ALBUM REVIEW: Traffic Quintet Plays Alexandre Desplat

by Maggie Molloy
Most music and film fans are familiar with the music of Alexandre Desplat. After all, eight Oscar nominations (including one win), two BAFTA awards, a Golden Globe, and two Grammys tend to put you on the map.

But even if you’ve never heard of Alexandre Desplat, you’ve almost certainly heard his music. Do movies like The Queen, The Golden Compass, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ring a bell? How about The Danish Girl, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Godzilla, and The Grand Budapest Hotel? Desplat composed the music for all of them, and for many more.

But you don’t have to be a movie buff to appreciate the music of Desplat—in fact, you don’t even have to watch the movies.
The Traffic Quintet recently released an album titled “Traffic Quintet Plays Alexandre Desplat,” which reimagines 13 of Desplat’s famous film scores for piano quintet, with occasional interventions from the composer himself on flute, glockenspiel, and celesta.

Led by director and violinist Dominique Lemonnier (better known as Solrey), the Traffic Quintet is committed to revisiting iconic soundtracks which have entered into the musical canon. The ensemble, which features violinists Solrey and Constantin Bobesco, violist Estelle Villotte, cellist Raphaël Perraud, and bassist Philippe Noharet, made their debut in cinema in 1997 when they performed Desplat’s music for Jacques Audiard’s film Un héros très discret. After their first encounter with the silver screen, they kept their film-inspired name, a tribute to filmmaker Jacques Tati, and began to explore the world of film music. For this latest project, the quintet is joined by the pianist Alain Planes.

Traffic Quintet Alexandre DesplatAfter working on Un héros très discret,
Solrey became Desplat’s favorite soloist, concertmaster, artistic director, and eventually, his wife.

“Solrey’s influence on my music is crucial,” Desplat said. “When I heard her sound for the first time, the rich palette of her bow technique, the energy or tenderness she could convey with her instrument, I was under her charm, I was hooked: I had to inject this special and modern conception of violin playing into my compositions.”

Solrey supervised all the transcriptions on “Traffic Quintet Plays Alexandre Desplat,” and was also the one who persuaded Desplat to perform on the album. But with such a vast library of musical scores to choose from, how could they possibly pick which to perform?

“Closely,” Desplat said, “Solrey and I would spend hours listening to my collection of soundtracks to decide which piece had the potential required: a strong musicality and an original orchestration, which offered many transcription options, a technical challenge for the five musicians.”

Solrey also came up with the musical program for the album. Given the ensemble’s strong ties to cinema, the Traffic Quintet’s performances feature original video projections which tie into the colors and themes of the music in order to create an immersive experience for the audience. For this album, Solrey uses Desplat’s native city Paris as the storyline, musically portraying a leisurely stroll along the banks of the River Seine, capturing the changing light and the mysterious secrets of the river.

“Alexandre’s music invites you on a walk, wraps you up and lulls you gently into contemplation,” Solrey said. “The beauty of the banks and the ever-flowing streams of the Seine become a source of inspiration. I have been steeped in his music for so many years that when I came to go through the many scores I had recorded as a solo violinist, creating a sequence that would trace Alexandre’s musical evolution came quite naturally to me.”

The stroll begins with a twinkling piano theme from The King’s Speech. Soft strings accent the sweetly circling piano melody in this charming rendition of the movie’s warm, minimalist soundtrack.

Then, as if walking past the open window of a riverside apartment, the listener is suddenly transported into a daydream. A gorgeous, haunting flute and violin theme takes the listener into the mid-17th century world of Girl with a Pearl Earring. The two instruments intertwine over a bed of strings, balancing passionate lyricism with restraint, evoking musical images of the the young maid and her painter.

Yearning strings then travel through tales of love, death, and heartbreak in the music from Love Etc. and Le plus bel âge. The Traffic Quintet amps up the drama for the syncopated melodies and the textured pizzicato and col legno harmonies of Un héro très discret, a movie about a French man who sets out to Paris to find adventure and make himself a hero.

But like any slow stroll along the water, the listener soon encounters the shadows and hidden secrets of the flowing river. Aggressive, bold bowings and relentless rhythmic drive build suspense in the music of the political thriller, The Ghost Writer, before the listener returns to the calm, contemplative piano melodies of the existential, experimental drama film The Tree of Life.

Cello and double bass ground the foreboding music of Un prophète, a film about an imprisoned Algerian criminal who rises in the inmate hierarchy. Subtle glockenspiel flourishes and persistent col legno bowings create texture beneath the dramatic violin melodies. Tragedy, mystery, and discovery shine through in the pensive melodies and arresting climaxes of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, with introspective melodies shifting through flute, violin, piano, and cello.

