Montage: Great Film Composers and the Piano (CD review)

Music of Bruce Broughton, Michael Giacchino, Don Davis, Alexandre Desplat, John Williams, and Randy Newman. Gloria Cheng, piano. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907635.

I once remarked to a friend that I thought film composers were writing some of the most-memorable orchestral music of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He merely scoffed at the idea. But I don't think we should reject out of hand the work of these folks just because they write primarily for the mass media. That was also the opinion of pianist Gloria Cheng a few years ago when in concert she began playing some of the piano music of famous Hollywood film composers. No, she wasn't playing movie scores; she was playing music specifically written by film composers for concert piano. Apparently, audiences greeted these concerts with overwhelming enthusiasm, and now Ms. Cheng gives us an album of such music, Montage, all of it written within the past few years, and most of it expressly for Ms. Cheng to play.

In the event you need a little background on Ms. Cheng, she won the Grammy award in 2009 for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance and in 2014 for Best Classical Instrumental Solo. She holds degrees from Stanford University, UCLA, and the University of Southern California, and she served as Regents Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.

Now, here's the thing: Despite Ms. Cheng's best efforts, these concert piano pieces probably will not remain in the public consciousness for as long as the composers' film scores do. It's just the nature of the game. Fifty or a hundred years from now, audiences will still be enjoying the movies these composers wrote for--watching the films at home, in retrospectives, or listening to albums of classic film music--while audiences may only run into the piano pieces at the very occasional live performance. The music business, like so much of life, has never been fair.

Anyway, first up on Ms. Cheng's program is Five Pieces for Piano by Bruce Broughton (Silverado, Tombstone, Young Sherlock Holmes), a five-movement suite Mr. Broughton presented to Ms. Cheng in 2010. Broughton alternates fast, flowing movements with slower, more languid ones and a set of variations in the middle. Ms. Cheng plays all of it with a good deal of bravura finger work combined with a sweet sensitivity. This may not be great music, but Ms. Cheng treats it as such.

Next up is Composition 430 (2013) by Michael Giacchino (Up, Lost, Ratatouille). Mr. Giacchino tells us it's "the reflection of a memory I have from a particular moment in time while growing up in New Jersey. I remember the feeling of freedom I had while riding my bike around the neighborhood and the sense of self that it brought me." Giacchino's music is sweetly nostalgic, becoming more outwardly expressive as it goes along, and Ms. Cheng carries it off with a fine sense of sentiment without being sentimental. At around six minutes, it's also about the right length to maintain this mood.

After that is Surface Tension (2013) by Don Davis (The Matrix, Beauty and the Beast). Mr. Davis tells us the music "explores the tension created by the juxtaposition of sound/time surfaces as expressed by the metaphor of a well-integrated visual object in which curvature changes systematically." I confess I know next to nothing about modern music, and while I admired Davis's use of tension and release and differing tempos and rhythms, the overall effect did not really impress me much. I enjoyed Ms. Cheng's handing of it and cannot imagine it better played, technically or intellectually; and I liked her handling of the softer middle section best because it was the only part I could much understand.

Gloria Cheng
Then, there is L'Etreinte ("The Embrace") from Trois Etudes by Alexandre Desplat (Argo, The King's Speech, The Grand Budapest Hotel), which Mr. Desplat says "are dedicated to Solre, who is my concertmaster, my artistic director, and also my wife." Lang Lang premiered them in 2012. Desplat's piece may remind some listeners of Debussy with its dreamy lyricism, and that's a compliment. Ms. Cheng approaches its delicate tone in a lovely, subtle fashion.

Following Desplat's L'Etreinte is Conversations (2012) by John Williams (Star Wars, E.T., Close Encounters, Indiana Jones). Mr. Williams explains that it represents a conversation "between the great jazz pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. and Elizabeth Freeman, known as Mumbett, a resident of western Massachusetts and a former slave who sued the state of Massachusetts in 1781 for her freedom...and she won!" The Williams piece is the longest work on the program, as perhaps befits his stature as a leading composer of our day. His "conversations" take us through several musical genres, most of it quiet and meditative, which Ms. Cheng negotiates nicely.

The program concludes with Family Album: Homage to Alfred, Emil and Lionel Newman (2013) by Randy Newman (Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Cars), written at Ms. Cheng's request. As we might expect, Newman's music is light, joyful, tuneful, often playful, and almost old-fashioned compared to some of the other pieces on the album. It's also delightfully accessible as it takes us through several musical eras with various references to familiar tunes of the day. If I had to put money on the lasting power of any of the music on this disc, I'd put it on Newman's material, not because it's any better than the rest but because, as I say, it's so listener friendly. Ms. Cheng handles it with loving care.

Producer Judith Sherman and engineer Ben Maas of Fifth Circle Audio recorded the music at Zipper Hall, The Colburn School, Los Angeles, California in April 2014. The piano sounds a trifle close, but there is a fine sense of room ambience around it, the notes displaying a pleasant bloom and resonance. Clarity, too, is quite good, without ever sounding bright or hard.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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