A Tribute to John Williams (CD review)

An 80th Birthday Celebration. Guest appearances by Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma; John Williams, various orchestras. Sony 88691942532.

My Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines "classical music" as "of, pertaining to, or constituting the formally and artistically more sophisticated and enduring types of music, as distinguished from popular and folk music and jazz. Classical music includes symphonies, operas, sonatas, song cycles, and lieder." A pretty broad definition, huh?

OK, how about the American Heritage Dictionary: "Of or relating to music in the educated European tradition, such as symphony and opera, as opposed to popular or folk music." Still pretty general, isn't it? Try the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music: "Popularly, all art music as against popular music." Yet even more general. Oh, dear.

I bring this up because I've often wondered which classical composers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries might be as popular and highly regarded a hundred years from now as composers like Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, or Copland are these days. Modern composers have produced a ton of serious "classical music" in the past fifty years, but will it still be selling in the year 2112? Is it even selling today?

Maybe it comes down to how one defines "classical music." Mozart wrote Don Giovanni as serious music for the courts and upper classes and The Magic Flute as popular music for the more-common public. These days, we consider both works equally as "classical music." What about Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operettas or Schubert's lieder or Gershwin's music for jazz band or cinema: Classical or popular music? If Liszt had been around in the 1930's and written Les Preludes directly for the Flash Gordon serials, would we still consider it classical music? Is Addinsell's Warsaw Concerto "classical music" or not because he wrote it for a movie?

I mean, some modern composers seem to think that if they write anything the general public might like, anything with melody or rhythm or even harmony, must be too common and, therefore, can't be very good. Modern composers often strain to be different, to be pathfinders in order for listeners to take them seriously, and some of them appear to look down their noses at composers who simply work for a living giving the masses what they want.

Now, don't get me wrong; I don't want to sound like a Soviet censor. I just believe that we might get along better if we judged all music equally--from Romantic to avant-garde, from traditional to experimental--and didn't automatically shrink from any music that happens to conform to older norms.

Which gets me to my point (finally): Will critics of serious music ever consider film music "classical music"? Is classical music primarily a matter of intent, complexity, structure, or design? Maybe, yet symphony orchestras all over the world play concerts of film music and fill their halls with it. Therefore, is film music "classical" if a noted symphony orchestra plays it? I posit this hypothesis: A hundred years from now, film composer John Williams may be among the most-popular "classical" composers of his generation, still selling recordings (in whatever medium exists a hundred years from now), still being performed by symphony orchestras, and obviously still celebrated as a "classical" composer of big-scale symphonic works.

That doesn't mean I think the music of John Williams is any better or more important than the music of a thousand more innovative, more creative, more "modern" composers of the past half century. I just think in its general appeal, Williams's music will last longer than the music of most of his more "serious" contemporaries.

And, as an example, we come to the album under discussion, A Tribute to John Williams. It contains fifteen of his personal favorite pieces, most of them familiar to almost anybody with ears, all of them conducted by Mr. Williams himself with various orchestras over the years and recorded between 1991 and 2012 by RCA, Sony, and others. They include works for movies, television, concerts, and festive occasions, all of them "symphonic," all of them "classical" by at least somebody's definition.

The program begins with the jubilant "Sound the Bells!," made with the Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles in 2000. It's an appropriate curtain-raiser. Then it's on to more-familiar ground with music from Jaws, the charming "Shark Cage Fugue," recorded with the Boston Pops in 1990. Following that is the enchanting main theme from Sabrina, with soloist Itzhak Perlman and the Pittsburgh Symphony from 1996. And from the sublime to the ridiculous, we get the humorously boisterous "March" from 1941, with the Boston Pops, 1990. It's great, good fun.

And so it goes, with more tracks from E.T., Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Schindler's List, Tintin, and the NBC Nightly News. But you don't always get the movements you expect, like the haunting "Dartmoor, 1912" theme from War Horse.

In addition, we find the undoubtedly "classical" Elegy for Cello and Orchestra with soloist Yo-Yo Ma and the Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles, 2001. Perhaps what I found most memorable, however, was "Going to School" from Memoirs of a Geisha, again played by soloist Yo-Yo Ma for the motion picture soundtrack in 2005.

Then, for sheer brilliance, there's the penultimate number on the program, the "Throne Room Theme" from Star Wars, with Williams leading the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra from 1990.

The album ends with the multifaceted Happy Birthday Variations, previously unreleased though recorded in 1999. It makes an apt conclusion to Mr. Williams's birthday celebrations and further muddies the waters, leaving us wondering more than ever just what constitutes "classical music."

The recordings all sound good, but they are not always entirely realistic or natural. The sonics are more in the tradition of motion-picture soundtracks: multi-miked, in many cases one-dimensional, slightly forward, always clear, but just as often light.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa