September 29, 2022


Mutts: Walking Home. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     The love between dogs and humans, and the very different but related love between cats and humans, are pearls of great price – so great that they cannot be valued in financial terms. Whether people find strays (or the strays find them), or seek out costly special-breed companions, there is simply no way to place a financial value on what “fur babies” (the currently fashionable term) bring to the lives of those whose homes they share. One of the best things about Patrick McDonnell’s ever-lovely, ever-loving Mutts comic strip is the subtlety with which he constantly reinforces this point: that human-canine and human-feline relationships must be valued in currency far beyond what can be spent in more-mundane transactions.

     Even the cover of the latest Mutts collection, Walking Home, makes this point. It simply shows Earl the dog running along a woodland path in autumn – he is eager, with all four legs off the ground – as his human, Ozzie, meanders behind him, hands in pockets. Earl’s tail is very visibly wagging, and the connection between him and Ozzie is made all the stronger by the absence of any sort of leash or lead. The back cover expands the scene to include Mooch the cat, but the point of connection is made with the front cover alone: this sentimental scene is what these relationships, and this comic strip, are all about.

     Of course, as always, the cast of characters within the book extends beyond Earl, Mooch and Ozzie; McDonnell does not need to make exactly the same point repeatedly, although he does return to it again and again. He also returns to recurring themes that have, over the years (ever since Mutts started in 1994), become integral elements of McDonnell’s whole animal/human world. There is Mooch as “the mighty shphinx,” filled with bad advice and malapropisms. There are the Valentine’s Day poems reflecting various characters’ personalities. There is Mooch’s preoccupied play time with his “little pink sock.” There is the “Mutts Book Club,” in which Mooch talks about books (or at least their titles) with other characters, most often the squirrels, Bip and Bop: “Today’s book is ‘Thinner,’” says Mooch. The response: “It must’ve had its appendix removed.”

     And then there are the strips that reach out philosophically, such as the single-panel one featuring this quotation from Jules Verne: “I believe cats to be spirits come to earth. A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.” And McDonnell simply shows Mooch strolling along a cloud top. In Walking Home, the philosophical element of the strip becomes exceptionally significant, since there is a remarkable sequence in which the longstanding “Fatty Snax Deli” is transformed into an entirely-plant-based food shop after owner Butch stares into the eyes of the animals at a farm sanctuary. The very extended sequence, which shades into the animal advocacy for which Mutts is well-known (and which, admittedly, McDonnell does sometimes overdo), ends with a quotation from Albert Einstein: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” Yes, this is very preachy, and yes, it is a bit much, and yes, it removes one of the few sources of conflict in the strip – Earl and Mooch have been longstanding would-be customers who have always gotten on Butch’s nerves, but now everyone is on the same page. Yet when it comes to animal advocacy, the usual conflicts inherent in comic strips – heck, even the unusual ones – take a back seat to McDonnell’s firm beliefs and his determination to use Mutts to further them. Of course that means Walking Home contains “Shelter Stories,” advocating adoption, as well as an extended cartoon tribute to Jane Goodall, whom McDonnell reveres and often mentions. Also present in the book are numerous instances in which McDonnell shows his familiarity with long-ago comic strips (Popeye and Olive Oyl feature prominently in one sequence) and his knowledge of fine art (Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” for example).

     So Mutts is a richly textured strip, and one whose value is determinable, at least in terms of the price of book collections such as Walking Home. Its underlying themes, however, really cannot be valued in any financial sense. Indeed, a single-panel offering in the latest collection, containing a mere four words, sums up what the entire strip is about, and encapsulates its foundational non-monetary value. The panel shows Ozzie and Earl side by side on a beach as the sun sets over calm water, and the caption simply states, “Dogs make people human.”


The Best 388 Colleges, 2023. By Robert Franek with David Soto, Stephen Koch, Aaron Riccio, Laura Rose, and the staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $24.99.

     The reliability is what is striking. Most families will use only a single edition of Princeton Review’s thick annual presentation of “best” colleges, or at most one edition per college-bound child; but year after year, decade after decade (three of those so far), these books retain a similarity of approach and style that keeps them useful through all sorts of societal ups and downs, all types of educational arguments and disputes, all forms of decision-making for parents and students alike.

     The number of “best” colleges keeps changing – the 2023 book includes 388, up one from 2022, which was up one from 2021, which was up one from 2020 – but the underlying, data-and-student-commentary approach remains consistent. So does the fact that these books analyze, discuss and present only about 7% of the 5,000-plus schools of higher education in the United States. So the whole notion of “best” becomes a matter of opinion – and a crucial one when it comes to student and family decision-making.

