March 15, 2018
Misunderstood Shark. By Ame Dyckman. Illustrated by Scott Magoon. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.
The Bad Guys #6: Alien vs. Bad Guys. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.
Toothsome and terrifying, sharks have been a major object of fear for people ever since – well, at least since the Steven Spielberg movie Jaws (1975) brought them to the attention of people who had previously never thought much about what might be underwater near a beach. In reality, sharks have been a source of worry and fear for much longer, but only among people unfortunate enough to come in contact with them and live to tell the tale. And yet human-shark encounters really are quite rare, and as nature-focused organizations constantly point out, the chance of dying in a shark attack is far, far lower than the chance of all sorts of alternative forms of mayhem (a true statement that is somehow not especially reassuring). Anyway, the upshot of all the shark fear in the last several decades has been a series of books, both factual and fictional, intended to show that sharks are not so bad after all. They are simply misunderstood. As in Ame Dyckman’s Misunderstood Shark. This is all about a TV show called “Underwater World with Bob” (Bob being a jellyfish), specifically about an episode into which a gigantic and extremely toothy shark suddenly intrudes. Shark is about to swallow a fish when Bob tells him he is on camera and should not eat anyone while people can see – and Shark, with a sly grin that plays toothily to the audience (although he still holds the frightened little fish in a fin bearing an anchor tattoo with the word “Mom”), says he did not intend to eat the fish. He just wanted to show off his new tooth. So Shark holds the fish right over his wide-open mouth, with the fish understandably asking, “Can I faint now?” Meanwhile, Bob uses the moment to give the audience a “fun fact” about sharks: they can grow and lose some 30,000 teeth in a lifetime. And so the show and the book progress: Shark starts doing typical hungry-shark things, claims he did not intend to do them and is simply misunderstood, and pulls back from his impulses long enough for Dyckman to have Bob deliver several honest-to-goodness facts about sharks. Scott Magoon’s highly amusing, very cartoonish illustrations make Shark seem both fierce and funny, but his smiles are always on the heh-heh-heh side of things – something that Bob himself eventually finds out when Shark’s instincts get the better of him just after Bob agrees to give him a hug. But no worries! Bob promises to be back for his next show with a real “INSIDE view of our underwater world!” Nothing to fear here, folks – nothing at all. Or at least not much.
Another shark, sometimes known as Shark and sometimes as Mr. Shark, is merely one of a heroic quintet of bad guys trying to become good guys in Aaron Blabey’s ongoing series of simple and hilarious graphic novels, The Bad Guys. Shark is the disguise expert of the group, but his disguises are ridiculous, absurd, and would not fool anyone; so of course Blabey has them fool everybody, maybe even the alien who is the real bad guy in the sixth book of the sequence, Alien vs. Bad Guys. In addition to Shark, the Bad Guys include Wolf, their leader; Piranha; Snake; and Legs, a tarantula. And all of them are really up against it, the “it” being a gigantic many-tentacled thing with lots and lots of teeth and lots and lots of butts (or butt-like pieces of anatomy that appear at the end of the tentacles and are just great for squeezing and picking up stuff, such as Bad Guys). Anyway, the alien used to be a tiny megalomaniacal guinea pig named Marmalade – that was in earlier books of the series – but now that disguise is unnecessary, since the alien has learned all it needs to know about the weakness of Earth’s defenses and its own ability to, you know, take over the planet and all that. Nothing stands in its way except the Bad Guys, who are not doing so well because they happen to be standing in a room filled with dried alien snot. That is, all are there but one: Snake, who has never bought into the idea of the Good Guys Club and has gotten out while the getting out is good. Actually it isn’t good, but out is better than in with the alien, if you get Snake’s drift. So he drifts away – or, actually, powers away in an escape pod, leaving everyone else behind in an alien spaceship on the moon, where this whole book takes place. Is there any hope for Earth? Any hope for the Bad Guys and their Good Guys Club? Of course there is! If there were no hope, how could there be another book? But there will be another, set in the age of dinosaurs because, well, why not? For now, kids will have to be content laughing their, um, butts off at Alien vs. Bad Guys, while they wait for the forthcoming Do-You-Think-He-Saurus?
What Makes a Blizzard? By Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. Illustrated by Maddie Frost. Harper. $17.99.
Icebergs & Glaciers. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.
Both these books could be called “Let’s Read and Find Out” science, but in fact only the one by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld is included in that series, where it is a Level 2 book intended for ages 4-8. Zoehfeld introduces the topic of blizzards by going back to a still-notorious 19th-century storm, the blizzard of January 12, 1888. She uses it as an example of this extreme form of winter storm partly because it was nicknamed “The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard,” so called because it struck the U.S. Midwest while kids were in school, reducing visibility to almost zero, so “children trying to walk home from school became hopelessly lost.” Most teachers kept schoolkids in their one-room schoolhouses, and the few exceptions were usually fatal – the blizzard claimed 235 lives, although Zoehfeld does not mention this. (Nor does she mention that this is not the Great Blizzard of 1888, which hit the U.S. East Coast later in the same winter.) After giving 21st-century children a small taste of what the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard was like, Zoehfeld gets to a formal definition of this type of storm: it must have winds of at least 35 miles per hour that last at least three hours, with enough snow in the wind to cause a whiteout – which means visibility of one-quarter mile or less. Zoehfeld – aided by illustrations by the appropriately named Maddie Frost – explains how the collision of warm and cold air creates storms, and why such storms are especially common and violent in the U.S. Midwest. Zoehfeld gets into the basics of the water cycle, how snow is formed, how weather was predicted in the past and how it is predicted today, and more. She also gives more-modern references to blizzards to supplement the story of the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard of 1888 – for instance, she talks briefly about the 1977 blizzard in Buffalo, New York, where snowdrifts were higher than zoo fences and some reindeer escaped by simply walking away. Zoehfeld ends by bringing the matter of blizzards and other winter weather into modern times, explaining the differences between a “watch” and a “warning” when a storm is coming, suggesting ways to be prepared before bad weather hits, and reminding young readers – to avoid frightening them too much – that “eventually the wind will stop” and cleanup will begin, and there will be chances for play in the snow the storm leaves behind. A factually accurate book that will be easy for most children in the target age range to read and understand, What Makes a Blizzard? can be useful both in classrooms and at home during winter days when school is closed because of bad weather, if not necessarily blizzards.
Seymour Simon’s Icebergs & Glaciers, originally published in 1987 and now available in a new, updated edition, is fact-packed as well, and it is far more attractive to look at than What Makes a Blizzard? The reason is that, as usual in Simon’s books, the visual material is in the form of photos rather than illustrations. And what photos these are! Unusually for a Simon book, this one has not a single picture of a human being in it – and no photos of animals, either. So the photographs of glaciers, ice fields and water take on a kind of abstract beauty that turns the book very nearly into a work of art. But there are serious issues for humans in the forms of ice that Simon describes: the sole picture of anything human-created here shows a cruise ship that hit submerged ice off Antarctica in 2007, capsized and sank (the photo shows the Explorer listing strongly to starboard before going under). Simon does his usual excellent job of explaining: he discusses how glaciers form, how they move, and how icebergs are created when pieces of a glacier “calve” or split off. One photo appears to show a huge ice shelf – that is, a monumental ice sheet at the point where it meets the sea – stretching as far as the eye can see. It is an especially dramatic picture that becomes even more so when young readers (the book is intended for ages 6-10) read that this is not an ice shelf after all: it is an iceberg that broke off from an even larger iceberg that in turn broke away from an Antarctic ice shelf. The scale of the ice masses described by Simon is so vast that even his usual attempts to offer comparisons with more-familiar items falter – it is impossible to grasp that the Antarctic ice sheet is more than 15,000 feet thick, and not much easier to visualize what it means that this is “about the height of ten Empire State Buildings stacked one atop another.” Nevertheless, Simon makes a concerted effort to help young readers understand glaciers and icebergs, an attempt that includes showing “the ways that the land was changed by the glaciers” that receded after the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago. And he discusses the possible effects of “melting ice due to climate change [that] could raise global sea levels almost two feet by the end of this century” – a jumping-off point, one among many here, for young readers to learn more about this topic and discuss it further, whether in a classroom setting or elsewhere.
