March 22, 2018
Thank You, Earth: A Love Letter to Our Planet. By April Pulley Sayre. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Olga #2: We’re Out of Here! By Elise Gravel. Harper. $12.99.
Gorgeous photographs that highlight the many beauties and wonders of our planet are the central reason for being of April Pulley Sayre’s Thank You, Earth, a simply written book intended to remind readers how many everyday things in the world are extraordinarily beautiful if we only take the time to look at and appreciate them. When described, the pictures do not seem particularly unusual: a spider’s web, a sandpiper on the beach, some clouds, a bit of seaweed, mountains, trees, and creatures ranging from a ladybug to a sloth to birds and squirrels and turtles. But Sayre’s careful selection of photos, her thoughtful sequencing of them, and the delicacy with which she decorates the pictures with just a few apt words, make Thank You, Earth very special. “Thank you for sounds” goes with a close-up view of a yellow warbler with beak open. “For struggles” has a squirrel straining upward on a branch of pussywillows in search of some treat or other. “Thank you for rays and radials” juxtaposes an extreme close-up of a purple coneflower on which a bee is perched with an almost equally close view of dandelion fluff. “Thank you for those that crawl” includes a strange-looking red mangrove root crab and a gorgeously colored black swallowtail caterpillar. And while many photos here are super-close looks at things, others are very broad views: “Thank you for sunsets” covers two pages and shows spectacular sky colors in Arizona’s Phoenix Sonoran Preserve. The concluding sentiment, “Thank you for being our home,” simply and beautiful sums up all that has gone before, all the plants and animals and day scenes and night scenes and all the aspects of nature that make Earth and the lives on it so special. Interestingly, Sayre completely omits human beings and human creations from this “love letter,” implying in so doing that the beauties of Earth are strictly those that do not include or involve people – an omission that can open the door to discussions with young readers about the world they live in and how it intersects with and may often displace the loveliness of the world shown by the photos Sayre has selected from multiple sources and the words she has chosen to go with the pictures.
Among the words on the cover of Elise Gravel’s second book about a girl named Olga are “Ciao, Earth!” Young readers may wonder why anyone would want to get away from all the gorgeousness in Sayre’s book. Well, that is not really what Olga wants: she is something of a grump, and she simply wants to get away from people. OK, not all people – just most of them. And she wants to take Meh with her on a journey to Meh’s planet. If Meh comes from a planet other than Earth. Meh, you see, is a somewhat piglike, pink and fuzzy creature of unknown provenance, discovered in a trash can by Olga in the first Olga book, whose delightfully offbeat title is Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere. Olga is a budding scientist as well as a misanthrope, and the first book mostly involved her trying to figure out what Meh could be and deciding that there is no way to know, so Meh must be a new species, Olgamus ridiculus. Gravel’s idea in these books – in which the pictures and text are equally important even though the works are not exactly graphic novels, being more of a hybrid form – is to include some factual material along with the usual exploration-and-discovery-and-friendship stuff that is common in books for preteens. The mixture worked better in the first book than it does in the second, where the science is brought in somewhat heavy-handedly and repeatedly threatens to hijack the story and turn it (horrors) educational. Olga is considerably happier and more involved with human beings here than in the first book, even though the start of We’re Out of Here! is about her determination to get away from our home planet. As in the first book, Olga likes to wear the same sack-like dress all the time and does not like to wear socks or shoes – a fact that Gravel forgets at one crucial point, when Olga (who narrates the book) says, “I put my shoes on and ran, still wearing my pajamas,” but the picture clearly shows Olga barefoot, as usual. Anyway, the plot here starts with Olga looking into ways to explore space, then involves her investigating reports of alien beings or creatures coming to Earth, and eventually works its way around to the main point – which has to do with Meh (so called from the noise she usually makes) behaving strangely and smelling worse than usual and needing to go to a veterinarian. The vet, Dr. Spiffle, is a showoff obsessed with his Internet presence, but he does manage to give Olga some useful information: apparently this budding scientist never thought to measure Meh’s length or height, for example, but Dr. Spiffle does so. The best part of the book is the eventual discovery of why Olga’s appearance and behavior have been a bit “off,” and that discovery very definitely opens the door for future books in the series. So despite the second book’s title, readers can expect to be seeing more of Olga and Meh right here on Earth, hopefully having adventures in which the blend of amusement and information is handled as entertainingly but a bit more seamlessly than it is in We’re Out of Here!
Big Nate: Silent but Deadly. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The “Mutts” Spring Diaries. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
I’m Not Your Sweet Babboo! A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Packaged with pull-out posters, “More to Explore” sections and other enhancements, some of Andrews McMeel’s comics collections are aimed directly at children – a fact that shows that so many of the same comic strips are, when taken as a whole, not just for kids. Of course, among modern strips as among older ones, some cartoonists do primarily target younger readers – as Lincoln Peirce does with Big Nate, whose presumed audience is around the same age as the strip’s sixth-grade central character. Nate’s inflated sense of his own importance, intelligence and abilities is the central element of the strip, and the fact that Nate never lets life get him down when it is repeatedly shown that he is less than he imagines himself to be is what makes him appealing (and a potential role model for readers of the same age). Peirce specializes in “character comedy,” with Nate and the rest of the cast (mostly his classmates and teachers at P.S. 38) being known quantities whose interactions with Nate and with each other provide the humor. Thus, in Silent but Deadly, what is funny about a series in which super-brain Gina falls for silly and clumsy but cute and endearing Chad is that Gina having a crush on anyone is so out of character, while Chad being oblivious to Gina’s feelings is in character. And when Gina finds out that Chad does not “like” like her (or any girl), and that affects how well she does on a test, her vow never again to “let personal feelings get in the way of academic achievement” makes perfect sense because of who she is. The “character comedy” elements of Big Nate even extend beyond the humans in the strip: an especially funny sequence in Silent but Deadly involves Spitsy, the inept, cross-eyed dog (who always wears a protective Elizabethan collar), and Pickles, the cat belonging to Nate’s friend Francis, having a “lovers’ spat” that is resolved by playing “their song.” The book’s slightly scatological title refers to Nate’s super-sensitive nose being able to identify all sorts of things and people by sniffing the air – the point being that Nate does have some quirks that set him well apart from everyone else, but spends most his time over-estimating his abilities in areas where he does not excel. One area where Nate is strong is basketball, and one of the best sequences here has him involved in a one-on-one dispute with another team’s point guard, who is considered far better than Nate and makes sure Nate knows it. The climax of this series of strips has Nate doing the unexpected: bypassing his own ego and helping someone else on his team score the winning basket, thus taking the arrogant opposing point guard down a peg and showing that when he has to, Nate can actually take others’ needs and feelings into account. It does not happen often, but it does happen occasionally – and is one reason kids of Nate’s age (and probably their parents) will find Silent but Deadly and the other Nate collections so amusingly interesting. The full-color, pull-out poster of the book’s front cover is a little something extra to enjoy.
