May 16, 2024

(+++) FAT CAT SPAT: SPLAT!

The Garfield Movie: The Junior Novelization. Adapted by David Lewman. Random House. $7.99.

The Garfield Movie: Living the Dream. By Nicole Johnson. Random House. $5.99.

The Garfield Movie Official Activity Book. Golden Books. $7.99.

     It is hard to imagine a more unlikely adventure hero than the fat, lazy, cynical, Monday-hating, lasagna-obsessed feline who has graced (graced?) the world of comic-strip syndication since 1978 – and has actually been around (initially as a supporting character) since 1976. Yet now we have it, or him: Garfield, complete with smirk (which makes sense), helpfulness (which doesn’t), and family (which really doesn’t). Ah well, the exigencies of moviemaking in the 21st century require that certain i’s be dotted, t’s be crossed, boxes be checked, and expectations be fulfilled – and there is no way, short of an underground comic (which Jim Davis’ creation emphatically is not), to build a film around Garfield without changing him, as The Garfield Movie does, into some sort of anti-Garfield character that runs, jumps, helps others, works with Odie instead of perpetually tormenting him, and most of all wants nothing more than a reunion with his estranged father, Vic.

     The Garfield Movie may be nonsense, but it is no more nonsensical than many other contemporary animated features, and kids who are young enough not to have seen Garfield in newspapers – heck, young enough not to know what newspapers are – will have fun with the screenplay by Paul A. Kaplan, Mark Torgove and David Reynolds, which hits all the appropriate clichés (several of them repeatedly) and lurches insistently toward a thoroughly unbelievable feel-good ending that will make very young moviegoers feel, well, good.

     For kids ages 6-9 who see the movie – probably the oldest age group that will be able to enjoy it – there is a perfectly fine way to relive the ins and outs again and again: The Junior Novelization, which follows the plot from start to finish, not omitting such niceties as Garfield singing a dairy-based jingle to an old bull who was once the dairy’s mascot, the threatening appearance of a pair of street-tough dogs named Roland and Nolan, and the ultimate baddie-of-the-moment, a fluffy cat named Jinx who demands 1,675 quarts of milk (that would be 1,585 liters, if anyone cares) because – well, because she is bad. The accuracy of this novelization is actually its biggest weakness, since ridiculous scenes that go by quickly on screen and can therefore be enjoyed or at least accepted at face value require more explanation and therefore more attention in book form – which is not to those scenes’ benefit. Nevertheless, for kids in the right age range and the right frame of mind, The Junior Novelization makes a perfectly fine souvenir of the film.

     Realistically, though, The Garfield Movie is more likely to appeal to even younger children – say, ages 3-7. And wouldn’t you know it, those kids have ways to relive the movie, too! At least two ways, in fact! Living the Dream is a 32-page overview and summation of the film, with every page featuring visuals from the screen supported by only a minimal amount of text. For pre-readers and just-learning-to-read-readers, the book will bring back whatever fond memories of the film they may have – although it omits some elements of the plot, such as Jinx eventually getting her comeuppance. But thinking of this too as a souvenir item, aimed at moviegoers young enough to enjoy the film’s hijinks (and, heck, lowjinks), Living the Dream works well. And for kids in the same age range who would enjoy something a bit more participatory, there is the Official Activity Book, which includes find-the-words puzzles, mazes, matching games, and a doorknob sign featuring Garfield and, on one side, the words “I’m back, baby!” Oh – and the other side of that sign says “I need a nap.” There are draw-Garfield and draw-Odie pages, a coin-toss game, even an assemble-it-yourself poster. And right in the middle of the Official Activity Book are self-adhesive stickers – oodles of them, 56 in all (but who’s counting?). Kids who can’t wait to adorn pretty much any surface with stickers of pizza, baby Garfield, grown-up Garfield, Vic, Odie, the word “Garfield,” the word “Cattitude,” sandwiches, the word “Purrfect,” and suchlike expressions will have a great time with these stickers, which (parents, please note!) are more easily removable from some surfaces than from others. You have been duly warned. In fact, parents have been, or should have been, warned before taking kids to The Garfield Movie – so as not to expect it to have much to do with the long-running comic strip at all, but to be an entry point, perhaps, for a whole new generation to begin enjoying a whole new angle on Garfield as the half-century anniversary of his debut approaches.

(+++) IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SOUND

Music for Organ by Holst, Elgar, Florence Price, Chris Martin, Dan Locklair, and Léon Boëllmann. Alexander Ffinch, organ. Divine Art. $16.

