The "pops" orchestra doesn't have quite the role in the American cultural landscape that it did in the days of Arthur Fiedler and John Williams, but the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, under current director John Morris Russell, has a consistently strong record. Consider Voyage, a 2019 recording on the theme of space travel, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon shot. You wouldn't expect space travel to make up enough of a repertory for a whole album, given the traditional nature of the orchestral medium, but Russell manages it by looking both forward and backward in time: forward to the present, with new music by composer Michael Giacchino specially composed for the project, and back to several selections from The Planets of Gustav Holst. In between come John Williams cuts, both famous (some Star Wars music) and obscure (sample the totally delightful one-minute clip from the Lost in Space television series), as well as works by other composers. A cynic might say that the program just shows how much better Williams is at this stuff than other composers; the tonal and rhythmic boldness of his big themes remains unmatched. However, the entire program flows in a satisfying way; it's beautifully recorded in Cincinnati's old wooden music hall, and you get Kate Mulgrew narrating John Gillespie Magee's poem High Flight ("slip the surly bonds of earth") over Holst at the end. A testimony to the continuing vitality of the pops orchestra tradition, relevant beyond the Apollo anniversary.
by James Manheim