Patrick McDonnell’s marvelous Mutts strip is very clearly aimed at adults, with its frequent bows to fine art, earlier comics, and societal issues such as conservation and the adoption of animals from shelters. But some of the characters in Mutts are children, and the sweet simplicity of many of the strips easily crosses generational lines, as is shown in The “Mutts” Spring Diaries. This is the fourth Diaries collection: the first was simply The Mutts Diaries, the second was for winter, and the third was for autumn. Presumably a summer grouping will show up at some point. The selected strips within these collections are put together to reflect whatever season is mentioned in the book’s title, which means The “Mutts” Spring Diaries is mostly about new growth, showers that being flowers, Easter, birds returning from flights south, and so forth. Those themes show up here with typical Mutts twists, as when Mooch the cat perches in a tree and sings discordantly from a branch, leading a nearby bird to tell Earl the dog, “I hate karaoke night.” Earl and Mooch are the central characters around whom Mutts is built, and some of McDonnell’s uses of them are sheer genius, as in one panel in which multiple Earls and Mooches rain down in a setting that duplicates the famous “rain of men” in René Magritte’s painting Golconda. Not all readers, adult or child, will catch all the art and older-comics references in Mutts, but it is not necessary to do so in order to enjoy a strip that is generally drawn very simply but contains considerable depth of thought: Mutts may seem childlike but is not childish. McDonnell has a lot of fun with stereotypical comic-strip scenes, as in one strip showing Earl and Mooch lying on a hilltop watching clouds, as many other characters have elsewhere. In Mutts, the two friends see an elephant, then a pink sock (Mooch’s favorite toy), then a fish, and then simply a cloud, leading Mooch to exclaim, “Finally!” Also here are strips in which McDonnell embellishes literary or environmental quotations: “The Earth is what we all have in common – Wendell Berry” includes three black-and-white panels of elephants, people in a city, and a polar bear, followed by a larger, full-color panel of Earl and Mooch siting beneath a tree and contemplating nature all around them. Even when Earl and Mooch act doglike and catlike, they do it with Mutts flair, as when Mooch finds a ball and Earl cannot stop himself from insisting that Mooch throw it (Earl’s eyes get huge and he exclaims “Throw it!” again and again and again). Mooch complies, but comments to the reader (in his particular style of speech), “I think it shmight be time for an intervention.” There are also several “Shelter Stories” here, in which endearing animals warmly and amusingly ask readers to choose a special friend at a local animal shelter. And the “More to Explore” section at the back of the book fits McDonnell’s themes well, showing how to build a bird feeder and giving information and suggestions for backyard bird watching.
The latest Peanuts reprint contains both a pull-out poster and a “More to Explore” section, the latter focused on helicopters because of one especially noteworthy sequence included in the book: the comic-strip series that for the first time has Sally calling Linus her “sweet babboo” (first use: January 27, 1977). Linus strongly objects to the characterization – hence this book’s title – but the phrase became one of Charles Schulz’s lasting contributions to comic strips. It shows up during a series of strips in which Linus is stuck on a slippery barn roof and has to be rescued by Snoopy, who functions as a helicopter piloted by Woodstock – hence the helicopter-oriented material at this book’s conclusion. Both the helicopter rescue and the “sweet babboo” phrase result from a “love triangle” involving Linus, Sally and a girl named Truffles, whose appearance is unusual for a Peanuts character: she has a bigger nose and much bigger eyes than Schulz’s other characters do. Truffles disappeared after the “sweet babboo” series, showing up for the last time on January 29, 1977; adult fans who may remember her will enjoy rediscovering her in this collection. The book includes several other notable multi-strip sequences as well. One of the longest and funniest has Peppermint Patty enrolling at a private school because she is not a very good student – and ending up in an obedience school for dogs, courtesy of a brochure she gets from Snoopy. She does well and graduates, only to be told – after she brings in her diploma to prove her graduation, also bringing along her lawyer (yes, Snoopy) – that she was not in a school for human children after all. Her explosive anger at Snoopy over the whole incident leads to her fighting (outside the visible panels) with the never-seen cat next door (whose name, we learn in this collection, is “World War II”). She thinks the cat is Snoopy in disguise – but the real Snoopy shows up at the last minute to turn the tide of the fight and repair his relationship with Peppermint Patty. The complexity of this series and the way the characters’ personalities are interrelated and used to advance the story show just how skillful Schulz was once he had developed his characters fully and figured out multiple ways to involve them with each other. This is also clear in other extended sequences in I’m Not Your Sweet Babboo! There is, for example, one in which Snoopy falls in love and decides to get married; invites his brother, Spike, to be best man; and Spike runs off with the bride, who is never seen – and who then deserts Spike for a coyote. Another extended Snoopy sequence features another minor female character, this one named Molly Volley – a tennis player with a hair-trigger temper who first appeared on May 9, 1977 and lasted a lot longer than Truffles did: Molly’s final appearance was on September 16, 1990. In the series in the current collection, Molly and Snoopy play doubles; Molly dominates the play and yells her calls loudly at the other (unseen) players; but at the very end, when there is a question about whether a ball hit by the other team was in or out, Snoopy indicates honestly that it was in, so he and Molly lose (and she does not appreciate the “smak” on the cheek that Snoopy gives her in consolation). Schulz had the remarkable ability to make young readers think Peanuts – a strip that was a major influence on McDonnell, among other cartoonists – was intended for children, while simultaneously having adults realize just how grown-up some of the strip’s themes, interactions and concepts could be. This latest collection confirms once again the unique way that Schulz managed to make Peanuts truly a comic strip for the ages – all ages.
Copland: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Symphony for Organ and Orchestra; Orchestral Variations; Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2); Symphonic Ode. Jonathan Scott, organ; BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Copland: Orchestral Works, Volume 3—An Outdoor Overture; Symphony No. 1; Statements; Dance Symphony. BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Dag Wirén: Symphony No. 3; Serenade for String Orchestra; Divertimento; Sinfonietta. Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Aaron Copland’s popularity rests on a small subset of his works, pieces written overtly in folk/popular mode: Lincoln Portrait, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, El Salón Mexico, Fanfare for the Common Man. But there was much more to Copland than this, an entire body of more overtly serious, even experimental music that was very much in tune with the times in which it was written and that also reached out into new areas and explored them. Copland may not have been an innovator in the mode of, for example, Stravinsky, but he was subject to many of the same influences and interpreted them in his own way – including, among other things, the influence of Nadia Boulanger and of the overall musical climate of Paris in the 1920s, plus the influence of jazz at a time when it had not yet become pervasive. Somewhat like Leonard Bernstein, Copland wrote works overtly intended for popular consumption and others that he took very seriously and of which he was quite proud, but that never attained the popularity or frequency of performance of his easier-to-hear, easier-to-follow music. All this makes the ongoing Chandos project to record Copland’s orchestral works in performances by the BBC Philharmonic under John Wilson quite valuable and very much welcome. Much of the more-popular material was offered on the first SACD of the series; the second and third have turned to some substantial but less-known music – in particular, Copland’s symphonies and other symphony-like works. Copland is scarcely thought of as a symphonic composer, a fact that is partly his own fault: only his Symphony No. 3 (1944-1946), which incorporates Fanfare for the Common Man, has anything approaching recognizable, much less conventional, symphonic structure. But Copland toyed with symphonic style for many years before this work – and “toyed” is not really the right word, because he was quite serious about rethinking what a symphony could be and how the orchestra could be used within an extended formal structure that, if not recognizably a traditional symphony, was certainly symphonic in outlook and instrumentation.
