December 12, 2013
My Lucky Little Dragon. By Joyce Wan. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
Ten Tiny Toes. By Caroline Jayne Church. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.
Board books exist primarily to delight, secondarily to educate. Sometimes the educational elements are exceedingly clever, as they are in My Lucky Little Dragon. Joyce Wan never tells readers outright, but what she has created here is a book using the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac – a couple of them modified – to talk (as many board books do) about the wonderfulness of the baby to whom the book is being read. The book’s title refers to the fifth sign, which is indeed deemed the luckiest of them all. Then Wan moves to the sixth sign, describing baby as “my clever little snake,” that being an attribute associated with the snake in the Chinese zodiac – and shown very amusingly through a picture of a bespectacled snake reading a book while coiled around a tree limb. And so to the seventh sign, “my happy little horsey,” and then the eighth, “my snuggly little sheep” – although the eighth sign is actually a goat. This is not Wan’s only change: she does proceed to monkey, rooster, dog (which she gives as “puppy”) and pig, the 12th sign. But then, instead of the rat – the first sign – she offers “my kind little mouse,” mice presumably having greater cuddle potential than rats do. Then Wan works her way through the ox, tiger, and finally rabbit (she makes it “bunny”) – before ending the book with a built-in mirror and the exclamation, “Baby, I’m LUCKY to have you!” This is a delightful little board book with an unusually subtle underlying structure – one that will be clear to those familiar with the Chinese zodiac but obscure to others, who will nevertheless enjoy the sweet sentiments and delightful drawings.
Ten Tiny Toes teaches more overtly and with every bit as much charm. Caroline Jayne Church here creates a sort of participatory rhyme, along the lines of “head and shoulders, knees and toes.” Using big pictures (on larger-than-usual board-book pages) of a small baby, she goes through baby’s body parts one after another: “Mouth, ears, eyes, nose,/ arms, belly, legs/ and ten tiny toes!” The rollicking toddler – accompanied by a teddy bear that imitates all his motions – is told to “touch your ears, make them wiggle./ Touch your belly, laugh and giggle.” And so on. And again and again, Church returns to the “ten tiny toes” refrain, until eventually ending with a rhyme about “a love that grows and grows,” showing baby hugging the smiling stuffed animal. Fun to read aloud thanks to its easy cadences, and useful in helping very young children identify body parts and start to understand the number 10, this is a very happy little book that the youngest pre-readers will enjoy listening to and handling – which they can do with abandon, thanks to its well-padded covers and very strong binding. Parents will especially enjoy the little hearts floating all over the front and back covers and the front inside cover – since love is what this book, like board books in general, is all about.
Titanic: Voices from the Disaster. By Deborah Hopkinson. Scholastic. $7.99.
Big Nate: I Can’t Take It! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Whether serious and somber or slight and silly, some stories are told more effectively with intermingled words and visuals than they would be with words alone. Titanic: Voices from the Disaster is really voices and pictures from the disaster, not only photos but also such items as the menu for the ill-fated ship’s First Class dinner, a partial transcript of post-disaster testimony by a crew member, a distress telegram sent from the Titanic shortly before the ship sank, and much more. These visual elements, plus photographs of crew members and survivors, of the furnishings of the Titanic (shown by using photos of the very similar ones aboard its sister ship, Olympic), of actual pictures of lifeboats and artists’ often-fanciful depictions of the ship’s sinking, appear throughout Deborah Hopkinson’s well-researched and well-written book, which stands above the innumerable others on the Titanic because it tells the story in simplified form – for young readers – but still with a considerable amount of depth. Originally published last year for the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking and now available in paperback, Titanic: Voices from the Disaster humanizes the story by telling about individuals aboard the ocean liner, quoting numerous people who were there or who reported on what happened, and including wrenching letters written by survivors about what they endured and the people they lost. The sinking of the Titanic has been told many times and discussed not only in engineering terms but also in many allegorical ways – often involving the claim that the ship was “unsinkable,” in retrospect a statement of extreme hubris. But Hopkinson shows that the tragedy of the ship’s destruction was above all a human one, affecting not only those who lost their lives and their immediate families, but also people throughout the world who found themselves touched in one way or another, directly or indirectly, by what happened on the night of April 15, 1912. Titanic: Voices from the Disaster is scarcely the last word on the ship; it is not intended to be. But it is a fine overview of what happened, both descriptively and visually, and a highly impressive job of historical research and of presentation that clarifies events for young readers without over-simplifying a complex situation.
Simplification is what comic strips are all about, but some of them still manage to use the words-and-pictures format to tell interesting ongoing stories even as they amuse readers. Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate is one such: the exaggerated antics of sixth-grader Nate Wright have just enough reality underlying them to ring true to adults and preteens alike. In the all-color, all-Sunday-strip collection I Can’t Take It! are the usual elements of Nate’s world: annoying older sister Ellen, completely clueless father, teacher-who-is-the-bane-of-Nate’s-existence Mrs. Godfrey, well-meaning but irritating neighbor dog Spitsy, best friends Francis and Teddy, and the numerous cartoon characters drawn by Nate himself – Peirce says he was a budding cartoonist when he was Nate’s age, so of course he has made Nate one as well. Nate’s cartoons – always in black and white – are among the more unusual story elements in Big Nate, featuring TV personalities Chip Chipson and Biff Biffwell, celebrity psychologist Dr. Warren Fuzzy, another doctor named Luke Warm, show host Ken Doolittle, and so on. Nate uses the comics to comment on the people and events around him – and as often as not gets into more than his usual helping of trouble as a result. Not that the usual helping is all that small: school-work avoidance, relationship issues, family confusions, and Nate’s own inflated sense of self-importance combine to produce plenty of opportunities for self-humiliation, from which Nate always manages to bounce back (a big reason for his attractiveness as a character). A collection of Sunday strips like this one lacks the continuity of one that includes dailies, but Peirce does a good job of keeping these Sunday ones self-contained while making sure they fit firmly into Nate’s world. One strip has Francis and Teddy timing Nate to see how quickly he gets detention – he manages it in 43 seconds, a personal best (or worst). Another has the boys looking at a 15-year-old yearbook featuring a “hot” teacher, who turns out to be Mrs. Godfrey before her marriage – resulting in Nate feeling “very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very sick.” Nate struggles with tests, sports, his always-jam-packed school locker, his baseball team’s name (the Doormats), his crush Jenny, the too-perfect exchange student Artur, and many more features and foibles of everyday life. The melding of drawing and writing in Big Nate is always well done, with Peirce’s storytelling a seamless blend of the verbal and the visual – and, consistently, a highly enjoyable mixture.
Vivaldi: Concerti for Two Violins and Strings, Volume I—RV 523, 510, 509, 517, 515 and 508. Dmitry Sinkovsky and Riccardo Minasi, violins; Il Pomo d’Oro. Naïve. $16.99.
Christoph Graupner: Orchestral Suites. Finnish Baroque Orchestra conducted by Sirkka-Liisa Kaakinen-Pilch. Ondine. $16.99.
Haydn: Lord Nelson Mass; Symphony No. 102. Mary Wilson, soprano; Abigail Fischer, mezzo-soprano; Keith Jameson, tenor; Kevin Deas, bass-baritone; Boston Baroque conducted by Martin Pearlman. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).
