June 30, 2022


College Admission 101, Third Edition. By Robert Franek. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $12.99.

     Wading through the wilds of the collegiate experience can be a daunting chore, a slog lasting four years or more at the end of which it turns out that much of what you got out of the situation relates directly to what you put into it. Getting through the muck of the pre-collegiate experience can be, in its own way, even more disheartening: everybody has ideas, comments, notions, advice, recommendations and thoughts, quickly creating a “my brain is full” phenomenon for students and families alike.

     College today is not about education – not principally, anyway. One recent Princeton Review survey – the organization does tons of surveys – found that only 25% of respondents said that education is the biggest benefit of college. Nearly a third of those surveyed (college applicants and their parents) – 32% – said the main benefit is exposure to new ideas, although the pre-eminence of cancel culture and ideological lockstep at many colleges may cause some skepticism about that response. However, the biggest benefit of all cited in the survey was “potentially better job and higher income,” the chosen response of 42% of respondents. So old notions of “broadened horizons” and “a liberal education” (where “liberal” is a nonpolitical term) seem to have fallen by the wayside as primary motivations for college attendance.

     With career practicality in the ascendant as the main reason for college, it makes sense to look for a guide that will allow students and families to focus on that element. And this is one thing that College Admission 101 does very well indeed. It may seem obvious that, as Robert Franek says, “Applying to schools that line up with your goals and interests helps your chances of gaining acceptance,” but the comment is a worthwhile one that users of the book can keep in mind while negotiating all its ins and outs.

     The word “users” is deliberate: this is a book meant to be used, not just read for information, because there are lots of ins and outs in the college-admissions process, and no one-size-fits-all method of handling them (again, as Franek states). Still, there are some basics of the process of which all students and families should be aware. Obviously, costs and geographical issues are central to every family’s concerns, and they are suitably addressed. But there is much more here. How important are college ranking lists (a mainstay of Princeton Review publications)? How can you get the most out of a campus visit? How can you learn about a college if you cannot go see it in person? What is the best way to take advantage of the proliferation of virtual information sessions, online question-and-answer opportunities, and live chats, all made possible by the Internet and all quite different from most parents’ engagement with colleges? (Partial answer to this last question is to “ask questions about the admission process and the typical student the college admits. That will allow the presenter to give you the information they’re [sic] comfortable sharing, like whether or not interviews are offered, the ranges of GPAs and test scores for admits, and the importance the school places on essays and letters of recommendations [sic].”)

     It is important for parents who attended college to realize, in Internet-related material and elsewhere, that this is not the college-investigation-and-application process through which they themselves went. Just consider schools’ increasing elimination of the once-ubiquitous requirement to take the SAT or ACT, and the onetime high significance of the results of those tests. Franek devotes considerable attention to the continued value of the tests and the pluses and minuses of taking them, whether or not a particular school requires them. His bottom line is that “standardized tests give you opportunities,” but he understands why some students will not want to take them if they are not mandatory, as is now the case at many schools. Franek’s discussion also requires him to define terms that parents of college-age students may not have encountered before, such as “test-optional and test-blind,” which “are not the same. Test-optional schools allow you to choose whether or not to include SAT or ACT scores with your application. Test-blind schools won’t look at or consider SAT or ACT scores.”

     Unlike many Princeton Review offerings, College Admission 101 is not a super-thick, oversize book, but families should not underestimate just how information-packed it is. What should students do in 11th and 12th grades to get ready? What summer activities will boost a student’s application? What exactly is FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and what must families have on hand in order to complete it? The answer to this last question alone is almost enough to discourage college applications altogether, but Franek’s “8 Quick Tips for Getting Financial Aid” mitigates the circumstances to some degree – although “Financial Aid Terms You Need to Know,” which goes on for three pages (19 items) of gobbledygook (important gobbledygook), may be a major turnoff.

     There is a substantial difference between compressed and simplified, and College Admission 101 is quite clearly the former, not the latter. Franek packs a lot of information into every page, with some of it clearly oriented more toward parents (cost calculations), some of it useful for parents and students alike (the best place to search for scholarships), and some of it particularly informative for students (who sits on admissions committees, and the single most important thing committee members look for in applications). Among the book’s most-valuable elements are the ones dealing with less-than-optimal matters, such as having a significant high-school disciplinary history, what to do if the family has not already spent years saving for college costs, how to handle less-than-optimal social-media accounts in an age when admission officers have easy access to social media, and how to improve the chance of admission from a waitlist even though students on waitlists are rarely admitted.

