February 24, 2022


Breaking Cat News 5: Behind the Scenes with Burt—A “Breaking Cat News” Adventure. By Georgia Dunn. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     Watching the Breaking Cat News team read newspapers while commenting, “This boy and tiger report is excellent” and “I never miss the cows, bugs, and aliens report” – referring to Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, respectively – is a pleasure reserved for adult readers of Georgia Dunn’s fifth collection, even though the book is nominally intended for preteens. After all, the classic comics by Bill Watterson and Gary Larson have been gone since the mid-1990s, although admittedly they continue to turn up here and there, notably online. The point of the scene in Dunn’s book, however, is the antithesis of online access: Behind the Scenes with Burt is in part about the newspaper debut of former Web-only comic strip Breaking Cat News in 2017, so having the cat crew read about (and thus show solidarity with) other newspaper dwellers is a matter of tribute and fellowship.

     This is just part of what is going on in Behind the Scenes with Burt. Earlier Breaking Cat News books were more-or-less sequential; this one mostly skips around all over the place. And it turns out not to matter: this volume is just as much fun as the others. The opening pages are in many ways the funniest of all: there is a “station break,” in this case meaning “a break for station upgrades,” during which the three central BCN narrators – Lupin, Puck and Elvis – spend much time and many pages watching a feline soap opera called “Our IX Lives,” in which Dunn lovingly skewers all sorts of soap-opera tropes while telling a bizarre story that really does seem to be the sort of thing cats would produce if cats produced soap operas (which are really, as everyone knows, produced by lavatory products). Seriously – well, not that seriously – Dunn’s take on soap opera within the context of Breaking Cat News is delightfully amusing, and will be enjoyed even by readers who do not understand all the ways in which this is a parody as well as a clever-in-its-own-right creation. There is the wealthy patriarch who is rescued from danger in a hospital but objects loudly because he is being “catnapped by the poor.” There is the thrilling ambulance chase – one chasing a second one – through Laundry Canyon, including collapsing piles of clothing. There is “Captain Nimble’s psychic twin sister,” and the captain himself, who reappears from a long ocean voyage at a crucial time, when the good cats are being threatened with water spray by the bad cats: he is resistant because to him, water is “but the kiss of Poseidon.” And that includes water in “no-no bottles” like the ones wielded as weapons by the evildoers. There are references to an untimely helicopter crash and to a situation in which one cat became a priest because another married his sweetheart. This sort of plotting and dialogue is absurdly common (not to mention simply absurd) in actual soap operas, and the twists and turns that Dunn uses to turn such entertainment into programming for felines are genuinely clever.

     Also here are redrawn strips (modified from their original Web form to be used in newspapers) that were collected in earlier Breaking Cat News books, plus various strips that relate to events in those earlier books but did not actually appear there. Burt, the cat who is upgrading the studio, says, “You guys had a lot of video that never made it to the air,” and Elvis explains, “We used to just leave the cameras running, since we didn’t have anyone to work them.” This allows inclusion in Behind the Scenes with Burt of some scenes that will sort of look familiar to fans of Breaking Cat News but that did not appear quite this way before. And there are also some notable “so that’s what happened” moments, the most significant of which involve extended battles with a June bug and with a threatening vacuum cleaner; a visit to the vet that results in uncooperative Elvis wearing a muzzle; and a scene in which the Man (who, with the Woman, “owns” the cats, to the extent that anyone ever owns a cat) cuts off and gives away his long ponytail as a donation, leading to the cats’ understandable fear for the safety of their tails. The “bi-monthly 2 a.m. ‘Running of the Cats’” is another highlight of the book, and something with which people who share their space with felines will immediately identify.

     Breaking Cat News remains a delightfully offbeat and often very charming take on the lives of thoroughly unrealistic but somehow almost possible cats that just happen to wear news-reporter and news-anchor clothing, carry microphones, and report on news that matters to cats in ways that almost make perfect sense – as when Puck sees a parrot at the vet and announces that “this bird flew through a rainbow,” and Elvis ends up dressed for Halloween as the cutest little taco anyone has ever seen.


