September 03, 2015
Austin, Lost in America. By Jef Czekaj. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
The Elves and the Shoemaker. Retold and illustrated by Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Rumpelstiltskin. Retold and illustrated by Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.99.
A modern fairy tale wrapped around a geography lesson, Jef Czekaj’s Austin, Lost in America is the story of a dog who grows up at a pet shop and decides to take his fate into his own hands by escaping and finding just the right place to live – somewhere. Czekaj calls it “A Geography Adventure,” and so it is, as Austin starts out in Maine (where his original home, Sketchy’s Discount Pets, is located) and works his way through all 50 states, learning a thing or two about each one in the process. Maine, for instance, produces 99% of all the blueberries in the United States, and 100 million pounds of lobsters are caught off its coast – but Austin is allergic to blueberries and lobsters, so no Maine for him. On and on he goes, learning things about Massachusetts (Fig Newton cookies are named after the town of Newton), Connecticut (where the lollipop was created), Florida (which has 663 miles of beaches), South Carolina (which contains the world’s largest fire hydrant), West Virginia (where the world’s largest water-tasting competition is held), and on and on. “Every state had fun things to see and do, but none was a perfect fit,” writes Czekaj, so Austin marches on, also taking the bus and train and even an airplane from region to region so he can explore all the states – and pick up informational tidbits such as the fact that Washington is the state that grows the most apples, Idaho has the largest potato chip in the world, California has the nation’s highest population of cats (definitely not the right place for Austin), Utah has the world’s largest known natural bridge, a town in Wisconsin is the world’s yo-yo capital, and North Dakota hosts the annual World Champion Turtle Races. There is so much to see, so much to do, so many places to visit, but never just the right place for Austin. But then, at the very end of his travels, Austin finds himself in Texas, where there happens to be a city named…Austin! And he knows this is where he belongs – especially when a friendly little girl spots him and says she has been looking for a puppy just like him. So Austin’s long trek comes to an end, he has his very own family at last, and when we leave him, he is sending postcards of greeting to his friends at Sketchy’s Discount Pets in Waldo, Maine – a real town, and also a tribute to Martin Handford’s “Where’s Waldo?” books, which surely influenced Czekaj in creating this one.
Unlike modern fairy-tales along the lines of Austin’s, old-fashioned stories from the Grimm brothers tended to be, well, pretty doggoned grim. Never intended for children, the stories were filled with violence, sex and all sorts of racial and religious prejudices that were systematically cleaned up during the 19th century (starting in later editions of the Grimms’ own collection) to make the tales palatable for children and for right-thinking Victorian families. There were, however, a few Grimm fairy tales whose message was one of warmth and inclusion, and Paul Galdone (1907-1986) retold and illustrated one of them in 1984: The Shoemaker and the Elves. Galdone’s words are based on Lucy Crane’s translation of the Grimms’ German, but the words – telling about a poor shoemaker visited nightly by elven cobblers who make beautiful shoes for him to sell – are only part of the book’s charm. The rest lies in Galdone’s moody but apt illustrations, using many dark colors to show the initial living situation of the poverty-stricken shoemaker and his wife, then contrasting those scenes with those of the naked elves (wearing only very long, bright orange stocking caps) at their work. The kind shoemaker decides to thank the elves for their assistance by making them clothing, and he and his wife produce tiny clothes that are far brighter than the ones they wear themselves, leaving them out one night for the elves to find. The delighted elves are shown donning the clothes, singing and dancing their joy and vowing nevermore to be cobblers – and indeed, the story says they were never seen again. But all still ends happily, for the riches made possible by the elves’ help and the shoemaker’s own goodness remain with the man and his wife all their lives. This is a lovely story of unexplained magic (the reasons for the elves making shoes, choosing this particular shoemaker, and being naked are never given), the moral being that if you are good, good things will come to you sooner or later, in one way or another. There is nothing exceptional about that message (and, indeed, the story is told without a moral, both in the original and in Galdone’s version); but young readers will likely enjoy the lack of preachiness in the tale, as well as the highly engaging way Galdone retells and illustrates it.
A more-typical Grimm tale retold and illustrated in Galdone’s manner is Rumpelstiltskin. But while The Elves and the Shoemaker is in the “Folk Tale Classics” series of small-scale hardcover books, and Galdone’s Rumpelstiltskin is also available in that format, the new version of this 1985 book is something quite different. It is a giant-size paperback: not a traditional coffee-table book, but large enough to cover a small coffee table completely. At 14 inches wide and 17 high, this is a book whose two-page spreads open to 28 inches – scarcely something to be read to a child in one’s lap. It is the sort of book that invites parents and kids to sprawl on the floor and revel in the story and its illustrations. The ones Galdone produces here, because they are so large, show his technique clearly, and also display the cleverness with which he packs his pictures with ancillary characters and elements that are not in the story but that add to its impact. In Rumpelstiltskin, there is the king’s court fool, who watches the evolving action carefully even though he is no part of it, and whose expressions make it seem that he knows more about what is going on than the principal characters do. There are the dog and cat in the new queen’s bedchamber, as awake as she is while she tries to think of the little man’s name. There is the squirrel on the last page, staring quizzically at the hole in the earth into which Rumpelstiltskin has vanished after the queen correctly identifies him. Galdone hints at but never overtly discusses the unpleasant elements of this story, which come through even in the modified version familiar to families today. It is the avaricious and bloodthirsty king, not the helpful Rumpelstiltskin, who, it can be argued, is the real villain here – and Galdone shows him to be haughty, demanding and cruel-looking. Rumpelstiltskin is actually helpful, not only in spinning the straw into gold but also in allowing the miller’s daughter a way out of the bargain she makes in desperation to save her life: to give the little man her first-born child after she becomes queen. The Grimms’ audience would have understood that the little man is inherently evil because of who he is, no matter what he does; and the story has decided anti-Semitic overtones as well. Those have long since been scrubbed out and are certainly no part of Galdone’s retelling, but they do explain why Rumpelstiltskin is the “bad guy” of the story even though it is the king who is cruel and greedy and the miller’s daughter who wants a way out of her promise to the little man. Galdone’s retelling is perfectly appropriate for today’s children, and the very large format of this new edition provides plenty of enjoyment not only in the carefully chosen words but also in very well-crafted illustrations that were obviously made with loving care and that today’s families can examine here in as much detail as they wish.
Flying Cars: The True Story. By Andrew Glass. Clarion. $17.99.
The cry of “where are the flying cars?” is a common one from people complaining that the future isn’t turning out the way they thought it would. Some people lament that instead of getting flying cars, we get lawn chairs lifted by balloons, or maybe someone using multiple drones to get up in the air, or perhaps we simply get substitute technologies that we never asked for (to the extent that “asking for” future technology means anything), such as Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. Or we move past flying cars to self-driving ones, which do exist but do not have the emotional appeal of ones that leap from the ground into the air.
It is certainly true that flying cars have been a staple of science fiction for a century – how many pulp magazines featured “cities of the future” with cars zipping about? TV cartoons such as The Jetsons featured them, and they made their way, sometimes incidentally, into non-science-fiction movies as well: for example, It Happened One Night features a character arriving in an autogyro. But wait – that five-Academy-Award-winning 1934 film was a romantic comedy, not a drama, much less science fiction, and was character- and script-driven, not pushed by special effects. Does that mean autogyros really existed?
Well, yes. Amelia Earhart flew one. Autogyros were flown twice onto the White House lawn (1931 and 1936), with President Herbert Hoover presenting a trophy to the pilot the first time. Later models of autogyro were “roadable,” as Andrew Glass explains in his thoroughly enthralling Flying Cars. “The rotors folded neatly back for driving, and the entire machine fit easily into an average-size garage.” But like so many of the fascinating inventions discussed in this first-rate blend of science, technology and history, the autogyro hit a series of bumps, some literal (Earhart crashed hers, claiming she was hit by a tornado) and some figurative (the autogyro’s inventor and financer died at age 41 – in the crash of a conventional airplane).
Flying Cars is not a story of what might have been – it is a story of what really was. And therein lies its fascination. Flying cars do, and did, exist, but despite some heavyweight interest in developing them for the mass market, they never became commercially viable. Glen Curtiss, who received the first-ever official pilot’s license and was founder of what became the aircraft company Curtiss-Wright, created an “autoplane” with encouragement from telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Auto magnate Henry Ford ordered his engineers to make an affordable airplane that could be sold for the price of a Model T, and the result was the Sky Flivver (1926); but production was stopped after a pilot died during a promotional tour, although Ford continued to believe in “a combination airplane and motorcar.” Buckminster Fuller designed, but never tried to build, a flying car that would require inflatable wings and jet engines – which did not exist at the time (1928).
