August 17, 2017

(++++) OLD FUN IN NEW PACKAGES


Sheep in a Shop. By Nancy Shaw. Illustrated by Margot Apple. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Mouse Shapes. By Ellen Stoll Walsh. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     Books that were fun in their original incarnations have a tendency to re-emerge years later, sometimes many years later, in new bindings, new sizes and new forms – and that can be a very good thing for families that may have missed the stories the first time or may now have additional children who will enjoy much-loved tales. Sheep in a Shop dates all the way back to 1991, but Nancy Shaw’s rhyming narration has lost none of its zip, and Margot Apple’s illustrations are as cuddly and amusing as always. That means the new edition, in board-book form, will be gently but thoroughly amusing to a whole new generation of young children. The story has five of the sheep birthday-present shopping in a store with a pig proprietor. The fun here involves all the different things the sheep find in this old-fashioned general store – and the way they look when interacting with all the items. For instance, Shaw writes, “Sheep find rackets. Sheep find rockets./ Sheep find jackets full of pockets.” And Apple shows one sheep standing on its back legs, about to practice a tennis serve; another carefully examining a toy rocket on the shop’s floor; and a third wearing a long jacket festooned with multiple pockets containing everything from a piece of paper to a curious mouse. Eventually the sheep decide on the perfect gift, but not one that is easy for them to get: “Sheep decide to buy a beach ball./ Sheep prefer an out-of-reach ball.” Chaos ensues, and the store turns into a big mess; but the sheep clean everything up – and then discover that they do not have enough money to buy the gift. What to do? “What can they swap to pay the shop?” Well, they are sheep, after all, and a little bit of neat shearing later, the sheep offer the shopkeeper three bags of fluffy white wool, which he gladly accepts in trade – and all the sheep head happily home for the sixth sheep’s birthday party. Simply plotted, nicely told and neatly illustrated, Sheep in a Shop is every bit as enjoyable today as it was when originally published.

     Ellen Stoll Walsh’s Mouse Shapes is a more-recent book, originally dating to 2001, and it too has lost none of its charm in its new, small-size softcover binding. Much of the attraction of Walsh’s books about these mice comes from her use of cut-paper collage to form the mice themselves and the objects with which they interact. In Mouse Shapes, the three mice (Violet, Martin and Fred) are fleeing from a cat when they find a hiding place consisting of jumbled-together shapes. As soon as they are sure the cat is gone, they start making things from the shapes – and the very softly delivered educational message of the book begins, as Violet makes a house by putting a triangle on a square, while Martin finds a yellow circle to represent the sun and makes a tree with a small rectangle for a trunk and a large triangle representing branches and leaves. As for Fred, he puts two circles on the lower part of a long rectangle to make a wagon. Ovals, diamonds and more are used to make all sorts of things – even, eventually, the face of the cat, complete with pointy triangles for teeth. But suddenly the real cat comes back – and the mice run off. The end? No – they come back to the shapes when it is safe, and Fred has an idea: they use the shapes to make “three big scary mice” that frighten the cat away the next time it comes near. Like Mouse Paint and Mouse Count, Walsh’s other books about these mice, Mouse Shapes is fun to read and fun to look at – and very involving in its cleverness and simplicity, so that young children who read the book (or have it read to them) and watch the shapes closely will likely be encouraged to use shapes to make objects on their own. Maybe they will even make up their own shape stories – an outcome that would be as delightful today as when Mouse Shapes first appeared in book form.

(++++) MAGIC SCHOOL STUFF


Let’s Investigate with Nate #1: The Water Cycle. By Nate Ball. Illustrated by Wes Hargis. Harper. $17.99 (hardcover); $6.99 (paperback).

Let’s Investigate with Nate #2: The Solar System. By Nate Ball. Illustrated by Wes Hargis. Harper. $17.99 (hardcover); $6.99 (paperback).

     Lest anyone wonder whether the new Let’s Investigate with Nate series is a tribute to the long-running multimedia phenomenon The Magic School Bus, consider this: the very first Magic School Bus book (published in 1986) was At the Waterworks, and the very first Let’s Investigate with Nate book is The Water Cycle. The second Let’s Investigate with Nate book, The Solar System, also recalls a Magic School Bus volume (from 1990) called Lost in the Solar System. Of course, it makes sense to cover both the water cycle and astronomy in any science-book series for kids (Let’s Investigate with Nate is intended for ages 4-8), but it is worth remembering that the material presented by Nate Ball and illustrated by Wes Hargis has been offered to young readers in entertaining-and-informative form before.

     Actually, Let’s Investigate with Nate is more serious than The Magic School Bus, although the new series specifically opens by noting that “something magical happens” when four suitably diverse kids (Braden, Felix, Rosa and Wendy) show up at the Science Museum before the official 10:00 a.m. opening time so they can have hour-long adventures under the supervision of “daredevil scientist Nate Ball.” Nate gives the kids tickets containing questions they need to answer by investigating phenomena, since “science is all about exploration.” Several pages of each book give the time, between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., not very usefully but apparently so readers know how the kids’ in-book adventure is proceeding. The first book includes talking molecules of oxygen, nitrogen and water, with definitions and other explanations contained in “Braden’s journal” (Braden is more or less the group’s nerd and chronicler). In addition to the straightforward science, there is some very mild verbal byplay, as when the kids and Nate are floating in the sky with their bug-eyed molecular companions: “How come we aren’t all falling down to the earth?” “We’re super-small right now – as small as a water molecule. The air underneath us is acting like a cushion!” Some of the material here seems directed at the very youngest kids in the books’ target age range: “When rain falls from the sky to the earth, it often forms puddles.” Other facts seem written for slightly older readers: “An estuary is the area where a river flows into the ocean. …[W]hen the tide comes in, the estuary flows backward!” And some of the explanations are clever but a trifle far-fetched: “When [molecules] freeze, they don’t wiggle so much. That’s how they’re able to hold hands.” (Not much later, in a section on water soaking into the earth, one molecule says, “It’s time to get our hands dirty!” And another says, “But we don’t have hands!”) But despite some shortcomings in expression, the basic science here is sound and well-presented. And each book ends with an easy-to-do experiment. The Water Cycle concludes with “Make Your Own Cloud,” starting by explaining the scientific method and then showing how to use it to make observations and then form hypotheses based on them. The experiment itself is easy to do and clever designed, starting with a note that kids who do it need, first of all, “an adult (important!)” – since boiling or near-boiling water and a book of matches are among the other requirements. “What other things do you wonder about the world?” asks Nate at the book’s end. That will be the watchword as the series continues.

     The second Let’s Investigate with Nate book follows the same approach as the first. Here the kids expect to be “magically flying across the solar system,” and are initially disappointed to find themselves in “the regular old Hall of Space.” But soon (at 9:08 a.m., to be specific) they are heading out for an encounter with Pluto, learning on the way (again largely through Braden’s journal) about gravity, mass, satellites, orbits, the Milky Way and more. A helpful satellite discusses astronomical measurement as Nate explains that even though weightlessness feels like floating, “you’re falling” because “orbiting is just a special way of falling.” It is in their discussion with the planet Mars that the kids learn about the aspect of defining “planet” that has led to the demotion of Pluto from that designation: “An object has to CLEAR ITS NEIGHBORHOOD of other objects in order to be a planet.” There are some fairly complex terms defined here, such as “hydrostatic equilibrium” (having enough mass to assume a nearly round shape), during the trip by the kids and Nate to Pluto – which they realize is not a planet under a definition that was revised in 2006: “Facts never change, but definitions do. …In 2006, something changed, but it wasn’t the facts, and it wasn’t Pluto. It was just the definition of what it means to share your orbit with other objects.” The Solar System is a somewhat more technical book than The Water Cycle, and has lots of numbers as well as a plethora of facts; but kids who decide they like the characters in the first book will enjoy the second as well. They will also enjoy the space-oriented experiment at the end of The Solar System, which involves making a small-scale gravity slingshot (whose principle is the same as the one used to get spacecraft going fast enough to travel huge distances). However, in both these books, Nate is no Miss Frizzle: unlike the driver of The Magic School Bus, Nate is rather colorless and lacks any endearing quirks. This is presumably not true of the real Nate Ball, who has been host of two PBS educational programs; but neither Nate-as-writer nor Nate-as-character comes across as much more than a generic genial host in the first two Let’s Investigate with Nate books. Still, the mixture of solid science and some attractive visualizations will make these books enjoyable for families with kids in the target age range – and likely also for classrooms from kindergarten through second grade.

