June 29, 2023


Alone! By Barry Falls. Farshore. $8.99.

It’s Your World Now! By Barry Falls. Pavilion. $16.95.

     There is a reason that these two Barry Falls books have titles ending in exclamation points: there are so many emphatic things in them! And they have a theme in common: joining the world! Or refusing to join it: there is a kind of introvert’s delight about the young boy in Alone! He is happy, really happy, being left alone, “for Billy McGill liked to be on his own.” He accomplishes this by living high atop a tall, otherwise deserted hill: “‘This is my hill,’ said Billy McGill. ‘I live here alone! Always have, always will.’” But maybe not quite always, because it turns out that in the pursuit of aloneness, sometimes one must stop being alone.

     Billy is delighted with his isolation, which Falls neatly contrasts with the hustle and bustle of the town nearby. Billy likes to read, make himself small snacks, and generally avoid all the “toing-and-froing” going on elsewhere. The quiet is wonderful: “From morning to night,/ and all the year round,/ there was barely a whisper,/ and hardly a sound.” That is, until one day Billy hears a thoroughly unwanted scratching and squeaking and discovers, to his horror, that there is a mouse in the house! This is thoroughly unacceptable, so Billy overcomes his dislike of all the activity in the town beneath the hill, goes there, and gets a cat to chase the mouse away.

     You can probably guess where this is going; kids, for whom the book was written, can probably guess, too – but the fun is in how it is going where it’s got to go. And that “where,” in the fine tradition of Dr. Seuss (to whom Falls clearly owes a lot of his sensibilities), is in the direction of greater and greater complication of Billy’s formerly simple and stress-free life. It turns out that the cat does not drive the mouse away: the two think chasing is a great game, and soon Billy’s quiet life is even less quiet. What to do? Obviously, get a dog to chase the cat to chase the mouse…and that goes about as expected, which is to say “not well.” Now what? In one of the book’s funniest illustrations, we see Billy sneaking a bear, no less, out of the town’s zoo: Billy is perched on the bear’s back, disguised with a hat and mustache while he and the bear are both wearing an oversize coat. The idea is that the bear’s roars will scare away all the other intruders on Billy’s formerly pristine peace-and-quiet.

     The bear is tired after the trip up the hill, unfortunately, so everyone goes to sleep – and Billy’s attempt to use a tiger to scare the bear to scare the others is equally ineffective. So finally, inevitably, Billy turns to people for help. There is a veterinarian, who prescribes knitting the tiger a sweater from sheep’s wool, which requires Billy to obtain a sheep; and to shear the sheep, there is a hairdresser, who will help out if Billy watches his baby; so Billy agrees, but the red balloon he uses to keep the baby happy blows away, and – well, eventually Billy is roaring his displeasure in capital letters, but to no avail. So Billy storms out of his once-quiet house, a dark raincloud hovering over his head and dumping rain on him (he really is “storming”!), and eventually gets to “the far side of town” and “beyond through the valley and over the sea” to find another calm, quiet place to live. But the lost red balloon suddenly comes floating to this new place, and Billy just has to return it to the hairdresser’s crying baby, and one thing leads to another, and all the animals finally flee so that “Billy is happy/ and peace is restored.” But there has to be something learned from all this, doesn’t there? And so there is: in fine Seuss-influenced fashion, Billy discovers that unremitting chaos is still something he wants to avoid at all costs, but manageable chaos – in the form of once-a-week visits from friends both human and animal – makes rest-of-the-week quietness even more enjoyable.