All Our Wrong Todays. By Elan Mastai. Dutton. $16.
Yes, it is somewhat too clever for its own good and somewhat too proud of its cleverness. And yes, its multiplicity of very short chapters, some only a page long, betrays its author’s background as a screenwriter and makes it clear that it was written at least in part with the intention of turning it into a movie, which it will inevitably become. And yes, its title is certainly not its strong suit. Yet Elan Mastai’s debut novel, All Our Wrong Todays, is a success both because of and in spite of itself, thanks in large part to Mastai’s willingness to combine genuine speculative fiction with some really funny writing – still rare in SF, at least in non-sarcastic form. Oh, and yes, Mastai’s protagonist’s name, Barren, is right up there on the obviousness scale to an irritating degree, and in fact Mastai makes him doubly barren by having him named Tom Barren in one reality and John Barren in another. He is also doubly, maybe quadruply irritating, a boring, snotty, self-centered twit, and equally self-indulgent under both names. Until he isn’t, or at least isn’t to the same extent – his progress is what keeps him from being totally insufferable, but it is a near thing.
All Mastai’s creational flaws, though, are little more than nitpicking, because All Our Wrong Todays really works, really engages readers and really deserves a great deal of the praise that was heaped on it when it was published last year (it is now available in a new paperback edition). It is part romantic comedy, part alternative-reality exploration, and part – well, part of it is a meta-novel, with Mastai having Barren step outside the memoir form in which he is generally narrating to address readers directly and make comments on, among other things, the “masochistic pleasure” of “reading a book where every word is fixed in place by the deliberate choice of a controlling vision,” that vision coming from “a stranger you’ll likely never meet.”
Barren, as a character, is much given to self-deprecation early in the book and only gradually becomes more self-aware, perceptive and out-and-out interesting. Mastai manages to convince readers that this happens because of the alternative-time (or alternative-world) experiences that Barren has. Barren himself is the proximate cause of what happens to him, which in a sense is true for what happens to everyone in life, but is particularly so for Barren and the entire world that he changes. Yes, All Our Wrong Todays is based on the familiar trope and time-travel paradox in which changing even something minor in the past can have a ripple effect that changes everything in the future, including whatever the word “future” turns out to mean. Ray Bradbury’s brilliant 1952 short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” encapsulates the concept to perfection, and no one since then has done it better. Mastai does not even try – he simply does it differently. Barren originally lives in a world in which 2016 is everything imagined by pulp-SF writers in the so-called Golden Age, “a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder,” complete with hovercars and personalized billboards and joy and happiness unbounded. This world is traceable to a single day: July 11, 1965, when physicist Lionel Goettreider (yes, “god rider” – the names here are a pretty good indication not to take the novel too seriously) turns on the Goettreider Engine, which uses the power of Earth’s rotation in the usual pseudo-scientific, semi-mystical way of old-fashioned SF to produce unlimited clean energy, thereby making Barren’s world possible.
That is, it would make Barren’s world possible if Barren didn’t spoil the whole thing. But he does – for romantic reasons. Barren is the son of the foremost scientist studying time travel, and he is the understudy of an intense, driven would-be chrononaut (time traveler, that is) named Penelope Weschler. He is also in love with her, but alas, things do not go well, so Barren, the very core of his being undermined in a way that makes perfect sense in bad SF and bad romantic-comedy movies made from it, makes an unauthorized time-travel trip to the very moment at which the Goettreider Engine made his world possible. And Goettreider notices him watching, which is not supposed to happen, and so the engine does not work, and the whole future made possible by it does not occur, and now Barren is trapped in a world very much of his own making and thoroughly unsatisfactory by the standards of the world where he belongs.
Except for one thing: the rom-com element. Barren is now in a world where he has a sister and a mother who is alive (in his original world, she died in an accident). He also has a less driven and more understanding father. And, most important of all, he has, maybe, a soul mate, who comes complete with the obligatory “meet cute” moment (on page 175 in the paperback). So now what? Stay in the decidedly non-utopian world that all the readers of All Our Wrong Todays inhabit, or find a way to re-create and return to the utopian “original” Barren world even though it means abandoning what could be lasting love and a far better family life? Barren is about as inept a time traveler as can be imagined, or as has been imagined, and it would be easy to dislike him – for instance, when he goes through another time loop and creates a world that is a great deal darker. Although he is certainly charming, Barren is also a bumbler and is confirmation of Alexander Pope’s famously epigrammatic utterance, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Barren knows just enough to mess things up, repeatedly.
But what keeps the book interesting is that there is so much going on, at such a breakneck pace, as events wind back and forth and through the various times and places and Barren, rather surprisingly, actually learns a great deal about who he is and where he belongs. There is nothing new about a novel whose protagonist develops that sort of self-understanding and self-awareness, but here it seems to happen in a natural, unforced way despite Barren’s periodic direct-to-the-reader comments. Mastai’s authorial hand is everywhere in All Our Wrong Todays, in the pacing and plotting and pushing around of the characters, in the manipulation of events and people and settings – but this omnipresence is managed with such a light, even elegant touch that readers will be intrigued rather than put off by the convolutions of the story and the palpable amusement that Mastai brings to it. The novel turns out to be one that readers can take seriously for a level of thoughtfulness that seems to come through almost offhandedly – but that in fact develops from a surprisingly subtle undercurrent beneath the madcap pace of the events. All Our Wrong Todays is, in the end, simply fun. Which is not, however, to say it is simple fun: there is enough complexity here to keep readers dazzled throughout a thrill ride that proves to be, surprisingly and delightfully, not only clever but also rather sweet.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 6; Music for a Ballet of Knights; Wellington’s Victory. Claire Huangci, piano; Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths. Klanglogo. $18.99.
Beethoven: Variations for Piano, WoO 63-80. Alessandro Commellato, fortepiano. Brilliant Classics. $16.99 (3 CDs).
For all the familiarity that most listeners have with Beethoven’s music, there are still ways for performers to approach it that provide an element of surprise and some additional insights. Doing so, especially in Beethoven’s best-known pieces, requires thoroughly rethinking the music and finding new ways to look at it – and that is what Philippe Jordan has done in his recording of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies with the Wiener Symphoniker, released on the orchestra’s own label. Beethoven actually worked on multiple symphonies at once, so their numbering is not strictly accurate, but it is certainly true that the Fourth, sometimes dismissed as rather lightweight and a bit of a throwback, was created after the “Eroica” – or at least at the same time. Jordan takes this fully into account in his reading, giving the symphony a level of seriousness and intensity that is frequently lacking in other performances. The lyricism does not get short shrift, but it is not the whole story here: this is an unusually serious version of the Fourth, pensive and even dark in places, its fleet-footed elements thus standing in stronger-than-usual contrast to its almost gloomy ones. The first two movements, in particular, come across here as subtle and intense, after which the rather gruff third movement paves the way for the eventual move into humor and light – a bit like Haydn, but only a bit – in the finale. The interpretation is unusual and revelatory. Jordan’s handling of the Fifth is not quite as outstanding, but still has a great deal to recommend it – including Jordan’s careful adherence to Beethoven’s indicated tempos and his performance of the third movement with the trio appearing twice, while many other performances leave out the second appearance. There is no certainty about exactly what Beethoven wanted here – one of many still-unanswered questions about his symphonies – but the more-extended third movement better fits the carefully constructed edifice that is Jordan’s performance, and produces a better overall balance for the entire work. From the highly dramatic but in-tempo famous opening of the symphony to the broad, martial, celebratory finale with added piccolo, contrabassoon and trombones, Jordan has a vision of the narrative arc through which he wants the music to move – through which he believes Beethoven wanted it to move – and he follows it with care and tremendous attention to detail, thanks to the excellent orchestral playing. These are among the best recent recordings of these iconic symphonies, producing anew the feeling that these are deeply communicative works whose depths, however often plumbed, have not yet been fully explored, and may never be.
