April 15, 2021

(+++) THE BEST INTENTIONS

Mutts Go Green: Earth-Friendly Tips and Comic Strips. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     It is almost impossible not to want to like Mutts Go Green. It is a book for young readers, designed to increase their environmental/ecological awareness, provide specific suggestions for things they can do to help the planet, and amuse them at the same time by featuring some of the many marvelous strips in which Patrick McDonnell espouses the cause of environmentalism. The book opens with four admonitions, each of which then becomes its own section: “Keep it KIND, Keep it CLEAN, Keep it WILD, Keep it GREEN.” A “How to” page of bullet points specific to each section follows each “Keep It” urging, and then there are illustrative Mutts strips of all sorts on display until the start of the next section.

     It is all done with care and concern and genuineness – a hallmark not only of this aspect of Mutts but also of other elements of the long-running strip, such as its “Shelter Stories” (which have also been made into a standalone book), in which McDonnell strongly argues the case for animal adoption. But Mutts Go Green comes across as a bit too argumentative, a bit too smug, a bit too self-satisfied to be fully satisfactory – at least for the adults to whom young readers will likely turn for further information and for help in implementing whichever McDonnell suggestions they find appealing.

     For example, one thing McDonnell urges is, “Go vegetarian or go vegan.” Well, maybe: there are health issues associated with doing so (which McDonnell never mentions), and there may be cost issues as well for many families (again, not mentioned); and it is an unspoken irony of the strip and of this book in particular that cats (such as central character Mooch) cannot survive on a vegetarian/vegan diet, while dogs (such as central character Earl) can do so only in limited circumstances and with costly supervision. McDonnell’s recommendation to “make kind food choices, and go meatless at least one day a week,” is far more reasonable.

     Similarly, there are issues with simplistically saying, “Avoid using pesticides. Bugs pollinate plants.” True, some bugs do. But others destroy plants, including plants that well-meaning humans may be trying to use to grow some of their own food. “Avoid using pesticides” is extremely simplistic in the absence of any recommendation about how to fend off harmful infestations; and while, of course, being simplistic is understandable in a book for young readers, an admonition that says simply to stop something – without explaining the consequences or providing any alternative – is a recipe for disappointment. A strip showing Mooch lifting a gigantic pumpkin and proudly showing it to Earl, stating, “It’s organic,” adds to the potentially disappointing result of Mutts Go Green on this topic, since many organically grown fruits and vegetables come out far smaller and far less evenly shaped than those grown using non-organic methods – and, in addition, cost substantially more. McDonnell misses an opportunity here: he could have drawn a comic showing a small, unevenly shaped pumpkin being admired by his characters because of being organic, instead of implying that organic produce is going to be bigger and more beautiful than examples that are non-organically grown.

     Some of the strips in Mutts Go Green do, however, make their point extremely effectively. Two single-panel ones on facing pages both show Mooch and Earl in a small boat, with Mooch saying, “It’s just you and me, pal.” In the first strip, McDonnell shows the huge variety of unseen water dwellers just beneath the boat, bringing home the message that those of us who live in the air are all too often unaware of the tremendous richness of life beneath water – which we neglect at our peril. The second strip then shows the below-water area without a single living organism – filled instead with humanity’s discards and waste products. The two strips together clearly show how the mistaken “just us” belief has led to unthinking pollution that humanity has a moral obligation to stop (besides which, reducing pollution is in people’s own best interests). Also reproduced here is one of the now-classic Mutts strips, a single panel divided into three thin ones stacked upon each other, the first showing an impressive collection of African animals, the second showing the same animals in outline (as if fading), and the third showing the scene with all the animals gone – above the ellipsis-led caption, “…right before our eyes.” That drawing has the power to engage, enrage and motivate, and if it is something of an overstatement, that is fine: McDonnell often uses Mutts as a bully pulpit, and pulpits are, after all, where preaching is done.

     The problem with Mutts Go Green is that it is too simplistic, even for its intended young readership, to have the kind of effect that the best Mutts advocacy strips have on their own, within the context of a comic strip that entertains as well as educates. In one strip in this book, the little cat formally named Jules but usually referred to as Shtinky Puddin’ proclaims, in his determination to save the tigers, “I’m a BIG believer in positive thinking.” Obviously, so is McDonnell. But positive thinking is scarcely enough to promote environmental activism, as McDonnell wants to do; and there are a few too many cases in Mutts Go Green in which the uplifting intent of McDonnell’s message is undermined by the rather heavy-handed way in which the message is delivered.

