November 24, 2021


Pearls Awaits the Tide: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     You know the world has become a dark, dank, dismal dungeon when even Pearls Before Swine thinks so. One of the darkest of all comic strips, with characters created and destroyed willy-nilly and a cynical worldview no doubt derived from creator Stephan Pastis’ pre-cartooning work as a lawyer, Pearls has long been finding aspects of the world simply too much – and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit: the latest collection, Pearls Awaits the Tide, includes strips that ran in newspapers as far back as October 2018 (although as recently as March 2020).

     Speaking of newspapers: remember them? Pearls does, and one recurring theme in Pearls Awaits the Tide is that the tide has gone out for newspapers and for journalism in general. Hyper-cynical Rat at one point offers “Recipes for Disaster” that start with laying off half the people in the news industry, using social media to let unchecked misinformation flow freely, giving bad actors worldwide access to such media to exacerbate matters, and “cook[ing] ’til democracy expires.” Even by Pearls standards, this is bleak, made more so by a final panel in which thoughtful Goat says, “Maybe we should pay for journalism again” and Rat replies, “Don’t bother. We’re cooked.” And that is not the only time in this collection that Pastis makes this point. Another entry, for example, talks about “corrupt local governments” brought down by “people paid to investigate stories” until “an Internet appeared” and “people want[ed] their news for free,” leaving corrupt officials giggling and Goat saying, “Excuse me while I go subscribe to seven newspapers.” And at another point, Pastis shows Diogenes, the ancient Greek lantern bearer searching for one honest man, now calling himself Mr. Truth and telling a crowd of modern people that tweets, social media and TV have caused lies to proliferate and that people need to “question things” and “question sources” and “pay for journalism” and “read history” and “think critically” so things do not “get much, much worse.” So the crowd uses his lantern to beat him up – and Pastis, who offers commentary beneath many of the strips in this collection (as he always does in the oversized Treasury books), feels (no doubt correctly) that he has to tell readers that Mr. Truth is based on Diogenes.

     The journalism concerns appear in the book along with other ones indicating that all is not as it should be, as in a four-panel strip in which two people preaching “love for my fellow man” fight to the death; one in which Pig sings the Christmas carol about “dreaming of a white Christmas” and gets called “a racist little Nazi”; one in which Goat’s preference for taking showers at night rather than in the morning leads to him being labeled a “left-wing, Communist, Socialist, diversity-loving, avocado-toast-eating, liberal traitor”; and one in which Rat brightly announces he is finally happy because he has “lost the ability to feel.” That is dark.

     Of course, Pearls is always leavened by levity, to at least some extent, and that is true in Pearls Awaits the Tide. The book’s title, for example, relates to a photographic beach scene on the front and back covers, showing Pastis – real-world Pastis, not the cartoon version often seen in the strip – buried in the sand with only his head showing, with various Pearls characters around him on the front cover; on the back, alarmed Pig and Zebra see that the tide has come in and there is nothing where Pastis’ head was except his trademark baseball cap. This is still dark, but it is silly dark, not societally dark.

     Pastis does have some out-and-out fun with the strip and with readers from time to time. Pig, wanting to prove he is a risk-taker to attract women, proclaims that he uses an iPhone without a protective case. Rat “improves” a pro-teamwork workplace poster by adding one explaining that co-workers on teams backstab each other “because only the suck-ups win.” Ultra-arrogant Jef the Cyclist eagerly anticipates the Rapture, “the day all the cyclists are taken to Heaven,” because God “loves us best.” The Comic Strip Censor appears repeatedly when Pastis engages in slightly risqué word play, as when a female character who wants to get her hair permed at a salon run by Lo of the Hi and Lois strip needs to find out how many people have already booked appointments, which means she needs to call about “Lo’s perm count.” Groaners that do not get the Comic Strip Censor treatment are here, too, as when Pig and Rat finish a restaurant meal and ask for the check, and a man from Prague shows up. But it is the emotional strips, and not only the ones showcasing worries about society and the world, that have the greatest impact in Pearls Awaits the Tide. There is an extended Sunday strip (eight panels) in memory of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain; there is an incredibly touching tribute to Pastis’ dog, Edee, who had advanced cancer and had to be put to sleep while Pastis was out of town on a family emergency; and there is a simple, very simply drawn daily strip created by Pastis after a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 – Pig tries writing down “places I can go and still feel safe in America” and finds he has to cross out “elementary school, movie theater, office, concert,” and on and on, and then at the end crosses out “synagogue.” Pearls Before Swine has always been an acquired taste, even more emphatically so than usual in the case of Pearls Awaits the Tide. But for all the strip’s bleakness, Pastis’ weirdly skewed sense of humor continues to make Pearls a comic like no other: it started on the last day of 2001 and, 20 years later, is casting its occasional pearls of wisdom among more swine than ever – or at least it seems as if there are more swine out there than in the past.