Music for Pedal Harp and Lever Harp by Lauren Scott, Maurice Ravel, Grace-Evangeline Mason, J.S. Bach, Rüdiger Oppermann, and Monika Stadler. Lauren Scott, pedal harp and lever harp; Elizabeth Bass and Eleanor Turner, prepared pedal harp; Keziah Thomas, pedal harp; Alexander Rider, pedal harp and prepared pedal harp. AVIE. $19.99.

Rick Sowash: Trios Nos. 11-13 for Clarinet, Cello and Piano. Upland Trio (Christopher Bade, clarinet; Josh Aerie, cello; Greg Kostraba, piano). Kickshaw Records. $15.

     Some recordings are essays in sonority more than explorations of repertoire. The specific works performed are, of course, necessary to provide the performer(s) with a  basis for presenting the quality and sound of their instrument(s). But that quality, that sound, can sometimes supersede the importance of the music chosen – a state of affairs that is particularly evident when multiple pieces are arranged to take advantage of an instrument’s sonic palette instead of being heard as their composers intended. A new Divine Art recording featuring first-rate organ performances by Alexander Ffinch (who here plays the organ of Cheltenham College Chapel) is packed with material arranged for the organ: Holst’s Jupiter from The Planets, arranged by Thomas Trotter; Paradise by Chris Trotter (born 1977), arranged by Ffinch himself; Elgar’s Nimrod from his Enigma Variations, arranged by William H. Harris, and Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, arranged by Edwin Henry Lemare, and Chanson de Matin, arranged by Herbert Brewer. These individual pieces are scattered among three multi-movement works: Suite No. 1 by Florence Price (1887-1953), Rubrics by Dan Locklair (born 1949), and Suite Gothique by Léon Boëllmann (1862-1897). The mixture of older and newer material, more-extended and shorter works, and music of very different provenance and character, produces in toto a certain degree of sonic whiplash, with the CD held together by Ffinch’s fine playing and, to an even greater extent, by the aural exploration of the organ made possible by the disparate elements of the recital. The more-extended pieces are, on the whole, more interesting than the arrangements – though it is worth noting that all individual components of the longer works (four each in the Price and Boëllmann pieces, five in Locklair’s) are quite short, none exceeding five minutes. This gives the totality of the disc something of a feeling of perpetual encores – although Ffinch’s ability to bring out the subtleties of sound of the various elements keeps everything eminently listenable. Price’s work is notable for its stylistic eclecticism: there are snatches of hymns, spirituals, jazz and more. Locklair’s piece offers a succession of strongly contrasted moods, with the quietude of the fourth movement, “The Peace May Be Exchanged,” especially noteworthy. And Boëllmann’s impressive suite – a staple of the organ repertoire – is notable for its pervasive grandeur and consistent attentiveness to the majesty of which the organ is capable. What Ffinch does on this recording is present, to very good effect, the many moods and sounds of which the organ is capable: although the entirety of the disc is somewhat meandering and disconnected, with works that do not quite gel as a totality, the underlying theme of the beauty and power of the foundational organ sound is clearly displayed throughout.

     The much lighter and more ethereal sound associated with the harp is the major element of the attraction of a new AVIE disc featuring Lauren Scott as performer, composer and arranger. In fact, the CD showcases harp sound, or rather sounds, in some unexpected ways. In addition to the pedal harp, with which listeners are likely familiar from many classical compositions, Scott performs here on the lever harp, a smaller and less-complex instrument often used by beginning players and in folk music; and she and colleagues also offer some works on the prepared pedal harp – which, like the prepared piano, starts with the standard instrument and modifies it to produce sounds of which it is not normally capable. Scott-composed works here include Sea of Stars, Printemps, Neeps and Tatties, On a Blue Hill, and The Sun and Her Flowers. Scott’s arrangements are of the traditional Be Thou My Vision; Ravel’s Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas (from Ma Mère l’Oye); the prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2, played on lever harp; and the traditional The Wayfaring Stranger, arranged by her and Andy Scott. This relatively short disc – 48 minutes – is clearly Scott-dominated as well as harp-focused, although it does also include Glass Cathedrals by Grace-Evangeline Mason, Breathing with Harp by Rüdiger Oppermann, and No One Can Stop Me Now by Monika Stadler. The individuality of the works tends to be subsumed within the sound of the various harps, and that seems to be the main point here: it is interesting to hear harp solos of Ravel and Bach, and the cross-genre material shows that the harp is capable of a greater variety of sounds and techniques than audiences may know. The bell-like tolling that pervades the expansive Mason work, the soft near-silence of Oppermann’s piece, and the percussive elements of Stadler’s strongly jazz-influenced music are all attractive. And Scott’s own works certainly show her ability to explore and exploit the full range and capabilities of her instrument. However, nothing in the music itself is especially notable here: this is an instrument-and-performer-focused CD whose pleasures derive from extended immersion in its specific sonic environment. It is a treat for harp fanciers (and harpists!) but rather thin gruel from a strictly musical standpoint.