(++++) FUNNY BAD AND EVIL BAD


The Bad Guys #4: Attack of the Zittens. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.

Shadow House #3: No Way Out. By Dan Poblocki. Scholastic. $12.99.

     The fourth entry in Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys series of comic-strip books (not to be confused with graphic novels) picks up right where the third left off and continues until the start of the still-to-come fifth book. Clearly Blabey has hit his stride with this story of bad-reputation characters now gone good – and their evil nemesis, the adorable but deranged guinea-pig billionaire Dr. Rupert Marmalade. Actually, Blabey continues expanding the cast of The Bad Guys in Attack of the Zittens. The original group included Mr. Wolf, Mr. Shark, Mr. Snake and Mr. Piranha. Then he added Legs, a tarantula. And then Agent Fox, on whom Mr. Wolf has a crush because she is, well, foxy. And now, in the fourth book, there is Granny Gumbo, on whom no one has a crush because she is more likely to be the crusher than the crushee: she is an alligator, a very toothy one who has a habit of losing her teeth (she sneezes them out when she gets a whiff of Mr. Wolf, because she is “allergic to mutt-dogs”). Agent Fox introduces the Bad Guys to Granny Gumbo, because Granny is preparing an antidote for the plague of zittens visited upon the world by Marmalade. These are not actually dead kittens revived but simply kittens that look like zombified kitties and have a habit of chewing anything they can attach themselves to (notably Mr. Wolf). Granny Gumbo’s antidote will de-zombify the zittens back into cute and cuddly kitties, and all will be well, but she needs some snake venom for a final ingredient; luckily, one of the Bad Guys is Mr. Snake, who provides the venom (not willingly). Meanwhile, back at Agent Fox’s airplane, which for the time being is being piloted by Legs, Mr. Shark and Mr. Piranha are headed for the island where Marmalade is hiding, with Mr. Shark wearing one of his “perfect” disguises (a beak that is supposed to make him look like a dolphin) and carrying Mr. Piranha in a fishbowl because Mr. Piranha is a freshwater fish and cannot swim in the ocean (although, as Mr. Snake points out before things really get going here, “a little salt in your gills” does not seem like much when Mr. Piranha and Mr. Shark both spend most of their time in these books walking around on land). Absurdity piles on absurdity here, as in the three earlier books – for instance, Mr. Wolf, who is absolutely determined not to be big and bad, insists on creating a “cowcatcher” of cushions and pillows in front of Granny Gumbo’s truck so no zittens will be injured “as we plough through them at high speed.” This leads Mr. Snake to remark, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” but then, he has not heard everything yet. Oh yes, there is still more to hear here (and see here), including the use of Mr. Snake as a slingshot/catapult to toss balls of antidote-soaked yarn to the milling zittens – and the reappearance of Marmalade with a “cute-zilla ray” that will change “every cute and cuddly creature on the planet into a drooling weapon of DESTRUCTION!” And that sets the stage for the next book in the series, which is going to be out of this world. Not as to quality or plotting, just as to setting: its focus will be the moon, from which the cute-zilla ray is being beamed. Stay tuned (and readers who are thoroughly enjoying The Bad Guys certainly will).

     “Enjoying” is not exactly what readers do with Dan Poblocki’s Shadow House trilogy, although those who like being scared – somewhat scared, anyway – will be pleased with the third and last entry, No Way Out. This (+++) book is strictly for those who read the first two in the series, The Gathering and You Can’t Hide. Four largely interchangeable characters – Azumi, Dash, Dylan and Poppy – continue to be victimized here by someone or something that lured them to the house and has trapped them in it. Actually, they do manage to get out in this book, but initially only as far as the grounds of Larkspur House, which turn out to have frights, ghosts and traps of their own. The best elements here, “best” meaning “creepiest,” are the same as in the first two books: the cover, which is very cleverly designed and genuinely scary, and the illustrations, which neatly call on a variety of common fears (the portrait of three clowns near the start of No Way Out is especially eerie). The writing, unfortunately, is nowhere close to the quality of the visuals. “Last time something in the house asked us to play, the Specials showed up and tried to kill us.” (To understand the Specials, readers have to know the earlier books.) “It was a horror to imagine that he’d lose it over something as simple as a carnival tent. But then nothing here was simple.” “He couldn’t shake the feeling that this room, the game, and the prizes might all be a trick.” “They poured toward him – a smoky liquid made of shivering hands and teeth and hair.” “What if it’s all a distraction? What if they’re working with the house to confuse us?” And so on, and so forth. Shadow House is all about working together, along the lines of many, many series for preteens, and it is also about trust and uncertainty and losing friends and regaining them: “Could they trust each other again? Listening to the tinkling of the music box, he suddenly felt like they might.” Characters die in the series, or at least disappear, but they tend to come back after a while as it turns out they are not really dead and gone forever. What Poblocki wants to do here is make things scary enough to keep readers wondering what will happen next – but not as frightening as events would be in books for older readers, for whom horror often involves gore, true terror, and genuine no-coming-back death of protagonists (or at least of less-central characters). The result of Poblocki’s approach is sometimes unintentionally funny, as in this snippet of dialogue: “‘After all this, I’m not going to die in a flipping fire!’ ‘You’d rather be eaten by a giant monster?’” But no humor is intended. Most of the time, what goes on here is predictable – not the specifics, but Poblocki’s authorial hand telling readers that there is about to be another bad thing happening to the characters: “The door swung open and everything changed.” Eventually, and not at all surprisingly, the kids escape, the house is destroyed, and the characters remember that “each of them had been called to Larkspur because of their connection with the dead” but that now “that connection had been severed” and they can get on with their lives. This is not much of a conclusion and is no revelation at all, and no character really grows in any significant way in the Shadow House series. But growth and character development are not the point here: Poblocki seeks only a good-size helping of entertainment-through-terror (or at least through modest scariness), and that is just what he delivers in No Way Out as he finally gives readers, after three books, a way out.

(+++) PUNCHED OR PUNKED?


The Punch Escrow. By Tal M. Klein. Inkshares. $14.99.

     Everyone wants to be the next William Gibson, write the next Neuromancer, and start the next cyberpunk craze. Well, maybe not everyone, but plenty of authors do seem to harbor this fantasy. Add Tal M. Klein to the list. The Punch Escrow is too clever by half, too sure of its own cleverness, too self-referential, too futuristic-but-with-nods-to-now, to be fully effective, but its snarky narration and cinematic pacing are supposed to add up to a book too gripping to put down. Unfortunately the sum does not tally, but it is fun watching what works and what doesn’t, riding along the roller coaster for the ups and downs and ignoring the stretches of straightaway.

     Take that title, which is overly clever by half, or rather by two-thirds (only “The” isn’t pushing it). Here the word “Punch” refers to 17th-century theologian John Punch (also known as John Ponce or Johannes Poncius), now remembered primarily for stating Ockham’s Razor in a form that remains extant today (albeit without attributing it to William of Ockham). The phrase itself is usually paraphrased as something along the lines of “simple explanations trump complex ones,” and that is a lot of freight for a single word of a book’s title to carry. And there is more: “Escrow” here carries its common (well, reasonably common) meaning of something held by a third party (that is, in escrow) pending fulfillment of a particular promise or event. Oh yes, there is a lot in that title.

     What is promised in The Punch Escrow is teleportation. But teleportation is immensely complicated and really, in Klein’s novel, impossible in the form in which readers typically think of it. Something simpler can accomplish the same thing; hence the reference to Punch and thus to Ockham. Simply store a copy of a person (hold it in escrow, see?), and re-create the person at whatever location he or she wants to visit – using nanobots to destroy the original (or, more accurately, previous) person. What could possibly go wrong?

