John Williams

  • Violins of Hope


    Violins of Hope
    Niv Ashkenazi, violin. Matthew Graybill, piano.
    Sharon Farber, piano. Tony Campisi, narrator.
    Albany Records TROY 1810
    Total Time: 58:37
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    In the midst of a pandemic, an album with the title Violins of Hope is certainly a welcome experience.  This beautiful collection of 10 varied works for solo violin is a picture of musical approaches across the 20th Century gathered around the very instrument that is used to perform them.  Soloist Niv Ashkenazi perform here on a restored violin that comes from the Violins of Hope project.  The collection of instruments are restored violins that were owned by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.  These are then loaned out for use to give these instruments a voice that cannot be silenced by the horrors of this moment in history.  Ashkenazi’s connection to the project has allowed him to have one of these instruments on a more long-term loan which has allowed him to capture a sense of the instrument’s unique voice and qualities.  His choice of bow is also worth noting as it comes from the same workshop of Ammon and Avshalom Weinstein and was constructed by Daniel Schmidt at the Israeli luthier’s business in the 1990s.

    The music for this release encapsulates works written during the lifetime of this particular instrument which is believed to have been constructed in Eastern Europe, or Germany, between 1900-29.  The repertoire is carefully chosen to explore the richness of this particular instrument featuring some familiar works, but some wonderful discoveries as well.

    Robert Dauber’s Serenade (1942) is a wonderful opener for the album that demonstrates Ashkenazi’s impeccable range of interpretation and tone.  There are some simply stunning moments in the upper register of the instrument coupled with a moving, engaging performance.  In fact, as the album continues, there is a real emotional core that Ashkenazi finds for these pieces.  There is that somber quality which is explored in “Nigun” from Bloch’s Baal Shem suite (1923) followed by a beautiful performance of John William’s theme from Schindler’s List (1993).  Julius Chajes’ melancholy The Chassid (1939) is an interesting work as well exploring Jewish musical gestures.  Some other brief excerpts here include the delightful “Dance of the Rebbitzen” from George Perlman’s Suite hebraique (1929), Paul Ben-Haim’s beautiful “Berceuse sfaradite”, and a “Kaddish” from Ravel’s Deux melodies hebraiques (1914, arranged by Lucien Garban in 1924).  Each of these explores Jewish melodic ideas within their unique modernist/impressionist styles.  Sharon Farber’s Bestimming: Triumph (2014, arr. 2019) is taken from her cello concerto.  It is a truly moving work that utilizes a narrated text about a Holocaust survivor who managed to save more than 150 children as part of the Dutch Resistance.  It is a powerful work with a grand, triumphant conclusion.

    Two multi-movement works are provided as a mid-point and conclusion to the album.  First is Szymon Laks’ Troi pieces de concert (1935) includes a modernist set of variations, a romance, and virtuosic moto perpetual motion finale.  Laks managed to survive Auschwitz though much of his earlier work was destroyed or lost.  This particular work existed only in a cello version but was reconstructed for violin in 2010.  Finally, the album concludes with Ben-Haim’s Three Songs Without Words (1945).  Here is a bit of a nutshell summary of the exploration of most of these composers in period modernism and somewhat expanded harmony and open intervals that grace music from this period.

    The notes accompanying this album help navigate these unfamiliar works well.  But it is the playing itself which will invite further listening.  This is a very well-chosen program of accessible (mostly) early 20th Century music that is filled with references to Hebraic melodies, but also plumbs the depths of the soul as one reflects upon the century.  Ashkenazi’s performances invite the listener into these works and captures the lyrical beauty of these pieces.  He allows the instrument to sing with moments that can sense the deep sadness and those which lift the spirits and move from melancholy to hope and triumph.  The program itself helps the listener move through these emotions as well as we can both enjoy what each piece has done, followed often by a more reflective musical work that offers us to consider what was lost.  He is served very well by his accompanist Matthew Graybil who provides excellent support to these interpretations.  Albany’s sound, captured in the wonderful Great Hall at California State University, Northridge, also is an asset with excellent sound imaging.

    Violins of Hope is an important release for those exploring both the repertoire explored here as well as being introduced to a great, thoughtful performer with an instrument that will not be silenced.  Highly recommended!