Bach: Goldberg Variations. Jean Rondeau, harpsichord. Erato. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     Elegantly conceived, astonishingly involving and gorgeously played, Jean Rondeau’s new recording of the Goldberg Variations is an absolute must-have for anyone who adores this work and is interested in hearing just how moving and beautiful its manifest complexities can be. Furthermore, while no recording, no matter how splendid, will lay to rest the determination of pianists to perform the Goldberg Variations on their chosen instrument, Rondeau’s release makes perhaps the strongest case in modern times for playing this work as Bach intended it to be played – on a two-manual harpsichord, with the disposition of the variations between manuals carefully planned by the composer.

     This performance is so good that it is difficult to know where to start praising it. Perhaps with the tempo choices: Rondeau’s pacing is deliberate without ever seeming slow – yet this reading requires an hour and 48 minutes, an astonishing long running time. Consider that other recent performances have sometimes been critiqued as too long and “draggy” even though they are considerably shorter – Lang Lang’s on piano, for example, which takes about an hour and 33 minutes. But Rondeau’s rendition never feels spun-out or overextended, because its length results from one major Bach decision and one by the performer. Bach’s involves repeats: there are prodigious numbers of them, and performers inevitably choose which to observe and which to omit. Not so in Rondeau’s case: on the basis of the score itself and Bach’s notations on it, which Rondeau studied before making this recording, he accepts every single repeat, playing each of them with the same attention to pacing and detail that he gives to the initial appearance of each to-be-repeated section. As for Rondeau’s own performance decision, it relies on the famous story of the origin of this musical masterpiece, in which Bach for the first time used the variation form, which he had previously disdained. The Goldberg Variations were written to be played by harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg when Goldberg’s insomniac employer, Count Keyserling, was coping with sleeplessness. Rondeau therefore concludes that the apt use of silence is an integral part of the Goldberg Variations, and while he does not indulge in inappropriate rubato or overextend individual pieces by pausing when Bach did not indicate a stopping point, he does choose tempos that accentuate the silence between notes. And on a few occasions, notably in the concluding repeat of the original Aria, he uses moments of silence to underline the change in character of the music after it has undergone such extensive alteration in so many ways.

     The story of the origin of the Goldberg Variations – which may be, at least in part, apocryphal – raises a question that remains intriguing to this day, 280 years after Bach created the music. Were the variations intended to be soporific, helping Count Keyserling drift off to a slumber that he always found so difficult to obtain? Or were they intended to soothe the nobleman during his very extended bouts of sleeplessness, giving him something on which to focus during his sleepless hours, other than the insomnia itself? The question is not definitively answerable, but it certainly influences performances, some of which seem to revel in the repetitive nature of some of the material, while others seem to seek greater tempo variation and an overall more-upbeat approach to the music. One exceptional element of this new two-CD Erato recording is that in Rondeau’s case, the performer has found a way to lead listeners through the complexities and multiple designs of the individual variations without forcing tempo differences beyond those that Bach clearly inserted into the score through indications such as tempo di Giga and Andante. Pretty much everything in the original Aria that can possibly be varied is varied in this music, and by accentuating harmonies here, rhythms there, and of course the special characteristics of the canonic variations, Rondeau produces a splendidly varied performance that is entirely true to the music and permeated by a feeling of constant change – without any imagined necessity of overdoing differences in playing speed from one element to the next.

     This whole interpretation works remarkably well from start to finish. Notably, the famous (or notorious) Variation XXV, the longest of all, the last one in a minor key, and the so-called “black pearl” of the set, as Wanda Landowska described it, here fits perfectly into the work as a whole – in some performances it seems to stand apart from everything else. And the major-key variations that follow are neither a letdown nor a kind of coda (which is sometimes how they sound when a performer overdoes Variation XXV): the last variations are simply further thoughts on additional aspects of the original Aria, and lead eventually right back to it. Rondeau’s instrument, built in 2006 based on German models of Bach’s time, has a clean, balanced tone that allows expressive warmth as well as contrapuntal clarity to come through, and Rondeau takes full advantage of this to vary the variations’ moods as well as pinpointing their differing structure and emphasis. There is no “best” performance or recording of the Goldberg Variations – that is one of the enduring charms and miracles of the work, whose richness is a source of endless delight and surprise. But it is fair to say that any listener, no matter how familiar with Bach’s creation, will be able, if so inclined, to make deeply meaningful connections with the music by hearing how Rondeau plays it – while anyone wishing to bypass the revelatory in favor of the music’s ability to relax and soothe both mind and body will discover that in this respect as well, Rondeau’s performance excels.