The storied names are only part of the tale of flying cars. Far more of the dreamers and inventors who have been intrigued by this concept are very little known: Waldo Waterman, Theodore P. Hall, Daniel Zuck, Moulton B. Taylor and others. What is amazing is to realize is how much success flying-car advocates had: a number of their creations were built, really did work, and were put into limited use, at least for a time. The old argument against combining an automobile (whose parts requirements make it heavy) with an airplane (whose flight requirements mean it must be light) surfaces again and again in these stories, and is laid to rest again and again by success after success – only to be revived the next time someone comes up with a flying-car concept. Flying cars also ran repeatedly into geopolitical obstacles: the first wave of them in modern times had to be set aside so the focus could shift to military planes to be developed for World War I, and the second wave lost out to the equally war-focused development of helicopters in the run-up to World War II. In more-recent times, ever-increasing safety regulations have required cars to have more and more equipment that weighs them down and increases their complexity, making integration of an automobile with an airplane harder than ever – although backyard tinkerers still try and sometimes succeed, as Glass points out.
Nor are tinkerers the only ones interested in flying cars. Glass’ final chapter tries to look “Into the Future” from the standpoint of today, discussing a modern aircar built around a $30,000 Lotus, a Massachusetts firm that says it has a design that switches from car to airplane in 30 seconds, a “carplane” being developed in Germany that is designed to switch from electric-car mode to internal-combustion-engine-powered airplane, and more. None of these is a mass-market vehicle along the lines envisioned by Henry Ford or autogyro pioneer Harold Pitcairn, and as safety regulations become ever more extensive and worries grow about the use of airspace (by drones as well as aircraft containing humans), the likelihood of “a plane-car in every garage” looks more and more like a never-to-be-realized dream. Still, “never say never” would be a pretty good motto for the innovators profiled in Flying Cars, since they were repeatedly told a car-plane combination could not possibly work, and repeatedly proved the doubters wrong, even if these amazing vehicles never did make it into general use. Yet.
Discipline the Brazelton Way, 2nd Edition. By T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D. Da Capo. $12.99.
The Time of My Life: A Righteous Brother’s Memoir. By Bill Medley with Mike Marino. Da Capo. $16.99.
It has been a dozen years since the first edition of Discipline the Brazelton Way appeared, and a lot has changed since then – as the introduction to the new second edition points out. But despite all the technological and societal change of the last decade-plus, T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua Sparrow believe that their basic approach to disciplining children remains valid, and if anything is even more important for parents to master today, when kids are exposed to so much more (for good or ill) because of the Internet and the constant barrage of video information. Based on the Brazelton/Sparrow Touchstone books, but constructed to be easy to read and subject-specific – and thus simple to turn to when a parent needs help in a crisis – Discipline the Brazelton Way shows that even in today’s world, discipline is not too big a subject to be presented usefully in a short (fewer than 200 pages), easy-to-read form. The subject of discipline seems huge and, to many parents, even overwhelming, but Brazelton and Sparrow make it easy to handle by offering topic breakdowns focused not only on a child’s age but also on emotional and moral development, self-esteem, humiliation, consequences, and such problems as biting, bullying, lying, talking back and many more. For example, one especially useful chapter is called “Ways to Discipline” and is subdivided into three sections: “Usually Worth a Try” (warnings, silence, time-outs); “Sometimes Useful” (taking away toys or TV, leaving the scene); and “Not Helpful” (spanking, shame, early bedtime). Brazelton and Sparrow are well aware that parenting itself has changed since the first edition of this book appeared in 2003, and they devote some time to forms of what might be termed competitive parenting: “tiger mothers,” “happiest kid on the block parenting,” and other fads. They discuss these approaches as objectively as possible, for instance by saying about “helicopter parenting” that “the world may be more dangerous in some ways, and the tolerance for risk is far less than it was when children were given more room to roam.” However, they do not let these recent developments distract them – and, by extension, the parents for whom they write – from the basic need for and tremendous importance of discipline, whose aim is eventually to create self-discipline as a child grows toward adulthood. The chapter called “Discipline as Learning: The Five Steps,” for example, is worth reading more than once, explaining as it does that parents must start by understanding a child’s misbehavior, then discover what happened, then confront and contain, then obtain and gauge the child’s reaction, and only in the final step move on to “Consequences, Reparations, and Forgiveness.” The sequence is enormously important, yet far too many overstressed parents are more likely to start at the final step, with consequences, than with the first one. Nonjudgmentally, Brazelton and Sparrow explain why this is a bad idea, not because of moral or ethical reasons but because it does not, in the long run, serve the purpose of discipline – which, again, is to produce children who eventually become self-disciplined. Updated enough to be readily understandable in today’s hyper-busy world, but solidly old-fashioned enough to help parents ground their children in appropriate behavior patterns, Discipline the Brazelton Way, 2nd Edition is as valuable now as the book’s first edition was more than a decade ago.
The paperback version of The Time of My Life, which originally appeared in hardcover in 2014, is neither more nor less useful today than the book was when it first came out. This (+++) book is a typical music-world memoir by a typical looking-back-on-my-life pop musician, Bill Medley, who along with Bobby Hatfield (1940-2003) made up the Righteous Brothers. It is certainly understandable that onetime pop stars would like to write their own autobiographies (often with help, provided here by Mike Marino); the aging baby-boom generation is presumably the audience for Medley’s very straightforward and unsurprising revelations. “Even though I’d not always walked the narrow path, my family had been very involved in the Presbyterian Church, and I knew the basics. John [Wimber] was just exploring Christianity, and once he pulled me aside and asked when I knew about the Christian faith. I told him what I knew. …Until the day he died I always loved and respected John. He was one of the few guys I knew who did more than talk the talk, he lived it.” “I hired Dean Martin’s comedy writer and a band with backup singers and put together a show. Everybody who was anybody in Hollywood was there opening night. It was unbelievable. Sammy Davis, Jr., was supposed to introduce me but at the last minute he had to drop out so they called in Bobby Darin. …Pretty soon the whole crowd was [shouting]. I looked down and saw Bobby Darin jivin’ and clapping, and I knew I was going to be okay. It was a thrill.” This cliché-ridden reminiscence writing is the whole point of Medley’s book, along with the persistent name-dropping – presumably a main attraction for the book’s intended audience. Medley helpfully includes a chapter called “Relationships” in which he talks about Kenny Rogers, Kim Basinger, Waylon Jennings, Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones, Whoopi Goldberg, Sylvester Stallone, Johnny Carson, Glen Campbell and others. And there are the expected 16 pages of black-and-white photos, the last of which shows the much-older Righteous Brothers and is captioned, “From a relationship standpoint, my last years with Bobby were my best years.” The book is not free of heartache (expected) and heartbreak (also expected); it is, after all, about someone in the entertainment industry. And it does contain some offhand remarks about that industry that are rather interesting, as when Medley says that a new recording of Unchained Melody “inspired us to re-record a whole ‘reunion’ album of our hits. Honestly, it was shit. It was a stupid thing to do because you can never really remake those records. It was just that we’d given away all of our rights and this was a way to get them back. Artistically, a stupid idea; financially, a wonderful idea. The album went platinum.” A similar if somewhat milder comment seems accurate about The Time of My Life: artistically, there is not much here, but financially, it may do well for Medley (born 1940) at a time when he, his fans and his music all seem to grow fainter, each in its own way, every day.
Contemporaries of the Strauss Family, Volume 1: Johann Schrammel, Iosef Ivanovici, Joseph Lanner, Philip Fahrbach Jr., Oscar Fetrás, Joseph Hellmesberger Jr., Carl Millöcker, Alfons Czibulka, Kurt Schmid, Joseph Gung’l, Carl Michael Ziehrer, Paul Lincke. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis. Marco Polo. $16.99.
Contemporaries of the Strauss Family, Volume 2: Iosef Ivanovici, Paul Lincke, Carl Zeller, Julius Fučik, Karl Komzák II, Franz von Suppé, Juventino Rosas, Josef Hellmesberger Jr., Joseph Labitzky, Oscar Fetrás, Johann Schrammel. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis. Marco Polo. $16.99.
Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn for Two Pianos, Op. 56b; Sonata in F minor for Two Pianos, Op. 34b. Eleonora Spina and Michele Benignetti, pianos. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.
Satiesfictions: Promenades with Erik Satie—A Film by Anne-Kathrin Peitz & Youlian Tabakov. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.
