Friday, March 29, 2013

CCC 065 - Stephen Bryant

American composer Stephen Bryantis the subject of this week's Consonant Classical Challenge. Bryant is a student of Cindy McTee (featured in CCC 059). studied with Cindy McTee. Bryant is a relatively young composer with a clear philosophy. On his website he states:
I strive to write music that leaps off the stage (or reaches out of the speakers) to grab you by the collar and pull you in. Whether through a relentless eruption of energy, or the intensity of quiet contemplation, I want my music to give you no choice, and no other desire, but to listen.
For Bryant, communication with the audience is paramount. His use of tonality is a way to ensure that communication isn't broken. His melodic forms and harmonies are familiar enough to engage the audience. And that makes them receptive for the emotions that Bryant wants to communicate.

Listen to the story he tells to introduce his work Loose Id. Bryant's intent was to convey something unfiltered and authentic, and as you'll hear in the work that follows his introduction, he succeeds.


Bryant has successfully written for wind ensembles and concert bands. His straight-forward musical language appeal not only to audiences but to younger players as well. Although his Anthem may have points of similarity with Aaron Copland and Vincent Persichetti, this is refreshingly original and energetic music.

Dusk shows another facet of this composer's style. Bryant want to convey emotion, but not all of it is high-energy. This is quiet, elegiac work. There's a different kind of emotion at work here, one of poignant contemplation and hope.

Suite Dreams shows Bryant's skill at orchestration. Note how he achieves the atmospheric swirls of sound he's after (and you can see it in the score).

Stephen Bryant is very much a 21st Century composer. He has his own YouTube channel (Stephen Bryant)  that not only has videos about his music, but other posts that take you behind the scenes into the life of the composer. And while it will be sometime before you'll hear his music aired on a classical music station (that's a separate issue with me), you can audition a good portion of his catalog on his SoundCloud site. And of course, he can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr as well.

So even though I couldn't find many old-school CDs to refer to under "Recommended Recordings," you can easily find more music by this outstanding composer through other means. And I encourage you to do so!

Recommended Recordings:

Radiant Joy

New Music from Bowling Green, Vol. 5

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lio and the Comics Change 3 - The Rerunuts

Mark Tatulli, creator of Lio, seems to share some of my opinions about newspaper comics. His brilliant story arc last week made several mordant points about the state of the industry, and offered up some humor that worked on different levels. Rather than write one massive commentary about the sequence, I'm break it up into three parts, (The Beginning, The Transition, and The Rerunuts) each examining two days of continuity in detail. 

The Rerunuts

In the final two sequences of Lio's story arc, the newspaper has apparently settled on a replacement for Mrs. Ivanna Laff {Momma], the Rerunuts [Peanuts]. (click on images to enlarge)

Tatulli's made his feelings about Charles Shultz' legacy strip Peanuts clear in previous sequences, like the one below.

And I have to agree. With space on the comics page at a premium, why clutter it up with reruns? Personally, I think giving the space to current comics that might attract new readers would be more productive.

I think that's the point of Tatulli's Rerunuts sequences. In Friday's strip, Lio's father laughs at the Rerunuts' stale gag. Is Lio's question mark indicating he doesn't understand why his father thinks the Rerunuts are funny, or that he doesn't understand the strip's the hopelessly dated reference? Both, I think.

Saturday's sequence ends the story arc.

If space keeps shrinking, will this be
the future of comics in newspapers?
The Rerunuts are in -- they've succeeded in offending the least number of people. And why not? The Jimmy Carter joke would have been inoffensive even when Carter was president. Bloom County, this is not. (And I don't think the final word in the panel is there by accident, either.)

Tatulli goes right to the heart of the problem. Newspapers are continually pressuring comics syndicates to shrink the size of the strips -- presumably to make room for more comics. But what do they do with that room? Waste it with irrelevant legacy strips that do nothing to grow readership. And decreased space impacts the artwork, making it more difficult to create any type of visually engaging comics.

In time, we may be reduced to reading Bazooka Joe-sized strips in the papers -- if they last that long.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Lio and the Comics Change 2 - The Transition

 Mark Tatulli, creator of Lio, seems to share some of my opinions about newspaper comics. His brilliant story arc last week made several mordant points about the state of the industry, and offered up some humor that worked on different levels. Rather than write one massive commentary about the sequence, I'm break it up into three parts, (The Beginning, The Transition, and The Rerunuts) each examining two days of continuity in detail. 