Chicken Soup for the Soul: Kids—The Sunshine Squad. By Jamie Michalak. Illustrated by Lorian Tu. Charlesbridge. $12.99.

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Kids—Sophie and the Tiny Dognapping. By Jamie Michalak. Illustrated by Lorian Tu. Charlesbridge. $12.99.

     The Chicken Soup for the Soul series has been around since 1993, using stories about ordinary people’s everyday lives to try to instill inspirational messages that are as heartfelt as they are simplistic. This sort of chicken soup is not to everyone’s taste – its flavor is more like treacle’s to some – but it is undoubtedly popular, the self-help series having sold more than half a billion books worldwide. At a certain level, there is no quarreling with success – certainly not that level of success. And now, for fans of the series and non-fans who think the whole thing a bit obvious and even childish, there are Chicken Soup for the Soul picture books specifically for children.

     The lessons taught in The Sunshine Squad and Sophie and the Tiny Dognapping are not really very different from those propounded by the longstanding series aimed at adults. Jamie Michalak, however, delivers them in an age-appropriate manner, and Lorian Tu’s illustrations are suitable for ages 4-7 and – inevitably – quite diverse and inclusive, in line with contemporary expectations for children’s books. Each book comes with a subtitle that tells what lesson it will teach. For The Sunshine Squad, this is “Discovering What Makes YOU Special.” The story introduces the gang at 123 Sunshine Street: Sophie (animal lover, with many pets); Mia (sports lover); Lucas (jokester); and Oliver (artist). They live in an inner city, in the same building, and interact regularly – so regularly that Oliver proposes they create their own squad of superheroes to battle any evil that happens to come their way. Oliver says he would make things come to life with his pencil, to trap monsters; Mia says she could use her skateboard to spin so fast that a tornado would sweep any monster away; Lucas says he could use his mastery of surprise, and his joke supplies, to catch a monster off guard; and Sophie says she could “teach the monster to be nice and make it [her] pet.” But there is a fifth child at 123 Sunshine Street: Tommy, Lucas’ little brother. All he does is tag along with the older kids, so of course he could not have a superpower: “Tommy sighs and wonders if he’ll ever fit in with the big kids.” Well, of course we can’t have any dejection in this uplifting book, so Tommy has to discover something about himself. And soon enough, he does. He opens the door for a neighbor who is carrying a bag of groceries, an orange rolls out of the bag and down the building’s front steps, and it turns out that the bigger kids cannot grab it – but Tommy saves the day (and the orange). And Mia tells him he has found his superpower: “‘You’re a helper, little dude,’ says Mia. ‘Kindness is your superpower.’” Of course it is! And kindness is so potent a power that the kids decide to “spread sunshine in so many ways” by calling themselves the Sunshine Squad. The story is as predictable and formulaic as can be, but for very young readers (and maybe even a few pre-readers), that is just fine – and the messages about kindness and about everybody having some sort of mundane “superpower” are pleasantly delivered.

