May 21, 2015
Bear and Duck. By Katy Hudson. Harper. $17.99.
My Bike. By Byron Barton. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Some picture books just exude charm, while being simple enough in the stories they tell to delight the youngest readers – and even pre-readers who are just starting to pick out a word or two. The message of Katy Hudson’s Bear and Duck is a tried-and-true one: be who you are, be the best “you” you can be, and don’t try to be anyone or anything else. But Hudson’s story is so winningly illustrated that even kids who have encountered the theme before will enjoy it all over again here. Bear has an identity crisis: tired of needing to sleep all winter, wear a fur coat in summer, and deal with the angry bees when he tries to get some honey to eat, Bear decides to become – a duck. He sees ducks waddling by and decides that they have a better life than he does, so why shouldn’t he join them? And he does, hilariously walking in the middle of the line of ducks without being noticed at all until he lets out a presumably bear-size “quack.” Duck, leading the line of ducklings, tells Bear he does not belong with them, but when Duck sees how sad that makes Bear feel (and look), Duck pulls out a handy book called How to Be the Perfect Duck and agrees to help Bear follow the book’s recommendations. Soon Bear is learning about nest-building, egg-sitting, swimming, and – uh-oh – flying. Things do not go well, but they go badly in such amusing ways that kids will delight in Bear’s expressions, notably those in which his tongue hangs out as he climbs a tree to get Duck an apple. Eventually and inevitably, Bear realizes that being a duck is harder than it looks – at least for a bear – and resigns himself to staying a bear after all. But Duck reassures him that he makes “a really good bear and a really good friend,” so all ends happily, with Duck and Bear sharing some Bear-procured honey while bees fly about, perhaps being angry but not displaying any ire toward the pair of friends. The combined messages of self-awareness and friendship blend beautifully here, and the illustrations are, well, picture-perfect for the story.
Even simpler in concept and appearance, Byron Barton’s My Bike features drawings that almost look as if they were made by a child in the 4-8 age group, for whom both this book and Bear and Duck are intended. Barton’s story here is barely a story at all, beginning, “I am Tom. This is my bicycle,” and then showing the basic parts of a bike. Tom is then seen riding his bike to work – he looks like a child but is clearly supposed to be an adult. Tom rides his bike past vehicles that have some strange aspects to them: one is a truck marked “circus,” another a bus in which a dog sits in one passenger seat, another a bus in which both a dog and a cat are seated. Tom rides past people heading for the circus, past the crowds going into the tents, and deeper into the circus – past lions and tigers and elephants and the ringmaster. So it seems that Tom’s work is at the circus – but what does he do? Barton reveals that in the last few pages, showing Tom getting ready for his job – which turns out to have something to do with a bike (more or less). The simplicity of story and childlike drawings combine to make this easy-to-read book (with text in very large type) an easy-to-follow and easy-to-understand one as well. And the small mystery of what Tom does after he goes past all those other vehicles and people will have pre-readers and young readers trying to figure out how the book will end – which means they will enjoy the pleasant and amusing surprise at its conclusion.
Sinbad and Me. By Kin Platt. Page Publishing. $26.99.
All those writers desperate to connect with the so-called “young adult” audience – preteens and young teenagers in particular – through hyper-“relevant” books steeped in modern concerns such as split families, gender uncertainty and perfect racial-and-ethnic balance of protagonists would do well to take a page from Kin Platt (1911-2003). Platt was preoccupied with exactly none of those oh-so-up-to-date matters when he created Sinbad and Me, the first book of a trilogy about a mystery-solving boy and his bulldog. This is actually the second book of a tetralogy if you count The Blue Man (1961), which also features Steve Forrest but unconscionably omits Sinbad. The Edgar Award-winning Sinbad and Me, now (finally!) available in a new edition, dates to 1966, with its sequels being The Mystery of the Witch Who Wouldn’t (1969) and The Ghost of Hellsfire Street (1980).
And what will modern sleuth-creating writers discover in Sinbad and Me? They will learn that complex but fair-to-the-reader plotting, amusing and well-wrought characters (even formulaic ones), and a whole series of plot twists and turns, add up to a compulsively readable book that easily outpaces most newer ones in its genre. In fact, they will learn that Sinbad and Me works despite being somewhat frozen in its time, despite some inaccuracies, despite (or perhaps because of) its clear resemblance to even earlier boy-detective books, such as those featuring the Hardy Boys. They will learn that a dog can be a full participant in a mystery/adventure while remaining 100% dog, behaving in a realistically doglike manner: “When I got back to the house I had a quick conference with man’s best friend. Sinbad hadn’t been consulted all day but he wasn’t the type to bear a grudge. He lay and listened and didn’t interrupt once.” There is nothing Scooby Doo-ish about Sinbad, no almost-speech, no taking the lead and helping the rather dim humans around him see what ought to be obvious. But Sinbad is nevertheless a full participant in this mystery/adventure, and his presence is part of what makes Sinbad and Me stand out with such distinction half a century after it was written.
Half a century does bring societal changes, of course. The underlying premise of the novel, which involves Steve being left on his own for a considerable time while his parents head out of town to help relatives, is out of place in an age like ours, where tales of hovering “helicopter parents” alternate with ones about “free-range parents” whose children sometimes get taken away by authorities because the parents allow them to (horrors!) walk home from school unsupervised. The use of printed encyclopedias and the greatest code-breaking technology ever invented – the human brain – seems impossibly quaint today, when people with half a brain or less command enough computer power to solve just about any cipher. The idea of bad guys zipping around in big stolen cars and making largely ineffectual, only semi-scary threats, seems disturbingly over-familiar, to the point of cliché. And having the bad guys use a snake as a weapon – in a scene that any herpetologist would find laughably inaccurate – scarcely increases the story’s verisimilitude.
But so what? Strict realism has never been the point of young-adult adventures. Nowadays, “coming of age” is the main thing that matters, but in Sinbad and Me, what counts is something more straightforward: solving a mystery. Yet the mystery itself is so convoluted that kids of any age (that includes the grown-up kids known as adults) will be captivated by its ins and outs. There are in fact multiple interlocking mysteries here: one involving a sunken gambling ship, another having to do with a harmless “little old lady” who has attracted the attention of some unsavory characters for no apparent reason, another about a lawyer who is a little more close-mouthed than the facts would seem to justify, another about a science teacher with a suspiciously intense interest in skin diving in a certain area, and several concomitant and highly specific mysteries of messages written in code in a cave and on a painting. What Platt does in facile style and with a fine sense of pacing is to weave all these mysteries into a single story built around 12-year-old Steve and his bulldog, with a variety of subsidiary characters to spice up the narrative (notably a sheriff who always seems to stumble upon Steve at just the wrong moment). The result is a story that remains engrossing even though the societal framework in which it is set is long gone – but great art, after all, transcends its time, and if Sinbad and Me is not exactly “great art,” that proves only that pretty doggone good art can be transcendent, too, in its own dogged way.
Mayo Clinic Guide to Fertility and Conception. By Jani R. Jensen, M.D., and Elizabeth A. Stewart, M.D. Da Capo. $23.99.
Sex: An Uncensored Introduction. By Nikol Hasler. Illustrations by Michael Capozzola. Zest Books. $14.99.
