Various Artists

The Music of America: John Williams

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Each release in Sony's budget Music of America series offers three discs, devoted to the music of a single composer, accompanied by a brief booklet essay and some vintage photos. Most of the releases seem designed to provide one more go-round for the classics of the Columbia catalog from the 1950s and 1960s, by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the like. This selection of music by John Williams is a little different, and it's interesting purely in terms of how sharply Williams' reputation has risen since 1990, the year of the earliest recordings on the set. These come from the Boston Pops and, in the case of the music from Star Wars, the so-called Skywalker Symphony Orchestra from George Lucas' Skywalker Studios in California. The most recent recording is of Air and Simple Gifts, composed for the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009 and recorded at that time by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Gabriela Montero, and Anthony McGill. That work is reasonably well-known simply because of the prominent perch from which it made its debut, and the film scores certainly qualify as American classics, but it's a different story with the concert pieces on most of the first disc and part of the second. Most of these come from commissions from major symphony orchestras, who have given them their first performances and recordings, but few have entered the repertory. It's convenient, as Williams gains more general recognition, to have a collection of these in one place. One might argue that it is program and incidental music, in the most general senses of these terms, that fire the composer's imagination, but also that pieces like the bassoon concerto The Five Sacred Trees are worthy of more general recognition. At any rate, the balance between familiar material and novelties has been one of the strengths of Sony's series, and it's especially valuable here.

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