October 28, 2021

(++++) AMUSEMENTS OF THE DAY

Calendars (page-a-day for 2022): Non Sequitur; Dilbert. Andrews McMeel. $15.99 each.

     Sometimes all you want to get the day going is something amusing. In the past, that might have come by getting a morning newspaper and turning to the comics page. Now, though, even if you do still get the newspaper, you may well be online before having a chance to look at it – and therefore bogged down in the everyday morass of nastiness, inaccuracy, petulance and general mulishness that seems to make up so much of Internet communication (or miscommunication) nowadays. What you need is something to lighten the day before you get stuck wading through the muck of the online world – and even before you get to your newspaper, if you still have one. What you need, in short, is a day-to-day calendar focused on funny stuff. To the rescue come some top cartoonists who made their reputation in, yes, newspapers, but whose words and drawings are readily available in full-color calendars that let you see one panel or one panel sequence per day (on weekends, one per two days) and get your day going with a small dose of hmmmm on wry.

     Wiley Miller has been doing Non Sequitur since 1991 and shows no sign of slowing down – and no sign of diminishing the wit and social satire (generally pointed but comparatively restrained, non-Internet-style social satire) for which this usually-single-panel strip is known. Non Sequitur means “it does not follow,” which means you cannot predict on any day what the next day will bring – a very fine recipe for calendar use indeed. Actually, through the years, Wiley (as he signs his cartoons) has developed a few continuing characters whose adventures do follow for several days, but if the strip is no longer fully reflective of its title, it is as trenchant and funny as it has always been. Wiley tunes in quite well to societal trends, as in one panel showing both apes and the people watching them at the zoo looking at electronic tablets as one woman comments, “No, I don’t think that’s how Twitter got started, but I wouldn’t doubt it, either.” Another panel shows Santa Claus at a bar, obviously having had a tipple or two, as one patron tells another, “I think the trick to keeping the Christmas spirit alive year-round is to never watch the news.” Another panel, one of a number in the 2022 calendar relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, shows a man holding a 10-foot pole outside his house as his wife says, “No, dear – doing social distancing since 1992 just makes you a curmudgeon, not a visionary.” And then there is the panel with three side-by-side non-operating restaurants, the first with a sign saying “closed,” the second with one saying “very closed,” and the third with one saying “rated most closed in the city” – as a man walking by tells his companion, “Yeah, but it’s nice to see they haven’t lost their competitive spirit.” Sometimes Wiley prefers to deal not in the ups and downs of everyday life but in eternal verities, as in a panel showing St. Peter in the clouds, behind a lectern bearing the sign, “No religion beyond this point” – as one new arrival at the gates of Heaven tells another, “I always wondered how they could achieve peace and tranquility here for an eternity.” Back on Earth, there is a book-and-news store with a sign in front saying “Warning: Thought May Be Provoked Inside,” with one passerby saying to another, “I miss the time when it said ‘Welcome.’” Add to these varied observations the occasional recurring-character sequence, generally centered on preteen cynic and would-be super-manipulator Danae, and you have a calendar whose biggest flaw is the likelihood that you will want to look at multiple pages immediately to increase your dose of Wiley-ness. Resist the temptation if possible, though: it’s worth waiting a while (or a day, anyway) for more Non Sequitur.