One of the best ongoing series of Baroque music releases currently available is the Vivaldi Edition from Naïve, which has now chalked up a highly impressive 56 volumes. The most recent of those tackles some of the Red Priest’s most attractive concertos, but ones that are not performed particularly often: those for two violins. Vivaldi demanded as much virtuosity from the second soloist as he did from the first – presumably he played one part or the other – and as a result, these concertos feature more-demanding pyrotechnics than do most of the single-violin ones. Dmitry Sinkovsky and Riccardo Minasi play the six on this disc with real flair, but all with a sure sense of Baroque style that prevents them from overdoing the technical elements to the detriment of the works’ musicality. What is particularly interesting about this CD is that four of these six concertos are in minor keys – a surprise, since listeners are accustomed to hearing Vivaldi concertos mostly in the major, with the minor being exceptional and all the more interesting as a result. The fact is that all four of the minor-key works here are distinguished and quite interesting: RV 523, in A minor, RV 510 and 509, both in C minor, and RV 517, in G minor. In all cases, the minor keys lend the works warmth to go with Vivaldi’s usual sure-handed formal approach and fine sense of balance between the two soloists and between them and the ensemble. The remaining two concertos, RV 515 in E-flat and RV 508 in C, are of course brighter and have a more forthright feel to them, and they too show excellent balance between the soloists as well as Vivaldi’s always-sure-handed approach to accompaniment. There are about 30 two-violin concertos in all, including optional variants of ones that also exist for other solo combinations, and Sinkovsky and Minasi – with the top-notch backing of Il Pomo d’Oro – seem certain to produce both idiomatic and highly listenable versions of all of them.
Vivaldi’s near-contemporary, Christoph Graupner (1683-1760), is far less known than the Italian master, but he too produced a considerable amount of very fine music utilizing multiple instrumental combinations, as is exceptionally clear from a splendid Ondine recording of three of his suites. One of these is for transverse flute, viola d’amore, chalumeau, strings and cembalo; one uses viola d’amore, bassoon, strings and cembalo; and one calls for transverse flute, viola d’amore, two chalumeaus, baroque horn, strings and cembalo. The Finnish Baroque Orchestra under Sirkka-Liisa Kaakinen-Pilch does a really first-rate job with this music, playing it with verve and spirit that make the Baroque era not only come alive but also sound genuinely lively. The soloists are uniformly excellent and sound quite comfortable with their instruments: Petra Aminoff on transverse flute, Tindaro Capuano and Asko Heiskanen on chalumeaus, Krzysztof Stencel on baroque horn, Jani Sunnarborg on bassoon, and Kaakinen-Pilch playing viola d’amore. The form of Graupner’s suites is a familiar one, with a succession of dance movements in the same style favored by Telemann. But Graupner, a harpsichordist, had his own ideas about instrumental balance and the interaction among soloists, and as a result his suites have a sound all their own. Long languishing in obscurity because of legal wrangling that dates to the 18th century, Graupner’s works are gradually becoming better known, and on the evidence of this really excellent CD, they most assuredly deserve to be.
Haydn’s works are quite well known already, of course, and he is a Classical rather than Baroque composer – but the involvement of Boston Baroque with his music shows some ways in which these two musical eras have more in common than listeners may realize. They did, after all, overlap! Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass (formally known as Missa in Angustiis or “Mass in Troubled Times”), is scored by an accident of economic history only for strings, trumpets, timpani and organ: the wind players had been laid off. This dark-hued Mass is one of the composer’s greatest works – some say the greatest. And although it is a preeminently Classical-era work, strongly influenced by Haydn’s experiences with the “London” symphonies that he had completed several years earlier, it is also a work that draws distinctly on Baroque traditions while looking ahead (largely through its anguished first movement, the Kyrie) toward the Romantic era. A substantial work in every way, with unusually virtuosic writing for the soprano and bass soloists, this Mass moves from despair to acceptance, from terror to joy, with a sureness of construction and certainty of belief worthy of Bach. Boston Baroque under Martin Pearlman handles the Mass with beautiful balance between voices and orchestra – Haydn by this time was giving the instruments a really significant role in his vocal works – and all the soloists rise to the occasion wonderfully throughout, producing a post-Baroque choral work thoroughly informed by Baroque sensibilities that it reinterprets for its own time and, in doing so, for later times as well, including ours. And coupling the Mass, which dates to 1798, with Symphony No. 102, from 1794, is a wonderful decision, since the dynamics and orchestral balance that Haydn refined so brilliantly in his final symphonies became foundational for his last six Mass settings, including the Lord Nelson Mass. Hearing the sacred and secular works juxtaposed shows very clearly in just how many ways they are the products of similar thinking – and yet in how many ways they differ in their approaches and effects. The Baroque has in a very real sense been rediscovered by performers and audiences in recent decades, and recordings like this Linn Records SACD of Haydn show just how lively and alive that rediscovery has been – and with how much power and wonder the Baroque era has continued to speak to the 20th and 21st centuries.
John Adams: Harmonielehre; Doctor Atomic Symphony; Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Philip Glass: Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (transcribed by Mark Lortz); Mohammed Fairouz: Symphony No. 4, “In the Shadow of No Towers.” Ji Hye Jung and Gwendolyn Burgett, timpani; Jänis Porietis, trumpet; University of Kansas Wind Ensemble conducted by Paul W. Popiel. Naxos. $9.99.
Cindy McTee: Symphony No. 1—Ballet for Orchestra; Circuits; Einstein’s Dream; Double Play. Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.
Roberto Sierra: Sinfonía No. 4; Fandangos; Carnaval. Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $9.99.
All composers build on those who have gone before, sometimes acknowledging the debt overtly and sometimes not. The distinct elements of the style of John Adams (born 1947) should not obscure the building blocks of which many of his works consist – certainly not in the case of Harmonielehre (1984-85). The title itself, meaning “study of harmony,” is a throwback to Schoenberg’s 1911 music-theory text as well as several others. And Adams has freely acknowledged the debt to Schoenberg here. Adams’ Harmonielehre is less important for its antecedents, though, than for the way it helped the composer break through an 18-month arid period. Adams says a dream inspired the work, but that information is scarcely necessary to appreciate the music. Nor is understanding of Adams’ minimalist leanings particularly important, since minimalism is only one of his techniques here, along with repetitive rhythms, bits of melody, and a final strong and rather unexpected assertion of tonality (E-flat major). Harmonielehre contains elements derived directly from Schoenberg, and also ones that come straight from Mahler (the Tenth Symphony) and in sound from Sibelius. Although not to all tastes – Adams’ music never is – Harmonielehre is attractive for the way it melds its various influences into a recognizable style of Adams’ own, all while encompassing a variety of emotionally resonant approaches (such as the inability of the second movement to find resolution). Peter Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra give Harmonielehre a strong, well-balanced and thoroughly effective performance. And they do a fine job as well with the Dr. Atomic Symphony (2007), derived by Adams from his opera and showcasing the stage work’s overture, interludes and some of its arias. Here the influence of prior composers is less strongly evident than in Harmonielehre, although the opera’s libretto (by Peter Sellars) is pervaded by John Donne, the Bhagavad Gita and other works. Like other symphonies inspired by stage works, such as the two versions of Prokofiev’s Fourth, the Dr. Atomic Symphony is more effective for listeners familiar with the source of its music, but it does stand well enough on its own. Also on this very well-recorded Chandos SACD is one of Adams’ most overtly appealing works, Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), which succeeds in part because it is short and its repetitiveness therefore has no chance to become wearisome. Oundjian brings to it the same enthusiasm and style that he provides to the other, longer pieces here.
The world première Naxos recording of Mark Lortz’ transcription of the Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra by Philip Glass (born 1937) shows this work to lie firmly within Glass’ minimalist and post-minimalist stylistic leanings as well as, very broadly, within the concerto tradition as a whole. The large percussion section is played against as well as with the timpani solos, and the work’s very strong rhythmic emphases are crucial building blocks for music that ebbs and flows quite effectively. The work dates to 2000-01 and was transcribed by Lortz in 2004. Its martial elements and strong insistence on percussive themes fit well into this wind-band version, which is handled quite well by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble under Paul W. Popiel. The players also do a fine job with Symphony No. 4, “In the Shadow of No Towers” by Mohammed Fairouz (born 1985). This work, Fairouz’s first major composition for wind instruments, was finished as recently as 2012 and is, as the title makes clear, one of the many homages paid by composers to the terrorist murders at the World Trade Center in 2001. But that event is only one inspiration, and actually an indirect one: the symphony is primarily influenced by Art Spiegelman’s 2001 comic book about the mass murders. The comic, perhaps unsurprisingly, has led Fairouz to produce a somewhat surface-level, heart-on-its-sleeve work, its four movements titled in ways that quite directly convey what the composer intends with the music: “The New Normal,” “Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist,” “One Nation under Two Flags,” and “Anniversaries.” There are moving elements in the symphony as well as some highly superficial ones; Spiegelman himself has described Fairouz’ work as “high-brow cartoon music,” and while that is intended as a compliment, it may not seem so to all listeners who hear this rather brash and frequently obvious work. Nevertheless, both the Glass and Fairouz pieces merit considerable attention for the way they integrate elements of the past with ones of the present to produce impacts that, if not always innovative, are nevertheless moving and well conveyed.