The reconsideration is not quite as extensive in Jordan’s interpretations of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, but the Wiener Symphoniker’s playing is equally good, the attention to detail is as impressive, and the contrast between these works is handled with as much skill as are the surprising resemblances between Nos. 4 and 5. Jordan’s No. 1 is very distinctly Haydnesque, the highlighting of the contrasting piano and forte elements of the first movement and the speed of its fleet first theme introducing a reading that clearly shows Beethoven’s debt to the older composer – giving the lie to Beethoven’s unkind statement that he never learned anything from Haydn. Yet Jordan’s performance shows quite clearly that no one could possibly think Beethoven’s First could have been written by Haydn: the harmonic daring, the writing for winds and brass, the emphatic nature of the many chordal passages, and the general insistence on forward propulsiveness throughout, quite clearly mark the symphony with Beethoven’s still-developing musical propensities. Jordan’s bright and quick approach to the sunny Andante cantabile con moto is especially noteworthy for its emphasis on the con moto indication and the movement’s wry humor. The short introduction to the finale gives Jordan another opportunity for humor – really, for wit – and the movement then spins along in a very Haydnesque manner indeed, its structure and pacing showing just how far Beethoven had already come in this work in building on past masters and growing beyond them. And when it comes to the “Eroica,” Jordan opens with the same emphatic but in-tempo and not-overdone intensity that he brings to the start of the first movement of No. 5. He then lets the opening movement flow and at times seem to meander (but not into the “disorder” that some in Beethoven’s own time perceived). And then, after finding a way to pace the second movement rather quickly while still allowing it plenty of funereal grandeur, Jordan achieves something quite striking in making the finale – too often trivialized in the shadow of the extended first two movements – into the summation and capstone of the symphony. Instead of allowing any falloff of tension and drama after the first two movements, Jordan conducts the remainder of the symphony as a large-scale counterbalance, even though the third and fourth movements together last only as long as does the first movement on its own. The effectiveness of Jordan’s approach will be especially evident to listeners who choose to listen back-to-back to his handlings of the “Eroica” and No. 5: Jordan makes the finale-focused nature of both these intense symphonies clear and meaningful, revealing connections between them that go beyond the ones uncovered by many conductors.
Other Beethoven works are revelatory simply because they are less-known and show sides of the composer with which listeners are far less likely to be familiar. The fascinating piano version of the Violin Concerto, sometimes identified as Piano Concerto No. 6, is one infrequently heard Beethoven work that deserves greater currency. The orchestral part is the same as in the violin version, but Beethoven made a variety of changes in the solo portion to accommodate the differences between the sound and capabilities of the piano and the violin. Especially notable are the two cadenzas Beethoven created for this work, which are quite clearly piano-centered rather than adaptations of the violin cadenzas. And the first of the piano cadenzas provides a structural benefit that the violin one in the first movement does not: the whole concerto begins with timpani strokes, and Beethoven brings back the timpani during the piano cadenza, creating an unusual sound of two percussion instruments and also reminding the ear of the timpani strokes from the concerto’s opening. The new Klanglogo recording of this concerto, featuring pianist Claire Huangci with the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths, is a very fine one, suitably pianistic without being overstated. Huangci and Griffiths share fine rapport and produce a mutually supportive reading that will likely make listeners wonder why this work is not heard more frequently in its piano guise. Unfortunately, the rest of the CD is not up to the quality of the concerto. Griffiths offers a real rarity and a pseudo-rarity here. Music for a Ballet of Knights, WoO 1, is very early and very inconsequential Beethoven, opening with a short but effective march but then offering little that is substantive: of the 12 movements, five are versions of the same “German Song,” a sixth includes that music as a middle section, and the entire work lasts only 11 minutes. Written for Count Waldstein when Beethoven was only 20 years old, the ballet is occasional music without much pretense to importance or much evidence of originality – although it has a certain amount of rather crude verve. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Beethoven produced another work of similar enthusiastic crudity, albeit with much greater skill. This was Wellington’s Victory, a celebration of the outcome of the Battle of Leipzig during the Napoleonic Wars. In the right hands, this music can actually be a good deal of fun: the first part portrays English and French forces, identified by characteristic tunes and portrayed in different keys, battling with considerable ferocity – the music was intended to include actual cannons and muskets among its effects. After the French limp off, their theme transformed into a minor-key march, there is a “Symphony of Victory” that is as bright and upbeat as could be expected or desired. But Griffiths does not seem to take Wellington’s Victory sufficiently seriously. He omits the military elements of the first part, instead using ordinary percussion instruments – notably a bass drum whose sound never approximates that of cannon fire and that quickly becomes wearisome. And the second half of the work, although well-played, lacks the celebratory exuberance that Beethoven surely wanted it to have. The performance is all right, but it does nothing to make a case that Wellington’s Victory deserves to be heard more often – as, in truth, it does, if only for its curiosity value. Still, the concerto performance on this disc is so good that it overcomes the comparative weakness of the other works here, and the weakness of Griffiths’ handling of them.
No such performance weakness is apparent in a Brilliant Classics release containing all of Beethoven’s early piano variations, WoO 63-80, played by Alessandro Commellato (joined in the four-hand variations, WoO 67 and WoO 74, by Elena Costa). Count Waldstein figures here as well as in Music for a Ballet of Knights: the eight four-hand variations, WoO 67, are on a theme that he wrote. Some other variations are also on themes by specific individuals – for instance, the nine-variation work, WoO 63, that is the first piece of music known to have been written by Beethoven (at the age of 10), is based on a march from the now-forgotten Ernst Christoph Dreßler. Most of these variations, though, are on themes from operas by composers such as Salieri (WoO 73), Paisiello (WoO 69 and WoO 70), Dittersdorf (WoO 66), Peter Winter (WoO 75), and Franz Xaver Süßmayr (WoO 76; this is the Süßmayr who completed Mozart’s Requiem). Other sets use themes from no-longer-remembered ballets or are based on original themes, and two sets are on specifically British tunes: WoO 78 on “God Save the King” and WoO 79 on “Rule Britannia.” There is also one set, WoO 74 for piano four hands, based on Goethe’s Ich denke dein, with the first stanza of the poem sung here (unfortunately rather screechily) by soprano Sonja Angelina Krenn. The variations are presented, for no apparent reason, in exact reverse order, starting with WoO80 and running backward to WoO 63. What this does is have the three-CD set open with WoO 80, the only one of these variation sets that is at all well-known – and it is, indeed, better constructed and of greater interest than most of the other material here. It is not, however, even close to the most substantial of these groups of variations: seven others last longer, the most extensive set of all being WoO 65 on an aria by Vincenzo Righini – that set goes on for more than 23 minutes. All these variations are superficial and deserve to be called salon or parlor music, but all of them have points of interest that provide insight into Beethoven as a young, up-and-coming pianist, and it is a pleasure simply to hear so much little-known Beethoven in performances as fine as these. It is also a pleasure to hear these works performed on correct instruments – not on a modern concert grand piano but on fortepianos from the late 18th and early 19th centuries (or reproductions of the original instruments). Commellato’s choice of specific instruments for particular works is a personal one, and it is always well-considered. There are five different fortepianos heard here, each with its own unique sound, with the earliest having very distinctly harpsichord-like characteristics and the latest (dating to 1823) beginning to possess some of the range and tone of the more-familiar instruments created later in the 19th century. All in all, this is a fascinating foray into less-known Beethoven and into a form that the composer used in his piano music throughout his life, right through to the second and concluding movement of his final piano sonata. These early variations show Beethoven in learning-and-display mode, and are a wonderful way to hear just how far Beethoven advanced piano music in general, and the variation form in particular, as his compositional prowess developed over time.