The Transition

Wednesday's strip involved some simple word play, taking the name of an actual comic strip literally (click on images to enlarge).

Realistic art coupled with grown-up storylines -- no wonder
"The Heart of Juliet Jones" was discontinued.
The Heart of Juliet Jones was a soap opera strip created by Stan Drake in 1953. It ran through 2001, although its heyday was the late 1950's and early 1960's.

Drake was an excellent draftsman, and the realistic drawings of the strip helped the readers take the story lines seriously. And those stories, for the most part, were mostly realistic, too, unlike the over-the-top drama of current TV soaps. That realism, plus a reading public's impatience with long story lines, may have lead to the strip's demise.

Tatulli uses the title of the strip for his gag, but doesn't appear to criticize the strip directly. The next day, though, the knives are back out.

So funny I forgot to laugh.
Although the artwork isn't that close, it's clear Dopey Dog is a parody of Marmaduke. And quite frankly, I wish Animal Control had been called on that pooch long ago. Brad Anderson's single panel comic has been running since 1954, and even as a child I didn't find it amusing. And I own a dog.

I think Marmaduke might still be around because 1) it doesn't take up much space, and 2) it fulfills the mandate Tatulli alludes to in Tuesday's strip -- it offends the least amount of people.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Lio and the Comics Change 1 - The Beginning

Mark Tatulli, creator of Lio, seems to share some of my opinions about newspaper comics. His brilliant story arc last week made several mordant points about the state of the industry, and offered up some humor that worked on different levels. Rather than write one massive commentary about the sequence, I'm break it up into three parts, (The Beginning, The Transition, and The Rerunuts) each examining two days of continuity in detail. 

The Beginning:

The first sequence sets the story in motion (click on images to enlarge).

Although Tatulli's technically depicting action in two different comics, the positioning of the strips is important.

First we learn of the changes to the comics page, then we see the results. If you don't know a lot about comics, the gag works. But if you do, the humor becomes even sharper.

Hysterical, no? Ivanna Laff, I really do.
The comics character Mrs. Ivanna Laff bears more than a passing resemblance to Mell Lazarus' comic character Momma.

Personally, I've never really liked Momma. The art was OK, but the characters -- an overbearing, manipulative mother and her three emotionally damaged children never seemed to yield much humor for me.

Not that it couldn't, but for me the gags came across as dated Borscht Belt routines, even when the strip was new in 1970. So seeing this irritating character forcibly removed from the comics page made Lio's Monday sequence gave the gag a delicious edge to it.

The second sequence pretty much sums up the way the industry appears to comics aficionados.

Newspapers don't want innovative strips that further the art and really engage readers. They just want something that will appeal to the maximum number of people But in order to appeal to the most people, it has to be as inoffensive as possible. And while blandness might retain an audience, it won't grow it. And it's an audience that doesn't really care about the product. And these days, I would think newspapers would be looking for engaged readers who would be willing to subscribe because they really need what the paper offers.

I subscribe to the Washington Post (in part) because it has the largest comics section of any of regional papers. Their selection of comics are a selling point for me. Lio's Tuesday's sequence suggests that the newspapers no longer regard comics that way.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Fastidious Spam 2 - What's my part?

What is it about this penny toy that spammers find
so attractive?
If I commented on all the goofy, awkwardly translated spam that this blog attracts, that would pretty much by the subject of every post. While most of it is pretty crude, occasionally I receive something that is amusingly off the mark (see Fastidious Spam).

For some reason, part of my long-running series of posts about my Japanese tin toy display has attracted an extraordinary amount of spam. The Straco Layout, Part 23 - Lumbering Along is a modest essay about how Nomura used a simple design to create various different tin toy vehicles.

Something in the post apparently has something spammers are looking for, and it consistently remains one of the most highly trafficked Off Topic'd posts. Like this one:

Highlу energetic artiсlе, I liked that bit. 
Will thеre be a part 2? Feel free to ѕurf to my web site :: Hotels Near Mactan Airport Cebu Philippines 

I found this amusing for two reasons (three if you count the mis-match between the subject of vintage Japanese toys and hotels in the Philippines)

The first is the characterization of the article (that the spambot hadn't read). Here's a quote from that "highly energetic article."