     Wiley looks at pretty much anything and everything in his strip, while Scott Adams focuses on a single topic: office life. And he has been doing that since 1989, indicating that the more things change – including all sorts of corporate trends that come and go, and even the work-from-home phenomenon associated with COVID-19 – the more some things, such as dysfunction in the workplace, remain the same. The characters in Adams’ Dilbert are all dysfunctional in different ways, which is why he can vary the strip so well by simply playing specific ones off against each other. By now, characters’ personalities are so well established that pretty much anything any of them says makes sense in context. Thus, when the Pointy-Haired Boss starts talking to eternal intern Asok about “employee engagement,” it is inevitable that one thing the PHB will say is, “I expect a higher level of irrational enthusiasm for the endless string of thankless tasks you call your job.” When Dilbert tells a marketing person the correct engineering-related way to look at the headphones the company makes – they “are the best in the industry” – it is inevitable that the marketing guy will say, “Our marketing campaign will focus on how they cure brain tumors and raise your IQ.” When Dilbert discovers that one product’s name is offensive in the Elbonian language and explains that to the PHB, of course Dilbert will have learned that Elbonians “only have seventeen words, and nine of them are insults.” Dilbert’s rarely seen mouth appears, unsurprisingly, when a fellow wage slave says “let’s plan a huddle to ideate around that opportunity,” leading Dilbert to scream that he has “jargon poisoning.” It also makes perfect sense that ever-cynical Dogbert is hired as “the world’s most evil marketing expert” after the competition releases “a product that makes our product look like it was designed by chimps” – so Dogbert advises “accusing them of crimes they didn’t commit.” And then there are the Dilbert “meta” strips, in which characters know, or almost know, that they are cartoons. In one of those, Dilbert invents “an A.I that can create comic strips,” and the PHB says “no machine will ever match the creative genius of human cartoonists” (Adams’ plug for himself there!) – so Dilbert shows an example “about a guy who thinks his boss is dumb,” and inevitably the PHB says, “No one wants to read that.” But lots of people who have bosses, are bosses, used to have bosses, are considering having bosses, or might someday be or have or deal with bosses, will want to read Dilbert – and a daily dose of Adams’ workplace not-quite-insanity may be just what you need to make the rest of the day seem rational by comparison, if not quite as amusing.

(++++) NOT AS FOOLISH AS ALL THAT

Holst: The Perfect Fool. Richard Golding, Pamela Bowden, Walter Plinge, Alison Hargan, Barbara Platt, Lesley Rooke, Margaret Neville, John Mitchinson, David Read, Ronald Harvi, George Hagan; BBC Northern Singers and BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Groves. Lyrita. $18.99.

     To say that Gustav Holst’s gently satirical 1923 one-act opera The Perfect Fool has fared poorly in recordings is a vast understatement. It has simply not been available as a complete work at all, even though the opening ballet music has been frequently recorded and crops up with some regularity at concerts. And now, thanks to Lyrita, The Perfect Fool is at last on CD – albeit in a performance more than 50 years old, and not in stereo. That is correct: this is a monophonic recording, taken from a 1967 BBC radio broadcast – and it exists only because it was captured at home on acetates. What a set of circumstances!

     The near-total neglect of The Perfect Fool, for which Holst wrote the libretto as well as the music, is in some ways understandable. It is in large part a satire of grand opera: audiences unfamiliar with operatic conventions will see and hear only a rather mild and silly fairy-tale story. For the title character, imagine Wagner’s Parsifal (Wagner thought, incorrectly, that the name meant “perfect fool”) recast as a cowardly, half-witted, constantly yawning or sleeping lump of flesh. Then, for the typical fairy-tale competition seeking love, think of Verdi vs. Wagner. And for the fulfillment of the inevitable fairy-tale prophecy, think of nothing sung at all – just one spoken word.

     As a sendup of grand opera – and some not-so-grand opera as well – The Perfect Fool is perfectly delightful. It works so well because Holst never overdoes things. He has the princess wooed by a troubadour (tenor John Mitchinson; think Il Trovatore) singing a very catchy, very Verdian ditty but then faltering at the end on his high notes (think “A tenor, all singers above” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia Ltd.). Then Holst has the haughty princess (think Turandot) wooed by a very Wagnerian bass (David Read) who wears Wotan’s hat and eyepatch and who sings with very Wagnerian portentousness and alliteration: “World’s wildest woe/ Wantonly woos me./ Direst dreadfulness,/ Darkest of dooms!” But it is “the perfect fool” (Walter Plinge) who wins the princess (soprano Margaret Neville) – and does not want her. He spends the opera snoring and yawning until, near the end, he speaks (not sings) a single word in response to the princess’ plea that he tell her whether he loves her: “No.” And then, at the very end of the opera, an attempt to crown the Fool anyway, despite his complete lack of interest and involvement, goes awry when he yawns and falls asleep yet again.

