexpected pairings occurred mixed uneasily with the “friendship” theme. But the facts do not matter in the new format, and all kids will see here are surprising and delightful animal juxtapositions – reinforcing the basic idea that no matter how different animals are from each other (including human animals), sometimes they can get along just beautifully. The mouse riding on a frog’s back provides a laugh-out-loud moment, and the giraffe and ostrich rubbing heads go really well with the words, “No matter/ who has/ a snout/ or a beak,/ connecting with friends/ is something friends seek.” Here kids will see a miniature pig and Asian camel nuzzling each other over the fence that separates them; a tiny macaque gently stroking the back of a pigeon; a polar bear sprawled on its back to play with (rather than eat) a nearby sled dog; and more. Since the board book does not explain the exceptional circumstances that resulted in these highly unlikely friendships, parents may need to emphasize that these are exceptions to typical animal behavior – in fact, human kids should not count on immediate bonding with wild animals, or even with all domestic ones. But the photos certainly make finding friends seem like a real treat – children will be completely charmed by pictures such as the one of a tawny owl perched atop a basset hound, with the words, “No matter/ if covered/ in fur/ or feather,/ friends are calm and relaxed/ when snuggled together.” This is, in fact, a good-for-snuggling book that can be fun anytime but may be especially enjoyable for generating a feeling of warmth and safety at bedtime.
Some friendships, though, could only happen in fiction. A new board book from Tammi Sauer and Michael Slack presents some further adventures of best friends Fang (a huge, super-toothy shark) and Nugget (a minnow). Like other stories of this fishy duo, this one focuses on the fun the two buddies have together – and Nugget & Fang Race around the Reef has a special design feature that lets kids participate in the action. Called “a Peek-and-Pull Book,” it has a notch on every page that connects to in-page art that changes when a child pulls a tab or turns a wheel. The heavy, easy-to-grasp cardboard makes this easy to do for even very young children, and creates a participatory addition to the very simple story that kids will love. The first page shows Fang (so big that he actually stretches across two pages) but not Nugget – until a tug on the tab brings him into view. Then the story starts: the plot is merely that five fish are having a race. A pull tab lets kids see the three additional racers moving out in front of Nugget and Fang, but soon those fish drop out for various reasons – providing a neat lesson in very simple subtraction, for children old enough to be ready for a touch of math. Turning a wheel on one page shows Nugget, Fang, and two other fish swimming around and around; but as the finish line approaches, only the two best friends are in the race. Who will win? This is a friendship book above all, so of course they need to cross the finish line at the same time – and kids make sure they do just that with another tab, this one in the form of a sliding panel moved by a finger poked through a punched hole. The net result of Nugget & Fang Race around the Reef is a bit of participatory fun, a touch of arithmetic, and a great deal of friendship – all of which add up to plenty of enjoyment from start to finish.
The Escape Manual for Introverts. By Katie Vaz. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Human beings are social animals, and there certainly seem to be far more humans who are comfortable in social situations than ones who are not. That is, extroverts significantly outnumber introverts – who are made uncomfortable by circumstances that most people enjoy and find energizing. Introverts need time on their own to recharge and be able to interact better with everyday life, including with extroverts; but extroverts, most of whom are constitutionally unable to understand introversion, traditionally tell introverts that they simply need to “get out more” and “push through discomfort” and “get used to mingling.” However well-meaning those ideas are, they all amount to the same recommendation: be what you are not so you will fit more readily into the world at large.
Katie Vaz, a professed introvert herself, has a better idea. The Escape Manual for Introverts offers suggestions, from the serious to the silly, to help introverts cope with everyday interactions with which they would just as soon not have to cope. Divided into five sections called “Friends,” “Relatives,” “Coworkers,” “Acquaintances,” and “Strangers,” the book calls up likely scenarios involving members of each of those groups and offers thoughts on ways to get out of circumstances that extroverts find enjoyable and energizing but that introverts tend to find cringe-worthy.
Vaz manages to have fun with some of the ideas here while offering others that are genuinely useful. For example, “When saying goodbye after a family gathering drags on and on and on,” she seriously suggests scheduling important appointments right after any such gatherings – letting you decide in advance just how long you will stay, and providing a ready-made excuse for leaving at a specific time. And she also, much less seriously, recommends becoming “skilled at walking backward smoothly,” so that your motion is barely noticeable but you keep getting farther and farther away from unwanted interactions. There are also some suggestions that could go either way – serious or at most semi-serious – such as dealing with unexpected encounters at the supermarket with people you barely know by becoming “a loyal shopper at a 24-hour grocery store” and stocking up only after 11:00 p.m.
Vaz knows that unwanted interactions with people of all sorts are inevitable in the life of an introvert. Her basic idea is to plan your exits before making your entrances. So, to limit time with “eager and attentive workers” at craft-show booths and other havens for (undesired) personal attention to customers, you may want to create a budget for “exit purchases” that let you escape by finding “the least expensive item,” or you may prefer to “hire a kidnapper” whose contact number you keep “on speed dial.” Either will work.
For introverts, many of the most-awkward situations do not involve interactions with strangers but ones with friends and family – those are people with whom you want to (or have to) remain close, but ones who can prove exhausting if their extroversion becomes overwhelming. So for most readers who turn to The Escape Manual for Introverts for genuine advice rather than simply for amusement, the “Friends” and “Relatives” sections will be especially important. So, for example, if you see you are receiving an incoming phone call from someone you like but to whom you just do not want to talk, you can answer, but quickly wrap up the conversation by saying your phone battery is about to die (a ploy that would not have worked in the days of landlines); or you can answer the phone in a whisper and say such-and-such is napping – using the name of a roommate or pet.
Being an introvert in a world of extroverts is never going to be easy. At worst, it can make introverts wonder why evolution allows them to exist at all – if humans are at their best in social groups, what evolutionary advantage could there possibly be to preferring quiet “alone time”? Well, think about it – yes, thinking about it could very well be the reason. While all those comfortable minglers are comfortably mingling, someone has to be in a quiet place, settling in to have important thoughts that can only be formed away from people such as the “loquacious regulars” who seem always to be at “your favorite park.” Vaz has an answer for the park problem, by the way: “Invest in a jet pack. The quickest of quick evacuations.” Just be sure it is a single-person jet pack, so no extrovert can ask to go along for the ride.
Music for Violin and Piano by Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Chausson, Svendsen, Massenet, Bloch, and Saint-Saëns. Piet Koornhof, violin; Albie van Schalkwyk, piano. Delos. $14.98.
Music for Violin and Piano by Telemann, Schubert, Tessa Lark, Kreisler, and Ravel. Tessa Lark, violin; Amy Yang, piano. First Hand Records. $19.99.
Music for Violin and Bass by Bach and by Eddie Barbash, Michael Thurber & Tessa Lark. Tessa Lark, violin; Michael Thurber, bass. Redonky Tonk. $19.99.
Philip Grange: Chamber Music. Gemini (Ileana Ruhemann, flutes; Catriona Scott, clarinets; Joby Burgess, percussion; Aleksander Szram, piano; Caroline Balding, violin; Rose Redgrave, viola; Sophie Harris, cello) conducted by Ian Mitchell. Métier. $17.99.