     What is particularly interesting is that although the book’s subtitle refers to “New Challenges in Admissions, Testing, Financial Aid, and More,” the topics themselves are ones with which students and families have dealt for many decades – the forms of the challenges in college application have changed, but the underlying concerns themselves have not. If college application remains a quagmire through which students and parents have to wade, this book at least offers a variety of practical ways to avoid getting stuck in the academic mire – or trapped in metaphorical quicksand.


Fernande Decruck: Sonata in C-sharp for Alto Saxophone or Viola and Orchestra; Poème Héroïque for Trumpet, Horn and Orchestra; Concerto for Harp and Orchestra. Carrie Koffman, saxophone; Amy McCabe, trumpet; Leelanee Sterrett, horn; Chen-Yu Huang, harp; Jackson Symphony Orchestra conducted by Matthew Aubin. Claves. $18.99.

Barbara Harbach: Orchestral Music VI—Visions of Hildegard; Mischances of Life; The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky; Eclipsis Lunae; Spaindango—A Tango Caprice. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Angus. MSR Classics. $14.95.

The Fabulous Sir John: A Tribute to the Late Sir John Manduell. Divine Art. $18.99.

     An exceptionally talented French composer of the first half of the 20th century, Fernande Decruck (1896-1954) is best known for the 40-or-so pieces she wrote for saxophone, some of which were performed by her husband, Maurice Decruck (who also played clarinet and bass). But “best known” may be a bit much, since Fernande Decruck nowadays is barely known at all. She had an excellent grounding in music, having won prizes for harmony, fugue, counterpoint, and piano accompaniment at the Paris Conservatory, and later taught harmony at the Conservatoire de Toulouse. On the strength of a new Claves recording of three of her concertante works, her obscurity is unjustified and she certainly deserves at least an occasional place in concerts and on recordings. This disc shows her to be a primarily tonal composer with a fine sense of how to balance a solo instrument against an orchestra. The gloomily thoughtful opening of her four-movement Sonata in C-sharp for Alto Saxophone or Viola and Orchestra sets a mood that carries effectively throughout the piece, whose middle movements are intriguingly titled Noël (referring to a traditional French Christmas carol) and Fileuse (“spinning”). Decruck effectively explores the full range of the saxophone in this work, and even though its overall impression is on the dark side, it is more a piece of thoughtfulness and inward focus than one of grand tragedy or even significant pathos. Carrie Koffman plays the work with lovely tone and a high degree of sensitivity, and is well-supported by the Jackson Symphony Orchestra conducted by Matthew Aubin – indeed, the ensemble provides first-rate support throughout this disc, all three of whose offerings are world première recordings. That is quite a surprise in light of the quality of the music, and an even bigger surprise is that Decruck’s three-movement Poème Héroïque appears never to have been performed before, much less recorded. That goes beyond “a shame” to being outright shameful: this is a wonderfully expressive, broadly conceived piece in which the solo trumpet (Amy McCabe) and horn (Leelanee Sterrett) blend, contrast and entwine in very lovely fashion, with the beautifully scored second movement (Andante espressivo) contrasting especially well with the finale, which has almost-Ivesian sound and pacing. And Decruck clearly had composing abilities that went well beyond the saxophone and other winds: her four-movement Concerto for Harp and Orchestra casts the orchestra in a lighter, more-transparent guise than do the other two works on this disc, quite suitable to allow the wistful elegance of the harp to come through and, at times, to dominate the music’s expressiveness quite thoroughly (as in the lovely opening of the Andante). Decruck manages to allow other solo instruments to come to the fore or to play along in short duos with the harp – violin, trumpet, flute – while never losing sight of the harp’s prominence in the overall structure of the concerto. There is more bounce and a slightly more modern sound in this concerto than in the other works on the disc, and Chen-Yu Huang handles the solo role with just the right mixture of dexterity and emotion. This is a remarkable CD on many levels, the most significant of which is the sense that Fernande Decruck has gone unacknowledged (or at least under-acknowledged) for far too long – perhaps because many of her significant works, including all those heard here, date to the tumultuous years of World War II. It is a commonplace nowadays to note that there is a great deal of excellent music from many composers in many time periods that has fallen by the wayside for less-than-obvious reasons. That is certainly the case with these pieces and this composer: the disc whets the appetite for hearing considerably more of Decruck’s work.