(++++) POISE AND PACING

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos Nos. 1-7, BWV 1052-1058; Italian Concerto, BWV 971. Ivor Bolton and David Ponsford, harpsichord; Ivor Bolton conducting St. James’s Baroque Players. Alto. $12.98 (2 CDs).

Johann Joseph Vilsmaÿr: Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera (Six Partias for violin solo). Peter Sheppard Skærved, violin. Athene. $18.99.

     Although the Bach performances on a new two-CD release from Alto are not themselves new, they demonstrate quite clearly that very fine, idiomatically played Baroque music continues to sound fresh and clean for decades after it is recorded. The seven harpsichord concertos in which Ivor Bolton is both soloist and conductor of St. James’s Baroque Players were recorded in 1987; the Italian Concerto, with David Ponsford as soloist and Bolton again conducting the same ensemble, is a performance from 2000. These readings use reproductions of Baroque instruments (built in 1982 and 1993, respectively), but the quality of such reproductions has been exceptionally high for decades, and the sound of Bach’s music comes through on them with all the clarity and historical awareness that a listener could want. The single-harpsichord concertos are actually arrangements by Bach of earlier works for other instruments (some known, some lost), transcribed down a tone when necessary to accommodate the limitations of the upper end of the keyboards to which Bach had access. Yet these concertos fit the harpsichord beautifully, both in terms of the sound of the solo instrument and in the way the solo and tutti sections relate to and complement each other. Bolton is highly sensitive to this aspect of the music, both as harpsichordist and as conductor: the careful balance of harpsichord and ensemble is one of the major pleasures of these readings. Another is the care with which the slow movements are presented: they are sensitive, expressive and warm, but always clearly within the boundaries of Bach’s time. This is especially evident in BWV 1054 (in D), whose slow movement is marked Adagio e piano sempre and gets a very high degree of emotional commitment here; and in BWV 1053 (in E), whose central Siciliano is particularly lovely. Another highlight of this set is the rich sound of BWV 1057 (in F) – a transcription of Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 – in which the instrumental interplay is especially rich. The three minor-key concertos – BWV 1052 in D minor, BWV 1056 in F minor, and BWV 1058 in G minor – are all played with effectively dark hues that create a sense of additional depth without ever overdoing the emotion. Even the comparatively straightforward, Vivaldi-esque BWV 1055 (in A) is a work of considerable standing here. And the Italian Concerto – an original composition rather than a transcription – is filled with striking tonal contrasts and variations in volume that turn it into an impressive showpiece. These recordings, even decades after being made, are among the best available performances of Bach’s solo-harpsichord concertos, both in interpretation and in the sound quality with which they are presented.

     Sound quality is also a major attraction on a new Athene disc featuring just about the only surviving music by Johann Joseph Vilsmaÿr (1663-1722): a very extensive (more than 80-minute) set of six Partias (partitas) that date to Bach’s time (1715) and stand as a little-known early example of the Baroque dance suite. There is some uncertainty about their instrumentation: their full title ends with the words Con Basso Belle imitante, which could mean they were written for violin and basso continuo or could mean they were intended for solo violin incorporating textures resembling those of a basso. Either way, the bass part – if it existed – has been lost, and Peter Sheppard Skærved plays the pieces strictly on a violin. And what a violin it is: a 1629 instrument by Girolamo Amati (1561-1630), with the warmth and splendidly even tone for which Amati instruments have long been renowned. This disc is actually the fourth in a series focusing on specific great violins, the first three having featured a 1570 Andrea Amati, a 1647 Niccolò Amati, and a 1685 Antonio Stradivari. As an inevitable result, the focus here is as much on the instrument as on the performer and the music being played. The music is nevertheless very worthwhile indeed. The Partias begin and end with works in A, with the sequence between those bookends being B-flat, C minor, D, and G minor. Although not connected thematically, the six pieces are parallel examples of the dance-suite form, and all of them are very finely made and quite challenging to perform. Unlike the more-familiar solo-string works of Bach, Vilsmaÿr’s are collections of pieces that are very brief indeed, often less than a minute apiece. The first and second partias include 10 movements each; the third and fourth have nine each; the fifth has eight; and the sixth contains 10. The dance forms will be familiar to listeners who know Baroque suites, although some spellings are slight variants of the usual ones: saraband, gavott, menuett, passpied, ciaccona, rigodon, guique, and so forth. The fourth suite contains a dance form about which nothing substantive is known, labeled brunada, and the third includes a highly emotional Aria Lamentevole that is one of the distinct highlights of all the partias. Aside from this one movement, little in these works is particularly substantial, yet taken as a whole, they exhibit a degree of seriousness that takes them beyond the “salon music” of their time into a realm with a greater sense of drama. It is especially noteworthy – and has a great deal to do with the sound of these works – that the six partias call for the violin to be tuned four different ways. The tunings result in tone that ranges from quite dark (the C minor partia) to very bright (the D major). Skærved is more than a virtuoso performer of these works: he is a guide for listeners to music with which they will likely be unfamiliar, and a guide as well to the marvelous capabilities of an absolutely top-notch violin that dates to more or less the same time as the music heard on this exceptionally interesting CD.