The music of Cindy McTee (born 1953) is less distinctive than that of Adams or Glass, for all that it is well made, equally adept at integrating a variety of influences, and very well played by the Detroit Symphony under Leonard Slatkin. The most salient characteristic of McTee’s First Symphony is color: the composer has a fine sense of orchestration and employs it fully here, producing a sonic environment that is always attractive and constantly changing. The symphony, written in 2002 and entitled “Ballet for Orchestra” by the composer, is somewhat less impressive as a whole than in parts of its four movements, which are called “On with the Dance,” “Till a Silence Fell,” “Light Fantastic” and “Where Time Plays the Fiddle.” McTee is more impressive and emotionally engaging in the shorter pieces on this new Naxos CD. Circuits (1990), a fine curtain raiser, is jazzy, bright and upbeat throughout, and the two movements of Double Play (2010) offer a series of influences from the past that zoom by and are presented within McTee’s own style. Indeed, the titles of the movements recall matters from the past in a very clever way: “Unquestioned Answer” (think of Ives’ Unanswered Question) and “Tempus Fugit” (in which time certainly does seem to fly). As for Einstein’s Dream (2004), its influences are as disparate as quantum physics and electronic music, with McTee using computer-generated sounds to portray and comment upon Einstein’s findings in theoretical physics. McTee is if anything a touch too clever for her own good, or her audience’s good: her works gain a lot with an understanding of what they are supposed to be about and how they are made, but they are not always wholly convincing in and of themselves. Still, this (+++) CD has a great deal to recommend it.
So does another (+++) Naxos disc featuring music of another composer born in 1953, Roberto Sierra. Only one work on this CD, Fandangos (2000), has been recorded before. It is a well-constructed orchestral fantasy using a very specific influence as its core: a harpsichord piece attributed to Padre Antonio Soler (1729-1783). Sierra, who is Puerto Rican, is influenced by Spanish music in general as well as, in this case, Soler’s in particular, and in Fandangos he shows himself able to start with 18th-century material and produce a carefully constructed, freewheeling fantasy that sustains nicely. The Spanish influence is also evident in Sierra’s Sinfonía No. 4, which is in the traditional four movements (but with Spanish tempo indications rather than ones in Italian or German) and uses more-or-less-traditional symphonic structure. The harmonies and rhythms of this work are contemporary – it dates to 2008-09 – but its form shows the clear influence of the past. In truth, though, the music does not have a great deal to say; the structure and assembly are impressive enough, but the work does not really stay with a listener after it ends. Carnaval (2007) is less ambitious but on the whole more successful. Here the influence adapted, quite clearly in the title and also to an extent in the five movements, is that of Schumann; but Sierra makes his miniatures into evocations of the mythical rather than of the everyday and celebratory. The five movements are “Gargoyles,” “Sphinxes,” “Unicorns,” “Dragons” and “The Phoenix,” and Sierra’s tone-painting showcases both the wonder of the imaginary creatures and their occasional air of menace. Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony handle Sierra’s music skillfully and with grace, and the CD as a whole offers a fine opportunity to become acquainted with yet another contemporary composer who has found ways to reach into the past for inspiration that he can then transform into his own expressions.
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Songs and Dances of Death; The Nursery (all orchestrated by Peter Breiner). New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Breiner. Naxos. $9.99.
Verdi: Messa da Requiem. Juliana DiGiacomo, soprano; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Vittorio Grigolo, tenor; Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, bass; Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. C Major DVD. $24.99.
Daniel Clarke Bouchard: Scènes d’Enfants. Daniel Clarke Bouchard and Oliver Jones, pianos. ATMA Classique. $16.99.
Chanticleer: Someone New. Chanticleer Records. $16.99.
In some recordings, the focus is less on the music than on the performer or performers bringing it to life. Or sometimes there is a mixed focus, as in Naxos’ new Mussorgsky CD featuring Peter Breiner and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. The attraction here is that of a curiosity: Breiner has entirely reorchestrated Pictures at an Exhibition, actively seeking to move it well beyond the sonic compass of the familiar Ravel version and to produce sonorities that may make a 21st-century audience sit up and take notice. Whether or not this serves the music well is a matter of opinion, but it certainly puts Breiner in a long line of orchestrators of Mussorgsky’s piano suite. Indeed, an earlier Naxos CD of Pictures at an Exhibition featured orchestrations of the work’s 16 sections by 15 different composers, retaining one Ravel segment and adding ones by Leopold Stokowski, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Henry Wood, Lucien Cailliet and a number of contemporary composers. In that CD and in the new Breiner one, what is most striking is how well the template of Mussorgsky’s piano pieces stands up under multiple considerations and reconsiderations: Pictures really is a work that can be seen through many different lenses and still emerge whole and impressively effectively. Breiner’s handling of the material is sure and sensitive, having some of the overt emotional tweaking of film music and building to an overwhelming climax with The Great Gate of Kiev. Breiner is more in the tradition of Stokowski than anyone else, not hesitating to load the music with doublings (or multiples) of instruments in seeking a really big sound, willingly sacrificing subtleties in the name of special instrumental effects. The Breiner Pictures will surely not displace Ravel’s smoother and more elegant orchestration, but it is fun to listen to and sheds some new light on this very familiar music. Breiner also does a fine job with some less familiar Mussorgsky, orchestrating two of the composer’s death-haunted song cycles with rather more sensitivity and even delicacy than he brings to Pictures at an Exhibition. All the works are quite well played, and Breiner the conductor is clearly adept at bringing out the lines and emphases that Breiner the arranger has put into these works. The result is a disc that tells more about Breiner than about Mussorgsky – and is no less interesting because of that fact.
What is particularly interesting in the DVD of Gustavo Dudamel conducting Verdi’s Requiem is Dudamel himself. He is one of those conductors actually worth watching on video, even when doing so distracts from the music – a certain amount of distraction from Verdi’s highly dramatic, overblown Requiem is not particularly harmful. Conducting without a baton – a risky decision for a work this big and multifaceted – Dudamel brings more subtlety to the performance than one might expect from him. Yes, the brass is encouraged to play at white heat throughout, and yes, the timpani and bass drum seem to shake the entire Hollywood Bowl in this live performance. But Dudamel actually allows the music to flow at a moderate pace, keeping the 98-minute performance moving well and exploring what sensitivities the work possesses. The 18-minute DVD bonus – the usual interview plus rehearsal footage – actually provides some insight into Dudamel’s thinking about the music, and if this is scarcely a mature performance or one without occasional ragged edges, it is an undeniably exciting one and true to the conductor’s still-emerging operatic vision. The excellent chorale is a big reason for the interpretation’s success, and the soloists are quite impressive, too. The fervent delivery of soprano Julianna DiGiacomo and strong vocal contrast of mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung are a pleasure throughout. Bass Ildebrando D’Arcangelo does not have the very deep bottom notes that can serve this music particularly well, but he uses his voice skillfully and with restraint, producing a very effective performance. Tenor Vittorio Grigolo is a notch below the other soloists, but only a small notch: he tends to want to over-interpret, requiring Dudamel to pull him back, which the conductor does; but there is a slight awkwardness to the whole back-and-forth between them. Awkward too are some of the shots in the DVD: there are too many extreme closeups, not always at appropriate times, and the overall visual element here is overly cinematic – Verdi’s music is quite dramatic enough without a somewhat too-enthusiastic set of visuals being laid atop it. This DVD contains many high points – especially for fans of Dudamel – but includes many less-than-felicitous elements as well.