The second and third Copland SACDs on Chandos show the composer in full-fledged symphonic mode – and Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic treat this material with the same care, sensitivity and intensity that they would bring to European symphonies of the same period, showing that Copland’s music speaks clearly in geographical areas well beyond the borders of the United States, despite the close association between him and rural and Western America. Anyone interested in Copland’s universality of expression and in his symphonic output in particular will surely want both these discs, which complement and supplement each other intriguingly. In particular, Symphony No. 1 appears on both releases – in its two separate guises. Originally created as Symphony for Organ and Orchestra in 1924, the work was arranged by Copland for orchestra without organ in 1926-1928 after the composer realized that it would likely be performed far more often (and somewhat more easily) without an organist being required. The 1924 version is more interesting, fully integrating the organ (which is very well played by Jonathan Scott) into the orchestral fabric, but using the instrument quite differently from the way Saint-Saëns used it in his “Organ” Symphony of 1886. There is, however, a definite French connection between the two works: Copland wrote his under the influence of Nadia Boulanger and dedicated it to her, and she played the organ in its first performance. The later version, known simply as Symphony No. 1, seems sturdier and less innovative than the earlier one even though the notes are essentially the same. The comparison is fascinating, and both performances here are exemplary.
The other works on these two releases are also decidedly symphonic. Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2), which dates to 1931-1933, and Symphonic Ode (1927-1928, but revised as late as 1955) both contain some melodies, flourishes and rhythms that are identifiably “Copland-esque” in terms of being used in some of his better-known music. But both are dense, rhythmically complex works, each being written in a single large-scale movement within which multiple sections offer a wide variety of challenges both to performers and to listeners’ ears. Tightly integrated and carefully structured, they are works of considerable impact within their comparatively brief durations. The Volume 2 disc containing them also includes Orchestral Variations, a 1957 orchestral arrangement of the 1930 Piano Variations and a work that sounds completely different – and considerably more intense – in full-orchestra garb. On the Volume 3 disc, the works offered in addition to Symphony No. 1 include yet another piece with symphonic aspirations: Dance Symphony (1929), a far-from-lighthearted arrangement of music from Copland’s vampire ballet Grohg – anyone led by the work’s title to expect even the slightest frothiness will be quite surprised at the pervasive darkness of the music. This too is a piece conceived as a single large-scale movement made up of multiple short sections, and although it is not as tightly constructed as Short Symphony or Symphonic Ode, it is impressively orchestrated and makes its points effectively. All these works are redolent to some degree of the times in which they were written – and Statements (1932-1935) is even more so. Dissonant and almost self-consciously modernist in its six-movement construction, the work is a series of miniatures adding up to a 1930s version of a suite – but one with no vestiges of dance and little gaiety about it. In strong contrast, An Outdoor Overture (1938) is the lightest, brightest and most accessible work on either of these SACDs. Originally written for performance by students at the High School of Music and Art in New York City, this festive piece amply repays the attention it gets from a first-class professional orchestra and a conductor as sensitive as Wilson is to the work’s frequent mood and tempo changes (11 of the latter in eight-and-a-half minutes). Listeners who know only more-familiar Copland will find these two releases genuinely revelatory, while those who already know at least some of these works will revel in the quality of the playing here as well as in the sonic excellence of the recordings.
Another 20th-century composer who wrote three numbered symphonies but is rarely thought of as a symphonist is Dag Wirén, who indeed is scarcely thought of at all – even in his native Sweden – except insofar as he is known for his wonderful Serenade for Strings of 1937. Wirén (1905-1986) was a contemporary of Copland (1900-1990), but his focus throughout his small compositional output was nearly always on absolute music rather than music designed to evoke specific scenes (although he did write three ballets). The four Wirén works on a new Chandos SACD fall neatly into two categories: earlier ones that are light, even buoyant, easy to hear and mood-boosting, and later ones that remain readily accessible but that communicate more substantially and substantively, albeit without delivering any specific messages. Rumon Gamba and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra deserve a vote of thanks for showing that there is more to Wirén than the Serenade for Strings, although it must be said that their performance of that lovely work is as fine as anyone could wish – a genuine pleasure to hear. The other relatively early piece on this disc is Sinfonietta in C (1933-1934, revised 1939), and it too is delightful – and has some genuinely innovative touches, such as an opening theme (or at least an opening rhythm) on, of all instruments, the snare drum. Simplicity and clarity in a kind of Stravinsky-ish neoclassical mode are the order of the day here, and the work has an effect somewhat akin to that of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony – although, unlike that work but like several of Copland’s symphonic pieces, it is played as a single extended movement containing multiple sections. In contrast, Wirén’s Symphony No. 3 (1943-1944), although lacking in thematic richness, is structurally sound, even impressive, both opening and closing in a mood and orchestration distinctly reminiscent of Sibelius. Dedicated “to my parents,” the symphony eventually builds to a whole so cohesive that it comes across as a single large sonata-form work even though, in this case, the piece is broken up into individual movements (the first and second attacca, the third and longest separate). And Divertimento (1953-1957), despite its title, is scarcely diverting – it defies expectations much as Copland’s Dance Symphony belies its title. Wirén offers some playful material here, but most of the effects are more serious: the intensity of the double basses in the second of the four movements stands out, as do the lyricism-within-dissonance of the third, slow movement and the power with which the percussion (silent in the third movement) opens the finale. Wirén was far from prolific and may not have been a substantially innovative composer, but his music shows strength of construction, cleverness of instrumentation, and a determination to engage listeners in the manner of the best absolute music of any era. Gamba and Chandos have done both Wirén and listeners a genuine favor with this fine recording and the unexpected delights it offers.
Brian Buch: From the River Flow the Stars No. 6; Acanthus Leaves No. 6; Life and Opinions No. 7; Landscapes No. 1; Maze of Infinite Forms No. 1. Daedalus Quartet (Min-Young Kim and Matilda Kaul, violins; Jessica Thompson, viola; Thomas Kraines, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Peter Dayton: Fantasy for Viola and Piano; Morceaux des Noces for String Quartet; Sonata “Los Dedicatorias” for Violin and Piano; Variations for String Quartet; Sonata for Violoncello and Piano. Sarah Jane Thomas, Marika Suzuki, Joshua Hong and Andrew Kwan, violins; Yang Guo, viola; Lavena Johanson, violoncello; Michael Sheppard, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Although composers have for centuries been inspired to create music by witnessing or reacting to artistic endeavors in other media, the tendency seems even more pronounced among some contemporary composers than it was in the past. Again and again, modern composers make it a point to share the inspirations for their music and to suggest that audiences respond multidimensionally, to the music itself and to the underlying reasons it was written. Even composers who do not go quite that far clearly believe that listeners will gain more from works whose provenance they know and understand – even when the music is able to connect with listeners who are not cognizant of its origins. Thus, Brian Buch’s compositions, five world première recordings on a new MSR Classics CD, have numerous telling moments unrelated (or at most marginally related) to their titles; and at some level, Buch is surely aware of this, since in four of the five pieces here he gives the movements of the works entirely conventional titles based on their tempos – the only programmatic or inspirational element is the overall label for each work. That labeling is rather curious, adding numbers to words, and this is something about which listeners would do well to know. Buch says he composes in collections of short pieces – the longest movement in any work on this disc lasts less than six minutes – and tries to evoke specific feelings by combining the brief pieces in different ways. At least on this CD, Buch shows himself especially inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman: Acanthus Leaves No. 6 relates to thoughts expressed by a feline in Hoffman’s novel Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, and Life and Opinions No. 7 draws on the same work. Buch does, however, have other literary inspirations: From the River Flow the Stars No. 6 contains three pieces based on ancient Japanese poetry, and Maze of Infinite Forms No. 1 is based on poems by Rabindranath Tagore. Interestingly, the only work here with a visual inspiration is the only one whose three movements have evocative titles: Landscapes No. 1 refers to three specific paintings by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, “Sparks,” “Mists,” and Creation of the World V.” What are listeners to make of all this, particularly listeners who may know little or nothing of Tagore, Ciurlionis, even Hoffmann? That is a question answerable only by hearing the music as music and deciding whether it “works,” whatever its origins may be. In fact, Buch has a good sense of the capabilities of the string quartet and does not feel obliged to push the instruments to their extremes, much less beyond them. The two Hoffman-based works offer a multiplicity of moods, the juxtaposition of differing ideas being especially clear in Life and Opinions No. 7. There is considerable lyricism in the two movements of the Tagore-inspired work, gentleness in the piece based on Japanese poetry, and a kind of dreamlike quality to the music interpreting and reacting to Ciurlionis’ art. There is no way listeners can know if the sounds coming from the Daedalus Quartet are evoking the specific feelings and emotions that Buch sought when writing this music, but this will matter less to the audience than to the composer. Listeners will find that Buch’s music is generally communicative and expressive whether or not they familiarize themselves with the specifics of its inspiration and intent.