     All this is in fulfillment of the usual absurd prophecy, which in this case predicts that the Fool will kill a foe with a look and win a bride with a single glance. The Fool does exactly that, courtesy of his clever, long-suffering mother (contralto Pamela Bowden), who has to drag him everywhere since he is always half-asleep when not fully asleep. She figures out how to turn a powerful love-and-destruction potion against the Wizard (bass Richard Golding, whose role also requires him to fall asleep at an inopportune time); as a result, “all the flames left of the wizard was his hat.”

     It is certainly true that the ballet music, heard at the start of The Perfect Fool as the Wizard calls up various spirits to create the potion, is the only easy-to-excerpt element of the score; indeed, portions of the ballet music recur near the end as the spurned Wizard seeks revenge – Holst obviously knew he had some good tunes there. But the opera is tuneful at other times, too, and has some genuinely funny stage business as the Troubadour and Traveller sing at each other while the former’s retainers become “conventionally agitated” and sing over one another. The Perfect Fool is not Holst’s only venture into satire of grand opera – he had already written Opera as She Is Wrote in 1918 – and it is not his only one-act opera: all of his are in a single act except the three-act Sita (1906). The absence of The Perfect Fool from recordings truly is something of a mystery: it is light, easy to understand, amusing, satirical but not overbearingly so, and musically very well crafted. And the remastered performance on Lyrita is really first-rate, even though nothing can be done about the original recording being monophonic. The singers handle themselves well without overacting, and Charles Grove leads the chorus and orchestra with a sure hand and clear understanding of Holst’s style. Furthermore, the packaging is outstanding and should be a model for the release of other operas: the single-disc recording is in a two-disc-size box that allows inclusion of a well-written explanatory booklet plus a separate booklet containing the entire libretto. That presentation gets a loud “bravo!” And come to think of it, The Perfect Fool itself also deserves one.

(+++) VOICES WITH A PURPOSE

American Art Songs by Gene Scheer, Arthur Farwell, William Grant Still, Kurt Weill, John Musto, Richard Hageman, Florence Price, Jake Heggie, Carrie Jacob-Bonds, Ricky Ian Gordon, Stephen Foster, Dan Emmett, and Robert Lowry. Lucas Meacham, baritone; Irina Meacham, piano. Rubicon Classics. $19.98.

Clarice Assad: Confessions; Gilda Lyons: Songs of Lament and Praise; Tom Cipullo: How to Get Heat without Fire; Amy Beth Kirsten: To See What I See; Michael Djupstrom: Three Teasdale Songs; Libby Larsen: Righty,1966. Laura Strickling, soprano; Joy Schreier, piano. Andelain Records. $19.99.

Daron Hagen: Rapture and Regret; Suite for Piano; Vegetable Verselets; Five Nocturnes; Muldoon Songs. Ariana Wyatt, soprano; Brian Thorsett, tenor; Benjamin Wyatt, cello; Tracy Cowden, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

American Choral Works by Alexander Lloyd Blake, Cristian Larios, Shawn Kirchner, Paul Simon, Joseph Trapanese, Roman GianArthur, Sam Cooke, Alex Wurman, Joel Thompson, and Melissa Dunphy. Tonality conducted by Alexander Lloyd Blake. Tonality and Aerocade Music. $12.97.