There is no claim of a focus on anything but the performer in the ATMA Classique CD featuring 13-year-old Québec pianist Daniel Clarke Bouchard. This is a 52-minute disc of encores and showpieces, featuring the pianist bowing (perhaps a touch smugly) on the cover. The one full sonata here, Mozart’s K. 332 in F, is nicely handled but scarcely profound, and indeed profundity is not yet a significant arrow in Bouchard’s quiver. He certainly has plenty of technique, and certainly enjoys deploying it – as in Beethoven’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny” rondo and Debussy’s “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” from the Children’s Corner Suite – but it is surface-level, glitzy technique with, at this point, not a great deal of feeling or emotional involvement underlying it. Certainly this is a matter of chronological maturity, and certainly Bouchard may grow into his abilities and become a truly fine pianist within the next few years if he is not distracted by celebrity and his early entry into the international concert scene. All that remains to be seen – and heard. What listeners get to hear now are Schubert’s Impromptu No. 2, Mendelssohn’s op. 14 Rondo capriccioso, two movements from a Haydn sonata, and one from Schumann’s Kinderszenen. All these small works are nicely handled, with appropriate levels of drive or delicacy, albeit without any significant interpretative insight. The most interesting pieces here are the piano duets that open and close the CD. The curtain raiser is an improvisation on Mozart’s variations on Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman, which is already a work based on Mozart’s own fondness for improvisation. The jazz inflections here are scarcely surprising – the second pianist, Bouchard’s mentor Oliver Jones, is well-known in jazz performance – and the interplay of the pianos is highly attractive. At the other end of the CD is a work by Claude Léveillée (1932-2011) called La Grand valse fofolle à deux pianos, and although this is scarcely music at Mozart’s level (even his playful level), it is a piece that invites enthusiasm from the pianists and enjoyment from the audience – which it receives in abundance.
There is plenty to enjoy in the jazz elements of Chanticleer’s new CD as well. Someone New actually blends jazz and pop selections, plus a bit of gospel – there is nothing classical here. What the 12 voices of the vocal group offer are a cappella arrangements by various people of works such as Freddie Mercury’s Somebody to Love, Peter Gabriel’s Washing of the Water, Dave Brubeck’s Strange Meadow Lark, and Ring of Fire by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore. This is an eclectic mixture, to be sure, all of it rendered smooth and warm by the quality of Chanticleer’s voices. The works are sometimes familiar, sometimes obscure, and the arrangements have a certain sameness of expression about them when run through Chanticleer’s vocals; the result is a disc that sounds as lovely as Chanticleer’s performances always do, but that is a bit too far on the monochromatic side to stand with the very best recordings these singers have made for their own label and others. Listeners who already know many of these tracks in other forms and want to hear Chanticleer’s highly personal handling of them will enjoy the CD for the way it stays firmly focused on the performers no matter what specific music they are singing.
December 05, 2013
The Snow Queen. By Hans Christian Andersen. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Harper. $17.99.
Dot. By Randi Zuckerberg. Illustrated by Joe Berger. Harper. $17.99.
Pinkalicious Cupcake Cookbook. By Victoria Kann. Recipe development by Patti Paige. Photographs by Kristen Hess. Harper. $14.99.
Gorgeous gouache illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline are the immediate attraction in a new retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, one of his more-complex and in some respects more-puzzling fables. This is a rescue story, but not just a rescue story. It is a coming-of-age tale, but not just a coming-of-age tale. It is a love story, but not just a love story – and the kind of love story it tells is ambiguous. Like all of Andersen’s tales, this one is firmly grounded in his traditional Christian beliefs, although it is far less pushy in that regard than stories such as The Little Mermaid. The coming of evil into the world is what opens The Snow Queen – in a scene often omitted in modern adaptations but, thankfully, included here – but it is never quite clear whether the title character represents evil or is just an amoral force of nature, and whether she kidnaps the boy Kai because it is in her nature to do so or because she, in a twisted way, loves him (for she kisses him twice). Certainly, though, whatever love the Snow Queen may offer is a cold love, contrasted throughout with the warm (and entirely platonic) love of the girl Gerda for her playmate, a love that not only takes Gerda past multiple obstacles to the frozen wastes of Lapland but also results in Kai magically forming the word “eternity” from ice and thereby winning his freedom. Mystical and in some ways unsettling, The Snow Queen is far more than a children’s story, even though most versions of it – this one included – are intended for young readers. Ibatoulline’s atmospheric, brooding and dark-hued pictures relating to winter and the Snow Queen stand in beautiful contrast to his superb renditions of other characters, both human and nonhuman (the latter including a crow, a reindeer and many flowers). The portrayal of the robbers in the forest is particularly outstanding, and the twinkling eyes of the dark-haired robber girl set her in perfect contrast to the sad-but-determined ones of blonde-haired Gerda. Every page here is a delight, whether Ibatoulline is showing the Northern Lights in all their brilliance (with a small, dark cottage in which a single window is lit up in the background) or portraying Gerda struggling, bootless and with numb feet, through an all-encompassing snowstorm. The Snow Queen can be enjoyed and interpreted on many levels, and the excellent illustrations in this new version will encourage young readers and adults alike to return to the story again and again to plumb its depths.
Dot, eponymous protagonist of Randi Zuckerberg’s amusing book, is as modern a little girl as Gerda is an old-fashioned one, and Dot’s concerns are as contemporary as Gerda’s are timeless. Dot – endearingly drawn by Joe Berger – is obsessed with modern electronics, spending all her time tapping, touching, tweeting, tagging and otherwise connecting without really making any connections (except through the Internet and WiFi networks). Zuckerberg’s cleverly alliterative story also shows how Dot likes to surf, swipe, share and search – and, using every electronic means possible, to talk and talk and talk. But inevitably, Dot – watched at all times by her long-suffering dog, who simply cannot get her to do something as mundane as throw a ball – overloads on all the electronic communication and ends up quite dazed. So her mother (who is heard but not seen) urges her to get herself outside so she can “Reboot! Recharge! Restart!” And Dot does, soon reinterpreting all the electronic-world words in the world of sunshine and genuine friendships: “tap” becomes tap dancing, “touch” now involves a flower rather than a screen, “tweet” means imitating birdsong, and so on. By the end of the book, Dot and her friends have figured out how to balance electronic and in-person communication, and everyone – including the dog – is happy. Dot is a nicely soft-pedaled lesson in the problems and pleasures of living real life as well as the electronic kind.
Pinkalicious is a differently obsessed character, with colors (often but not always pink) constantly on her mind. Now Victoria Kann offers a whole book of “pinktastic recipes” that not only feature Pinkalicious as guide (“I like to mix in a large bowl so nothing goes over the edge!”) but also end up with some cupcakes designed to look like characters from the Pinkalicious stories. The recipes in Pinkalicious Cupcake Cookbook are straightforward and generally easy to follow, their most distinguishing feature being that they mention specific brand names and types of products to use – gel food coloring rather than liquid, for example. In line with recent trendiness, there are gluten-free cupcakes here as well as traditional ones, and there are also such unexpected delights as a “teeny tiny pinky cupcake” the size of a thimble, a “purple power tower” (purple being another favored color of Kann’s character), and recipes that tie into Goldilicious, Emeraldalicious and the other Kann books. A cute seasonal touch is “I’m Dreaming of a Pink Christmas,” in which there are recipes for Christmas trees, snowmen and more. And then the book moves on to “cupcakes that look like some favorite PINKALICIOUS characters,” which are really amusing and will be a great treat for fans of Kann’s books. Helpful templates for specific recipe items are included at the back off the book, and the whole thing will be a lot of fun for kids and parents who enjoy working together in the kitchen as well as reading together elsewhere.
Here on Earth: An Animal Alphabet. By Marcia Perry. Pomegranate Kids. $15.95.
When Your Porcupine Feels Prickly. By Kathy DeZarn Beynette. Pomegranate Kids. $14.95.