     Arguably, there is no “best” college for any student; there are multiple ones where a given student will do quite well. Also arguably, the weighting of these Princeton Review books toward high-end, familiar-name schools, although certainly not overdone, does a disservice to already-stressed students and families who would benefit from knowing that there are perfectly good schools out there that accept 99% to 100% of applicants (a recent U.S. News analysis found 31 with 100% acceptance rates and 20 more at 99%).

     Yet these “best college” volumes do a first-rate job, within their inherent limitations, of helping narrow down searches for people who agree with the selection of these 388 (this year) schools in the first place. Much of the most-helpful material here lies in the lists. For example, The Best 388 Colleges, 2023 includes “great schools” for 21 specific majors – and the lists are compiled with the care and thoughtfulness underlying all the data collection and presentation in these books: “We ask colleges to report not only which undergraduate majors they offer, but also which of their majors have the highest enrollment and the number of bachelor’s degrees each school awarded in those areas.  …We also conduct our own research on college majors.” So student s who already know they want to focus on accounting, biology, engineering, environmental studies, marketing, political science or the other majors among these 21 can and should start with these lists and then turn to pages detailing specific colleges of possible interest.

     How to narrow down the possibilities further, or to start the process for people who are not yet certain what major interests them? One way may be by location: the book includes a state-by-state list of colleges. A few states have only one college appearing in the “best” list – Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, North Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming – but here the book offers a supplementary list that goes beyond those single-college states, in the form of 274 additional colleges (not appearing in the main portion of the book) “that we consider academically outstanding and well worth consideration” – and those are arranged by region as well as by individual state. So the “388” number of this year’s title is not an absolute, and neither is the state-by-state list.

     The book provides many ways to parse the data it presents. One interesting possibility is to search by tuition. That may be an unusual starting point, but it is an extremely helpful one as the cost of attending college continues to rise. There is a more-than-three-page list based on “tuition and required fees” but not including “room, board, transportation, or other expenses,” and it includes categories ranging from no tuition charge at all (nine schools) to tuition costs higher than $60,000/year. That is a huge and daunting range and a potentially excellent starting point for students and families concerned about mounting debt. To be sure, the listing does not and cannot account for political machinations on this topic: a recent decision to forgive $10,000 to $20,000 of debt for students who already finished college offered nothing to those who saved, worked and made sacrifices to pay off their debt – and nothing to those not yet attending college and needing to take on debt to do so. But just as the COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges in using these books for the last two years, so the unsettled financial landscape creates some new ones for the 2023 edition.

     The Best 388 Colleges, 2023 cannot take all the guesswork and pressure out of a college search; nothing, no one, can do that. But like its predecessor volumes, this latest one is an excellent starting point for students and families trying to get a handle on what sorts of schools are out there, how their current and former students feel about them, what their academic and extracurricular circumstances are like, what financial requirements they have, and more. There are many, many fine colleges that are not counted in these 388 (or these 388 + 274 additional ones); but certainly this book is a first-rate starting point for understanding the expectations of the colleges that it does include. It offers a cogent and reasonably objective, data-driven approach to deciding whether these 388 “best” colleges include one – or several – that have the potential to be “best” for any particular student.


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. “0”-7; Rondo in B-flat, WoO 6. Michael Korstick, piano; ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constantin Trinks. CPO. $33.99 (4 CDs).

     The canonic Beethoven Five Piano Concertos are, it seems, less and less likely to be deemed a complete set nowadays. The composer’s own adaptation of the Violin Concerto, with its fascinating timpani-accompanied first-movement cadenza, has moved from being a curiosity into a much more mainstream work. The original B-flat rondo written for what is now known as Concerto No. 2 (the first of the “canonic” group to be written, but the second to be published) turns up with increasing frequency. The 1784 concerto in E-flat has been given the number “0” and is accepted with that designation in much the same way that Bruckner’s Symphony No. “0” has gained widespread acknowledgment. And Beethoven’s last foray into the piano-concerto realm, a substantial (70-page) but incomplete fragment in D that was first recorded by Sophie-Mayuko Vetter on a fortepiano after being rendered performable through the efforts of Nicholas Cook and Hermann Dechant, serves as a fascinating what-might-have-been exploration of Beethoven’s pianistic thinking after the “Emperor” concerto. (For that matter, the solo-piano and piano-and-orchestra elements of the Triple Concerto and Choral Fantasy represent yet more in this realm.)

