September 21, 2023

(++++) ANTARCTIC ANTICS

The King Penguin. By Vanessa Roeder. Dial. $18.99.

     Being a king is not all it’s cracked up to be. That is the lesson – or part of it – in Vanessa Roeder’s delightfully daffy The King Penguin. There really is a bird called the king penguin, and that is Roeder’s starting point for a story in which one such penguin takes his kingship a bit too seriously. Declaring himself the ruler of all other penguins – the specific types, amusingly presented and illustrated, are a part of the tale – Percival Penguin makes whatever rules please him, such as assessing taxes by eating some of the sardines caught by other penguins.

     Eventually and predictably, the other penguins unite on the basis of “who (other than you) declared yourself king, anyway?” They toss Percival out of the penguin colony – but, being resilient, he does not care very much. He simply decides he will find “a new kingdom to rule,” since it is so obvious that he is destined for rulership.

     Umm...maybe not. Again and again, hapless Percival Penguin encounters groups that simply do not accept him as their king – and, to make matters worse, every single “motley crew in dire need of leadership” tries to eat Percival. Yipe! Bad enough that the seals go after him (including the one seal proclaiming that he has mustard). Worse that the killer whales swim so quickly that they almost catch him. Troubling that the polar bears will have none of the king unless they get to consume all of him. And so it goes, again and again – even the sardines get into the game, as one of Roeder’s funniest pictures shows distinctly annoyed Percival standing with 10 sardines attached all over his body in a futile attempt to consume him.

     To make matters even worse, if that is possible, pondering Percival suddenly bumps into an emperor penguin – also a real type – and the emperor declares that he is the ruler of Percival, whom he calls a “miniscule minion.” Percival will have none of it: “Just because you are an emperor penguin doesn’t mean you’re in charge.” Umm…right. It is time for some self-realization, which leads Percival to enough self-awareness to return to the penguin colony, with the emperor penguin in tow, and say he is sorry. Good thing he comes back: another of Roeder’s best illustrations shows the now-chaotic colony, where almost all the penguins have proclaimed themselves king. This really won’t do, Percival realizes, so he works with the other penguins to establish a new, democratic order, in which everyone votes on important principles such as “never trust sardines.” The emperor penguin sticks around, too, becoming just another member of the group, although he retains some of the emperor-style regalia that he wore when Percival first met him.

     About that dress-up element: the inside front cover and facing page of The King Penguin show eight real-world types of penguin, all anthropomorphized and a few wearing something-or-other reflective of their type – the chinstrap penguin, for example, sporting a helmet attached by, yes, a chin strap. The inside back cover and facing page show the same eight penguin types completely decorated with things reflecting their names: the Magellanic penguin is reading a map, the snares penguin is playing a snare drum, the macaroni penguin is reading a book called “Your Life as Pasta,” and so on. Thus, the book’s opening and closing add a bit to its fairly minimal educational value – it does, after all, use the actual designations of various penguin types, however lightly it refers to them – and more than a bit to its amusement value, which is considerable. The King Penguin is fun and funny, and the lesson of not thinking too much of yourself and not trying to lord it over other people…err, penguins…is entertainingly formulated and presented with proper pomp and penguinity.

(+++) WHO WINS?

Disneyland on the Mountain: Walt, the Environmentalists, and the Ski Resort That Never Was. By Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer. Rowman & Littlefield. $32.

     Speaking of the 408-acre Mineral King valley that is now part of Sequoia National Park in California, Walt Disney said in 1965, the year before his death, “I thought it was one of the most beautiful spots I had ever seen, and we want to keep it that way.” But Greg Glasgow and Kathryn Mayer, while allowing this quotation to creep into the end of Disneyland on the Mountain, are determined to make Walt Disney the bad guy in a story celebrating a form of well-meaning obstructionist environmentalism that is now becoming a genuine hindrance to many worthwhile projects, such as wind farms and other attempts to mitigate human-caused environmental degradation.

     Where Glasgow and Mayer part ways with Disney is in his hope to have Mineral King “seen by more people [and be] a fresh canvas on which to paint yet another dream” – in addition to the dream of Walt Disney World that was in progress late in Disney’s life and was to open in 1971.

     Disney was always a dreamer, and by all accounts a responsible environmental steward with a genuine concern for preservation of nature – within the context of making it available to more people. His company was granted, after a competition, the right to develop a resort property at Mineral King – the reasons for the plan and the competition are explained early in Disneyland on the Mountain. Disney eventually got permission from the overseer of the U.S. Forest Service, Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, to proceed with the project. “I find that Disney offers the best facilities for the vacationing public and the possibility of the largest monetary return to the taxpayers for the use of public lands,” Freeman decided in awarding Disney a three-year planning permit.