I recently purchased a small lumber truck to add to the display. As with the other vehicles, it was made in Japan in the 1950s’-1960’s. And like the other vehicles, it has some features that I found of interest.

The first was the quality of construction. Although the metal chassis isn’t painted, it still completely encloses the body. It has a friction drive and rubber wheels, so this is a higher-end “penny toy.”

The second is the request. "Will there be a part 2?" Dude, it says Part 23 in the title! We're way beyond Part 2. But I'm thinking the spambot didn't read that either.

Friday, March 22, 2013

CCC 064 - Julian Cochran

English/Australian composer Julian Cochran is the subject of this week's Consonant Classical Challenge. Cochran is a fairly young artist (b. 1974). He's a tremendously talented pianist, and his skill at the keyboard has shaped his compositional career.

Like Liszt, Cochran can improvise at the keyboard music of great technical complexity. And like Chopin, most of Cochran's catalog consists of works for solo piano, or ensembles featuring a piano.

Cochran's harmonies sound inspired by the music of the Post-Romanticists. The textures are often thick, with dissonances often resolving in step-wise motion. Many of Cochran's solo piano compositions are short, single-movement pieces, that build on forms of the past. He's written mazurkas, programmatic suites, and a set of Romanian Dances.

His Valse is fairly typical of Cochran's style. Although the form and melody are clear, this is not piano music for beginners.

Cochran may be steeped in the classical traditions of the past, but he's definitely a child of the late 20th Century. His English Folk Dance is a charming little work that was premiered in recorded form. As pop artists have done since the 1960's Cochran played every instrument in the ensemble and the tracks were mixed together. An usual way to orchestrate a work, but an effective one. Although the music is somewhat traditional in sound (as befitting a "folk" song), the decidedly non-traditional combination of instruments and sounds makes it anything but.

Artemis is a more conventionally orchestrated chamber work for violin, oboe, and piano. Cochran writes effectively for all three instruments, and manages to create a very open-sounding, yet atmospheric work.

For almost four decades, attempts have been made to integrate the electric guitar into a classical context. Results have mostly been unsuccessful, with the results mixing like oil and water. In Electric Guitar and Orchestra, Cochran effectively combines rock's iconic instrument with an orchestra. This elegiac work uses playing techniques developed by rock guitarists, but in an decidedly controlled and well, classical, manner. The result is music that is completely idiomatic to the instrument, fully integrated into the language of classical music.

Julian Cochran writes in a somewhat old-fashioned style, but his voice is original. And that originality gives his music integrity and substance. Superficially, his piano pieces may sound like Liszt, but if you listen carefully, it's clear they're not. Cochran's compositional style is distinctive and recognizable. The seamless, flowing nature of his music probably stems from his facility at improvisation. At the very least, it provides a spark of spontaneity.

It's a shame there's not more recorded material of Cochran's music. I'm curious to hear what his orchestral works sound like.

Recommended Recordings

Julian Cochran: Extracts from Romanian Dances, Animation Suite and Mazurkas

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Leon Kirchner: Revelations - An intimate portrait

Leon Kirchner : Revelations
Joel Fan, piano
Diana Hoagland, soprano
Beverly Hoch, soprano
Scott Dunn, conductor
Leon Kirchner, piano
Verdant World Records

Revelations is an interesting overview of Kirchner's music. It ranges from some of his earliest work as a student in 1943, up through 2006, three years before his death. It's also an intimate overview,  comprising of works for solo piano and piano plus voice compositions.

The opening and closing piano works -- Little Suite (1949) and The Forbidden (2006) frame the collection nicely. The Little Suite is charming in its simplicity and straight-forward themes. The Forbidden, though more complex, flows with the same easy motion as the Suite.

Dawn, while tonally based, avoids all the cliches of choral writing. This brief work has a sense of urgency to it that effectively conveys the meaning of the text. Words from Wordsworth, written 20 years after in  1966 is much more strident and edgy in tone. This isn't an academic exercise in dissonance. Kirchner illuminates the text with his carefully constructed harmonies.

Three Songs (1946) and The Twilight Stood (1982) are the most angular and atonal of the selections. Once again, the music is there to serve the text. Kirchner brings the emotions of the words vividly to life.