Frank Ticheli: Clarinet Concerto; Brad Warnaar: Horn Concerto; Behzad Ranjbaran: Flute Concerto. James Zimmermann, clarinet; Leslie Norton, horn; Érik Gratton, flute; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.
Timothy Lee Miller: Sebastian’s Day Off; Ruby in the Rough; Dear Della Mae; Inky & Marie; Stellee & Jack; Boo’s Bolero; Poochie’s Waltz; Something More. Ansonica. $14.99.
Alejandro Rutty: Exhaling Space; Transparent Sun; As You Say; Martian Milonga; More Music for Examining and Buying Merchandise; Guitars; Cantabile Hop; Qualia. Navona. $14.99.
It was Mozart who first established a significant degree of independence for wind instruments in a larger ensemble, picking up on some moves in that direction by Haydn. Centuries later, it was jazz that placed wind instruments – certain ones, anyway – in the forefront of mixed instrumental groups. Today, composers often draw on both the classical tradition and the jazz world in creating works in which winds are highly prominent, even front-and-center, but remain within the context of instruments of other types. Some contemporary composers do this with a conscious nod to the past. Frank Ticheli (born 1958) quite overtly ties the first movement of his Clarinet Concerto (2010) to Gershwin, calling the movement “Rhapsody for George” and quoting Gershwin’s own famous clarinet solo at the start – then moving onward from it into a distinctly jazzy, highly syncopated movement that is speedy and high-spirited. The second and third movements of Ticheli’s work also look backward: “Song for Aaron” is distinctly Coplandesque, while the concluding “Riffs for Lenny” focuses on the multifaceted Leonard Bernstein through additional jazz-inflected music that merges underlying seriousness with bright, dancelike elements. Brad Warnaar (born 1950) looks to the past as well in his Horn Concerto (2015) – specifically, in the final movement, which is the work’s cleverest and most interesting. Here Warnaar takes the soloist-vs.-orchestra concept to an amusing level by having the ensemble quoting horn works by Brahms and Mozart, the soloist responding with quotations from Richard Strauss, and everyone eventually reconciling for a happy ending. This concerto is interestingly constructed from a technical standpoint, using only the piano’s white keys (the diatonic scale) for its notes; but it is a bit too intricate for its own good, introducing “bell” motifs as place markers, pushing the horn to the extremes of its range, and having a generally disjointed feeling. In contrast, Iranian native Behzad Ranjbaran (born 1955) looks for a Persian feeling in his Flute Concerto (2013), seeking sensuousness and warmth through a three-movement work in which 21 of the 27 minutes are slow. The piece does not actually sound especially “Persian” or otherwise exotic, and although there is lyricism and even poetry here, there is rather too much of both, with the result that the bright and distinctly bouncy finale comes across as a real relief. The three wind soloists heard on the CD are Nashville Symphony principals, and the orchestra backs them up in very fine style under principal conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. No music here really breaks new ground, but all the works have elements that players of the solo instruments – and listeners who enjoy those instruments’ sounds – will appreciate.
The eight works on an Ansonica CD of the music of Timothy Lee Miller, although written for a variety of different instruments, all share a focus on winds and a very strong jazz orientation. They also share important personal elements, being based on people and events in the composer’s life – an arrangement that gives them highly personal meaning for him and those who know him, but that requires listeners unacquainted with Miller to do some homework if they are to understand what he is trying to evoke in the various pieces. Several of the works memorialize specific individuals: Miller’s Aunt Ruby (Ruby in the Rough), his Aunt Della Mae (Dear Della Mae), his Aunt Marie and her dog (Inky & Marie), his Aunt Estelle and the stories she told (Stellee & Jack), and his Aunt Mary Lou and her nickname (Boo’s Bolero). The other pieces are tributes to people still living, including Miller’s son (Sebastian’s Day Off), his mother (Poochie’s Waltz), and his wife (Something More). So the CD as a whole is a musical family album – an attractive concept that is of necessity highly personal, which means it is rather insular: nothing in any of this music reaches out in any especially distinctive way to people who are not Miller’s family members or close friends. That does not mean the music is poorly constructed, because it is not: the quick shifts in Sebastian’s Day Off, the unusual 13-8 meter of Dear Della Mae, the gentleness of three-quarter time in Poochie’s Waltz, and various other elements of these works are effective and involving. And the various blendings of saxophones (at least one in every work) with instruments including trumpet, trombone, guitar, piano, bass and drums are nicely managed. However, in the absence of familiarity with the individuals for or about whom the works were written, a listener ends up with a feeling of comparative sameness of sound from one piece to the next, rather than a sense that a specific work here somehow limns a particular personality.
The type of music written by Alejandro Rutty and heard on a new Navona CD is far more varied, and so are the instruments Rutty uses. Not all his works here include winds, and indeed not all include traditional acoustic instruments: More Music for Examining and Buying Merchandise is for soprano saxophone, yes, but also for electronics, while Guitars is for two clarinets and electronics and conflates the acoustic instruments with those of the work’s title, to rather odd effect. Rutty does not always go for the obvious: Exhaling Space deals with celestial bodies but uses a string quartet rather than the electronics commonly employed in “space music,” and although Martian Milonga – an imaginary “future of tango” work – does include electric bass and does have some of the feelings of electronic music, it is really a blend of tango with world music and rock. The four other works here are Transparent Sun, for violin and piano; As You Say, for two violins and soprano saxophone; Cantabile Hop, for piano, viola, bass (played by Rutty), percussion and electronics; and Qualia, a solo-piano work and another piece performed by Rutty himself. Rutty’s stylistic variety can be jarring – he packs a great deal into a short time – and although his work is mainly jazz-permeated, it also has elements of Latin music (tango and otherwise), straightforward electronica, and some classical elements (albeit often stretched almost into unrecognizability). Rutty does tend to let his own cleverness run away with itself from time to time, and several tracks on the disc are less interesting to hear than their titles and instrumentation would indicate. But the sheer variety of material on the disc means that many listeners who enjoy contemporary music will find at least a few pieces here worth hearing, and may even enjoy choosing works based partly on whether their focus is winds, strings, percussion, electronics or some combination of these instruments and their varied sounds.
March 08, 2018
Truck Full of Ducks. By Ross Burach. Scholastic. $17.99.
Ranger Rick: I Wish I Was a Gorilla. By Jennifer Bové. Harper. $16.99.
Ross Burach has a seriously skewed sense of humor, and it is in full flower, or maybe full feather, in Truck Full of Ducks. The concept itself is ridiculous, and the cover illustration – showing a baseball-cap-wearing dog driving a truck in the back of which 11 very different-looking and very strange-looking ducks are cavorting – certainly sets the scene. The back cover takes things a step (or flutter) further: it is a roadside billboard for the duck-delivery company, promising to deliver ducks anytime and anywhere and sporting the motto, “Look for the truck with the quack in the back!” And those are just the book’s covers. There is lots more ridiculousness inside. The inside front cover shows the ducks getting ready for a day’s work: they have storage lockers and benches to sit on and lunchboxes and pizza to nibble and a newspaper to read (front-page headline: “Stuff Happened”) and a Bladder Buster drink featuring two swirly straws and a coffee mug saying “Is It Friday Yet?” And there are motivational/advertising posters on the walls, one of which announces, “Voted 3rd Fastest Duck Delivery Service in Town,” which is sure to make kids wonder who came in first and second. And we are not even up to the book’s title page! Eventually the story starts with the dog boss taking an order on his duck-shaped phone (amid much other duck décor) and heading the duck truck out onto a street where a sign pointing left says “this way” and one pointing right says “that way” and a yellow describe-the-road sign shows the road ahead twisted into spaghetti, only with more curlicues. One of the ducks then eats the directions, and now there is real trouble – and a great plot, as dog and ducks try to figure out who placed the order. It is not the little girl: she called for a mail truck to take her boxed-up little brother “very far away.” It is not the construction worker: he wanted a dump truck, and the one that shows up says “Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Haul” on its side. It is not the shark, pig and crab, three buddies who called for an ice cream truck – but that’s just fine with the duck truck, since the ducks on the truck quickly tuck into iced treats of all sorts. Everything would be just ducky if the boss dog could figure out who called for the truck – no, not the pirate, and not the alien, and not the man who has had more than enough of ducks and called for a duck removal truck. Eventually, very eventually, the mystery is solved, with a visit to the address of 1 Scary Way in the Deep Dark Woods – a place that the ducks enter with shivers, as one of them puts the finishing touches on his last will and testament. But everything turns out just fine – Burach would not have it any other way – and the ducks eventually head back to the office, along the way passing a “Van Full of Toucans.” And that is merely the end of the main story – there is still more amusement on the inside back cover. Burach has the mind of a six-year-old, more or less, or at least the ability to channel one – and Truck Full of Ducks will delight kids on both sides of that approximate age, say from ages four to eight. Oh – and it will also delight adults who, like Burach himself, obstinately refuse to stay grown up.