(+++) SEEKING CONNECTIONS

And the Sun Darkened: Music for Passiontide. New York Polyphony (Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; Craig Phillips, bass). BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Marty Regan: Selected Works for Japanese Instruments, Volume 4—Lost Mountains, Quiet Valleys. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Eric Lyon: Giga Concerto. String Noise (Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris, violins); Eric Saunier, drummer; International Contemporary Ensemble. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Prayer and piety seek connection between frail, fallible individual humans and God as a spiritual guiding force – a connection sometimes accomplished through entirely traditional forms of supplication and sometimes through new ways to reach out to the unseeable and ultimately unknowable. A new BIS recording featuring the quartet of singers known as New York Polyphony beautifully explores ways in which composers born as long ago as 1445 and as recently as 1970 have tried to establish meaningful connectedness with a being, or force, far beyond anything that humans can ultimately comprehend. “Passiontide” in the disc’s title refers to the final two weeks of Lent, but this is music that can have meaning for believers anytime, and potentially to those of faiths other than Catholicism. The disc opens with Crux triumphans by Loyset Compère (c. 1445-1518), who here creates a beautifully harmonized celebration of one of the central tenets of Christianity, after which the four singers present Tu pauperum refugium, a well-known motet by Josquin Desprez (c. 1450-1521). The underlying conventionality – by today’s standards – of the thinking within these works sets the stage for something much more modern but clearly connected to them emotionally. This is Salme 55 by Andrew Smith (born 1970), an extended lament focusing on betrayal by a onetime friend and attacks by known enemies. The sentiments and concerns are Biblical, but the techniques Smith uses are modern, including uncertain tonality as well as the fragmenting of melodies to indicate the troubled, even disordered state of mind of the psalmist. The singers then return to much earlier times for Pater noster and Ave Maria by Adrian Willaert (c. 1490-1562), in which the vocal interplay seems to look ahead toward some of the approaches that Smith employs. Next on the disc is Taaveti laul 22 (Psalm 22) by Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962), a setting from 1914 that uses strong dynamic contrast and harmonic intensity to make its points. This leads into the longest work on the CD, the world première recording of an impressive multi-part Officium de Cruce by Compère. The underlying sentiment here is the same as in the composer’s work that begins the disc, but the nine-section Officium de Cruce explores multiple forms of expression and expressiveness as it tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion with both drama and emotional heft. The impressive solo and ensemble singing of New York Polyphony are especially welcome here, showing both the differentiation among the work’s sections and the foundational musical and liturgical thinking that together drive the entire piece forward. The brief O salutaris hostia by Pierre de la Rue (c. 1452-1518) then concludes the disc in an entirely appropriate affirmation of Jesus’ triumph and the salvation of all those who follow and believe in the Passion and the reasons for it. The nature of the music on the disc and the sentiments expressed by the composers from so many centuries will not speak to everyone, to be sure, but the lovely singing and the skill with which the four performers blend and separate as the music requires make this recording a treat for listeners who, whatever their religious and spiritual leanings, appreciate the quality of vocal music performed with this level of commitment and beauty.