How to get pregnant – and how to enjoy sex if you do not want to get pregnant – are the subjects of, respectively, Mayo Clinic Guide to Fertility and Conception and Sex: An Uncensored Introduction. The Mayo Clinic book is exactly what anyone familiar with this outstanding medical establishment would expect: thorough, engaging, fact-packed and plainspoken. It is also full of surprises – for example, Jani Jensen and Elizabeth Stewart suggest that both partners, not just the woman, should have good body-mass index (BMI) numbers to maximize the chance of a pregnancy. The book is also upbeat in some rather surprising ways, explaining, for example, to “forget about positions and routines” when trying to get pregnant, because “there’s no scientific basis for the idea that certain positions during sex will enhance conception. By all means, though, feel free to get creative if you like!” The highly positive tone of this book makes some of the more-complex elements of it much easier to accept; the personal stories sprinkled throughout are helpful, too. But it is a fair bet that most people who buy Mayo Clinic Guide to Fertility and Conception will do so because they want to know how to start or expand a family – the writing style and other people’s stories will be subsidiary. The book proves to be just as helpful (and, not surprisingly, scientifically accurate) as anyone could wish. The authors have impeccable credentials, Jensen as co-director of the In Vitro Fertilization Program at the Mayo Clinic and Stewart as chair of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility. The 20 chapters here focus clearly on just about all aspects of getting pregnant, and each chapter breaks down its topic into accessible, easy-to-follow, clearly written sections. “Ovulation and Fertility Signs,” for example, includes “Your menstrual cycle,” “Your fertility window,” “Products that can help,” and a personal story – and each of the first three of these parts is itself broken down into smaller subsections. This makes the very complex topic of fertility and conception much easier to understand, and has the added advantage of letting readers skip sections in which they are not interested and get right to the ones on which they want to focus. There is, for example, a chapter called “Miscarriage and Ectopic Pregnancy” that includes “Miscarriage,” “Recurrent pregnancy loss,” “Ectopic pregnancy,” “Trying again,” and the usual personal case history. Turn to “Trying again,” for instance, and there is the expected statement that “Pregnancy loss can be an extremely difficult experience. …Keep in mind that you and your partner may deal with a pregnancy loss in different ways. It may not always be easy to recognize that the other person is hurting.” But you will also find the unexpected here: a short description, with photo, of the Japanese custom of making offerings to Jizo, an enlightened being thought to watch over miscarried and aborted fetuses. Of course, Jensen and Stewart do not suggest purchasing a Jizo statue and dressing it in a cap and bib, as is done in Japan; here as elsewhere, they explain more than they recommend. But by including this unfamiliar-to-Westerners custom, they subtly show that the pain of the ending of a desired pregnancy takes many forms and generates many different coping mechanisms. It is this sort of inclusiveness, this openness to multiple approaches to becoming pregnant and carrying a baby to term, that makes Mayo Clinic Guide to Fertility and Conception so valuable. The book really does go through pretty much every possible child-related alternative, including surgery, reproductive assistance, third-party reproduction, single parenthood, adoption – and child-free living. The expertise of Jensen and Stewart is matched by their empathy, and anyone seeking to start a family or expand one, and who is looking for some sound, scientifically grounded advice and cheerleading, will find them served up here.
Mayo Clinic Guide to Fertility and Conception of course includes a “How Babies Are Made” chapter with illustrations of male and female sexual organs and diagrams of fertilization, implantation, and even the different ways twins develop in the womb. Sex: An Uncensored Introduction includes reproductive-organ illustrations, too, but this is a book primarily targeting teenagers, and its style is therefore very different – starting with the bird and bee shown on the front cover. Nikol Hasler aims for a mixture of accuracy, humor and nonjudgmental, uncensored advice here, and manages a pretty good mixture some if not all of the time. Hasler, a mother of teens, hosts a Web series about sex and works in public TV, and she is scarcely a medical expert, but Sex: An Uncensored Introduction is scarcely a medical book. In trying to speak to a teenage audience, Hasler includes elements such as occasional boxes called “There are no stupid questions – except for this one.” An example: “Can I get my mom pregnant if I masturbate in a sock and then my mom washes the dirty sock, gets dried semen on her hand, and later wipes herself?” Also here, in addition to what Hasler calls “the basics” about sex, are entries such as “What’s in a name?” – where she says “there are lots of great (and not so great) names for your body parts! Here are some of our faves.” Those include, for breasts, “airbags…tittybojangles, tracks of land, chesticles…dairy pillows,” and for penis, “one-eyed trouser snake, schlong, purple-headed yogurt slinger…tallywhacker…pork sword.” Clearly this is not a book as straightforward as the Mayo Clinic’s. But there is an underlying seriousness of purpose to Sex: An Uncensored Introduction, as shown in answers to a variety of questions that raise concerns ranging from “My penis is kind of small” to “I’m an openly gay kid, and I am really sensitive to guys thinking I want them”; from “I was raped as a young girl, and because of this I feel like I have lost the magic” to “Will my new boyfriend still want to have sex with me when he finds out that I am all loose and stretched out?” Hasler takes all these questions seriously and answers them carefully and nonjudgmentally – indeed, the nonjudgmental aspect of the book is one of its strongest points. A weaker element is the way Hasler bends over backwards to stay with-it and trendy, probably because she wants teens to pay attention. Thus, her first entry under “Gender Identifications” is: “Cisgender: People who are comfortable in the gender they were assigned at birth.” Assigned at birth? By whom? What exactly does that mean? But the basic advice in the book is sound and is delivered forthrightly: “Sex or foreplay should be consensual every time you have it, no matter what kind of sex it is and who you are having it with.” If anything, Hasler errs on the side of caution, as when discussing sexually transmitted infections: “If you are sexually active, you should be getting tested every six months, even if you are using condoms (which you’d better be).” There is nothing pandering or smarmy in Sex: An Uncensored Introduction, despite the fact that it lives up fairly well to Hasler’s promise to discuss “everything that has to do with sex.” The book is not an advocacy tract: “This book is not here to tell you to have or not to have sex – it’s to tell you what you need to know if you are having sex, or ever will.” Yes, some of the attempts at humor fall flat, such as the chapter title, “Oral, Vaginal, and Anal Sex: You’re Going to Put That Where?” And whether some items are humorous is a matter of opinion, such as this “no stupid questions” entry: “If I want to make it to third base on the first date, does it help to bring a baseball bat?” However, the biggest issue with Sex: An Uncensored Introduction is that the humor and seriousness sometimes coexist uneasily and imperfectly, with the funny elements tending to override the far more important serious and health-related ones. For the intended teen audience, though, that may be no issue at all, although it is sometimes difficult to remember that Hasler is addressing teens – as when, for example, she feels obliged to write a definition implying far more naïveté than teenagers are likely to possess: “Some people like to look at pictures or movies of people having sex. This is called pornography, or porn.” Still, the bottom-line message here, and it is one that Hasler delivers effectively, is, “We’re all wired differently, and we all like different things for different reasons.” That is a comment that teens – and parents of teens, such as Hasler herself – can hopefully take to heart…not just to their sex organs.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Copenhagen Phil conducted by Lan Shui. Orchid Classics. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Spohr: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 9; Erinnergung an Marienbad. NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99 (SACD).
Bruckner: The Complete Symphonies (Nos. 1-9); Mass No. 3 in F Minor. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Marek Janowski; Lenneke Ruiten, soprano; Iris Vermillion, mezzo-soprano; Shawn Mathey, tenor; Franz Josef Selig, bass; Rundfunkchor Berlin. PentaTone. $89.99 (10 SACDs).
No matter how many times complete recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies are made, there is always room for another – so deeply do these works communicate through the ages, so susceptible are they to multiple readings and interpretative nuances. The first portion of the Beethoven cycle by the very strangely named Copenhagen Phil (founded as a Tivoli dance orchestra in 1843!) is exceptionally revelatory, even to those who feel they have heard just about every possible variation on Beethoven interpretation. Conductor Lan Shui does a number of things that, in combination, set his interpretations apart. For one thing, his orchestra uses original instruments or replicas – resulting in a sound very different from that of modern orchestras, especially in the brass, which Beethoven often has playing quite loudly but which, even at maximum volume, never overshadows the remainder of the musicians (because older brass instruments simply could not attain the volume of modern ones). Secondly, Shui insists on adhering to Beethoven’s own tempo indications, which remain controversial to this day, with some musicians and scholars insisting that Beethoven’s Maelzel metronome was defective or simply that the composer could not possibly have meant his music to be played as quickly as some of the tempo markings indicate. Thirdly, Copenhagen Phil itself is an orchestra of modest size, about 70 players, so there is a cleanness of sound and an inherent sectional balance here that is far more difficult to attain in orchestras of 90 to 100 musicians. The combination of these factors results in performances of Beethoven’s first four symphonies that are exhilarating, dynamic and dramatic to a very substantial degree. The sheer fleetness of the outer movements of No. 1 is delightful to hear, and indeed rather amazing. No. 2 sounds like a genuine transitional work, with much of the structure and overall approach of No. 1 but very clear hints of what was to come in No. 3. The “Eroica” itself gets a revelatory reading: from the first two chords, which are emphatic but not overwhelming (as in so many other performances), to a funeral march that moves ahead smartly rather than at a glacial pace, to a finale that seems to test the strings to their limit, this is a reading that makes Beethoven’s expansion of symphonic style quite clear while at the same time showing his indebtedness to earlier masters of the form. And Symphony No. 4, so often under-appreciated, fares splendidly here, too, seeming not at all a step back from the “Eroica” (as some commentators and conductors still consider it to be) but a decided move forward, with subtleties of instrumentation and a significant expansion of Beethoven’s expectation of performers’ capabilities. The finale of No. 4 here sounds like nothing less than a giant leap in the direction of Mendelssohnian scurrying. This Orchid Classics release is the start of one of the most interesting Beethoven cycles in years, and listeners who hear the freshness and brightness of the performances will be looking forward eagerly to Shui’s handling of the remainder of the symphonies.