     The aural environment into which Rick Sowash (born 1950) immerses listeners on a new Kickshaw Records CD is a combinatorial one, made up of the unusual mixture of clarinet, cello and piano. The three trios on this disc are the last of a series of 13 that Sowash has composed: Nos. 11 and 12 date to 2003, No. 13 to 2004. The three works are quite different despite their commonality of instrumentation. No. 11 is in a rather compressed four-movement form that starts with a Prelude whose opening actually sounds as if it is played on a harp rather than a piano. Indeed, the piano has a harplike (or fortepiano-like) sound throughout the movement, which is succeeded by Bells of Morn, A Pretty Air and Tango Finale in a work whose overall title is We Sang, We Danced – a pretty good summation of the contrasting sounds of, for example, the gently swaying second movement and the rhythmically fluid finale. Trio No. 12, also in four movements, is called Voyageurs and is intended by Sowash to reflect early French-Canadian fur traders and explorers. A significantly longer work than No. 11 – 31 minutes compared with 18 – Trio No. 12 gives the piano a much more central role than it has in Trio No. 11, where the clarinet and cello tend to dominate. Structurally, both of these trios build to their final movements, which are their longest. In Trio No. 12, though, the shortest movement, placed third, has the most interesting combination of instrumental sounds: its title, Starshadows on the Snow, portends something quietly evanescent, and that is indeed the overall sonic quality of the material. The extended finale does not quite live up aurally to its title, A Majestic Land, but the mixture of instruments, here as throughout these works, is expertly handled and pleasingly varied. Trio No. 13 is quite different from the other two, being a 17-minute, two-movement Passacaglia and Fugue that opens with an extended cello solo to which a dark clarinet line is added before the piano eventually enters. Despite the movement’s title, it sounds more like a three-instrument fantasia than like anything Baroque – and while the following, much shorter movement does indeed follow fugal precepts, its bright and upbeat nature serves mainly as a contrast to its predecessor and an opportunity for the three instruments to spend considerable time playing in ensemble. The Upland Trio presents all these works with understanding and a fine sense of cohesiveness and balance, offering listeners aurally interesting experiences in which the attractiveness comes as much from the sound of the instruments as it does from the specific notes being played.

May 09, 2024

(++++) THE CHOICES WE MAKE

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32 (complete); “Kurfürst” Sonatas Nos. 1-3; Andante favori. Tamami Honma, piano. Divine Art. $63 (10 CDs).

     Deciding which set of Beethoven piano sonatas to own – or more likely which sets, plural, as new recordings becomes available – is a balancing act. In any performer’s cycle, it is unlikely that any music lover will find every single performance of every single Beethoven sonata “just right,” since performers themselves are constantly making choices as to how to handle specific sonatas and, indeed, how to handle the same pieces over time, since it is not unusual for a pianist to record the Beethoven cycle more than once. The producers of these sets of sonatas also have many choices to make in terms of packaging, presentation, pricing and more. So while a new recording of the Beethoven cycle is always welcome, any such release is bound to please some listeners, displease others, and have its own set of pluses and minuses.

     Tamami Honma’s new 10-CD cycle on the Divine Art label positions itself firmly in the modern-piano-and-Romantic-temperament-approach camp. Honma takes full advantage of using a contemporary concert grand, with ample use of the sustaining pedal and very strong emphasis on the lower reaches of the keyboard being prominent features of her readings. She offers some distinctly personal presentations, in part on her own and in part because of the way the cycle is put together. The packaging insists that the correct number of Beethoven piano sonatas is 35, not 32 – that is, that the three early “Kurfürst” sonatas (“Elector,” for their dedication to Elector Maximilian Friedrich) should be counted as part of the sequence – and that, because some sonatas were published years after they were written, the traditional numbering (which is based on publication dates) should be omitted altogether. Accordingly, the sonatas are identified only by opus numbers, which is an unnecessary affectation: there is really no harm in referring to the “Pathétique,” for example, as No. 8, rather than insisting it be called Op. 13.