     There are even stronger Seuss tie-ins in It’s Your World Now! Both this book’s plot line and the cadence of its rhymes are closely akin to those in Oh, the Places You’ll Go! And Falls paces his book in a thoroughly Seussian manner. The idea is that a child (actually a succession of children) can be found walking here and there with a parent (actually a succession of parents), being given a big, bright, positive introduction to Life with a capital L: “Oh yes, I’ve learned a trick or two/ and I can pass them on to you./ Three simple rules that you will find/ are useful things to bear in mind.” The first lesson is about all the wonderful sights, sounds and happenings with which the wide world is packed. But the second is the lesson that really echoes the 1990 Seuss book, which gently warned that life is not always and inevitably positive. The way Falls puts this is: “Things won’t always go your way./ You cannot always win the day./ You will not always be the best/ or finish first or ace the test.” In the most-telling illustration of the book, Falls shows giant dressed-for-corporate-work-in-black-and-grey men and women, so big that only their feet and the lower portions of their legs will fit on the page, pointing at a very small girl dressed in bright yellow, who looks up disconsolately while being told “no no no” and “don’t be pushy” and much more. People like that, the parental narrator warns, will try to force the child to behave and think in specific ways! But wait a minute, the narrator wonders: am I myself doing just that? “Do I believe, because I’m tall,/ my little one, I know it all?” It is best, the parent decides, to let the child find his or her own way, since “lessons that have worked for me/ may not apply to you, you see.” This is a surprisingly un-didactic bit of didacticism, highly effective in the context of this book, and wisely used as the second of three lessons – so there is room for a third, affirming parents’ love for children and urging kids to “go and play and live and learn./ It’s your world now. This is your turn.” Remember love, Falls concludes, and everything will fall into place. Except, of course, when it doesn’t – but knowing a parent’s love is there no matter what will make the inevitable reverses of life that much more bearable. That makes it sound as if there’s a ton of preachiness in It’s Your World Now! And, well, there is – but the sermon is so well-delivered and pleasantly illustrated that the book comes across as caring and thoroughly engaging, not demanding or hectoring in the slightest. Its message has elements of caution, true; but all in all, the book and its thoughts are just sweet enough to counterbalance any tinges of not-too-bitter setbacks.


Bach: St. John Passion. Thomas Cooley and Derek Chester, tenors; Paul Max Tipton, bass-baritone; Nola Richardson, soprano; Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, countertenor; Harrison Hintzsche, baritone; Cantata Collective conducted by Nicholas McGegan. AVIE. $27.99 (2 CDs).

Music from SEAMUS, Volume 32. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     In a sense, there is something ever-new about Bach, as interpretations of his works multiply and performers learn how his music sounded in his own day and how it was modified in later times. The St. John Passion manages to be new based purely on its own history: Bach wrote it in 1724 and then revised it in 1725, 1730 and 1749 – with the final revision usually heard today although it was never performed in Bach’s lifetime. Thus, the music was already on the verge of outliving its creator when Bach died in 1750. This earlier of the two surviving Passions by Bach was, like his other religious music, Lutheran in outlook, but has long since transcended its original purpose and even, through its sheer beauty and emotional drama, some of its religious significance. But the best modern performances – to which the new one on AVIE conducted by Nicholas McGegan can now be added – continue to treat the work as a deeply felt expression of faith that, despite its emotional intensity, employs formal elements expected by churchgoers of Bach’s time and thereafter. The Cantata Collective interpretation is historically aware and is sensitive both to Baroque expectations and to the music’s intended emotional impact. It follows the typical vocal assignations employed nowadays: a tenor for the demanding Evangelist part, which follows exactly the words of John chapters 18 and 19 in the Luther Bible; a bass or bass-baritone for Jesus; and with Pilate’s words and the bass arias given to another low voice (bass or, as here, baritone). The minor-key opening of the entire work immediately sets its somber tone, and the intensity of the narration never flags through the almost two hours of the Passion. The choruses are especially emotive in this new recording: O große Lieb, Dein Will gescheh, Ach großer König and In meines Herzens Grunde are highly affecting. The emotional underpinning of the arias also comes through with great sensitivity: Von den Stricken and Ach, mein Sinn in Part I, and Betrachte, meine Seel and Eilt, ihr angefochtnen in Part II are among the most richly involving. The well-sized chamber choir and well-balanced instrumental ensemble collaborate throughout with great sensitivity and engagement, and the overall experience of this exceptionally well-recorded live performance is one of attending a highly meaningful church service even if one does not happen to be a member of the particular denomination for which the music was created. The ability of Bach’s sacred music to transcend specificity of belief as well as the very extended time period since its creation is a source of enduring wonder – and is tied directly to performances as knowledgeable, elegant and self-assured as this one.