One cycle begins, another concludes: all 10 Louis Spohr symphonies (numbered 1-9, with a tenth without opus number) have now been released by CPO in a series of recordings featuring Howard Griffiths and the NDR Radiophilharmonie. Spohr was for a time considered the leading symphonist after Beethoven’s death, and Griffiths’ five CDs clearly show a modern audience why that was so – and why the composer’s reputation did not last. Spohr had some highly innovative concepts for symphonies, but his ability to implement them convincingly was often far less than those ideas deserved. This is quite clear in the contrast between Symphonies No. 7 and 9. No. 7 is one of Spohr’s best, a symphony roughly modeled on his once-famous double quartets: it is in effect a double-orchestra symphony, setting a small group of 11 players against a larger, full-size ensemble. But it is not just the orchestration that is special – there is also a program here, with the smaller group representing Good and the larger one Evil, all within the context of the work’s title, “The Earthly and the Divine in Human Life.” This is a lot of freight for a symphony to carry, but in this case Spohr brings off the concept with élan and considerable skill. The work’s three movements represent childhood and its innocence, adulthood and its secular concerns, and old age and its decided turn toward the divine. Furthermore, the work’s structure is highly unusual: it lacks both a slow movement and a scherzo, instead containing two moderate-tempo movements followed by a fast finale. Spohr appended mottos to all three movements, and it does help to know them to get the full flavor of the music; they are included in this release’s accompanying booklet. But even without knowing the words, listeners will be swept along through the drama and the contrasts between the smaller and larger orchestral groups. A highly unusual work, Spohr’s Seventh is a high point of his symphonic production. His Ninth, however, is altogether less successful. Written in 1849, eight years later than No. 7, Spohr’s Ninth also has programmatic elements, being called “The Seasons” – but starting in winter and progressing through to autumn, rather than beginning with spring as Vivaldi and Haydn did. Again here there is an unusual structure: two parts, the first including winter, introduction to spring and spring, the second containing summer, introduction to autumn and autumn. But in this case, Spohr’s creativity flagged in the implementation of what is essentially a simple program. There is nothing wrong with the symphony, but nothing especially right about it either: it goes through the motions harmonically and descriptively (although less so in a descriptive sense than other works on the same topic), but it never really grabs the listener, and it tends to sound mundane and even plodding as it progresses. There is a thunderstorm, for instance, but only in the distance, and there are hunting horns, but only briefly and only as a lead-in to a rather ordinary rondo theme. Spohr’s creativity seems to have flagged late in life – this is also why he withdrew his Symphony No 10, although he did not destroy it. His No. 9 is well-crafted but ultimately not especially memorable. Griffiths concludes his Spohr survey with Erinnergung an Marienbad (“Souvenir of Marienbad”), a work from 1833 in which Spohr shows himself capable of producing a workmanlike if not particularly distinguished waltz. Written for small orchestra, it is a pleasant piece with few affectations and, as such, of more interest than some of Spohr’s more-pretentious works that seek grandeur and meaningfulness but never quite attain them.
The grandeur of Bruckner’s symphonies comes through quite clearly in the newest cycle of those works, featuring Marek Janowski and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Like Beethoven cycles, those of Bruckner come in many forms and with many approaches – and, in the case of Bruckner, with different counts of symphonies. Bruckner wrote 11 symphonies, including a very early one now numbered “00” and a later one, created between Nos. 1 and 2, that is known as “No. 0.” Conductors have to decide which symphonies to include in a Bruckner cycle, and Janowski opts only for Nos. 1-9 – a justifiable position, although No. 0 is certainly worth hearing (No. 00 is more conventional and of less interest, although a truly comprehensive cycle should incorporate it). So whether this cycle is “complete” depends on one’s definition of completeness where Bruckner is concerned. Conductors also have to decide which versions of the symphonies to use, and this is a notorious problem for the many symphonies that exist in multiple forms. Janowski opts for Nowak versions throughout, except for the new and well-regarded Carragan version of No. 2; however, the specific Nowak versions Janowski chooses are not always the best: the 1889 version of No. 3, for example, is a distinct disappointment, no matter how well it is played. And the playing itself is another issue in Bruckner cycles, even more so than in sequences of other composers’ symphonies, because Bruckner’s unique sound requires thorough familiarity with and understanding of the composer’s Masses, his predilection for the organ, and the German (and, even more specifically, Wagnerian) sound of orchestras in Bruckner’s time. This last matter is a significant one for Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, whose distinctive sound is far more French than German – which results in Bruckner that is smoother, more flowing and more even (that is, less craggy) than in many other readings. Add to this sonic element the fact that Janowski, a first-rate opera conductor, sees Bruckner’s symphonies as works of high drama and tremendous drive, and you have a cycle that sheds a different sort of light on the composer while arguing (admittedly not always convincingly) that his worldview was essentially operatic and driven by grand emotional outbursts. Janowski is quite capable of giving listeners heartfelt, warm and religiously committed performances – the best example here is the Mass No. 3 in F Minor, included as a sort of bonus disc with the symphonies (and fitting well with them: Bruckner often drew on his Masses, including this one, for symphonic material). But the emotionalism of the slow movements of Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8, and of the third movement of the truncated No. 9, comes through clearly as well, with Janowski giving the music plenty of room to breathe and with the orchestral players letting it flow with substantial, almost oceanically engulfing warmth. The most memorable movements here, though, are the ones from which Janowski can extract maximum dramatic impact, including in particular the finales: Nos. 2, 3, 6 and 7 come across especially well. The scherzos also receive dynamically engaging performances, their Ländler rhythms brought forth distinctively and their intense elements played with great strength that leads to a strong contrast between their main sections and their central trios. Janowski also has particular sensitivity to misterioso elements of Bruckner – the opening of the first movement of No. 9, which has never sounded more dramatic than it does here, and the same symphony’s weirdly flickering scherzo, are but two examples, although particularly good ones. This cycle – offered in PentaTone’s usual splendid SACD sound, and also sounding excellent on standard CD equipment – will probably not be Bruckner aficionados’ first choice, because of the orchestra’s sound, the choice of editions of the symphonies, the failure to include Nos. 00 and 0, and the absence of a compelling musical argument carried throughout the symphonies (such as that of Mario Venzago’s recent and very Schubertian sequence, employing different orchestras to highlight distinctive elements of each symphony). The sheer power of Bruckner, though, comes through forcefully here, and many of the movements – if not necessarily entire symphonies – are so impressive as to make listeners sit up and take notice. This cycle is certainly not definitive, if that word has any meaning where Bruckner is concerned, but it is highly interesting and even intriguing in its emphasis on the grand, even grandiose elements of symphonies by a composer who was, in his everyday life, as modest and unassuming as they come.
Gian Francesco Malipiero: Sinfonia degli eroi; Ditirambo tragico; Armenia; Grottesco; Dai sepolcri. Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Amaury du Closel. Naxos. $12.99.
Zhou Long: The Rhyme of Taigu; The Enlightened; Symphony “Humen 1839” (written with Chen Yi). New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Darrell Ang. Naxos. $12.99.
Chiayu: Urban Sketches; Huan; Journey to the West; Twelve Signs; Sparkle; Zhi. Members of the Curtis Institute of Music and the Philadelphia Orchestra; Ciompi Quartet (Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violins; Jonathan Bagg, viola; Fred Raimi, cello). Naxos. $12.99.
Sergio Cervetti: Concertino; Exiles; Guitar Music (the bottom of the iceberg); El Río de los Pájaros Pintados; Candombe. Navona. $16.99.