     The answer, of course, is “one heck of a lot.” The book is narrated by Joel Byram, who in the year 2147 has a job teaching AIs to behave in more-human ways. It’s a living, but not an especially lucrative one – most of the money comes from his wife, Sylvia, a high-ranking scientist at International Transport, the company that controls teleportation and is in effect a nation unto itself (one of many unoriginal ideas offered by Klein as if they are original). Joel and Sylvia have been having a tough time in their marriage and decide to try to rekindle things with a little anniversary getaway, but after Sylvia teleports to Costa Rica, a terrorist attack (another unoriginal notion) stops Joel dead in his tracks. Or at least seems to stop him dead – that is the linchpin of the novel. Believing Joel gone forever, Sylvia gets his duplicate out of escrow and re-creates him; but now there are two Joels, and that is never, ever, ever supposed to happen. Soon Sylvia and Joel are in deep doo-doo, not only with International Transport (“IT,” get it?) but also with the folks behind the anti-IT terrorism.

     Joel-as-narrator is far too deeply in love with his own cleverness, which he displays through a lengthy series of footnotes intended to explain his society without bogging down the chase-and-escape routine in anything as dull as, you know, narrative exposition. But Klein does not make Joel nearly as clever as he thinks he makes Joel. One reason is the multiple references to modern (that is, real-world-21st-century) technology and information security: they are cute for the “in” crowd of presumed readers but, really, would have been hopelessly outdated by the year in which The Punch Escrow takes place. Another reason is that Klein’s version of giving Joel a personality involves having him dredge up silly 20th-century pop-culture references, which are real groaners. Stuck in a room at one point, conversing with the ever-present AI, Joel sees a way out because “the poor app was so starved for attention, I almost felt bad for it.” So he asks its name and is duly told it “has not taken on a name yet” but is contemplating choosing one that starts with the letter T. This is a pathetically obvious plot-device setup, and Klein uses it in a pathetically obvious way, having Joel think, “I pity the fool” and then address the room as “Mr. T.” Everyone get that reference to The A-Team? Anybody find it funny? Anybody care? Readers had better care, because this sort of thing is about all the personality development that Klein provides where Joel is concerned. And it is more than he offers for Sylvia or anyone else.

     The speedy pacing and sarcastic tone of The Punch Escrow make a lot of it fun to read – and a lot of it tiresome. Readers’ enjoyment of the book will depend on how much they like the predictable-but-still-exciting plotting and to what extent they find the genuinely witty moments worth waiting for (and the non-witty ones worth wading through: this is a book that includes a dog named Peeve – “pet Peeve,” get it?). Klein’s sort-of-SF, sort-of-thriller format is not really the harbinger of any new genre: it is a somewhat creaky mashup of existing ones. There is enough fun in The Punch Escrow so at least some readers will be glad to read the end-of-book setup for a sequel, but others will just be glad that it is the end of the book.

(++++) HANDLING THE ORCHESTRA


Beethoven: Violin Concerto; Triple Concerto; Romances Nos. 1 and 2. Thomas Albertus Irnberger, violin; David Geringas, cello; Michael Korstick, piano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Judd. Gramola. $34.99 (2 SACDs).

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Predrag Gosta. Edition Lilac. $16.99.

John Robertson: Vallarta Suite; Strut In – a March; Symphony No. 2. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $14.99.

John A. Carollo: The Rhetoric and Mythos of Belief; The Transfiguration of Giovanni Baudino; Let Freedom Ring; Do You Have an E.R. for Music?; Symphony No. 2, “The Circle of Fire”; Move Towards the Light (Your Destiny Awaits You). Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.

     Understandably, it is Beethoven’s treatment of solo instruments that gets the most attention when considering his concertos. But it is worthwhile to think as well about how he uses the orchestra in these works – often quite differently from the way he uses it in his symphonies. This is quite apparent in the Violin Concerto, whose first-movement beginning was something genuinely innovative: five soft opening timpani beats. These heralded an entirely new way of looking at the orchestra in a concerto context, with the timpani setting the mood of the work as well as its rhythmic pulse. Beethoven was clearly aware of the importance of what he did here: in the piano version of the concerto, the first-movement cadenza again gives the timpani a major role, playing their percussive sounds against those of the soloist. Throughout the better-known violin version of Op. 61 (the piano version is Op. 61b), Beethoven weaves the solo violin into and out of the tutti in a way that produces considerable lyricism and a sense of cooperation quite different from the often stormy relationship between piano and orchestra in his five concertos originally written for piano. Thomas Albertus Irnberger brings out the lyrical elements of the concerto particularly well in a new Gramola recording, and James Judd is highly sensitive to them as well, leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at a stately pace that allows the music to unfold with warmth and beauty – and in partnership with Irnberger’s solos rather than deference to them. An interesting result of this collaboration is that the two Romances, heard on the disc after the concerto, genuinely sound like studies for the  longer work: their limited scope in both time and mood comes across as a kind of planning phase for the much more extended lyrical flow that will later be brought to bear in the concerto. This is analytical hindsight, of course, but the fact is that Irnberger and Judd invite it through a sensitive treatment of the Romances that parallels their handling of the concerto especially well. This two-SACD set also includes the Triple Concerto, and here too lyricism dominates the performance: Irnberger’s partners, cellist David Geringas and pianist Michael Korstick, fully adhere to the violinist’s fluidity and expressiveness, with the intriguing result that the concerto comes across as an updated version of the Baroque concerto grosso – that is, Irnberger, Geringas and Korstick function as concertino, with Judd and the orchestra taking on the role of ripieno. There is an overall delicacy to the interpretation here that gives the Triple Concerto a more chamber-music-like sound than it usually possesses, although there is plenty of power when needed both in the individually highlighted instruments and in the orchestra. Beethoven’s orchestral prowess is evident throughout this release, despite the fact that the music inevitably draws attention to the solo instruments.

     Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 for solo piano, not orchestra, so when performances use the most-common orchestral version of the work – that of Ravel, created in 1922 – any insight into orchestration is a focus on the later composer and a much later musical time period. The best performances of Pictures for orchestra handle the Ravel elements as integral to the score, almost as if the orchestrator had himself been the composer (Ravel did in fact make some changes in Mussorgsky’s original). There have been other orchestrations of Pictures, and some are quite good, but Ravel’s has such attractive instrumental colors and offers such neat instrumental contrasts between sections that it is easy to see why it remains conductors’ favorite. However, it does better with a more-propulsive performance than the one from 2012 featuring the London Symphony Orchestra under Predrag Gosta, newly released on the Edition Lilac label. Gosta belabors matters too much and too often: the opening “Promenade,” for example, seems less a stroll at an art exhibit than a rather reluctant agreement to have a look at some paintings that one is not especially eager to see. The interest level of individual sections of Pictures varies rather widely here, with “Gnomus” making a good impression but the other best parts toward the middle, including “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” and “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.” The two catacomb scenes, however, are less than eerie, “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” lacks the requisite fairy-tale fright, and the concluding “The Great Gate at Kiev,” for which a fairly slow pace can be highly effective, never attains sufficient grandeur to produce a proper peroration based on the initial “Promenade” theme. The performance is all right, a (+++) rendition, but there is nothing special about it. Nor is there anything exceptional about Gosta’s handling of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, aside from the pairing of these two works – which are rarely heard together, but which provide some fascinating insights into the different ways Ravel and Rachmaninoff handled orchestral forces. Gosta’s preference for fairly slow tempos would seem a fine match for the first Rachmaninoff dance, with its unusual tempo marking of Non allegro, but while the speed here is fine, the pounding drama of the dance – the sense that something bizarre, even monstrous, is dancing – is wholly missing. Rachmaninoff’s orchestration calls attention to the grotesqueries of all the dances in this, his final work, but Gosta does not follow through on what the composer indicates. There is no rhythmic “swing” to the Tempo di valse, and while the third dance is the most effective of the three – its many tempo changes handled very well – the Dies Irae of which Rachmaninoff was so enamored barely makes an impression here, and the quotation from All-Night Vigil is also underplayed. The London Symphony plays well for Gosta, and he offers some interesting balance among orchestral sections and some welcome attention to inner voices. But the unique qualities brought to orchestral composition by both Ravel and Rachmaninoff never really come through in this recording – instead, listeners get a kind of homogenized sound.