     The increasing acceptance of Beethoven as the composer of more than five piano concertos has, unsurprisingly, produced a certain level of dispute and confusion about everything from the choice of keyboard instrument to the numbering of the non-canonic concerto material. For a new four-CD CPO release, Michael Korstick and Constantin Trinks follow Carl Czerny in referring to the arrangement of the Violin Concerto as “Piano Concerto No. 7,” a designation that might seem reasonable if it were not for the fact that Czerny called the Triple Concerto No. 4 among the piano concertos – so the G major concerto invariably referred to as No. 4 became, for Czerny, No. 5, and the “Emperor” was labeled No. 6. The Kostick/Trinks recording rather confusingly retains the “No. 7” designation for the violin-concerto arrangement and uses “No. 6” to refer to the D major fragment from 1815 – in that respect following the Vetter recording’s numbering for the fragment, except that Vetter’s CD (on the Oehms label) did not include the violin-concerto arrangement and could therefore dodge the whole “what number is it?” issue.

     Korstick plays the entirety of his cycle on a modern grand piano, a historically inaccurate decision that nevertheless represents by far the most common approach to the Beethoven piano-and-orchestra output. Korstick has clearly thought carefully about the best way to handle the varying approaches and moods of these works – in fact, he has made revisions of his own to the D major fragment to make it, in his estimation, more playable and more in line with what Beethoven might have done if he had finished the concerto (or even the single movement). Everything Korstick does is pianistically sound, and the 1815 fragment contains a number of intriguing elements – although they would probably not have survived in this form if Beethoven had finished the piece, just as the few sketches of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 10 would almost certainly not have remained in their existing form if the work had been completed.

     Korstick and Trinks present all the concertos intelligently. The first three discs are given over to the “canonic five” and the arrangement of the Violin Concerto – which is placed between Nos. 4 and 5, where it belongs based on its opus number and date of composition. The fourth disc functions as a sort of appendix, including the 1784 concerto, the B-flat Rondo WoO 6, and the 1815 fragment. This is a reasonable approach to the expanded canon and provides a fine opportunity to engage with the music chronologically while also exploring the less-often-heard “byways” traveled by Beethoven in this instrumental combination. The performances themselves are uniformly well-done and carefully considered: Korstick is a thoughtful pianist, and Trinks and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra provide him with clear, well-balanced support throughout. Korstick does not hesitate to put his own imprimatur on the less-often-heard works in the set: he had Hermann Dechant, the same musicologist who helped create a playable version of the 1815 fragment, produce a new orchestration for Concerto No. “0,” which was originally orchestrated by Willy Hess – Beethoven’s orchestral parts have not survived. Dechant’s orchestration is more forward-looking than the one by Hess, notably by its inclusion of bassoons throughout in addition to the flutes and horns that would be typical for the time – and the use of trumpets and timpani in the finale. The result is somewhat grander than really fits a work by the 14-year-old Beethoven – although the unusual difficulty of the piano part, which Beethoven probably created to showcase his own performance capabilities, does seem to invite a degree of surface-level gloss.

     There are many very fine recordings of the Beethoven piano concertos, most usually sticking to the five-concerto group, but an increasing number including at least some ancillary piano-and-orchestra material. The Korstick/Trinks release does not offer historically informed performances, although Korstick is careful not to over-romanticize his readings. Taken as a whole, this is a well-paced, well-thought-out set that handles the canonic concertos with skill and sensitivity and offers the opportunity to expand one’s knowledge and enjoyment of Beethoven’s piano-and-orchestra music by including additional items that are less often heard, even if no longer entirely obscure.


Walton: Façade; Façade 2; Façade—Additional Numbers. Hila Plitmann, Fred Child, and Kevin Deas, narrators; Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $13.99.

Rodney Lister: Faith-Based Initiatives; Complicated Grief; Friendly Fire. Chiara Quartet; Jonah Sirota, viola; Charles Blandy, tenor, with Collage New Music conducted by David Hoose. Métier. $18.99.

Robert Saxton: A Hymn to the Thames; Fantasy Pieces; Suite for Violin and Piano; Time and the Seasons. James Turnbull, oboe, with St. Paul’s Sinfonia conducted by Andrew Morley; Fidelio Trio; Madeline Mitchell, violin, with Clare Hammond, piano; Roderick Williams, baritone, with Andrew West, piano. Métier. $18.99.