Listeners primarily interested in some exceptionally fine violin-and-piano playing and less concerned about a fully integrated or carefully curated musical program will find a great deal to like in new recordings on the Delos and First Hand Records labels, the former featuring a duo from South Africa and the latter offering players from the United States. Piet Koornhof and Albie van Schalkwyk are a superbly matched pair whose sensitivity and emotional resonance make their performances of emotive, lyrical, mostly well-known Romantic repertoire a joy in which to luxuriate. Perhaps a bit too much of a joy: there is considerable similarity among these seven works in terms of their emotional evocativeness, and hearing the CD straight through may mean a touch too much wallowing for some tastes. But a focus on simply listening to these South African performers should take care of that: the playing is smooth, elegant, beautifully balanced, and so neatly presented that listeners may have to remind themselves that most of these works are not usually heard in violin-and-piano guise at all, but in versions for violin and orchestra. Yet each of them was arranged for violin and piano by the composer, with a single exception: Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, which concludes the disc and provides all the fireworks to be had on the CD, was arranged by Bizet. The latter part of the Saint-Saëns really does serve as a wakeup call here, coming as something of a surprise after six gentler, moodier and very nuanced pieces. They are Romance, Op, 11, by Dvořák; Sérénade mélancolique by Tchaikovsky; Poème by Chausson, in which the piano part has been slightly modified from the composer’s somewhat awkward one; Romance, Op. 26, by Johan Svendsen, the least-known work here, but one that holds its own effectively in this company; Méditation from Thaïs by Massenet; and Nigun from Baal Shem by Bloch. These performers seem to have the ability to spin out beauteous sound and sweet lyricism unendingly, with the longer Dvořák and Chausson works sustaining just as well as the Massenet, the shortest piece here. Pretty much everything on the disc will be familiar to classical-music lovers, but not necessarily in these versions and not necessarily when played with the genuine but uncloying sweetness of these performances.
The repertoire is more of a mixed bag emotionally, in pacing, and in geographical origin in the recital by Tessa Lark and Amy Yang. The seven pieces are punctuated by some of Telemann’s Fantasies for solo violin – Nos. 1, 4 and 5 – which, however, are actually the least convincing pieces on the disc. Lark plays wonderfully, with the sort of apparent effortlessness that comes only after an investment of a great deal of effort. And she has a very personal style that pulls both precision and tonal warmth from the fine Giovanni Paolo Maggini violin (c. 1600) that she uses here. However, although the instrument is apt for Telemann, Lark uses it to make the composer’s works warmly emotional in a way that does not quite fit their time – she sees them as looking ahead to the later fantasies on the disc, a proposition that is arguable at best. Yet the sheer skill of Lark’s performances will undoubtedly win over many listeners – and the non-Telemann pieces here invite virtually no quibbles at all. One of them is also a solo-violin work: Lark’s own Appalachian Fantasy (2016), based on her personal roots and featuring her treating the Maggini very much like a super-elegant and super-expensive country fiddle. Here we have a piece and a performance that are likely to elicit genuine amusement as well as enjoyment and that invite an enthusiastic “brava” at the end. Indeed, Lark’s work has all the distinct elements of an encore – but it is placed midway through the disc, in a rather odd decision that sandwiches it between Schubert’s Fantasie in C, D934, and one of the Telemann works. Whatever one may think of the juxtaposition, though, the fact is that the stylistic and performance contrast between Lark in Schubert and Lark in her own music is tremendous – and fascinating to hear. The Schubert is by far the longest work on this disc, and it receives a wonderfully spun-out performance from Lark, one in which Yang partners fully to plumb musical depths that go well beyond the surface prettiness of many of the works on the Koornof/van Schalkwyk CD. The Schubert is a beautiful, expansive work that is almost as demanding for the piano as for the violin, and that is filled with the characteristics of late Schubert – it is the last of his compositions for violin and piano, and has some of the expansiveness of his Symphony No. 9 (“Great”) in the same key. Lark and Yang are smart enough to let the music breathe and expand to a considerable length, downplaying their mutual virtuosity in the service of the broadly conceived beauties of Schubert’s themes. It is a simply lovely performance from start to finish. The other two pieces on the disc are, if not trifles, certainly of less consequence. One is Fritz Kreisler’s Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta, a work that is not heard especially often and that is certainly an attractive display piece for the violin, the piano here taking more of a subsidiary role. The other, and the concluding work on the CD, is Ravel’s Tzigane, and here both Lark and Yang really do cut loose, playing with strength and abandon and joy and full-fledged intermingled virtuosity. Like the pieces on the Koornof/van Schalkwyk disc, this is a work usually played by violin and orchestra, and it must be said that the fireworks in that version outshine those here. But the violin-and-piano version predates the orchestral one – although Ravel suggested use of an optional luthéal attachment for the piano, which would add a fair amount to the work’s intended sound. In any case, what Lark and Yang offer here is a kind of celebration of exoticism (though the piece does not include any genuine Gypsy tunes). Their joie de vivre, or perhaps joie de jouer, is evident throughout, and the Ravel makes a fine conclusion to a disc that celebrates the performers as much as the music they perform.
The Lark-Yang disc is something of a mixed bag in terms of repertoire, and a Lark-Thurber disc is even more so. This CD also has Baroque music as punctuation points – in this case, seven Bach Two-Part Inventions among the 13 tracks. But it is the other six pieces here that primarily reflect the inventiveness of violinist Lark and bass player Thurber. Of those six, one called Wooden Soldier was written by the performers and Eddie Barbash, while the other five were composed by Lark and Thurber alone: Tumble Time, Cedar & Sage, Weather Vane, Tom & Nancied, and Until We Meet Again. The six new pieces provide a more-thorough exploration of Lark’s Appalachian roots than the single work by her on the Lark-Yang disc, and these new pieces also explore American themes and ones outside the classical-music realm, in so doing contrasting with Bach’s foundational role in the classical-music world. There is nothing particularly new in the idea of expanding classical performance practices into non-classical areas, and nothing very unusual about merging genres or acknowledging Bach’s importance while creating music to which his underpinning is not particularly relevant. The question for listeners will be whether this CD hangs together well and whether it offers any exceptional musical material and/or highly convincing performances. The disc falls a bit short on all those levels: it has all the hallmarks of a highly personal production, one in which the performers clearly believe and one that speaks to their personal interests and their desire to make music together. So far, so good. But there is nothing particularly distinctive about the non-Bach compositions here, and while the Bach performances are fine, they are not sufficiently distinguished to make the disc worth owning on their account. The feeling on this disc is one of a jam session, despite the non-improvisational nature of the music: these are two friends hanging out together and making music for fun and for their own pleasure, giving an audience an opportunity to listen in on them. For fans of Lark and Thurber, or ones interested in hearing a varied but quite short (only 32-minute) recording of skilled violin-and-bass playing, this (+++) CD will be enjoyable. But the whole project seems designed for a very limited audience. It comes across as something created by Lark and Thurber for themselves and a small circle of friends, a disc giving an intimate look at (or listen to) some highly personal one-on-one music-making, but not one reaching out – or intending to reach out – much beyond the two participants themselves, along with their inner circle.