     Through the later 20th century and into the 21st, composers have continued to experiment with orchestral sound and sought ways to put their particular stamp on it – as is shown in two Navona recordings of second symphonies by composers of today, John Robertson and John A. Carollo. Robertson opts for a very big sound in his Symphony No. 2, with sumptuous instrumentation and a strong percussion component; he also makes the work deliberately look back to harmonic and rhythmic times past, to the point of concluding the three-movement piece with a passacaglia. That type of movement was a favorite of Shostakovich, but Robertson’s sensibilities are far more straightforward than those of the Russian master: the first movement here has a bright, upbeat quality that is immensely refreshing for a time (given how dour a great deal of contemporary music sounds), but that after a while sounds like much ado about not very much. The second movement is a pleasant, nicely flowing Andante without much depth, while the finale has some of the disconnected feeling of later Shostakovich, and some of his instrumental touches as well, but without any real sense of irony or uncertainty. There is nothing disturbing in Robertson’s Symphony No. 2, and that makes the work pleasant to hear; but there is nothing especially notable about its musical ideas, either. The other two works on this (+++) CD seem more congenial in terms of Robertson’s ethos. The march called Strut In has a kind of Elgarian forthrightness that goes well with the considerable percussion involvement that is characteristic of Robertson’s handling of the orchestra; the march even contains a broad, somewhat Elgarian string theme that, however, never flowers fully. At more than seven minutes, it is also a bit long. The most colorful work here is the four-movement Vallarta Suite, a musical picture of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It opens with the suitably upbeat El Malecon, referring to a popular boardwalk area; continues with Las Ballenas (The Whales), which flows pleasantly but has no particular grandeur and rather too many cymbal clashes; then offers Excursion para hacer compras (Shopping Trip), the most successful of the four movements, whose rhythms nicely convey the impression of a playful and meandering stroll through a shopping district; and concludes with La Noche en la Zona Romantica (Night in the Romantic Zone), which brings woodwinds rather than percussion to the fore and is suitably nocturnal if never especially romantic. Robertson handles the orchestral forces skillfully, and all the works are very well performed by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Armoré. This is an enjoyable CD, if scarcely a profound one.

     Carollo’s works certainly seem to seek profundity, at least based on their titles. And Carollo’s use of the orchestra is more varied from work to work than is Robertson’s – and, once again, all the music gets very fine performances (in this case from the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský). Carollo’s sometimes self-referential titles do not necessarily make it easier to understand what he is trying to say musically. Thus, the first movement of his Symphony No. 2 – within the work’s overall title of “The Circle of Fire” – is labeled “A Recording Is the Antithesis of His Aesthetic.” This is clever, perhaps, but is it meaningful? And how does the rather disjointed movement reflect the title, or become reflected in it? The symphony’s second movement is “Line and Polyphony,” and this at least is a clearly musical reference, but here the movement itself is a rather too-elaborate explication of the words. The symphony concludes with “The Rein Which Resists Allegory Run Riot,” and now we are well into pretentiousness, with an apparent wish for profundity that comes across as trying too hard verbally and not really connecting in any meaningful way musically: the movement is a concatenation of largely disconnected mini-sections. More-modestly orchestrated and more directly communicative than the symphony is an extended five-movement suite, actually lengthier than the symphony, called The Rhetoric and Mythos of Belief. Written for strings and bringing forth, in particular, the sound of the lower ones, this work has a pleasant mellowness that never quite reaches any emotional or philosophical depth – its gestures are on the obvious side – but that is effectively expressive and shows Carollo as a skillful manipulator of string textures. The remaining pieces on this (+++) CD are shorter. The Transfiguration of Giovanni Baudino most thoroughly showcases Carollo’s interests in orchestration, as various themes and fragments skitter through all the sections of the orchestra. Let Freedom Ring, the second-shortest work on the disc at six-and-a-half minutes, nevertheless seems to ramble in a disjointed way. Another work whose title is cleverer than its sound or intended meaning is Do You Have an E.R. for Music? Percussion is in the forefront here, in a work that has some interesting sounds but seems directionless and inconclusive. The disc concludes with yet another piece in which more effort seems to have been lavished on the title than on the music: Move Towards the Light (Your Destiny Awaits You). Its rather Ivesian beginning has promise, but instead of building toward anything, the piece mostly settles into quiet shimmering that simply peters out after six minutes. Carollo does have technical skill in writing for orchestral instruments, especially strings, but seems generally to give more attention to what he calls his works than to the musical communication that the works contain.

August 10, 2017

(++++) FAIRY TALES, TWISTED


Bean Stalker and Other Hilarious Scary Tales. By Kiersten White. Illustrations by Karl Kwasny. Scholastic. $16.99.

Even Fairies Fart. By Jennifer Stinson. Pictures by Rebecca Ashdown. Harper. $17.99.

Paddington Goes to Town. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. Harper. $9.99.

     Fairy tales have spoken to readers – and, before widespread literacy, to listeners – for uncounted generations, and still do so both in their original forms and in contemporary variations. Most were not stories for children but explanations of the way the world works and warnings about it. And many were very frightening, as readers of the collections by Charles Perrault and the Grimm brothers can easily discover by tracking down and reading those groupings’ original versions. The stories have been significantly toned down for younger readers’ consumption – even later editions of the Grimm tales did some of this – but nowadays often exist in separate versions for adults (emphasizing and even accentuating the stories’ darker side) and children (keeping things light). Kiersten White’s Bean Stalker and Other Hilarious Scary Tales stakes out (so to speak) a kind of middle ground, being intended for middle-school reading and aimed at providing a certain number of rather ick-inducing incidents mixing mild scariness with offbeat humor. The book’s cover, by illustrator Karl Kwasny, does an unusually good job of encapsulating White’s whole approach: leaves and vines from Jack’s beanstalk form the eyes and nose of what looks like a scowling skull, with the turrets of a castle in the background forming jagged-looking “teeth” and with traditional fairy-tale characters, human and otherwise, appearing in the picture looking eerier than they usually do in versions of the stories for young people. What White does in the stories is create a kind of mashup “overview” narrative that she eventually uses to connect a number of different tales – and within the individual stories, she makes things creepy and/or gross and/or funny in ways that allow her eventually to bring the whole book to an interrelated-tales climax. White is also fond of puns: in the very first story, a variation on the tale of Rapunzel, “let down your fair hair” sounds just like “let down your fair Herr,” which turns out to make a great difference to the hapless prince and also to the narrator, who points out the importance of proper spelling. White introduces each tale with a suitably modified little poem: this story of Snow White starts with “one, two, buckle your shoe,” in a version that ends, “nine, ten, something’s hungry again.” And there is plenty of snarkiness as well: in the same story, the narrator comments that the queen who wanted a baby must not have spent much time around babies, because “they smell bad, they throw up a lot, and they cry instead of sleeping.” On and on the book goes, through “The Princess and the Pea” (in which the spelling of the final word turns out to matter quite a lot), “Little Dead Riding Hood,” “Cinderella” (here called “Cinders and Ashes” and ending even before the fairy godmother shows up, then starting again to be sure she is included) – and so forth. The typical evil stepmother turns out in this book to be as close to heroic as anyone or anything does: she “had devoted her life to putting out fires,” sometimes metaphorical ones and sometimes not. And the tales are enlivened (sometimes en-dead-ened) not only by Kwasny’s pictures but also by occasional fancy typography, such as that used to show the way the beanstalk grows after the beans take root thanks to all the drool that comes out of Jack’s mouth while he sleeps. Bean Stalker and Other Hilarious Scary Tales is certainly a version of multiple fairy tales, and a few nursery rhymes, unlike any other – and although it does not supplant the old tales either for humor or for fright, it does a mighty good job of aligning both the amusement and the scariness with the experiences and expectations of young readers today.