The writing is simpler and more direct in another book for the four-to-eight age range, Ranger Rick: I Wish I Was a Gorilla. But the message here is far more down-to-earth and entirely factual. This is a Level 1 book (“simple sentences for eager new readers”) in the “I Can Read!” series. It is also a book with an intriguing premise: Jennifer Bové asks kids to imagine what it would be like to be a gorilla. She then writes as if the wish has come true, explaining where and how gorillas live, what they eat, and how they behave. Photos of gorillas in the wild are the main visual element here, with occasional questions from Ranger Rick, the National Wildlife Federation’s cartoon raccoon. For instance, Bové explains that gorillas live in rainforests, where “the weather is often cloudy with lots of rainy days,” and the raccoon asks, “Do you play outside on rainy days?” Questions like this help focus young readers’ attention on differences between humans and gorillas. But there are also plenty of similarities, which Bové’s text and the photos highlight. Mother gorillas kiss and cuddle their babies; baby gorillas like to play – they run around and climb trees; young gorillas engage in wrestling and chasing games with their friends; and so on. There is information here on gorilla language – that is, the meanings of several sounds gorillas make – and gorilla food, including “leaves and stems” of plants, “roots and fruits,” and sometimes insects. And here Ranger Rick asks, “If you ate like a gorilla, what food would you miss?” The combination of interesting photos with simple but accurate textual description and occasional questions makes this book a very good first look at the world’s largest primates. And there is additional information at the end, including a place to go online to learn more about gorillas. There is also an amusing recipe for humans that is called “Ants on a Stick” but that is somewhat different from the ants on a stick that gorillas really eat: for humans, the idea is to take sticks, or rather stalks, of celery…coat them with cream cheese or peanut butter…and then stick raisins to the coated areas “so that they look like ants crawling along a stem.” Add a little gorilla language, and kids can imagine, if only for a moment or two, that any wish they had to become gorillas has temporarily come true.
There Was an Old Mermaid Who Swallowed a Shark! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.
There Was an Old Pirate Who Swallowed a Map! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.
The “Old Lady” books by Lucille Colandro and Jared Lee all take off from the original “house that Jack built” story of the old lady who swallowed a fly (“I don’t know why she swallowed the fly – perhaps she’ll die”). That original ends with death, which kids today are not supposed to find funny: “I don’t know why she swallowed the horse. She’s dead, of course.” There is no death in the Colandro/Lee variations on the swallow-this-and-that theme, and there is in fact little variation from book to book – indeed, the items swallowed do not always connect very well with each other, even though oddball connections are the whole point of the original “Old Lady” rhyme. The books nevertheless always provide at least a mild degree of fun – and now there are two new ones, both in hardcover, that expand the “franchise,” add new characters, and take the stories in a new and enjoyable direction.
At first it seems that the Old Mermaid and Old Pirate books simply follow the formula of other Colandro/Lee productions: “There was an old mermaid who swallowed a shark. I don’t know why she swallowed the shark, but it left no mark.” And: “There was an old pirate who swallowed a map. I don’t know why she swallowed the map – ARRR! – but it wasn’t a trap.” The Old Pirate start is weaker than that of the Old Mermaid, but both share the Old Lady in her usual role – she is simply shown as a mermaid in one book and in pirate costume in the other. More importantly, even before the rhymes start, the books introduce two new characters: a little boy and a little girl. In the Old Mermaid book, they are seen in a rowboat pointing out the shark and mermaid; in the Old Pirate book, they are aboard a ship, saying “Yo ho ho!” and “Ahoy, matey!”
Each time the Old Lady (as Mermaid or Pirate) swallows something, the book switches back to the boy and girl as they ask questions or comment on what is happening. In the Old Pirate book, “How do we choose which way to go? Read the map and then we’ll know.” In the Old Mermaid book, “Did the squid [one of the swallowed creatures] swim really fast? It propelled itself with a mighty jet blast.” By interspersing boy-and-girl comments with the Old Lady swallowing things, Colandro and Lee expand these books beyond earlier ones in the series – and at the very end of each, they go a step further by giving factual information on the objects swallowed. In the Old Pirate book, for example, kids are told, “The spyglass was first invented in the early 1600s. This handheld telescope used two lenses to magnify objects that were too far away to see.” And in the Old Mermaid book, one entry says, “Eels don’t have scales. They are covered with a slimy substance that allows them to slither and slide.”
There is also another way in which the Old Mermaid and Old Pirate books are distinguished from others in the Colandro/Lee series: at the end of the main narrative, it turns out that the two kids are with the Old Lady and the whole story is make-believe. The Old Mermaid book eventually shows kids and Old Lady looking into a gigantic aquarium, with the text saying, “There was an old mermaid who loved to spend her whole day playing pretend/ that everything under the water was her friend.” And the Old Pirate book concludes, “There was an old pirate who stayed until dark/ on the pirate ship ride at the amusement park.” So everything in both books was entirely imaginary – well, of course all the Colandro/Lee stories are a lot to, umm, swallow, but by making the “play” elements explicit here, author and illustrator change the overall tone of these books. And now there is even a place for the ubiquitous little black dog shown by Lee in all the Old Lady adventures: here the pup simply accompanies the Old Lady and the kids (maybe her grandchildren?) on their enjoyable outings. These two books can serve as entry points to the Old Lady series for kids not yet familiar with it – or they can help revive interest in it if kids have found their attention flagging because of the similarities among the many earlier Old Lady books. Either way, the Old Mermaid and Old Pirate books provide a pleasantly different view of the Old Lady and her ever-unsatisfied appetite.
Marty Pants #2: Keep Your Paws Off! By Mark Parisi. Harper. $12.99.
My Weirdest School #10: Miss Newman Isn’t Human! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $4.99.