Leroy Anderson: Orchestral Music (complete). BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $39.99 (5 CDs).

Eric Coates: Orchestral Works—By the Sleepy Lagoon; Springtime Suite; Saxo-Rhapsody; Footlights Waltz; Four Ways Suite; The Eighth Army March; Lazy Night; Last Love; High Flight March. Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny; Kenneth Edge, saxophone. Naxos. $13.99.

     The middle of the 20th century was something of a golden age for light classical music, thanks in large part to two composers: Leroy Anderson (1908-1975) in the United States and Eric Coates (1886-1957) in Great Britain. New Naxos re-releases of first-rate performances of these composers’ music serve as a reminder that even when world events were darkest – many of these pieces were written in the aftermath of World War I and during and just after World War II – a few composers were creating music to help take people’s minds off their everyday struggles and bring them fresh, creative and unassuming pleasure. The five Anderson discs, interestingly enough, are played by the BBC Concert Orchestra, not an American ensemble – further testimony to the fact that Anderson’s music has international appeal, much as do the lighter works of Aaron Copland. This release includes discs that originally appeared in 2008 and were recorded in 2006-2007, and they have lost nothing of their sonic quality and overall verve in the ensuing decade and a half. Anderson, like John Philip Sousa, is extremely well-known for a tiny number of his compositions: in Anderson’s case those include Sleigh Ride, Bugler’s Holiday, Blue Tango, Belle of the Ball, The Typewriter, The Syncopated Clock, and Plink, Plank, Plunk! But – again as with Sousa – there is much more to Anderson than that. The comprehensive survey of his music, which includes a dozen world première recordings, shows that his interests and abilities went far beyond his skill at creating music to fit on a single side of a 78rpm record: it is those discs’ typical four-minute-per-side limit that explains the length of so many of Anderson’s pieces, making him a dedicated recording artist as well as a composer very well-trained in classical traditions (he himself said he wrote “concert music with a popular touch”). Even within the self-imposed four-minute length, Anderson could create highly interesting works, such as The Phantom Regiment, which has a genuinely strange sound, and Old MacDonald Had a Farm, one of those rare laugh-out-loud pieces of music, which includes not only barnyard exclamations but also a series of thoroughly inappropriate sounds. Anderson did write at greater length now and then, however. For example, he created three separate suites of Christmas carols – one each for strings. brass, and woodwinds – plus a separate seasonal work called A Christmas Festival. He orchestrated pieces by other composers, including To a Wild Rose by Edward MacDowell, Wintergreen for President (from Of Thee I Sing) by George Gershwin, Seventy-Six Trombones by Meredith Willson (from The Music Man), and even Song of Jupiter from Handel’s Semele. Each arrangement combines fine craftsmanship with, in several cases, some especially clever Andersonian touches, such as the incorporation of Sousa melodies into Willson’s work. Anderson even wrote a musical, Goldilocks, whose music takes up most of the fifth volume of his orchestral works; and he created a well-made piano concerto, which appears on the first volume. The very high quality of the playing and recording of these discs is unfortunately not matched by the rather lazy nature of the re-release, which is simply the five original CDs in a cardboard cover: remastering was not necessary, but there is nothing new at all in the presentation, the booklets, or anything else about this set. That also means the set perpetuates the biggest flaw of the five original single-disc releases: a capricious sequence of material that does not do full justice either to the music or to Anderson’s development as a composer. Everything is thrown together without any apparent rhyme or reason: the third disc, for example, includes – in this order – works from 1939, 1966, 1940, 1951, 1954, 1948, 1947, 1958, 1948, 1955, 1932, 1950, 1949, and 1945. However, the unfortunate arrangement, which seems more like a non-arrangement, does nothing to compromise the quality of Anderson’s music or the delights it brings in Leonard Slatkin’s bubbly and beautifully balanced performances. This is music that adeptly treads the line between classical and popular – indeed, Anderson’s works often topped the pop charts of his time – and it is music that we perhaps need now, in our own dark times, just as much as it was needed when Anderson created it. Despite its flaws, this re-release is something to celebrate.

