August 31, 2023

(+++) POW! (SORT OF)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem—The Making of a Ninja! Adapted by Nicole Johnson. Illustrated by Patrick Spaziante. Random House. $5.99.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem—Official Activity Book. Random House. $7.99.

     It helps to remember that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were created as a joke – specifically a parody of superhero comics of the 1980s (X-Men, Daredevil and the like), right down to the details of the TMNT world (Daredevil had a sensei named Stick, so the mutant turts got one named Splinter). Forty years later, the TMNT world has expanded in every sort of direction and spawned (so to speak) innumerable movies, books, forms of merchandise (lots of merchandise), TV shows, even a live-action stage musical. Most real-world turtles may be a tad slow, but the TMNT franchise shows no sign of slowing down, having recently spawned (again, so to speak) yet another movie, this one called Mutant Mayhem.

     It helps to remember that TMNT-style mayhem is decidedly on the mild side, very comic-bookish, filled with noise and old-fashioned superhero poses and lots of grrrring and arrrgghhhing but lacking any actual, you know, damage to characters. Mutant Mayhem, in fact, turns on the idea that the TMNT team really wants to team up with other mutants after convincing those characters that it’s better to be good than, you know, bad.

     Throw in the TMNT’s love and almost perpetual consumption of pizza, and their names taken from Italian Renaissance artists, and you have a recipe not only for films (both animated and live-action) but also for books based on the films – with the latest being Mutant Mayhem tie-ins. For young children just being drawn into the TMNT universe, a good starting point (and good reminder of the latest movie) is The Making of a Ninja! A thin, easy-to-read paperback, the book introduces the four turts individually and discusses the differences among their personalities (something not always evident in the TMNT universe). It never quite explains those weird masks tied on with ribbons that trail behind the turts’ heads and do nothing to conceal their identities (as if that mattered), nor does it explain just how each TMNT was assigned a specific color of costume elements (blue for Leonardo, red for Raphael, orange for Michelangelo, purple for Donatello). But the book shows the colors and the turts wearing them, tells what special abilities each of them brings to the group, discusses their weapons, introduces Splinter and TMNT friend April O’Neil, and manages to toss in enough of the plot of Mutant Mayhem so kids who have seen the movie will be enjoyably reminded of it.

     Kids who want to immerse themselves further in the latest iteration of the TMNT world through some mildly involving at-home activities will enjoy the Official Activity Book tied into the most-recent movie. There are find-the-word puzzles, draw-the-characters pages (divided into grids for ease of copying each character bit by bit), a connect-the-dots-into-boxes game focused on pizza slices, an unscramble-the-letters page about the turts’ weapons, and two full pages of stickers – which can be placed in a two-page spread of blank comic panels, to which kids can then add narrative or dialogue of their own. There are letter-substitution games, a pizza-slice-shaped maze, and some pages that contain no activities but are simply illustrations of various characters from Mutant Mayhem. The whole book is pleasant, mostly on the silly side, and certainly not to be taken seriously – making it a fine companion to the latest TMNT movie and to the entire long-running TMNT franchise.


Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Rückert-Lieder; Kindertotenlieder. Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano. Signum Classics. $17.99.

David Biedenbender: Shell and Wing; Red Vesper; all we are given we cannot hold; Solstice. Lindsay Kesselman, soprano; Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble; Garth Newel Piano Quartet with Mingzhe Wang, clarinet; Haven Trio. Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

     Among the many things that Haydn famously got right were the silences. Although we think of notes, of sound, when we think of music, those notes are never continuous, not even in the most-intense perpetuum mobile. Just as films are not continuous patterns of light and sound but intermittent ones that change too quickly for our eyes and brains to perceive the invisible interstices, music is a sound sequence punctuated constantly by lack of sound. The great composers instinctively – and sometimes deliberately – use the silences as well as the audible notes to shape their music. Mahler was a particularly acute practitioner of this aspect of composition: known for his grand climaxes, huge orchestras and massed choruses, he was often at his most impressive when using the orchestra as a kind of expanded chamber group and – within his very carefully balanced sectional writing – employing silence so effectively as to make it coequal with sound. The best Mahler interpretations shape the silence as well as the notes – again, sometimes instinctively and sometimes deliberately. Certainly Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton expertly balance sound and silence on a new Signum Classics release featuring three Mahler song cycles in their voice-and-piano versions. Normally heard as voice-and-orchestra works, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Rückert-Lieder and Kindertotenlieder are surprisingly effective in this form – in some ways even more effective than in orchestral guise, just as black-and-white photos can sometimes reveal details and balances that are harder to see and interpret in their splashier color versions. A great deal of the excellence of this recording is the result of the exceptional quality of the collaboration of these artists. Connolly has a rich, warm, expressive voice that is ideally suited to the general darkness, sometimes bordering on despair, that permeates these cycles. And Middleton is a truly exceptional accompanist, indulging not only in partnership with Connolly but also in his own highly meaningful interpretations of piano sections in which the voice is absent – as in the quiet endings of several of the songs, when the piano’s descent into eventual silence is a commentary on and buttress for the emotions communicated by the voice. Kindertotenlieder, that dark but somehow hopeful five-song cycle delving into abyssal grief, fares perhaps the best of these three groupings in this reading: Connolly dwells on just the right words, contrasting and balancing the emotions to perfection, while Middleton apparently effortlessly underlines the foundational sorrow of the music even as he picks out salient points of light that struggle, throughout the cycle, to illuminate themselves. The excellence of performance also pervades the five Rückert-Lieder, most emphatically so in the two longest songs, the dour Um Mitternacht and the thoughtful and thought-provoking Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. As for Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, it too gets a distinguished reading here, although in this four-song cycle the orchestral version really is preferable – if only because it is hard not to hear the way Mahler later used some of the song settings in symphonic guise. Besides, the relentlessly upbeat first portion of Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld benefits from more instrumental brightness than a pianist, even one as skilled as Middleton, can provide. Be that as it may, the sensitivity and care with which Connolly and Middleton present all these songs are remarkable, and their sure understanding of the way the music rises from silence and returns to it – sometimes repeatedly – results in a recording that is deeply meaningful and moving from start to finish.