The walk along the river eventually takes the listener through tales of forbidden love, transitioning through the ominous and slow-moving crescendos of the espionage erotic thriller Lust, Caution followed by the soaring, palpably passionate (and sometimes mischievous) violin and cello melodies of Chéri.

Layered strings shift slowly through colorful harmonies in the music of Sur mes lèvres, and the Parisian stroll comes to a close with the whimsical lyricism and silvery shimmer of Coco avant Chanel, a tribute to French film, fashion, and music.

And although Desplat and the Traffic Quintet traverse the music of 13 wildly different films in just over an hour, all the individual stories blend together in the beautiful wash of the River Seine.

ALBUM REVIEW: “MONTAGE: Great Film Composers and the Piano”

by Maggie Molloy

montageAs award season comes to a close, film composers tend to fall out of the limelight—they collect their sparkling Oscars and, presumably, they return to their studios to begin work on their next major motion picture film scores. But what do these famous composers do on their days off from the movie set? What music do they write after the credits stop rolling?

Renowned concert pianist Gloria Cheng asked just that.

Cheng invited six of today’s most prominent film composers to create new music for a relatively unfamiliar medium—solo piano. In doing so, she stripped away the glamorous movie stars, the booming studio orchestra, and all the Hollywood movie magic to reveal who these composers are deep down as their most honest and intimate selves.

(purchase the album here!)

Her new album, titled “Montage: Great Film Composers and the Piano” is a collection of solo piano works by esteemed film composers John Williams, Randy Newman, Bruce Broughton, Alexandre Desplat, Michael Giacchino, and Don Davis. Collectively, the composers have amassed 72 Oscar nominations and nine wins (so far).

“All of these composers are so well-known for writing film music, but I knew there was an inner composer inside of all of them that just was dying to write music for the sake of writing music,” said Cheng. “That’s what I was curious about—what’s inside of them?”

The result is an album of piano music with subtle cinematic hints and a whole lot of heart.

The album begins with Bruce Broughton’s “Five Pieces for Piano,” a set of short character pieces each with its own distinct personality. At the center of the composition is a set of charming (and sometimes jazzy) variations on a catchy pentatonic theme. The surrounding pieces experiment with dense musical textures, punchy rhythms, energetic runs, and at times, tender lyrical melodies. Needless to say, it shows quite a different musical side of Broughton than you may have heard in his adventurous, wild Western-tinged “Silverado” score.

The second piece is Michael Giacchino’s “Composition 430.” Perhaps best known for his work in movies like “Star Trek” (the 2009 version), “Up,” “Ratatouille,” and a slew of other Pixar films, Giacchino’s solo piano piece captures a similar element of enchanting adventure and whimsical childhood nostalgia.

As one might expect, “The Matrix” film composer Don Davis’s contribution to the album is somewhat more mathematical (and perhaps even metaphysical) in nature. His piece, titled “Surface Tension,” uses a carefully calculated formula as a starting point from which he explores a narrative arc of increasing and decreasing tempo, dynamic, and pitch range.

French composer Alexandre Desplat’s “L’Étreinte” (from his “Trois Études”) shows unmistakable Impressionist influences, with its artfully blended harmonies immersing the listener in a beautiful, dreamlike wash of sound that flows sweetly from beginning to end. It should come as no surprise that Desplat is the composer behind charming, whimsical films like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and “Moonrise Kingdom.”

What is perhaps more unexpected is John Williams’s contribution to the album, “Conversations.” With a dizzying number of Oscar nominations (and wins) for movies like “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “E.T.,” and the first three “Harry Potter” films, most listeners would probably expect Williams to spin out some type of catchy, theatrical theme. Instead, the four-movement piano work is something of a concept piece exploring a series of imagined conversations between various historical figures from different eras. The result is every bit as dramatic and idiosyncratic as the film music Williams is known for—but just a little bit jazzier.

The album comes to a close with Randy Newman’s soulful and sincere “Family Album: Homage to Alfred, Emil and Lionel Newman,” a five-movement work written in memory of his famous film composer uncles. Each movement is a short anecdote, a small glimpse into the sparkling glamour and sweet nostalgia of old Hollywood. The pieces match Newman’s trademark style: simple, sweet, and charmingly poignant (and certainly reminiscent of his work in “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and other Pixar films).

And of course, Cheng performs each piece with exceptional imagination and artistry, bringing each character to life with sincerity and technical prowess—and proving that the music of these famous film composers is not just for the movie theatre.