Lionel Sainsbury: Andalusian Fantasy; Nocturne; South American Suite; Twelve Preludes; Esquisse; Cuban Fantasy. Lionel Sainsbury, piano. Navona. $16.99.
Isabel Leonard: Preludios. Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano; Brian Zeger, piano. Delos. $16.99.
The City of Tomorrow: Nature—works by David Lang, Luciano Berio, Denys Bouliane and Nat Evans. City of Tomorrow Wind Quintet (Elise Blatchford, flute; Stuart Breczinski, oboe; Camila Barrientos Ossio, clarinet; Laura Miller, bassoon; Leander Star, horn). Ravello. $14.99.
Emotional content that subsumes the formal within itself, or eschews it altogether, is a characteristic of the work of Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973). Malipiero had little patience with any formal musical approaches handed down over the centuries, preferring a kind of organic growth of his works in a manner that, when it worked, could be decades ahead of its time. His music grows from motivic rather than thematic elements, and he preferred free-range musical growth to anything that would allow listeners to grasp, through their knowledge of formal structures, the essence of his music. Even in his early and lesser works – including all five on a new Naxos CD – Malipiero was groping toward a later style that actively opposed the German symphonic tradition and attempted to look forward by utilizing such past approaches as Gregorian chant and Italian music of the 18th century. Thus, Sinfonia degli eroi (“Symphony of Heroes”), from 1905, is less a symphony or sinfonia in a classical sense than a tone poem – without, however, having any specific program, since Malipiero also disdained program music. Ditirambo tragico (“Tragic Dithyramb”), from 1917, reflects its wartime composition atmospherically but without specificity. Armenia, also from 1917, stands in strong contrast, using traditional Armenian melodies in a work whose primary characteristics are charm and relaxation. The aptly titled Grottesco (“Grotesque”), from 1918, seems to reflect both the Great War and the musical approaches of Stravinsky in its variety and pungency. And Malipiero’s earliest surviving work, Dai sepolcri (“From Tombs”), which dates to 1904, carries whiffs of death through an extended tone-poem format that, as is the case with Sinfonia degli eroi (the composer’s second-earliest surviving piece), is nevertheless without formal structure or a carefully delineated program. Four of the five works played here by the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra under Amaury du Closel are world première recordings; only Grottesco has been recorded before. Malipiero’s music is not especially approachable, despite its adherence to diatonic principles: its organizational methods take some getting used to, and the effort is not always repaid by the music’s communicative abilities. Yet elements of these works speak effectively of content that cannot easily be captured within traditional forms.
The forms used by Zhou Long (born 1953) in three world première recordings on a new Naxos CD are more conventional, but the material around which the works are built is not. The Rhyme of Taigu (2003) is, in essence, a symphonic poem, but it is one using traditional Chinese percussion instruments to very good effect in an attempt to pull modern listeners’ ears back to the world of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). An orchestral expansion and reconsideration of an earlier chamber work, this piece includes the dagu (Chinese bass drums) and uses modern winds to evoke the sound of the old double-reed guanzi. Similarly, The Enlightened (2005) ties to an earlier work – in this case, The Immortal, written a year earlier. The Enlightened has a sociopolitical purpose, attempting to assert ways in which music can improve listeners’ relationships with other people and, indeed, the entire planet. Its unusual sounds come from standard orchestral instruments; its tempo is slow throughout; and its texture becomes denser as the piece progresses. It is not an especially easy piece to hear, and goes on rather longer than its purely musical elements justify, but it has moments of effective sonic display and ones that are evocative of unnamed mysteries. Symphony “Humen 1839,” co-created by Zhou Long and his wife, Chen Yi (born 1953), dates to 2009 and is intended to evoke the events leading up to the First Opium War between Great Britain and China. In four movements that roughly approximate the traditional ones of a Western symphony, the piece pays specific tribute to Lin Zexu (1785-1850), the scholar and government official whose opposition to the opium trade is considered largely responsible for the First Opium War (1839-42). The work progresses from a first movement based on traditional melodies through a mournful section expressing the humiliation of China during the war, eventually ending with an assertion of pride, power and an expectation of a better future. Tied so directly to a conflict of which most modern Westerners know little, if anything, the symphony has less resonance for a Western audience than in China, where its referents are clear and its eventual sense of triumph only to be expected. Like the other works here, this is a melding of matters Eastern and Western done with considerable technical skill but without the sort of emotional connection that would successfully bridge a cultural gap that still exists today.
Chiayu (born 1975), who was born in Taiwan and uses only one name, also tries to bridge gaps with her music, a point she makes quite directly in Journey to the West (2010) for string quartet – one of the six works, all of them world première recordings, on a new Naxos CD. Based on a classic Chinese novel about a trip to India by a monk and his disciple – the monkey king – in search of sacred texts, Journey to the West uses a string quartet to imitate the sound of Chinese instruments (in a manner not unlike that employed by Zhou Long); and it includes techniques ranging from chords made entirely of harmonics to a perpetuum mobile representing a battle with monsters. Writing is also the inspiration for Huan (2006), a work based on a book about the Limberlost swamplands in Indiana and the wildlife found there. Written for a harp competition, this piece uses the harp in some unusual ways, including clusters and scraping effects on the strings. There is a mixture of Impressionism and rather self-conscious tone-painting here, and some of the effects seem overdone, such as the use of a cloth threaded between harp strings in the third and final movement. Even more elaborate is Twelve Signs (2008), whose 12 movements reflect the signs of the traditional Chinese zodiac as grouped into four sections: the first fast and energetic, the second meditative and tonally unsettled, the third fragmented, the fourth slow and lyrical. These four “overviews” are combined with instrumental effects designed to showcase each of the 12 animals of the zodiac – a complex structure that actually works surprisingly well in communicating a sense of the multiplicity of personalities for which the 12 signs of the zodiac stand. Sparkle (2011) for brass quintet is somewhat less successful in its purpose of evoking fireworks imagery – the clicking and popping sounds called for seem both obvious and unclear. Zhi (2005) has a title that refers to weaving or interlacing to form a design. It is a twelvetone work, containing many of the compositional techniques that seem designed to distance the music from those not fully in the know about its creation: three variations on a series of 12 chords, with three principal chords recurring in different transpositions; a repetitive five-note pattern in augmentation and diminution; and so on. This is music as intellectual exercise, not a work likely to or intended to appeal to more than a rarefied audience. Urban Sketches (2013) is more engaging, although it wears thin long before its 11 minutes are over. Written for piano trio and electronic sounds, it is yet another of the innumerable sound portraits of New York City, including the expected whistles, sirens and brakes with the less-expected sounds of salsa music, jazz, and the Chinese bamboo flute. The combination of styles here is quite typical of what many contemporary composers offer. Chiayu handles it well, integrating the electronic elements skillfully, but the piece leaves behind it a certain sense of having heard all this before.
Electronics also figure in Exiles for piano and electronics, a 1980 minimalist work by Sergio Cervetti that is featured, along with four other pieces, on a new Navona CD. The overall impression left by this disc is that Cervetti has dabbled in multiple styles, has assimilated them (or at least elements of them), but has never quite found an individualized voice that integrates elements of the compositional approaches within his own vision. Exiles basically starts with a slow piano version of a patriotic Uruguayan theme, then has electronic sounds overwhelm the theme and swamp it. Somewhat similarly, Guitar Music (the bottom of the iceberg), from 1975, is also minimalist in construction and also includes a touch of South America (flamenco in this case), using the solo guitar as part of one of those modernist experiments in pitch that seem to be of far more interest to composers than to any potential audience. More interesting is another piece with electronic elements, in this case combined with bandoneon: El Río de los Pájaros Pintados, whose title is the Spanish translation of the native Guarani Indian word “uru-guay,” meaning “River of the Painted Birds.” Relying for its effects on a Uruguayan national dance, this piece is more involving and less self-referential than either Exiles or Guitar Music. And there is another work here that leans on the same dance: Candombe, a 1996 orchestration of a 1984 piece for harpsichord – no electronic elements here, but the orchestration is facile and the piece as a whole nicely crafted. More interesting still, though, and the most effective work on this disc, is Concertino, a 2013 work for piano, woodwinds and timpani that brings South American rhythms to the fore and mixes them, improbably, with a quote from Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. It sounds as if the combination cannot possibly work, but it does, thanks in large part to the extreme contrast between the primary sounds of the three movements and the very different aural appearance of Mahler’s music. The orchestration of Concertino helps a great deal, too: it is for four different types of saxophones as well as more-traditional wind instruments, plus piano and timpani.