     It is highly unlikely that anything produced by SEAMUS, the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music of the United States, will ever reach a Bach-sized audience or have Bach-style staying power. But that is scarcely the point for the avant-garde composers who use SEAMUS as a membership society within which they can test and sometimes extend the limits of acoustic instruments, voices, and electronics of all sorts. The 32nd volume of SEAMUS creations, available on New Focus Recordings, offers seven pieces that fit quite comfortably into the SEAMUS universe and that are, by design, aimed by SEAMUS members at other SEAMUS members and perhaps a small “extended family” of sorts that finds productions and sounds of this sort congenial. All seven works on the CD feature electronics, of course, but only one – Eli Stone’s Where Water Meets Memory – is solely for electronics. Stone’s piece actually concludes the disc, mixing predictable watery sounds with various instrumental samplings to produce a sense of hearing music performed directly adjacent to, if not underneath, ocean waves. The disc opens with progressively smaller TVs (in a typical modern affectation, the first two words have no capital letters) by Kristopher Bendrick. This includes voice, flute, and piano in a sound world filled with gasps and partial words. Flowering Dandelions by Kyong Mee Choi has an interesting Bach connection, being a partial paraphrase of the Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014. But the connection with Bach is more intellectual than visceral or, for that matter, musical, although tiny Bach fragments do appear from time to time. Snared, Wired, Crashed by Adam Mirza centers on percussion and on the contrast between high volume and complete silence. Chimera’s Garden by Lisa Renée Coons uses an alto flute that is virtually unidentifiable amid the almost-understandable verbiage and frequent background sounds that constantly bleed into the foreground. Robert McClure’s bloom (another title without a capital letter) includes a piano that comments in bits and pieces on a kind of electronic haze that permeates the aural atmosphere. And Life is by Carolyn Borcherding employs a baritone saxophone to produce small sound nuggets based on a genuine musical instance (an ascending major seventh) that is repeated, transformed, developed and eventually subsumed within an electronic environment. None of these pieces would constitute “music” in Bach’s terms, and none is intended to evoke the sorts of connections and emotions that Bach consistently brought to his works. Instead, these SEAMUS creations explore sonic realms where music intersects other elements of sound and life in general, and where like-minded people can investigate some of the outer limits of aural productions and forms of communication.


Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 3; Alfred Schnittke: Suite in the Old Style; Schumann: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano; Amy Beach: Romance for Violin and Piano. Shea-Kim Duo (Brandan Shea, violin; Yerin Kim, piano). Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