     One thing today’s young readers apparently expect – or at least one that authors and publishers expect them to expect – is frequent use of the word “fart” in stories and even in book titles. Families that find the word offensive, or simply unnecessary when a short phrase such as “pass gas” works quite as well, will have no interest in a book such as Jennifer Stinson’s Even Fairies Fart. But the book is not intended to shock (apparently even extra-large lettering for this word, as on the book’s cover, is now acceptable). Stinson’s underlying message is fine: fairy tales (at least as directed at children) seem to show an ultra-perfect world, but in reality, life is not like that. Really, a book of this type would be even better if aimed at the pervasive forms of entertainment directed at contemporary children: television, movies, YouTube, video games, etc. All these offer hyper-unrealistic worlds in which natural bodily functions are either absent or played for laughs. Stinson’s story and Rebecca Ashdown’s well-matched illustrations try to meld humor and a degree of realism; but the emphasis is on amusement, as on the inside front and back covers, which show fairies of all colors, shapes and sizes emitting gas, and the front cover, which has one fairy (who looks just like a little girl) sending out a cloud big enough to cover almost the whole front of the book. The somewhat-serious message here is presented after showing the perfection that usually appears in fairy tales: “It all seems so amazing!/ Can’t we be perfect too?/ If we wish on the brightest star,/ could all this stuff come true?” The answer, of course, is “no.” Perfection is unattainable, and even fairies, Stinson says, do not have it. Nor do other fairy-tale characters: a dragon is shown cheating at cards, a princess picks her nose, an elf has a bathroom accident, “wizards mope and pout,” witches whine, “monsters sometimes want their mommies,” and so on. These shortcomings are not important, according to Stinson’s writing and Ashdown’s illustrations. All sorts of bodily functions, all sorts of less-than-perfect behavior, are simply normal, no matter what fairy tales may say and no matter what they omit. “And who cares?” asks Stinson. None of this stuff matters – it’s fine to love and enjoy fairy tales, and by extension to love and enjoy all the kids who play “let’s pretend” and who themselves like fairy-tale stories, even in the knowledge that perfection does not really exist anywhere. That is a fine and uplifting message, and one that parents will be glad to pass along to their children. Whether this specific book, using this specific language, is the best way to do that, will be a matter for individual families to decide.

     The fairy-tale world of Paddington Bear is scarcely perfect, but the late Michael Bond had no need of bodily-function words or any sort of strong language to provide joy and entertainment to young readers and equally enchanted adults for more than half a century. Paddington Goes to Town dates to 1968 and is the eighth collection of Paddington’s adventures to be published (the first came out 10 years earlier). Now available in a new edition, Paddington Goes to Town is not officially a memorial to Bond (1926-2017) but will feel like one to Paddington’s many fans. Its seven stories of curiosity and misunderstanding are entirely typical of tales in the Paddington canon. The first, in which Paddington is an usher at a wedding, is especially amusing. “Mr. Brown wasn’t overenthusiastic about weddings at the best of times, and the thought of attending one at which Paddington was lending a paw filled him with foreboding” – a suitable feeling, as things turn out. Also here, Paddington tries golf, mistakenly visits a psychiatrist at a hospital and causes considerable verbal confusion, rolls a boulder down the aisle of a bus, and has several opportunities to display the “very hard stare” that he had “when he liked.” Peggy Fortnum’s illustrations perfectly encapsulate all Paddington’s expressions, both the facial ones and his body language. Charming and gentle errors in which Paddington behaves like an inquisitive human child are Bond’s stock-in-trade in all the Paddington books, as is language that, while simple and easy to follow, does not talk down to its intended young readers. The language is certainly not as direct or crude as in many recent books for young readers – indeed, even Bond’s 21st-century books retained old-fashioned sweetness and verbal sensitivity. There are occasional British expressions that may take some getting used to for Americans, but the writing will just as likely add to the stories’ overall charm: “Altogether he was thankful when at long last he peered round the side of his load and caught sight of a small queue standing beside a familiar-looking London Transport sign not far ahead.” Paddington Goes to Town is as good an introduction to the bear from Darkest Peru as any other of Bond’s collections: the stories are all independent, and the bear’s personality shines through in them all. The pleasantries of Bond’s urban fairy tales are a continuing source of joy, and it is easy to imagine these stories still being found quite delightful when books featuring cruder language and characters have been supplanted by the next new or faddish creation.

(++++) STRUGGLES TOWARD FRIENDSHIP


Confiscated! By Suzanne Kaufman. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Hannah Sparkles: A Friend Through Rain or Shine. By Robin Mellom. Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Harper. $17.99.

     The trials and tribulations of friendship are a frequent theme in picture books, and the eventual message of cooperation and getting along is a standard one. But the circumstances, and the form in which the concluding message is delivered, may differ greatly – which is why so many books on this topic can be enjoyable. The eventual friends in Suzanne Kaufman’s Confiscated! happen to be brothers and happen to be sort-of-lizardlike-sort-of-dinosaurs, at least as they have been Photoshopped to be. Brooks and Mikey fight constantly, as many siblings do, and in particular they fight over things – toys and games of all sorts. Unsurprisingly, this state of affairs is extremely annoying to their mother and is thoroughly unacceptable to her. So she teaches the boys the meaning of the word “confiscated” by taking away anything about which they fight. But they fight about everything, from Grandpa’s tuba to a Mexican wrestling mask: Kaufman has great fun showing just what sorts of things provoke the boys into fights and just how many ways those fights occur. The problem is that there are, after all, only so many things in the house over which fights are possible (even including the dog); so after a while, Kaufman shows the two boys all alone with a plain white background on one page while the facing page shows a locked storage cabinet absolutely bulging with confiscated items (and with the dog peering out rather nervously through the slightly open doors). By now, “Mama had confiscated ALL their toys.” And Brooks and Mikey are bored. Really, really bored. So bored that they TALK to each other instead of fighting. And that talking leads to something totally unexpected, at least by them: cooperation! They decide, together, to get a favorite red balloon out of the “confiscation cabinet.” To do that, they pile up everything they can find, from a salami to a Viking helmet  to a fishbowl (complete with fish) to a clock and a cactus and an old-fashioned record player, creating a mountainous mess that they can climb to get to the slightly open cabinet door and pull the balloon out. Great idea – except that pulling it out snaps the cabinet’s lock, and everything comes tumbling out and tumbling down; yes, even the lava lamp and the whole watermelon, the ship in a bottle and the freshly baked pie. And THEN…a shadow looms over the scene, and a very large and definitely dinosaurish Mama appears. But it turns out she is not angry about the mess – because the boys are sharing the balloon and actually being friendly to each other. So a happy ending is had by all, although Mama reminds the boys that they still have to clean everything up.

     Mess-making figures as well in Robin Mellom’s Hannah Sparkles: A Friend Through Rain or Shine, a book about a girl with an exceptionally sparkly name and a personality to match. Ever-smiling Hannah spends her time cheering the world with pom-poms and drawing double rainbows, because just one rainbow is not enough to contain all her hyper-cheeriness. Just imagine how happy she is when a new family moves to the neighborhood, along with a girl her own age – with the even-more-sparkly name of Sunny Everbright. Wow! Or – maybe not. Hannah has huge blue eyes and dresses in bright, clashing colors, but Sunny is dark-eyed, dark-haired and dressed almost completely in black and gray. Uh-oh. Hannah tries her best to be friendly: she takes Sunny outdoors to find butterflies, but Sunny is more interested in a lizard she discovers. Hannah draws unicorns – Sunny draws centipedes. Hannah shows how to use magenta for drawing hearts – Sunny prefers drawing a large black spider. Hannah picks strawberries – Sunny gets messily down in the mud to interact with a frog. Nothing works for Hannah: Sunny does not even smile when Hannah gets out her pom-poms and cheers Sunny on at hopscotch and other games. And then, to make matters worse, it starts to rain, and rain is not one of Hannah’s happy things. But now Sunny smiles! And in some of Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s most evocative illustrations, she dances, runs sloppily through puddles, plays in a mess of mud, and generally acts “super-strange,” at least by Hannah’s standards. Bewildered, Hannah asks her mom that night why Hannah’s favorite things do not make Sunny happy – and her mom suggests that “maybe Sunny finds her sparkle in other things.” Lesson learned – especially when Sunny leaves Hannah a let’s-play invitation on which Sunny has drawn a smiling lizard carrying an umbrella. Friendships, after all, are like other growing things: they need both rain and sun to thrive.

(++++) SWEET OR MONSTROUS


Good Night, Sweetie. By Joyce Wan. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

Monsters Unleashed No. 1. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Mark Oliver. Harper. $16.99.