     There is, on the other hand, no shortage of recordings of the music of Barbara Harbach (born 1946), thanks to an extensive and still-growing set of CDs, released by MSR Classics, in which Harbach’s works, both orchestral and chamber, are thoroughly explored. The latest (+++) disc of her orchestral music is the sixth, and it is Volume 15 in the entire set of Harbach releases on this label. All five pieces on the CD are world première recordings, but a couple of them will seem more than a trifle familiar to listeners who already own other releases in the series. The three-movement Visions of Hildegard (2018) on this disc is an orchestral version of a chamber work of the same title released on the sixth MSR Classics CD of Harbach’s chamber music. In that form (for violin and piano) or this one (for larger ensemble), the piece is a tribute to Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), whose own music has become rather well-known in recent years. The piece’s title represents not only Harbach’s visions of Hildegard but also Hildegard’s own visions – although the music, while thoughtful and even moving, is a touch too placid to sustain well for its full 15 minutes. Another reworking of chamber music on this CD is The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky (2018), a four-movement piece for soprano, violin and piano in its chamber form (available on the same prior release that contains the violin-and-piano Hildegard tribute). The work’s title is the title of the third movement in the chamber work, but the orchestral piece contains only three movements, and the titular one is absent. The first and third movements of the orchestral version bear the same titles as the chamber one: And Musing Awhile and Trail of Tears. But instead of two additional movements, the orchestral work has one, called Luna and Stella. The piece is intended as a “cause” work about Ojibwe history and Native American history in general, and seems designed mainly for people already familiar with, perhaps even immersed in, the topic on which it focuses. The longest work on the orchestral CD is the five-movement Mischances of Life (2018), which percolates along rather lightheartedly for a piece with this title (although the title does not, after all, say “tragedies”). Harbach, always a skilled orchestrator, is particularly adept here in handling the balance within individual orchestral sections and between one full section and the next – and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under David Angus, in this work and throughout the CD, plays with refinement and a sure sense of style, pacing, and understanding of Harbach’s esthetic. Two shorter, single-movement pieces fill out the CD. Eclipsis Lunae (2017) suitably blends nocturnal and dramatic feelings, while Spaindango—A Tango Caprice (2018) is light and bouncy, surface-level in a good way, and a genuinely enjoyable conclusion to the disc. The Harbach series seems mainly designed for listeners with a penchant for completeness – and it may be quite a while for this set of releases to be complete. For now, each of the CDs shows something different in Harbach’s compositional style, and each gives interested listeners a chance to hear some previously unrecorded material by a talented contemporary composer.