     The message is a bit trickier in Sophie and the Tiny Dognapping, whose explanatory subtitle is “A Book About Doing the Right Thing.” Although all five kids reappear here, the focus is on friends Sophie and Mia. It seems that Mia has a well-equipped dollhouse that she does not much care about, and with which she never plays. But Sophie loves the house, and enjoys playing with it when she visits Mia. She especially likes a small dog figurine in the house; Sophie names the dog Emma. One day, Sophie decides to take Emma home with her to be with all Sophie’s other animals – but instead of simply asking Mia if that is all right (adults reading the book with children should be prepared to explain why she does not do this, since Michalak doesn’t), Sophie puts Emma in her pocket and heads home. She tries to play with Emma and introduce her to all the other animals, but Emma seems uncomfortable – that is, Sophie is uncomfortable, increasingly so. She realizes that she “hasn’t brought just Emma home. She’s brought a bad feeling with her, too.” So she has to undo the wrong thing she did, and tell Mia what happened, and apologize, and return Emma to the unplayed-with dollhouse. That is precisely what happens – none of it exactly a surprise. The message here, not to take what is not yours, is super-clear, and Sophie’s tearful confession to Mia makes the point through illustration even more effectively than Michalak’s writing does through words. Mia, of course, is 100% understanding, to the point of saying it “was brave” of Sophie to admit what she did, and everyone is happy and friendly and gratified by the outcome.

     Is all this super-obvious? Well, yes – and it is made even more so by two-page Chicken Soup for the Soul stories appended to the back of each book: “You Do It Your Way, and I’ll Do It Mine” in The Sunshine Squad, and “Start with the Truth” in Sophie and the Tiny Dognapping. But there is never anything unusual, out of the ordinary or difficult to grasp in Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Certainly they are cloying and emotionally simplistic, and certainly the extent to which that makes them useful for adults is arguable. But for young children, the ones for whom Chicken Soup for the Soul: Kids is intended, the thoughts and lessons will likely prove both tasty and nutritious.

(++++) PIANO, PLUS

Chopin: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65; Introduction and Polonaise Brillante; Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2; Nocturne No. 20; Chopin and August Franchomme: Grand Duo Concertant on Themes from “Robert le Diable.” Anne Gastinel, cello; Claire Désert, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Victoria Bond: Illuminations on Byzantine Chant; Ancient Keys; Black Light; Traditional: Byzantine Chant. Paul Barnes, piano and chanter; Slovak Radio Orchestra and Philharmony “Bohuslav Martinů” conducted by Kirk Trevor. Albany Records. $16.99.

     On the face of it, there appears to be something almost unseemly in adapting Chopin’s piano music for other instruments. Chopin is inexorably and understandably associated first and foremost with the piano, in all its expressive lyricism and ability to establish and sustain a multiplicity of moods and great beauty. But that is precisely what makes the new Naïve CD featuring cellist Anne Gastinel and her frequent duo partner Claire Désert so attractive. There is no attempt here to minimize the piano – instead, the idea is to accentuate its lyrical powers by combining and contrasting its sound with that of the cello. This works, on the whole, very well indeed, thanks to sensitive arrangements by several hands. The disc opens and closes with a nocturne. Op. 9, No. 2, in E-flat, is highly expressive, although arranger David Popper takes the cello a touch too far into its highest range from time to time. No. 20, in C-sharp minor, is arranged by Gregor Piatigorsky, and not surprisingly exploits the cello’s expressiveness to the fullest degree. These short pieces bookend more-substantial works that Gastinel and Désert handle with exceptional sensitivity. The Introduction and Polonaise Brillante is heard here not in its original form but as edited by Maurice Gendron to give the cello a more-substantial, more-central role than it has in the original work, in which it plays second fiddle (so to speak) to the piano. Pianists may not approve of losing some of the virtuoso, concerto-like elements of their part, but the combinatorial balance of the instruments here makes for some very effective give-and-take. Highly effective in a different way is the set of variations on Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, composed by Chopin and his cellist friend Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884). This is an extended work of considerable power, requiring equal but differing virtuosity of the two players, and it is quite impressive both in its handling of the opera’s themes and in the division of labor: clearly Chopin and Franchomme had great respect for each other’s abilities as performers, not just composers, and the piece gives each player plenty of chances to shine and an equal number to cooperate. Gastinel and Désert here show a level of refinement that is quite exceptional. Franchomme’s influence and friendship are also central to the most-substantial work on this Naïve CD: the Op. 65 sonata for cello and piano. This is one of only nine works published in Chopin’s lifetime that were not for piano solo, and indeed is the last work published during his all-too-brief life. The sonata was specifically written for Franchomme, who is its dedicatee, and it beautifully complements the Robert le Diable variations by showing the cello-piano balance in a very different light. Chopin goes out of his way here to let the cello take on primacy, allowing the piano to weave beautiful sonic tapestries around the stringed instrument but making it clear, again and again, that this is a cello sonata. Intriguingly, the third movement, Largo, makes the most-visceral impression even though it is the shortest of the four. This is a thematically focused sonata, lacking the discursiveness found in some other Chopin works, and its emotional structure is interesting, with the inner movements (including the Largo) in major keys and the outer movements in G minor (although the work ends in G major). Gastinel and Désert make marvelous musical partners throughout this work and through the whole disc, which makes it clear that although Chopin was first and foremost piano-focused, his expressiveness is not diminished one whit when heard on cello as well as piano.