     Interestingly, the BBC Concert Orchestra heard in Anderson’s music was originally called the BBC Theatre Orchestra, and under that earlier name, it was the ensemble that gave the first performances of many of Eric Coates’ works. But the re-release of Coates’ music conducted by Andrew Penny does not use a British orchestra – Penny conducts the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, whose idiomatic handling of Coates’ British music is as noteworthy (so to speak) as the British players’ handling of Anderson’s American creations. This Coates disc was recorded back in 1993, but it still sounds quite fine, and the music is as welcome as Anderson’s, compared to which it has similarities as well as differences. Coates did not focus on a particular length for most of his pieces, but he did mostly write short works, either self-contained or presented as movements of suites. Also, like Anderson, he was classically trained and quite capable of writing a concerto-like work: Anderson has his piano concerto and Coates his Saxo-Rhapsody, a very well-constructed single-movement piece for saxophone and orchestra, played here with considerable sensitivity by Kenneth Edge. Just as much of Anderson’s music was created in connection with recording capabilities of the time (and his relationship with the Boston Pops), so Coates’ works were created in large part because of an agreement with his publisher, Chappell, to which he promised one major orchestral work per year, such as a suite, plus one short piece, such as a march or waltz. This CD re-release shows just how well Coates fulfilled that commitment, with two suites and half a dozen shorter works. Springtime Suite is mostly on the moody side, a surprise for a spring-oriented work, and Four Ways Suite has movements intended to reflect the four compass directions from a British perspective, including a finale (Westward) that incorporates American jazz and dance music. The shorter pieces all show consistently strong creativity, firm rhythms and well-characterized moods – right up to High Flight March, which was written in 1956 and proved to be Coates’ last composition. It makes sense that that march concludes the CD, but the rest of the disc suffers from the same arbitrary arrangement of material as is present in the Anderson recordings: the works heard here are from, in this order, 1930, 1937, 1936, 1939, 1927, 1942, 1932, 1939, and 1956. Since there is nothing to be gained by this ungainly order of presentation, it would have made considerably more sense to offer the material chronologically. But like the Anderson recordings, this one of Coates’ music is simply a reissue – albeit with a different cover – of a previous release. On the whole, the shortcomings here are minor and the enjoyments major: the excellence of the music more than compensates for any awkwardness in its sequencing. It is a pleasure indeed to have these Anderson and Coates recordings available as re-releases.

February 17, 2022


Big Nate: Beware of Low-Flying Corn Muffins. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn 15: Unicorn Selfies. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     The strange sixth-grade stasis in which Nate Wright and his friends exist is a bit odder than usual in the latest Lincoln Peirce collection, Beware of Low-Flying Corn Muffins. Peirce is very good at getting away with the fact that Nate gets out of sixth grade, after Prank Day and with great joy, then has summer adventures, then goes back to school and is – in sixth grade again. There is enough amusement and distraction in Nate’s everyday life, his interactions with friends and family, his self-induced misadventures born of his large (but generally lovable) ego, to keep fans of Big Nate happily ignoring the impossibility of Nate being a sixth-grader year after year (in fact, decade after decade). In the new collection, though, things get a bit more Möbius-strip-like than usual, since one of the earliest entries has Nate’s teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey, asking him about his summer – and at the end of the book, the last few strips are all about “Principal Nichols welcoming everybody back to school” and Mrs. Godfrey saying “Welcome back, Nate” (with Nate telling art teacher Mr. Rosa he is “ready for another great year of art class”). So this particular collection runs school-start to school-start, with an entire school year and summer included – but the two starts are both of sixth grade. The whole situation is reminiscent of the Red Queen’s words to Alice: "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Not that Nate is constantly running: he takes his time walking to detention, to social studies (Mrs. Godfrey’s class), to Cressly’s Bakery (which sponsors the baseball team on which he plays), and to interactions with neighbor dog Spitsy – except when Spitsy drags Nate along at a running pace for one reason or another. Among the adventures in Beware of Low-Flying Corn Muffins is a description of the reason for the title – the actual event not being shown, which leaves plenty to readers’ imagination. There is also competition between Nate and Dee Dee to dig up enough in-school dirt for a really good gossip column; Nate’s upsetting discovery that Mrs. Godfrey is a major fan of Nate’s favorite TV show, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”; Nate’s agreement, under duress, to create self-deprecating comics, only to give up because “I’m simply not mockable”; Nate’s repeated use of the same excuses for not doing homework – except it turns out his teachers have been tracking his claims; Nate becoming a mall elf when School Picture Guy, the minor and odd character perpetually wearing a bandage strip on his forehead, is hired as Santa; Nate getting ready for puberty and shaving because he has a single hair on his face, which eventually turns out to be a piece of fuzz; and the surprising discovery that sweet and lovable friend Chad, when he takes a “sorting hat” quiz based on the Harry Potter books and movies, turns out to belong in the darkest house, Slytherin. Throw in a discussion about potential tattoos (Nate would opt for his favorite comic-book character, Femme Fatality), and Beware of Low-Flying Corn Muffins proves to be yet another of the reliably amusing Big Nate collections at which Peirce has been so adept for so many years – in fact, since the strip started in 1991.