Why change a formula that seems to be working? Mark Parisi came up with a workable one in the first Marty Pants adventure, Do Not Open! Marty is the typical wisecracking preteen protagonist with a good sense of humor and minimal sense of reality – plus ambitions to be an artist, which explains why the book, although not quite a graphic novel, is told partly in text and very heavily in “Marty’s” illustrations. Having established the basic idea – in which plot is very much secondary to character comedy – Parisi understandably uses it essentially the same way in the second Marty book, Keep Your Paws Off! The plot this time has to do with Marty becoming convinced, on extremely minimal (essentially nonexistent) evidence, that he is a werewolf. The main reason he believes this is that he finds a damaged page torn from his older sister’s diary, saying there is no doubt that her brother (that is, Marty) “is a we.” The rest of the word is missing, so it must be werewolf, not, say, “weakling,” “weasel,” “weirdo,” “wendigo,” “westerner,” “webmaster,” “weisenheimer,” “weed,” “welcher” – well, it turns out eventually that Erica was using one of those other words to describe Marty; “werewolf” was not it. But never mind: the misapprehension leads Marty to a series of misadventures, which are the whole point here. For example, he asks his friend Roongrat if werewolves are real, because “Roongrat is so full of baloney that I basically believe the opposite of what he says.” So when Roongrat knowingly explains that, yes, werewolves really exist, Marty knows they don’t and the book ends. Ha, ha, ha! No, of course that isn’t the end of it! Roongrat later says he was wrong about werewolves – dragons are the creatures that definitely exist – so now Roongrat says there are no werewolves, so they must be real, and Marty starts enumerating all the things that prove he is one, from growling (when he is frustrated after a school-picture session) to having a craving for meat (cafeteria lunch). Oh, the evidence just mounts and mounts! After a while, Marty’s conclusion that he is a werewolf becomes inescapable, and so he ends up huddled in a dog crate to protect the world when he transforms. Which, of course, he doesn’t, even after wrapping himself in couch cushions (after the door of the dog crate pops open) and finding himself directly under the full moon. None of this makes a lick of sense, but “sense” is not in the Marty Pants formula, and does not have to be: everything here is fun, much of it is funny, and some of the illustrations (including those of couch-cushion Marty) are hilarious. Readers who enjoyed Marty’s first adventure will have an equally good time with his second.
The kids in the My Weirdest School series – and its predecessors, My Weird School and My Weirder School – have been going at it much longer than Marty has been going at anything. What have they been going at? Mostly each other, with bits of plot thrown in to keep things moderately interesting. Dan Gutman enjoys coming up with what are frequently weird-adult (rather than weird-school) plots, and Jim Paillot inevitably illustrates them in a way that, if not weird, is certainly strange enough to justify the series’ title. The latest mostly predictable entry in My Weirdest School is called Miss Newman Isn’t Human! And, for a change, the title makes a weird sort of sense even though Miss Newman is human. See, Miss Newman (whose first name is, ahem, Sprinkles) is a weather reporter for a local TV station, and if you ever suspected that TV presenters are incapable of thinking of anything to say on their own, being wholly dependent on the teleprompter and the person running it, you will have those suspicions amply confirmed here. The only difference is that, instead of needing a teleprompter to know what to say, Miss Newman needs old-fashioned (pre-teleprompter) cue cards, which are helpfully supplied to her by her able assistant, Luke Warm. And all appears to be going just fine when the two of them come to Ella Mentry School – until a big storm suddenly blows up and Luke Warm is hit by lightning. Now Miss Newman does not know what to say – really does not know, proving incapable of putting together even a slightly coherent sentence in the absence of her loyal assistant and ever-present cue cards. Most of the book involves the kids interacting with Miss Newman as Miss Newman learns to talk like a real live human being. And there is also a whole thing about haboobs (huge sandstorms), which narrator A.J. explains cannot possibly occur at Ella Mentry School, which is a signal that one will certainly occur there, which it eventually does. And Luke Warm turns out to be just fine despite the lightning strike, and it turns out there is something personal between him and Miss Newman, and it is cutely communicated using cue cards, and everything is just as flippant and silly as in all these books – right down to the inevitable final sentence, “But it won’t be easy!” The My Weirdest School books are quite unchallenging, following a wholly predictable story arc time after time – but for that very reason, kids who like any of them are likely to enjoy pretty much all of them, including Miss Newman Isn’t Human!
Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology. Edited by Danielle Binks. HarperCollins. $9.99.
Anthologies need some sort of connection among their elements to have even a small chance of being appealing from start to finish. This one has two such connections: the basic theme of beginnings and endings, and the fact that all the authors write young-adult fiction in Australia. The overly cutesy title belies the fact that there is very little that is cute and even less that is funny in these 10 stories, several of whose authors are well-known in Australia but none of whom is particularly popular (yet) in North America. The writing is generally professional and generally undistinguished: the target age range is clear from the authors’ style and their choice of topics and settings within the “begin/end” formula, but most of the material is presented in a fairly bland way – few of these writers have a distinctive voice, at least in these short stories.
Unsurprisingly, the tales are varied enough so that different readers will gravitate to some and be turned away by others. Those interested in girl-girl relationships, for example, may like Amie Kaufman’s One Small Step and/or Lili Wilkinson’s Oona Underground. The stories’ settings are quite different – the former is set on Mars, the latter in a magical-realist sort of underground urban sewer system – but the basic theme of discovering who you are sexually and whom you want to pair with is the same in both.
Readers more oriented toward heterosexual teenage romance can try Will Kostakis’ I Can See the Ending, which has the intriguing premise of a family genetic propensity for knowing the future, and the consequences thereof for one’s love life; Melissa Keil’s Sundays, a much more ordinary weekend-party-interpersonal-dynamics tale; and/or Gabrielle Tozer’s The Feeling from Over Here, about an extended bus trip that requires the female protagonist to sit next to a guy she sort of liked who hung out with guys she didn’t and who insulted her and didn’t apologize and it’s all just so awful, you know?
The five remaining stories are even more of a mixed bag. Alice Pung’s In a Heartbeat is about a pregnant teen determined to keep her baby even though pretty much everyone is against it and against her and, in fact, is pretty awful and judgmental. Michael Pryor’s First Casualty is an extremely obvious outer-space story about the importance of being kind to aliens (real aliens in this story, but very, very obviously stand-ins for “aliens” in the sense of immigrants) – and the awfulness of politics, politicians, and adults in general. Ellie Marney’s Missing Persons is an odd boy-girl friendship story whose title hints at detective yarns and whose central characters echo the Sherlock Holmes canon for no discernible reason (the girl is called Watts, reminiscent of Watson, and the boy is called Mycroft even though his real name is James). And then there is the focus on sibling relationships and deafness in Last Night at the Mount Solemn Observatory by the book’s editor, Danielle Binks; and there is the clever time-travel concept of Jaclyn Moriarty’s Competition Entry #349 – whose irritatingly juvenile style, however, will not be to all tastes.
The stories range in length from 20-some pages to 40-some, but the differing lengths are unrelated to the depth of character development, or lack thereof. Some of these authors obviously want to keep readers’ focus on the characters, while others care much more about the events and are content to leave the participants in those events unidimensional. There is a fair amount in the book that shows the authors to be Australian – it helps in one case to know what the drink Milo is, in another to know about Malvern bicycles, in a third to understand HSC exams – but there is even more material here that could be written by YA authors anywhere; and there is actually nothing in the book dealing with uniquely Australian geography, flora and fauna, concerns or worries. Indeed, part of the point here seems to be to show that Australian authors writing for teenagers – sorry, Young Adults, appropriately capitalized – can convey messages just as universal as those put across by YA authors from other countries. Be that as it may, the book also shows that Australia’s YA writers are just as much a mixed bag as those from elsewhere, with just as many ideas and concepts and approaches as in other YA writing – and just as many (or just as few) glimmers of genuinely innovative plotting, setting and characterization.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (arranged by Vladimir Leyetchkiss); Debussy: La Mer (arranged by Lucien Garban). Ralph van Raat, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Satie: Complete Piano Works, Volume 2—Le Fils des Étoiles; Fête Donnée par des Chevaliers Normands en l’Honneur d’une Jeune Demoiselle (XIe Siècle). Nicolas Horvath, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
Sara Feigin: Piano Works—Two Pieces; Toccata; Four Scenes; Variations; Sonata. Benjamin Goodman, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Mark John McEncroe: Reflections & Recollections, Volumes 1 and 2. Yoko Hagino, piano. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).
Ron Paley: Piano Music. Ron Paley, piano. Big Round Records. $14.99.