     The blending and connection sought by Marty Regan (born 1972) are of a different type on a new MSR Classics CD featuring seven works for Japanese instruments, all in world première recordings. The featured instruments here are the shakuhachi, an end-blown bamboo flute, and the koto, a form of zither that is Japan’s national instrument. Three of the works on the disc – the title track (2015), Withering Chrysanthemum (2016), and Still (2016) – use only Japanese instruments. Three others – Silent Cry of a Heron (2016), You Left Me, Sweet, Two Legacies (2015), and Send Off at Yellow Crane Tower (2014) – use both Japanese instruments and Western strings or winds. And one piece, Silence (2015), incorporates a soprano, piano and percussion section as well as violin, cello and 13-string koto. Regan does not seem interested in exotic-to-Western-ears sound for its own sake but for the emotional landscapes it opens up. The interplay of differing instruments creates some sound worlds and sound pictures that are both intriguing and involving. The solo-instrument pieces, however, are less successful and more indulgent, Still using only shakuhachi for more than five minutes and Withering Chrysanthemum employing solo koto for a seemingly interminable 15-minutes-plus. Silence, using as it does the widest variety of instruments and sounds among the works here, is the most variegated piece on the disc, but not the most immediately appealing: that is You Left Me, Sweet, Two Legacies, in which the flow of violin and cello, mixed with and in contrast to the sound of 13-string koto, produces a combination that draws listeners in and connects seamlessly with the two very different types of sound represented by the members of the ensemble. This entire CD is very much a rarefied experience – one that will appeal, at least some of the time, to listeners primarily interested in hearing music produced by instruments rarely encountered in Western recitals. However, the totality of the disc – which runs an hour and a quarter – is likely to be more than an audience unfamiliar with Japanese instruments will find congenial; the pieces are better heard one at a time, over a period of several days, than in sequence from start to finish of the CD. It is over such a time period that genuine connections with an audience that is not already steeped in Japanese music are most likely to develop.

     Yet another form of connection is on display, or attempted to be put on display, in Eric Lyon’s Giga Concerto on a New Focus Recordings CD. There are two connections created or sought here, actually, one with Brahms and one with contemporary sociopolitical issues. If those sound like uneasy combinations – well, they are, and that is at least part of Lyon’s intent. The six movements designated I through VI of Giga Concerto alternate with Lyon’s instrumental arrangements of the five songs from Brahms’ Op. 105, each played by violin duo and drumset. The songs sound, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly ridiculous this way, but the irreverence is certainly intentional on Lyon’s part, because Giga Concerto incorporates not only various almost-Baroque flourishes here and there but also quotations from several songs that Lyon deemed suitable for a year (2018) in which President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un were talking about nuclear weapons. True, those discussions themselves had an aura of absurdity, even silliness, about them, despite the enormous stakes and the terrifying potential of the weapons being discussed. But specificity of contemporary references quickly renders any work of art outdated and extraneous, and that is certainly the case here. So what audiences receive in Giga Concerto is a largely deliberate mishmash of mostly upbeat, often comical material sprinkled liberally with quotations or near-quotations from various pieces, whether Brahmsian or from other sources. There are so many styles at play (or at work) here that Giga Concerto ends up having no style at all: it is an intentional mishmash that is actually fun quite a bit of the time, and that might have worked if it were 10 or so minutes long. But Lyon does not know where or when to stop, and Giga Concerto continues for 40 minutes, a length at which it quite clearly overstays its welcome. Intended both as experimental music and as social commentary, it does not success particularly well as either. It is most enjoyable for its sheer sound – those wildly inappropriate drumset elements of the Brahms arrangements are quite enjoyable, at least for a while, and the sound of the non-Brahms material is, if nothing else, creative. The sociopolitical elements of Giga Concerto are obsolete and would not have been particularly pointed in any case. The work would probably be highly entertaining to watch – the virtuosic performance by everyone involved calls up images that can be highly entertaining in their own right – but it is less so to hear, even for listeners who feel a strong attraction to contemporary music and the desire of many of today’s composers to reach back and forward at the same time in a bid to create works that will connect with an audience of some kind, somewhere.