     Mahler tended to write or rewrite the words he set to music – he wrote all of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – but he did use others’ poetry as a starting point, with Friedrich Rückert the source of the other material on the Connolly/Middleton disc. Contemporary composer David Biedenbender (born 1984) has a favorite poet of his own: Robert Fanning (born 1970), whose words are the source for two of the four works on a new recording from Blue Griffin. Shell and Wing (2018), a two-poem set, is essentially a sociopolitical work about the difficulty of raising children in a violent world. It in no way compares to Kindertotenlieder either in expressivity or in the intensity of its feelings, but is effective as a 21st-century attempt to grapple with threats to children that are modern rather than those of earlier, pre-antibiotic times. Biedenbender’s work’s concept involves a parental voice followed by a child’s, and the composer engages in some deliberate recollections and stretchings of Schumann that are less than transparent. Shell tries rather too hard to show intense parental concern while using a modern musical idiom; Wing, which initially is quiet and almost glassy in sound, conveys something of the evanescence of childhood before the voice enters about two minutes in – after which the declamatory delivery of the words becomes anything but childlike and seems somewhat forced. The other Fanning-based work here is all we are given we cannot hold (2022), which uses the affectation of a title with no capital letters. It is a seven-song cycle that runs almost half an hour and focuses on small quotidian events that Biedenbender sees as crucial to remember when raising children. The art-song elements are less pronounced here than in Shell and Wing, making this cycle more accessible despite turns of phrase that are scarcely the stuff of most people’s everyday lives, thoughts or conversations. The topics are wide-ranging and not what listeners will necessarily expect in a work with this intent: One and a Half Miles Away from Dying, for example. There is at times an uneasiness bordering on discordance in the contrast between the verbiage and its instrumental support. Ultimately, the cycle has some touching moments and some trenchant ones, but as a whole it is not entirely convincing – and the persistence of a single style of vocal delivery makes it seem even longer than it is. The personal elements affecting Biedenbender’s life actually come through more effectively in Red Vesper (2014), a brief instrumental work (heard here on clarinet, violin, cello and piano) that gets the silences and near-silences right in its first portion (as does the song Wing) and that later becomes, if not exactly prayerful, more emotionally involving as its volume increases and the instruments sound as if they are seeking something of greater meaning and higher value – within a thoroughly modern set of rhythms and dissonances. The other instrumental piece on this disc, Solstice (2018), is an interesting calibration of the four seasons, starting with Summer. This first movement is only mildly successful in paying homage to insect sounds – they are less grating than Biedenbender makes them out to be – but Autumn is an interesting mixture of discordant recollections with anticipatory frigidity that is well-communicated in the upper ranges of the piano. This movement fades gradually into oblivion – another example of well-thought-out use of silence. Winter is filled with stasis, in some ways a modern update of Vivaldi’s handling of the season – and the piece is also a recollection of and commentary on Ives’ The Unanswered Question, yet another work whose final fadeaway shows the importance of quiet in a sonic landscape (or starscape). Biedenbender ends with Spring, which emerges from silence into an increasingly bright, energetic and bouncily jazzlike dance. All the movements go on a bit too long after they make their points – the “fiddling” elements of Spring, for instance, become irritating after a while. But the movements’ individual sections are often interesting, and this (+++) CD offers listeners some effective contemporary musical thinking in which, it turns out, the purely instrumental material is more successful than the song cycles at conveying Biedenbender’s emotive intentions.