The violin gets mixed with more than the piano on a new (+++) Métier CD featuring music by Philip Grange – and the one solo string work here is not for violin but for cello. Called Elegy, it is an extended (10-minute) piece that, like much contemporary writing for strings, takes the instrument’s traditional range and sound as starting points and then seeks ways to expand both. That means considerable use of the cello’s high range rather than its mellower and more emotionally evocative low notes, and athematic writing in which there is plenty of use of pizzicato, glissando and other techniques. There is nothing notably elegiac in the music. Grange uses extramusical sources for the works heard here, and apparently expects audiences to be familiar enough with those sources to pick up ways in which the music reflects them: composer John Casken, writers Edward Thomas and Samuel Beckett, and painter Marc Chagall. This last is the only one to whom a piece’s title makes a direct reference. The work is Piano Trio: Homage to Chagall, and it is in four movements with standard tempo indications (Moderato, Scherzo: Sempre leggiermente, Adagio and Con fuoco) but a structure that belies the apparently traditional elements. In the first movement, the instruments play individually and sound as if they come together only coincidentally. The second, shortest movement is indeed light, with a prominent but scattered-sounding piano part. The third has none of the lyrical or emotional quality that might be expected in a slow movement, and little warmth except, to a limited extent, in the cello part. The finale, like the first movement, is essentially a series of individual, always-dissonant parts for the three instruments, one or another of which occasionally comes to the fore as the others subside before they in turn move forward. The connection of all this with Chagall is less than apparent. Adding a fourth instrument, Tiers of Time is for piano, violin, viola and cello, and is in a single movement that, again, is always dissonant, themeless and little concerned with blending or mingling of the instruments. Indeed, like much other contemporary music, this and the other Grange works sound more like collations of sound than like any recognizably structured piece with definitive beginning, middle or end. Under those circumstances, the last and longest work on the CD, Shifting Thresholds, is in many ways the most interesting (because it uses the most instruments) and the most honest (because two of its four movements are marked Movement in shifting tempi). This more-than-half-hour-long piece is written for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin and cello, but Grange seems to have little concern for the extended tonal palette available to him through use of a larger instrumental complement: the basic sound of the piece, in terms of the notes played and pacing, differs little from that of Elegy for solo cello or the other works for smaller groupings than Shifting Thresholds employs. There is today a built-in audience for music that is avowedly and enthusiastically contemporary, that dispenses with rhythm and harmony and identifiable themes and longstanding structural elements in favor of a kind of perpetual disconnectedness of sound. That is the audience for Grange’s music – that, and those who are sufficiently in-the-know to understand the nonmusical inspirations for these pieces. There are some interesting sonic explorations in Grange’s works, especially in Shifting Thresholds, but there is not very much meat on the musical bones of these offerings – not enough to provide a satisfying compositional meal to listeners, except those already familiar with Grange’s work or always ready to embrace contemporaneity for its own sake.
Ástor Piazzolla, arr. Sergio Assad: Las Estaciones Porteñas; Akira Nakada, arr. Toru Takemitsu: A Song of Early Spring; Takemitsu: Equinox; Frank Wallace: Cyrcles; Leo Brouwer: Un Dia de Noviembre. David William Ross, guitar. Ravello. $14.99.
Music for Clarinet and Electronics by Benjamin Broening, Matthew McCabe, Mark Snyder, Kirsten Volness, Judith Shatin, Joseph Harchanko, and Mark Phillips. Andrea Cheeseman, clarinet and bass clarinet. Ravello. $14.99.
Craig Vear: Black Cats & Blues—Hypermedia Concerto for Cello and Digital Technology. Craig Hultgren, cello. Métier. $17.99.
Lovers of music for solo instruments have a multitude of recent releases from which to choose, all featuring fine playing and all designed to showcase works – most of them contemporary – that exploit and often expand the capabilities of the specific instruments on which they focus. Piazzolla’s well-known Las Estaciones Porteñas (“The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”), originally written for a quintet, adapts rather oddly to the guitar, whose capabilities are far more limited than those of the five instruments that Piazzolla used to produce a level of complexity that seems ill-fitting for any solo instrument. David William Ross, however, finds that Sergio Assad’s guitar arrangement of the music offers many opportunities to produce the full range of sounds and technical moves of which his instrument is capable – and in the hands of Ross, an excellent performer, the guitar shows a great many capabilities indeed. Again and again, Ross highlights a specific element of Piazzolla’s music or finds a way to reproduce some of the composer’s polyphonic complexity in ways that are quite remarkable. The music moves mostly in a single line, or two lines at the same time, which means the traditional strumming sound of the guitar is used sparingly and as a means of highlighting particular sections rather than as the basis for most of the sound. Assad’s arrangement is a sensitive and aware one, and Ross’ modifications of it, while not perhaps true to Piazzolla’s original, turn the performance into a combination of presentation of a work of considerable character and a fantasy upon that work. This is a very intriguing reading and by far the most-interesting music on a new Ravello CD. The other pieces also give Ross plenty of ways to display his prowess, but most of the music is less engaging. Akira Nakada’s A Song of Early Spring is a quiet, gentle lullaby that is somewhat too soporific in an arrangement by Toru Takemitsu, whose own Equinox moves from a dissonant opening into a rather scattered-feeling set of notes that seem neither to progress musically nor to be particularly illustrative of the work’s title. Frank Wallace’s six-movement Cyrcles also has celestial references in its movements, two of which bear the title “Solstice.” The multi-movement form gives Wallace chances to establish and pursue varied sounds and pacing; to these he adds a variety of technical effects that establish different sound worlds for the guitar in each piece. The percussive, always-in motion second movement, “The Light,” is a highlight, but other sections, such as “Darkness Falling,” are more obvious and less involving. The finale, called “First Truth,” is, however, quite interesting, seeming more to pose a series of musical questions than to provide a first (or last) answer to any of them. The CD concludes with Leo Brouwer’s Un Dia de Noviembre, a gentle and rather sweet, rocking, lullaby-like piece that promotes relaxation more effectively than does the opening A Song of Early Spring. Brouwer’s work ends this seasonal-and-astronomical-cycles disc with a very pleasant sense of calm – and plenty of admiration for the skill with which Ross explores the composers’ many moods and the guitar’s many capabilities.