     Adults do not always realize just how wide the scope of children’s books is – with ones for certain age groups being so different from those for other ages that it sometimes seems as if very young and not-so-young children are different species, at least from the viewpoint of publishers. The youngest kids get the sweetest material by far, and authors such as Joyce Wan are adept at providing it. Good Night, Sweetie is a warm, cute board book with a cover featuring a sleepy moon atop a cloud and eyes-closed stars in the background. Wan specializes in board books that come across as highly personalized through the frequent use of “we,” “my” and “you,” as in a recent one from her called You Are My Cupcake. This makes it simple for parents to read the easy-to-follow words with warmth and expressiveness. So Good Night, Sweetie, starts with “You are my wish upon a STAR,” showing a happily smiling (and pink-cheeked) shooting star trailing a rainbow, and continues with “My bright, shining MOON from afar,” with a red-cheeked crescent moon smiling above a house whose chimney emits heart-shaped puffs of smoke. It is easy to dismiss this material as cloying, but that misses the point: for the very youngest children, from birth to age three or four, books such as Good Night, Sweetie are deeply reassuring and really can make the potentially frightening experience of unconsciousness – that is, sleep – much easier to handle. The cutest notion here describes the child to whom the book is being read as “My cozy, dozy bedtime BOOK,” a sort of “meta” approach to this book itself: here the illustration features a smiling book from whose pages eyes-closed stars and hearts are popping out, along with a sleeping moon wearing an old-fashioned nightcap. Everything in Good Night, Sweetie is plush-looking, warm-seeming and relaxing – the illustrations here being an alternative to the approach of using gently rhyming text to lull a young child to sleep (as was done famously in Good Night, Moon and is also tried in innumerable other bedtime books). Wan’s book is short, simple and strongly focused on its purpose, and in the event that a young child is not asleep by the time it ends and says “again,” it is quite easy to re-read as needed, re-showing each of the relaxing illustrations to produce the intended feeling of deep relaxation and comfort.

     Fast-forward a few years to a time when kids are very much reading on their own and are well past the stage of “baby books” such as board books – and you discover a huge number of familiarly plotted adventures stories for preteens, featuring groups of kids (largely indistinguishable from each other) who band together to deal with issues that are much simpler and more straightforward to handle than the problems and difficulties of everyday real life (which mostly show up in books for even older readers: teenagers). One of the virtuoso producers of formulaic (+++) preteen fantasy/adventure books is John Kloepfer, who has now started a new series (amply illustrated by Mark Oliver) called Monsters Unleashed. The first thing to do in sequences like this one is to assemble the team, making sure there are a few nods to differing appearances and ethnic backgrounds. The protagonist here is sixth-grader Freddie Liddle, who is the opposite of his name, being big (six-feet-four-inches tall) and rather klutzy. The child of divorced parents, he has moved to New Mexico and found only one friend, a small Hispanic boy named Manny Vasquez. The three other members of the “inner circle” here start out as Freddie’s enemies: they are bullies – a jock and jerk named Jordan, an “evil mega-nerd” named Quincy, and a black wannabe actress named Nina. Trying to handle his feelings about his tormentors, Freddie draws three monsters based on them, and then, with Manny’s help, uses a 3-D printer to make actual physical versions of the creatures – called Kraydon, Mega-Q and Yapzilla. But there is something mysterious and magical about this particular printer (never explained; why bother?), and the monsters it makes come to life – and start growing enormously as soon as they come in contact with water. Soon enough, mayhem ensues throughout the school, where as usual the adults are oblivious and/or clueless and/or invisible. To control the monsters, Freddie realizes, he has to understand how they think, and since they are modeled on Jordan, Quincy and Nina, he has to enlist the three bullies in the anti-monster fight. And that is how Kloepfer sets up the five-person anti-monster team that battles the baddies in Monsters Unleashed while the kids bond among themselves, all thoughts of bullying forgotten except for a brief reference here and there to the way things were before they all got together and found a common cause. Monsters Unleashed is unbelievable, silly and funny enough to keep preteens interested if they enjoy mindless fantasy adventures whose endings are a foregone conclusion: of course the kids will rescue the town and make sure that the monsters are returned to a harmless state. This means the creatures end up shrunken to adorable size and are ready to take on the onslaught of insects promised for the second book in the series, Bugging Out. Fast to read, formulaic and forgettable, Monsters Unleashed is a fine example of book creation for the preteen “species,” which indeed, on the basis of books like this, seems to be very little like the cuddly early-childhood type of human.

(++++) LIVE RECORDINGS DONE RIGHT – AND WRONG


Handel: Occasional Oratorio. Julia Doyle, soprano; Ben Johnson, tenor; Peter Harvey, baritone; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin conducted by Howard Arman. BR Klassik. $37.99 (2 CDs).

Lehár: Der Graf von Luxemburg. Daniel Behle, Camilla Nylund, Louise Alder, Simon Bode, Sebastian Geyer, Margit Neubauer; Chor der Oper Frankfurt and Frankfürter Opern- und Museumorchester conducted by Eun Sun Kim. Oehms. $29.99 (2 CDs).

     Minor Handel done splendidly and major Lehár handled thoughtlessly show the promise and peril of releasing live recordings of infrequently performed music with enough attention to packaging – or not enough at all. The occasion for Handel’s Occasional Oratorio was the Jacobite revolt of 1745, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie: the work was intended to rally the populace, if not the troops, in the months before the battle of Culloden brought a brutal end to the revolt in April 1746. Handel created the work in haste and did considerably more than his usual plethora of self-borrowings, including bits of everything from Israel in Egypt to Zadok the Priest to the Concerti Grossi, Op. 6. The libretto, a mishmash of material from Milton, Spenser and others, takes various Old Testament verses out of context and throws them together for a strong assertion that righteousness (in the form of King George II and his Protestant supporters) will triumph – a most suitable position for a composer beholden to the king and court to take. But for all the haste of its composition and all the flaws of its construction, and they are many, the Occasional Oratorio comes through highly effectively in a live recording on the BR Klassik label, in a sure-handed and elegantly paced performance led by Howard Arman and featuring first-rate singing and the knowing use of original instruments by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. The music is by and large excellent in a “greatest hits” sort of way, the many recognizable arias and choruses never really blending – they do have different sources, after all – but coming across individually as highly effective. Because the occasion for the work’s composition is now obscure, it is easy to listen to the oratorio divorced from the religious turmoil and political machinations of Handel’s time and simply enjoy the assertiveness, poetry and beauty of the music. Soloists and chorus alike manage their parts with a sure sense of period style and with all the seriousness and solemnity the rather overwrought texts require. Like Beethoven’s Der glorreiche Augenblick, another work that could be called an “occasional oratorio,” Handel’s piece is scarcely among his best, being more interesting for showcasing the political realities surrounding and impinging upon musical creation in the times when Handel and Beethoven wrote – realities that were forerunners of those faced by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, among others, at a much later date. BR Klassik has given the Occasional Oratorio the best possible showcase not only by making this excellent performance available but also by including just what a well-made modern recording should have: a booklet containing information on the work and its time, well-done but not overdone material about the performers, and a full libretto in the original language (here, English), with translation (here, into German). The presentation on CD makes this release of Handel’s Occasional Oratorio into an occasion worth celebrating – modestly – in its own right.