August 24, 2023


One More Jar of Jam. By Michelle Sumovich. Illustrated by Gracey Zhang. Dial. $18.99.

     Love and loss are inextricably intermingled in One More Jar of Jam, and both are served with a leavening of hope – all in all, the recipe for a sweet book that affirms nature and family in equal measure. It starts as a celebration of a seven-year-old girl’s relationship with the mulberry tree behind her family’s house, with Michelle Sumovich telling the story in poetic prose that affirms nature and childhood alike: “there’s nowhere sweeter to sit/ than on branches, heavy with warm berries,” and, when those branches are fruit-laden, it is wonderful to shake them “until swollen fruit falls corner to corner/ on an old sheet, freckled with berry juice.” The tale continues as the girl’s father makes dozens of jars of mulberry jam for the family, for Grandma, “to sweeten neighbors’ bread,” and to indulge in for the sheer pleasure of enjoying Nature’s bounty.

     Then Sumovich darkens the story, and Gracey Zhang’s illustrations use a dimmer palette as well: this is a rural area where you can “hear the far-off coyote howl” and where strong storms sweep through in the night – one of them being powerful enough to shatter an old fruit tree and leave it “broken and cracked and done.” Now the sadness is as palpable as was the earlier enjoyment, with “summer [that] is fruitless and dry as toast,” and Sumovich and Zhang undertake the difficult task of helping young readers come to grips with this small tragedy – which does not seem small at all – and find ways to cope and move on, as the little girl at the center of the story finds she must do.

     After several dull treeless seasons pass, the girl and her dad and their dog sit on the tree stump – “you’ll gather/ those who miss it most” – and they “celebrate things/ that can no longer celebrate themselves.” And so the healing begins, with “flowers and a little cake” to affirm that “it’s enough/ just to grow,” and with the girl marking the tree ring for the year she was born (which is how readers learn that she is seven years old).

     And then Nature shows its power of revival: “suddenly silent, shiny leaves burst” from the stump and growth begins anew, as the book ends with the excited little girl happily waiting for, as the title clearly indicates, “one more jar of jam.”

     This is a sensitive, perhaps slightly cloying story of simple pleasures enjoyed, lost, and then regained – or expected to be regained. It does, however, have a couple of small missteps of which caring parents should be aware. The anticipatory ending is one of those: never is there a sense of how long it would take a mulberry tree to regrow from a stump, or how long after the initial growth the tree would bear fruit. That would actually make a good story in itself, showing the tree serving one generation, falling in a storm, and then eventually growing to serve the now-grown little girl’s own children or grandchildren. But that is not this story. And although the final page is nicely filled with pleasant anticipation of more jam, parents may need to explain gently to young children that trees take a long time to grow and an even longer one to bear fruit, so the seven-year-old in this book will be a great deal older when the tree again has mulberries – and will not necessarily be living in the same house or anywhere near it. That is a colder dose of real life than Sumovich and Zhang wish to offer, and it is understandable that they do not provide it. But real-world children who do not know just how Nature renews itself deserve to be informed – again, the watchword is “gently” – that the lovely conclusion of One More Jar of Jam is less than realistic.

     Also less than realistic, and perhaps a small misstep for some readers, is the book’s now-common virtue signaling: the girl protagonist is interracial, with a white father and black Grandma (there is no sign of her mother). In the real world, blacks make up 12.1% of the U.S. population, according to, using U.S. Census Bureau data; and among married black women, 93% have a black husband and 4% have a white spouse. So the family composition here is very, very unlikely to represent the arrangement in the homes of most of the intended readers. There is nothing wrong with that at all: the intent is surely to advance tolerance and the universality of the book’s message, and nobody says that books can or should show only families resembling those of the children at whom the books are targeted. However, in books designed to provide emotionally driven teachable moments, anything that distracts young readers risks getting in the way of the intended lesson. Adults will know that the family structure here is highly unusual and will likely consider it irrelevant – but since it is in no way dictated by the needs of the story, it stands out as an assertion of values beyond those of the book’s central message of love, loss, change, grief, and eventual acceptance and hope. Those are topics quite big enough on their own without adding further societal elements to them. And those elements may indeed be insignificant for some children and some families. In case they are not, though, parents attracted by the very moving elements of One More Jar of Jam should be ready to answer children’s questions about the book’s characters, and prepared to find ways – consistent with their own family values – to redirect young children’s attention to the foundational message of the book and the warmth and sensitivity with which Sumovich and Zhang deliver it.


Mahler: Das klagende Lied; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 10—Adagio; interviews with Leopold Stokowski and Alfred Friese. Teresa Stich-Randall and Joan Sutherland, sopranos; Norma Procter, contralto; Peter Pears, tenor; Goldsmiths Choral Union; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Goehr; BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hermann Scherchen. SOMM. $24.99 (2 CDs).