Mikel Kuehn: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; Chimera; Entanglements; Colored Shadows [Hyperresonance IV]; Double Labyrinth; Table Talk; Rite of Passage [Hyperresonance V]. Deborah Norin-Kuehn, soprano, with Mikel Kuehn, electronics; Conor Nelson, flute, with Thomas Rosenkranz, piano; Daniel Lippel, guitar, with Nuiko Wadden, harp; Doyle Armbrust, viola, with Mikel Kuehn, electronics; Kenneth J. Cox, flute, with Henrique Batista, marimba; Yu-Fang Chen, violin, with Mei-Chun Chen, viola; Marianne Gythfeldt, bass clarinet, with Mikel Kuehn, electronics. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The phrase “genre bending” is a common way to describe art, literature or music that more-or-less fits into a certain type, format or approach, but stretches that area so it is less recognizable or, in some cases, barely recognizable at all. But genre blending goes beyond that: it deliberately meshes or merges elements of more than one kind, in the process creating something new and often indescribable. At its best, genre blending, even if it is very much of the specific time when it was done, persists for many years thereafter and produces something that never quite fits anywhere – certainly not into the genres of which it is composed. And that is the case with Walton’s Façade, a very early work by the composer (he was just 18 when he began to write it) that he never came close to trying again (or wanting to try again). And it is not really Walton’s work alone: it blends the genres of chamber music (of a particularly witty kind associated with the years after World War I) and wordplay-focused, surrealistic poetry by Edith Sitwell (of a kind that fit neatly into the Dada art movement). Façade is very much a work of its time, and it is also one that has very much transcended its time – and nobody quite knows what to make of it, except that it is absurd (or absurdist) and incomprehensible (existing just on the edge of comprehensibility) and silly and funny and impossible to understand (nor is it designed for understanding). It is unique, one of a kind, and quite impossible to categorize. But it is not impossible to perform with aplomb, and that is what the forces under JoAnn Falletta do on a new Naxos recording that bears the somewhat surprising title, “The Complete Façades.” There is a reason for this: in addition to the 1922 Façade as it is generally known – itself the product of multiple rethinkings and revisions – there is a 1978-1979 addendum of sorts called Façade 2, also built around Sitwell’s poetry and containing eight additional tiny movements. And then there are four discarded-or-not-used pieces from 1922 and 1977, collected here as Façade—Additional Numbers. And it is all quite marvelous, incomparably silly and strange, and very decidedly not material fitting into any single genre. Harmonically and within the poetry, Façade is certainly a work of its era and its country of origin, replete with references to King James and Alfred, Lord Tennyson; but a century later, its specificity has become part of its general, generic, genial wordplay. And that is the spirit in which the three narrators working with Falletta perform the work. Façade was not intended for three narrators but for one: Sitwell herself was a superb reader of her poetry, and a few later performers, such as Vera Zorina, put their very different personal stamp on the work. But Falletta thinks she hears three different narrative voices in the poetry, and accordingly has three performers deliver the lines. This is not an entirely successful approach: it is much easier to follow the cadences and oddities of Sitwell’s poems and stories by adjusting to the way a single voice recites them; and the whole point of the narrative is to depersonalize the reading – that is, not to “act out” anything – by speaking straightforwardly while saying words that are anything but straightforward. Hila Plitmann, Fred Child, and Kevin Deas sometimes try a bit too hard to do something with the verbiage, when all they need to do is let it flow and bathe the audience in its cadences. Still, the basic delivery by all three narrators is fine, and the accompaniment by Falletta and the Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players is perpetually pithy and pointed and pleasant. The result is not a façade but a Façade (or several of them) offering considerable pleasure.

     Very few instances of genre blending come anywhere close to the success of Façade, but that has scarcely stopped composers from continuing to try to mix-and-match. New (+++) Métier releases of music by Rodney Lister and Robert Saxton both contain attempts at blends. Friendly Fire, the most-extended work on the Lister disc, is as much of our time as Façade was of its era, but it is mired too strongly in modernity to be likely to appeal beyond a limited audience: the narration is largely declamation, it includes the usual Sprechstimme of 20th- and 21st-century vocal works, and the instrumental ensemble accompanies the narrative with a strong emphasis on the percussive quality of all the instruments, whether or not they are percussion. The overall message of Friendly Fire is a thoroughly straightforward antiwar one, utilizing poems by Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Brian Turner, John Ciardi and others to explore wars – multiple wars – and emphasize that they all involve killing and that all the deaths, on any side, are of human beings. The message is unexceptionable and unexceptional, and the same may be said of the music: it is non-illustrative, existing side-by-side with the words rather than complementing them, and does not really combine the medium of poetry very effectively with that of music. The other two works on the disc are instrumental and, all in all, more effective. Faith-Based Initiative, which is largely tonal and somewhat reminiscent of Ives, is a single movement that effectively puts across a sense of darkness (if not despair), warmth, and a kind of underlying hope: it is the most-compelling piece on the CD. Complicated Grief is a three-movement solo-viola work that has many individually effective moments, but does not sustain its moods or communication through its entire 24-minute length. It too is somewhat reminiscent of works by Ives, but where Ives tended to be emotionally compressed, Lister is expansive to the point, almost, of bloat. The disc does show him to communicate more movingly through instruments alone than through this particular attempt to blend the poetic and chamber-music genres.