     There is an element of the perpetual present in Dana Simpson’s Phoebe and Her Unicorn series, too, although it is not as central to the events, which are rarely school-related. Given the pervasive magic in this series, the specifics of its time frame really do not matter, as they do in school-focused comics. It is the relationship between Phoebe and Marigold Heavenly Nostrils that is always the focus here, to such an extent that all other characters are minor ones. Still, those less-important characters have some significant roles to play. In Unicorn Selfies, a couple of strips featuring Phoebe’s parents, who are well aware of Marigold and thoroughly accepting of the magic surrounding Phoebe, are noteworthy. In one, her father sees an “enchanted doodle” just as it disappears – Marigold has inadvertently animated it temporarily. His comment: “I envy you your weird childhood.” Elsewhere, Phoebe tells her mother that “the rainbow orb will be here soon” to take Phoebe to “the unicorn family reunion,” for which she did “a load of socks so I’d have enough.” Phoebe’s mom’s startled response is not about unicorns or rainbow orbs, but is: “You did LAUNDRY?” She calls out the news to Phoebe’s dad, who responds with “Oh happy day!” And that leads Phoebe to remark, “Kinda miss when the unicorns and the rainbow orb would have been the surprising bit.” The unicorn family reunion turns out to be a highlight of Unicorn Selfies, since Marigold has never met her parents and has to figure out how to react to them and how to rebel against them (since that seems like the thing to do). Also at the reunion, Phoebe re-connects with Infernus, the Unicorn of Death, a small and super-sweet unicorn whose parents, who are equally delightful and supply cupcakes, turn out to be named Maledicta Unavoidable Catastrophe and Onyx Darkbane, Foreteller of the World’s End. The only member of that family with a genuine dark side turns out to be Infernus’ sister, Buttercup Jeweled Delight. Speaking of names, Phoebe gets her unicorn name in this collection: Marigold dubs her Speckleface Spiderhooves, in recognition of Phoebe’s freckles and fingers. There is plenty of other soft-pedaled and pleasant magical interaction here as well. There is the pixie-built clubhouse kept safe from intruders by the Protective Cloak of Shabbiness: it looks dull and ordinary from the outside, but is a golden palace within the concealment. There are multiple selfie filters showing Marigold looking decidedly strange in multiple ways. There are temporarily missing shadows: Marigold gives hers and Phoebe’s a day off. And there is an interesting, more-thought-provoking-than-usual sequence in which Phoebe talks about a movie she loves called “Confetti Canyon: The Curse of the Exploding Hat,” then learns that Internet commenters hate the film; this leads Marigold to borrow Phoebe’s phone and shout at it, “It is YOU who is bad, Internet!!” To which Phoebe replies, “That shouldn’t help, but it kinda does.” Nevertheless, Phoebe cannot resist reading comments about the movie; these get her tremendously upset; and Marigold asks, “Why should you care that people on the Internet disagree with you? It does not make your opinion any less valid.” Phoebe has to struggle with that comment, and the whole situation becomes a bit of a learning experience not only for her but also for readers – who generally do not get very much that is meaty from Phoebe and Her Unicorn, making the few substantive elements stand out all that much more. And the comparatively trivial ones that make up most of Unicorn Selfies are just fine in their own right.