April 08, 2021

(++++) SMALL ADVENTURES

Wallace the Brave 3: Wicked Epic Adventures. By Will Henry. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Where, Oh Where, Is Barnaby Bear? By Wendy Rouillard. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

     Slightly skewed versions of everyday childhood events are the stock-in-trade of Will Henry’s gently evocative Wallace the Brave comics, whose third book collection focuses mostly on Wallace and best friend Spud – although Wallace’s other best friend, Amelia, gets her due, and so does Wallace’s distinctly peculiar little brother, Sterling. There is an underlying pleasant warmth to all the quotidian doings in Wallace the Brave, with the world mostly perceived and experienced through children’s eyes – a refreshing approach in our ultra-cynical era. Wallace and his family and friends have only the slightest contact with technology (Wallace’s dad is a lobster fisherman), and most of their interactions feel timeless. One strip has Wallace and Spud “hitchhiking to Bolivia,” with Wallace carrying the traditional and very old-fashioned bundle of belongings tied to a pole. One has Wallace and Spud contemplating the freedom of summer vacation, which to Wallace means “freedom to do whatever we want” and to Spud means “freedom to order a large pizza with any toppings we desire” – and when Wallace urges Spud to “think bigger,” Spud says, “Extra large.” Summer vacation is also Wallace’s cue to engage in “the tradition of casting them [his shoes] into the depths of the ocean,” since he will not be wearing them for three months. Wallace the Brave includes a certain amount of fantasizing – particularly nicely drawn by Henry – such as Spud figuring out that his superpower is to “take naps on criminals to slow them down” (the panel showing him doing just that is delightful); and Spud fearing bridges because “one day a troll is gonna pop out and ask me topical trivia questions” (and the immense, looming troll asking “what is the northernmost state capital?” is perfect). If Spud, with his large, refrigerator-shaped head, is always a bit askew in the world, Wallace has his own run-ins with reality. In one multi-strip sequence, Amelia produces a “Tibetan red head chili pepper” so hot that “I needed a fake I.D. to buy this baby,” and of course Wallace eats it, and the multiple drawings of his reactions are hilarious – right up to the one in which he exclaims, “I can smell the light!” This is also a rare technology-including sequence, showing a Tibetan pepper-growing monk talking on a cell phone and Amelia taking a video of Wallace’s crazed pepper reaction and saying, “This is gonna get a bazillion views.” The characters in Wallace the Brave have distinctive personalities, and stay so true to them that the occasional deviations are themselves topics of Henry’s humor. Thus, one strip here has Amelia talking in a decidedly non-Amelia way to another girl who invites her for a visit (“I’m, like, super totally thrilled” and “T-T-Y-L”) – then explaining to Wallace that “her house has central air.” That is definitely Amelia; and Wallace and Spud are equally definitely themselves; and even Wallace’s parents and brother Sterling are characterized cleverly and precisely. Only Wallace would describe “a sweet job” as being one where you are “the person who wears slabs of butter and skates around Paul Bunyan’s pancakes,” and only Henry could visualize that scene so unerringly – or add to it with Spud’s remark, “I once ate a stick of butter in two bites.” Wallace the Bold does not go boldly into new territory so much as it perfects a journey into the well-worn but always fascinating realm of childhood wonder and almost-reality.

     Wallace the Brave is a comic strip for adults, but the notion of everyday adventures works for children, too – even very young ones. In fact, fantasy-adventures in books for the youngest readers and pre-readers can be a lot of fun and can help introduce children to the overall notion that books can take you anywhere and “anywhen.” Wendy Rouillard does just that in a charming little board book called Where, Oh Where, Is Barnaby Bear? It opens with a nighttime scene of anthropomorphic animals using flashlights to search for Barnaby, and continues with simple and nicely done illustrations showing lots of possible places where Barnaby could be. “Is he in a balloon?” He is seen floating above a shoreline, with a lighthouse below and a smiling whale in the water. “Has he flown to the moon?” The moon, planets and stars smile at Barnaby in his spaceship, which has a bold “B” on the side. The initial also appears on an aircraft and bear-sized helmet: “Is he flying a plane?” Or, perhaps, “Is he caught in the rain?” No initial in that illustration – just Barnaby in slicker and galoshes beneath a multicolored umbrella. Wherever Barnaby is, or rather may possibly be, he is shown smiling and enjoying himself, and the creatures around him are happy, too, including fish when Barnaby might be fishing and crabs when he may be “filling his net with crabs at sunset.” Eventually, children find out just where Barnaby Bear is: asleep in his cozy bed with the animals seen at the start of the book, and with the moon and a star smiling in on the scene. So a bedtime story turns out to be what this book is – but it is also an easy-to-follow adventure tale and maybe even, if adults suggest it to kids, a story about dreams, for all Barnaby’s imagined activities could simply be things about which he is dreaming while peacefully asleep. There is nothing grand or large-scale here – just a sense that it is fun to imagine all sorts of out-of-the-ordinary activities while home, safe, in bed.