     But note the reference to money and taxpayers. The words are anathema to many self-declared environmentalists, and even though the “environmental movement” was in its infancy in the 1960s, it is clear that Glasgow and Mayer share its abhorrence for profit-making enterprises, even if profits flow back to the taxpaying public. Disneyland on the Mountain details how, after the high-water mark of Freeman’s pro-Disney declaration, the entire ski-resort project conceived by Walt Disney began to come apart as special-interest groups (another term in its infancy in the 1960s) coalesced around the idea of leaving Mineral King exactly as it was – meaning that it would be accessible to the public, yes, but only to the very tiny slice of the public with the financial means, personal inclination and plenty of time to learn about it and come to the isolated and rugged area.

     Sequoia National Park, to which Mineral King was annexed in 1978, does get a million visitors a year, but it is fair to assume that the reason most people visit is the park’s famed sequoia trees, not the quiet and beauty of Mineral King. Walt Disney World gets 58 million visitors annually and Disneyland gets 17 million – if numbers matter. But the point underlying Disneyland on the Mountain is that numbers do not, or should not, matter, and that the retention of the pristine ought to be the primary goal in issues such as that involving Mineral King.

     This is a perfectly reasonable proposition, but it was not handled with reasonableness by those opposed to the notion of a Disney ski resort at Mineral King. The project was essentially “pecked to death by ducks” (no insult meant to Donald), as leave-it-alone advocates positioned themselves as defenders of the wilderness and pecked away at Disney’s plans bit by bit. The opponents were very much elitists – for example, pediatrician Richard Koch and his wife, activist Jean Koch, whose numerous letters against the Mineral King project proved influential in its eventual abandonment, “were one of just sixty-seven families who had permits to own and maintain summer houses on national forest land in Mineral King.” The arguments that the area should remain for “everyone” (meaning the very few people who would ever visit the area, and the even fewer with permits to have houses there) won out over Walt Disney’s expressed desire to make Mineral King accessible to more people (and, scarcely incidentally, to bring in more filthy lucre to the would-be resort’s developer).

     There are difficult balancing acts where environmental and commercial interests are concerned, and collisions are inevitable. But these matters are rarely ones of good-vs.-evil, no matter how often they are portrayed that way in popular media and by advocates on one side or the other. Walt Disney had considerable environmental bona fides, and there is no reason to believe the Mineral King project would have been disrespectful to or unaware of its impact. But there would certainly have been impact, and so the argument about the project comes down to one of whether presumably careful development or a complete hands-off approach is better. The Mineral King matter was settled more than half a century ago, but arguments along the same lines persist today and have become even more urgent as the push is on to develop alternatives to fossil fuels – which means setups such as enormous solar arrays that cover vast acreages and require buildout of transmission lines that will inevitably cause disfigurement and many forms of natural displacement, and wind farms that will never attain perfection in protecting birds and other wildlife that will inevitably come in contact with them. Disneyland on the Mountain ultimately makes these issues overly simplistic – and Walt Disney is poorly cast as an opponent of environmentalism, which he simply viewed differently from the way the leave-it-aloners did. The legacy of the non-building of the Mineral King resort remains today, with non-simplistic answers to environmental issues as difficult to find in the 21st century as they were in the middle of the 20th.

(+++) COMPRESSED COMMUNICATION

Overtures from Finland: Music by Jean Sibelius, Uuno Klami, Erkki Melartin, Leevi Madetoja, Arnas Järnefelt, Ernst Mielck, Selim Palmgren, Robert Kajanus, and Heino Kaski. Oulu Sinfonia conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $21.99 (SACD).

Korngold: Four Pieces from “Much Ado about Nothing”; Wagner: Albumblatt; Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 17; Jenő Hubay: Scènes de la Csárda No. 3; Dohnányi: Gypsy Andante from “Ruralia Hungarica”; Joseph Achron: La Romanesca; Hebrew Dance, Op. 35, No. 1; Leo Zeitlin: Eli Zion; Bloch: Avodah; Kreisler: Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta. Danbi Um, violin; Amy Yang, piano. AVIE. $17.99.