     The very well-made music of Victoria Bond (born 1945) is combined not with a single stringed instrument but with an orchestra in two works on a new Albany Records CD – and, more intriguingly, with the human voice, courtesy of pianist Paul Barnes, who is also a professional chanter in the Greek Orthodox Church. The four works on this disc – one for piano alone, two for piano and orchestra, and one consisting of Barnes offering four traditional Byzantine Chants – fascinatingly combine religious elements (including some drawn from Bond’s own Judaism) with secular ones. The four hymns chanted by Barnes take up a total of less than five minutes, but their influence pervades most of this more-than-hour-long release. This is clearest in Illuminations on Byzantine Chant (2021), which here receives its world première recording. The three-movement solo-piano suite is tied explicitly to specific hymns, which are expanded and explored in ways reminiscent of, yes, Chopin: it is fascinating to hear this work in juxtaposition with the Robert le Diable variations, and not just because of the contrast between the devilish and godly implied by the material. Bond asks a lot of the performer in these Illuminations, requiring sensitivity to the underlying material and also an impressive amount of virtuoso display that, far from trivializing the underlying hymns, gives them even more expressive power. Barnes’ knowledge of the foundational material surely helps him produce this very sensitive interpretation of the music, as his pianistic skill lets him bring forth the power of Bond’s keyboard writing. Barnes is also called on to chant at the beginning of Ancient Keys (2002), which was commissioned by Barnes and conductor Kirk Trevor – who leads the Slovak Radio Orchestra in accompanying Barnes for this performance. An air of solemnity hovers over this extended (17-minute) single-movement work, which incorporates neo-Romantic orchestral gestures into an attractive framework that skillfully utilizes both the massed orchestral forces and individual sections – and occasionally single instruments that complement and contrast with the piano. There are effective elements as well in Black Light (1997), in which Trevor again leads an orchestra – this time the Philharmony “Bohuslav Martinů” – and Barnes again displays his considerable performance ability. The work itself, though, is the least interesting on the CD. The inspiration here comes partly from African-American music and partly from a Jewish hymn. These are more-common sources than Byzantine chant, and Bond’s treatment of them, while professional and skillful, is not especially revelatory: there are percussion clashes, dips into jazz rhythms and jazz-like piano runs, a second movement whose insistent contrast between massed orchestra and delicate piano recalls the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, and a finale mixing string pizzicati with pianistic syncopation. It is all well-crafted but sounds like many other works drawn from similar sources. Black Light is pleasant enough to listen to, and certainly performed very well, but while everything else on this disc is indeed illuminating, this piano concerto shines less brightly than the rest of the CD.


Brahms: String Quartets Nos. 1-3; Intermezzo in A, Op. 118, No. 2. Alexander String Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violins; Paul Yarbrough, viola; Sandy Wilson, cello). Foghorn Classics. $27.99 (2 CDs).