Music for Unaccompanied Violin, inspired by contemporary and historical artwork. Dan Flanagan, violin. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     The wide range and considerable flexibility of the violin have made it a go-to instrument for composers for centuries: it allows, indeed encourages, a level of expressivity that creators of all sorts find highly attractive. The new Blue Griffin Recordings disc featuring the Shea-Kim Duo explores some of the differing ways in which composers have used the violin’s expressive potential – looking ahead from their own eras at some times, back toward earlier periods at others. The underlying concept here is that all four composers represented on the disc had ties of some sort to Vienna, but the Austrian connection is at best a thin thread with which to tie this repertoire together. Stylistic contrast is more likely to be what attracts listeners to this CD – that, plus the apparent ease and near-effortlessness with which Brendan Shea and Yerin Kim pick up on each other’s cues and themes to produce performances of unfailing attractiveness. Beethoven’s third violin-and-piano sonata (from his Op. 12 set) dates to 1798, as the composer was still developing elements of his later style. It is a largely genial work, pastoral in some ways, but includes some of the quick dips into drama that were to become a Beethoven hallmark. The gently flowing second movement does not quite have the composer’s suggested molta espressione here, but its sweet geniality is winning. And the bouncy brightness of the concluding Rondo is thoroughly pleasurable. The chronology of this CD is a trifle odd: Beethoven’s sonata is followed by Suite in the Old Style by Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) – a work that dates to 1972 and appears structured even more clearly in Baroque-ish form if one realizes that Schnittke created it for violin and either piano or harpsichord. The five short movements are harmonically more modern than Baroque, but their forms nicely tie together two very different musical eras. After a pleasant opening Pastorale, the ebullient second-movement Ballet and unexpectedly warm third-movement Minuet explore their respective moods to good effect. The upbeat fourth-movement Fugue and mostly quiet and delicate concluding Pantomime – especially the latter, with its elements of considerable dissonance – somewhat give the lie to the “old style” title of the work, but are certainly effective on their own terms. After this sort-of-old-style work, the CD continues with Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1, a late work (1851) that Schumann said he did not much like, so he wrote a second. Be that as it may, after the comparative lightness of the Schnittke, the Schumann comes on with warmth and mostly darker colors (the home key is A minor): Shea and Kim here thoroughly explore elements of the Romantic temperament. The considerable intensity of the first movement is nicely balanced by the intermezzo-like Allegretto, an odd little piece that is sort of a slow movement, sort of a scherzo, and in rondo form. The lively, Mendelssohn-like finale flows well in this performance, with the periodic exclamatory violin entries and piano chords giving it solemnity. And then the CD concludes with a pleasant Romance from 1893 by Amy Beach (1867-1944) – a warm, gently meandering little encore that partakes of Romanticism but has stripped away much of the angst so apparent in Schumann’s sonata. Like other eclectic collections, this one will be most congenial for listeners who happen to find the juxtaposition of these disparate works apt, and who can sit back and revel in the excellent playing even if the pieces’ sensibilities are not, in and of themselves, especially complementary.

     The unifying principle is very clear on an all-violin MSR Classics CD featuring Dan Flanagan: as the disc’s title says, these 14 world première recordings are all of solo-violin works that were inspired by art. The success rate of transferring representational art to non-representational musical form is debatable: even works such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Ravel’s Gaspard de le Nuit gain something when listeners know the art that inspired the music. This is true to an even greater extent when the painters are unlikely to be familiar to most listeners. The composers here, and the artists whose works they have interpreted in musical terms, are Nathaniel Stookey (Rachel Dwan), Jose Gonzalez Granero (Robert Antoine Pinchon), Shinji Eshima (Paul Gibson), Linda Marcel (Nina Fabunmi), Cindy Cox (Victoria Veedell), Evan Price (Sean O’Donnell), Libby Larsen (Nikki Vismara), James Stephenson (Armand Guillaumin), Jessica Mays (Albert Malet), Dan Flanagan (two pieces, one based on Joaquin Turner and one on Jean-François Raffaëlli), Trevor Weston (Albert-Marie Lebourg), Edmund Campion (Ludovic-Rodo Pissarro), and  Peter Josheff (Peter Canty). This extended series of solo-violin works – the disc runs a generous 79 minutes – is a lot to absorb in a single sitting, and listeners intrigued by the concept would be well-advised to sample the material a bit at a time, starting with any composer or painter with whom they may already be familiar. All the works are in the three-to-eight-minute range, their styles varying substantially from the warm and lyrical to the dissonant and disconnected – presumably reflecting their inspirations (mostly paintings, but one work is based on a sculpture and two on pastel drawings). An occasional piece sounds evocative in comparatively clear ways: Price’s Blue Swan features some “watery” flow, for example, and Larsen’s The Only Way Through Is Slow contrasts slow, repeated notes with sudden, quick ones (as if the music does indeed “get through” something in some sense). But the reality is that familiarity with the specific works of art that are here “portrayed” through music is a necessity for full enjoyment – indeed, full understanding – of the pieces that Flanagan performs. Certainly he handles all the music very adeptly, and certainly the pieces, collectively, call for a very wide variety of violin skills, which Flanagan obviously possesses. But this is, foundationally, a disc for a very limited audience, depending on listeners’ familiarity with a wide variety of very specific artistic creations – plus their interest in hearing extended solo-violin performances inspired by those works.