     The cycle does make a good theoretical case for presenting these works in order of composition, although Julian Brown’s generally very fine sonata-by-sonata essay (which takes up most of the enclosed booklet’s 88 pages) overdoes matters a bit. The “Kurfürst” sonatas have been recorded before, after all, as Brown acknowledges. Honma takes the works’ repeats, which gives a better sense of their scope than does a recording such as that by Jenő Jandó for Naxos. Brown notes that these sonatas, written when Beethoven was 12, almost mark the start of Beethoven’s composing for piano solo – being preceded by variations in C minor on a march by Ernst Christoph Dressler (1734-1779), which are discussed in the essay but not recorded by Honma. There was room to put them on the first CD, and they have been recorded before (for example, by Sergio Gallo on modern piano and Alessandro Commellatto on fortepiano in their original 1782 version, and by Susan Kagan in Beethoven’s 1803 revision); so omitting them (and including the Andante favori – the original second movement of the Waldstein sonata – on the first disc) was certainly a choice by the pianist, producers or both. This sort of thing is, of course, fodder for the usual nitpicking of any release of a Beethoven cycle, when what really matters (or at least should matter) is the music on its own terms – or at least on the terms chosen by the performer!

     Honma’s terms are at times polarizing, especially in the earlier sonatas. The inclusion of repeats in the “Kurfürst” sonatas is admirable, but Honma’s pedal use is often overdone and gives the sonatas a bigger sound than their musical material and time period warrant. The inauspicious beginning of the cycle continues through the Op. 2 sonatas (Nos. 1-3 in the usual numbering). The finale of Op. 2, No. 1 is actually pounded. In Op. 2, No. 2, Honma’s strong contrasts in power and volume in the first movement, with strongly accentuated bass notes, make the work sound more like something from Beethoven’s middle period. The second movement of the same sonata again features actual pounding in the louder sections, and this is obviously a deliberate choice, since Honma plays the delicate passages with care and a light touch. In Op. 2, No. 3, the first movement starts with pleasant lightness but quickly turns very intense indeed, leaving the impression that Honma is inordinately fond of sforzandi whether they are in the score or not.

     Next in this sequence are the sonatas usually numbered 19 and 20 (the two of Op. 49), and in these Honma shows herself capable of admirable delicacy in chord-playing, reinforcing the notion that when a light touch is not used, that is deliberate. Thus, when she moves on to Op. 7 (Sonata No. 4), and again hammers the chords in the first movement, this is clearly a personal choice.

     It is with the Op. 10 sonatas (Nos. 5-7) that Honma hits her stride and this cycle improves significantly. The finale of Op. 10, No. 2 is especially good, although Honma is somewhat reserved in the emotional depth of the second movement of Op. 10, No. 3. Nevertheless, performances are more effective from this point forward. The middle movement of Op. 13 (No. 8, the aforementioned “Pathétique”) is especially tender, and Honma finds very considerable differences between Op. 22 (No. 11) and Op. 26 (No. 12), playing up the structural and emotional contrasts interestingly and to good effect.

     From here on, listeners’ reactions to Honma’s readings will be highly individualized, depending on how each person hears and feels the elements of Beethoven’s sonatas. Honma’s approach will surely resonate with many and just as surely misfire from others’ perspectives. In all cases, however, she showcases formidable technique and makes it clear that she has studied the sonatas’ scores and interpreted them through her own emotional lens, as all first-rate pianists do.

     Among many further highlights and shortcomings of this set:

     In Op. 27, No. 2 (No. 14, the famous “Moonlight”), the opening movement drags a bit and the whole is a little heavy-handed. The humorous Op. 31, No. 1 (No. 16) is a bit too straightforward, and Honma misses opportunities to “overdo” elements of the overblown, parodistic second movement. On the other hand, in the second movement of Op. 31, No. 3 (No. 18, “La Chasse”), she does find considerable amusement. As for Op. 31, No. 2 (No. 17, “Tempest”), her finale has almost Lisztian fervor in the chords – very high drama indeed, although somewhat ahead of its time.