Dvořák: String Quintet No. 3, Op. 97; György Kurtág: Six moments musicaux, Op. 28; Officium breve, Op. 44. Parker Quartet (Daniel Chong and Ken Hamao, violins; Jessica Bodner, viola; Kee-Hyun Kim, cello); Kim Kashkashian, viola. ECM New Series. $15.99.

Adam Roberts: Oboe Quartet; Shift Differential; Rounds; Diptych; Happy/Angry Music; Bell Threads. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The subtlety and mutuality of purpose with which the members of the Alexander String Quartet approach Brahms’ three quartets are almost a perfect example of the conversational form of music-making of which string quartets have been exemplars since Haydn’s time. This ensemble’s sheer tonal quality is the first thing a listener will notice: there is purity, warmth, richness and elegance throughout. And there is precision, too: many quartets rely on vibrato to produce a larger, warmer sound, but the Alexander String Quartet is remarkably restrained in this regard, its vibrato as carefully controlled as its ensemble passages are tightly bound. This works exceptionally well in Brahms, whose sound can all too easily slop over into muddiness. A perfect example comes in String Quartet No. 3, whose second movement’s cantabile part faces a rather thickened accompaniment that can easily become clotted. On their new Foghorn Classics recording, these performers manage to make both the singing elements and the double-stopping clear through a sense of mutuality that approaches sleight of hand. Indeed, the third string quartet, which in some ways is the lightest of the three despite the considerable compositional elegance of the final Poco Allegretto con Variazoni, comes across with such pleasure and apparently casual playfulness here that it is easy to see why this work in B-flat was Brahms’ favorite of his three quartets. Yet the Alexander String Quartet is every bit as effective in the two earlier, minor-key quartets (No. 1 in C minor, No. 2 in A minor). The first quartet is so serious that it can sound dour, but not here: there is power aplenty, and considerable drama (befitting the C minor key), but even the most-dramatic moments – such as the coda of the first movement – are presented with careful clarity that renders them all the more effective. The second quartet, somewhat more relaxed than the first, is notable in this performance for attention to such details as the second movement’s violin-cello duet and the odd third-movement touches that explain Brahms’ marking it Quasi Minuetto. As an encore for this two-CD set, there is an interesting quartet setting of the late piano Intermezzo in A, created by the Alexander String Quartet’s first violinist, Zakarias Grafilo. The arrangement emphasizes the gentle tenderness of this little lullaby, and the fact that the recording ends with this Andante teneramente piece rather than something more virtuosic and intense shows clearly the sensitivity and care with which this ensemble’s members approach all the repertoire heard here.

     Brahms’ quartets contrast interestingly with similar works by his colleague and friend Dvořák, for all that Brahms was initially the younger composer’s mentor and advocate and the friendship between them was not entirely untroubled (largely because of Dvořák’s feelings about Brahms’ agnosticism). Brahms wrote two string quintets in addition to his three quartets; Dvořák, more prolific in the chamber idiom, wrote three quintets, of which the third is the centerpiece of an interestingly programmed ECM New Series disc featuring the Parker Quartet, with Kim Kashkashian as second viola. This quintet is from Dvořák’s “American” period and, like other works of the time, neatly merges the composer’s customary Bohemian sound with melodic inspiration drawn from the New World. The most-intriguing such inspiration, although it is somewhat speculative, lies in the opening of the second-movement Scherzo, whose percussive elements may reflect Native American tribal music. The warmth and melodiousness of this quintet come through to very fine effect in this performance, from the unaffected sound of the very opening of the first movement to the expansiveness of the Larghetto and the exceptional brightness of the dancelike finale. It is a thoroughly winning reading of music whose apparent ease of communication belies the carefulness of its construction. However, the pairing of the quintet with two quartet works by György Kurtág (born 1926) does not really work very well, turning this CD into a well-played but not entirely satisfying (+++) release. The two Kurtág pieces are, in effect, the composer’s third and fourth string quartets, but his insistently minimalist esthetic and constant references to specific composers and other artists render Kurtág’s pieces as difficult to approach as Dvořák’s quintet is welcoming. Kurtág’s Officium Breve, for example, actually has the full title Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky and is a tribute to Kurtág’s fellow composer, who lived from 1911 to 1977. The work contains no fewer than 15 very short, Webernesque movements, most lasting less than a minute, all of them full of motivic minutiae and tiny gestural material. Three movements explicitly refer to Webern, and it is only the final Arioso interrotto, which references Szervánszky directly, that comes across as something like a tribute. Moments Musicaux is a six-movement piece with slightly more-extended individual elements, ranging from 90 seconds to three-and-a-half minutes. Here Kurtág includes an explicit reference to Janáček and a memorial movement to Hungarian-American pianist György Sebők (1922-1999). All the music in the two Kurtág quartets is aggressively atonal, its communicative ability stunted by the necessity of knowing its referents and paying attention to the composer’s handling of whatever influences or personalities he is dealing with or channeling. There is certainly a place for music like Kurtág’s, but it fares poorly in juxtaposition with the Dvořák quintet with which it appears on this disc. The disparity between the forms of communication of the two composers is simply too great – and is even more accentuated by the placement of the Dvořák between the two Kurtág pieces, the effect of which is to draw attention to just how spare and emotionally sparse the Kurtág material is by comparison with that of the earlier composer.