Pianist Joel Fan, who performs on all but one of selections, is an admirable interpreter of this music. His sympathetic readings bring its emotional content to the fore.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Lio and the Fourth Wall 3

All comic artists have themes they riff on. It's almost a necessity. Faced with a daily deadline, having a core concept you revisit again and again just makes sense (I do the same thing with this blog). There are two challenges to this, though, that a lot of strips fail at.
  1. The concept has to be one worth returning to. Older gag-a-day strips have their stock characters -- overbearing mother-in-laws, clumsy protagonists, dim-witted sidekicks -- who provide the source of these themes. But many of these characters are as outdated and stale as Borscht Belt stand-up routine.
  2. The concept has to be reinterpreted in substantially different ways. Garfield gobbles down a pan of lasagna in a single gulp. Garfield gobbles down a cake in a single gulp. Garfield gobbles down [a comically large portion of food or drink] in a single gulp. Sure, it's riffing on a theme, but the humor quickly wears thin. Whatever food is depicted in the first panel will be gone in the last. Ha ha.

Lio's creator Mark Tatulli scores high (in my opinion) in meeting both these challenges (Lio and the Fourth Wall). As in today's example. The concept: make the comic strip's borders part of the strip itself. The interpretation: well, that depends. Sometimes the border is a wall to be broken through. Sometimes it's a rope to be cut, sometimes it's two-dimensional, other times it's three-dimensional.

This sequence from 3/2/13 is but one example of how Tatulli plays with convention.
(click on image to enlarge)

Tatulli's varied use of this integral part of the strip's visual language is inspired and often unexpected. And that unexpected twist provides the humor. Far more so than, say the Lockhorns -- at least for me.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Constantine Orbelian, Pianist

Shostakovich, Mozart and Bach Piano Concertos
Constantine Orbelian, piano
Moscow Chamber Orchestra

Although this is a new release from Delos, it isn't a new recording. Constantine Orbelian is best known today as the innovative conductor of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, but initially he was primarily a concert pianist. This 1992-1993 recording happened at a pivotal point in Orbelian's career. He was working with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and their conductor Andrei Korsakov when Korsakov died prematurely at the age of 47. The ensemble asked Orbelian to assume leadership, and he's been their conductor ever since.

With the exception of the Mozart concerto for Two Pianos, all the works on this release were recorded with Korsakov conducting the orchestra. The collection opens with the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich. It's a sassy and sarcastic reading, its slightly off-skew character sounding a little like Prokofiev. The final movement is an out-and-out romp between the trumpet and piano in a race to the finish.

Orbelian performs two Mozart concertos here. The Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365 features pianist Jonathan Shames. The chemistry between the two soloists is good, and it sounds like they had a rollicking good time playing together. Orbelian's performance of Mozart's Piano concerto No. 12, K.414 is a little lower. The work comes off as somewhat sedate, although Orbelian plays with lightness and sensitivity throughout.

The final work on the album is Bach's Keyboard Concerto No. 5, BWV 1056, which Orbelian chooses to perform on the piano. Strangely, the sound for this piece (as compared to the others) sounds a little closed-in.

Orbelian is a talented conductor, and as these recordings show, he's a gifted pianist as well. A welcome addition to the Moscow Chamber Orchestra's extensive catalog of recordings.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Barney & Clyde and Esoterica

This past Sunday's sequence of Barney & Clyde featured a rather clever visual pun -- if anyone understood it. The creative team of Gene & Dan Weingarten and David Clark certainly get points in my book. (click on image to enlarge)

The pun references a cartoon character of the 1920's -- Barney Google. The comic strip Barney Google (and his googly eyes) began in 1919, and reached the peak of its popularity right before the Great Depression. Billy DeBeck's creation spawned animated cartoons, comic books, and even a hit song.

In 1934 Barney Google visited a relative in the hills of North Carolina -- Snuffy Smith. Snuffy Smith would eventually take over the strip, and it runs under that name today. Although Barney Google makes an occasional appearance, he's not a current character for most contemporary comics readers.

Comic enthusiasts (like myself) who enjoy classic strips would instantly get the reference. But for the average reader? I'm not so sure. Although they could always Google it...