Listeners whose solo-instrument preferences are for woodwinds will find much to like on another Ravello CD, this one featuring clarinetist Andrea Cheeseman – provided that they enjoy winds combined with electronically generated sounds. Less thematic than the Ross disc, Cheeseman’s simply offers seven 21st-century works that give the performer ample chances to demonstrate both virtuosity and the ability to interact in a variety of ways with electronics – Cheeseman has said she considers the computer just another musical instrument. Arioso/Doubles (2002) by Benjamin Broening creates an electronic landscape against which the soloist’s acoustic instrument stands out, but into which it sometimes is absorbed. Somewhere (2015) by Matthew McCabe has more-prominent electronics that tend to become intrusive, sounding as if they are, in a way, exhaling their breath over the clarinet’s rather tentative meanderings – this “somewhere” may not be a place where listeners will be comfortable. Mark Snyder’s Messy (2008) opens on a completely static aural landscape, although as the work progresses, some electronic interventions do provide a substantial, if not quite messy, counterpoint to a clarinet part that is essentially slow and even. Ultraviolet (2007) by Kirsten Volness has the clarinet often sounding strained, in its higher range, while the electronics provide the sort of “space music” familiar from innumerable science-fiction movies. Judith Shatin’s Penelope’s Song (2008) features a rather unpleasant electronic ostinato, above which the clarinet bounces here and there restlessly – a reasonable representation of the distress and discomfort of Odysseus’ wife during the long years in which she awaited his return from Troy, but musically not a piece that is particularly pleasant to listen to (which may be part of the composer’s point). Breath (2005) by Joseph Harchanko stands as a strong contrast, moving at a slow, deliberate pace and with an overall sense of quiet both in the clarinet and in the electronics. It produces a sense of stasis but never quite one of peace, especially as the electronics become chimelike as the work progresses. Favorable Odds (2018) by Mark Phillips concludes the disc with a combination of synthesized waveforms and bass-clarinet samples heard sometimes in background, sometimes as overlay, and with a central all-electronic section that comes across as an unintentional parody of electronically generated static-like sounds professing to be music. The second half of the piece, however, is an intriguingly dancelike segment whose rhythmic evenness (generated in the electronics) comes as a distinct surprise. Listeners who are fans of electronic music will not find much else surprising on this CD, but they will encounter a variety of clever ways in which electronics mingle with acoustic clarinet sounds that Cheeseman generates with considerable skill.
Electronic and traditional instrumental sounds are also combined on a new Métier CD on which Craig Hultgren is the featured cellist in a performance of Craig Vear’s Black Cats & Blues (2014-18). Hultgren here interacts improvisationally with an electronically generated score whose movements are based on a 1949 book by Boris Vian, Blues for a Black Cat and Other Stories. Knowledge of the book is a necessity to get the full effect of this work, whose 10 sections bear titles including “Dead Fish,” “Journey to Khonostrov,” “Good Students,” and “One-way Street.” Whether listeners who love the warmth, wide range and emotional expressiveness of the cello will enjoy this disc is very much an open question, since Vear does not call on any of those characteristics particularly strongly in this illustrative fantasy, and Hultgren rarely provides them. The cello is as often plucked as bowed; instrument and electronics, along with some narrative words (“I have had enough,” for example, and “If the sun is cold, the two-hour day”), clearly strive to produce an atmosphere of some sort, but it is impossible for anybody who does not know the underlying literary source of this work to figure out just what Vear is illustrating. Without the literary anchor, there is precious little for a listener to hold onto here except in a few places, such as “Blue Fairy Tale,” where some surprising near-lyricism comes as quite a relief. Vear’s piece as a whole, in live performance, is designed to include video as well as audio elements, and the visuals would likely help make the whole thing more comprehensible. From a strictly auditory perspective, there is not much to enjoy here, although enjoyment may not even be the primary point of Black Cats & Blues. The use of the cello is such that it is not always even clear that the cello-like sounds are from the cello, and Hultgren spends much of his time at the extremes of his instrument’s range, as if trying to turn its sounds into approximations of the electronically generated ones. That commonality of purpose of cello and electronics may be much of the point here, but it does not lead to any particularly focused form of communication. Determinedly avant-garde, apparently largely just for the sake of being avant-garde, Black Cats & Blues would likely be more effective as a video offering than as a CD – although even with visuals, the work would appear to be aimed only at an audience familiar with Vian’s book and/or one enamored of avant-garde techniques and sounds for their own sake.
September 19, 2019
I Love Me. By Sally Morgan & Ambelin Kwaymullina. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.
Little Big Nate Draws a Blank. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $7.99.
Limelight. By Solli Raphael. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
The art of creating successful books for young readers and pre-readers lies largely in – well, in art. The pictures need to attract the youngest children, or the words that go with the illustrations will have no chance to tell a story or otherwise have an effect. It helps, of course, if the story that goes with the pictures is simple enough so it can be quickly and easily absorbed – and what could be simpler than expressing happiness with one’s own body and being? That is what Sally Morgan and Ambelin Kwaymullina put forth, both in art and in words, in I Love Me, a new board-book version of a work originally published in Australia in 2016. The two human characters may look somewhat unusual to some families: Morgan and Kwaymullina are from the Palyku people of Western Australia, and their drawings reflect their heritage not only through very dark skin but also through hair that is quite distinctive (“I love the way my curly hair grows,” the text says at one point, although the illustration shows the hair looking distinctly stringy and two-colored, as if highlighted). Some elements of I Love Me transcend cultures, including the cover – which shows the two characters and a dog, the humans wearing clothing with a big heart on the front and the dog shown with a red heart on its front as well. And the Aboriginal-and-manga-influenced art is both unusual and attractive, with every two-page spread having a different multicolored border and the story panels themselves appearing in different sizes and shapes. I Love Me is a very busy book, visually speaking, and that is one reason it works well for very young readers and pre-readers: there is lots going on, visually, at all times. The words are sometimes straightforward: “I love the inside me. I love the outside me.” (“Inside” gets an impressionistic drawing of what is inside people, while “outside” gets a super-colorful picture focused entirely on clothing and decorative display.) At other times, the words are a touch surprising: “I love the way my toes make art” (the two characters are shown using their feet to apply paint to paper, with examples of finished “toe drawings” on the wall behind them). And Morgan and Kwaymullina seek a kind of cadence in the writing by using repeated words on some pages: “Thump, thump, thump,” for example, and “Zing, zing, zing.” Those words are then attached to the narrative: “Dash, dash, dash. I love the way my feet splash” (with the characters running barefoot through puddles). Through its words and its art, I Love Me transmits its message of self-acceptance both vibrantly and playfully.
The playfulness is with the art in Lincoln Peirce’s new board book, Little Big Nate Draws a Blank. Peirce here puts his familiar preteen character, Big Nate, into a time machine, sending him back to early childhood and what is clearly an early interest in drawing (in the Big Nate comic strip, sixth-grader Nate is, among other things, a cartoonist). This board book is not really for Big Nate fans, although the strip has been around so long that it could be for the children of Big Nate fans who have enjoyed the strip for a quarter of a century. Peirce connects Little Big Nate with the familiar sixth-grade character through personality traits and Nate’s trademark spiky hair – although the character creation falters a bit when it comes to the mouth, with Peirce giving Little Big Nate just two teeth, both of them semicircular uppers and each as big as Nate’s nose (resulting in a rather weird look for what is otherwise a pleasant character). The art here is “by” Little Big Nate, and that is a lot of what makes this book fun to see and read. It is about all the things Little Big Nate considers drawing but decides not to draw – each of them, however, being shown in a Nate-style drawing, indicating how they would look if the young artist did draw them. This is harder to describe than to see: it is quite clear in the book and works very well. For each possible thing to draw, Little Big Nate gives a reason not to do so: “A toad? TOO BUMPY! A cricket? TOO JUMPY!” But each non-drawing (presumably from Nate’s imagination) looks like what he would draw if he did decide to draw it. The result is a lot of Nate non-drawings that let kids see what Nate drawings would look like if he created them – a convoluted notion that is distinctly amusing. The drawings themselves are a lot of fun, too, from the “too hairy” dog shedding everywhere as it runs, to the “too inky” octopus that smiles broadly while emitting a huge black cloud. At the end of the book, undecided Nate is just “too sleepy” to draw anything and is napping on the floor, crayon to paper, imagining the “too creepy” (but smiling) snake that he has decided not to draw. The way Peirce uses his art here – and Nate’s imagined art – makes the book highly enjoyable.
