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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