June 22, 2023

(++++) AAUGH!

Sometimes I Am Furious. By Timothy Knapman. Illustrated by Joe Berger. Penguin Workshop. $18.99.

     Charlie Brown’s famous Peanuts cry of frustration after his umpteenth unsuccessful attempt to kick a football held by Lucy, or his more-than-umpteenth attempt to lead his hapless baseball team to victory, was a trademark of sorts in Charles Schulz’ strip. And Charlie Brown was not alone: many characters yelled “aaugh!” when angry or frustrated – often with their mouths so wide-open that they became almost as big as their faces. The little girl protagonist of Timothy Knapman’s Sometimes I Am Furious does not emit that specific exclamation, but wow, does she look as if she is thinking it in Joe Berger’s illustrations! And somehow the furiousness is combined with adorableness, starting with a cover that perfectly illustrates the book’s title.

     The Peanuts gang never quite learned to overcome their everyday adversities – they would simply bear them and go on with life – but Sometimes I Am Furious is designed to teach early readers and pre-readers, ages 3-5, how to handle feelings so big that they seem overwhelming. In truth, it falls a bit short of that ambition: Knapman and Berger are much, much better at showing the little girl’s frustration, and the reasons for it, than showing how she can get past the big, bad feelings – only a single page says what she does: “I take deep breaths. I count to ten. I sing my happy song.” Learning how to do those things gets short shrift: all readers find out is that the girl’s Grandma teaches her what to do. So the book is more useful as a reflection of young children’s feelings than as a guide to getting past all those upsetting “aaugh!” moments.

     Sometimes I Am Furious also suffers from the virtue signaling that is increasingly common in books for children. For no particular reason, the little girl has a white father and black mother. This is statistically extremely improbable. In Great Britain, where the book was first published, blacks are 2.5% of the population, according to the Office for National Statistics. In the United States, blacks are 12.1% of the population, according to BlackDemographics.com, using U.S. Census Bureau data – and in both cases, the numbers include people of all ages. Among married black women in the U.S., 93% have a black husband and 4% have a white spouse. So the family dynamic presented here is very, very unlikely to represent the arrangement in the homes of most readers. There is nothing wrong with this at all: nobody says that books can or should show only families resembling those of the children at whom the books are targeted. However, in books for very young kids, especially ones intended to provide teachable moments, anything that distracts young readers (or even-younger children, to whom the books are read) risks getting in the way of the lessons that the books are intended to teach. The family structure here is highly unusual and may be irrelevant – but parents who are interested in the book should be prepared to answer questions about it, and to try to redirect young children’s attention to the coping-with-big-feelings message that is the stated main point of the book.

     The very best parts of Sometimes I Am Furious are ones that parents will likely recognize immediately and that will probably be familiar to young children as well. There is the frustration of a smaller ice-cream cone than others have, or one that falls on the ground; the anger at playmates who take over all the toys; the upset at juice spilled on a plate of cookies; and more. A wonderful two-page spread explores half a dozen sources of extreme irritation, from non-fitting clothes to an unplayable recorder (which the little girl is blowing into from the wrong end). The exclamations here are wonderfully expressed and beautifully illustrated: “I don’t want THIS! It’s just NO GOOD! It won’t do things I think it SHOULD!” Knapman and Berger are at their best on these and the other pages showing all the trials and tribulations of everyday life – and those showing adults cowering when the little girl has one of her very vociferous meltdowns. The family context and the comparatively short shrift given to solutions to the “aaugh!” problems are not as helpful as they could be, but adults willing to think through the situations and supplement the book with their own loving support of unhappy children will find Sometimes I Am Furious a wonderful jumping-off point for real-world teachable moments.