  • Cinncinnati Pops Heads into Space


    Kate Mulgrew, narrator.
    Cincinnati Pops/John Morris Russell
    Fanfare Cincinnati 15
    Total Time:  64:26
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: (*)***/****

     Several years have elapsed since the last film music compilation from the Cincinatti Pops.  John Morris Russell, who assumed the music director post after Erich Kunzel’s departure, has continued to incorporate standard pops favorites while also expanding their repertoire with new arrangements and commissioned works.  That is also the case here on Voyage which is the orchestra’s 96th album and is being released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing.  For this occasion, Russell has culled together a collection of music reminiscent of the Boston Pops Out of this World album.  Here though composer Michael Giacchino gets to be front and center.

    Giacchino was commissioned to craft an orchestral work that captured the anxiousness and exhilarating thrill of the moon landing.  The resulting work is also assigned as the album’s title, Voyage.  The ten-minute piece features warm thematic writing in the sort of Star Trek-like style.  It is a rather gorgeous work with nice percussion touches and brass writing, but it also feels as if it is providing nice challenges across the orchestra.  After the initial thematic statement, the music shifts into a fascinating blend of repeated motives in a growing dense, somewhat dissonant mass before a glorious unison appears (taking a page from Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra opening as used in 2001: A Space Odyssey).  Giacchino fans will appreciate hearing some of his familiar scoring tropes as they provide transitions into his always engaging, rich thematic writing.  Time will tell if the piece gets more opportunities for performances in the coming years.

    There are some nice surprises along the way.  Russell frames the film music selections with movements from the titular classical science fiction nod, Holst’s The Planets.  He uses “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” as an opener to get things off to a nice start.  Later the other popular, “Mars, the Bringer of War” will serve as a penultimate track.  Of the three, it has the best bite.  The album closes with Holst’s Venus movement which features a reading of John Gillespie McGee’s “High Flight”.  The reading is by none other than Captain Janeway herself, Kate Mulgrew.  Though, unfortunately, the album misses out on also including the theme from Star Trek: Voyager.  The tribute though to the moon landing, outlined in this text, does help provide a programmatic shape to the collection.

    Appealing first to a younger generation of music lovers, Russell kicks off the film music section with the title track to 2009’s reboot of Star Trek with Giacchino’s exciting new themes.  No science fiction film music compilation would be complete with at least some Star Wars music.  Here, we are treated to “The Jedi Steps and Finale” from Williams’ score to Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Immediate comparisons between Williams’ own style and Giacchino’s can be made here as three selections from the latter’s score for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (“Jyn Erso and Hope Suite”, “The Imperial Suite”, “Guardians of the Whills Suite”) follow with about twelve minutes of music from that score.  It is also wonderful to see David Newman’s delightful parody score for Galaxy Quest being represented with the theme from that film.  On the orchestra’s Superheroes! Russell had included a suite that covered some of the great television themes of old.  Here Rebecca Pellett has created new arrangements of six themes in a new “suite” called Spaced Out! Favorite Sci-Fi TV Themes.  Each theme is assigned its own track which should satisfy fans who want to repeat any of them again.  One of the great surprises is that Williams’ themes from Lost In Space are included and used to bookend the collection.  The theme from the first two seasons kicks things off and the variation used for season three brings it to a close.  In between are brief covers of the themes for Battlestar Gallactica (sic), Dr. Who (the Ron Grainer version), Buck Rogers, and Space:1999.  This is the suite of favorites for Gen X-ers to be sure.  The other interesting selection here, and another nod that Russell keeps an ear open for new film music, is the inclusion of the theme from Justin Hurwitz’s score First Man (2018) which won a Golden Globe for best score this year.  The piece for harp and theremin makes for an interesting contrast to Giacchino’s more traditional commission which precedes it.

    Russell is wise to focus on more unique repertoire here which allows his orchestra room for their own interpretations of this music.  The sound here has a full, rich quality.  It might be just slightly bass heavy in spots (hard to tell on the downloaded version provided here).  The release is certainly filled with engaging music that is superbly played and well-sequenced. It also helps that there is not a lot of duplicated music here from other compilations.