“Spotlight on John Williams”: Interview with conductor Kevin Griffiths

English-born conductor Kevin Griffiths talks about Spotlight on John Williams, the debut album of the City Light Symphony Orchestra featuring a selection of John Williams’ film music masterworks

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A brand-new 2-CD set of some of John Williams’ iconic compositions for film has just been released on Prospero Classical label: Spotlight on John Williams presents the City Light Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kevin Griffiths in a 100-minute musical journey throughout some of John Williams’ movie masterworks, featuring such acclaimed soloists as Valentine Michaud, Reinhold Friedrich and Paul Meyer. The selections include music from many of the popular film franchises the composer is associated with the Star Wars saga is represented by a 4-movement suite from The Force Awakens and the Indiana Jones movies with the riveting “End Credits” suite from The Temple of Doom, while the Harry Potter wizarding world is featured with four selections from The Sorcerer’s Stone, The Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban. The stirring themes from such beloved film scores as Hook, Jurassic Park, Superman are also represented, but there is space for other Williams’ gems like “Viktor’s Tale” from The Terminal, the patriotic themes from JFK and Born on the Fourth of July, the jazzy 3-movement “Escapades” suite for alto saxophone from Catch Me If You Can, the lively opening credits from The Adventures of Tintin, and the stirring Americana of The Cowboys Overture.

The City Light Symphony Orchestra at the KKL Luzern
Photo © City Light Concerts / Priska Ketterer

Spotlight on John Williams is the debut album of the City Light Symphony Orchestra, a young and talented orchestra specialized in live performances of film music repertoire founded in 2018 in Luzern, and it’s a dream project of its artistic director, Pirmin Zängerle. Since the orchestra’s inception, the artistic director looked for a recording opportunity to showcase the brilliance and musicianship of the Swiss-based group, and soon decided that John Williams’ film music was the perfect fit for such a venture. Due to the global pandemic crisis that suspended and cancelled all live performances during 2020, Zängerle and the orchestra found themselves with enough time available and decided to push forward their recording project. In September 2020, Zängerle gathered the 90-piece orchestra in the magnificent concert hall of the KKL Luzern for ten days of recording sessions conducted by English-born, Swiss-based maestro Kevin Griffiths. The artistic director and the conductor worked together to choose the compositions from Williams’ film repertoire and settled on a selection of 21 pieces, with the aim of showcasing both the composer’s breadth of style and the City Light Symphony Orchestra’s talent for tackling such a wide sonic palette. “We have consciously focused on the breathtaking stylistic diversity of this composer – from his large-scale orchestral, epic music for The Force Awakens and sacred hymns in Jurassic Park to the playful, jazzy melodies in Catch Me If You Can and his delicately ornamental Nimbus 2000 for woodwind ensemble,” said Pirmin Zängerle. “The selection of works presented on this double CD finds the City Light Symphony Orchestra fulfilling a longheld ambition in the knowledge that Williams also composed a host of other timeless masterpieces.”

Conductor Griffiths was particularly impressed by the orchestra’s response to the repertoire and the energy they put into the performance. According to him, the album marked “one of the most incisive events in the young history” of the City Light Symphony Orchestra. Zängerle also saw the opportunity to collaborate with several renowned soloists for this project during the time without concerts due to the pandemic. “The fact that the musicians’ were not fully booked certainly helped to engage so many renowned soloists such as Valentine Michaud, Reinhold Friedrich and Paul Meyer,” said Zängerle, “No one wishes more fervently for a live audience back than these musicians, meanwhile recording music provided a welcome opportunity to create a production of the highest professional standard.”

Valentine Michaud tackled the incredibly difficult saxophone solos of the 3-movement suite from Catch Me If You Can, also known as “Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra”, a true concertino for alto sax featuring dazzling solo parts also for vibraphone and bass (performed here respectively by Fabian Ziegler and Diego Caruso). Renowned trumpet player Reinhold Friedrich (famous for having been picked by late Italian maestro Claudio Abbado as the principal trumpet of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, with whom he performed the whole Gustav Mahler symphony cycle) performed the noble lyrical solos of Born on the Fourth of July and JFK, but also added his twist to the lovely 1920s jazz-infused “Opening Credits” from The Adventures of Tintin. French clarinetist Paul Meyer is featured instead in the infectious and incredibly demanding solo on “Viktor’s Tale” from The Terminal.

The recording is a real showcase of the City Light Symphony Orchestra’s brilliancethe performance is tight and vigorous, the spectrum of sonorities they bring out is sparkling, full of colours and nuances, but always focused and sharp at the same time. Conductor Kevin Griffiths shows an affinity to both the musical material and his group of orchestral players. He’s sensitive to bring out the many details of the pieces and does a great job at keeping the orchestra together, letting the character of single players burst out when it is required. Griffiths also showcases the talents of the various sections strings are both fluid and energetic, brass are brilliant but never overwhelming, woodwinds always in perfect tune with the group, percussions hit the mark with impeccable timing. In this regard, the Overture from The Cowboys is probably the best example of their skills and abilities as a group that can be appreciated in this recording, which also showcases the phenomenal acoustics of the KKL concert hall. But there are many other moments where the orchestra shines with impeccable playing, as in the rarely heard “Witches, Wands and Wizards” selection from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, or their sprightly reading of the swashbuckling scherzo “The Duel” from The Adventures of Tintin.

Overall, Spotlight on John Williams can be defined as a labour of love from all the people involved in the recording. In the words of Kevin Griffiths, it was “an exciting and delightful musical adventure”. While it’s true that some of these pieces have been already presented and recorded several times by other orchestras and conductors (including John Williams himself), this is still an opportunity to appreciate both the composer’s masterful command of the symphonic writing (which this recording brings out with great clarity and fidelity) and this orchestra’s ability to feel very much at home with such repertoire. These type of ventures should always be applauded and cherished, especially in this day and age where orchestral recordings are becoming rarer than ever, also because it’s another testament of how much John Williams’ music is still capable to captivate young musicians, conductors and people working the music industry all over the world, pushing them to bring out their absolute best in terms of performance and musicianship. The orchestra is now eagerly waiting to return on the concert hall: if all will go according to plan, on June 4, they will perform the world premiere of Superman – In Concert at the KKL Luzern (conducted by Anthony Gabriele), a live-to-picture performance of John Williams’ triumphant score to the classic 1978 film directed by Richard Donner starring Christopher Reeve.

In this conversation, conductor Kevin Griffiths talks with The Legacy of John Williams about the challenges of recording the album, how the project was put together and how he worked with the City Light Symphony Orchestra to bring out all the marvelous nuances and details of John Williams’ music. He also talks about the differences of conducting live to picture vs. traditional symphonic setting, how the audience’s perception of film music has changed throughout the years, and what John Williams’ music meant for him since childhood, while also reflecting on the legacy of the Maestro.


Special Thanks to Basil Böhni for his invaluable help, assistance and support; and to Kevin Griffiths, for his kindness and generosity

Spotlight on John Williams is released by Prospero Classical and available to purchase on CD and digital download (Swiss release: April 9; international physical release: early May), and now available on demand on streaming services: https://lnk.to/JohnWill


City Light Symphony Orchestra official website: https://www.citylightconcerts.ch/

Prospero Classical official website: https://prospero-classical.com/

Official Website of conductor Kevin Griffiths: http://www.kevingriffiths.ch/

Music excerpts featured in the episode © 2021 Prospero Classical, used under authorization