The two string-quartet works on a new Navona CD of the music of Peter Dayton have specific inspirations as well, but in this case many of them are musical rather than literary – and some will come through clearly for listeners attuned to 20th-century composers. Variations is a single movement whose elements in Shostakovich’s style are particularly evident, although several other composers are alluded to as well. And if listeners will not know that the variation consisting of a violin cadenza is inspired by a specific violinist, it will not matter – the virtuosity speaks for itself. Morceaux des Noces is a three-movement work whose movements, like those in most of the Buch pieces, simply bear traditional tempo indications. The third movement does have a literary inspiration – a poem by Hart Crane – but what listeners will hear is simply a well-crafted sequence of contrasting pieces whose impact is primarily based on the writing for and playing of the instruments, not on Dayton’s source material. Actually, the three works on this disc for solo strings and piano are somewhat more interesting than the two for string quartet. Fantasy for Viola and Piano is a rare contemporary work that seems too short: its four-and-a-half minutes include so many moods, meters and tempo changes that it seems to want to expand into something larger. The four-movement Sonata “Los Dedicatorias” is more than four times as long and not as convincing – largely because this is a highly personal piece, intended to display and interpret the personalities of specific individuals. There are some interesting elements, such as the sense of talkative chatter in the final movement, but most of the sonata is on the bland side, nicely written but not terribly involving. On the other hand, the two-movement cello-and-piano sonata is captivating from its starting and pervasive first-movement trills onward. Shostakovich looks over the composer’s shoulder here as in the Variations, with Dayton successfully channeling some of the earlier composer’s frenetic pacing and bitterness of expression – without, however, becoming overtly imitative. Although it ends questioningly and delicately, this is a rather gritty work – some piano chords are positively pounded – and it is a piece that provides an example of how a contemporary composer can absorb earlier artistic influences and use them in a new and effective context.
March 15, 2018
Misunderstood Shark. By Ame Dyckman. Illustrated by Scott Magoon. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.
The Bad Guys #6: Alien vs. Bad Guys. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.
Toothsome and terrifying, sharks have been a major object of fear for people ever since – well, at least since the Steven Spielberg movie Jaws (1975) brought them to the attention of people who had previously never thought much about what might be underwater near a beach. In reality, sharks have been a source of worry and fear for much longer, but only among people unfortunate enough to come in contact with them and live to tell the tale. And yet human-shark encounters really are quite rare, and as nature-focused organizations constantly point out, the chance of dying in a shark attack is far, far lower than the chance of all sorts of alternative forms of mayhem (a true statement that is somehow not especially reassuring). Anyway, the upshot of all the shark fear in the last several decades has been a series of books, both factual and fictional, intended to show that sharks are not so bad after all. They are simply misunderstood. As in Ame Dyckman’s Misunderstood Shark. This is all about a TV show called “Underwater World with Bob” (Bob being a jellyfish), specifically about an episode into which a gigantic and extremely toothy shark suddenly intrudes. Shark is about to swallow a fish when Bob tells him he is on camera and should not eat anyone while people can see – and Shark, with a sly grin that plays toothily to the audience (although he still holds the frightened little fish in a fin bearing an anchor tattoo with the word “Mom”), says he did not intend to eat the fish. He just wanted to show off his new tooth. So Shark holds the fish right over his wide-open mouth, with the fish understandably asking, “Can I faint now?” Meanwhile, Bob uses the moment to give the audience a “fun fact” about sharks: they can grow and lose some 30,000 teeth in a lifetime. And so the show and the book progress: Shark starts doing typical hungry-shark things, claims he did not intend to do them and is simply misunderstood, and pulls back from his impulses long enough for Dyckman to have Bob deliver several honest-to-goodness facts about sharks. Scott Magoon’s highly amusing, very cartoonish illustrations make Shark seem both fierce and funny, but his smiles are always on the heh-heh-heh side of things – something that Bob himself eventually finds out when Shark’s instincts get the better of him just after Bob agrees to give him a hug. But no worries! Bob promises to be back for his next show with a real “INSIDE view of our underwater world!” Nothing to fear here, folks – nothing at all. Or at least not much.
Another shark, sometimes known as Shark and sometimes as Mr. Shark, is merely one of a heroic quintet of bad guys trying to become good guys in Aaron Blabey’s ongoing series of simple and hilarious graphic novels, The Bad Guys. Shark is the disguise expert of the group, but his disguises are ridiculous, absurd, and would not fool anyone; so of course Blabey has them fool everybody, maybe even the alien who is the real bad guy in the sixth book of the sequence, Alien vs. Bad Guys. In addition to Shark, the Bad Guys include Wolf, their leader; Piranha; Snake; and Legs, a tarantula. And all of them are really up against it, the “it” being a gigantic many-tentacled thing with lots and lots of teeth and lots and lots of butts (or butt-like pieces of anatomy that appear at the end of the tentacles and are just great for squeezing and picking up stuff, such as Bad Guys). Anyway, the alien used to be a tiny megalomaniacal guinea pig named Marmalade – that was in earlier books of the series – but now that disguise is unnecessary, since the alien has learned all it needs to know about the weakness of Earth’s defenses and its own ability to, you know, take over the planet and all that. Nothing stands in its way except the Bad Guys, who are not doing so well because they happen to be standing in a room filled with dried alien snot. That is, all are there but one: Snake, who has never bought into the idea of the Good Guys Club and has gotten out while the getting out is good. Actually it isn’t good, but out is better than in with the alien, if you get Snake’s drift. So he drifts away – or, actually, powers away in an escape pod, leaving everyone else behind in an alien spaceship on the moon, where this whole book takes place. Is there any hope for Earth? Any hope for the Bad Guys and their Good Guys Club? Of course there is! If there were no hope, how could there be another book? But there will be another, set in the age of dinosaurs because, well, why not? For now, kids will have to be content laughing their, um, butts off at Alien vs. Bad Guys, while they wait for the forthcoming Do-You-Think-He-Saurus?
What Makes a Blizzard? By Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. Illustrated by Maddie Frost. Harper. $17.99.
Icebergs & Glaciers. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.