     In Op. 53 (No. 21, “Waldstein”), Honma offers exceptional delicacy through much of the finale, then breaks through very impressively, at a genuine breakneck pace, in the Prestissimo coda. Honma makes a particularly good case for the vastly under-appreciated Op.54 (No. 22), with the unending cascade of notes in the second movement handled especially well. Op. 57 (No. 23, “Appassionata”) is rather bland, except for an undeniably exciting coda to the finale. In Op. 79 (No. 25), the work’s delicacy is well-communicated, notably in the first part of the finale. In Op. 81a (No. 26, “Les Adieux”) there is also some effectively delicate playing – here, in the finale’s scurrying notes.

     Musically, the last four sonatas are in a class by themselves, and every pianist measures himself or herself against them in a different way. Op. 106 (No. 29, “Hammerklavier”) is a work of extremes and is not immediately appealing: it is intellectually impressive but not always emotionally gripping, inspiring respect rather than love. Honma offers a tremendously intense opening, but the first movement as a whole is somewhat episodic: this is a sprawling sonata that is very difficult to make cohesive, and in that respect her performance falls short. The third movement, which can seem overwhelmingly sorrowful, does not have great emotional heft here: it is well-played but somewhat standoffish, massive and stolid rather than emotionally engaging. Honma is at her best in the last movement, attacking the fugue with relish, pacing it quickly, and emphasizing its architecture with strength – but without the pounding that she sometimes overdoes in other sonatas.

     If Op. 106 represents a kind of climb to a pianistic mountain peak, Opp. 109-111 explore the view from the summit in three different directions. Honma’s reading of Op. 109 (No. 30) is matter-of-fact. Op. 110 (No. 31) is more successful: the first movement’s delicacy is impressive, and Honma provides good contrast between the two parts of the finale. In Op. 111 (No. 32), she really attacks the dramatic chords in the first movement, providing a sort of litmus test for listeners: her way of handling this material more or less sums up her overall approach to analogous music throughout the cycle. Honma then does a good job of differentiating the qualities of the second movement’s variations, especially the one that contrasts very low notes with very high ones. The sense of transcendent beauty toward which the movement strives is somewhat compromised by Honma’s insistence on intense sforzandi and very strong emphasis of bass notes, but it is simply impossible not to make the very end of this movement sublime, and here she does not disappoint.

     As a totality, Honma’s Beethoven cycle, despite some mischaracterizations (especially in the earlier sonatas), is a strong, meaningful and pianistically always impressive presentation of music that is subject to near-infinite interpretations that all shed new light on Beethoven’s Weltanschauung while challenging listeners to bring their own feelings and experiences to their responses to these variegated works. Honma’s approach will not please everyone – no pianist’s cycle can or should do that – but it certainly reflects thoughtfulness and a strong commitment to the music, in addition to very considerable technical skill.

(++++) HERITAGE ACKNOWLEDGED

Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite; Karelia Suite; Rakastava. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

Ija Mia: Soundscape of the Sephardic Diaspora. East of the River (Nina Stern, recorders and chalumeau; Daphna Mor, voice and recorders; Ara Dinkjian, oud and cümbüs; Tal Mashiach, bass; Shane Shanahan, percussion; Zafer Tawil, violin, qanun and percussion; John Hadfield, percussion). AVIE. $19.99.

Lainie Fefferman: Here I Am. TRANSIT New Music (Sara Budde, clarinets; David Friend, piano; Pete Wise, percussion; Joe Bergen, drum set; Taylor Levine, guitar; Andie Tanning, violin; Ashley Bathgate, cello). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     In the 1890s, a time when Finland was very much dependent on Russia and about to be pulled even more strongly under the Russian yoke, the creative establishment determinedly found ways to assert patriotism and a desire for self-determination without going so far as to challenge Russian hegemony directly. Musicians were very much a part of this effort, and some of the early works by Sibelius were created specifically for this purpose and in this context. But works such as the Lemminkäinen Suite and Karelia Suite soon came to transcend their reasons for being, and remain popular today because of their ability to speak, simply as music, to audiences far from their land and time of origin – that is, to people who have no idea of the foundations on which Sibelius built them. Sibelius had a wealth of Finnish heritage on which to draw, notably the Kalevala epic that forms the basis of the Lemminkäinen Suite and Karelia Suite, and the Kanteletar, a collection of folk poetry from which Sibelius drew the less-known Rakastava. The excellent performances on BIS by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under Susanna Mälkki aptly treat the music simply as music, shorn of sociopolitical considerations that are now obsolete and would have little meaning outside Scandinavia. The excellence of orchestration is a big part of the attraction of these works: the brighter and darker elements coexisting in the KareliaSuite; the intriguing combination of string orchestra, timpani and triangle in Rakastava; the justly famous use of cor anglais (here played by Paula Malmivaara) in the second, “Swan of Tuonela” movement of the Lemminkäinen Suite – plus the mixture of jauntiness and assertiveness and sweetness and sadness and a dash of humor communicated in the rest of the work. Mälkki directs the orchestra with aplomb, the balance of the ensemble’s sections beautifully communicates the balance as well as the deliberately off-balance elements of the music, and the emotional underpinnings of all the works come through clearly without requiring an audience to be steeped in Finnish history, ancient epic poetry, or any understanding of the fraught relationship between Finland and the Russian Empire at the time when these works were created.