It is the art of poetry, not representational art, that is featured in Limelight, a book for kids who are roughly the age of the original Big Nate character. And this book, like the one by Morgan and Kwaymullina, has an Australian connection: author Solli Raphael is Australian, and became instantly famous when he won the Australian Poetry Slam at age 12 and then put together Limelight at age 13. Now Raphael is 14 and is actively engaged in promoting his poetry and his book – and the messages he seeks to convey in both. Raphael has some knowledge of how poetry works, having learned about it from his mother, and offers several explanatory chapters on the topic in Limelight. But they are not the book’s focus and, in the main, not especially relevant to the actual poetry that Raphael creates. The poems, unsurprisingly for someone of Raphael’s age, are all about how badly things need to be different from the way they currently are, and how important it is for him and others in the same age group to get involved to make change happen: “Since the day of our arrival, we’ve been killing our own survival, and it’s vital, that our sidle title is put aside, so we can become ONE with our rivals.” And (another example among many): “So next time you go into the shops,/ think about all the crops, ripped-off farmers, plastic bags, and those who dedicate their lives to the war on waste they pursue.” And (one more): “The floods have finished, and the fires have burned out./ Suicide rates climb higher and higher/ and this is something we should all be worried about.” The poems read mostly like polemical pamphleteering, certainly filled with all the sincerity and angst of a preteen or young teenager, and intended for an audience that has grown well beyond board books and currently seeks something beyond (or other than) entertainment from the art of poetry (or at least from slam poetry). Limelight is part of the “celebrification” of sociopolitics, with Raphael being presented (in many media, not just this book) as the sort of committed young person who can and should attract others to the cause of – well, of just generally making things better and less messed-up. On its own, this is a (+++) book, but if it reaches its intended preteen or young-teenage audience, it may be seen as a clarion call to (nonspecific) action and may – if Raphael has his way – inspire others to get down to the hard work of actually making things better.
The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition’s Evil Genius. By Bob Batchelor. Diversion Books. $27.99.
It is safe to ask why an author would write an almost-400-page biography of a man dubbed a “little German hysteria-peddler” in a sentence written in such a way that the opinion seems to be that of the author himself, not just the view of one of the people he is writing about. The answer in the case of Bob Batchelor seems to be that George Remus, a “tenacious grappler” (among other things), is just so doggone fascinating that his story asks to be written and Batchelor cannot but oblige.
It is scarcely an obliging tale. From its title – an echoing, ironic reference to the powerful Bourbon kings of France, including “Sun King” Louis XIV – to its standard “what happened afterwards” conclusion, The Bourbon King proceeds at a headlong pace that at times goes beyond the cinematic into the realm of TV advertising (in which a 30-second ad may have more than 30 scenes). In other words, there is a lot going on in Batchelor’s book, and the breathlessness of the telling seems to reflect not only the Prohibition era in which most of the biography is set but also the overall life of Remus (1874-1952).
It is abundantly clear that Batchelor neither likes nor approves of Remus or much of anything that Remus did or stood for, but he tries to place his distaste in context by writing that “while Remus may have been singularly violent and dangerous, his utter disregard for Prohibition put him in accord with how much of American society felt about the dry laws.”
The name of Remus is far less often bandied about than those of Al Capone, John Dillinger and other Midwestern bad guys of the Prohibition era. After going through The Bourbon King, some readers are sure to wonder why – especially readers fond of The Great Gatsby, for whose title character Remus appears to have been a partial model. Remus was certainly colorful as well as, apparently, wholly amoral (which is not the same as immoral, a more arguable word where Prohibition mores are concerned). He was not always a bad guy: early on, Remus quit school to support his family as a pharmacist. Later, he became, of all things, a criminal defense attorney, representing bootleggers in Chicago and becoming infamous for over-the-top courtroom tactics that saved more than one criminal from the death penalty. Deciding to get in on the big-money action himself – Remus had noticed the wads of cash with which his clients paid their fines and bills – Remus moved to Cincinnati and used his pharmaceutical knowledge and standing to work his way to the top of the illegal Kentucky bourbon world. Even during Prohibition, as readers may not realize, alcoholic beverages were legal – if made and distributed for medical reasons.
Batchelor chronicles Remus’ various depredations with skill and ever-present antipathy for the man, whose undoubted business acumen gets short shrift while his criminal activities get extensive coverage. This is scarcely surprising in light of just how outrageous some of Remus’ doings were – not only the bribery and the rest of the deep-seated corruption of which he took advantage, but also the way he actually got away with murder in what would surely be a highlighted scene in any Public Enemy-style movie. Remus’ second wife, Imogene, was no angel herself. She deliberately set out to milk him for all he was worth and was willing to marry him if necessary – but when Remus was serving two years in prison after a conviction under the Volstead Act, she fell for a Prohibition agent and managed, with him, to run through most of Remus’ money. Once out of jail, Remus shot her dead – then used his criminal-defense background to stand up for himself in court, and was acquitted by reason of insanity. The prosecutor, Charles P. Taft, son of former President and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft, never fully recovered from a defeat that, as Batchelor describes it, sounds almost ridiculously like something from our current era of celebrity worship and courtroom antics: “Taft got stung by a strange convolution of sentimentality, cult of personality, duplicity, and flat-out wrongheadedness on the part of twelve jury members.”
Batchelor’s headlong writing style sometimes gets ahead of the accuracy of his word usage and sentence construction: “The years in prison, he secretly worried, had deteriorated his intellect.” “Polls showed the Mabel Willebrandt was personally popular…” And the author’s evaluation of Remus is not always clear, beyond the element of personal dislike: one page refers to Remus’ “history of violence” and “quick, sadistic temper,” while the next says that “the viciousness of gang warfare did not suit Remus” and that for him, “the bootleg empire was as much an intellectual game – for excitement – as anything else.” The near-juxtaposition of these statements makes Remus seem to have been a more-complicated figure than the narrative itself ever asserts directly. But perhaps that is inevitable in a story like this one: the details of the weighted, gold-tipped cane that Remus carried and often used, and the pearl-handled pistol with which he killed Imogene, loom far larger than any discussion of the intellect that made it possible for Remus to succeed so well in several different fields, no matter how smarmily he did so. The Bourbon King is by no means the first book about Remus: he has previously inspired both nonfiction (Karen Abbott’s The Ghosts of Eden Park, that being the place where Remus shot Imogene) and fiction (Craig Holden’s The Jazz Bird). But neither those books nor Batchelor’s seems as fitting a tribute – if “tribute” is the right word – as an alcoholic beverage that Queen City Whiskey started making in 2014. It is called George Remus Bourbon. Ironically, however, it is now made not in Cincinnati, the Queen City where Remus once flourished, or by an eponymous manufacturer, but by a company called MGP – across the border in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2; Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet—excerpts. Fabio Bidini, piano; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Beau Fleuve. $20 (2 CDs).