     The talents of Sir John Manduell (1928-2017) included composition but went considerably beyond his creation of music: Manduell was a well-known producer, teacher, and artistic director in Great Britain. However, he is virtually unknown in the United States in any of his roles, in all of which he functioned in the United Kingdom; and while he is famed within the music profession in Europe, he is not exactly a household name outside the music field, even on that side of the pond. So a CD devoted to tributes to Manduell is by definition a limited-interest item – and two CDs of tributes would seem to be over-the-top. But that is what Divine Art is offering: The Fabulous Sir John is an add-on to a previous tribute disc called Songs for Sir John. In some ways, the new (+++) disc is actually a better tribute than the earlier one: the previous disc included works by 16 contemporary composers, while the new one offers works by only five – but one of them is Manduell himself, so this disc is a way for the uninitiated to hear some music written by the person who is being lauded. Nor is it a small amount of music: nearly 40 minutes of the CD’s 65 are devoted to works by Manduell, and an additional piece, the four-minute Aria for Sir John by Adam Gorb (born 1958), sets the scene for the pieces by Manduell himself. Gorb’s piece is fine – sensitive without being overly mournful – but Manduell’s own are something of a mixed bag. Elegy has some sensibilities in common with Gorb’s work; Recitative and Aria, although not a vocal work, has the right approach to justify its title, although its insistent dissonance is a bit much; Trois Chansons de la Renaissance offers three pieces that are vocal (sung by soprano Rachel Speirs), and here the settings are first-rate, keeping the words clear while providing very apt piano support (Peter Lawson is the pianist); Bell Birds from Nelson is rather obvious, if pleasant, in its use of recorder (played by John Turner); Nocturne and Scherzo, the longest Manduell work offered here, contrasts its sections suitably if not especially surprisingly; and Tom’s Twinkle is a nice little 90-second bit of fluff with, again, a recorder focus. After the Manduell-composed pieces on this disc, there is A Dark Waltz by Michael Berkeley (born 1948) – the piece is more crepuscular than genuinely dark-hued. Then Speirs returns, this time accompanied by the Victoria String Quartet, for 5 Songs from “Songs of Innocence” by William Alwyn (1905-1985). The words by William Blake have attracted many composers, and Alwyn’s settings are fine, although some of the vocal lines are rather overdone for poems that Blake intended to be un-ironic presentations of naïve feelings (in contrast to his Songs of Experience). The disc concludes with Memento Mary Magdalene by Richard Stoker (1938-2021), which uses recorder and string quartet to produce a quiet and thoughtful ending for this tribute disc. All the performers – also including Linda Merrick (clarinet), Benedict Holland (violin), Kim Becker (viola), and Jennifer Langridge (cello) – perform with sensitivity and a sense of suitable deference to the person whose accomplishments the CD is designed to celebrate. But none of the music, including that by Manduell himself, is so noteworthy as to command attention beyond that associated with this particular memorial project. As well-intentioned as this second Manduell tribute disc is, it remains, like the first one, an offering strictly aimed at people familiar with and appreciative of Manduell, especially ones for whom his many significant musical roles were important during his lifetime.


The Guernica Project. Ensemble for These Times. Centaur. $15.99.

Music for Viola by Iranian Composers. Kimia Hesabi, viola. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Steven Ricks: Heavy with Sonata; Reconstructing the Lost Improvisations of Aldo Pilestri (1683-1727); Piece for Mixed Quartet; Assemblage Chamber. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Villa-Lobos: Alma Brasileira; Rudepoêma; Valsa da Dor; Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4; Ciclo Brasileiro. Martha Marchena, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     Music that commemorates a specific time, event or place is at best an iffy proposition. Even those who enjoy topic-specific music such as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory (for some listeners, both are rather guilty pleasures) like such material in spite of the events that inspired the composers, not because of them. And the inspirations in those two cases are relatively well-known. More often, the underlying time or event is not: how many people realize that Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 was inspired by the Czech political struggles of 1884? Ultimately, all these works and many others like them succeed or fail based on their musical rather than situational validity and quality. And so it is with the works on a new Centaur CD featuring members of Ensemble for These Times – especially pianist Dale Tsang – in pieces commemorating the carpet bombing of the Basque village of Guernica in 1937. Even listeners who know the village’s name (actually Gernika) and the famous Picasso painting associated with it may not know details of the Spanish Civil War air attack by German and Italian fighter planes in support of Francisco Franco’s forces. The painting itself certainly communicates scenes of horror in Picasso’s memorable style, but the specifics of his theme will be obscure to many people hearing the works on this disc. That does not make the music any less interesting – or any more so. And that is the point: the topic of the composers heard here gives all of them a foundation on which to build music, but acceptance and enjoyment of these works (“enjoyment” actually not being their primary point) depend on the pieces themselves and the effectiveness with which they are wrought. The four composers of the seven pieces on the disc all approach the topic with respect and an attempt to be sensitive to the specific war and culture that lie at the center of the CD’s concept. But each composer looks at the topic somewhat differently. Mercedes Zavala contributes La colección de haikus, eight very short voice-and-piano movements in which Spanish-language haikus are read and then commented upon by Tsang’s piano – although the connection between words and notes is somewhat less than clear. Jeffrey Hoover contributes more music to this project than anyone else: two pieces lasting more than half an hour, one explicitly connected with the topic and one tacked onto it. Guernica is a four-movement impressionistic piece for soprano (Nanette McGuinness), violin (Ilana Blumberg), cello (Anne Lerner), and piano (Tsang). Here the words relate more clearly to the music than in Zavala’s piece, although there is nothing unexpected in Hoover’s portrayal of the town and the reasons for remembering it – as seen through the lens of Picasso’s painting, with each movement representing part of the art work and the verbal elements being offered in no fewer than six languages. Hoover also contributes a marginally relevant work called Burning Giraffe, written for cello and piano (Lerner and Tsang) and focused on a famous Salvador Dali painting whose connection to Guernica is less than clear. After the Hoover works on the CD comes the short Alta mar by Mario Carro, for soprano and cello (McGuinness and Lerner). The relevance of this song to Guernica is that the words are by a Spanish poet named Ernestina de Champourcin, who went into exile during the Spanish Civil War – but the connection is tenuous and seems tacked-on. The three remaining pieces on the disc are by David Garner. Two short ones are piano solos: Ricercar on Pablo Picasso, whose connection to Guernica is quite clear (although the way it is based on an encryption of letters from Picasso’s name is abstruse in the extreme); and Albeniz (from Garner’s Cinq Hommages), which is a pleasant-enough work but has no topical relevance at all. Garner’s longest piece on the CD is El alma y la memoria for soprano and piano (McGuinness and Tsang), a song cycle set to words by another poet displaced by the Spanish Civil War, Antonio Machado. Every work on this CD is well-crafted, sincere, and performed with sensitivity. But the fact remains that the disc, by insisting the music speak within a highly specific context, limits its own reach to people who feel a particular relationship with Guernica and have a special interest in art related to that village in a time of war.