Stravinsky’s ballets needed piano arrangements for the very practical reason that dancers needed to be able to rehearse with piano accompaniment – there was no way to learn their parts by having an orchestra on call at all times. Stravinsky himself sometimes played the piano while instructing the dancers on his intentions for his scores. But the arrangement of The Rite of Spring made in 1985 by Vladimir Leyetchkiss was created for a different purpose. Stravinsky had made a two-piano version of the ballet, and Leyetchkiss (1934-2016), himself a considerable piano virtuoso, transformed that version into one for solo piano. The result presents challenges beyond the expected one of sheer difficulty. The solo pianist must find a way to reimagine and re-create the orchestral colors and textures of the original score without being able to lean on a partner for help filling in middle voices or adding depth of sonority or rhythmic élan. Ralph van Raat’s solution on a new Naxos CD is not to increase the drama of the music but to focus on its subtleties: the piano’s tonal abilities never match those of a full orchestra, but just as Liszt intended to make the piano “an orchestra in miniature,” so van Raat carefully chooses orchestral sounds and effects to reproduce, imitate or complement. His attentiveness both to the melodic flow of the material and to the work’s strikingly dramatic rhythms – which can be well-handled by what is, after all, a percussion instrument – results in a strong, well-reasoned performance that provides pleasures of its own as well as insights into Stravinsky’s skill in creating the music. Van Raat handles the 1938 arrangement for piano of Debussy’s La Mer in a somewhat similar way, but here there is an added element. Lucien Garban (1877-1959) looked to Debussy’s own piano music as a model for the piano version of this orchestral piece, and as a result, the pianist needs to treat the arrangement as he would Debussy’s own pieces for the instrument. This requires careful touch and articulation and very judicious use of the pedals, and van Raat provides all of these, producing La Mer as it might have been written by Debussy himself if he had done his own piano version. These insightful performances, although certainly paler than the orchestral versions of the music, are genuinely interesting in themselves, coming across not as piano reductions but as piano rethinkings – and ones performed very thoughtfully.
Both the similarities and the differences between Debussy and Satie are many, and they are apparent in the fascinating world première recording of the complete Satie score, Le Fils des Étoiles (“The Son of the Stars”). Lasting fully an hour and a quarter – exceptionally long for anything by this miniaturist composer – the music was originally written for a play by Joséphin Péladan, leader of a religious-artistic group devoted, among other things, to Wagner. In his typical inversion-of-expectations style, Satie wrote music that could never be confused in the slightest with anything Wagnerian or anything influenced by the German composer, except insofar as doing the opposite of something shows that you know what the original “something” was. The three short Preludes from Le Fils des Étoiles are well-known and have often been performed, but the complete score has never been recorded before. And while it is scarcely typical of later Satie (to the extent that the word “typical” applies to anything he ever wrote), this work from 1891 clearly shows the philosophical underpinnings of Satie’s compositional style. The music is entirely non-descriptive and in no way related to anything occurring on the stage. True, the play was essentially a series of philosophical musings, and Satie’s music could be construed the same way, but if so, the composer’s musings had little to do with the playwright’s. In addition to the three short Preludes, called The Vocation, The Initiation and The Incantation, the music includes three much longer sections, each labeled Theme Decoratif. Their titles are A Night in Chaldea, The Lower Hall of the Great Temple, and The Terrace of Patesi Goudea’s Palace. If the titles bring to mind something vaguely Masonic and perhaps vaguely Mozartian, the music does not: it is woven almost entirely from material that appears in the first Prelude, and its sounds are heavily chordal and quite repetitive – a kind of proto-minimalist music. It was in the early 1890s that Satie became close friends with Debussy, but the differences in their approach to the future of French music are very considerable – and the piano version of La Mer, contrasted with Nicolas Horvath’s performance of Le Fils des Étoiles on the Grand Piano label, makes that abundantly clear. Horvath completes the album with a three-minute encore showing Satie in more-familiar miniaturist mode – and contrasting quite neatly with the extended and unusual hour and a quarter of incidental music.
Contemporary composers such as Latvian-born Sara Feigin (1928-2011) take their influences from multiple sources, as is clear from a (+++) Navona CD featuring Benjamin Goodman. Debussy’s rambunctious sea is not at all like the one displayed by Feigin in the second of her Two Pieces (“Prelude” and “Storm”). There is nothing particularly programmatic in these two brief pieces, which primarily convey moods instead of painting impressionistic pictures. In other works here, Feigin thoroughly exploits the piano’s (and pianist’s) resources when she wishes, as in Toccata, which nevertheless is not entirely formidable for either performer or listeners – there is a gentle contrasting middle section that provides relief from the fireworks at the opening and close. Also heard here are interesting contrasts among the Four Scenes, “Legend,” “Joke,” “Memories” and “Perpetuum Mobile.” The second of these, lasting less than a minute, is especially accessible in its quicksilver momentum, and the final scene proceeds stylishly and cleverly, if rather superficially. Also on the CD is Variations, presenting a simple, gentle, folklike theme, nine variations, and a finale, everything being pithy and over almost before listeners can fully grasp the material. Indeed, everything on the CD is short – the whole disc lasts only 48 minutes. But one work here does aspire to more profundity than the others. That is Sonata, the third of whose four movements was inspired by a painting depicting the horrors of the same Babi Yar concentration camp that evoked some of Shostakovich’s most moving symphonic music. Feigin’s music is less viscerally gripping and is rather obviously striving for effects of mourning and empathy for suffering. But Sonata as a whole is involving and sufficiently intricate to capture and hold listeners’ attention. Its most effective part is the intensely dramatic start of the finale, coming on the heels of the Babi Yar tribute – here there is a touch of the same strong contrast that is in evidence, for example, in the blasting opening of the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 after the quiet conclusion of that work’s third movement. Goodman is a first-rate advocate of Feigin’s music, letting it build, flow, mount and subside to excellent effect. Except for Sonata, the material here is on the lightweight side, pleasant enough for a hearing or two but not likely to have considerable staying power except for listeners already familiar with and interested in Feigin’s work.
Another (+++) release from Navona is as extended as the Feigin CD is brief. The two-disc set featuring pianist Yoko Hagino performing Mark John McEncroe’s Reflections & Recollections offers more than two hours of music – and that is a lot, even though (or perhaps because) much of the material is pleasant and has a rather wistful feeling about it. There is a kind of gently pervasive melancholy to these pieces – 13 on the first disc and 11 on the second – that results in a feeling of sameness and repetition even though, objectively, the individual works are certainly different. McEncroe wants each piece to conjure up a different image in listeners’ minds, and therefore gives each a distinctive title – but the music itself is much less changeable from piece to piece, with very similar harmonies and rhythms and, above all, pacing. Everything here is at the same moderate speed, whether a work is called “Ripples on the Still Water,” “Pendulum,” “Shades of Autumn,” “A Lazy Summer’s Afternoon,” “A Rainy Summer’s Day,” or simply “Andante Moderato.” There is no significant seasonal difference between the sounds here and the emotions they therefore evoke, and when just about everything is played Andante moderato, it seems redundant to give that label to a single segment. Some of the titles indicate that pieces have a specific connotation for McEncroe himself – “Cindy’s Song,” “Natalie’s Theme” – but there is no way for the listener to figure out the differences between Cindy and Natalie, since both portraits (if that is what they are) are interchangeable. This is music that exists on the border between easy listening and minimalism and, to some extent, partakes of the least attractive elements of both, going on much too long in the same soporific mood and fading so readily into the background that it becomes more a sound sequence than anything musically communicative. Hagino plays everything sensitively, befitting music that practically screams its sensitivity. But the unremitting gentleness here is so overdone, so overextended, that it becomes quite difficult to pay attention to what is being performed. Indeed, paying attention seems not to be the point – the idea may be to let one’s mind wander, gently guided by the music. For listeners primarily interested in mood music for meditation, that may be enough.