Sometimes the purpose of a book, even a children’s book, emerges only gradually as you read it. This is the case with Marcia Perry’s Here on Earth, which only seems to be the “animal alphabet” that its title proclaims it to be. The book is clever enough from the start, presenting multiple creatures for each letter of the alphabet and connecting the narratives about them with words whose sounds also reflect each letter: “Dazzling Dragonflies dance. Dandy Ducks dawdle in the drink. Delightful Dolphins dive in the depths.” The unusual illustrations, showing the animals clustered around each other in a diamond-shaped frame that is itself within a square-within-a-square, make the book visually attractive even as the narrative makes it intriguing to read. It soon becomes apparent, though, that Perry is doing more than stringing alliterative words together. Again and again, she introduces a letter by prefacing her list of animals with the words, “Here on Earth,” making it clear that all the animals she mentions, all the things she talks about them doing, are all happening right on our own planet. And slowly but surely, a message of ecological and zoological awareness emerges, as the wording becomes less a listing of animals and more a plea for understanding their importance: “The various Vipers, the vulnerable, velvety Voles, and the vigilant Vultures are all vital.” By the time the letter Y arrives, the message is explicit: “There are Yaks, Yellowhammers, and Yapoks sharing this world with You and me.” (Yes, yapoks – Perry includes little-known animals along with common ones.) By the end, inevitably, the triangle-shaped frame has receded into the background, leaving a round one in the foreground, and that round one is transmuted to the planet Earth at the book’s close – a clear reminder of the reality that almost all the animals in the book live, just like its readers, on the same small planet, all occupying their own places and all worthy of acknowledgment, concern and consideration. Here on Earth gently metamorphoses from an alphabet book to a message book as it progresses, but it does so so gently that it never seems preachy or overbearing. Indeed, Perry delves into a touch of humor with the one animal in the book that does not live on our planet, noting that “Every urchin is unique. Umbrella birds are common. Unicorns, though unreal, are very common.” But perhaps even the unicorns, in a sense, “live” (or exist, at least in imagination) on the same Earth where all the other creatures are found.
Kathy DeZarn Beynette’s aims are more modest and her approach more overtly humorous in When Your Porcupine Feels Prickly. Using paintings that resemble and are based on children’s art, Beynette poetically explores the possible things to do with and for a variety of likely and unlikely pets. “When your bee is feeling down,/ maybe she should wear a crown./ Anytime I’m feeling blue,/ nothing but a crown will do.” “If you make a rude remark,/ I hope it won’t be to your shark./ Don’t say, ‘That’s a stupid sweater,’/ or ‘I like sharks, but whales are better.’/ Keep your shark relations happy!/ Rudeness makes us all feel snappy.” Even without the picture of a shark wearing a sweater, the amusement value here is obvious. Beynette presents a spider wearing four pairs of bunny slippers, a goat sitting in a time-out chair, a flounder that forgets to floss, and a highly amusingly drawn insect with distinct male legs and a mustache – this last illustration going with the admonition: “Treat your ladybug like a lady,/ unless your ladybug is a man./ In that case, call him ‘Sir Lady’/ and get along as best you can.” Beynette’s non sequiturs are often zany, but sometimes she slips in a few more-thoughtful words, such as reminding an owl “that work we love feels more like play” and commenting, in regard to both a cat and a human, “You cannot be perfect; you’re sure to have flaws.” When Your Porcupine Feels Prickly is an amusing little book that goes beyond pure amusement from time to time – not only fun but also, here and there, more than funny.
Mozart: A Life. By Paul Johnson. Viking. $25.95.
Historical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes—from Cleopatra to Camus. By Kelly Murphy with Hallie Fryd. Zest Books. $17.99.
Many thousands of pages have been written about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the man and his music, abetted by the extensive family correspondence in which Mozart engaged throughout his life. So it would seem the height of folly to try to encompass the story of this towering musical genius in 164 pages – but that is just what Paul Johnson attempts in Mozart: A Life. A noted historian and author of biographies of Socrates, Napoléon, Darwin and Churchill, Johnson plumbs no significant new depths in this short and eminently readable book, but the work will be particularly attractive in its biographical (as opposed to musical) elements to people who know little or nothing about the composer. Johnson manages scene-setting in a few words: “Musicians were exactly in the same position as other household servants – cooks, chambermaids, coachmen, and sentries. They existed for the comfort and well-being of their masters and mistresses. The idea that you took on a composer or performer simply because he was outstanding…was absurd.” And Johnson goes on to explain that the only way to get ahead in the society of Mozart’s time was through “interest,” a word that in the 18th century roughly combined the meaning of “patronage,” “nepotism” and “connections” (although Johnson does not explain it quite that way). The extent to which lack of this form of interest influenced history is explained by quick references to George Washington and Napoléon as well as to Mozart – one of many attractive passages in which Johnson puts something across in a few words that other authors would dwell on at considerable length.
When it comes to music, though, readers unfamiliar with Mozart may find that the compression of information makes the narrative a bit hard to follow: “Among the best [piano sonatas] are the one in C Minor (K. 457) and K. 576, written for Princess Frederica of Prussia, K. 457 (1784), which is the apotheosis of pianoforte power, the Sonata in F (K. 533), written in 1788, ‘which makes you sweat,’ as Mozart put it, and the one in D, which in places makes the piano sound like a brass instrument and is known as the Trumpet Sonata (K. 576).” In such passages, Johnson’s erudition may get in the way of easy understanding for some readers – although those who do know Mozart will find a series of interesting opinions and insights here. For example, Johnson discusses Beethoven’s timpani effects in his Ninth Symphony in connection with Mozart’s timpani use, commenting that what Beethoven did was “the only case I know of where Mozart missed an opportunity to create a new sound.” And in writing about the opera Idomeneo, Johnson mentions the work’s emotional intensity and suggests that “events in [Mozart’s] life did not transform his music. What did so were events in his imagination.” These are arguable assertions, but Johnson does not take the time to argue them – he is too busy moving on to other matters.
Quotations from letters by Mozart and those around him are inevitable in any Mozart biography, and there are a number of them here, with even the well-known ones standing out because Johnson places them carefully in context – as when Mozart, discussing The Abduction from the Seraglio, notes that “passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of exciting disgust, and…music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener…” Also inevitable are discussions of Mozart’s family life, both when growing up and in adulthood, and his eventual sad end – which, however, Johnson suggests was far less tragic than it has often been portrayed as being: Johnson says Mozart was far from a pauper when he died, his burial in a mass grave reflected the custom of the times, and allegations of foul play (such as those against Antonio Salieri) are fantasies, totally unsupported by evidence. More interesting than these assertions are the comments Johnson makes, often almost in passing, about what could be called the Mozart experience; indeed, Johnson writes, “we can never experience the true and full Mozart completely.” One reason among many: “When he was alive, his cadenzas were always wholly or in part improvised. Those he wrote down were never his best work.” This improvisational element of Mozart’s music-making is one of many in the book that could easily be spun out at much greater length, but Johnson is content to make his comments and continue. Along the way, he occasionally indulges in a bit of poetic description, as when he calls the Clarinet Concerto “a golden universe of sound, with ecstatic flashes of pure light.” But he is more often matter-of-fact without being argumentative or particularly intense in propounding his viewpoints. Johnson’s Mozart biography is scarcely definitive, but it covers a surprising amount of territory in a small number of pages, and does so with sufficient skill and sensitivity to delight those who already know Mozart’s life and intrigue those who do not.