     At the opposite extreme, the execrable packaging by Oehms of Lehár’s Der Graf von Luxemburg will leave lovers of this wonderful operetta continuing to hunger for a top-notch modern recording and clinging gratefully to the EMI version featuring Nicolai Gedda if they have it – despite the fact that that reading, conducted by Willy Mattes, is now almost 50 years old. The problem here is certainly not the music. This is Lehár’s most-tuneful opera, without a single number that falls flat or fails to bring joy or heartbreak, whichever the composer intended. It is the composer’s ultimately lighthearted tribute to his friend Puccini’s La Bohème, with the work’s second couple even being introduced in a “Bohème-Duett.” It is also very much a fin de siècle piece in orientation, if not in its actual date (1909): there is a certain nostalgic gloom underlying the proceedings, and the primary story is of two world-weary people, to whom nothing much matters (certainly not love, with which both clearly have considerable experience), discovering that love does matter after all, and it is not too late to find that süsse, goldene Traum. Of course the naïveté of operetta pervades this formulation – Lehár himself was soon to rebel against it – but in Der Graf von Luxemburg the whole thing works, and works brilliantly, because of some wonderful touches in the operetta’s libretto (by Robert Bodanzky, Alfred Maria Willner and Leo Stein) as well as the unremitting beauty of the music. This is an operetta that desperately needs dialogue, which was surely included in the live performances from which Oehms took this recording. But there is none of it here: the melodramas (words spoken through music) are present, but the dialogue that carries the action along and explains it is wholly missing. And there is no libretto here – a horrible decision, the opposite of that made for the Handel recording, and one that is not easy to rectify by looking online (Oehms does not offer any way to get the words). And to make matters worse, the summary of the action is one of the worst accorded to any operatic work in years. It goes beyond truncated to become incoherent and well-nigh illiterate. The central importance of the perfume Trèfle incarnat (“crimson clover”)? Never mentioned. The marvelous device by which René and Angèle enter into a sham marriage, without seeing each other, so she can obtain a title – using a painting through which she inserts her hand, giving him the chance to be enchanted by it and flirt with it? Never mentioned. The basic story arc of two jaded personalities finding each other through an unlikely but emotionally satisfying chain of events? Omitted. The summary is beyond useless: it is insulting to the story and music. Making matters even more disappointing is the fact that Oehms had plenty of room on the CDs for dialogue (the discs run just 35 and 51 minutes, respectively), and plenty of room in the booklet for a libretto or, at the very least, a far more extensive and decently written summary: the synopsis takes up a mere three pages (with plenty of white space), but there are five pages promoting other Oehms CDs, 19 giving information on the performers, and eight that are blank except for graphics or section titles. This is beyond the realm of ridiculous and into that of insulting to purchasers. The egregious presentation errors make it tempting to dismiss this recording outright or give it only a basic rating, perhaps (++). But the music is so wonderful, the orchestral playing so fine, and the singing by some of the soloists so good that the release gets a (+++) rating. The two female leads are particularly good: Camilla Nylund, an opera singer of considerable quality, is a wonderful choice for Angèle – who, in one of the libretto’s many felicitous touches, is an opera singer. And Louise Alder is light and airy enough to be a convincing Juliette – her “Chanson” in the first act is lovely – although it is hard to figure out what she sees in Armand, who is sung rather stolidly by Simon Bode. Unfortunately, the weakest soloist is Daniel Behle as René: he repeatedly pushes his voice and characterization too far, and the mundanity of his introductory aria makes Lehár’s brilliant stroke of later turning the bright and carefree music into a bitter lament less effective than it can and should be. Eun Sun Kim has a knack for bringing out the composer’s delicious orchestral touches in this score – she particularly highlights the percussion, to fine effect – but she tends to push the music too hard and too quickly from time to time, as in the breakneck conclusion of the Act III “Marsch-Terzett” and, even more clearly, the end of the Act II “Polkatänzer.” The fact that the orchestra can even keep up with the conductor in these and other passages is rather remarkable; indeed, the orchestral playing is a big plus here, as is the choral singing. This recording of Der Graf von Luxemburg could have been a great or at least near-great one. All it needed was somewhat closer attentiveness to the score and much more attention paid to the packaging and presentation of a truly marvelous work that remains vastly under-appreciated. As is, what listeners get here is something wonderful-sounding but largely incoherent – so the Gedda/Mattes recording remains the treasurable version of this most cherishable operetta.

(++++) WHEN WORDS AND MUSIC MINGLE


Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Kristin Sampson, soprano; Edith Dowd, alto; Cameron Schutza, tenor; Brian Kontes, bass; New Amsterdam Singers, West Point Glee Club, Young New Yorkers’ Chorus, and Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard. Recursive Classics. $18.99.

David Bednall: Choral Works. Stephan Farr, organ; The Epiphoni Consort conducted by Tim Reader. Delphian. $19.99.

David Garner: Chanson für Morgen; Mein blaues Klavier; Phönix; Song Is a Monument. Nanette McGuinness, soprano; Adaiba MacAdams-Somer, cello; Dale Tsang, piano. Centaur. $14.99.

     The choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth has long been considered so overwhelming –and was in its own time so genuinely new – that it has overshadowed the first three movements even though those three make up two-thirds of the symphony’s length. The symphony is now so familiar, even over-familiar, that the meaning and importance of its words is sometimes lost in enjoyment of the finale’s extremely well-known theme and the movement’s many fascinating and even peculiar touches (what exactly is a Turkish march doing in it?). Certainly Beethoven himself felt the words of Friedrich Schiller’s An die Freude deeply, and there have been some suggestions that Schiller really intended the verses to be sung about Freiheit, freedom, as Leonard Bernstein had them sung after the fall of the Berlin Wall – and that Beethoven knew this. Whatever the truth of the matter, it shows quite clearly the importance of words even when the music paired with them is transcendent, as Beethoven’s is. The new Beethoven Ninth led by David Bernard makes this unusually clear: Bernard conducts a relatively small orchestra and quite a large chorus, or rather three choruses singing together. This is musical chance-taking: Beethoven’s deafness led to some compositional infelicities and lack of clarity in this symphony’s final movement, and conductors always have to figure out how best to dispose the solo quartet against the chorus and the voices against the instruments. Indeed, it is in decisions about balance that many of the major differences among performances may be found. Bernard strongly emphasizes percussion in the finale in order to bring out the big sound he is looking for – an unconventional approach that is certainly worth hearing. The singing is worth hearing, too, with the choruses all quite fine and the female soloists, Kristin Sampson and Edith Dowd, sounding warm and intense and, indeed, somewhat better than the men: Brian Kontes is smooth-voiced but rather stolid, and Cameron Schutza sounds somewhat strained, notably in that Turkish-march section. Bernard’s tempos are on the brisk side, not only in the finale but also in the first three movements – and although Bernard does somewhat over-emphasize the symphony’s conclusion, as do so many other conductors, he also offers some fine touches earlier in the work. The shimmering opening of the first movement, strongly contrasted with the intensity of brass and timpani soon afterwards, is a highlight; the smooth flow of the fairly quickly paced third movement is another. The sound on the Recursive Classics release is quite fine, capturing the many nuances of Bernard’s attentive reading and making the comparatively small size of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony into an advantage most of the way through the work. The balance in the finale, which is indeed a balancing act, takes a bit of getting used to, but it does work and does lead to some insightful as well as skilled presentation. It is a shame that the symphony appears alone on the CD, because the work is so well-known that it is hard to understand why a listener would want yet another version of it – the disc would have been more attractive if, for example, it had also included the Choral Fantasia, which uses the same theme as the finale of the symphony but sets very different words and, as a result, has a very different effect. As is, this is a well-played, well-sung, well-recorded Beethoven’s Ninth with attractive details and a strong sense of the importance of the way words and music fit together in the finale – not a must-have recording, but one well worth owning.

     A new Delphian disc of choral works by David Bednall is a (+++) CD of more-limited interest, but for those who do want to hear some very well-made and sensitively sung choral music – especially those who themselves sing in a chorus – it will be quite welcome. Bednall (born 1979) has a sure sense of antiphony and polyphony, a good feel for expressive vocal writing, and the ability to produce works that are attractive whether using secular or sacred texts. The 17 tracks on this CD lean more toward the sacred, and there is a certain similarity to all the writing that stamps it as firmly grounded in British choral tradition. One reason is a kind of folklike sound to many of the pieces, both religious and worldly. Bednall is quite capable of handling a large number of voices with excellent sonic clarity – Lux orta est iusto, a 40-part motet, is a perfect example of this and the single most impressive (and expressive) piece on the CD. But Bednall also shows considerable understanding of more-modest settings such as those of Shakespeare’s well-known Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) and his less-popular Sonnet 98. The remaining works here are Three Songs of Love (the second in two parts on two tracks); three movements from Welcome All Wonders; the English-language Rise up, my love, Everyone Sang, A Wedding Prayer, Sudden Light,, and The Argument of His Book; and the Latin Te lucis ante terminum and Tota pulchra est. Only three of the tracks include Stephen Farr on organ – the rest are strictly choral, with Tim Reader expertly leading the Epiphoni Consort (the name, pronounced “epiphany,” being somewhat over-cute, but the singers being dedicated, well-balanced and clearly committed to this music). Contemporary choral music and choral works in general tend to be of somewhat limited interest, with a few notable exceptions (Beethoven’s Ninth being perhaps the obvious one). But Bednall’s pieces are so well-made and effective in their verbal settings that listeners with any interest in hearing a skilled modern composer’s handling of the chorus, with a clear understanding of choral music of the past and of the British choral tradition, will find this disc highly attractive.