Friday, March 15, 2013

CCC 063 - George Tsontakis

In modern classical music, tonality doesn't have to mean banality. American composer George Tsontakis -- this week's subject for the Consonant Classical Challenge -- is a good example. Tsontakis is a fairly young composer whose tonal language seems like an extension of the Post-Romantic composers. His chords are thickly stacked, shifting and changing through incremental chromatic motion.

One of Tsontakis' most popular works is his Ghost Variations for piano. The title refers to the intent of the work. The variations are based on a somewhat vague theme, with an indefinite form -- like a ghost. Tsontakis' use of harmony masterfully provides an ambiguous frame of reference, while still subtly suggesting logical progression towards the finish.

Tsontakis has several major compositions for chamber groups, including four string quartets and three piano quartets. the nature of the string writing reminds me quite a bit of Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht."

Tsontakis has composed several works for orchestra. His use of tonality benefits from the expanded forces at his disposal. "Laconika" features the same thick harmonic textures (mostly in the strings). At the same time, Tsontakis blends the instruments in a truly imaginative fashion to precisely express the mood he's after.

While Tsontakis's music may share some superficial characteristics with those of the post-romantics, it has a distinctive sound that clearly identifies it as music of our time. George Tsontakis has enjoyed success as a composer. Several prominent musicians commission and champion his work. While his music might be a little too much for the blue-hairs, I think Tsontakis' works should be appealing to the under-55 crowd -- or anyone of any age who wants something substantial to listen to.

Recommended Recordings

Tsontakis: Piano Quartet Trilogy

George Tsontakis: Violin Concerto No. 2; Clair de Lune; The Past, The Passion

New York Variations (includes Tsontakis' Ghost Variations)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Beethoven: Violin Sonatas - Lively and expressive

Beethoven: The Violin Sonatas
Barbara Govatos, violin; Marcantonio Barone, piano
4 CD Box Cet

Barbara Govatos and Marcantonio Barone have been performing as a duo for over a decade, which makes their traversal of Beethoven's ten violin sonatas so  enjoyable. There's an easy give-and-take between these performers that turn the music into a lively conversation between old friends.

Both Govatos and Barone play with precision, which makes them well-matched. These are very clean performances. And energy isn't sacrificed for accuracy either. The early sonatas -- especially the Op. 12 set -- sound lively and exuberant.

I especially enjoyed the "Spring" sonata (op. 24). Govatos' playing was light and airy. Her bow seemed to just glide over the top of the strings. Another high point of the set for me was the the seventh sonata (Op. 30, No. 2). The duo's smooth execution and full-throttle rush to the big cadence points ramped up the excitement. Contrast that with the hear-breaking delicacy of the slow movement, and you have a real winner.

The "Kreutzer" sonata (Op. 47) sounded a little restrained at first, but the energy level picked up as it went along. Overall, these are solid performances. The drama is there -- it's just not over the top.

The recording quality of this release is quite high. There's not a lot of room ambiance, but the instruments are recorded with enough distance to provide some natural resonance. The result is a very transparent sound that makes it easy to hear the interplay between the instruments.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Lio and the Fourth Wall 2

 Most people never see the panel borders when they read the daily funnies. The borders are just part of the visual language of sequential art. Like paragraph indentations, they provide visual clues as to how the material is organized, but are only processed unconsciously.

Mark Tatulli , in his strip Lio, has had some fun playing with panel borders before (Lio's Comic Cameos 2Lio and the Fourth Wall). It's always something of a surprise when what was intended to be part of the background suddenly comes to the fore. No need to explain this one, but there's something to think about. Based on Tatulli's depiction, what is the nature of the panel border? (click on image to enlarge)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Clementi: Gradus Ad Parnassum Vol. 4 - Delightful

Clementi: Gradus ad Parnassum, Vol. 4
Exercises Nos. 66-100
Alessandro Marangoni, piano

Pianist Alessandro Marangoni completes his survey of Muzio Clementi's Gradus ad Parnassum with this release. Composed over several years, this three-volume collection of keyboard exercises has become one of the standard teaching tools for pianists. But these works aren't just a series of dull and difficult finger exercises.

True, within each of the short pieces in this collection a pattern of notes will occur over and over, sometimes obsessively. But Clementi underpins those patterns with interesting  and supple harmonies that provides forward motion and musical organization.