Both these books could be called “Let’s Read and Find Out” science, but in fact only the one by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld is included in that series, where it is a Level 2 book intended for ages 4-8. Zoehfeld introduces the topic of blizzards by going back to a still-notorious 19th-century storm, the blizzard of January 12, 1888. She uses it as an example of this extreme form of winter storm partly because it was nicknamed “The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard,” so called because it struck the U.S. Midwest while kids were in school, reducing visibility to almost zero, so “children trying to walk home from school became hopelessly lost.” Most teachers kept schoolkids in their one-room schoolhouses, and the few exceptions were usually fatal – the blizzard claimed 235 lives, although Zoehfeld does not mention this. (Nor does she mention that this is not the Great Blizzard of 1888, which hit the U.S. East Coast later in the same winter.) After giving 21st-century children a small taste of what the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard was like, Zoehfeld gets to a formal definition of this type of storm: it must have winds of at least 35 miles per hour that last at least three hours, with enough snow in the wind to cause a whiteout – which means visibility of one-quarter mile or less. Zoehfeld – aided by illustrations by the appropriately named Maddie Frost – explains how the collision of warm and cold air creates storms, and why such storms are especially common and violent in the U.S. Midwest. Zoehfeld gets into the basics of the water cycle, how snow is formed, how weather was predicted in the past and how it is predicted today, and more. She also gives more-modern references to blizzards to supplement the story of the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard of 1888 – for instance, she talks briefly about the 1977 blizzard in Buffalo, New York, where snowdrifts were higher than zoo fences and some reindeer escaped by simply walking away. Zoehfeld ends by bringing the matter of blizzards and other winter weather into modern times, explaining the differences between a “watch” and a “warning” when a storm is coming, suggesting ways to be prepared before bad weather hits, and reminding young readers – to avoid frightening them too much – that “eventually the wind will stop” and cleanup will begin, and there will be chances for play in the snow the storm leaves behind. A factually accurate book that will be easy for most children in the target age range to read and understand, What Makes a Blizzard? can be useful both in classrooms and at home during winter days when school is closed because of bad weather, if not necessarily blizzards.
Seymour Simon’s Icebergs & Glaciers, originally published in 1987 and now available in a new, updated edition, is fact-packed as well, and it is far more attractive to look at than What Makes a Blizzard? The reason is that, as usual in Simon’s books, the visual material is in the form of photos rather than illustrations. And what photos these are! Unusually for a Simon book, this one has not a single picture of a human being in it – and no photos of animals, either. So the photographs of glaciers, ice fields and water take on a kind of abstract beauty that turns the book very nearly into a work of art. But there are serious issues for humans in the forms of ice that Simon describes: the sole picture of anything human-created here shows a cruise ship that hit submerged ice off Antarctica in 2007, capsized and sank (the photo shows the Explorer listing strongly to starboard before going under). Simon does his usual excellent job of explaining: he discusses how glaciers form, how they move, and how icebergs are created when pieces of a glacier “calve” or split off. One photo appears to show a huge ice shelf – that is, a monumental ice sheet at the point where it meets the sea – stretching as far as the eye can see. It is an especially dramatic picture that becomes even more so when young readers (the book is intended for ages 6-10) read that this is not an ice shelf after all: it is an iceberg that broke off from an even larger iceberg that in turn broke away from an Antarctic ice shelf. The scale of the ice masses described by Simon is so vast that even his usual attempts to offer comparisons with more-familiar items falter – it is impossible to grasp that the Antarctic ice sheet is more than 15,000 feet thick, and not much easier to visualize what it means that this is “about the height of ten Empire State Buildings stacked one atop another.” Nevertheless, Simon makes a concerted effort to help young readers understand glaciers and icebergs, an attempt that includes showing “the ways that the land was changed by the glaciers” that receded after the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago. And he discusses the possible effects of “melting ice due to climate change [that] could raise global sea levels almost two feet by the end of this century” – a jumping-off point, one among many here, for young readers to learn more about this topic and discuss it further, whether in a classroom setting or elsewhere.
All Our Wrong Todays. By Elan Mastai. Dutton. $16.
Yes, it is somewhat too clever for its own good and somewhat too proud of its cleverness. And yes, its multiplicity of very short chapters, some only a page long, betrays its author’s background as a screenwriter and makes it clear that it was written at least in part with the intention of turning it into a movie, which it will inevitably become. And yes, its title is certainly not its strong suit. Yet Elan Mastai’s debut novel, All Our Wrong Todays, is a success both because of and in spite of itself, thanks in large part to Mastai’s willingness to combine genuine speculative fiction with some really funny writing – still rare in SF, at least in non-sarcastic form. Oh, and yes, Mastai’s protagonist’s name, Barren, is right up there on the obviousness scale to an irritating degree, and in fact Mastai makes him doubly barren by having him named Tom Barren in one reality and John Barren in another. He is also doubly, maybe quadruply irritating, a boring, snotty, self-centered twit, and equally self-indulgent under both names. Until he isn’t, or at least isn’t to the same extent – his progress is what keeps him from being totally insufferable, but it is a near thing.
All Mastai’s creational flaws, though, are little more than nitpicking, because All Our Wrong Todays really works, really engages readers and really deserves a great deal of the praise that was heaped on it when it was published last year (it is now available in a new paperback edition). It is part romantic comedy, part alternative-reality exploration, and part – well, part of it is a meta-novel, with Mastai having Barren step outside the memoir form in which he is generally narrating to address readers directly and make comments on, among other things, the “masochistic pleasure” of “reading a book where every word is fixed in place by the deliberate choice of a controlling vision,” that vision coming from “a stranger you’ll likely never meet.”
Barren, as a character, is much given to self-deprecation early in the book and only gradually becomes more self-aware, perceptive and out-and-out interesting. Mastai manages to convince readers that this happens because of the alternative-time (or alternative-world) experiences that Barren has. Barren himself is the proximate cause of what happens to him, which in a sense is true for what happens to everyone in life, but is particularly so for Barren and the entire world that he changes. Yes, All Our Wrong Todays is based on the familiar trope and time-travel paradox in which changing even something minor in the past can have a ripple effect that changes everything in the future, including whatever the word “future” turns out to mean. Ray Bradbury’s brilliant 1952 short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” encapsulates the concept to perfection, and no one since then has done it better. Mastai does not even try – he simply does it differently. Barren originally lives in a world in which 2016 is everything imagined by pulp-SF writers in the so-called Golden Age, “a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder,” complete with hovercars and personalized billboards and joy and happiness unbounded. This world is traceable to a single day: July 11, 1965, when physicist Lionel Goettreider (yes, “god rider” – the names here are a pretty good indication not to take the novel too seriously) turns on the Goettreider Engine, which uses the power of Earth’s rotation in the usual pseudo-scientific, semi-mystical way of old-fashioned SF to produce unlimited clean energy, thereby making Barren’s world possible.
That is, it would make Barren’s world possible if Barren didn’t spoil the whole thing. But he does – for romantic reasons. Barren is the son of the foremost scientist studying time travel, and he is the understudy of an intense, driven would-be chrononaut (time traveler, that is) named Penelope Weschler. He is also in love with her, but alas, things do not go well, so Barren, the very core of his being undermined in a way that makes perfect sense in bad SF and bad romantic-comedy movies made from it, makes an unauthorized time-travel trip to the very moment at which the Goettreider Engine made his world possible. And Goettreider notices him watching, which is not supposed to happen, and so the engine does not work, and the whole future made possible by it does not occur, and now Barren is trapped in a world very much of his own making and thoroughly unsatisfactory by the standards of the world where he belongs.