An absolutely wonderful two-CD offering from Marco Polo does something that is long overdue: it acknowledges just how good dance music was in Europe in the 19th century and early 20th even when the Strauss family was not writing it. Popular music today is so dull and formulaic that it is laughable (highly recommended: the YouTube video called Four Chords by The Axis of Awesome). But there was nothing funny about dance music in the Strausses’ time, and although certainly much of it was written to formulas – there were specific requirements for quadrilles, waltzes, galops, polkas and the like – there was tremendous inventiveness in applying the formulas, which is why the lovely but rather foursquare waltzes by Johann Strauss Sr. became far more symphonic in the hands of Johann Strauss Jr. and even more so in the hands of Josef Strauss. Besides, dance music in this time period was big business, and the venues where it was performed were highly competitive; hence the disputes between the bands of Joseph Lanner and Johann Strauss Sr., and between Johann Strauss Sr. and Johann Strauss Jr., and between Johann Strauss Jr. and Carl Michael Ziehrer, and so on. The simple fact is that there was a great deal of excellent music written in a variety of dance forms in the late 19th century and early 20th, but very little of it is known by most people now except for the creations of the Strauss family. Hence the delightfulness of the 32 works on these two Marco Polo CDs, many of them world premières and many orchestrated and/or reconstructed by John Georgiadis, who leads the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice with enthusiasm and clear enjoyment of the material. A very few names here are quite familiar (Lanner and Suppé), and a few are somewhat less so (Ziehrer, Millöcker, Komzák). A few pieces have retained a special place even today: the march from Lincke’s Berliner Luft always features in the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concerts, for example, but heard in Volume 2 here is the operetta’s overture, which includes only a bit of the march -- plus some other fine tunes. Most of the material here will be wholly unknown to a modern audience. There are some really fine rediscoveries, notably the music of Iosef Ivanovici (1845-1902), and there are some genuine surprises (Kurt Schmid was born in 1942 and is still very much alive, but is included here because he continues to write music in the old Viennese style, as is evident from the Anniversary March played in Volume 1). Even the music by the more-familiar composers will be new to listeners: Georgiadis and the Johann Strauss Society of Great Britain scoured libraries for manuscripts of unpublished works or resurrected published pieces unheard for well over a century, no matter their provenance. The result of all the painstaking research, reconstruction, rehearsal and release of this material is two-and-a-half hours (on the two CDs) of absolute joy, a window into a vanished world and vanished time in which “light” music was a serious business and the composers and purveyors of dances produced – all right, in some cases cranked out – wonderful tunes, marvelous rhythms, lovely harmonies, and an overarching sense of elegant fun whose doom seems obvious in retrospect but was by no means clear at the time, and which certainly deserves a better fate than to fade into oblivion forever. The revival of these pieces and these composers makes for splendid listening tinged with appropriate wistfulness for a time long past.
Brahms, who at one point wrote that the Blue Danube Waltz was unfortunately not by him, appreciated and occasionally wrote light music – his Hungarian Dances were a big success, as was his Academic Festival Overture. But he is scarcely thought of as a “light” composer. Nevertheless, his Variations on a Theme by Haydn (which theme is apparently not by Haydn after all, so the piece is now often called the St. Anthony Variations) have many lighter moments, and they are particularly well realized in a performance by Eleonora Spina and Michele Benignetti of the original two-piano version of the score. The orchestral version of this work is far better known nowadays than the two-piano one, but the delicacy and clever interplay of the pianos throughout the eight variations make the keyboard version very much worth hearing and not at all duplicative of the impression made by Brahms’ later orchestration of the music. Spina and Benignetti handle the marchlike character of the basic theme particularly well, and the two pianists nicely bring out the varying characterizations implicit in the different variations, with two-against-three rhythms here, steady and pleasant melodic flow there, grace here, rhythmic insistence there, and real contrapuntal mastery in the finale. This is an altogether winning performance. It is paired on a very well-priced Brilliant Classics disc with a far more serious work: the two-piano version of Brahms’ Piano Quintet, Op. 34a. Even more than in the Haydn Variations, this two-piano piece, Op.34b, is far less known and far less often played than is the work’s other form. On pianos, the sonata sounds something like a study for a symphony, from its unison opening for the two instruments through its very extended, highly chromatic first movement, and on through a four-movement form that concludes with a rondo that recalls earlier material and employs techniques such as counterpoint and thematic overlays. The basic music here is familiar to anyone who knows the quintet, but the sound of the piece is quite different from that of the work for piano and strings. And again, Spina and Benignetti delve into the material with great skill and bring out its balances – and imbalances – to impressive effect, with the result that the sonata Op. 34b seems less like an alternative to the quintet and more like a work with something different to communicate, an effective piece in its own right that just happens to contain the same music as Op. 34a.
The blend of lightness and seriousness in music reached a pinnacle of sorts in the life and work – the two are inextricably tied together – of Erik Satie (1866-1925). Satie courted notoriety, reveled in it, acted the part of an eccentric (complete with umbrella and bowler hat) while actually being an eccentric, and managed in his music and life to anticipate or take part in movements ranging from dada to surrealism to minimalism. The 56-minute film Satiesfictions, now available as an Accentus Music DVD, is an attempt to use modern movie techniques to bring clarity to Satie’s life and music while also celebrating both. It is a very clever production, showcasing Satie as an early practitioner of what we would now call public relations, as a sort of Parisian Dorothy Parker (he constantly wrote remarks, often very witty ones, within and about his music), and a bit of a proto-Gerard Hoffnung (one of the cleverest elements of the film is the way it turns Satie’s drawings into cartoons). The film is, however, a rarefied one of deliberately limited appeal: viewers unfamiliar with Man Ray, Georges Auric, Pierre Bertin and Jean Cocteau will find themselves somewhat bewildered by what goes on, and those who do not already know Satie’s music and the iconoclasm that pervades it may have some difficulty figuring out what all the fuss is about. There are, for example, scenes of pianists playing stacked pianos and performers in unexpected locations (swimming pools, train stations) turning into “musical furniture.” To understand this, it helps a great deal to know that after Satie’s death, friends who entered his apartment found two grand pianos stacked upon each other – the upper containing musical manuscripts previously unknown or thought to have been lost, some of which would later be published as “furniture music.” Viewers who do not get all the “in” references and cross-references here may nevertheless enjoy hearing bits and pieces of Satie’s music – which was already bits and pieces when written – and may find bonus material such as “Stock Market Report à la Satie” amusing, if largely unintelligible. There is a chaotic if not quite frenzied feel to Satiesfictions, as if Anne-Kathrin Peitz and Youlian Tabakov decided that Satie was a bizarre enough character so they could do pretty much anything with his life and music and would in so doing illuminate the topic. That makes for a rather odd and self-indulgent movie that will be great fun for Satie aficionados, who will find it a (++++) production (perhaps four stacked grand pianos would be a better rating). But, in fairness, it has to be noted that the film makes no attempt really to explain Satie, his time or his art, and is too self-consciously self-aware of its self-referential nature to get more than a (+++) rating among those who are uninitiated into Satie-ism and what could be called Sati(r)e.
Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks; Concerti a Due Cori Nos. 1-3. Zefiro conducted by Alfredo Bernardini. Arcana. $18.99.
Haydn: Horn Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Michael Haydn: Horn Concerto; Mozart: Horn Concerto in E-flat (reconstructed). Felix Klieser, horn; Württemburgisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn conducted by Ruben Gazarian. Berlin Classics. $18.99.
Vivaldi: La Stravaganza—12 Concertos, Op. 4. Federico Guglielmo, violin and conducting L’Arte dell’Arco. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).
Vivaldi: Concerto in C for Two Trumpets and Orchestra, RV 537; Concerto in C for Organ, Violin, Cello and Orchestra, RV 554a; Sonata in C for Oboe, Violin, Organ and Chalumeau, RV 779; Arias from “Motezuma,” “Il Teuzzone,” “Tito Manlio,” “Catone in Utica,” “Scanderbeg” and “La Fida Ninfa.” Gabriele Cassone and Matteo Frigé, natural trumpets; Francesca Cassinari, soprano; Marta Fumagalli, mezzo-soprano; Roberto Balconi, alto; Mauro Borgioni, bass; Ensemble Pian & Forte conducted by Francesco Fanna. Dynamic. $19.99.
Splendid playing is a particular joy of all these releases, with the brass especially full and resonant in Zefiro’s performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and three wind concerti (whose music is drawn mainly from the composer’s oratorio choruses – Handel was an inveterate and very adept re-purposer). These performances date to 2006 but sound as fresh as can be, with very quick tempos in the faster movements, sensitive phrasing in the slower sections, close attention paid to Baroque style, and overall enthusiasm that comes through delightfully in all four of the suites. There have been more grandiose recordings of Music for the Royal Fireworks, which was, after all, intended as an outdoor display piece and features accessible themes and a celebratory style; but Anthony Bernardini and Zefiro excel in the musicianly way they approach the music, refusing to regard it as an 18th-century potboiler, even though that is in some ways what it is. The brass is so good in Music for the Royal Fireworks, so resonant and so full-sounding, that it tends to steal the show from the other instruments – as indeed occurs in the second and third wind concertos as well (the first omits the four horns that are present in the others). One example among many: the fifth movement of the third wind concerto, which is based on Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne and the 1732 version of Esther, offers delightfully scurrying strings with horn passages that resound in triumph above them to excellent effect. This Arcana CD contains well-known music, but the performances’ level of detail and expressiveness make the pieces sound fresh, and the especially fine brass lends an air of splendor to the whole disc.