     The name of Sibelius is synonymous with Finnish music – to such an extent that a correction is in order, showing that he was scarcely the only Finnish composer and was not even the only one in his own time. A new Chandos SACD featuring Rumon Gamba and the Oulu Sinfonia is intended to provide that correction, and does so – with the proviso that the disc proves Sibelius to be the pre-eminent Finnish composer in his time period and in the mostly brief overtures included on the recording, even though it also shows he was scarcely the only one working in this form. Sibelius actually owes his early success in large part to Robert Kajanus (1856-1933), founder of the first permanent professional orchestra in the Nordic countries – what is now the Helsinki Philharmonic. Kajanus was a tireless advocate not only of Sibelius but also of other Finnish composers, such as Ernst Mielck (1877-1899), who dedicated to Kajanus the Dramatische Ouvertüre heard here (Mielck died of tuberculosis at age 21). It would have made sense to arrange this disc chronologically by the dates of the composers, or by the dates of the compositions, and that would have been quite helpful for listeners interested in assembling for themselves a sense of Finnish music in the Romantic and post-Romantic eras. Unfortunately, the SACD undercuts itself by presenting the music in no discernible order whatsoever – the hodgepodge nature of the release is its worst feature. It opens, as if setting the overall scene, with Sibelius, specifically his Karelia Overture (1893), unfortunately given a rather heavy-handed (although well-played) performance here. Next is a concert overture called Nummisuutarit, written in 1936 by Uuno Klami (1900-1961) and based on a play called The Cobblers on the Heath. Then there is a 1904 overture by Erkki Melartin (1875-1937) to a play based on the “Sleeping Beauty” fairy tale. Next is Comedy Overture (1923) by Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947), followed by the first of two pieces by Sibelius’ brother-in-law, Arnas Järnefelt (1869-1958) – Ouverture lyrique (1892). Listeners who have stayed sequentially with the SACD will by this time have hopped around multiple decades to hear uniformly well-made but often rather formulaic overtures that range from “pure” music to theatrical entries – and there is more of the same to come. Mielck’s 1898 work, a particularly effective piece, follows Järnefelt’s and is followed in turn by a 1903 overture by Selim Palmgren (1878-1921) for a play based on the “Cinderella” fairy tale. Why the two fairy-tale-based pieces are not juxtaposed is one of the many questions about this disc’s odd arrangement. After all this, listeners finally get to hear Kajanus’ Overture sinfonica, a late work (1926) that nevertheless harks back clearly to the Romantic era in its expressiveness. Then the disc concludes with two short pieces. One is Prélude, Op. 7, No. 1 (1902) by Heino Kaski (1885-1957) – not an overture but a pleasant arrangement of a pleasant little piano piece. And then, at the end, is the second Järnefelt work offered here – Præludium (1900), whose bright delicacy closes the recording in fine style. The disc is in some ways more important than it is musically satisfactory: all the music is definitely worth hearing, and the exploration of multiple Finnish composers is certainly worthwhile, but the mishmash that is the presentation of the material makes for a confusing auditory experience that is by no means as involving or informative as it could easily have been with some better planning and more-thoughtful sequencing.

     A new AVIE release featuring Danbi Um and Amy Yang is a puzzling grouping as well, the works on it having their Romantic origins and brevity of structure in common – being similar in those ways, but only those ways, to the ones from Finland. The pieces performed by Um and Yang are more in the nature of encores than substantial music – violin showcases, by and large, and salon-style pleasantries in many instances, with no aspiration to anything particularly deep or trenchant. Korngold’s Much Ado about Nothing excerpts – arranged by the composer for violin and piano – are characteristic of his forthright, pleasantly accessible style. The second of them, March of the Watch, has some surprisingly Mahlerian flourishes, while the fourth, Hornpipe, is virtuosic and not at all danceable. Wagner’s Albumblatt (arranged by August Wilhelmj) is much sweeter than is usually the case with Wagner – parts are actually cloying, and Um leans into those sections with particular fervor. Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 17 (arranged by Fritz Kreisler) is also an emotional work and also somewhat overdone as performed here. Scènes de la Csárda No. 3 by Jenő Hubay (1858-1937) opens with strong piano flourishes before becoming a violin-driven “Gypsy fiddling” piece that swells and swirls and eventually becomes as impassioned as many of the better-known Brahms dances. Dohnányi’s Gypsy Andante continues this string of Hungarian-inflected works in a piece that balances violin and piano more closely than does most of the music here. La Romanesca by Joseph Achron (1886-1943) is one of those dark-hued works that try to turn expressiveness into emotional depth, but it is more gestural than deeply sincere. Eli Zion by Leo Zeitlin (1884-1930) – which was arranged by Achron – has an emphatic piano opening that leads to sorrowful Hebrew melodies passed between the instruments. Next is another work by Achron himself, Hebrew Dance, Op. 35, No. 1 – the first of his two-piece Op. 35 set, and a work that starts in proclamatory fashion and requires considerable expressiveness in the violin’s highest register, along with gentler and brighter material as the music plunges headlong toward its conclusion. Bloch’s Avodah – a word meaning “work, worship and service” in Hebrew – conveys a greater emotional range, and more intensity, than the pieces by Achron and Zeitlin. The disc ends on a decidedly upbeat note (pun intended) with Kreisler’s Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta, a neatly titled piece that at eight-and-a-half minutes is the longest work on the CD. This music is all gemütlichkeit, friendly and genial, never delving deeply into emotions but affording the violinist plenty of opportunities to demonstrate technical adeptness – often in three-quarter time. The piano has a decidedly secondary role here, as in most of the works on the disc, but Yang proves a willing and devoted accompanist, and Um shows her thorough mastery of violin technique as well as her engagement with the modest musical content of the piece. Indeed, the overall thinness of the works on this CD makes it less appealing than Um’s playing, which appears to be the main reason for the disc’s existence. This is a kind of demonstration disc for the violinist (more so than for the pianist) – and while it certainly indicates considerable technical skill, there is nothing here that is musically or emotionally substantial enough to indicate Um’s ability in more-substantive fare. Violinists may enjoy this release to a greater extent than will audiences seeking meatier material – this is more a series of appetizers or desserts than a satisfactory musical meal.