Most of the 34 exercises in this volume were grouped by Clementi into suites. Each suite, taken as a whole, aesthetically makes sense. Each suite has collection of contrasting movements. A mid-tempo piece is followed by an up-tempo one. A simple, lyrical movement is followed by a complex fugue, and so on. Although the individual pieces are enjoyable enough to listen to, the suites place the movements in context and provide deeper musical meaning to the whole.

The contrapuntal pieces were the ones I found most interesting -- Clementi had a facility for writing canons and fugues. The fugues don't sound like Bach warmed over. Just as with the counterpoint of Mozart and Haydn, these movements have a strong melodic flavor to them. These pieces work as music and not just intellectual (or fingering) exercises.

Marangoni plays with alacrity and a light touch, making these difficult exercises sound effortless. And more importantly, he makes them sound musical.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Japanese Litho Train Sets 6 - Cragstan in Detail

As I continue to accumulate information for the Japanese lithographed train sets database project, some connections are emerging.

Cragstan is a familiar name to collectors of Japanese tinplate toys. The company imported inexpensive toys to the US, and always had their name and admittedly prosaic logo emblazoned on every box. And that's usually about all the information one gets in reference books. But there's a little more to the story. According to, Cragstan began on Dec. 31, 1954 as the Craig-Stanton Sales Crop.  It's easy to see where the name "Cragstan" came from!

The Cragstan 1892 Freight Set. Yonezowa's trademark
can be seen in the lower right corner (click on images to enlarge).
Within a year, the actual company name was changed to Craig-Stanton-Elmaleh, Inc. I believe all three names represent individuals, and that last one is particularly interesting. Elmaleh seems to be a common name among Moroccan Jews. Was Mr. Elmaleh an American citizen, or was he Craig and Stanton's connection to international resources? Difficult to say with my limited info.

The next year, 1956, the company became Cragstan Industries, Inc. (wither Mr. Elmaleh?), and remained in business until 1988.

The Cragstan 3020 Giant Switcher Train Set. NSG is at the
bottom center of the box.
Cragstan imported many types of toys, from many different sources. Even from my tightly focused study, I've found Cragstan-branded train sets made by Nomura, Yonezowa, and NSG. That last one is Nipon Goraku Shokai, the Japanese export office of Cragstan.

An interesting thing about NSG. The one set I've found so far branded NSG is very clearly manufactured by Yonezowa -- which often puts their own brand on the box.

Comparing the box art from a Cragstan/Yonezowa set and a Cragstan/NSG set suggests the Yonezowa set is the older of the two. If that's true, why did Cragstan stop dealing with Yonezowa directly?

As always, more answers lead to more questions!

The locomotive from the Yonezowa set. Note the number
plate "C.156." This steam engine also appears in Yonezowa sets
not imported by Cragstan.
The locomotive from the NSG set. Same steam engine as the Yonezowa
model -- even the same number plate!

Friday, March 08, 2013

CCC 062 - Elena Ruehr

American composer Elena Ruehr is this week's subject for the Consonant Classical Challenge. On her website, Ruehr says of her music "the idea is that the surface can be simple, the structure complex.' Ruehr studied with Vincent Persichetti and William Bolcolm, two composers who wrote contemporary music that makes a ready connection with their audiences.

And the same can be said for Ruehr. While the structures of her works are indeed complex, the melodic surfaces are simple enough to be grasped on first hearing. Part of it has to do with her use of tonality, which provides a point of reference for listeners. Ruehr also cites literature as an inspiration, so it's no surprise that a substantial part of her catalog is for the voice. It includes an opera "Toussaint Before the Spirits," a cantata, and several choral and solo vocal works.

Elean Ruehr has written an extensive amount of chamber music, including six string quartets. The first movement of her 3rd String Quartet illustrates the dynamic between surface simplicity and underlying complexity. Titled "Clay Flute," the quartet evokes the nature of the folk instrument with simple, pentatonic motives. But listen carefully to the supporting lines. That's what gives the music its substance.

"Shimmer" showcases Ruehr's orchestration skills. The work is written for string orchestra, but notice how Ruehr moves the ensemble away from its more traditional sound and into a place where it, well, shimmers.