Piano stands alone on a new CD of music by Lionel Sainsbury, performed by the composer. South American rhythms, in particular those of the flamenco, loom as large here as on the Cervetti disc, if not larger. But other elements are even more evident in these pieces – specifically, jazz and blues, with classical sensibilities making themselves felt as well. Two well-made fantasies, Andalusian and Cuban, are the bookends of this release, both of them showing Sainsbury’s attentiveness to the dance rhythms of the regions he is profiling and both of them straddling the line between more-serious music and what used to be called salon pieces. The seven-movement South American Suite steps over that line: it is highly blues-inflected and sounds, in the composer’s somewhat over-the-top performance, like a work designed for a nightclub. Sainsbury’s Twelve Preludes, on the other hand, make his command of classical forms quite clear, although oftentimes in an overdone way: Maestoso (No. 1) sounds more like pomposo, for example, while Allegro non troppo (No. 4) is more like allegro gershwiniana, and Lento sostenuto (no. 5) is closer to lento quasi lugubrioso. As for Con malinconia (No. 11), it sounds more as if someone has a chill and fever than a melancholy temperament or episode. On the other hand, Nocturne does sound suitably nocturnal, which in this case means Chopinesque; but it does not have a great deal of individuality or much that is unexpected in its expressiveness. The shortest work on this CD, Esquisse, is one of the more effective pieces here, neither over-ambitious nor over-extended, with a pleasant lilt despite some rather halting rhythms. Listeners who have enjoyed other works by Sainsbury on Navona, for which he records regularly, are a natural target audience for this CD of six world premières.
Sometimes a South American and/or Spanish focus is clearer and stronger in vocal works than in ones that are entirely instrumental – for example, on a new Delos disc featuring Argentinian mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard performing works by Mompou, de Falla, Lorca, Sanjuán, Granados and Montsalvatge. Two folk-based and dark-hued songs by Lorca come across particularly well here, as do Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciónes negras, whose varied moods both Leonard and pianist Brian Zeger seem to understand intuitively and thus handle with a strong sense of empathy. Leonard seems particularly at home with works that are a touch unsettling and ones filled with pathos, if not exactly tragedy. Part of her effectiveness comes from the rich timbre of her voice, which often imbues the mezzo-soprano range with fullness almost worthy of a contralto. More comes from her sensitivity to rhythm, the suppleness of her vocal delivery, her attentiveness to phrasing both verbal and musical. Joaquín "Quinito" Valverde Sanjuán’s song Clavelitos (“Little Carnations”), for example, is a favorite of many sopranos, but Leonard makes it her own and shows how her lower-range voice can add piquancy and emotional intensity to the song. For that matter, even the Spanish folk lullaby that serves as an encore on this CD has a warmth and level of emotional connection that are unusual in so simple and straightforward a song. This CD is called Preludios, referring to de Falla’s Op. 16, but in fact the disc may be a prelude to something else: increasing listener interest not only in these songs but also in Leonard, whose warmth and involvement in this largely less-than-familiar repertoire are winning.
Sometimes the impressions that contemporary composers seek to showcase are entirely extra-musical ones, despite being evoked through music. The four works on a new Ravello CD featuring the City of Tomorrow Wind Quintet are of this type. The most interesting of the pieces is Ricorrenze by Luciano Berio, in which a single unison note is used to “grow” a variety of virtuosic display elements that test the players’ mettle significantly. The title means “Celebrations,” and although the celebratory nature of the material is less than obvious, the sheer virtuosity the work calls for – and this ensemble’s delivery of it – are impressive. At something of the opposite extreme is David Lang’s Breathless, one of those works in which instruments play and replay the same phrase, falling all over each other in overlapping lines intended to add up to something more than cacophony but sounding much like other works of similar structure. More interesting in its complexity, although somewhat pretentious in its attempt to comment upon art while being art, is a work by Denys Bouliane whose title includes the quotation marks and ellipses that some composers seem to believe lend their music an air of authority: “…A Certain Chinese Cyclopaedia…” Finally, there is a work by Nat Evans – also with pretensions to philosophical profundity – called Music for Breathing and intended to reflect varying aspects of biological events. There is actually a certain pleasing balance in opening the CD with Breathless and concluding it with Music for Breathing, but all four works here somewhat overreach in their attempts to be about matters of importance, as if music itself were not important enough. Berio’s seems most comfortable with what it is and is therefore of greatest impact – although the sound of all these pieces, Berio’s included, will not likely please listeners used to a more-mellow, gentler use of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn.
May 14, 2015
The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
Chu #3: Chu’s Day at the Beach. By Nail Gaiman. Illustrated by Adam Rex. Harper. $17.99.
In the Waves. By Lennon and Maisy Stella. Illustrated by Steve Björkman. Harper. $17.99.
Florabelle. By Sasha Quinton. Illustrated by Brigette Barrager with photographs by Michel Tcherevkoff. Harper. $15.99.
Every book in the “:Scientists in the Field” series is an adventure, but The Octopus Scientists is a stranger one than most. Octopuses – this and “octopods” are the correct plurals, with the book explaining why “octopi” is not right – are bizarre and thoroughly amazing creatures: blue-blooded, with three hearts and the ability to taste through their skin and tentacles. There are more than 250 types, some only half an inch long and some growing to 20 feet. They are boneless but have a super-brainy look thanks to their bulging mantle – which, however, is not their head: it contains their gills, stomach, hearts and other organs. Yet octopuses are brainy, solving problems with surprising speed and in different ways, according to their individual personalities. How do we know all this? The knowledge comes from scientists such as Jennifer Mather, leader of the team whose explorations are the subject of Sy Montgomery’s fascinating book. Marvelous photographs by Keith Ellenbogen bring young readers into the waters where Mather and her fellow scientists search for octopuses – no small feat, since these mollusks are absolutely brilliant at camouflage, changing not only their color but also their shape. One octopus studied at an aquarium became so eager to eat a crab offered inside a box – in an experiment designed to find out whether the octopus could figure out how to unlock the box – that instead of fussing with the lock, the octopus squeezed its entire body through a tiny hole and ended up in a perfect cube shape. Stories about friendship, or at least communication, between humans and octopuses, are offered here, along with absolutely amazing photos of the mollusks watching the scientists or simply going about their daily lives in ways so unusual that octopuses seem to live on another planet, or at the very least another plane of existence. Yet the whole point of The Octopus Scientists is that these strange and amazing creatures are not otherworldly: they live right here on Earth, in the oceans, and their health and that of the waters where they live are inextricably intertwined. The realism of this book, as of others in this series, lies not only in its portrayal of real scientists doing real work, but also in the real issues and confusions with which scientists live and without which science could not advance. “As is often the case in science, our field expedition generated more questions than answers,” Montgomery explains – and that is just what makes science so fascinating: it is a never-ending quest of exploration, whether of a mollusk’s mind or of any other topic.
Young readers looking for something lighter, much lighter, have many new water-oriented books from which to choose: when winter gives way to spring, publishers start anticipating summer and bringing out books with a distinct beach focus. There is, for example, Neil Gaiman’s third book about Chu the super-sneezy panda, Chu’s Day at the Beach. There is even an octopus here, but it is a thoroughly humanized one whose mantle (typically for a children’s book) is its head – and whose job is selling ice cream to the monkeys, tortoises, snakes and other beach visitors shown charmingly in Adam Rex’s illustrations. While a frog sunbathes and a crab reads a book, Chu and his parents enjoy being on the sand and in the water – until Chu produces one of his hurricane-like sneezes, which is so powerful that it parts the waves quite as effectively as Moses parted the Red Sea. Unfortunately, this particular parting of the waves has unintended consequences for ocean life, leaving sea creatures unable to swim from one place to another – as a whale comments, “With the sea broken, I cannot go home.” Not even the friendly greeting that Chu gets from a merpanda can fix things – Chu simply must sneeze again and, as the octopus ice-cream seller says, “put this back the way it was.” But for once, Chu cannot sneeze, not even when a seagull tickles his nose with a feather or when the little panda takes a drink from a soda whose bubbles go up his nose. It takes a smart suggestion from a helpful snail to get Chu to do something that, yes, results in another tornado-force sneeze – one that fixes the ocean very nicely but, as readers will see, does not quite put everything “back just as it was before,” even though Chu says that is what it does. Still, everything ends happily, with Chu even giving an ice-cream cone to a merpanda who says she sometimes sneezes, too (although presumably not quite as forcefully as Chu does). Gently amusing and quietly absurd, Chu’s Day at the Beach is a lovely summer outing for the little panda’s many fans.