     Even more rarefied and self-limited, despite its good intentions, is a New Focus Recordings CD featuring viola works by Iranian composers, performed by Kimia Hesabi either alone or in partnership with voice, a second instrument, or electronics. Although this CD could certainly be used to introduce contemporary Iranian music to new listeners, it is more realistic to feel that it is aimed at an audience already familiar with the Iranian diaspora and at least some of the composers represented here. The works certainly have an up-to-date sound, but the extent to which they are reflective of Iran, past or present, is unlikely to be generally clear to listeners. Songs and Whispers by Gity Razaz, written for Hesabi, tries to juxtapose typical modern string sounds – lots of harmonics, tremolos, etc. – with snippets of melody tied to Iran. Two works by Alireza Mashayekhi, Variant and Sonata for Viola and Piano, are of roughly the same length even though the first is in one movement and the second in three. Variant actually has some of the familiar sound of Western classical music. The sonata, in which Hesabi is joined by pianist Ying-Shan Su, seems more self-consciously avant-garde in technique – for instance, in a middle movement largely consisting of plucked and struck individual notes separated by silence, and a finale whose extensions of viola sounds seem designed to showcase ways in which the instrument can lose its usual warmth, while the piano pounds away atonally. Kamalto, a work by Showan Tavakol, features Hesabi with mezzo-soprano Lori Şen, and uses words by the poet Rumi in a cadence that does have an Iranian sound to it; but the viola’s skittering, irregular rhythms bear no clear relationship to those words. The solo-viola work Tombstone by Bahar Royaee is another piece that wants the viola to sound like something other than a viola: everything is extended range and modified technique, the sound often unpleasant – perhaps a reflection of the work being based on a poem about Death, but even if so, that is not something of which most audiences would be cognizant. Veiled by Niloufar Nourbakhsh is an extended piece for viola and electronics with a specific sociopolitical point to make: it is a reaction to a series of protests by Iranian women in 2017 against the compulsory hijab. Listeners who know of those events may find ways to connect the sounds heard here with the violence to which the protests led, but this is scarcely a general-interest piece. Hani and Sheh Mureed takes its title from 15th-century folklore: composer Mozhgan Chahian’s music is more textured and lyrical than most on this disc, as Chahian recounts and interprets a story of lovers separated for three decades by a corrupt ruler. How well the music reflects and underlines the material, however, will be clear only to those well-versed in the culture and history of Belochistan, from which the tale is taken. Hesabi’s sincere dedication to all this music is apparent in her finely nuanced playing, but the fact remains that this is very narrowly focused material that will be of interest only to a very small slice of any potential audience.