     Another fine CD of limited scope and appeal – defiantly so – is a new (+++) Centaur recording of music in which David Garner sets the words of four Jewish women who endured and survived World War II and Nazism. The performers are members of Ensemble for These Times, one of many chamber groups focusing specifically on 20th- and 21st-century music. Garner’s settings are effective, particularly in the longest work here, Chanson für Morgen (2012) to words by Mascha Kaléko (1907-1975). The eight songs encapsulate both the Jewish experience of World War II and that of Poland, from which Kaléko and her family emigrated. The pieces’ effectiveness lies in the way they speak of the destruction of Judaism and Jewish culture in Eastern Europe while making the loss of history and of a sense of belonging into a wider experience, not one unique to Jews or to a specific time period. This poetic reaching-out beyond the specific lends Chanson für Morgen generality, if not quite universality, that goes beyond the effect of the other works here: the three-song Mein blaues Klavier (2015) to poems by Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945), six-song Phönix (2013) to poems by Rose Ausländer (1901-1988), and five-song Song Is a Monument (2014) to poems by Yala Korwin (1933-2014). These three works speak from different angles of the poets’ determination to prevent the Jewish experience of the Holocaust from being forgotten. That makes them testimony of a sort, certainly valuable to the modern Jewish community and to historians focused on World War II and its effects. But neither the words nor Garner’s well-thought-out settings give these pieces anything like the reaching-out quality of Chanson für Morgen. The CD is by definition a “cause recording,” bearing the overall title “Jewish Music & Poetry Project – Surviving: Women’s Words.” It is thus self-limiting in audience and unlikely to be heard by anyone who does not already feel a kinship with or commitment to its concept. The implication is that the recording is designed for a narrow purpose and audience, and that limited focus is indeed present in three of Garner’s four works. It is the fourth, though, Chanson für Morgen, that will be most involving for anyone who hears it despite not being firmly committed to the material by a Jewish background or by a pre-existing interest in the time and topic explored here by Ensemble for These Times.

August 03, 2017

(++++) BIRDS AND BUDDIES


Pigeon P.I. By Meg McLaren. Clarion. $16.99.

Penguins Love Their ABC’s. By Sarah Aspinall. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $17.99.

Thank You, Mr. Panda. By Steve Antony. Scholastic. $16.99.

     There is nothing the slightest bit bird-brained about Meg McLaren’s Pigeon P.I., which is so packed with story and information that it is almost two books in one. There is the main noir-ish detective tale itself – slightly hard-boiled, although no eggs are harmed in its creation – and then there is the material from the inside front and inside back covers, a total of four pages of how-to-do-it information on avian-style private investigation. These pages should be read separately from those of the main narrative: they do include the two main characters, but here in instructional rather than investigational mode. The opening “beginner’s guide,” for instance, offers nine “detecting hats” (from fedora and deerstalker to boater and cloche) and a selection of possible snacks to carry along (from “delicious but noisy” chips to “quiet but impractical” Jell-o). The closing “advanced detection” inside-cover pages explain that you should “have a witty line ready when you solve your case,” and they include a bit of back-and-forth byplay called “discuss ideas with your partner” that, whether McLaren realizes it or not, virtually duplicates a very funny scene in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia Ltd. The four how-to-do-it pages are ancillary to the main Pigeon P.I. story, but they are so much fun in their own right that young readers (and parents) will double their enjoyment here. And the main story itself, crammed as it is with the tropes of hard-edged detective tales, is just wonderful. It starts with the usual down-and-out onetime detective who has thrown in the proverbial towel after his partner “skipped town a while back,” and who is lured back into the detecting game by a persistent dame. In this case the dame is a kid, and the kid is a chick, which makes sense when the gumshoe is a pigeon. It seems several of the kid’s friends have mysteriously disappeared, and then the kid herself suddenly goes missing, so Pigeon P.I. realizes he really needs to get on the case. And he does, while McLaren peppers the pages with incidental amusements such as a newspaper called “Pigeon Post” with a headline saying “House Prices Set to Soar” next to a picture of a birdhouse, and entryways to places called “Bird, Bath & Beyond” and “Legal Eagles.” Soon enough, Pigeon P.I. uncovers a dastardly plot, finds the many missing birds – who, it turns out, were birdnapped so a nefarious bad guy could pluck some of their feathers – and is told, “You’ve been sticking your beak where it doesn’t belong. …Cook his goose, boys.” Then there is a timely rescue, a newspaper headline saying “Plumage Plunderer Pinched,” and a suitably upbeat ending in which Pigeon P.I. and the kid are seen happily slurping takeout food from an establishment called “The Early Bird.” Adults who know the conventions of detective fiction will have a ball with this book – the “advanced detection” pages even include pictures of famous detectives such as “Monsieur Parrot” and “Duck Tracy” – and kids will have a great time with both the main story and the opening and closing detection guides. And as an extra bonus, both the book’s back cover and the back cover of its wraparound offer more amusements, the former showing a bulletin board with posters and notices (one of which says “please do not draw attention to this notice”) and the latter offering comments and commentary by pigeons that are not otherwise in the book on the events that take place within it. Story, ancillary story, meta story and more – Pigeon P.I. has them all, and all are thoroughly delightful.

     Sarah Aspinall’s Penguins Love Their ABC’s is also lots of fun, but it is an altogether simpler and more-straightforward book – aimed at kids who are just learning the alphabet, not older ones who are ready to learn some of the ins and outs of detective stories. Like Aspinall’s previous book, Penguins Love Colors, this one features six identical and adorable penguins distinguished from each other by something colorful that is reflective of each one’s name – in this case, sunglasses whose colors make it easier to identify Tulip, Tiger Lily, Dandelion, Bluebell, Violet, and Broccoli. In this book the penguins are going on “an alphabet hunt” arranged by Mama Penguin: the little ones need to find things beginning with each letter, starting with “A is for apple” and including, for example, “C is for cactus” and “M is for magnifying glass” – this being shown on a two-page spread on which Broccoli is hugely magnified. Typical-for-alphabet-book words are here interspersed with less-usual ones, such as “N is for noodles,” “R is for radish” and “U is for underpants” – a chance to show all six little penguins wearing “lucky underpants” in different colors and patterns. By the end of the book, the penguins have found all the letters, Mama has praised them for their success, and it is time for a dinner of – what else? – alphabet soup. Gently instructive and cutely amusing, Penguins Love Their ABC’s is a winner of an alphabet book whose attractive characters and bright colors will encourage young readers to follow the six little penguins all the way from A to Z.

     Thank You, Mr. Panda also features some interesting characters and is also a “lesson” book, but it is one that somewhat misfires and will be of most interest to readers already familiar with and enamored of Steve Antony’s panda character, as previously seen in Please, Mr. Panda and I’ll Wait, Mr. Panda. What keeps this book at the (+++) level is its rather odd handling of the reasonable and helpful notion that, when it comes to gift-giving, it is the thought rather than the gift itself that counts. The story involves Mr. Panda, accompanied by Lemur, giving presents to several animal friends – but none of the gifts is quite right. Lemur reminds each friend that it’s the thought that counts, and then Lemur gets the final gift himself – and is reminded by Mr. Panda, even before Lemur opens the gift, that the thought is what matters. The difficulty here is that it is apparent that Mr. Panda knows the gifts are wrong: Lemur gets underwear big enough for two of himself, Mouse gets a sweater so large that he can barely be seen within it, Octopus gets stockings for only six of his eight legs, and so on. The question is why Mr. Panda appears deliberately to give gifts that he knows are inadequate or the wrong size. The only answer would be that he is teaching the “thought that counts” lesson – but it seems rather unkind, if not exactly cruel, to teach the lesson by deliberately giving gifts that one knows to be useless. Lemur’s abundant joy when he finds out that the final gift is for him turns to bewilderment when he too gets a gift that Mr. Panda clearly knows is not right for him – and the inside back cover pages, showing all the animals trying to wear or use their presents but looking rather befuddled, are actually kind of sad. The “thought that counts” lesson is, after all, intended to mean that a well-intentioned gift that does not quite work is less important than the thought that inspired it. But Mr. Panda’s gifts seem to be on the sly side, designed to be wrong so Mr. Panda can teach his friends a lesson. That is rather manipulative and  not really reflective of what “it’s the thought that counts” means. So Thank You, Mr. Panda is not a very good introduction to Antony’s Mr. Panda books and not a particularly winning way to explore the niceties of gift-giving. But for kids who already know Mr. Panda’s personality and like it, this book will be enjoyable even if its underlying message is not communicated as effectively as it could be.