A beach day is also in store, or seems to be, for Lennon and Maisy Stella of the TV show Nashville. The two cannot wait to be In the Waves, but they are taking a long time to get ready in a book based on a song they wrote with MaryLynne Stella and Carolyn Dawn Johnson. With Mama repeatedly urging the girls to get a move on, the two spend lots of time “getting all ready for some sister fun,” imagining riding a dolphin, feeding a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to a friendly shark, diving for sunken treasure, building a sand castle, getting a lift from a cooperative whale, and much more. Eventually, Mama “says she’s tired of waiting/ So we better get in,” and so the girls finally do just that – but not into the car to go to the beach. It turns out that the place they are heading is the bathtub, where they have just as great a time as they would at the beach, thanks to their imagination and the fact that they are “two sisters who pretend a lot.” Enlivened by plenty of super-upbeat Steve Björkman illustrations, this imagination celebration is a great way for kids to take a mini-vacation while staying at home, enjoying their “staycation” just as much as they would an actual trip to the beach. Or almost as much, anyway.
In Florabelle, a little girl does get to go to the beach, but if it weren’t for her imagination, the trip would be a big letdown. Florabelle is a dreamer all the day, every day, in every way, to such a point that she does not listen very well and is not always aware of what is happening in the world around her. She looks at her reflection in a glass door and sees herself as a ballerina – becoming too distracted to sit at the table for breakfast. She looks in the mirror of an armoire and sees herself as a fairy princess – forgetting that this is a school day and her sister is warning her that she is going to be late again. Her enjoyment and antics go too far when she plays Rodeo Queen at dinnertime, accidentally pulling the tablecloth and all the things on it onto the floor. There will be no beach trip the next day if Florabelle does not listen, her parents say, and the beach is one of Florabelle’s many dreams – a big one – so she buckles down and becomes “very S-E-R-I-O-U-S. Just like her family.” For the time being. So everyone does get to head for the beach after all – but Florabelle finds major disappointment there, because the sea looks deep and dark and “very, very undreamy!” Indeed, Brigette Barrager’s illustration here shows all sorts of unpleasant-looking (but not too scary) creatures in the water, just waiting for Florabelle to come in. The very next page shows the reality of Florabelle’s family happily having fun in the warm, pleasant water, despite the tentacles and other strangenesses that Florabelle imagines all around them. Sasha Quinton has Florabelle stay on the sand, grumpy and unhappy, until the little girl gets another of her imaginative ideas: how would the sea seem if she were a mermaid? That does it: Florabelle jumps into the water and has a great time, imagining herself amid all sorts of real and impossible sea creatures (including some whose illustrations nicely incorporate flower photos by Michel Tcherevkoff). It turns out to be a great beach trip after all, ending with Florabelle back home in bed, drifting off to sleep amid a sea of imaginatively flowery, watery, dress-up, magical dreams – a perfect end to a perfect day.
Woodstock: Master of Disguise—A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Charlie Plays Ball. By Ree Drummond. Illustrated by Diane deGroat. Harper. $17.99.
Rappy the Raptor. By Dan Gutman. Illustrated by Tim Bowers. Harper. $17.99.
Charles Schulz’ Peanuts strips continue to exude so much charm through their apparently simple drawings that it is easy, even 15 years after the cartoonist’s death, to overlook their subtleties and think of them as “only for kids.” Indeed, Woodstock: Master of Disguise is in the AMP! series of child-focused cartoon books from Andrews McMeel; and certainly there are many strips here that can be read as simple diversions and amusements. There is the sequence featuring Snoopy as “head beagle” and Woodstock as his secretary/assistant. There are several strips in which Woodstock’s singing interferes with Schroeder’s piano playing, with the result that the notes emanating from the piano take action against the bird (at one point first turning into earmuffs and then flying Woodstock out the door). There is one strip in which Woodstock, frightened by a Halloween pumpkin, decides to do his own carving – using a grape. There is one in which Woodstock and Snoopy hang Christmas canes on each other’s noses. And there are many other amusingly straightforward uses of the little yellow bird who frequently flies upside-down and who communicates with a series of dashes that only Snoopy can understand (an innovative approach to funny-animal cartooning, by the way). There are even some strips in which Snoopy, as “the world famous beagle scout,” leads four “Woodstocks” on hikes – although readers do eventually find out that the other three little yellow birds are named Conrad, Bill and Olivier. However, as Schulz did throughout his cartooning career, he sometimes used a Woodstock-focused strip to communicate a point of thoughtfulness or philosophy. A classic four-panel one has Snoopy and Woodstock atop Snoopy’s doghouse, looking to the left, with Snoopy thinking, “Learn from yesterday.” The second panel has the two dancing as Snoopy thinks, “Live for today.” The third has them gazing to the right: “Look to tomorrow.” And the fourth has them lying down and relaxing: “Rest this afternoon.” There are a few strips in this delightful collection that would no longer be considered politically correct: one in which Snoopy is eager to meet airline stewardesses (from the days before the phrase “flight attendants”) and ones in which Woodstock hopes to hunt a polar bear or spear a walrus. There is also a strip that will surprise most readers and maybe inspire a bit of research: a version of The Twelve Days of Christmas in which Snoopy refers to “four colly birds,” which happens to be the original version of the line (before “calling” was introduced). Schulz was a wonderful cartoonist, and Woodstock (named in 1970 for the famous 1969 rock festival) was a wonderful character – one who is just as appealing today as he was when Schulz was still around to involve him in new adventures.
Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat presumably have lots more adventures planned for Charlie the ranch dog, that over-self-important beagle who is so endearing that it is easy to forgive his tendency to think too much of himself. The latest book, Charlie Plays Ball, continues to show just how different Charlie the beagle is from Snoopy the beagle (if any further evidence were needed). Charlie, as usual, tells readers about all the intense activity involved in ranching, while deGroat’s illustrations show him watching what goes on far more often than actually doing anything except eating and sleeping. That is, of course, much of the fun of these books: the difference between Charlie’s self-image and how he behaves. The rest of the fun comes from Drummond’s stories. The one in Charlie Plays Ball simply shows the human family playing football, soccer and basketball while Charlie watches, gets a tummy rub, looks forward to snacks, and snoozes. It turns out that Charlie’s favorite ball of all is – what else? – meatballs, and the book concludes showing him about to eat some, and with a recipe for making them. The only oddity in the book – one that young readers will likely notice – is that deGroat’s signature style for these books, in which the faces of the humans are concealed while those of the animals are drawn clearly, seems overdone. A page in which Charlie is being fed a snack by a boy whose cap conceals his face, while two women and a man all turn away from Charlie and look at two kids whose faces are rendered indistinctly, seems awfully forced, as does one in which Charlie is tackled by three people – two whose caps conceal their faces and one whose face is invisible behind Charlie’s body. The whole turning-away-all-the-time views of humans seem more, so to speak, “in your face” here than in previous Charlie books, and may confuse or even bother some young readers. The story, though, is fun from start to finish.