Mozart could well have been included in Historical Heartthrobs, but although a couple of his near-contemporaries, Marie Antoinette (whom Mozart met) and Lord Byron, are in the book, Mozart is not. Perhaps it is just as well. This is a very clever mashup of history and romance that unfortunately is marred by poor writing and/or editing that results in some hilarious errors. It is nevertheless a (+++) book for the sheer effrontery of the presentation by Kelly Murphy and Hallie Fryd. Among the 50 apparently arbitrarily selected historical figures profiled briefly here are ones as obvious as Cleopatra and as obscure as filmmaker Maya Deren. The way they are profiled is what gives the book its character. Each gets vital statistics, a brief life story, and short sections – the heart of the book – called “The Story of His [or Her] Sex Life,” “Why He [or She] Matters,” and “Heat Factor” (on a scale of 1 to 5). The idea is for readers to decide whether they would bed or wed each of these people if given the chance – certainly an offbeat way to make history more interesting and lively. And then each short profile ends with quotations by or about the person. Historical Heartthrobs includes quite a mixture of people: Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron’s daughter and a computer pioneer), Annie Oakley, Mata Hari, Coco Chanel and Leni Riefenstahl are among the women; Nikola Tesla, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Duke Kahanamoku, Bugsy Siegel and double agent Eddie Chapman are among the men. The mixture of very-well-known names with ones that are much less familiar is intriguing, and the inclusion of some obvious people (Cleopatra) is balanced by the omission of others (no Marilyn Monroe). The subtitle is misleading: Cleopatra is indeed the first person in the book (based on date of birth), but Albert Camus is only No. 36; the most recent is assassinated Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto. The “Heat Factor” ratings are arguable and often just plain silly: Fidel Castro is a 3, Jane Goodall a 5, bisexual George Sand a 3.5, Dorothy Parker a 4.5, Wild Bill Hickok a 2, John Wilkes Booth a 1. But these ratings are the most unusual element of the book and will surely be the most attractive for many readers. What is not attractive is the parade of factual mistakes, some of which invite hilarity and appropriate rejoinders. Byron’s Don Juan was “criticized for its apparent immortality”? Umm…that’s “immorality.” George Sand “did not attend Chopin’s funeral in 1848”? Neither did anyone else – Chopin died in 1849. Frederick Douglass made his way in the face of “statues which thralled him”? Were those marble statues or bronzes – or perhaps statutes? One of Eddie Chapman’s two fiancées had “born him a daughter”? That had better be “borne,” unless someone thinks Chapman was transsexual. Even when the errors are howlers, there is a real risk that they may be believed by readers unfamiliar with history or with the specific people discussed in Historical Heartthrobs. The book is clever, offbeat and often intriguing, but it plays too loosely with the facts – apparently quite unintentionally – to be anything more than an amusing curiosity.
Game Slaves. By Gard Skinner. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Seven Wonders No. 1: The Colossus Rises. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $6.99.
Seven Wonders No. 2: Lost in Babylon. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $17.99.
White-hot pacing and all the subtlety of a kick in the teeth distinguish Gard Skinner’s first book, Game Slaves, whose plot is wholly derivative but whose progress is so breakneck that many readers will not notice or, noticing, will not care. This is a war story for the digital age, focusing on six NPCs (non-player characters) in a video game, characters who form collateral damage when they are blown up and are agents of mayhem when they are not, all of them totally stereotyped (ripped physiques, both male and female) and equipped with plenty of ways to do mayhem. Reno is into laser machete and sniper cannon, York favors knives and a rocket launcher, Mi goes for ranged weapons and explosive ordnance, and Jevo likes fists and teeth. Each of them has tens of millions of confirmed kills. And so do the team leader, Phoenix, whose relatively modest weaponry (shotgun, machine pistol) has brought him more kills than anyone else (96,598,322), and the newbie sniper, Dakota, who favors a combat rifle, has not even reached three million kills yet, and has a disconcerting habit of asking too many questions about what the game is and what the relationship is between the NPCs and the real-world gamers who set them in motion and, as often as not, destroy them so they have to be reformulated, reconstituted, whatever. Of course there ensues, amid the organized and carefully modulated destructiveness, a slew of questions about what is real and what is created within the game, and whether the NPCs can possibly move from one world to the next and, if so, how. Anyone who has seen The Matrix, or even heard of it, will find none of this story arc surprising, but Skinner pushes his novel with such speed and intensity that those looking for a quick adrenaline rush will not care how formulaic the whole thing is and will not be disappointed in the story’s progress. Eventually, there is an inevitable confrontation with the inevitable creator of the whole gaming world – who bears the truly unfortunate name of Max Kode – and the erstwhile NPCs win through to real-world existence by discovering and uncovering secrets and making things just a bit too hot for Kode to, um, decode. Or do they eventually escape? Are they perhaps simply trapped in worlds within worlds within worlds? How can they ever know for sure? Again, this sort of infinite loop (or Möbius strip) is scarcely new and scarcely original in the way Skinner handles it, but it has been entertaining and intriguing in other works – in many media, not just books – and remains so here. Game Slaves is no more than a thrill ride, but that will be more than enough for many of the preteens at whom it is aimed.
Seven Wonders goes for the same audience and has the advantage of a highly experienced author, Peter Lerangis, calling the shots. The series’ plot, however, is even sillier than that of Skinner’s book. Thirteen-year-old Jack McKinley and several friends all have genetic abnormalities that would grant them enormous powers if their bodies could handle the changes – which their bodies cannot, which means they are all going to die soon. Unless, of course, they visit the sites of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and discover the lost Loculi whose magic can save them. The Loculi were stolen and hidden by the last prince of Atlantis, from whom Jack and the others are descended. And they must be returned to Atlantis, which unfortunately no longer exists. But then, neither do six of the seven Wonders, which complicates matters. Got that? The objective is to get it without laughing and without looking at the absurdities closely – or, in fact, at all. Manage that and you can enjoy the first book of the series, The Colossus Rises, now available in paperback, in which Jack, Marco, Aly and Cass are introduced and begin their quest by meeting the prototypical oddball professor, Bhegad, who explains that Jack must somehow sustain himself through the quest not only to save his own life but also to, you know, save the world. This turns out to involve defeating the Colossus, which also involves dealing with a griffin, and – well, there is nothing but fantasy in this adventure, but the story is well-managed by Lerangis, who does a fine job of ratcheting up the tension periodically while letting it subside slightly from time to time in order to get readers ready for the next pulse-pounding event. The pattern holds, not at all surprisingly, in the newly released Lost in Babylon, which centers on the Hanging Gardens (which, like the Colossus of Rhodes, are long gone). At the start of this book, Marco has disappeared, along with the first Loculus, but he rejoins the team (with an apparently reasonable explanation) soon enough, enabling all the protagonists to engage in scintillating dialogue, including such random examples as these: “Those farms outside the city are pretty awesome.” “What do we do now? Wait here under lock and key until Prince Sadist reports to his dad…?” “Are you nuts?” “You found the invisibility Loculus!” “That guy bugged me.” “Get us out before the place blows.” Although not set in a video-game world, Seven Wonders proceeds with all the unsubtlety and cardboard characterization to be expected in such a venue, all handled by Lerangis with sufficient aplomb so that readers gripped by the series’ first installment will be entirely satisfied with the second and looking ahead to the third. Lerangis is particularly good at ending a book with a cliffhanger, and the one he chooses in Lost in Babylon is good enough to frustrate readers who will be unable to find out immediately just what it implies. Seven Wonders may be silly, but its mixture of thrills and mystery will hit the mark again and again for readers who remember not to take any of it the slightest bit seriously.
The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Programs 1 & 2; 3 & 4; 5 & 6; 7 & 8. Naxos DVDs. $19.99 each.
Comparisons between Gerard Schwarz’s All-Star Orchestra TV series and the justly famous Young People’s Concerts led by Leonard Bernstein from 1958 to 1972 are inevitable. Like Bernstein, Schwarz offers a series of programs on various aspects of classical music, with commentary in the Schwarz series by composers, performers and various experts rather than – as in Bernstein’s material – by the conductor himself. Unlike Bernstein, Schwarz offers programs designed for listeners of all ages, not just young people – and, more intriguingly, mixes well-known works from the standard concert repertoire with new pieces that even people steeped in classical music may never have heard before. Bernstein’s programs reached across age lines by virtue of the strength of Bernstein’s personality and the excellence of his conducting. Schwarz is a lesser conductor and by no means a raconteur; his shows reach across generational lines because of the choice of music and form of commentary. The Schwarz shows are much better produced – they were done in HD with 19 cameras, and of course all are in color – but the technical capabilities are not always fully realized. It would have been good, for example, to show just why passages in Beethoven were considered unplayable in the composer’s time, or to delve into some specifics of the difficulties inherent in performing modern works.