Except for one thing: the rom-com element. Barren is now in a world where he has a sister and a mother who is alive (in his original world, she died in an accident). He also has a less driven and more understanding father. And, most important of all, he has, maybe, a soul mate, who comes complete with the obligatory “meet cute” moment (on page 175 in the paperback). So now what? Stay in the decidedly non-utopian world that all the readers of All Our Wrong Todays inhabit, or find a way to re-create and return to the utopian “original” Barren world even though it means abandoning what could be lasting love and a far better family life? Barren is about as inept a time traveler as can be imagined, or as has been imagined, and it would be easy to dislike him – for instance, when he goes through another time loop and creates a world that is a great deal darker. Although he is certainly charming, Barren is also a bumbler and is confirmation of Alexander Pope’s famously epigrammatic utterance, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Barren knows just enough to mess things up, repeatedly.
But what keeps the book interesting is that there is so much going on, at such a breakneck pace, as events wind back and forth and through the various times and places and Barren, rather surprisingly, actually learns a great deal about who he is and where he belongs. There is nothing new about a novel whose protagonist develops that sort of self-understanding and self-awareness, but here it seems to happen in a natural, unforced way despite Barren’s periodic direct-to-the-reader comments. Mastai’s authorial hand is everywhere in All Our Wrong Todays, in the pacing and plotting and pushing around of the characters, in the manipulation of events and people and settings – but this omnipresence is managed with such a light, even elegant touch that readers will be intrigued rather than put off by the convolutions of the story and the palpable amusement that Mastai brings to it. The novel turns out to be one that readers can take seriously for a level of thoughtfulness that seems to come through almost offhandedly – but that in fact develops from a surprisingly subtle undercurrent beneath the madcap pace of the events. All Our Wrong Todays is, in the end, simply fun. Which is not, however, to say it is simple fun: there is enough complexity here to keep readers dazzled throughout a thrill ride that proves to be, surprisingly and delightfully, not only clever but also rather sweet.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 6; Music for a Ballet of Knights; Wellington’s Victory. Claire Huangci, piano; Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths. Klanglogo. $18.99.
Beethoven: Variations for Piano, WoO 63-80. Alessandro Commellato, fortepiano. Brilliant Classics. $16.99 (3 CDs).
For all the familiarity that most listeners have with Beethoven’s music, there are still ways for performers to approach it that provide an element of surprise and some additional insights. Doing so, especially in Beethoven’s best-known pieces, requires thoroughly rethinking the music and finding new ways to look at it – and that is what Philippe Jordan has done in his recording of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies with the Wiener Symphoniker, released on the orchestra’s own label. Beethoven actually worked on multiple symphonies at once, so their numbering is not strictly accurate, but it is certainly true that the Fourth, sometimes dismissed as rather lightweight and a bit of a throwback, was created after the “Eroica” – or at least at the same time. Jordan takes this fully into account in his reading, giving the symphony a level of seriousness and intensity that is frequently lacking in other performances. The lyricism does not get short shrift, but it is not the whole story here: this is an unusually serious version of the Fourth, pensive and even dark in places, its fleet-footed elements thus standing in stronger-than-usual contrast to its almost gloomy ones. The first two movements, in particular, come across here as subtle and intense, after which the rather gruff third movement paves the way for the eventual move into humor and light – a bit like Haydn, but only a bit – in the finale. The interpretation is unusual and revelatory. Jordan’s handling of the Fifth is not quite as outstanding, but still has a great deal to recommend it – including Jordan’s careful adherence to Beethoven’s indicated tempos and his performance of the third movement with the trio appearing twice, while many other performances leave out the second appearance. There is no certainty about exactly what Beethoven wanted here – one of many still-unanswered questions about his symphonies – but the more-extended third movement better fits the carefully constructed edifice that is Jordan’s performance, and produces a better overall balance for the entire work. From the highly dramatic but in-tempo famous opening of the symphony to the broad, martial, celebratory finale with added piccolo, contrabassoon and trombones, Jordan has a vision of the narrative arc through which he wants the music to move – through which he believes Beethoven wanted it to move – and he follows it with care and tremendous attention to detail, thanks to the excellent orchestral playing. These are among the best recent recordings of these iconic symphonies, producing anew the feeling that these are deeply communicative works whose depths, however often plumbed, have not yet been fully explored, and may never be.
The reconsideration is not quite as extensive in Jordan’s interpretations of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, but the Wiener Symphoniker’s playing is equally good, the attention to detail is as impressive, and the contrast between these works is handled with as much skill as are the surprising resemblances between Nos. 4 and 5. Jordan’s No. 1 is very distinctly Haydnesque, the highlighting of the contrasting piano and forte elements of the first movement and the speed of its fleet first theme introducing a reading that clearly shows Beethoven’s debt to the older composer – giving the lie to Beethoven’s unkind statement that he never learned anything from Haydn. Yet Jordan’s performance shows quite clearly that no one could possibly think Beethoven’s First could have been written by Haydn: the harmonic daring, the writing for winds and brass, the emphatic nature of the many chordal passages, and the general insistence on forward propulsiveness throughout, quite clearly mark the symphony with Beethoven’s still-developing musical propensities. Jordan’s bright and quick approach to the sunny Andante cantabile con moto is especially noteworthy for its emphasis on the con moto indication and the movement’s wry humor. The short introduction to the finale gives Jordan another opportunity for humor – really, for wit – and the movement then spins along in a very Haydnesque manner indeed, its structure and pacing showing just how far Beethoven had already come in this work in building on past masters and growing beyond them. And when it comes to the “Eroica,” Jordan opens with the same emphatic but in-tempo and not-overdone intensity that he brings to the start of the first movement of No. 5. He then lets the opening movement flow and at times seem to meander (but not into the “disorder” that some in Beethoven’s own time perceived). And then, after finding a way to pace the second movement rather quickly while still allowing it plenty of funereal grandeur, Jordan achieves something quite striking in making the finale – too often trivialized in the shadow of the extended first two movements – into the summation and capstone of the symphony. Instead of allowing any falloff of tension and drama after the first two movements, Jordan conducts the remainder of the symphony as a large-scale counterbalance, even though the third and fourth movements together last only as long as does the first movement on its own. The effectiveness of Jordan’s approach will be especially evident to listeners who choose to listen back-to-back to his handlings of the “Eroica” and No. 5: Jordan makes the finale-focused nature of both these intense symphonies clear and meaningful, revealing connections between them that go beyond the ones uncovered by many conductors.