     Sibelius’ subtlety in creating affirmatively nationalistic music right under the nose (as it were) of the Russians is very different from the approach of 21st-century composers, who tend to go out of their way to “preach to the choir” and make sure their works’ assertiveness is front-and-center for “in the know” audiences or people who are willing to invest the necessary time and effort to understand where the material is coming from and why its creators deem it so important. This gives heritage-focused modern compositions more immediacy for much smaller potential audiences, and makes it unlikely that the material will have substantial staying power. But that is not its point: these works are for the here-and-now and are intended to speak forcefully only to those who share the creators’ background or are strongly attuned to it. Two new, fairly brief (+++) CDs – a 42-minute one from AVIE and a 51-minute one from New Focus Recordings – are of this type. The AVIE disc is intended to use Sephardic folk and traditional music to celebrate the ancestry of Nina Stern (Venetian Jewish) and Daphna Mor (Ladino – that is, Judaism of Spanish origin). The CD’s title is the name of its first track, an upbeat traditional Sephardic work from Turkey. Other pieces here are by turns emotionally expressive, peppy, improvisational-sounding, strongly rhythmic, prayerful, bright, dour: they cover a wide variety of feelings and emotions – some fully intelligible only to the small group of listeners who know the languages in which certain pieces are sung, some communicating more directly through the force of the music itself. The use of uncommonly heard instruments – the single-reed chalumeau, lutelike oud, banjo-shaped Turkish cümbüs, Arabic qanun – emphasizes the historicity of the material and the determination of the performers to pay tribute to their roots. It is all very well-meaning, often very expressive, and surely of significance to the performers themselves and others who share their heritage. By design, it makes no attempt to reach listeners beyond those who will feel a personal kinship with the musicians and/or who partake of similar ancestry.

     Lainie Fefferman reaches back even further in time for the creation of Here I Am. The 10-part work is a series of pieces based on the Hebrew Bible, ranging from a purely spoken introductory text reading a census of the 12 tribes of Israel to a series of explorations of ways in which the ancient texts are, or are not, meaningful and relevant to contemporary life. Much of this is not exactly music – it is more a series of soundscapes inviting contemplation, such as the very high violin register used to paint a picture of the angels called “Nephilim” and the extended (and also high-register) sound, punctuated by percussion, in which “Deuteronomic Rules” are recited (“you shall not plough with an ox and an ass together,” “you shall not marry your father’s former wife,” and so forth). A steady pulsing underlies “Sword on Thigh,” about a civil war; a vocal trio (sounding a bit like the Muses in the animated Disney version of Hercules) delivers Abraham’s arguments with God about Sodom; and other pieces use different instrumental and vocal effects to put forward still more admonitions and prohibitions. Here I Am eventually concludes with a repeat of the initial census, making it clear that Fefferman is speaking only to those who share her Jewish background and, like her, are trying to understand and make sense of many-thousand-years-old writings whose relevance to modern life is sometimes difficult to fathom, sometimes impossible to comprehend, sometimes decidedly problematic (as with the prohibition, from Leviticus 18:22, against the “abomination” that occurs when any man should “lie with a male as with a woman”). Here I Am sounds like a performance piece – it is easy to imagine the theatricality of the musicians and the reciters of the Biblical passages – and has the effect of listening in on the composer’s own exploration of the basis of her faith and the sometimes difficult-to-fathom elements underlying it. For those who share Fefferman’s beliefs and her concerns about their foundations, this will be a meaningful exploration that offers questions but not definitive conclusions. For those steeped in different religions or committed to none at all, the whole exercise will have little significance or meaningful impact.