     The four Steven Ricks works on another New Focus Recordings CD are also blends of influences, although Ricks seeks to engage an audience by incorporating references to Baroque music – and some actual Baroque music – into pieces that in several cases include harpsichord. But make no mistake: this is very decidedly contemporary avant-garde material, from its odd titles of pieces and movements to its use of electronics as well as acoustic elements. Heavy with Sonata, which opens the disc, is for violin (Aubrey Woods), viola (Alex Woods), and harpsichord (Jason Hardink), and actually starts its first movement with the rhythm of a French overture, played on the harpsichord. But the harmony, instrumental combinations and techniques, and overall approach are very decidedly contemporary, as are the movement titles: “Plotting Our Next (Dance) Move,” “Sarah’s Gigabit Broadband,” and “I’ll Amend the Current Trend.” Actually, at least on one level, this is all pretty silly, subverting the sort-of-Baroque elements and the harpsichord sound itself by inviting listeners to hear material that was never used or intended to be used in this way. But of course that is often the point of some composers today: to take the past and stretch it beyond recognizability while supposedly paying homage to it. Ricks actually takes this even further in Reconstructing the Lost Improvisations of Aldo Pilestri (1683-1727), managing to incorporate a quotation from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons into a work filled with thoroughly modern pops and plucks and snaps and unusual instrumental juxtapositions: it is written for guitar and prepared guitar (Daniel Lippel), violin (Miranda Cuckson), viola (Jessica Meyer), cello (Caleb van der Swaagh), and bass clarinet (Benjamin Fingland). Actually, a number of elements of this piece are fun to hear simply as sound-world snippets, but at more than 14 minutes, the work – the longest on the disc – just does not sustain. Harpsichord is again part of the ensemble in Piece for Mixed Quartet, and again played by Hardink; the two-movement composition also includes violins (Gerald Elias and Hasse Borup) and cello (Walter Haman). This is a piece that never actually goes anywhere: this-and-that contrast with that-and-this, and there is even a tiny passage that genuinely sounds Baroque, but the main point here is setting the instruments in conflict with each other. The disc ends with an extended work for electronics, performed by Ricks himself, that is called Assemblage Chamber. It incorporates snippets of the snippets of material from other works on the CD, mixing them in the usual electronic way that so many contemporary composers favor. The main conclusion seems to be that the whole, as assembled in this piece, is less than the sum of its parts.

     If Ricks rather uneasily melds Baroque and modern sounds, while Hesabi plays pieces that (also rather uneasily) mix fairly familiar acoustic material with themes and rhythms drawn from Iranian history, there is at least no question about either the time period or geographic location of a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Martha Marchena. This disc is all about Brazil in the 1920s and 1930s, as perceived by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959). It is interesting to hear ways in which Villa-Lobos followed some of the same approaches as more-recent composers, doing so in a manner making a clearer connection between the works he was creating and those of earlier times. This is especially apparent in all nine of the Bachianas Brasileiras, which are Bach-inspired Brazilian pieces but not works that extensively incorporate Bach’s music or other Baroque elements. Some of them, including No. 4, do make reference to Baroque techniques: the second movement of No. 4 includes chorale-like textures typical of Bach. And sometimes Villa-Lobos draws on specific folk material from individual regions, developing it in his own way: that same second movement, and the third as well, are based on material from Brazil’s northeast. Marchena is quite comfortable performing the piano version of this Bachiana Brasileira, which is more often heard in its later orchestral guise. The concluding dance movement is not as colorful or exotic-sounding here as in the orchestral version, but Marchena handles the rhythms and ebullience well. She is in fact a considerable stylist in all the music on this disc. The CD opens with the Choros No. 5, which Villa-Lobos called Alma Brasileira, “Soul of Brazil.” Marchena plays it with warm expansiveness, then follows it with the very extended Rudepoêma (“Savage Poem”) that the composer dedicated to pianist Arthur Rubinstein. This is a complex, sprawling work whose 20-minute length can make it difficult to hold together – but Marchena succeeds admirably, intertwining the varying sections while making it clear that the many inherent contrasts of the movement are all part of a larger whole, a greater vision. After this, Marchena plays something much more modest, Valsa da Dor (“Waltz of Sorrow”), which comes across here as wistful and thoughtful rather than deeply sorrowful, much less tragic – this is no Sibelius Valse Triste, but a work with its own quiet mournfulness, which Marchena communicates very well. The CD concludes with the four-movement Ciclo Brasileiro (“Brazilian Cycle”), although it could certainly be argued that the disc itself, in its entirety, is a Brazilian cycle. In any case, this piece has some especially effective pianistic elements, such as the contrast between low and high key ranges in the opening Plantio do Caboclo (“Native Planting Song”) and the use of pedaling to accentuate rather than blur the rhythms of the third movement, Festo No Sertão (“Jungle Festival”). Marchena is thoroughly at home with the changing sounds and rhythms throughout this work, and indeed throughout the entire CD. Villa-Lobos’ piano music is not especially well-known, but it deserves more currency than it tends to receive, and Marchena makes an impressive case for all the pieces she presents on a disc that is also distinguished by being well-recorded to display the full and elegant tone of the specific instrument that the pianist uses here.