The brass playing is also first-rate, albeit without any claim to authenticity of instrumentation, on a new Berlin Classics CD featuring Felix Klieser, who was born without arms and plays the French horn with his feet, using remarkable breath control to achieve the effects that other horn players manage by hand-stopping their instruments. Klieser’s extraordinary story is not the point of this disc of music by Joseph and Michael Haydn and Mozart, although Klieser’s accomplishments inevitably underlie the whole production. What matters here is the music, which Klieser plays with remarkable sensitivity, fine phrasing, excellent cadenzas, and truly astonishing breath control. Haydn’s Concerto No. 1 – the only horn concerto known for sure to be by him – is stately and measured here in its first two movements, with a particularly fine trill in the second movement’s cadenza, and is then outgoing and bright in its finale. Concerto No. 2, which stylistically appears to be an earlier work than No. 1 whether or not Haydn wrote it, gets an equally sensitive and carefully wrought performance; and although Klieser plays a modern horn, the Württemburgisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn under Ruben Gazarian backs him up with apt attention to period style. Klieser and Gazarian also make a high-quality team for the other, less-known works here. Michael Haydn’s concerto, sometimes called a concertino, may have originated as part of a now-lost serenade, which would account for the unusual movement sequence of slow-fast-minuet. The music is more stylized and more Baroque in feeling than that of Michael’s older brother, constructed with elegance and the sort of formal balance that characterizes much of Michael’s still-underrated music. Klieser’s horn is if anything a touch too prominent here, thoroughly overshadowing the strings and continuo, but the playing itself is top-notch, with fine pacing, phrasing and rhythmic vitality. Also here is a reconstructed two-movement horn concerto by Mozart, cobbled together from two movements with the catalogue numbers K370a and K371. The movements appear to date to 1781, making them earlier than any of the four extant complete concertos (the earliest, No. 2, dates to 1783). The music is certainly Mozart’s, and even if the piece is by its nature fragmentary, it is good to hear something new, or rather rediscovered, in Mozart’s horn production. Here too Klieser plays with care and sensitivity and is well backed up by Gazarian and the ensemble. Because this is a CD rather than a DVD, Klieser’s appearance and performing method never become distractions from the music, and that is what Klieser himself wants: he has said he simply wants to be known as a musician, and on the basis of this recording, he is certainly a very fine one.
Brass is absent in the latest Brilliant Classics release featuring outstanding Baroque violinist Federico Guglielmo, but virtuosity certainly is not, and here it is coupled with meticulous attention to period style and a willingness to rethink compositions that appear formulaic at first glance but that Guglielmo shows to have considerable individuality. Guglielmo and his ensemble, L’Arte dell’Arco, previously released a splendid L’Estro Armonico, Vivaldi’s Op. 3, and now complement it with La Stravaganza, Op. 4. Despite the title, these 12 concertos are something less than extravagant, and in fact are formally less forward-looking than Op. 3. But they contain some harmonic experimentation that is interesting, including an instance of enharmonic modulation in No. 7 that is well ahead of Vivaldi’s time. As with L’Estro Armonico, Guglielmo presents the concertos – seven in major keys and five in minor – in an order that appears arbitrary, although he does explain that the works on the first CD (Nos. 1, 11, 9, 4, 7 and 2) have a stronger ensemble focus, while those on the second disc (Nos. 12, 8, 5, 10, 6 and 3) are more strongly soloistic. This is a matter of degree, however, and most listeners will likely notice no significant differences in the structure of these concertos or their handling of the solo violin. What they will notice, however, is the strength and forthrightness with which Guglielmo plays the music, as well as the very unusual sound of his Mantuan instrument, built by Tommaso Balestrieri around 1760 and having a number of quirks and downright peculiarities. This is an instrument that sounds notably different in different ranges, a reality with which Guglielmo works carefully in order to showcase the differing sound of the various Op. 4 concertos and, indeed, of the individual movements within them. There is something exhilarating in Guglielmo’s handling of Vivaldi, whom he refuses to deem a fusty composer of formula-based concertos but instead regards as an innovative, clever and instrumentally highly adept creator of music whose individuation Guglielmo seems determined to bring out at every opportunity. The result is a La Stravaganza that is, if not extravagant, intelligent, musically refined and wholly successful.
Vivaldi did write for brass, although not to anywhere near the extent he wrote for strings – he was, after all, himself a violinist of considerable skill. A fascinatingly variegated CD on the Dynamic label gives a more-varied and more-nuanced portrait of Vivaldi as a composer than listeners usually encounter. Considerable thought obviously went into the assembly of this program featuring the exceptionally fine period group Ensemble Pian & Forte under the direction of Francesco Fanna. The two concertos and sonata here are all in C major, but the featured instruments vary very widely and Vivaldi’s writing for them differs dramatically from piece to piece. The two-trumpet concerto is especially attractive, doubly so because it is here played on the natural trumpets for which it was written, not on the later keyed trumpet – whose sound is very different, much more even and smooth and much more able to cut through an accompanying ensemble, but for those reasons much less distinctive and much less colorful. The concerto for organ, violin and cello is a rarity, showcasing three separate instruments, each of which is given a chance to display virtuosity within the compass of its capabilities. And the sonata, which includes the bright sound of the oboe with the deep voice of the chalumeau (predecessor of the clarinet, whose lowest register is still called chalumeau), attractively combines the woodwinds with violin and organ for a highly unusual sound. The vocal excerpts pale somewhat in comparison, even though they too often include trumpets. However, hearing any of Vivaldi’s operatic music is an unusual experience: only about 20 scores of his operas survive, some of them in fragmentary form, although he claimed to have written 94 (a matter made more confusing by the then-common practice of retitling works and reusing material from one work in another or several others). All Vivaldi’s known operas are essentially in opera seria form, which means the recitatives carry the plot along while the arias are used to express characters’ reactions to events and emotional responses to each other and to what is happening. The seven arias here, from six operas (there are two from Tito Manlio), are not especially distinctive, but all show off Vivaldi’s vocal-writing abilities and provide the soloists, especially soprano Francesca Cassinari (who sings four of the pieces), with opportunities to showcase their vocal range and control. The absence of texts for the arias is unfortunate: the expressions of these characters may be formal and formulaic, but knowing the words would help listeners distinguish between arias using the trumpet to underline a character’s martial prowess and ones using it to indicate the character’s anger (two common reasons for including the trumpet in this context in Vivaldi’s era). Even without the texts, this is a very unusual Vivaldi disc, showing sides of the composer not often encountered and rounding out the portrait of Il Prete Rosso to show him as far more wide-ranging in capabilities and compositional skills than he is sometimes considered to be by people who know him only through his violin concertos.
August 27, 2015
Friendshape. By Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Scholastic. $16.99.
Max. By Jennifer Li Shotz. Based on a screenplay by Boaz Yakin & Sheldon Lettich. Harper. $6.99.
The complexities of friendship can sometimes be communicated quite simply, with just a few lines – both lines of prose and lines of drawings. That is just what Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld do in Friendshape: get at the basics of friendship by showing and writing about a circle, square, triangle and rectangle. With dots for eyes and generally smiling slashes for mouths, these geometrical figures might not seem to have much potential for expressivity, but Lichtenheld manages to give them character despite his use of only a modicum of artistic license. And Rosenthal’s text fits beautifully with the illustrations, because it too turns out to be more than you would expect from a few simple words. For example, one page just says, “Friends make their own fun,” with an illustration showing the green triangle balancing the red rectangle in see-saw posture, the yellow square and blue circle teeter-tottering away happily, the rectangle saying “You guys are wearing me out!” and the circle, with a big smile, saying, “You’re gonna be a wrecked angle!” That is about as far as the wordplay goes here, but there is lots of other play as well. On one page, the triangle becomes a kite, flown by the circle as the rectangle waits for a turn and the text talks about playing fair and square (using the square character rather than the word “square”). For a two-page spread about friends sometimes thinking the same thing at the same time, each character is in a page corner and all are shown thinking of a very realistic banana (albeit with slightly different expressions). At one point, an octagon drops by for a visit; at another, the four friends quarrel, but soon make up; and it is through these messages of inclusion and interaction that Krouse and Lichtenheld produce a very simple but thoroughly satisfying look at what friendship is all about and why it is really such a simple thing – yet so complex at the same time.
Books with far more words then Friendshape often strive mightily for a greater level of profundity about friendship, but all too often they manage only to overdo things and come across as trying too hard. That is certainly the case with Max, a (+++) tie-in to the movie of the same name and a book that emphasizes time and again how important its issues of friendship and family are, to such an extent that at least some readers will quickly weary of the manipulativeness and obviousness of both the story and the message it tries to convey. Max has a typical-for-the-movies plot: older brother follows in the footsteps of father and joins the Marines, only to die in combat, not only leaving his human family bereft but also leaving behind his MWD (Military Working Dog), Max, who appears to go crazy after losing his handler and is due to be put down until younger brother bonds with the dog and they develop an interspecies friendship just as important as the young protagonist’s human relationships. Throw in a Marine buddy of the deceased older brother who may not be the upstanding citizen he claims to be, the usual father-son bonding difficulty, a pack of evil gun runners, someone crooked in law enforcement, and a few other miscellaneous types, and you have the makings of an entirely straightforward book and movie that insist on saying again and again that they have important points to make. They don’t, not really, but Max as a book moves at a good pace through the predictable elements of the story, from initial scene-setting to character introductions to the expected heart-tugging dog scenes (including, inevitably, one of Max at the older brother’s funeral). As the plot thickens – it does thicken somewhat, although never very much – Max becomes a more interesting character and the humans, including Justin (the boy with whom Max bonds after Justin’s brother, Kyle, dies in combat), become less so. This all lurches to a climax in which Justin and two human friends make every possible wrong decision after learning about a dangerous and well-armed gun-running ring, avoiding letting anyone in authority know anything and placing not only themselves but also Justin’s father in jeopardy, until eventually – thanks in large part to Max – the bad guys are stopped and presumably brought to justice (that part is not in the book). As an adventure-with-dog book, Max is fine, if not to be taken nearly as seriously as it wants to be. As a look at friendship, whether among humans or between humans and canines, it is much less satisfactory – and far too superficial to be appreciated in the same way as the much more modest but much more forthright Friendshape can be.