     It is reasonable to wonder whether the so-called “art song” still exists, and in particular whether it exists in the United States, with English words. Most more-of-less classically structured and informed songs of recent times, whether for individual singers or for groups, seem to have reasons for being other than music (certainly in addition to music); and expressiveness often seems to be a secondary consideration, after such matters as advocacy, political assertion, societal criticism, inclusiveness based on background or skin tone, and so forth. Some performers do a better job than others of mixing musicality with whatever form of change they may be propounding, though. Lucas Meacham’s flexible, finely honed baritone and his willingness to perform music written a century ago and more set his new Rubicon Classics release above many whose viewpoints and approaches are far narrower. The underlying concept of this disc is 100% advocacy: the proceeds go to a foundation created by Meacham and his pianist wife, Irina Meacham, to promote “diversity in classical music,” which refers not to diverse performance styles but to judging performers based on their skin color or ethnicity. But the disc can be heard and appreciated simply for the music, whether or not one unquestioningly accepts its reason for being. Two of the most impressive songs here are traditional ones: Oh Shenandoah as arranged by Irina Meacham and Steve White, and In the Mornin’ as arranged by Charles Ives. Lucas Meacham emphasizes the hymnlike aspects of both these pieces to impressive effect. Stephen Foster, the marvelous songsmith now rarely performed because he lived when slavery was part of American life, is represented by Hard Times Come Again No More, a little-known song of considerable beauty in its heartfelt lament. There are also two Aaron Copland arrangements here, of The Boatman’s Dance by Dan Emmett and At the River by Robert Lowry, the first offering a slow opening well-contrasted with its succeeding section, the second being a very slow rendition of the well-known words about the river “that flows by the throne of God.” Kurt Weill’s Beat! Beat! Drums! (from Four Walt Whitman Songs) is another highlight, and one giving the piano a more-prominent role than elsewhere on the disc – to very fine effect, especially in light of a vocal line that straddles singing and declamation. These songs are far more involving, most of them in their subtleties of words as well as music, than such more-insistent pieces as Gene Scheer’s American Anthem and Richard Hageman’s The Rich Man. Because this disc’s focus on a hope for a greater sense of togetherness is more of a subtext than a strident demand, the performers are able to put their feelings across effectively through many of the works they choose to offer here.

     Feelings with an inward, personal focus rather than any outward-looking intent are the core of Laura Strickling’s performances on a new Andelain Records release. This is a disc for listeners who share the specific worries, concerns and uncertainties reflected in the contemporary songs presented by Strickling, with assistance from pianist Joy Schreier. The words are paramount in Clarice Assad’s Confessions, whose worries and pop-music sound are distinctly of the 21st century. Gilda Lyons’ Songs of Lament and Praise seeks more universality, including laments by Eve and a mother, Hymn to the Archangel Michael, and more – the work tries rather too hard for significance but has some intriguing vocal writing. Tom Cipullo’s How to Get Heat without Fire is somewhat over-earnest and a bit too focused on vocal display – the music seems a tad of a distraction, notably in the middle songs, Saying Goodbye and The Pocketbook. Michael Djupstrom’s Three Teasdale Songs are about affairs of the heart, but the mundane words make them less communicative than is presumably intended (“I cannot sleep: the night is hot and empty”). The Assad, Lyons, Cipullo and Djupstrom works are cycles; also here are two individual songs. To See What I See by Amy Beth Kirsten cannot quite decide whether it is Shakespearean or contemporary. Righty, 1966 by Libby Larsen incorporates a flute (played by Sarah Eckman McIver) and sees baseball as a metaphor for life – a bit of a stretch, to say the least. Strickling sings everything with feeling and involvement; the question for listeners is whether her personal expression of her personal feelings will be close enough to their own so that the disc – or at least some of its components – will communicate intimacy and emotion effectively, or whether the totality will come across as belaboring thoughts and concerns that are too commonplace to be treated with the extended pathos offered here.

     The issue is somewhat similar when it comes to the three Daron Hagen song cycles on a new MSR Classics release. Hagen certainly wants these pieces to be taken seriously as art songs. Rapture and Regret (1987) offers two contrasting pieces to words by, respectively, Virginia Woolf and Isak Dinesen, and the work is scored for soprano, cello and piano – an aurally attractive combination that produces dark hues throughout and underlines the intended sensitivity of both songs. Vegetable Verselets (2011), for soprano and piano, includes eight brief songs that would seem, on the face of it, to be much lighter fare than the Woolf/Dinesen material (among these songs are The Regiment, Boston Bean, and The Opera). But Hagen brings to these comparative trifles the same seriousness of interconnection between voice and piano, the same balance and contrast, that he includes in Rapture and Regret. The result is a rather strange set of pieces, in which the piano part is often more interesting than the vocal one (for instance, in The Elopement). Hagen chooses a different vocal range for the seven Muldoon Songs (1992). These are for tenor and piano – with words by Paul Muldoon – and Hagen here creates some songs that are very brief indeed: Blemish runs 19 seconds, Mink 20, Vico 58. The words get the focus here, the piano cast almost entirely in a supportive role; it is only the final, longest song, Holy Thursday, that reaches out effectively to present an emotional landscape to which listeners are likely to resonate. One welcome aspect of this disc is its inclusion of two Hagen piano works to separate the song cycles – and to give pianist Tracy Cowden a more-prominent role than the cycles offer in support of soprano Ariana Wyatt and tenor Brian Thorsett. One solo-piano piece is Suite for Piano (2009), a short four-movement work alternating jauntiness with gentleness. The other work for piano is Five Nocturnes (2012), and the title says it all: the works are on the dissonant side, but most are satisfactory examples of contemporary “night music,” although the second and fourth have a jauntiness that is not in keeping with the traditional definition of a nocturne. This disc, like the one featuring Laura Strickling, certainly aspires to something approaching universality in its vocal elements, trying through the chosen words and musical settings to engage the audience in experiences held in common, with which the composers and interpreters can communicate what they think of as widely shared human experiences – not ones expected to transform society, but ones reflecting societal elements that could become the basis for greater understanding among people and thus lay the foundation for change through comprehension.