Some lines from the Bernstein shows deservedly became classics, such as the conductor’s remark that “music does not mean anything” and his demonstration of that observation by conducting bits of the Richard Strauss tone poem Don Quixote while offering a narrative totally different from that actually associated with the music. There is nothing even remotely that clever in The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. But this series has pleasures of a different sort – many of them lying in the selection of music, the juxtaposition of old works and new, and the truly interesting aspects of music that the eight programs explore.
Most of the works here are presented complete, as those in the Bernstein series were not – although the word “complete” has to be stretched a bit in some cases. The first program, “Music for the Theatre,” offers the complete suite from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, but not the complete ballet, and the complete second suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé but, again, not the full work from which the suite is drawn. Still, the suites appear in concert more often than the full ballets, and the narrative about the Ballet Russes and Sergei Diaghilev is an interesting one – as is the pairing of the Stravinsky and Ravel pieces with Bright Sheng’s Brahms-inspired Black Swan.
The pairing is less engaging on the second program, since it involves one towering masterpiece, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, along with Harmonium Mountain by Philip Glass. But the topic here is an intriguing one: “What Makes a Masterpiece?” The interviews, including ones with orchestral musicians, make the show interesting, and the extremely different ways in which Beethoven and Glass employ short rhythmic and melodic elements are intriguing.
There is something worth watching – and hearing – in every one of these programs. The third, “The New World and Its Music,” inevitably includes Dvořák’s “New World” symphony, pairing it with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Avanti! The latter is a very different take on the American experience, but this program is one of the lesser ones here – while the fourth, “Politics and Art,” is one of the most interesting. This focuses on Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, a long-popular and long-controversial work specifically stated by the composer to be his response to “justified” Soviet criticism but thought by many to conceal critiques of Stalin’s regime in its apparently triumphal finale. By raising real issues of music’s place in society, this program delves more deeply into issues than do many of the others.
The fifth program, “Relationships in Music,” could have been more intriguing than it is. It explores the relationship of the Schumanns (Robert and Clara) with Brahms, which is indeed fascinating, but it avoids some of the more-turbulent and not unrelated musical relationships of the same time, such as those swirling around Wagner. And the illustrative works here are not the best choices: Schumann’s Third Symphony (“Rhenish”) works well, but Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture is largely atypical of the composer and not the best representation of him – however delightful it is. The sixth show, “The Living Art Form,” is perhaps the least successful of the eight, since it is the most didactic and includes only modern works: the third movement of Richard Danielpour’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (the complete movement, but not the complete piece); Samuel’s Jones’ Cello Concerto; and Joseph Schwantner’s “The Poet’s Hour – Soliloquy for Violin.” Although all this music has points of interest, none of it is especially distinguished, so it does not pull viewers/listeners into the narrative as does the music in the other programs.
The final DVD in this series, containing the seventh and eighth programs, is more gripping. The seventh show, “Music’s Emotional Impact,” could well have been the first, since it discusses a major element of music’s appeal and does so through the lens of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 – a popular and immediately accessible work. The modern work here – Blast! by David Stock – is intended to show a contemporary composer’s handling of the “fate” motif, but succeeds mostly in showcasing Tchaikovsky’s far greater talent at pulling an audience’s emotions in the directions in which he wants them to go. The eighth show, the only one with a composer’s name in its title, is a bit odd and disappointing. It is called “Mahler: Love, Sorrow and Transcendence,” and includes a few Rückert-Lieder sung by mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, the first movement (and only the first movement) from the Symphony No. 2, and two modern works that do not complement Mahler’s very well: Augusta Read Thomas’ Of Paradise and Light and Bernard Rands’ Adieu. The problem here is interpretative – not in terms of Schwarz’ handling of the music, which is fine here as in all these shows, but in terms of picking these specific Mahler pieces to illustrate the show’s theme. The first movement of the “Resurrection” symphony is indeed funerary, but it marks the funeral of the hero of the First Symphony, as Mahler himself said – and is supposed to be followed by five minutes of silence before the work’s second movement, which leads eventually to the transcendence of the finale. This is not a good movement to take out of context, but that is what is done with it here. And the two modern pieces, which ostensibly represent contemporary contemplations of the age-old themes of life and death, are simply not very effective when juxtaposed with Mahler’s works.
The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz has its share of ups and downs, and without a central guiding light of Leonard Bernstein’s caliber, the series never develops the sort of personal audience connection that Bernstein’s did in a way that makes the Bernstein series timeless despite its comparatively primitive production techniques and the long-out-of-date fashions worn by everyone seen in it. Nevertheless, the Schwarz shows have a great deal going for them, presenting some genuinely thoughtful analysis and some very involving commentary, with a generally good (if not always convincing) mixture of masterpieces of the past with works exploring similar themes in more-recent times. Schwarz himself lacks Bernstein’s considerable charisma as either host or conductor, but he does a solid, workmanlike job as the central figure in these musical presentations, and his orchestra – whose members came together for these shows from multiple U.S. ensembles – plays efficiently if not always passionately. These are, on balance, fine made-for-TV programs that will be of most value to people with some interest in classical music but little understanding of it – although the issues raised in certain shows will resonate with longtime classical-music lovers as well.
Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston: Alcatraz—Eberbach. Starkland DVD. $18.99.
Gozaran: Time Passing. Directed by Frank Scheffer. EuroArts DVD. $19.99.
Bloody Daughter: A Film by Stéphanie Argerich. Idéale Audience. $29.99 (2 DVDs).
Sometimes the visual impact of films and DVDs with a classical-music connection is clear and undeniable, but the musical interest and value of the productions is less certain. That is the case with all these new releases. Alcatraz—Eberbach is a set of two works, running 30 and 18 minutes respectively, built around striking still photos by Jim Bengston and evocative music by Ingram Marshall. The two pieces are intended to provide atmospheric, interpretative tours of the former island prison in San Francisco Bay and a monastery in Germany’s Rhine Valley that Marshall and Bengston encountered in 1984 while they were touring with Alcatraz, their earlier work. Both these visual pieces use multimedia as it is currently understood (not as it was understood when its prime example was opera). The photos themselves highlight, showcase, play up and downplay specific visual elements of the two geographical locations, while the electronically processed sounds accentuate specific photographic elements or are used for scene-setting and emphases of various sorts – much as is done in film music. The result is not quite musical works, not quite performance pieces, not quite filmmaking in any traditional sense, but emotion-seeking visual displays that interpret, through Marshall’s and Bengston’s eyes and ears, the vistas, angles, solidity and airiness of two architectural creations. The concept is more conceptually interesting in Alcatraz, since the subject is scarcely a masterpiece but becomes quite intriguing when seen heard through these collaborators’ senses. But the actually more interesting work is Eberbach, because the monastery is just gorgeous inside and out, its curves, angles and overall structure simply fascinating. The environment within which Alcatraz and Eberbach sit is a big part of the works created here, so the pieces give a sense of place as well as one of structure. These are involving works, experimental in the sense that they bend and rearrange genres; and if they are not really “music” in any significant sense, they are not intended for listening so much as for immersion – they will be of most interest to those inclined to try out new forms of mixed media.