     The only possible response to these first-ever commercial releases from the very early days of successful Mahler advocacy is one of awe – at least where devotees of Mahler’s music are concerned. This is an extraordinary time capsule, an opportunity to look back to a time when Mahler’s music was so far from ubiquitous that it was daring in the extreme to offer any of it, except perhaps Symphony No. 4, to audiences.

     It is a longstanding error to state that there was a “Mahler revival” in the 1960s, because “revival” implies that attention given in prior times came back. But in fact, there was what is better referred to as a Mahler discovery in the 1960s, since his works were previously deemed too complex, too large, too uneven, too difficult to play, too hard to understand, despite the efforts of a few, a very few, strong advocates.

     This exceptional SOMM release features several of those advocates – and provides tremendous insight into how Mahler was performed before his works became ubiquitous in concerts and on recordings. It also features non-advocates whose involvement with Mahler was minimal and rare – and is amazing to discover through this two-CD set. Joan Sutherland? That is a high-intensity, high-power name that is definitely not usually heard in the Mahler pantheon – in fact, her performance here in Das klagende Lied may be the only extant recording of her singing any Mahler. Another famed singer, Peter Pears, was an early Mahler booster but is rarely thought of in that respect nowadays. And what of Hermann Scherchen? Well, in fact he was a strong Mahler champion, even recording a 1950s cycle of Mahler symphonies (omitting, oddly, the Fourth) – but he is scarcely remembered today as a major Mahler proponent along the lines of Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, and (later) Leonard Bernstein. That is probably, at least in part, because of Scherchen’s notoriously erratic, quirky performances of Mahler’s music (and others’ music!) – Scherchen’s 1948 recording of the Adagio from Symphony No. 10, heard here, is a reasonable introduction to his highly attentive yet highly personalized approach to the music.

     Walter Goehr, in contrast to Scherchen, was an important force pressing home the value of Mahler’s music in the days before it was commonly heard – and his conducting of both Das klagende Lied (1956) and Symphony No. 4 (1960) shows care, commitment, a sure understanding of Mahler’s style, and a fine sense of orchestral shaping and balance (to the extent that the recorded sound allows that to be heard: the audio restoration here is well done, but the original sound was scarcely of the highest quality). Unfortunately, Goehr’s recording of the Fourth Symphony, which is a fine interpretation by any standards, was one of his last forays into Mahler: Goehr died the same year he made this recording, at the age of just 57. So he was never part of the Mahler discovery that ensued in the 1960s and that he helped bring about – which means that this release is, in part, a tribute to an unsung (or insufficiently sung) hero of Mahler promotion.

     Goehr is scarcely the only one of the early Mahler crusaders represented here. Two very extended interviews give listeners an amazing opportunity literally to hear two first-rate musicians who knew Mahler personally and worked with him in their own careers. Their perspectives are both invaluable and very different from each other. Timpanist Alfred Friese, whose timpani method is still studied and used today, played under Mahler in New York City in 1909 and 1910, and his 18-minute interview gives remarkable insight into Mahler’s thinking as a conductor as well as a composer. It is not an easy interview to hear – Friese, who mentions being nearly 86 years old when he gave it, did not always speak clearly – but the booklet provided with this recording gives a full and very welcome transcript. The 1970 commentary by Leopold Stokowski, who was just days from his 88th birthday when interviewed, is easier to hear and understand, and at nearly 23 minutes is even longer than the talk with Friese – and here listeners get the perspective of one famous conductor on another, as well as Stokowski’s memories of Mahler in rehearsal.

     It is not overstating things to say that any dyed-in-the-wool Mahlerian will want to have this remarkable release for the extremely high quality of the insights it provides into the days before widespread Mahler acceptance – insights into Mahler the composer, Mahler the conductor, and Mahler the highly influential figure in Romantic and post-Romantic musical circles. The three musical performances here are all worthy and often fascinating in themselves, even if none of them approaches the quality level of much-more-recent recordings that were made by conductors who had plenty of time to study, absorb, evaluate, re-study, re-think and re-evaluate Mahler’s music. These readings are snapshots in time, limited in some significant ways: Das klagende Lied is heard only in its two-part version, its opening Waldmärchen not yet having been published; and Symphony No. 10 was not to be available in a complete, five-movement performing version until 16 years after this Scherchen recording of its first movement. But the limitations themselves are testimony to the growing interest in Mahler’s music in the decades after his own untimely death. The Friese and Stokowski interviews provide further testimony, verbal testimony, that can almost send shivers up a listener’s spine with the realization of the direct line stretching from Mahler’s era to our own, more than a century later. By any means, by any measure, this is an exceptional release for those who study, care about, and are moved by Mahler – there is nothing else quite like it available, and it is as distinguished in its way as Mahler was in his.