Spotlight on John Williams, City Light Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kevin Griffiths
A Review by Mikko Ojala
Maestro John Williams who just turned 89 this February is a musical icon and legend in more ways than one. This polite, unassuming gentleman’s indelible and memorable film scores are recognized and loved by countless people around the world, and he is at home on a soundstage in Hollywood just as much as he is in the concert hall. A consummate musicians’ musician who is respected and loved by both his peers and colleagues in the musical world and by the legions of adoring fans for his film scores. He has even been accepted into the hallowed halls of classical music, most recently when he was invited to conduct his film music with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein concert house in 2020, which speaks volumes about the power, reach and influence of his music.
The popularity and influence of John Williams’ music has also made it some of the most re-recorded film music in history, with various ensembles and conductors around the world recording new interpretations of both his concert and film music. The most recent one of these, Spotlight on John Williams, has been released by the Prospero Classical and is performed by the City Light Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kevin Griffiths and featuring a whole host of soloists. The Lucerne Switzerland based City Light Symphony Orchestra itself is a relatively young one, formed in 2018, and this is their debut album recording. Since its inception the orchestra has been specializing in the performance of live-to-projection film music concerts, which in itself would indicate that they are ideally suited to perform the film music of John Williams from the classic scores like Jurassic Park, Superman, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter. And after hearing this album I would say they are qualified indeed.
The album opens with the classic rousing Overture from The Cowboys that charges forth with Coplandesque gusto, the spirited and rambunctious musical signatures alternating with the wonderful broad and lyrical Americana theme for the open spaces of the West, a perfect way to start the album and wonderfully performed to boot. Here the strings are highlighted and there are several places where Kevin Griffiths brings out to great effect the subtle melodic string lines that are often overshadowed by the brass in many performances.
A different style of Americana can be found later in the programme in the selections from Theme from Born on the Fourth of July and Theme from JFK. These two pieces form part of Williams’ unofficial “Oliver Stone trilogy” that also includes Nixon, and all of them feature trumpet as a central musical voice, played so memorably by Tim Morrison on the original soundtrack recordings. Here renowned trumpeter Reinhold Friedrich performs these solos and lends his own distinct signature to both pieces. In Main Theme from Born on the Fourth of July Friedrich’s steely trumpet calls very well fit the repeated opening motif, a haunting signal for the horrors of war, that is soon contrasted by the heart-achingly sweeping, idealistic Americana main theme that soars forth from the City Light orchestra’s string section, highlighting Williams’ masterful, rich writing for the string ensemble, that is again later joined by Friedrich in a dreamily serenading middle passage before the music returns to the haunting trumpet calls and a beautifully performed somber solo trumpet coda.
Theme from JFK casts the trumpet in a more heraldic role as it nobly soliloquies over warm strings and snare drum tattoo before the piece steadily grows into an impassioned series of variations of the main theme that travel through the orchestra before the final trumpet statement draws the piece to a serene close. The performance captures the hopeful, optimistic, even idealistic mood of the piece very well, the brass sounding especially warm and full on this recording.
As with the above mentioned Born on the Fourth of July and JFK, John Williams very often writes his music with very specific musicians in mind, their sound and skills informing his writing, and two other pieces on this album further illustrate this. Viktor’s Tale – For Solo Clarinet and Orchestra from The Terminal was originally written for the sessions musician clarinetist Emily Bernstein and features a quite tricky solo part for the instrument, which is skillfully realized on this recording by Paul Meyer, accompanied by Laurent Derache on accordion, to lend this humorously jaunty piece its Eastern European flavour.
Escapades – For Alto Saxophone and Orchestra from Catch Me If You Can is another one of these collaborations where John Williams wrote the whole score with a specific instrument and musician in mind. On the original sessions the legendary saxophonist Dan Higgins performed the numerous saxophone solos, and after recording the film score, Williams very quickly assembled this concert suite from the score, and it has become one of his most performed pieces by orchestras and soloists around the world. The suite comprises of three contrasting movements covering most of the film score’s main musical ideas, which takes its stylistic inspirations from the progressive jazz of 1960’s, and features on this fine recording Valentine Michaud on alto saxophone, Fabian Ziegler on vibraphone and Diego Caruso on double bass. Closing In opens the suite with a sort of cat and mouse chase, question-and-answer theme between the alto saxophone and the orchestra as both repeat the central motif and race after another, complete with jazzy double bass, vibraphone and even finger snapping from the players of the orchestra for good measure. Reflections presents a beautiful yearning theme for the main character’s relationship with his father, a wonderfully moody, melancholic piece that includes an extensive, involved saxophone solo which allows Michaud to fully shine as the instrument is given center stage to carry the musical drama and emotion. Joy Ride is a playful and joyous finale where Michaud’s saxophone again dances confidently over the sparkling orchestral waves, often racing against the orchestra or weaving in and out of its textures or having little playful dialogues with Fabian Ziegler’s vibraphone and Diego Caruso’s double bass.
And of course the fan favourites like Theme from Jurassic Park, Superman March, The Flight to Neverland from Hook and End Credits from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom all receive their due on this album with energetic performances, that showcase the orchestra as a whole as much as they illustrate Williams’ mastery of the orchestral idiom and orchestration to create such effortless aural images and moods that in these pieces range from playful oriental exoticism and heroism to awe and wonder and the sheer joy and magnificence of flight.
