In this year when John Williams is certain to receive double Academy Award nominations (for "A.I." and "Harry Potter,") it’s worthwhile to revisit a work from this much-honored composer’s earlier career – the score, in fact, which brought him the first of his five Oscars. That his first Oscar came for adapting a stage musical is all the more noteworthy, for it points to the striking similarities between his career and that of the (so far) all-time top Oscar- winning composer, Alfred Newman. In fact, seven of Newman’s nine Oscars came for his work on musicals, including "The King and I" and "Camelot." And while he clearly excelled as a composer, Newman was never happier than when standing at the conductor’s podium. He frequently led concerts at the popular Hollywood Bowl – and would unquestionably have made a leading candidate to succeed Arthur Fiedler at the Boston Pops had he been alive and in his prime when that noted position came open in 1980. As it was, the job went to Williams – in no small part, I suspect, because of the very abilities that are on display in this recording, which celebrates the Norman Jewison film’s 30th anniversary by adding four cues not previously released.
Of these, The 'First Act Finale' - which depicts the immediate aftermath of the violent destruction of a wedding party -- showcases Williams' compositional skills as he brings the orchestra from a low, ominous moan of agony in the winds to a high-stringed wail of despair. Also interesting are the 'Entract'e,' and the ethnic wedding music cue. Also new are ‘The Rejection Scene’ and 'Any Day Now,' the latter performed by Michael Paul Glaser (Perchik) but later dropped from the film.
Not new to this recording, but a marvelous example of Williams' original contributions to "Fiddler," is the main title music. In most stage-to-film adaptations, the main title forms an overture of the show's main songs, but Williams and director Jewison take a different approach in which an on-screen Isaac Stern (literally, a fiddler on a roof) performs a cadenza for strings. (I assume this formed the basis of Williams’ "Cadenza and Variations for Violin," which became part of his concert repertoire.)
The other cues offer the richness of Jerry Bock's expressive tunes made more enjoyable still by the vitality Williams’ baton invests them with. From the story-setting power of 'Tradition' to the youthful merriment of 'Matchmaker, Matchmaker,' the somber reminiscence of 'Sunrise, Sunset' and the sad wistfulness of ‘Far From Home,' these are show-stopping standards.
And everywhere, Williams' special touch is noticeable. Listen, for example, to his sudden shift in key and instrumentation in ‘Tradition’ to highlight the differences between Anatevka's Jews and their Russian Orthodox neighbors. Williams’ handling of ‘The bottle Dance’ is adroit, and both he and Stern shine in the ‘Chava Ballet Sequence.’
In all, seven cues are either fully or largely orchestral, which may be unique for a film musical. While most of the CD’s 19 cues are carryovers from the original soundtrack release in 1971, this 30th anniversary release features a complete remixing of the score from surviving masters. It’s a gem.