Other Beethoven works are revelatory simply because they are less-known and show sides of the composer with which listeners are far less likely to be familiar. The fascinating piano version of the Violin Concerto, sometimes identified as Piano Concerto No. 6, is one infrequently heard Beethoven work that deserves greater currency. The orchestral part is the same as in the violin version, but Beethoven made a variety of changes in the solo portion to accommodate the differences between the sound and capabilities of the piano and the violin. Especially notable are the two cadenzas Beethoven created for this work, which are quite clearly piano-centered rather than adaptations of the violin cadenzas. And the first of the piano cadenzas provides a structural benefit that the violin one in the first movement does not: the whole concerto begins with timpani strokes, and Beethoven brings back the timpani during the piano cadenza, creating an unusual sound of two percussion instruments and also reminding the ear of the timpani strokes from the concerto’s opening. The new Klanglogo recording of this concerto, featuring pianist Claire Huangci with the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths, is a very fine one, suitably pianistic without being overstated. Huangci and Griffiths share fine rapport and produce a mutually supportive reading that will likely make listeners wonder why this work is not heard more frequently in its piano guise. Unfortunately, the rest of the CD is not up to the quality of the concerto. Griffiths offers a real rarity and a pseudo-rarity here. Music for a Ballet of Knights, WoO 1, is very early and very inconsequential Beethoven, opening with a short but effective march but then offering little that is substantive: of the 12 movements, five are versions of the same “German Song,” a sixth includes that music as a middle section, and the entire work lasts only 11 minutes. Written for Count Waldstein when Beethoven was only 20 years old, the ballet is occasional music without much pretense to importance or much evidence of originality – although it has a certain amount of rather crude verve. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Beethoven produced another work of similar enthusiastic crudity, albeit with much greater skill. This was Wellington’s Victory, a celebration of the outcome of the Battle of Leipzig during the Napoleonic Wars. In the right hands, this music can actually be a good deal of fun: the first part portrays English and French forces, identified by characteristic tunes and portrayed in different keys, battling with considerable ferocity – the music was intended to include actual cannons and muskets among its effects. After the French limp off, their theme transformed into a minor-key march, there is a “Symphony of Victory” that is as bright and upbeat as could be expected or desired. But Griffiths does not seem to take Wellington’s Victory sufficiently seriously. He omits the military elements of the first part, instead using ordinary percussion instruments – notably a bass drum whose sound never approximates that of cannon fire and that quickly becomes wearisome. And the second half of the work, although well-played, lacks the celebratory exuberance that Beethoven surely wanted it to have. The performance is all right, but it does nothing to make a case that Wellington’s Victory deserves to be heard more often – as, in truth, it does, if only for its curiosity value. Still, the concerto performance on this disc is so good that it overcomes the comparative weakness of the other works here, and the weakness of Griffiths’ handling of them.
No such performance weakness is apparent in a Brilliant Classics release containing all of Beethoven’s early piano variations, WoO 63-80, played by Alessandro Commellato (joined in the four-hand variations, WoO 67 and WoO 74, by Elena Costa). Count Waldstein figures here as well as in Music for a Ballet of Knights: the eight four-hand variations, WoO 67, are on a theme that he wrote. Some other variations are also on themes by specific individuals – for instance, the nine-variation work, WoO 63, that is the first piece of music known to have been written by Beethoven (at the age of 10), is based on a march from the now-forgotten Ernst Christoph Dreßler. Most of these variations, though, are on themes from operas by composers such as Salieri (WoO 73), Paisiello (WoO 69 and WoO 70), Dittersdorf (WoO 66), Peter Winter (WoO 75), and Franz Xaver Süßmayr (WoO 76; this is the Süßmayr who completed Mozart’s Requiem). Other sets use themes from no-longer-remembered ballets or are based on original themes, and two sets are on specifically British tunes: WoO 78 on “God Save the King” and WoO 79 on “Rule Britannia.” There is also one set, WoO 74 for piano four hands, based on Goethe’s Ich denke dein, with the first stanza of the poem sung here (unfortunately rather screechily) by soprano Sonja Angelina Krenn. The variations are presented, for no apparent reason, in exact reverse order, starting with WoO80 and running backward to WoO 63. What this does is have the three-CD set open with WoO 80, the only one of these variation sets that is at all well-known – and it is, indeed, better constructed and of greater interest than most of the other material here. It is not, however, even close to the most substantial of these groups of variations: seven others last longer, the most extensive set of all being WoO 65 on an aria by Vincenzo Righini – that set goes on for more than 23 minutes. All these variations are superficial and deserve to be called salon or parlor music, but all of them have points of interest that provide insight into Beethoven as a young, up-and-coming pianist, and it is a pleasure simply to hear so much little-known Beethoven in performances as fine as these. It is also a pleasure to hear these works performed on correct instruments – not on a modern concert grand piano but on fortepianos from the late 18th and early 19th centuries (or reproductions of the original instruments). Commellato’s choice of specific instruments for particular works is a personal one, and it is always well-considered. There are five different fortepianos heard here, each with its own unique sound, with the earliest having very distinctly harpsichord-like characteristics and the latest (dating to 1823) beginning to possess some of the range and tone of the more-familiar instruments created later in the 19th century. All in all, this is a fascinating foray into less-known Beethoven and into a form that the composer used in his piano music throughout his life, right through to the second and concluding movement of his final piano sonata. These early variations show Beethoven in learning-and-display mode, and are a wonderful way to hear just how far Beethoven advanced piano music in general, and the variation form in particular, as his compositional prowess developed over time.
Frank Ticheli: Clarinet Concerto; Brad Warnaar: Horn Concerto; Behzad Ranjbaran: Flute Concerto. James Zimmermann, clarinet; Leslie Norton, horn; Érik Gratton, flute; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.
Timothy Lee Miller: Sebastian’s Day Off; Ruby in the Rough; Dear Della Mae; Inky & Marie; Stellee & Jack; Boo’s Bolero; Poochie’s Waltz; Something More. Ansonica. $14.99.
Alejandro Rutty: Exhaling Space; Transparent Sun; As You Say; Martian Milonga; More Music for Examining and Buying Merchandise; Guitars; Cantabile Hop; Qualia. Navona. $14.99.
It was Mozart who first established a significant degree of independence for wind instruments in a larger ensemble, picking up on some moves in that direction by Haydn. Centuries later, it was jazz that placed wind instruments – certain ones, anyway – in the forefront of mixed instrumental groups. Today, composers often draw on both the classical tradition and the jazz world in creating works in which winds are highly prominent, even front-and-center, but remain within the context of instruments of other types. Some contemporary composers do this with a conscious nod to the past. Frank Ticheli (born 1958) quite overtly ties the first movement of his Clarinet Concerto (2010) to Gershwin, calling the movement “Rhapsody for George” and quoting Gershwin’s own famous clarinet solo at the start – then moving onward from it into a distinctly jazzy, highly syncopated movement that is speedy and high-spirited. The second and third movements of Ticheli’s work also look backward: “Song for Aaron” is distinctly Coplandesque, while the concluding “Riffs for Lenny” focuses on the multifaceted Leonard Bernstein through additional jazz-inflected music that merges underlying seriousness with bright, dancelike elements. Brad Warnaar (born 1950) looks to the past as well in his Horn Concerto (2015) – specifically, in the final movement, which is the work’s cleverest and most interesting. Here Warnaar takes the soloist-vs.-orchestra concept to an amusing level by having the ensemble quoting horn works by Brahms and Mozart, the soloist responding with quotations from Richard Strauss, and everyone eventually reconciling for a happy ending. This concerto is interestingly constructed from a technical standpoint, using only the piano’s white keys (the diatonic scale) for its notes; but it is a bit too intricate for its own good, introducing “bell” motifs as place markers, pushing the horn to the extremes of its range, and having a generally disjointed feeling. In contrast, Iranian native Behzad Ranjbaran (born 1955) looks for a Persian feeling in his Flute Concerto (2013), seeking sensuousness and warmth through a three-movement work in which 21 of the 27 minutes are slow. The piece does not actually sound especially “Persian” or otherwise exotic, and although there is lyricism and even poetry here, there is rather too much of both, with the result that the bright and distinctly bouncy finale comes across as a real relief. The three wind soloists heard on the CD are Nashville Symphony principals, and the orchestra backs them up in very fine style under principal conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. No music here really breaks new ground, but all the works have elements that players of the solo instruments – and listeners who enjoy those instruments’ sounds – will appreciate.