     Like Kurtág’s music, that of Adam Roberts on a New Focus Recordings release has a narrow emotional compass and a preoccupation more with sound for its own sake than for sound whose purpose is communicative. The quartet here, which is the longest work on the disc, is for oboe (Erik Behr) and members of the JACK Quartet (Christopher Otto, violin; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello). Its second movement claims the sort of connection to an earlier composer of which Kurtág is fond: Roberts’ movement is called Lament: Hommage à J.S. Bach. And in fact there are Bachian elements here, including lyricism that Roberts otherwise denies to himself and his audience. Roberts (born 1980) repeatedly undermines the references to earlier material, though, as if extreme chromaticism and dissonance somehow improve on or pay a kind of odd tribute to the Baroque. The quartet’s first movement – Explosive, Curvy, Raucous – and its final Toccare give the work as a whole a classical three-movement structure, but Roberts goes out of his way to undercut and undermine that design and the occasional quotations embedded in it by making typical contemporary-composer performance demands, such as extended glissandi and material that floats with odd dissonance above disconnected accompaniments. This (+++) CD does showcase Roberts’ interest in various chamber-music and solo-instrument composition, although the sound of the various works tends to be very similar even when the instrumentation differs. The opening and closing works on the disc show this clearly: Shift Differential for violin (Mary Bennardo) and viola (Hannah Levinson) is aurally closely akin to Bell Threads for solo viola (Levinson). The solo treatment of the harp (Hannah Lash) in Rounds parallels that of the solo viola, with each work pushing to extend the inherent sound of the instrument for which it is written (another typical contemporary-composer approach) and both featuring irregular rhythms and a disconnected, jagged overall feeling. Also here is Diptych for violin and viola (Bennardo and Levinson), the two movements sounding similar to the single-movement Shift Differential but going on at considerably greater length, with the second movement focused on the production of microtones within scalar patterns. Different instruments are used for Happy/Angry Music, played by an ensemble called Bearthoven that includes piano (Karl Larson), percussion (Matt Evans), and bass (Pat Swoboda). This piece is more fun than anything else on the disc, accepting and accentuating the two percussion instruments (the piano is treated quite percussively) and often using the bass in a percussive manner as well. It is not always clear what music is happy and what sounds are angry, but it scarcely matters: parts of the piece are propulsive, parts hover aurally and fade into silence, parts delve into a level of consonance that Roberts otherwise employs infrequently, and parts (such as extended scales on the piano) simply sound silly – apparently intentionally. The work goes on a bit too long (almost 12 minutes), but there is enough cleverness in it to make it enjoyable to listen to. In fact, it is worth hearing more than once, a statement that is not always easy to make about contemporary music. The rest of this disc is on the ordinary side, but Happy/Angry Music is interesting enough to keep listeners engaged and certainly not angry – in fact, to keep them at least intermittently happy.