September 14, 2023

(++++) GROWING WAY UP

The Power of YETI. By Rebecca Van Slyke. Illustrations by G. Brian Karas. Nancy Paulsen Books. $18.99.

     There’s a bit of a spelling conundrum here. On the surface, this is merely the story of a little boy who is befriended by “a very tall, very hairy creature” with hairy hands – and the creature’s friends, Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and the Abominable Snow Monster. The giant foursome then shows the boy a trick to make him feel better about things he cannot currently do but that his (human) friends can do. Simple, as picture books for very young readers go, right?

     Exactly who, or what, is the well-intentioned title creature, though? And what, exactly, is the power conveyed to the little boy? “I am a Yeti,” says the very tall and very hairy helper – capital Y and three small letters. The all-caps book title refers to the power of YETI. And the secret to feeling better about being currently unable to do certain things? Well, that turns out to be the power of YETi. At least most of the time.

     The clever idea here is to visualize the notion of learning and accomplishing things over time by envisioning a quartet of mythical monsters (all smiling, happy and enthusiastic) reminding the boy that he cannot YET do certain things but will eventually be able to do them. There is, unfortunately, no hairy bigfooted creature called a YET, so YETI will have to do. So the boy, encouraged by his newfound hirsute friends, learns that he cannot do certain things YET(i) and needs only to engage in encouraging self-talk when he gets frustrated – by reminding himself that he is not unable to tie his shoes or score soccer goals or read big books. He simply cannot do those things YET(i).

     The whole yet/Yeti dynamic adds a layer of amusing confusion to the charm of the book, but it certainly does not undermine the underlying lesson. Take basketball, for instance. The little boy complains that he “can’t reach the hoop,” so the Yeti points to “my buddy the Abominable Snow Monster. He used to be your size, and look at him now!” Indeed, the ASM is resting one elbow on the hoop while towering above the backboard and spinning a basketball on one finger. It may be a tad misleading to suggest that the little not-hairy-not-bigfooted boy will grow to that size, but the boy gets the idea and says he should tell himself he “can’t reach it YETi.”

     By far the funniest of the many amusing illustrations by G. Brian Karas – which are a major reason for the success of the book, the oddity of the spelling issue notwithstanding – are the ones showing how the huge hairy creatures themselves used the power of YETI (or YETi; whatever). Bigfoot is shown shouting “YETI!” repeatedly while steering the bike he has just learned to ride through an obstacle course – he is about four times the size of the bike. The Abominable Snow Monster yells the word repeatedly while learning to jump rope – with every leap, he cracks through the pavement, pieces of which go flying everywhere. Funniest of all is Sasquatch’s use of the word when learning ballet: he is doing an amazing ballet leap (a jeté, for anyone interested in describing hairy-creature-silliness with precision) and is soaring high above the heads of two human children, who look up at his prowess with entirely understandable amazement.

     There is nothing really amazing about what the little boy wants to do – and, in a couple of instances, actually learns to do – during The Power of YETI: he eventually manages to tie his shoes and is able to score a goal in an impromptu soccer game with the four hairy biggies. But of course the point here is not to accomplish big things, but to get past the frustration of being unable to do small ones – especially when other (human) friends of the same age can do those things already. Learning to tell yourself that you will be able to do things in the future is much better than bemoaning your current inability to do them. If it takes a hulking hairy YETI (or YETi or Yeti or yeti) to teach that lesson, then by all means bring on the whole group shown in this book. Think of the toothsome foursome as a set of anti-frustration supercritters – you can call them The Abominables.