The eight works on an Ansonica CD of the music of Timothy Lee Miller, although written for a variety of different instruments, all share a focus on winds and a very strong jazz orientation. They also share important personal elements, being based on people and events in the composer’s life – an arrangement that gives them highly personal meaning for him and those who know him, but that requires listeners unacquainted with Miller to do some homework if they are to understand what he is trying to evoke in the various pieces. Several of the works memorialize specific individuals: Miller’s Aunt Ruby (Ruby in the Rough), his Aunt Della Mae (Dear Della Mae), his Aunt Marie and her dog (Inky & Marie), his Aunt Estelle and the stories she told (Stellee & Jack), and his Aunt Mary Lou and her nickname (Boo’s Bolero). The other pieces are tributes to people still living, including Miller’s son (Sebastian’s Day Off), his mother (Poochie’s Waltz), and his wife (Something More). So the CD as a whole is a musical family album – an attractive concept that is of necessity highly personal, which means it is rather insular: nothing in any of this music reaches out in any especially distinctive way to people who are not Miller’s family members or close friends. That does not mean the music is poorly constructed, because it is not: the quick shifts in Sebastian’s Day Off, the unusual 13-8 meter of Dear Della Mae, the gentleness of three-quarter time in Poochie’s Waltz, and various other elements of these works are effective and involving. And the various blendings of saxophones (at least one in every work) with instruments including trumpet, trombone, guitar, piano, bass and drums are nicely managed. However, in the absence of familiarity with the individuals for or about whom the works were written, a listener ends up with a feeling of comparative sameness of sound from one piece to the next, rather than a sense that a specific work here somehow limns a particular personality.
The type of music written by Alejandro Rutty and heard on a new Navona CD is far more varied, and so are the instruments Rutty uses. Not all his works here include winds, and indeed not all include traditional acoustic instruments: More Music for Examining and Buying Merchandise is for soprano saxophone, yes, but also for electronics, while Guitars is for two clarinets and electronics and conflates the acoustic instruments with those of the work’s title, to rather odd effect. Rutty does not always go for the obvious: Exhaling Space deals with celestial bodies but uses a string quartet rather than the electronics commonly employed in “space music,” and although Martian Milonga – an imaginary “future of tango” work – does include electric bass and does have some of the feelings of electronic music, it is really a blend of tango with world music and rock. The four other works here are Transparent Sun, for violin and piano; As You Say, for two violins and soprano saxophone; Cantabile Hop, for piano, viola, bass (played by Rutty), percussion and electronics; and Qualia, a solo-piano work and another piece performed by Rutty himself. Rutty’s stylistic variety can be jarring – he packs a great deal into a short time – and although his work is mainly jazz-permeated, it also has elements of Latin music (tango and otherwise), straightforward electronica, and some classical elements (albeit often stretched almost into unrecognizability). Rutty does tend to let his own cleverness run away with itself from time to time, and several tracks on the disc are less interesting to hear than their titles and instrumentation would indicate. But the sheer variety of material on the disc means that many listeners who enjoy contemporary music will find at least a few pieces here worth hearing, and may even enjoy choosing works based partly on whether their focus is winds, strings, percussion, electronics or some combination of these instruments and their varied sounds.
March 08, 2018
Truck Full of Ducks. By Ross Burach. Scholastic. $17.99.
Ranger Rick: I Wish I Was a Gorilla. By Jennifer Bové. Harper. $16.99.
Ross Burach has a seriously skewed sense of humor, and it is in full flower, or maybe full feather, in Truck Full of Ducks. The concept itself is ridiculous, and the cover illustration – showing a baseball-cap-wearing dog driving a truck in the back of which 11 very different-looking and very strange-looking ducks are cavorting – certainly sets the scene. The back cover takes things a step (or flutter) further: it is a roadside billboard for the duck-delivery company, promising to deliver ducks anytime and anywhere and sporting the motto, “Look for the truck with the quack in the back!” And those are just the book’s covers. There is lots more ridiculousness inside. The inside front cover shows the ducks getting ready for a day’s work: they have storage lockers and benches to sit on and lunchboxes and pizza to nibble and a newspaper to read (front-page headline: “Stuff Happened”) and a Bladder Buster drink featuring two swirly straws and a coffee mug saying “Is It Friday Yet?” And there are motivational/advertising posters on the walls, one of which announces, “Voted 3rd Fastest Duck Delivery Service in Town,” which is sure to make kids wonder who came in first and second. And we are not even up to the book’s title page! Eventually the story starts with the dog boss taking an order on his duck-shaped phone (amid much other duck décor) and heading the duck truck out onto a street where a sign pointing left says “this way” and one pointing right says “that way” and a yellow describe-the-road sign shows the road ahead twisted into spaghetti, only with more curlicues. One of the ducks then eats the directions, and now there is real trouble – and a great plot, as dog and ducks try to figure out who placed the order. It is not the little girl: she called for a mail truck to take her boxed-up little brother “very far away.” It is not the construction worker: he wanted a dump truck, and the one that shows up says “Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Haul” on its side. It is not the shark, pig and crab, three buddies who called for an ice cream truck – but that’s just fine with the duck truck, since the ducks on the truck quickly tuck into iced treats of all sorts. Everything would be just ducky if the boss dog could figure out who called for the truck – no, not the pirate, and not the alien, and not the man who has had more than enough of ducks and called for a duck removal truck. Eventually, very eventually, the mystery is solved, with a visit to the address of 1 Scary Way in the Deep Dark Woods – a place that the ducks enter with shivers, as one of them puts the finishing touches on his last will and testament. But everything turns out just fine – Burach would not have it any other way – and the ducks eventually head back to the office, along the way passing a “Van Full of Toucans.” And that is merely the end of the main story – there is still more amusement on the inside back cover. Burach has the mind of a six-year-old, more or less, or at least the ability to channel one – and Truck Full of Ducks will delight kids on both sides of that approximate age, say from ages four to eight. Oh – and it will also delight adults who, like Burach himself, obstinately refuse to stay grown up.
The writing is simpler and more direct in another book for the four-to-eight age range, Ranger Rick: I Wish I Was a Gorilla. But the message here is far more down-to-earth and entirely factual. This is a Level 1 book (“simple sentences for eager new readers”) in the “I Can Read!” series. It is also a book with an intriguing premise: Jennifer Bové asks kids to imagine what it would be like to be a gorilla. She then writes as if the wish has come true, explaining where and how gorillas live, what they eat, and how they behave. Photos of gorillas in the wild are the main visual element here, with occasional questions from Ranger Rick, the National Wildlife Federation’s cartoon raccoon. For instance, Bové explains that gorillas live in rainforests, where “the weather is often cloudy with lots of rainy days,” and the raccoon asks, “Do you play outside on rainy days?” Questions like this help focus young readers’ attention on differences between humans and gorillas. But there are also plenty of similarities, which Bové’s text and the photos highlight. Mother gorillas kiss and cuddle their babies; baby gorillas like to play – they run around and climb trees; young gorillas engage in wrestling and chasing games with their friends; and so on. There is information here on gorilla language – that is, the meanings of several sounds gorillas make – and gorilla food, including “leaves and stems” of plants, “roots and fruits,” and sometimes insects. And here Ranger Rick asks, “If you ate like a gorilla, what food would you miss?” The combination of interesting photos with simple but accurate textual description and occasional questions makes this book a very good first look at the world’s largest primates. And there is additional information at the end, including a place to go online to learn more about gorillas. There is also an amusing recipe for humans that is called “Ants on a Stick” but that is somewhat different from the ants on a stick that gorillas really eat: for humans, the idea is to take sticks, or rather stalks, of celery…coat them with cream cheese or peanut butter…and then stick raisins to the coated areas “so that they look like ants crawling along a stem.” Add a little gorilla language, and kids can imagine, if only for a moment or two, that any wish they had to become gorillas has temporarily come true.