The McEncroe disc contrasts dramatically with a (+++) Big Round Records release featuring 50 minutes of piano music performed by Ron Paley and mostly written by him. The seven Paley compositions here are not just jazz-influenced – they really are jazz, or close enough to it to create a distinction without a difference. And Paley plays the riffs and runs with all the flair of a jazz pianist. The bouncy Theme, ebullient U of M, contrasting and bluesy A Beautiful Soul, delicate and slightly hesitant P&Q – these first four tracks set a very distinctive mood. But then there is an abrupt and rather curious shift of tone and approach in the first of the three works not composed by Paley himself, but arranged by him. This is Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker, which Paley turns into a taffy pull, yanking it this way and that, preventing any sense of flow, changing rhythms and pacing willy-nilly, and turning the whole piece into an excuse for a series of jazzlike cadenzas. There is nothing musically wrong with this – it is akin to what composers have done for many years in creating piano showpieces based on other composers’ songs, opera tunes or famous melodies. But Paley’s specific handling of this warm, evenly paced, beautifully harmonized piece simply goes too far, turning into what ends up sounding like a parody even though parodistic intentions appear to be wholly absent here. The remainder of the CD consists of Paley’s Listen to the Sound, his arrangement mashing together and rearranging the pop songs Alone Together and Pretty Woman, his own Ballad Trilogy and curiously disconnected-sounding The More You Know, and finally – and very unnervingly – Chopin’s C minor Prelude, Op. 28, No. 20. It turns out, happily, that the arrangement of the Chopin is not nearly as cringe-worthy as that of the Tchaikovsky, and in fact is clever and original in spots, especially in its use of arpeggios. It does not sound at all like Chopin, but it sounds like something that might once have been Chopin – which, of course, is exactly what it is. Paley has some interesting musical ideas and expresses them entertainingly, for the most part, in his own compositions. His arranging of works by others is far more hit-or-miss, and while his willingness to take chances is admirable, his taking of those chances is only modestly successful – although his pianism at the end of the Chopin arrangement, when he offers some actual Chopin played straightforwardly, shows him to have more sensitivity to the works of others than is always apparent in his jazz-inflected adaptations of their music.
Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance; Pärt: Magnificat; Nunc dimittis. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Kaspars Putniņš. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).
Kim André Arnesen: Choral Works. Kantorei conducted by Joel Rinsema; Alicia Rigsby, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Richard Danielpour: String Quartets Nos. 5-7. Delray String Quartet (Mei Mei Luo and Tomás Cotik, violins; Richard Fleischman, viola; Claudio Jaffé, cello). Naxos. $12.99.
It is no surprise that attempts at spiritual connection through music continue unabated in the works of 20th- and 21st-century composers – after all, attempts to understand the world and the place of faith within it are many thousands of years old. But it is a bit surprising that so many spiritually oriented works continue using an older musical language than is found in purely secular contemporary music. To be sure, Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was eclectic, even small-c catholic in his musical tastes and orientation, even before he became a convert to large-C Catholicism in 1982. Schnittke’s later works tend to be withdrawn, even bleak, but his Psalms of Repentance (1988) are more than that. Using anonymous texts from 16th-century Russia in a piece created to celebrate a thousand years of Russian Christianity, the music is certainly dark, even gloomy, and it is also a very deliberate stylistic blend: traditional harmonies, often in thick textures, are juxtaposed with tone clusters, and highly chromatic passages appear alongside ones written using whole-tone scales. The melodic and rhythmic elements of Psalms of Repentance recall those of Russian liturgical chant only distantly, and while there is considerable beauty sprinkled throughout the work – the Sixth Psalm is especially lovely in its ethereality – the most telling element of the whole piece is the Twelfth Psalm, which is the longest of the set and is, remarkably, entirely wordless. The humming of the chorus offers an inevitable feeling of chantlike, meditative spirituality that is quite different from the Catholicism explored throughout the first eleven psalms, which tend to be bleak and dour despite many beauties in the choral writing – and even though all are delivered with warmth, skill and little apparent difficulty by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Kaspars Putniņš, despite the complexity of some of the musical writing. This is scarcely music for all tastes or all forms of spiritual seeking, but it is moving and effective despite its generally downbeat tone. And new light is shed on Schnittke’s settings by the inspired decision to include on this new BIS CD two shorter spiritual works by Estonia’s own Arvo Pärt, born just a year later than Schnittke (1935) and still going strong. Both the Magnificat of 1989 and Nunc dimittis of 2000 offer vocal blending and spiritual feelings different from and complementary to those of Schnittke, with the lovely serenity of the later work providing an especially strong contrast with the bulk of Psalms of Repentance and a moving complement to the larger work’s final section.
Easier to sing and more readily accessible in their emotional evocations, the dozen choral works of Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen on a new Naxos CD were all written between 2010 and 2016, but all offer a form of spiritual connection similar to that of Schnittke and Pärt. And in fact some of Arnesen’s musical inspiration stands beside Schnittke’s: Arnesen has said that one work here, Flight Song, is “the song of new life, fragile as the fall of a feather,” while Schnittke at one point said in an interview that his task as a composer was “not to think up or create music, but to listen." The implementation of these composers’ tuning-in to the world is quite differently expressed, though, notably in the way Arnesen writes particularly for sopranos in their high range – no fewer than six from the ensemble Kantorei are featured on this CD – while Schnittke tends to favor lower voices and a more strongly blended ensemble. Only five of these Arnesen pieces, all of which are led with care by Joel Rinsema, have been recorded before: the aforementioned Flight Song (2014); Even When He Is Silent (2011), using moving words that were scrawled on the wall of a concentration camp during World War II; Dormi, Jesu (2012); Cradle Hymn (2010); and The Lamb (2015), to the well-known words of William Blake. The seven world première recordings here are O Sacrum Convivium (2014); Child of Song (2014); The gift I’ll leave you (2015), commissioned by Kantorei; Making or Breaking (2015), another Kantorei commission; Pie Jesu (2013), to the familiar sacred text; Infinity (2016); and There We Shall Rest (2015). Most of the pieces are a cappella, but there is a surprise in the use of a soprano saxophone (played by John Gunther) in Making or Breaking. And there are piano parts with Flight Song, The gift I'll leave you, Cradle Hymn and Pie Jesu – although the sound quality of the recoding venue (First Plymouth Congregational Church in Denver) is not as kind to the piano as it is to the chorus, whose warmth comes through particularly notably. Interestingly, pianist Alicia Rigsby also fills the role of one of the six featured sopranos – on Infinity.
There is a soprano surprise of a different sort in the most-spiritual of the three quartets of Richard Danielpour (born 1956) on another new Naxos CD. This is Quartet No. 7, “Psalms of Solace” (2014), whose final “solemn and prayerful” movement is directly intended to portray the search for the divine after three earlier movements whose focuses are, respectively, intellect, the force of will, and romantic love. There is nothing jarring about the sound of Hila Plitmann’s voice after some initial disquiet when it first appears – just as the finale of Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance achieves the strongest effect of the whole work through eschewing words, so the introduction of the human voice to supplement the sound of the Delray String Quartet takes Danielpour’s work beyond the seekings of its first three movements into a realm where, the composer suggests (just as Beethoven did in his Ninth Symphony), instrumental sounds alone are not sufficiently communicative. This quartet is the most interesting of the three on the CD – all of them world première recordings. The other two, although well-crafted in largely neo-Romantic style, and skillful in their deployment of the instruments, are all in all more ordinary. No. 5 dates to 2004 and is called “In Search of La vita nuova.” It portrays Danielpour’s long relationship with Italy and is intended to convey a sense of journey and discovery, but does so only intermittently – although the third and final movement, marked Adagio, cantabile, certainly shows the composer’s affection for the country. No. 6, from 2009, is titled “Addio,” but despite the Italian word for “goodbye,” this is not another attempted travelogue – instead, it is intended to be about family (reflected in the “family” elements of quartet playing), with moods moving from triste (first movement) to giocoso (second) to another cantabile (finale). There is some undeniable emotional resonance in the quartet writing here, but the work as a whole is on the superficial side. For a stronger feeling of meaningfulness and the attempt to reach out to find it, it is to Danielpour’s “Psalms of Solace” quartet that listeners will do better to turn.