June 23, 2022


Red and Rover: Fun’s Never Over. By Brian Basset. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     Simple, charming, nostalgic, with a timeless quality in both its sensibilities and its art style, the endearing Red and Rover strip by Brian Basset is an antidote to pretty much everything harsh in modern life. Of course, matters were not as uncomplicated and delightful as the strip makes them out to be at the time in which it is apparently set. That would seem to be the 1960s, since Red takes Polaroid photos and he and Rover watch Star Trek on an old-fashioned TV with a rabbit-ears antenna on top. But those who remember the Sixties as being far from sedate are scarcely the audience for Basset’s strip, which takes place in an almost-real suburban world in which very little of consequence exists except for the titular boy and dog.

     In fact, this is almost entirely a two-character strip: in Fun’s Never Over, Red’s parents appear occasionally, his older (teenage) brother shows up once in a long while, and a couple of neighbor kids are in one brief sequence; but as a whole, this is about as boy-and-dog-focused  a strip as will be found anywhere. And that gives Basset plenty of time to explore all the ins and outs of a very special relationship, one that is frequently idealized because it is, on so many levels, ideal.

     Just when it seems that Basset cannot possibly come up with another adorable interaction between boy and dog, he comes up with one. There is the scene where Rover watches Red eating breakfast, eyeing the bacon hungrily – so Red creates a Lady and the Tramp moment by eating from one end of a bacon strip and letting Rover chomp from the other. There is the end-of-school-year scene, in which the three poses of the human-canine happy dance are perfectly balanced. There is Red’s failed attempt to spit a watermelon seed upward and then catch it in his mouth, leading Rover (who “speaks” to Red through thought balloons) to comment that Red is sure to grow out of doing stupid things, while Red – in something unusually close to a real-world observation – replies, “Not likely. Grown-ups lead the world in doing stupid things.”

     Basset’s simplicity in his drawings and stories is quite deliberate. He certainly could complicate matters if he chose to. In one strip, when Red’s croquet ball does not quite go through the wicket, Basset has Rover – inside a panel of his own – lift the entire panel in which Red and the ball appear, so the ball rolls where Red wanted it to go. The two-level drawing is perfect, and perfectly clever, and it further deepens the relationship between boy and dog – a success in and on multiple levels. Most of the time, though, Basset keeps matters much simpler than this. Red at one point shows off his new school shoes to Rover, who comments that the shoes are so shiny that they will stand out to the teacher, who may call on Red for questions Red cannot answer – so Red gives them to Rover for some wearing-in chewing. Elsewhere, Red asks Rover what dog Rover would spend a whole day with if he could pick any dog from any time period, real or fictional, and Rover, after thinking for a bit, replies, “My mother.” That somehow seems to be exactly what Rover would say (or think). And then there is the strip in which Red explains he had a super-strange dream the night before, because he was on the Moon – and when Rover asks what is so strange about that, Red replies, “You were back here on Earth.” That encapsulates the inseparable boy-dog bond in exactly the right way.

     There are occasional other outer-space strips in Fun’s Never Over, as befits its apparent time period. In one, for example, Red and Rover get into their cardboard-box spaceship for a voyage to Pluto – so both don Disney-style “Pluto” ears. But even in these strips, Basset repeatedly returns to the underlying theme of the unshakable bond between boy and dog. For instance, Rover asks Red whether, when humans colonize Mars, they will bring dogs with them; and Red, after thinking a bit, says he is not sure, but “I know I couldn’t live on a world, any world, that didn’t allow dogs.” And that is really the foundational message of Red and Rover: this world, our world, whatever its faults and flaws, is one in which humans and dogs coexist – to the enormous enrichment of both species, at least when people and canines treat each other with some level of the mutual admiration and adoration exhibited again and again throughout Basset’s comic strip.