Noah Webster: Man of Many Words. By Catherine Reef. Clarion. $18.99.
Will Write for Food, Third Edition: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Memoir, Recipes, and More. By Dianne Jacob. Da Capo. $16.99.
Like escalators and aspirin, which used to be brand names but are now generic names for specific things, Webster’s Dictionary is now the generic name for a dictionary of American English – an amazing accomplishment, certainly the crowning one in the life of Noah Webster (1758-1843). But Webster himself did not see the dictionary the way later generations came to see it, from those who read Webster’s own magnum opus in later generations to today’s users of multiple online dictionaries. What Catherine Reef does exceptionally well in Noah Webster: Man of Many Words is to show the young readers at whom the book is aimed that Webster was not only a man of many words but also a man of many beliefs and convictions, the most important of which his dictionary was intended to further. Webster was a student at Yale University during the American Revolution, and a lifelong patriot. He was also a great lover of books of all sorts – Reef at one point notes that young Webster “sought comfort from one of his best friends, a book,” and that was to be a form of solace he looked for throughout his life. “He had loved books and words since boyhood and had dreamed of making them his life’s work,” Reef writes elsewhere. And loving books as he did, loving the English language in which his favorite works were written, Webster came to believe that standardization of American English would be the key to keeping the newly formed, fractious nation together. That was his aim in creating his dictionary: nothing less than the uniting of a new land that had been notable for its many different and sometimes contradictory approaches to governance (for example, as Reef mentions, there was no standard currency during the Revolution: each of the 13 states issued its own money, and Connecticut, where Webster worked for a time as a schoolmaster, used pounds, shillings and pence – the same system the British used).
The dictionary was scarcely Webster’s first attempt to regularize language. He had earlier proposed eliminating silent or extra letters from words and changing spellings to make words much easier to learn – what we would now call phonics. He even had an economic argument for that change: he estimated that it would reduce the number of letters a writer used by one-eighteenth, thus making it one-eighteenth less costly to publish books. Everyone who takes spelling, and words themselves, for granted – and that includes pretty much everyone – barely holds a candle to Webster, who was so driven to write and to try to improve American English that he persisted in creating his own instructional and argumentative books even after promising to give up writing for the more lucrative practice of law (at which he was only moderately successful). Noah Webster: Man of Many Words is a biography not only of Webster but also of the young United States, a nation where Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and others of his central-government-favoring Federalist Party lent Webster the money to start a newspaper that would get their ideas to the American people. It is not until more than halfway through the book that Reef finally writes that Webster “dreamed of bringing together in one book the correct spelling, pronunciation, and definition of every word Americans used.” The latter part of Reef’s book focuses on the dictionary, which was far from an easy project to complete. Aside from the underlying complexity of the whole undertaking, there was the not-so-small matter of finances: “Noah believed too strongly in his dictionary to give it up and find paying work,” Reef explains, but he could not fund the costly enterprise himself, and his appeals to others generally fell on deaf ears. So, among other things, he sold his house and moved his entire family to a less costly area as a way to cut expenses. Then, given his strong patriotism, he could not remain aloof from politics when the War of 1812 broke out – a further distraction from his dictionary. In addition, his whole concept came under attack for deviating from accepted English (that is, British) usage and spelling. And his family suffered a series of heartbreaking deaths: Webster lost children and grandchildren. But he persevered with his dictionary against all odds, and finally published it in 1828, when he was 70 years old. It brought him, at long last, admiration, even adulation, as well as financial security: it was recognized at once as an astonishing and genuinely important document, one that had the intended effect of uniting a new nation through its exploration of the Americanized form of English. All that from a book that today’s young readers, not to mention their parents, take very much for granted – if they think of a dictionary as a book (rather than something to find online) at all. Sensitive readers of Noah Webster: Man of Many Words will find their consciousness as well as their knowledge of history expanded by Reef’s sensitive, well-researched work.
Webster had what we would now call a strong sense of self-esteem, which helped him persist through many personal and professional reversals. Many modern writers are far more fragile. Dianne Jacobs’ Will Write for Food is intended to be in large part about confidence-building, at least for aspiring gastronomical authors. She explains that “sometimes fearlessness is about writing, where you do it even if you’re scared that it might not be good.” Jacobs’ aim, of course, is to help it be good, or at least better. Although Jacobs says this is “not a basic book on writing,” she explores the craft at some length and from multiple angles – not only cookbooks and food blogs, for example, but also the use of food within memoirs and works of fiction. This third edition of Jacobs’ book includes one particularly useful addition: a chapter on making money from food writing (making money through writing has been an issue since Webster’s time – and before). There is considerable instructional material here, and also a good deal of information about food writers who have “made it” in one way or another, notably including details on how they got started. Jacobs offers information on better blogging, finding a good cookbook idea, impressing agents and (through them) publishers, functioning in the freelance world, determining how to write recipes, and more. The detail here is realistic but, for that very reason, intimidating: “All agents say they want new writers and new voices, but most don’t take on writers who will attract low advances. Because they get 15 percent of the advance, it’s not worth their time.” But getting published by any significant firm requires use of an agent, which in turn requires creating a book that will generate a big advance, which thus requires coming up with a topic that has not been done already and in which you are an expert and for which you already have a following (for example, through a highly popular blog you have created and managed yourself, investing in it rather than making money from it).
This is how matters interconnect here: food may be your passion, but writing about food is a business and, like writing in general, a competitive and even cutthroat one. Jacobs indicates several times that blogs are an increasingly important way to get noticed, so she devotes considerable attention to doing that: improve your content, make your photography better (“of course it isn’t easy, but having terrific photos can propel a food blog to stardom”), put your blog pictures on photo-driven sites along with links to your blog, offer subscriptions, comment on other food blogs, respond to comments on yours, and spend lots and lots and lots of time making connections on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, and whatever the social-medium-of-the-moment happens to be. And if all this does not sound like much fun, if it sounds as if your interest in food must be subsumed within a world where you spend most of your time as a salesperson and promoter and marketer – well, tough. That’s how things are, according to Jacobs. As a how-to manual, Will Write for Food is a downer, not because of Jacobs’ own writing style and not because there is anything wrong with what she says (the book is well-researched and well-organized), but because of the almost complete lack of a sense of fun, of enjoyment of writing and the process of communicating your ideas to others. Unless readers are naturally outgoing social-media enthusiasts with tons of time to spend making connections in the real and virtual worlds, what they will find out here is how little the modern requirements for successful food writing resemble the ones given by those well-known food writers in their “how they got started” snippets. It is certainly true that the landscape of writing (any writing, not just about food) has changed dramatically in recent years, but one thing that has not changed is what drives so many people to write in the first place: not fame or fortune (though those would be nice), but the desire to share ideas, to communicate what one knows or has figured out with others who are like-minded or have the potential to become so. A bit of exuberance is called for in a guidebook for writers (again, writers on any subject, not just food), and that is largely missing in Jacobs’ matter-of-fact work, which oozes practicality but generally lacks, for want of a better word, soul. That makes it a (+++) book, its practical value undoubted but its approach more off-putting than enthusiasm-generating.
What Color Is Your Parachute? 2016: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career Changers. By Richard N. Bolles. Ten Speed Press. $29.99.
If you even had a parachute, which you probably don’t, what color would it be? If you were a corner-office executive being ousted, and knew that “golden parachutes” for termination without cause were becoming less common even though they remain extremely rich for leaders of heads of major companies, would you care? How much would you care? The Wall Street Journal reports that nearly 60% of public companies in the Fortune 250 still have generous severance packages for chief executives terminated without cause – “without cause” being a notoriously fungible concept. But for everyone else? Who has “parachutes” anymore? People don’t even have defined-benefit pensions to fall back on in retirement, much less parachutes to lower them gently after job loss. So the redoubtable Richard Bolles franchise known as What Color Is Your Parachute? would seem to be in imminent danger of extinction.