The fun has a distinctive beat in Rappy the Raptor, in which the prolific Dan Gutman creates a dancin’ dino who raps all the time and is amusingly drawn by Tim Bowers. Rappy wears his cap backwards, enjoys breakdancing, and almost always has his mouth open so rhymes can come out. He tells readers, “I’m rhymin’ and rappin’/ all of the time./ I’m talkin’ when I’m walking [sic – not “walkin’”]/ and I’m rhymin’ when I climb.” Rappy explains that he fell on his head shortly after hatching, and woke up talking in rhyme – so his parents took him to the hospital, where a series of exhaustive (and very amusing) tests resulted in Rappy being pronounced “perfectly normal” and “born this way.” That’s the whole story, and yes, it is a very thin one, complete with an occasional inconsistent rhyme or rhythm. But the book is great fun anyway, because Bowers’ illustrations are so over-the-top: dino doctors using prehistoric computers while wearing face masks on variously shaped snouts and mouths, Rappy’s parents freaking out after his fall, a weird-looking birdlike thing functioning as an ambulance siren, and all the dino docs “boppin’” and “hoppin’” and generally bouncing around after they decide Rappy is just fine – these are the main attractions of Rappy the Raptor. Besides, the central character’s enthusiasm is infectious, and the book’s underlying message of accepting yourself just as you are is clear enough to be worthwhile yet soft-pedaled enough not to seem preachy. A return of Rappy certainly seems like a possibility – one to which young readers will enjoy looking forward.
Theodore Boone #5: The Fugitive. By John Grisham. Dutton. $17.99.
The Trap. By Steven Arntson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
One of the best things about John Grisham’s books is that they do not pretend to mean anything. They are adventures pure and simple, thrillers within a highly unrealistic but captivating “legal system” framework, books with sometimes ambiguous heroes and villains but with, all in all, a strong sense of right and wrong and of what is right coming out ahead in the end. Remove the ambiguity from the protagonists and you have a fine recipe for books for young readers, and that is just what Grisham cooks up in his Theodore Boone series. Each book begins with Theo’s full name and then has a specific title: Kid Lawyer, The Abduction, The Accused and The Activist were the first four, and The Fugitive is the fifth. The latest novel is a continuation of the story of Theo’s involvement with accused murderer Pete Duffy – and while it is possible to read this book without knowing the prior ones, it is highly beneficial to know the earlier material before tackling this story. “Tackling,” however, may be too strong a word, because it implies some level of difficulty, and there is really none here. As usual in Grisham’s books for adults and young readers alike, the characters are one-dimensional and easy to understand, and the interest comes from the plot – which, also as usual, is neatly conceived and followed through with inexorable logic that is fully cognizant of the realities of the American legal system even though it inevitably simplifies and dramatizes both the investigation-of-crime phase and the intricacies of courtrooms. As always in a Grisham book, the legal niceties (and not-very-niceties) are the main attraction here. Duffy, for example, jumped bail, which he received even though he was charged with murder. It is explained to Theo that “most judges will not even consider bond in a murder case,” but Duffy “had money,” and even though bail (it is explained that “bond” and “bail” are the same thing) was set at a million dollars, “he put up some land worth that much.” He then fled, which meant he forfeited the land. And how has the fugitive been caught? Well, during a class trip to Washington, D.C., Theo happens to spot the disguised Duffy aboard a Metro train, managing to get video of him with a cell-phone camera – video that is subsequently analyzed by the FBI and confirmed to be Duffy. Yes, all this is far-fetched, but the plot machinery of a Grisham book invariably is – what matters is the meticulous handling of the legal elements. Here, those involve maneuvers by Duffy’s crooked colleagues and venal, conniving legal team, set against the goodness of the good guys, who are really very good: “Theo did not like the fact that he was being forced to lie. It was wrong and he tried to tell the truth at all times. However, occasionally he found himself in the awkward position of having to fudge on the truth for a good reason.” Oh, please – as moral dilemmas go, on a scale of one to 10, this is about a 0.5. But, again, moral uncertainty is not the reason for the attractiveness of The Fugitive and the other Theodore Boone books. What is the reason is the grittiness of a passage spoken by Theo’s Uncle Ike, who once served time in prison, about what life there was like: “I lost everything, including my family. My name, respect, profession, self-worth, everything. That’s what you think about when you’re in prison – all the things you take for granted. It was awful, just awful. But…I never got hurt. I made friends. …The food was terrible but I actually got healthier in prison because I stopped smoking and drinking and jogged every day.” What is the reason is a subsidiary of the major trial, a hearing in Animal Court involving two misbehaving boys, a herd of “fainting goats,” and a YouTube video. What is the reason is the Duffy retrial itself, which is complex enough and convoluted enough to keep readers interested without getting so far into minutiae that young readers will be unable to follow the legal wranglings. The book’s ending, though, is a bit of a cheat: the trial has a decisive conclusion, but instead of setting up something new for Theo in a follow-up book, Grisham makes it clear that the Duffy matter is not yet permanently settled, and at this rate may never be. Still, The Fugitive is both a strong entry in the Theodore Boone series and an interestingly fast-paced novel in its own right – a superficial one, to be sure, but no more so (and no less so) than Grisham’s similarly paced books for adults.
The Trap is a less-successful mystery, in part because its paranormal elements seem forced, in part because it is simply less well-written, and in part because it keeps insisting that what happens in its pages means something and somehow reveals important elements of real life, when in fact that is true, at most, to a very limited extent. Best read simply as a mystery solved through involvement with the supernatural – involvement that has predictably confusing and almost dire consequences – The Trap is about a sort of out-of-body experience called “subtle travel” that may explain the disappearance of a town bully. Set, for no particular reason, in 1963, and featuring a seventh-grade hero (Grisham’s Theo is an eighth-grader), The Trap focuses on Henry Nilsson; his twin sister, Helen; and two of their friends, Alan and Nicki. The four collectively investigate the mystery of the missing bully (that would have been a good title!) while also looking into Subtle Travel and the Subtle Self – the title of the typically old and typically moldy instruction guide they discover, typically, in a secret place in the woods near town. Steven Arntson starts this (+++) book very slowly, perhaps intending to build suspense or a sense of mystery but unfortunately creating a work paced so ploddingly that at least some readers will likely give up before it becomes more interesting – which, after a while, it does. Arntson seems unsure about just where to put his emphasis, however. Is it on the supernatural angle, which includes the discovery that the “subtle” world has its own rules and forms of enforcement? Is it on historical matters that are apparently supposed to get readers interested in how events of the past might affect them today, and that are apparently the reason for setting the story 50-plus years ago? Is it on issues of typical middle-school angst, such as Henry’s crush on Nicki? Is it on matters such as alcohol abuse and racism, which appear as (overly obvious) bad things, against which the author warns his readers? Arntson’s answer seems to be that the focus is on all these areas, but that is the same as saying the book has no focus at all – which is not completely true, but is true enough so that the overall feeling of the narrative is rather scattered. Readers may find Henry himself to be a less than fully believable character: he is too mature a narrator, especially in descriptive passages, to be believable in the role of a middle-schooler trying to decide how to handle a crush. Readers who make it through the first 100 pages or so and enjoy the much-improved pace thereafter, and who find themselves intrigued by the characters, the supernatural world they encounter, or both, may hope that this book is the start of a series – which is just what the conclusion suggests it will be. If Arntson does produce further entries, they will be more interesting to the extent that he makes their mystery elements more prominent and keeps the books focused on a smaller number of narrative threads.
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3, “Organ”; Symphony in A; Le rouet d’Omphale. Carl Adam Landström, organ; Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot. Naxos. $12.99.
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 3; Scythian Suite; Autumn—Symphonic Sketch. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $12.99.
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé; Pavane pour une infante défunte. Netherlands Radio Choir and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9; Violin Concerto No. 1. Leonidas Kavakos, violin; Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Mariinsky. $18.99 (SACD).
Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man; Bernstein: Chichester Psalms; Verdi: Messa da Requiem—Sanctus; Górecki: Totus Tuus; Bogurodzica—Ancient Polish Marian Hymn. Kraków Philharmonic Choir, Choral Arts Society of Washington and Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Sir Gilbert Levine. Delos. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Some years ago, before Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre was as thoroughly explored as it is now, it used to be remarked whimsically that he composed three symphonies: Nos. 4, 5 and 6. That may no longer be said of Tchaikovsky, but something similar is still the case with Saint-Saëns, who is generally known to have written one symphony: his Third. And to confuse matters further, Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 is actually his No. 5. Marc Soustrot and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, having already recorded the first two numbered symphonies (yes, Nos. 1 and 2) for Naxos, have now released the famous “Organ” symphony (which, to add to the confusion, should really be called the organ-and-piano symphony, since it includes both those instruments). And they have paired it with Saint-Saëns’ very first, unnumbered symphony, an A major work that he wrote around 1850, when he was 15 years old. Saint-Saëns, like Mozart and Mendelssohn, was an extraordinary prodigy, and it is therefore no surprise that this early symphony shows maturity and a command of orchestration that would be the envy of some far older composers. It is also no surprise that the work has many derivative elements – including ones that derive from Mozart and Mendelssohn. Indeed, the famous contrapuntal theme from the finale of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 is quoted directly several times (the theme was well-known in Mozart’s time and before: Haydn used it in his Symphony No. 13). The Symphony in A is a solid, well-paced work, with a particularly interestingly scored Scherzo: solo flute and oboe with strings. It is, of course, strikingly different from the “Organ” symphony, whose grandeur and tightly knit form owe much to Liszt, to whose memory it is dedicated. Soustrot does a very fine job of giving both these works their due, neither overplaying them nor over-emphasizing their differences – he lets them speak for themselves, which they do quite eloquently, if in somewhat different symphonic languages. Carl Adam Landström’s organ playing has all the elegance and drama that the Symphony No. 3 requires, and the performance as a whole is one that builds inexorably to its organ-led climax after taking listeners through a series of elegantly fashioned, very well-orchestrated episodes. The two symphonies on this CD are well complemented by Saint-Saëns’ first symphonic poem – in effect, another tribute to Liszt, whose works in the form Saint-Saëns admired. This is Le rouet d’Omphale, based on the legend of Hercules being forced to serve Queen Omphale for three years while dressed as a woman – including spending his time with the queen’s maidens using the rouet, a spinning wheel. Once well-known as the theme of the popular radio serial The Shadow, this symphonic poem is less often heard today, but it remains a piece of effectively atmospheric tone painting. With this release, Soustrot and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra have recorded all of Saint-Saëns’ symphonies except Urbs Roma of 1856 (written three years after Symphony No. 1 and not to be confused with Bizet’s symphony that is also called Roma). Hopefully that work is forthcoming.
Another ongoing Naxos series is offering the Prokofiev symphonies with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. The latest release is actually a mixture of symphony and symphonic poem – like the new Soustrot/Saint-Saëns disc – and also has strong elements of ballet and opera. The symphony here, No. 3 (1928), is itself the operatic element: Prokofiev assembled it by reworking material from his opera The Fiery Angel, which was not performed as a complete opera in his lifetime. The opera, and the symphony derived from it, are highly dramatic, and Alsop is fully at home with the material, pulling out all the stops to make the symphony as intense as can be. Alsop is a somewhat mercurial conductor, frequently seeming blasé about the standard repertoire and producing matter-of-fact, even dull or misguided performances of it. But when she finds a work challenging, as is clearly the case here, she extracts excellent playing from an orchestra and shows genuine insight into the music. The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra is notably strong in the lower strings – the cello section is excellent – and handles percussion particularly well. Woodwinds are not quite as high-quality, and the brass can be a bit harsh, but the musicians give their all to this music, and the result is involving and even exhilarating. Actually, the exhilaration is less in the symphony than in the balletic Scythian Suite of 1914-15, which has some of the exoticism of Stravinsky’s only slightly earlier The Rite of Spring. The central, far from calm section of the third movement, Night, is a highlight here, and Dance of the Spirits of Darkness is appropriately malevolent. The symphony and suite are nicely balanced by the short and gentle symphonic poem Autumn, which Prokofiev called a “symphonic sketch” and revised twice after initially composing it in 1910. In all this music, Alsop seems comfortable with Prokofiev’s varied moods and his sometimes abrupt shifts from one to the next; and the orchestra gives her playing that, if it lacks the sumptuousness that would be expected from a Russian ensemble, is nevertheless very fine.
A new BIS recording of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé is focused entirely on ballet, of course, although it is worth noting that the composer called this work – his longest – a “choreographic symphony.” In three parts running a total of almost an hour, Daphnis et Chloé has all the rhythmic, dynamic and contrasting elements of a symphony – a choral symphony, in fact, since it calls for a mixed chorus. The Netherlands Radio Choir and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin handle the music with all the color and verve it requires, and Nézet-Séguin is particularly well attuned to the fact that this music was written to be danced: he has a fine sense of rhythm and of the contrasts among the various solo and ensemble dances. Many of Nézet-Séguin’s tempos are on the brisk side, but not unduly so, and he does allow the slower and more-lyrical dances plenty of time to unfold. The SACD sound is first-rate and helps communicate the care of Ravel’s orchestration, whose detailing in telling the story is impressive. The disc is rounded out with a warm and touching reading of Pavane pour une infante défunte, featuring especially elegant horn playing by Martin van de Merwe. The intersection of ballet and symphony is as interesting here as it is, in a very different way, on the Alsop/Prokofiev CD.
The limitations of Alsop’s basically fine orchestra in Russian repertoire are clear immediately when one listens to the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev perform Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 and Violin Concerto on the Mariinsky’s own label. This is an absolutely superb, virtually picture-perfect performance of a very strange symphony, one that went against all expectations for a “ninth” (dating to the time of Beethoven and including Bruckner’s and Mahler’s) as well as all anticipated triumphalism for an end-of-war symphony. Even today, 70 years after World War II, the grotesqueries of this symphony are enough to make a listener sit up and take notice. And Gergiev – who, like Alsop, can be an uneven conductor, but who is very much in his element here – gets every bizarre element of the score right, from rhythmic changes to percussive explosions to recollections of the “invasion” theme from Symphony No. 7 to sarcasm so deep-seated and cutting that it practically overflows. The Mariinsky Orchestra is so comfortable with this music that it never seems to be straining to produce exactly the right sound – instead, the players can focus wholly on exigencies of interpretative detail, those niceties of balance and attack that make all the difference between a well-executed reading and a brilliant one like this. The SACD sound helps a great deal, too, pinpointing every element of Shostakovich’s lucid orchestration – but even when simply played on CD equipment, the performance brings out fine detail to an extraordinary degree. The Violin Concerto is almost as good. Gergiev is not fully comfortable taking a back seat to anyone, including Leonidas Kavakos, so there is an occasional feeling of competitiveness between soloist and orchestra in the concerto. But that is actually not wholly out of place in this impassioned, fervent work, in which both solo violin and orchestra seem to strive mightily from start to finish – or at least until the very extended cadenza (practically a movement in itself), after which the concluding Burlesque comes across as an almost-desperate release of tightly wound tension. Kavakos takes the full measure of the music, and Gergiev’s accompaniment, even when it seems about to subsume the solo violin within the ensemble, is sensitive to Shostakovich’s intentions and strongly allied with the composer’s complex and sometimes self-contradictory worldview.
Both Shostakovich and Prokofiev learned first-hand that politics and music make uneasy bedfellows at best, and both suffered at the hands of political authorities determined to bend musical creativity to their will. Yet the temptation to use music for sociopolitical ends persists, and there is an underlying assumption that no one will mind its use for avowedly good purposes. And what is better than peace? Hence a new Delos recording called A Celebration of Peace through Music, in which Sir Gilbert Levine conducts one great symphony and five other works with the aim of – well, of celebrating and calling for peace, although the connection with this particular music is by no means clear. Really, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 is no “peace symphony,” for all that the storms that open the finale are swept away through a mighty thunderclap that could just as well come from the Norse god Thor as from any peace-loving deity. Verdi’s Requiem is, after all, a mass for the dead, for all the beauty of its out-of-context Sanctus movement. Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms does end with a hope for “brethren to dwell together in unity,” but it is scarcely a simple or simplistic plea for peace. Bogurodzica, a Polish hymn that may date back as far as the 10th century, is indeed a Marian hymn, calling on Jesus’ mother, but it has also been sung before and during a variety of battles. Similarly, Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Górecki’s Totus Tuus have agendas (if that is even the right word) that extend beyond dona nobis pacem (actually, the absence of an Agnus dei from this live recording is a touch puzzling). All the performances here are certainly heartfelt, and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the concert organizers or the musicians participating in the event. But this two-CD set is nevertheless a (+++) recording, because while the playing and interpretations are fine, nothing here is particularly revelatory as music, and the overarching “peace” agenda detracts from purely musical emotional communication rather than enhancing or expanding it.