Gozaran: Time Passing has music at its core, but it is as much about music not being made as about its creation, and this is what renders it unusual. This 85-minute documentary focuses on Iranian composer Nader Mashayekhi, who in 2005 returned to Tehran from his studies in Vienna in response to an invitation to lead the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. The difficult geopolitical undercurrents of the Middle East and of Iran in particular are barely present here, but they are a decided factor in the outcome of Mashayekhi’s journey, which was at best a mixed success. Director Frank Scheffer emphasizes the personal elements of Mashayekhi’s attempts to bring some Western and contemporary music to his home country and to show young musicians how to play works with which they are thoroughly unfamiliar. Along the way, Mashayekhi seeks inspiration for his own compositions, and the documentary’s most beautiful scenes are the ones in which he wanders through desolation, both that of the desert and that of an empty village, seemingly gathering his thoughts. Indeed, Mashayekhi’s thoughts dominate the film from start to finish, as the work becomes an extended internal monologue in which the composer looks for things to write music about, tries to figure out how to bring the great music of the past to a land unfamiliar and uncomfortable with it, and contemplates in general philosophical terms the time-bound and societally constrained meanings of music and of poetry. Gozaran: Time Passing is an intellectual journey more than a musical one, for all that music lies at its center, and is of distinctly limited interest in light of its subject matter and its handling of the material. It is a rarefied documentary for those interested in modern cross-cultural aesthetic issues, as seen through the eyes of a composer with a foot in two worlds: his homeland, which he loves, and his working city, where he is much better able to function productively.
Bloody Daughter is, on the face of it, a far more traditional film, a kind of “bio-pic” with an emphasis on dysfunctional family relationships and what it is like to grow up in the shadow of celebrity. The fact that music is central to Stéphanie Argerich’s work is almost incidental – an accident of the director’s birth to internationally renowned pianists Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich. Of course, music is crucial to the narrative here, both in the 94-minute film and in the 54-minute bonus, in which Martha Argerich performs Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. But the main thrust of the movie – for which Stéphanie Argerich served as one camera operator as well as the director – is the relationship between two strong, artistic women, with the inevitable personality clashes and disagreements complemented by periodic instances of considerable insight and bonding. Like the careers of her virtuoso parents, Stéphanie Argerich’s film takes place around the world, in Warsaw and London, Japan and Belgium, Argentina and Switzerland. But it has little sense of place except for scene-setting, being far more focused on family intimacies than on where those interactions take place. Rehearsal and performance footage is intermingled with the domestic scenes and squabbles, and the movie nicely mixes matters of everyday life with ones involving the very high pressures of performance on the international concert scene. There is nothing particularly revelatory in Bloody Daughter, which despite its lurid title is a film about a family like many others – even artistic disagreements are simply fodder for exploring the different ways in which parents and daughter (primarily mother and daughter; Kovacevich is a much smaller presence) interact. A well-made film that is especially nicely photographed (Stéphanie Argerich is a professional photographer), Bloody Daughter is an “art house” production throughout, designed to showcase the pluses and perils of the artistic life both on stage and off. Fans of Martha Argerich and/or Kovacevich will be especially interested in it, but film and music aficionados in general will not have any particular reason to watch it except to see yet another interesting movie about the differences between life in and out of the public eye.
November 27, 2013
Fossil. By Bill Thomson. Two Lions. $17.99.
Charlie the Ranch Dog: Charlie’s Snow Day. Based on the books by Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat. Harper. $16.99.
Zoomer’s Out-of-This-World Christmas. By Ned Young. Harper. $17.99.
Biscuit’s Christmas Storybook Collection. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Pictures by Pat Schories. Harper. $11.99.
Whether in a wordless “anytime” story or in seasonally focused books, dogs provide a wonderful way to connect kids to the events happening around them. Bill Thomson’s Fossil is simply about a boy and dog walking by a lake – until things become anything but simple after the boy trips while holding a rock, the rock shatters, the fossil of a fern appears inside the stone, and then the fern starts growing. Reality and fantasy blend seamlessly as the boy finds another rock, this one containing a fossilized dragonfly, and again the fossil comes to life; and then a third rock reveals the claw of a pteranodon, and sure enough, the flying reptile appears in the sky – and soon the dog is riding on its back. The boy finally figures out a way to restore present-day reality, leaving himself and the dog happy at the lakeside – although some young readers may be disappointed at the boy’s ready abandonment of a world filled with wonders from the past. Thomson’s elegant paintings, done by hand rather than computer, lend solidity and vitality to Fossil, as they did to his previous book, Chalk. This is a tale of marvels for ages 3-7, told both strikingly and artfully.
Charlie’s Snow Day, created by Amanda Glickman and Rick Whipple from the “Charlie the Ranch Dog” stories of Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat, is a Level 1 book (“Beginning Reading”) in the I Can Read! series, and as such emphasizes words rather than pictures and is intended for ages 4-8. This level is described as having “simple sentences for eager new readers,” and that is just what Charlie’s Snow Day provides. The story is an everyday sort of outdoor tale, made amusing by Charlie’s usual personality quirks: he first enjoys sliding down a big hill in the snow, but then gets tired when climbing back up and decides that all he wants is to return to the ranch house and get warm. Then, though, he notices that his companion dog, Walter, has gone down the hill again – and Charlie concludes that Walter may be buried in the snow and in need of rescuing. This turns out, like so many of Charlie’s analyses, to be somewhat “off,” although it does get Charlie to go down the hill again and dig into a mound of snow where Walter has ended up. Eventually Charlie gets a ride back up the hill, courtesy of his human family – so he can get back to the warmth and relaxation that he loves so much. Easy to read and pleasantly warmhearted, Charlie’s Snow Day is a (+++) book that will be fun for kids who already know Charlie the Ranch Dog and are primed to enjoy him in a wintry setting.
A (++++) seasonal book for the same 4-8 age range, Ned Young’s Zoomer’s Out-of-This-World Christmas is all about Zoomer the dog and his big brothers, Hooper and Cooper, watching for Santa Claus the day before Christmas – when, sure enough, something lands in the back yard of their house. But it isn’t Santa’s sleigh – it’s a spaceship! And out comes a friendly space family with a pet called a “yarple-headed gigantaziller,” which is purple and has a trunk like an elephant’s, plus lots of legs. Soon the space family has invited the dogs to a picnic at which “kookaloon sandwiches, zablookee salad” and other delicacies are on the menu. Then everyone plays a robot-intensified game that is sort of like soccer, and then everybody goes for a swim (despite the time of year) after the aliens create “a force-field swimming pool.” Unfortunately, the spaceship turns out to have been damaged in landing, and the only way to fix it is for Zoomer to let the aliens have his favorite toy, his tricycle – which he does. Much later, after the spaceship’s takeoff and the pups’ Earth dinner, night of sleep and Christmas-morning awakening, Zoomer learns that Santa was aware of his good deed on behalf of the aliens and has brought him something special as a result – a happy ending all around for an unusual Christmas-themed story in which the highly amusing illustrations (including alien-related ones that owe a distinct debt to Dr. Seuss) neatly complement the narrative.
The pictures are far more straightforward and the stories far more earthbound in the nine-tale collection called Biscuit’s Christmas Storybook Collection. The stories in this (+++) book were originally published between 2000 and 2011 and are only partially Christmas-themed. Alyssa Satin Capucilli offers not only Biscuit’s Christmas, Biscuit’s Christmas Eve and Biscuit Gives a Gift but also nonseasonal stories, including Biscuit’s Show and Share Day, Biscuit Wants to Play, Biscuit Visits the Big City, Biscuit’s Snowy Day, Biscuit and the Lost Teddy Bear, and Biscuit Goes to School. These are very simply plotted and written stories, much in the mode of the old Dick-and-Jane “easy readers,” a parallel that extends to Pat Schories’ pleasant, rather old-fashioned illustrations. The writing will likely be too repetitious for all but the youngest children: “The little boy lost his teddy bear, Biscuit, but you found it! Woof, woof!” “Here comes the school bus! Woof, woof!” “Stay with me, Biscuit. It’s very busy in the big city! Woof, woof!” “Woof, woof, woof! Biscuit can help the kittens!” Biscuit is a cute puppy in that roly-poly way in which puppies were drawn for kids’ books decades ago, and the simplistic suburban back-yard adventures he has with his family will be enjoyable for pre-readers and perhaps for children just learning to read. The official target age range for the book is 4-8, but it will be far too easy for most children in the upper part of that range. Indeed, even parents of younger kids should not be surprised if they quickly lose interest in Biscuit and outgrow these simple, mild little tales.