No chance. The no-longer-accurate (and in some ways now rather distasteful) title aside, Bolles’ annual look at the job market remains far too clear-headed and far too usefully instructive for readers desperate for work to focus on what the book is called. The focus instead is on, for example, “key employer prejudices” and how to overcome them. Bolles’ point here, as in many other places, is that employers are all different, and while some have one type of prejudice or another, others do not – or have different ones. Encountering prejudice because you have been “out of work too long”? Bolles says, “Too bad! Just keep going until you find employers who don’t have that prejudice.” What about age prejudice, which shades over into not wanting to pay a 50-plus person for his or her experience when it is possible to hire two twentysomethings for the same price? Well, says Bolles, approach “a small company” that does not “have to put you late into a pension plan,” and come in “with a positive attitude toward your aging,” and be sure to “convey energy” and “keep going on interviews until you encounter an employer or two who isn’t prejudiced about your age.” There it is again: all employers are different – just find the right one.
The positive-thinking, positive-acting approach that Bolles advocates is frankly a little tired-sounding at this point, although no one has come up with a substantially better one (simply sending out applications electronically certainly isn’t it, as Bolles shows). Bolles is from the power-of-positive-thinking school, and that translates to the power of positive acting, no matter how you may feel about your personal, career and economic circumstances. It is difficult to argue with the notion that being upbeat and enthusiastic during a job hunt is extremely important, but it is a shame that Bolles pays so little attention to the downsides of job hunting and the very real levels of frustration and depression (usually subclinical, but sometimes at the clinical level) that the circumstances create. An example of the disparity between Bolles’ positivity and the real world comes in his discussion of shyness, which is an issue for many job-hunters and an especially huge one for people who are naturally introverted. Job hunting is essentially a sales task, with the job hunter as both seller and product. But introverts make very poor salespeople, and find cold calling – which is essentially how job hunts begin – to be genuinely unpleasant both emotionally and physically. Bolles will have none of this, pointing inward-focused job hunters to “a practical three-stage plan of action, to cure job-hunters of shyness,” a plan that Bolles says (without backing up the assertion) has given those who have tried it “a success rate of 86% in overcoming their shyness and fears, and finding a job.” Even accepting that dubious and unsupported percentage, what is striking about the plan is that its basic requirement is that people who are shy do more interviewing, of various types, so as to increase their comfort level with the interview process. That is, people who are naturally extroverted get Bolles’ guidance in ways to do interviews, but those who are introverted – for whom interviews can be excruciating experiences – are told to do more of what they can barely handle in the first place, because increasing their discomfort will eventually make them more comfortable: “If you’re not having fun, you need to keep at it, until you are.”
This increased-interviews-for-introverts notion, whether born of naïveté or of a genuine belief that it will work, is just one example of Bolles’ tendency to oversimplify the job-seeking process and play down its negatives. Nevertheless, some elements of Bolles’ approach, which have remained largely unchanged over time, are worthwhile for anyone hoping to find a new, better job – or any job at all. “As I repeated throughout this book, Who precedes What,” Bolles writes at one point, and he does indeed repeat this admonition again and again. The basic notion of What Color Is Your Parachute? is that you have to analyze yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, who and what you are, what makes you unique as a human being, before you can find the right match for your talents and interests in the workplace. Thus, like previous editions of this book, the 2016 one builds from the start to “The Flower,” an illustration that looks somewhat floral and somewhat like interlocking Venn diagrams – and that includes information ranging from “what I can do and love to do” to “my favorite knowledges [sic] or fields of interest” and “my goal, purpose, or mission in life (or my philosophy about life).” Bolles’ point is to know yourself so you will know where you will fit in the working world – a laudable goal, albeit a difficult one to use at a time of vast under-employment (despite statistics that say the unemployment rate is in good shape).
Really, what Bolles wants job seekers to do is not particularly revolutionary or even unusual. It is dressed up in some fancy diagrams and presented in a book filled with pithy comments, cartoons, charts, tips, suggestions, success stories, and so forth, but the approach comes down to some elements that many others involved in helping job seekers also recommend. For example, “you need to learn as much as you can about a place before formally approaching them [sic]” is scarcely unusual advice; “you must send thank-you notes” is a standard recommendation, for all that Bolles dresses it up by following the remark with “please, please, pleeze”; and “research has revealed that in general the more of a social life you have, the more people you know, the more time you spend with people outside of work, the more likely you are to find a job” is a “well, duh” comment – although scarcely a helpful one to those introverts who are ill-served elsewhere in the book. What Bolles primarily supplies is reassurance, a system that he tells readers will work for them as it has for many others, and a series of specific steps to follow to get from unemployment to employment, or from unhappiness in one’s job to a better, more-fulfilling position.
The key element here is Bolles’ professed certainty about his approach, an indication that if you try it and it does not work, you are doing it wrong – there is nothing the matter with the recommendations themselves. This proposition is at best arguable and at worst a case of blaming the victim in an extremely difficult job market. So it is best to look at Bolles as a helpful but scarcely unique guide and to focus one’s job search not on a probably unattainable “parachute” but on something more realistic. Indeed, in the current economy, it would be useful to have a book called What Strength Is Your Safety Net?
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll; Liszt: Funérailles; Nuages Gris; Am Grabe Richard Wagners; Brahms: Capriccios in B minor, Op. 76, No. 2, and C-sharp minor, Op. 76, No. 5; Intermezzos in E-flat, Op. 117, No. 1; A minor, Op. 118, No. 1; A, Op. 118, No. 2; E-flat minor, Op. 118, No. 6; and C, Op. 119, No. 3. David Deveau, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Aires Indios: Piano Music of Bolivia. Walter Aparicio, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Origins: Music of Kevin Volans, Hajime Koumatsu, Igor Stravinsky, and Dan Visconti. Kontras Quartet (Dmitri Pogorelov and François Henkins, violins; Ai Ishida, viola; Jean Hatmaker, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Pilgrimage: New Music for Guitar and Double Bass. Dez Cordas (Craig Butterfield, double bass; Matthew Slotkin, guitar). Summit Records. $12.99.
It often seems that all virtuosos have to offer is flash, with pianists in particular competing among themselves to see who can produce the most grandiose version of one spectacularly difficult work or another. Figuring out the staying power of a first-class virtuoso therefore tends to depend on seeing which hyper-difficult piece he or she chooses to represent himself or herself in early performances or recordings. Will it be, say, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Ravel’s Scarbo, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, or perhaps something by Alkan, and what will the choice say about the pianist’s training, interests and likely future? What tends to get lost in all this is pianism of sensitivity and genuine emotional understanding: the fireworks may overawe, but they do not connect at a deeper level. This makes the debut recording by David Deveau all the more treasurable, for this is not a performance that seeks to pound music or listeners into submission, but one that is genuinely thoughtful and looking for emotive and connective elements of works that would not be many pianists’ choices for first recordings. Foremost among those is the Josef Rubinstein arrangement for solo piano of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, a version of this work (which was originally written for 13 instruments) that is very rarely heard. Deveau gives it an involving, poetic performance that gives this very personal music – written by Wagner to celebrate his son’s birth – a sense of reaching out beyond its original occasion to connect warmly with listeners today. There is connection of a different sort in Liszt’s Funérailles, a kind of musical monument to the dead of the 1848 European revolutions – and a piece in which Liszt’s own prodigious pianism was put squarely in the service of political statement. The power of this piece, and its essential underlying sense of mourning those who died fighting for what might have been, comes through with clarity in Deveau’s impressive reading. The rest of this Steinway & Sons CD is not quite as successful, reaching a bit too far for connections that may be apparent to the pianist but will be less so to listeners. The seven late Brahms works are individually and collectively expressive, and Deveau plays them with skill and understanding, but they do not fit particularly well together (they are taken from four different sets of piano pieces) and do not seem to comment upon or enlarge the world of Siegfried Idyll and Funérailles. Nevertheless, they are fascinating in themselves, as all Brahms’ late music is, and Deveau performs them with a lyrical touch and considerable sensitivity – making them almost into anti-display pieces, ones that delve into thought and emotion. Two short, late Liszt works, Nuages Gris and Am Grabe Richard Wagners, date to roughly the same time as the Brahms pieces but reach beyond them harmonically. They make a somewhat curious capstone for the CD, obviously tying into Siegfried Idyll and the Wagner-Liszt relationship but not connecting in any particular thematic or musical way with the Brahms works. Simply heard as encores, though, they are effective and unusual choices. Indeed, the whole CD is something beyond the usual for a pianist’s debut recording, and as a result, it stands out in ways that yet another over-the-top virtuoso recital would not.
