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.