     The Saxton CD also includes both vocal and instrumental material. Time and the Seasons is a seven-song cycle for baritone and piano that uses Saxton’s own texts and tries to combine the notion of cyclicality (inherent in examining seasonal change) with that of progression (since the next time a particular season occurs, it is a different year). The words tend to be over-earnest in the cycle, and delivered in a not-quite-singing style that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has heard contemporary classical vocals. The piano contribution is often significant for scene-setting, if not for expansion or elucidation of the emotions evoked by the texts – indeed, in portions of Time and the Seasons, it is the piano rather than the voice that dominates, making for an unusual structure of parts of the cycle. This is not enough, though, to result in a truly effective combinatorial attempt: the words, in particular, want to be more important than they are. Like Lister, Saxton comes across better in his instrumental works, at least those on this disc. A Hymn to the Thames is moody, expressive, evocative both of the river and of its surroundings, and contains some especially well-thought-out woodwind parts; this is the most-involving piece on the disc. Fantasy Pieces is a set of six movements for violin, cello and piano, and although it is well-crafted and does a good job of balancing the three instruments while allowing each some leadership time, it is more a grouping of character pieces (of varying effectiveness) than a fully coherent single work. This may be by design: Saxton’s work was inspired by Schumann’s 1842 set of fantasy pieces for piano trio. But on its own, Saxton’s piece is musically rather thin. Its most interesting element is the strong contrast between the very slow underlying pace of the fifth piece and the assertive nature of the sixth. There is more coherence to the five-movement Suite for Violin and Piano, whose movements bear titles that do not really reflect their content but whose music explores the capabilities of the two instruments, both singly and together, in a way that gives an overall feeling of unity that respects their inherent differences. This is clearest in the fourth movement, “Bells of Memory,” where low piano passages and high violin notes intermingle to good effect. The one work on the disc that mixes vocal and instrumental material lies firmly within the song-cycle genre, except insofar as it tries to pull the texts along to greater meaning than they inherently possess. But as a whole, the instrumental pieces here make their varying communicative points to better effect.

     Yet another contemporary-music CD combining voice-and-instrument material with non-vocal works features music by Mikel Kuehn. The difference in this (+++) New Focus Recordings release is that the “instrumental” accompaniment in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird is not acoustic but electronic. The piece, unfortunately, sounds almost like a parody of contemporary music, the vocal sections swooping up and down, the words used as sound patterns rather than for expression or understandability, and the electronics creating a sonic backdrop that sounds very much like the sonic backdrops for many other examples of electronic music. There is simply nothing special about the design or sound of the piece. The remaining works lack vocal components and offer at least intermittently interesting combinations of instruments or instruments plus electronics. Kuehn is at his most successful when showing his ability to create music for very different combinatorial elements. Thus, Chimera, for flute and piano, often has the keyboard producing flutelike runs and exclamations. Entanglements, for guitar and harp, intriguingly combines the very different types of strings and forms of playing of the two instruments, producing a number of unexpected sound palettes; this is the most creatively conceived and scored work on the disc. Colored Shadows, for viola and electronics, is, on the other hand, rather ordinary in the way it juxtaposes the viola – rendered screechy rather than warm – with unsurprising electronic elements. Double Labyrinth, for flute and marimba, does not explore the multiplicity of contrasting effects of these two very different instruments as interestingly as it might; indeed, the performers seem mostly independent of each other, and accordingly the work sounds disconnected. On the other hand, Table Talk, for violin and viola, places the two stringed instruments firmly in the same place, but does not do anything particularly interesting or unexpected with either of them, or with the combination of the two. And Rite of Passage, for bass clarinet and electronics, although it does explore the wind instrument’s deeper range, again uses electronic effects that add little to the overall sound picture. Kuehn manages to evoke some engaging effects in some of these pieces, but none of them contains enough ideas or a sufficient amount of exploratory material to be fully convincing – although Entanglements, thanks to its unusual and unusually well-explored instrumental combination, comes closest to giving the audience a fully satisfying experience, if scarcely one that goes beyond the tried-and-true contemporary-chamber-music genre.