Walter Aparicio’s new MSR Classics disc stands out in a different way. Aparicio here tries to encapsulate the spirit of his native country, Bolivia, through performances of works by three of that nation’s composers. From Eduardo Caba (1890-1953) comes Aires Indios de Bolivia; from Simeón Roncal (1870-1953) there are selections from 20 Cuecas para Piano; and from Marvin Sandi (1938-1968) Aparicio offers Siciliana, Ritmos Panteisticos and In Memoriam—Homenaje a Caba, the last of which connects two composers in much the same way as Liszt’s Am Grabe Richard Wagners. In addition, Aparicio emphasizes his own interest in his native land’s folkways by playing Ocho Motivos Folkloricos de los Valles de Bolivia, and this in turn highlights the use of folk and folklike elements within the works by Caba, Roncal and Sandi. These composers are scarcely household names outside Bolivia, but this disc shows all of them to be adept at piano writing and skilled at incorporating the sounds and rhythms of their country’s indigenous people into organized forms that blur the boundaries between classical and folk music and partake of some of the strengths and interest level of both. None of the pieces here especially stands out on its own – there is no grand discovery of a heretofore unacknowledged musical genius – but all the works show fine craftsmanship and genuine sensitivity to the folk traditions on which most of them draw. Aparicio is a strong advocate for this music, playing it with warmth, involvement and conviction, never trying to give it profundity that it does not possess but never trivializing it either. This disc serves well as both an introduction to Bolivian music and a tribute to it.
Another MSR Classics release with a similar “return to one’s roots” theme includes pieces that strive for greater meaning, but the CD itself does not hang together as well thematically and therefore gets a (+++) rating in spite of some very fine playing. This disc features the Kontras Quartet, whose name means “contrasts” in Afrikaans, playing four works that the group’s members consider reflective of their different personal and musical backgrounds. This is a pleasant enough intellectual notion, but it leads to the juxtaposition of works that do not go particularly well together and do not, good intentions aside, really illuminate each other (or the performers) in any meaningful way. The world première recording of String Quartet No. 2, “Hunting: Gathering” by Kevin Volans (born 1949) is very well played, as indeed are all the pieces here, but the music itself is less than gripping, the three movements seeming more to meander than to hunt or gather in any meaningful way. The quartet arrangement of Japanese Folk Song Suite No. 2 by Hajime Koumatsu (born 1938) is of somewhat greater interest because of its rhythms and harmonies, many of which are unfamiliar to Western ears; and the music itself has an appealing straightforwardness. Three Pieces for String Quartet by Igor Stravinsky (1883-1971) are familiar, piquant, stylistically quite recognizable as coming from their composer, and (in the context of this recording) far too short (six-and-a-half minutes, half the length of Koumatsu’s work). Ramshackle Songs for String Quartet by Dan Visconti (born 1982) matches Volans’ quartet in length (24 minutes) and, like it, has less to say than its duration would imply. Visconti’s piece is actually 11 short works, their harmonic language up-to-date if scarcely exceptional, their rhythms and technical requirements varied, and their overall impression episodic – a kind of dance suite of modern miniatures for string quartet, most of them zipping by before a listener has quite enough time to grasp them. The work as a whole, and indeed the disc as a whole, comes across as more interesting than compelling.
The same may be said of a new Summit Records CD featuring contemporary music for double bass and guitar. Indeed, two of the seven works here are in the same “suite” form as Visconti’s Ramshackle Songs, although the effects of Annette Kruisbrink’s Five Dances and Alec Wilder’s Suite for String Bass and Guitar are quite different because of the very different strings used and the different ways the composers employ them. Like the other composers here, Kruisbrink and Wilder refuse to allow one instrument or the other to take the lead role all the time, preferring to bring one to the fore at certain times and the other to the front elsewhere. Given the sonic disparity between double bass and guitar, this is a wise approach, and it has the added advantage of keeping the listener involved and, to some extent, guessing what is coming next. The Kruisbrink and Wilder pieces are effectively primarily because they do not try to be more than collections of short works, ones in which the two instruments are allowed to meld (to the extent possible) and contrast (to a greater extent) in a variety of guises. Waxwing by John Orfe, a piece whose two movements are also short and highly contrasted, works well in much the same way. The remaining four offerings here come across rather less well, in large part because of their lengths and the demands that those durations put on listeners (not necessarily the performers). Dick Goodwin’s Song and Dance Man, Andrews Walters’ Of Gossamer Webs, and Greg Caffrey’s La Belle et la Bête are all in the six-minute range, and all come close to wearing out their welcome before they conclude. The tone painting by Walters and storytelling by Caffrey give the audience a bit more to hang onto (aurally speaking) than the more-generic material by Goodwin. Unfortunately, the work that gives this (+++) CD its title, Pilgrimage by James Crowley, is the longest on the disc, and it simply does not hold listeners’ attention for its 13-and-a-half-minute duration. Craig Butterfield plays with great skill and excellent tone in this piece and on the disc as a whole, and Matthew Slotkin holds his own throughout – even though the guitar’s inherently lighter sound frequently relegates him to a somewhat secondary role. But the performers often seem to be trying to overcome the built-in awkwardness of their combined instruments. True, they do so with considerable success much of the time, but it is hard, especially in listening to Crowley’s work, to escape the notion that some of this music is well-played despite the inherent limitations of this instrumental combination. That is, instead of taking full advantage of what the double bass and guitar can do individually, several of the pieces sound as if they are trying to capture listeners despite the foundational improbability of doing so with this particular joining of instruments.
Rameau: Les Indes Galantes. Amel Brahim-Djelloul, Benoît Arnould, Eugénie Warnier, Olivera Topalovic, Judith van Wanroij, Vittorio Prato, Anders Dahlin, Nathan Berg, Thomas Dolié; Choeur de l’Opéra National de Bordeaux and Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset. Alpha DVD. $39.99.
Bizet: Carmen. Ekaterina Semenchuk, Irina Lungu, Carlo Ventre, Carlos Álvarez, Francesca Micarelli, Cristina Melis; Children’s Chorus A.Li.Ve and Arena di Verona Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Henrik Nánási. BelAir Classiques DVD. $24.99.
Rossini: Il Signor Bruschino. Carlo Lepore, Maia Aleida, Roberto de Candia, Francisco Brito, David Alegret, Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore, Chiara Amarù; Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini conducted by Daniele Rustioni. Opus Arte DVD. $29.99.
Ludwig Meinardus: Luther in Worms. Matthias Vieweg, Catalina Bertucci, Clemens Löschmann, Corby Welch, Markus Flaig, Annette Gutjahr, Clemens Heidrich, Ansgar Eimann; Rheinische Kantorei and Concerto Köln conducted by Hermann Max. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Verdi: Arias from “Nabucco,” “Attila,” “Macbeth,” “Il Trovatore” and “Aïda.” Amarilli Nizza, soprano; Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gianluca Martinenghi. Dynamic. $14.99.
Unusually conceived and thoroughly neglected in the modern age, Les Indes Galantes by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) turns out to be, by virtue of the ways in which it differs from other operatic works of its own time, unusually interesting in ours. Rameau’s 1735 work is actually an opéra-ballet, consisting of a prologue and four standalone acts with separate storylines, all revolving around love in the exotic locations of Turkey, Arabia and the Americas. In the prologue, Hébé, the goddess of youth, attempts to gather young men and women as her followers, but they are instead drawn to Bellone, the goddess of war – so Hébé decides she must find acolytes away from Europe. Hence the four small love stories that follow, complete – in Rameau’s original conception – with gods descending from the heavens in specially made stage machinery, sets transforming in front of the audience’s eyes, and numerous ballet interludes. As interpreted on a new Alpha DVD by Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques and the Bordeaux opera troupe, with some interesting stage design and choreography by Laura Scozzi, Les Indes Galantes turns its episodic nature into an advantage, offering refreshingly uncomplicated stories, highly varied musical numbers, and some catchy and very well-staged dances. Les Indes Galantes (the title translates as “The Amorous Indies”) is officially given not in acts but in entrées entitled Le turc généreux (“The Gracious Turk”), Les incas du Pérou (“The Incas of Peru”), Les fleurs (“The Flowers”) and Les sauvages (“The Savages”). The singing is quite good throughout this performance, especially that of sopranos Amel Brahim-Djelloul (whose second-act aria with flute obbligato is a highlight of the whole production) and Judith van Wanroij (who moves seemingly effortlessly from the role of a despairing slave girl to that of a bold but failed seductress). Also especially commendable are Anders Dahlin, whose bright high register sounds unforced in all four of his roles – no small achievement. He is especially enjoyable in Les sauvages as a Frenchman bickering with Benoît Arnould as a Spaniard – both are in love with the daughter of a native chief, who, however, prefers one of her own people. Arnould’s voice, which is a touch weak in its lowest register, is less impressive in this act than in Les incas, in which he portrays the High Priest of the Sun and is buried in lava after a volcano erupts (which must have been quite a special effect in Rameau’s time). The musicians of Les Talens Lyriques play energetically from start to finish – sometimes a bit too much so, with a few of the many dance interludes on the fast side. Rousset keeps everyone and everything together – the whole conception works delightfully. And this is a case in which having a work on DVD is absolutely necessary for anyone wanting to absorb its many pleasures, which make it into not only four entrées (appetizers) but also a full-course meal and, in the rondeau at the end of Les sauvages – a piece called Forêts paisibles – a delicious dessert.