Jeffrey Jacob: Symphony No. 5, “Dreamers”; Sanctuary I; Adagietto; Epitaph; The Persistence of Memory; Final Sanctuary. Navona. $14.99.
Mark John McEncroe: Musical Images for Chamber Orchestra—Reflections & Recollections, Vol. 1. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $19.99 (2 CDs).
The notion of Brahms’ two piano concertos being, in effect, symphonies with piano obbligato, is not a new one, but performances that treat them that way are less than common. But the new one by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, interestingly, does handle the Concerto No. 2 in an essentially symphonic way. That certainly does not diminish the importance of pianist Fabio Bidini’s involvement and skill, but this reading is at its best when the orchestra is in charge and those grand Brahmsian themes and swells are washing over the audience in waves (an appropriate metaphor for a live recording on the orchestra’s own Beau Fleuve label). The concerto actually begins rather slowly and almost tentatively, as if gathering strength, but by the time the main theme of the first movement arrives, the music is at full flow, and the expansiveness of the first movement is heightened by the exceptionally warm sound that Falletta draws from the orchestra – notably in the strings and brass. Bidini is rather too much given to rubato in this movement and, indeed, pretty much throughout the performance: some tempo fluctuation is normal (for better or worse) in this concerto and other works of its time, but Bidini stretches a phrase here, compresses one there, just a bit too often. Falletta, however, when not keeping up with the pianist’s alterations to the score, moves the music ahead with vigor and tremendous warmth. The middle movements both benefit from this approach to a considerable degree, with the Andante spun out at length in a way that makes it the emotional centerpiece of the entire work. The finale, though, is a bit of a comedown, not only because there is again a bit too much inattention to tempo consistency, as in the first movement, but also because the very end of the whole work is simply taken too fast – it almost sounds as if Bidini and Falletta have had enough after 50 minutes and cannot wait to wind things up. Apparently the audience could not wait, either: applause starts during the final chord – a major faux pas in a recording and one that apparently could not be edited out. There are many beauties in this performance, enough to make it yet another of a number of recent showcases for the increasing excellence of Falletta and the Buffalonians. But the whole thing does not quite gel as a concerto experience, even though as a symphonic one it is impressively played. The second disc in this two-CD set is another live recording, this time of excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. This is not one of the three suites that the composer extracted from his ballet – instead, it is a mixture of movements from all three. Falletta chooses nine pieces in all: six from the second suite, two from the first, and one from the third. She arranges them in an order designed to maximize a dramatic presentation, not in a sequence reflective of Shakespeare’s story or Prokofiev’s ballet. This works well for listeners who are not familiar with the music already, although those who do know it may find some of the juxtapositions a trifle jarring. Still, here as in the Brahms, Falletta brings forth exceptional playing from the orchestra – the very opening of the whole sequence, The Montagues and Capulets, is especially impressive – and she conducts with considerable flair for drama and a willingness to go all-in emotionally, notably in the concluding excerpt, Romeo at the Grave of Juliet. The sheer sound of the Buffalo Philharmonic makes this entire recording a pleasure to hear, even if some elements of the pieces fit together not quite seamlessly.
Contemporary composers often strive for the sort of impact that Brahms and Prokofiev produce, but their ambitions frequently fall short – at times because they are so determinedly earnest in trying to promote an extramusical agenda. That is the case with the music of Jeffrey Jacob on a new (+++) Navona release. Jacob’s Symphony No. 5, “Dreamers,” really is what Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 is often said to be: a symphony with piano obbligato. Jacob himself is the pianist in a performance by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jiří Petrdlík, and a heartfelt reading it is. But the work itself never quite makes the emotional connection that it seeks throughout. This is surely because it is a political work first and a musical one second: the title refers to children of illegal immigrants to the United States, ones who dream of a better life and may or may not be eligible for continued legal residence under a program that actually refers to them as “dreamers.” The immigration issue, in the U.S. and elsewhere, is a far more complex one than politicians acknowledge, requiring the balancing of legitimate national security and national financial interests against the desire of the oppressed to flee horrendous conditions and remake their lives. Jacob has no particularly profound or original thoughts on the matter – he simply creates a symphony designed to elicit sympathy and empathy for the “dreamers,” with movements called “Rain, Lagrimas (Tears),” “Fear; Grace,” and “Separation, Grief; Resolution, Triumph.” The music is primarily tonal and uses both the orchestra and the piano throughout to try to get the audience to feel a certain (one-sided) way about the plight of the “dreamers.” That is certainly Jacob’s expressive right, but considering the music simply as music – rather than as political argument – the work is rather monochromatic and not especially convincing. Sanctuary I is more of the same politically despite its different orchestration: it is played by the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Spalding, and includes extensive use of solo piccolo. The mood in the strings here is much the same as the mood in the full orchestra in the symphony, with the intent being to celebrate cities that oppose immigration authorities’ attempts to deal with illegal immigrants. Adagietto again features Jacob on piano, here with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by Joel Spiegelman. The piece has much the same mood as Sanctuary I, although it does not carry the same overt political freight. It also has a nicely wrought oboe part. Epitaph is yet another piece for piano (Jacob) and orchestra (the Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jon Mitchell). Lacking deliberate outward striving for consciousness-raising, it proves more effective than the symphony, Sanctuary I or Adagietto. Indeed, it is a work of considerable warmth and thoughtfulness, the piano undergoing a variety of uses, from the inward-focused and intense to the straightforward and music-box-like. Perhaps because this work has no designated program that listeners are supposed to follow, it opens a multitude of possible feelings and responses – the sort of connection that really good music provides and argumentative music rarely does. Also heard on this disc is The Persistence of Memory, again with Jacob on piano and this time featuring the Cleveland Chamber Symphony under Edwin London. Although not quite as effective as Epitaph, this work too is a strongly involving one, using passing references to the music of Brahms, Schumann, Schubert and Bartók as part of a two-movement contemplation of the similarities and differences between older and newer compositional styles – a somewhat rarefied and academic concept that manages not to be off-putting thanks to Jacob’s skill in interweaving the varying approaches. The CD concludes with Final Sanctuary, featuring Jacob not on piano but on oboe and electronics. This is an odd work, the oboe part warm and meditative but the electronic elements joining with it uneasily – it is hard to be sure whether the intent here is placidity or a kind of artificial sense of wellness above a rather ill-fitting background. Jacob shows himself on this CD to be both a versatile composer and a versatile performer, at his best when he looks inward rather than putting his skill at the service of nonmusical matters.