The "Prelude Variations" for violin and cello show Ruehr's facility to maintain the balance between simplicity and complexity even with the most minimal of resources. Like Bach, these variations use the notes that are present to imply harmonies, making the music sound thicker than it actually is.

Although Elena Ruehr hasn't composed a symphony (yet), she does have a good number of works for orchestra, including a cello concerto. Part of the challenge of the CCC is to find composers using tonality not to just create pretty music, but to create works with real depth and meaning. I think Elena Ruehr's music does just that. And it's music I hope we'll start seeing on programs with increasing frequency.

Recommended Recordings

How She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr


Elena Ruehr: Jane Wang Considers the Dragonfly

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Lio's Comic Cameos 3

It seems Lio creator Mark Tatulli and I share a mutual dislike of Love Is.. This overly-sweet (in my opinion) single-panel strip has been running since 1970, and  despite a new artist taking over the reins, it still seems like an artifact from that era.

Tatulli's brought in characters from other strips before, with uneven results. This time, his take is note-perfect, capturing the look of "Love Is..." And he manages to include some subversive humor as well, suggesting that at least one of the character has had enough of the strip's cheap sentimentality.  (click on image to enlarge)

Love it!

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Japanese Litho Train Sets 5 - Yonezawa Continental Flyer

I'm still in the early stages of gathering information for the Japanese lithographed train sets database project, and still unearthing some surprises.

#167 Continental Flyer Train Set -- the original.
Yonezowa produced a battery-operated toy train set named the Continental Flyer. It's a set that turns up fairly often on eBay. The set box bears the number 167, which is how I cataloged it. The 167 set featured a steam locomotive and tender, a tin lithographed Shell tank car, and a tin lithographed red caboose.

But then I ran across a later Yonezowa set that bore the same catalog number. Also called the Continental Flyer, this one had a plastic steam locomotive and tender, a gray plastic undecorated tank car, and a red plastic undecorated caboose.

In the business, this is known as a "running change."

So how did I catalog this one? As 167b, since it's obviously a later production run. Japanese toy production transitioned from using primarily metal to all-plastic in the early 1960's. The original 167 set, judging by the box art, was probably produced around 1959-1960. Which also might explain why the set continued on with plastic cars instead of just being brought out as a completely new set.

#167b Continental Flyer Train Set. Note that the cover
art has been replaced by a clear plastic window.
Interestingly, the box of the 167b set has the illustration of the set cut out and replaced with a clear plastic window. If you look closely at the 167 box, you'll see why. The illustration shows the Shell livery on the tank car, and a caboose that has a significantly different profile.

Creating a die to cut out that picture costs some money. I wonder how many boxes they had sitting around to justify the expense of modifying them with a cutout and a cellophane window.

#167 metal lithographed cars.
Technically, the 167b set is beyond the scope of the database project, as it's a plastic rather than a tin lithographed toy. But it's still one I need to include, simply to document the evolution of this catalog item.

Was this running change unique, or a was it a common practice at Yonezowa? Only further research can answer that one.

#167b plastic undecorated cars.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Dan Visconti: Lonesome Road - Music for explorers

Dan Visconti: Lonesome Roads
Scharoun Ensemble Berlin
Horszowski Trio 

Dan Visconti is a composer who's equally at home with classical and popular music traditions. The works on "Lonesome Roads" benefit from this convergence. Their vernacular gestures and rhythms help audiences immediately connect with them, giving even non-classical listeners readily understood points of reference. And the classical underpinnings to the works give them a satisfying complexity and structural integrity that reveals new details and relationships with every hearing.

This album presents a sampler of Visconti's chamber music. And while there is a certain consistency of aesthetic, the variety between the individual pieces is remarkable. "Remembrances" is a sweetly post-romantic work for cello and piano that's quite beautiful and serene. "Fractured Jams" is a series of abrupt mood changes, beginning with a movement full of sudden outbursts and halting motion, and ending with a rag distorted through a fun house mirror.

"Low Country Haze," for chamber orchestra shows Visconti's skill as an orchestrator. The music seems to coalesce out of the air, resolving into something that hangs shimmering before the listener. "Drift of Rainbows," for chamber orchestra and delay unit, has a similar quality to it. Think Arvo Part meets Barber's "Agnus Dei."