One’s expectations and standards are inevitably quite different when it comes to an opera as familiar as Bizet’s Carmen. The Arena di Verona production on BelAir Classiques, in a staging by Franco Zeffirelli, has many fine moments, but neither the stage direction nor the singing is involving enough to gain this DVD more than a (+++) rating. The original, 1995 Zeffirelli version of Carmen was memorable, but the new 2014 one is much less so: the stage is barer, the overall look rather shabby, and the mountain panels used as backdrops tend to flutter disconcertingly. There are financial reasons for this trimmed-down staging, to be sure, but from a musical and dramatic standpoint, it undermines the effectiveness of the work, despite the ways in which Zeffirelli uses crowd scenes to excellent advantage and even includes mounted riders to lend authenticity to the action in the town square. Anna Anni’s costumes are another big plus here, neatly contrasting the upper-class townsfolk with the vividly dressed gypsies and the comparatively drab workers, soldiers and ragamuffins. On the other hand, the choreography – credited to “El Camborio after Lucia Real” – is rather foursquare and traditionally balletic, without the sort of apparent spontaneity and fire that would bring the story vividly to life. As for the singing, the best of it comes from the choruses, with that of the adults expressive and energetic and that of the children scene-stealing in its mimicry of the changing of the guard. Most individual singers, though, are less vital than this. Ekaterina Semenchuk is better in the last two acts than the first two, delving into Carmen’s sense of doom much more effectively than into her earlier seductiveness and joie de vivre. Carlo Ventre is a steady, rather stolid Don José, his singing strong and his projection very good, but his sense of the character's pathos is muted. Carlos Álvarez gives Escamillo a commanding presence, but he has an irritating vocal habit of dwelling too long on the last notes of musical phrases. Irene Lungu sings Micaëla with suitably angelic tone, but there is nothing special in her interpretation – she comes across as the generic “good girl.” The conducting is on the generic side, too: Henrik Nánási is brisk, efficient and competent, but rather soulless and quite uninterested in drawing out any of the expressiveness that permeates Bizet’s score. The orchestra itself sounds rather wooden and uninvolved, whether at the conductor’s behest or out of its own lack of inspiration in this production. Everything here is adequate, and a few elements of the staging and choral sections are very effective, but as a whole, this Carmen is neither a first-rate listening experience nor a top-notch viewing one.
The music is marvelous but the presentation not for purists in the new Opus Arte DVD of Rossini’s delightful piece of fluff, Il Signor Bruschino. This is the fourth and last of the one-act Italian-style farces that Rossini wrote early in his career: his first opera, La cambiale di matrimonio (1810), was followed in this form by La scala di seta (May 1812), L’occasione fa il ladro (November 1812), and then Il Signor Bruschino (1813). Each of these is a romp with a small number of characters, each featuring mistaken identity and young lovers artificially kept apart, only to be united at the end against all odds (with the audience knowing from the start that that is what will happen). The libretti are formulaic but clever. That for Il Signor Bruschino, by one Giuseppe Maria Foppa (based on an earlier French farce), has Sofia, whose guardian is Gaudenzio, in love with Florville, whose father is Gaudenzio’s enemy, so Gaudenzio opposes the match. Sofia is also engaged to someone she has never met: the son of Gaudenzio’s old friend, Signor Bruschino. Complications abound and are obvious, with Florville eventually taking the place of Signor Bruschino’s actual son (who has gotten in trouble over an unpaid bar bill) in order to wed his beloved; hence the opera’s subtitle, Il figlio per azzardo (“The Accidental Son”). Rossini’s sparkling music propels the work along wonderfully from start to finish, and the overture is justly famous for a bit of forward-looking orchestration that drives string players crazy: Rossini calls for the second violins to play col legno, with the wood of their bows striking their music stands, and that is definitely not what players using extremely expensive bows wish to do. The singers in this new recording are all fine, but it is important to realize that acting is as significant as singing in these early Rossini works. That is where this performance will divide listeners and viewers into those who deem it a (++++) recording and those for whom the staging will reduce it to (+++) despite the fine vocalizing and the ebullient playing of the Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini under Daniele Rustioni. This Rossini Opera Festival presentation makes no claim to on-stage authenticity, instead offering a kind of Rossini-themed theme park where balloons and over-the-top costumes set a scene of bright merriment, within which the events of Il Signor Bruschino unfold. The stage design and broad acting of the performers combine to turn this very light opera into a very light situation comedy that just happens to be accompanied by delightfully skittish music. The comparative downplaying of the musical material – in favor of broad, even slapstick comedy – will not please traditional opera aficionados, although it might well have pleased Rossini himself, since he so frequently rewrote and reused his own music and even at times seemed indifferent to it except on a business basis, which is to say insofar as it pleased or failed to please an audience. Il Signor Bruschino is an opera that has so little to say that a production like this one, by Teatro Sotteraneo, can certainly get away with saying it in this form. The result is more musical comedy than opera, but in a sense that is exactly what Rossini himself was looking for with this particular material.
Another little-known work in operatic style – as serious in its way as Rossini’s farce is amusing in its – has just become available on CD. That means no visuals, but the visual element is not really needed for Luther in Worms, an oratorio by the almost forgotten Romantic composer Ludwig Meinardus (1827-1896). Dating to 1874, this is the fourth and last of Meinardus’ oratorios, written after Simon Peter (1857), Gideon (1862) and King Solomon (1863). Although not a composer of considerable reputation even in his own time – Schumann and Mendelssohn knew him but did not think much of his work – Meinardus was capable of some sophistication in his choral and orchestral writing, and Luther in Worms is a considerable work even though its pietistic elements may be a bit much to take and its length (an hour and three-quarters) is rather too extended. It is the operatic elements of Luther in Worms that are most interesting: Meinardus called this piece an “ideational drama,” and incorporated into it such effects as fanfares, sounds of knights approaching and other spatial phenomena not usually found in oratorio. The work is essentially a two-part celebration of the Protestant Reformation, which will have its 500th anniversary in 2017: the first part is “The Journey to Worms,” the second “Before the Emperor and Empire.” Suitably reverent but allowing for considerable room for drama, the work requires eight soloists (four basses, two tenors, a soprano and an alto), a mixed chorus and boys’ choir, and a large orchestra. The choral sections on CPO’s new recording are especially well-handled under the direction of Hermann Max, who also expands Concerto Köln significantly to fill it out to the orchestral size Meinardus requires. Max is a fine advocate for this music, choosing tempos judiciously and resolutely refusing to allow the material to flag even when Meinardus’ musical creativity is subpar and his religious expression thoroughly conventional. Nevertheless, it is hard to muster a great deal of enthusiasm for this (+++) recording except insofar as it gives listeners a chance to hear a composer and work to which little attention has been paid for more than a century. The music clearly lies in the tradition of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, but Mendelssohn communicated the sweep and drama of his material so much more effectively than Meinardus did, and with so much greater skill in orchestration, that Luther in Worms pales beside works such as St. Paul and, in particular, Elijah. For that matter, Meinardus’ grandiose conception is less attractive to hear than Mendelssohn’s modest one in his “Reformation” Symphony (No. 5). However, comparing the workmanlike Meinardus with the genius Mendelssohn is inherently unfair – Meinardus’ work is actually more typical of religious musical writing in the 19th century, and those interested in oratorios of the Victorian era will find Luther in Worms very much worth hearing, if scarcely the uplifting experience that the composer intended it to be.
Much-better-known operatic music is the primary focus of a Dynamic CD featuring soprano Amarilli Nizza with the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gianluca Martinenghi. Nizza deserves credit for including two of Odabella’s arias from Attila here: Santo di patria and Oh nel fuggente nuvolo. These are dramatic, effective pieces not frequently heard in sopranos’ recitals. Also somewhat off the beaten track, and sung quite well, is Abigaille’s Ben io t’invenni from Nabucco. The rest of the material here, though, is altogether conventional and unsurprising, including three Lady Macbeth arias from Macbeth, two arias from Leonora in Il Trovatore, and – inevitably – Aïda’s Ritorna vincitor and O cieli azzurri. Nizza has a strong voice that is capable of considerable shades of meaning, and she does a generally good job of characterizing the various protagonists whose emotions she expresses here. The problem, though, is that the disc, called This Is My Verdi, is just about any soprano’s Verdi, with the few exceptions noted. The five Verdi heroines here are (except perhaps for Odabella) among the best-known protagonists on the opera stage, and their exclamations and dramatizations have been heard innumerable times within the operas and in recitals such as Nizza’s. Spinto sopranos are, if not quite a dime a dozen, very common and very popular, and the sort of music Nizza offers here – she could also have sung arias from, for example, Maria in Simon Boccanegra or Elisabetta in Don Carlos – is so familiar that it takes a truly exceptional voice to make listeners sit up and take notice. Nizza’s is a fine voice but not an exceptional one; there is little in this (+++) recording to indicate that she belongs high in the pantheon of great Verdi sopranos. Now 44, Nizza has a sure command of her vocal instrument and a fine sense of the drama (and melodrama) that Verdi provides – indeed, her dramatic delivery is the greatest strength of this disc. But the CD, which is sufficient to mark Nizza as a very fine Verdi soprano, is not enough to make listeners regard her as one of the very best to be heard on recordings.