Another (+++) Navona release, a two-CD set of 20 works by Mark John McEncroe, offers chamber-orchestra arrangements by Mark J. Saliba of pieces that McEncroe originally wrote for piano. Unlike the multifaceted Jacob material, these works by McEncroe have considerable similarity among themselves, to the point that many titles could be swapped without significantly affecting listeners’ perceptions of the pieces. The two-CD set is not quite as lengthy as might be expected – the first disc runs 37 minutes, the second 44 – but it does wear thin quickly. Much of the material comes across as background music, suitable for listening to while doing something else: there is little here that commands full attention. Indeed, the music is so strongly tonal and so determinedly meditative that the recording could almost be classified as New Age, filled as it is with gentleness and little percussive tinglings that briefly draw attention beyond the quiet motion and even sound of the orchestra. It is scarcely a surprise that so many of the tracks refer to water: Ripples on Still Water, The Gargoyle Fountain, A Fish with the Blues, Shadows in the Water. There is a feeling of gentle flow, emphasis on “gentle,” almost everywhere here. The titles not including water references reflect a similar esthetic: Introspective Moments, Ghosts from the Past, Dancing in the Light, A Lazy Summer’s Afternoon, and so on. There is nothing wrong with any of this experiential music, certainly no problem with it for listeners who want something pleasant and unchallenging meandering through the background while they go about various quotidian tasks. It is mood music of a single mood, pleasantly soporific and engagingly undistinguished – nothing challenging or portentous here, nothing to make one’s ears perk up or one’s mind pay attention, but a great deal that can be used as an aid to meditation or to sleep, pretty much all of it at the same Andante Moderato tempo. Indeed, that is the title of one of the works here and could just as well be the label for all of them.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet; Vivaldi: Concerto in D, RV93; Joaquín Turina: La oración del torero; Boccherini: Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet in D, G448. Sharon Isbin, guitar; Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman, violins; Mark Holloway, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello). Cedille. $12.
Derek Bermel: Migration Series for Jazz Ensemble and Orchestra; Mar de Setembro; A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace. Luciana Souza, vocals; Ted Nash, saxophone and alto saxophone; Derek Bermel, clarinet; Juilliard Jazz Orchestra; Albany Symphony conducted by David Alan Miller. Naxos. $12.99.
Jimmy López Bellido: Symphony No. 1, “The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda”; Bel Canto—A Symphonic Canvas. Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Excellent playing in the service of some rather oddly assorted repertoire is the hallmark of a new Cedille disc featuring guitarist Sharon Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet. The sequencing of centuries – 20th, 18th, 20th, 18th – makes for some musical moments that would be jarring if the performances were not so smooth. As is, the individual pieces here are highly attractive and beautifully performed, but the CD as a whole is somewhat strange. The connective tissue is supposed to be the notion of music by Italian composers who have been influenced by Spain – a formulation that, being rather esoteric and also something of a stretch, clarifies pretty much nothing. It is best to hear the disc simply as an example of first-rate playing by a chamber grouping that is less than common. On that basis, it has many delights. The most interesting work on it, and the longest, is Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet, a work from 1950 that has far earlier roots. It flows beautifully and has a particularly moving slow movement marked Andante mesto that is more wistful than genuinely sad. The Allegro con fuoco marking of the finale is exactly right, however: with the exception of a contrasting middle section, this is forceful, even fiery music that shows Isbin at her best and the Pacifica players at their most intense. Vivaldi’s well-known lute concerto RV93 – one of only two such pieces that Vivaldi wrote – appears next, in an arrangement by Emilio Pujol, further modified by Isbin. It provides some respite, although Pujol’s recasting of the music is rather far from Vivaldi’s original. Then the disc returns to the 20th century for Joaquín Turina’s La oración del torero, a work with an “arrangement” past of its own: Turina originally wrote it for lute quartet and subsequently rescored it in several other forms, including this one for string quartet. It is an emotional, single-movement work intended to reflect a bullfighter’s prayer before entering the bull ring. The CD then moves back a couple of centuries to a Boccherini guitar quintet that is yet another arrangement, in this case Boccherini’s own, for a guitar-playing Spanish nobleman: the first two movements come from one earlier string quintet and the finale from a different one. The pastiche works well even though its two sources were written 17 years apart: the guitar plays a largely subsidiary role in the central movement, giving the whole work interesting balance, and then Isbin comes very much to the fore in the finale, whose slow opening leads to a Fandango that is very vigorous indeed and features castanets and tambourine (played by Eduardo Leandro). This makes a rousing conclusion to a disc that is more of a friends-making-music-together offering than a tightly knit recital – a circumstance that will bother lovers of this instrumental combination not at all.
The notion of visits and vicissitudes is even more prominent on a new Naxos CD offering three works by Derek Bermel (born 1967). Bermel is a fine clarinetist who, in the creation-of-music realm, is one of those “fusion” contemporary composers, his style containing elements of jazz and blues as well as traditional classical approaches. Two of the three works on this CD lie more clearly in the jazz world than the classical one. Migration Series for Jazz Ensemble and Orchestra (2006) is full of standard jazz and blues sounds, all wails and yawps and wah-wah as it reflects the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North, painting various tone pictures that quite clearly have their roots in traditional spirituals as well as other elements that are foundational to the jazz/blues world. In fact, much of the piece is bluesy to an extent that wears thin after a while, although the fourth and shortest movement, “Riots and Moon Shines,” brings some musically welcome contrast to the underlying seriousness of purpose. The feeling of the blues carries over into Mar de Setembro as well, although this song cycle from 2011 is built around Brazilian rather than American texts: the words are by Eugénio de Andrade (1923-2005). Jazz singer Luciana Souza, for whom Bermel wrote the work, sings the primarily nostalgic and melancholy music – whose influence, both emotional and musical, is the Brazilian saudade – with strength both vocal and emotional. The latter quality is shown largely through restraint: much of the material is delicate and graceful in sound, in contrast to the emotions the words express. As in Migration Series, though, there is something a bit monochromatic about Mar de Setembro – which, however, is less inclined to overstay its welcome, since its five songs last 12-and-a-half minutes while Migration Series goes on for half an hour. The most interesting work here from a classical-music rather than “blend” standpoint is A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace (2009), although there is blending here as well – of a sort. This piece, whose three movements bear Hungarian titles, is a tribute to and commemoration of the last years of the life of Béla Bartók (1881-1945), who died in exile in New York after completing what would become his most famous work, the Concerto for Orchestra (which Bermel’s piece references musically). Bartók’s last years were creatively rich but otherwise poor – he was financially strapped and in rapidly declining health. It is the positive and negative elements of the end of Bartók’s life that Bermel effectively reflects in A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace, whose musical language – which is, to an extent, that of Bartók’s late works – is skillfully employed, resulting in a piece that sounds recognizably American while still showing some Hungarian roots. This is a sensitively conceived and intelligently written tribute, and the performance by the Albany Symphony under David Alan Miller is well-balanced, rhythmically astute and altogether convincing – as are the interpretations of the other Bermel works on this CD.