Star Wars of course is a huge part of John Williams’ career and among his most enduring and popular works. The City Light orchestra has chosen to cover this iconic franchise on his album with the relatively fresh entry into the canon, the four-part Suite for Orchestra from the Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. March of the Resistance, that opens the suite, is a formal presentation of the theme for the Resistance, that is depicted by a taut militaristic fugue march full of determination and thunder. Rey’s Theme is the formal full-fledged presentation of the new main heroine’s theme that has the broad sweeping lyrical quality as well as an energetic heroic aspect of Williams’ best Star Wars themes. Scherzo for X-Wings is just that, a breathless scherzo where Williams cleverly develops the piece out of heroic variations of the Star Wars main title theme that is at the same time fresh and full of nostalgia and the Jedi Steps and Finale brilliantly draws together all this thematic material into a perfect summation of the whole score. The performances, which in themselves are very precise and well-articulated, again subtly differ from the originals in terms of slightly varying mixing choices and emphasis on different orchestral sections and thus offer a chance to hear this music with fresh ears and notice nuances perhaps previously gone unnoticed on previous recordings.
In very similar vein to the adventures of Indiana Jones the animated The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn inspired Williams to write some of his most swashbuckling, playfully energetic music and the City Light Symphony Orchestra presents two selections from this film in their programme. The quirky Opening Credits feels like a nod to both the classic cartoon scoring of Carl Stalling in its zany twists combined with jazz colourations in its orchestrations as it closely follows a sort of mini-adventure presented in the opening sequence of the film. Fun instrumental colours include harpsichord, cheeky muted brass, tolling tubular bells and accordion that all lend the piece a feel of a very singular jazz band number. This is I believe also the first time this cue has ever been re-recorded anywhere and feels both faithful to the original while still uniquely its own interpretation of the music. The Duel on the other hand is a fully orchestral, quick and constantly forward pulsing witty scherzando where the orchestra performs a sort of mini ballet of musical sword thrusts, stabs and parries, stops and starts, that match every jump, jab and lunge in the film’s sword fight and is a terrific musical love letter from Williams to the style of the derring-do swashbuckler scores of the likes of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner.
Harry Potter franchise is represented on this album by no less than four pieces. Surprisingly, the usual suspect, Hedwig’s theme, is nowhere in sight but the selections here more than make up for it. For Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Williams penned quite a few concert suites and here we have two: The Chamber of Secrets that musically effectively depicts an ominous growing danger through the ever expanding and thickening orchestrations that build and build around the gloomy central melody that finally reaches a terrific, fervently stormy conclusion. Fawkes the Phoenix offers a musical antidote to the previous dark piece in the form of a flowing and luminous fairy tale theme for woodwinds and strings that dances and soars in such an innocent fashion.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is summed up in a suite Witches, Wands and Wizards that contains bravura playing from every section of the orchestra as the piece contains some of the most frantic and virtuoso music from the score. Nimbus 2000 – For Woodwind Choir from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone closes the whole album and this piece of music is actually a movement from the Harry Potter Children’s Suite, which was written by Williams to introduce the different sections of the orchestra to young audiences. This one as the name suggests has the whole woodwind family passing around and performing together the flying theme from the film in a wonderfully bouncy playful manner and does indeed also show off the excellent woodwind players of the City Light orchestra.
Spotlight on John Williams is a very impressive and confident debut album from the City Light Symphony Orchestra and a lovingly produced and performed tribute to one of the masters of film music. The title of the album Spotlight on John Williams is a very apt one, not only because the album features a broad range of compositions from John Williams most famous scores, that showcase the composer’s versatility and command of the orchestral idiom, but also because the aim of the whole team of musicians involved has been to shed new light on these very familiar pieces through their fresh interpretations. These little moments are sprinkled throughout the album whether through performance or mixing, where a seasoned John Williams fan might notice perhaps, how the string section is highlighted over the usually more prominent brass in one of the pieces or woodwinds get their moment to shine in another.
The performances captured at KKL Luzern Concert Hall are of high caliber throughout with excellent contributions from the soloists, and conductor Kevin Griffiths and the orchestra show affinity for John Williams’ music. If I were pressed to give some criticism on the album, I would say that some moments here and there felt to me almost too polished and polite at the expense of raw expressive emotional energy which might be due to the reverence given to the maestro’s music, but that is a minor niggle on this otherwise excellent production. And while the music selection on the release is for the most part playing it quite safe with the well-known and time-honored classics as this album is naturally aimed for the widest possible audience, it does strike a good balance between old and the new. While Superman, Jurassic Park and Harry Potter will certainly be the main draw for the casual fan of film music, pieces like the Escapades suite, The Adventures of Tintin and the suite from The Force Awakens should make this release well worth investigating even for the more experienced collectors and aficionados of John Williams’ music. As far as musical celebrations of John Williams, the man, his art and his music go, this album is certainly a winner and hopefully we will hear more recordings from the City Light Symphony Orchestra soon. Warmly recommended.