Then there's "Hard-Knock Stomp," a bluesy work for solo viola. And "Ramble and Groove" for solo bassoon -- a work that encourages the performer to make rude noises with his instrument (one of my favorite tracks).

"Lonesome Roads" is the centerpiece of this album. It's a fast-paced single movement work for piano trio. String techniques borrowed from bluegrass suggest rural roadways, while the relentless pressing of the rock-inspired rhythms imply that we're driving ever onward over these two-lane county roads hurrying towards an undisclosed destination.

This is an album for explorers. If you're fed up with Top 40 and are exploring the boundries of alternative music, "Lonesome Roads" will take you just a little further. If you're tired of the same old/same old classical repertoire, and are looking for something other than dry academic exercises, "Lonesome Roads" will renew your faith in classical music's contemporary relevance.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Japanese Litho Train Sets 4 - Straco, Cragstan and Distler

My informal postwar Japanese lithographed train sets databasing project continues, and I continue to turn up some interesting oddities. Last time (Cragstan, Distler and Nomura) I wrote about two virtually identical HO train sets, one made in German by Distler, the second in Japan by Nomura -- and both imported to the US by Cragstan.

Distler made another HO gauge train set for Cragstan. (click on images to enlarge)

This set features an EMD NW2-style switch engine, a box car, a gondola car, and a caboose.

I own a very similar set made in Japan and imported by F. J. Strauss Co., Inc. I've written extensively about the Straco Express, which consists of an EMD NW2-style switch engine, a box car, a gondola car, and a caboose.

Straco and Cragstan were two different companies, and probably competitors. So it's a different situation then having an importer just change manufacturers. And there are some distinct differences between the sets. The Distler set is mostly plastic, while the Straco is all tinplate construction. The cabooses are distinctively different.

Of the two, the Straco Express is a more elaborate -- and therefore costly -- set to make. Perhaps Cragstan contracted Distler to make a knockoff?

And the track for both sets is identical, which is something I find curious. All of the HO toy train sets I've run across -- whether made by Straco, Bandai, or Nomura -- use this same track. And the Cragstan/Distler sets do, too. So where did it come from? Is it possible these competing companies used the same sub-contractor? Or was the design for this track "borrowed" as well?

Friday, March 01, 2013

CCC 061 - Philippe Hersant

French composer Philippe Hersant is the subject of this installment of the Consonant Classical Challenge . Hersant is a relatively young composer who's already made a name for himself. Hersant's style has an exotic lyricism to it that fits well with instruments as well as the human voice. He currently serves that the resident composer for the Orchestre national de Lyon, and with good reason.

While Hersant is essentially a tonal composer, his harmonies are quite complex. To my ears, his music has some similarities to that of Debussy and Ravel. Hersant has also composed for film, which perhaps explains his ability to connect with an audience. His music is atmospheric and emotionally charged, which makes it perfectly suited for film.

Piece for Orchestra No. 5 provides a good introduction to Hersant's basic style. The music ebbs and flows in an impressionistic manner. The thick textures of the harmony change in subtle ways as the piece progresses.

Hersant's neo-impressionist style works as well for solo instruments as it does for ensembles. Bamyan for solo harp is a good example. Without relying on cliched glissandos, Hersant's music makes the instrument shimmer and sparkle in soft clouds of sound.

Hersant can write straight-forward melodies, too. 10 Caprice for 2 clarinets shows that ability. These short, to-the-point pieces are little more than melodic sketches, and delightful ones at that.

Hersant has composed a number of important concertos. His catalog includes two cello concertos, a violin concertos and a large work for piano and orchestra. It also includes Musical Humors, a work for solo viola and string orchestra. The triadic clusters that create the chords are very much part of the musical language of the 21st Century, for both pop and classical.

Philippe Hersant composes music that has a clear connection to the past -- but it's not mired in it. While I hear the influences of Debussy and Ravel, his music could not have been written at the turn of the 20th Century; only at the turn of the 21st. Modern audiences -- especially the younger elements -- should find a lot to connect to in his music. I'd love to hear more of his music. Perhaps an orchestra or two on this side of the Atlantic will take a chance sometime.

Recommended Recordings

La ville Louvre (soundtrack by Philippe Hersant)

Hersant: Paysages avec ruines, Im fremden Land, Chants du Sud & Missa Brevis

HERSANT: Musiques pour cordes