     At the opposite extreme from this approach is the one on a new CD from the ensemble Tonality. The sole reason for being of this disc is specific advocacy for specified groups of people – an advocacy rooted in defining people first and foremost as group members rather than as individuals, as do the Hagen-composed and Strickland-performed CDs. There is nothing here except sociopolitical exploration and demands, and there is no room for individuality of consideration of people or individual expression of performed material: it is wholly fitting that this is a choral disc. So Alexander Lloyd Blake’s 1232 Lyfe exists only to condemn perceived injustices in treatment of criminals; two Joseph Trapanese tracks called New Collective Consciousness I and II have environmental activism of the “change must happen instantly” variety as their sole purpose; Roman GianArthur’s Build Me Up is strictly for Black Lives Matter; Alex Wuman’s No, Child. No Child is for members of the LGBTQ+ community; and so on. The actual performances on the disc are heartfelt and often moving, but they are really not the point here. Most of this almost-hour of music exists to encourage people who already think a certain way to continue thinking that way and not to engage in any dialogue or other communication with anyone who may question matters or see them differently – certainly not anyone taking a more-nuanced view of issues than the sincere but distinctly na├»ve one on display here. Interestingly, Shawn Kirchner’s Tulips, with words by Sylvia Plath, and Nathan Heldman’s arrangement of Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, the two most-personal, least overtly “socially conscious” tracks on the CD, are far more involving than the more-strident, more-dogmatic pieces: these two works, like the art songs presented by Lucas Meacham and Irina Meacham, use the individual and the individual experience as a gateway to something larger – refusing to define people by their physical appearances, backgrounds, sexuality or other characteristics, instead exploring elements of common experience through which change can happen organically, rather than being imposed through dogma and demands disguised as music.

October 21, 2021

(++++) SOMEWHAT SCRUMPTIOUS

Every Cake Has a Story. By Christina Tosi. Illustrated by Emily Balsley. Dial. $17.99.