The peregrinations and influences highlighted on the Cedille and Naxos discs pale beside the inspiration for the main work on a new MSR Classics CD: Jimmy López Bellido’s Symphony No. 1, “The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda.” There is no way this extended symphonic treatment of a literary source will appeal to a wide audience, despite its attentiveness to orchestration and its often-impressive use of rhythm and coloration. The reason is that very few people will know the source, which is the final novel by Cervantes – completed just days before his death. Like the far-better-known Don Quixote, Cervantes’ The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda is a picaresque tale of wandering and meeting a wide variety of oddball characters. The author himself thought his final novel his best – but the work remains very little known outside Spain, and even there (because of its use of language) is not especially popular (although the language of Don Quixote is at least equally complex). In terms of story, The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda is presented as four “books” that take the title characters on a pilgrimage from Scandinavia to Rome, where they are eventually joined in marriage at the feet of the Pope. During their extensive travels, the two pretend to be brothers, and this leads to much of the confusion and off-the-cuff comedy for which Cervantes is known. In interpreting the novel musically, López (born 1978) uses the traditional four-movement form of a symphony to portray events in the four “books” – but because those events will be unfamiliar to the vast majority of listeners (unlike those in, say, Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote), the question is whether the piece hangs together in strictly musical terms even for those who do not understand its references. It does, to an extent, and its impressive use of the orchestra – particularly notably in the third and shortest movement – makes much of it attractive to hear. It is not as tightly knit as a traditional symphony, however, and comes across more as a blend of symphony and suite, no doubt because of its illustrative elements. Still, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra under Miguel Harth-Bedoya plays the work with skill and enthusiasm in this world première recording. And they do an equally good job with Bel Canto—A Symphonic Canvas, also a world première on disc and, all in all, a more-effective work. This is a 30-minute, three-movement distillation of López’s 2015 opera Bel Canto, one of those works in which murderous guerrillas are deeply sensitive at heart and the Stockholm Syndrome runs rampant. Whatever the merits of the opera, López’s suite from it – which actually has elements of symphony, just as his symphony has elements of suite – is dramatically and emotionally very effective. The story – taken from Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel – revolves around young terrorists taking, as hostages, politicians and business executives; this is based on events at the Japanese embassy in Peru in 1996-97. The suite’s first movement sets the scene and builds to a climax associated in the opera with a killing; the second movement highlights the varied and growing relationships among the terrorists and between them and their hostages; and the third uses music from the opera’s final scene, in which commandos break in and kill the terrorists – also killing one hostage who tries to shield the guerrilla with whom he has fallen in love. This does indeed sound like a description of an opera – but what matters in this release is that the music works quite well as pure music, its blending and contrasting of drama and lyricism managed effectively by López and communicated skillfully by Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth ensemble. López’s firm command of the orchestra is evident throughout this CD, and much of the music here is exciting, with all of it being well-crafted.
September 12, 2019
Saving the Tasmanian Devil: How Science Is Helping the World’s Largest Marsupial Carnivore Survive. By Dorothy Hinshaw Patent. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
Tasmanian devils – the real ones, not the hilariously giant-mouthed version in Bugs Bunny cartoons – are not really devilish creatures, although their eerie-sounding screams and shrieks, heard at night by the first English settlers of Tasmania in the early 1800s, certainly seem devilish enough and are responsible for the creature’s common name. Scientifically known as Sarcophilus harrisii, the Tasmanian devil is about the size of a small dog – a bit more or less than 15 pounds – and has been the largest marsupial carnivore in the world since 1936, when the even larger thylacine (sometimes called the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf, although it was neither tiger nor wolf) became extinct. And extinction seemed to be on the near horizon for Tasmanian devils as well just a few years ago, when a horrific condition known as devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) swept through the population like wildfire.
DFTD is a cancer, and most people believe that cancers are not contagious. In truth, most cancers are not: DFTD is one of the very few known exceptions. It is transmitted by face-to-face biting, which happens to be a big part of Tasmanian devils’ existence, both in play and in serious combat (often related to mating season). DFTD requires an open facial wound to spread to a new subject – and devils nearly always have minor wounds in their mouths, because they scavenge on sharp bones. They are a perfect host for DFTD – so perfect that the disease, discovered in the mid-1990s, was considered capable of destroying the entire population of wild Tasmanian devils within 20 years. They could all have been gone by now.
That has not happened, and Saving the Tasmanian Devil is an excellent explanation, for young readers, of why not. Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, who is no scientist but is a prolific author of books for young people (she has written more than 100), connected with a college friend whom she had not seen for 50 years and who had become a geneticist specializing in Australian animals – and that led Patent to visit her friend, Jenny Marshall Graves, in Tasmania, and get the story of Tasmanian devils and DFTD in a form that a non-scientist such as Patent could easily understand and could then communicate to readers.
The coincidence of the Patent-Graves connection and the excellence of Saving the Tasmanian Devil show that angels seem to be watching over these devils in their struggle for species survival. More prosaically, those angels are the scientists who have made significant headway against DFTD, and while the devils themselves are merely trying to get on with their lives, the scientists are attempting, so far with some success, to keep the species going. Like other books in the always excellent “Scientists in the Field” series, Saving the Tasmanian Devil does an exceptional job of showing how science is done on a day-to-day basis, not as glamorized by films and TV programs. It is full of drudgery and daily challenges, and a lot of it is frustrating – in the case of DFTD, because finding a way to stop the spread of the disease was a race against time, and one that researchers appeared likely to lose. Patent’s book focuses not only on Graves but also on other scientists involved in the fight for the devils: ecologist Menna Jones, cancer researcher Greg Woods, and a graduate student in genomics named Alex Fraik. The book not only shows their work but also explains, with considerable clarity, what cancer (in general) is and what DFTD (in particular) does. The many photos, from the scientists themselves and a number of other sources, shed light on devils’ everyday existence and on how scientists are working to save them. The single picture of a devil with DFTD is genuinely frightening, showing just how awful the disease looks and making the battle against it seem all the more urgent.
There are sanctuaries for Tasmanian devils – Patent visits one – and for a time, it seemed likely that devils would become extinct in the wild and would have to be repopulated (hopefully) by captive populations. Now that has become more of a backstop plan than a genuine expectation, as scientists continue to make progress against DFTD. Sanctuary-kept devils have issues of their own: as Patent explains and shows, devils, which by their nature forage over a considerable distance, have something of a nervous breakdown when confined to small spaces – one of them is seen obsessively “running, running, running around and around, only stopping to sleep, eat, or drink.” So the angelic impulses of scientists have their own downsides. But those pale beside the ravages of DFTD, which spreads because devils’ “immune cells don’t recognize the cancer cells as ‘other,’ so these cells just keep dividing and dividing until they kill the host.” The answer to fighting DFTD appears to lie in awakening and modifying the devils’ immune system through genetic modification using an immunization technique akin to vaccination. An actual vaccine does not exist, but the gene-modification approach is already in use, with immunized devils released back into the wild and now being observed to test the efficacy of the approach. All this and more is to be found in Saving the Tasmanian Devil, a book that is as full of fascination as it is of initial despair, more-recent hope, and the reality – which young readers will understand clearly – that the fight for the devils is by no means over and by no means assured of eventual success.