Deliciously FoxTrot. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

     With its super-simple message, a clever illustrative twist, and a yummy recipe included, Christina Tosi’s Every Cake Has a Story has many of the ingredients needed for a delicious picture book. However, it is really suitable only for the very youngest readers, or even pre-readers, because it is missing…well…a story. The book opens on Samesday in Samesville, where all the houses look alike and everything is black and white and gray and the only cake is vanilla. The reason is – well, there is no reason. Really young children will likely accept this, although at some point even the youngest may wonder why things are this way. Tosi does not explain – but Balsley’s black-and-white-and-gray pictures certainly make the setup clear. The book’s protagonist is a girl named Sammi, whose name almost sounds like “same,” which is the opposite of Tosi’s intent. Sammi puts a recipe card under her pillow one night and, lo and behold, dreams in color (shades of The Wizard of Oz) and awakes to find her card transformed into a cookbook “full of cakes and colors, and ingredients she’d never seen.” So, all right, there is a magical transformation here, because – well, there is no “because.” Magic does not really require a “because,” but this transformation turns out to have affected everything, because the houses and yards and people and activities and animals and streets are all now different-looking and in full color. Again, Balsley’s art smooths the non-explanatory awkwardness of the narrative. The next thing that happens is that Sammi calls out to everyone to come home with her to bake a cake, so everyone does, and now somehow all the “ingredients she’s never seen” are right there in her kitchen, and Sammi and all the other kids know exactly what they are (strawberries, pretzels, cereal, peanut butter, marshmallows) and how they can be mixed into a cake. A list on the wall, which is never explained, has the words “glitter, gummy bears, balloons” – hopefully not all as cake ingredients, but who knows? Tosi is surely aware that in real life, cake ingredients must be compatible and must be mixed carefully and in correct proportions, but there is none of that in Every Cake Has a Story – somehow Sammi just puts everything together and, voila, the result is delicious and delightful and “things would NEVER be the same again.” Adults had better be ready to explain to young readers that this is not how cakes are made and that, in fact, baking requires careful attention to amounts and proportions, although there is something magical about doing all the mixing and combining and ending up (after careful preparation and carefully controlled baking time) with a finished product that looks very different from its component parts. Tosi ends the book with a recipe for “Dreamy Strawberry Frosting” that is easy to follow but does require just the right amounts of ingredients, mixed the right way for the correct amount of time – in other words, the opposite of what happens in Sammi’s world. Every Cake Has a Story is pleasant enough, and Balsley’s pictures help overcome its lack of any actual plot, but it does feel as if one ingredient is missing here: a clear narrative.

     Not everything is yummy in Deliciously FoxTrot, either, but this latest collection of cartoons by Bill Amend does not lack for continuity: each individual episode is unconnected to others, true, but the characters and their interactions have been around since Amend started FoxTrot back in 1988. Since the start of 2007, the strip has appeared only on Sundays, which means that to assemble enough FoxTrot sequences for a book takes something more than two years – a fact that makes Deliciously FoxTrot a feast for comic-strip gourmands. However, the strip has lost most of its topicality since becoming a Sunday-only offering – deadlines for Sunday strips are about a month in advance, limiting real-world references – and Amend has fallen back perhaps a bit too much on the “nerd” and “video game” elements that were always part of FoxTrot but were never as prominent as they have become in recent years. At times, Amend does a good job of bridging the gap between those who understand nerd culture and the rest of the world, as when ultra-nerd Jason (the youngest of the three Fox kids) develops “loot boxes” to sell and needs to explain to Peter (the oldest) just what they are before Amend can get to his punchline. At other times, Amend is a bit more obscure, as when he has Jason do “UFO Math” by calculating the area of a flying-saucer-shaped drawing and determining that its area is 51 (“area 51” being a place in Nevada long associated with possible alien encounters – something that this strip does not explain). A number of the FoxTrot strips work without requiring readers to have any special knowledge, such as one in which middle child Paige gets upset upon realizing that her class schedule of social studies, theater, art, biology, math and English has first letters that spell out “Stab Me.” And there are periodic forays into traditional comic-strip territory, such as comments on father Roger being overweight (he has never looked that way, but apparently everyone, including Roger himself, is concerned about it): in one strip, mom Andrea (Andy) refuses to let Roger get away with comparing himself to football players who weigh 300 pounds or more. And there are kid-interaction strips, too, such as one in which Peter counts from “one squirt of mayonnaise” up to “five squirts of mayonnaise” on his sandwich, only to be told by Paige that “that’s not what Cinco de Mayo means.” Amend does occasionally manage to do a strip mixing “nerd” and “silly” elements effectively, such as a two-panel one that first shows a detailed mathematical analysis of loop-the-loop construction, concluding that the largest possible loop would be 4/5 the starting height – and then shows Jason and best friend Marcus finishing building the loop as an out-of-panel voice asks why there is a Hot Wheels car “soaking in a bowl of olive oil” (because the calculations assume no friction). Not everything in FoxTrot will appeal to everyone, especially since the Sunday-only format creates limitations not shared with strips that appear all week; but there is certainly enough fun in Deliciously FoxTrot to make it a hearty helping of humor, if perhaps more of a generous snack than a full meal.