Legacy Conversations: Joanne Pearce Martin

LA Phil Principal Pianist/Keyboardist talks about her unique experience of recording the piano solos for Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, including the original score by John Williams

Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto

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John Williams has written solo parts spotlighting specific instrumentalists both in his film scores and works for the concert hall. While it’s not rare to see such superstar musicians as Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma or Anne-Sophie Mutter as the featured soloist and the dedicatee of a piece, Williams has often used the talents of some of the best musicians of the Los Angeles area, including distinguished members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It’s the case of Joanne Pearce Martin, the Principal Keyboardist and Pianist of the LA Phil, who recently had the honour to be the featured piano soloist on the soundtrack for Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed The Fabelmans, performing both the piano solos from the classical repertoire as heard in the film and John Williams’ Academy Award-nominated original score.

The Fabelmans is a semi-autobiographical tale of Steven Spielberg’s childhood and youth years growing up in Arizona and California. The film is the coming-of-age story of young Sammy Fabelman and how his passion for film and filmmaking is shaped and influenced by the surrounding events of his family life, exploring deep feelings of love, pain, and compassion. As in all Spielberg’s films, music plays a key role and, perhaps more than ever before, it’s a palpable presence both on and off the screen. The character of Mitzi Fabelman (portrayed by Michelle Williams with an intense performance) is based on Steven Spielberg’s mother Leah Adler, who was a classically trained pianist. Spielberg often mentioned growing up in a household where music was a constant presence and he reproduced this fundamental aspect of his upbringing in The Fabelmans.

Michelle Williams as Mitzi Fabelman in “The Fabelmans” (left). The character is based on Steven Spielberg’s mother Leah Adler (right), who was a classically trained pianist.

In the film, Mitzi is seen playing several pieces from the classical repertoire (works by Beethoven, Satie and Bach, among others), but what we hear on the soundtrack is the playing of LA Phil pianist Joanne Pearce Martin, who was personally invited by John Williams to perform all the classical repertoire piano solos and also his own original compositions for the film. Joanne recorded a collection of pieces hand-selected by Spielberg and Williams before filming, all based on Spielberg’s personal recollection of what her mother actually played. The director also shared home movies and recordings of his mother playing the piano, to help getting Joanne into Leah’s style of playing. Given this very important background, Joanne Pearce Martin’s performance became an integral part of the character’s portrayal. In addition to the classical pieces, Joanne performed all the solos in the original score composed by John Williams, in which the piano is the core element. Martin can be heard playing the heart-rending solo in the main theme (“The Fabelmans”) and on several cues throughout the film, all of which feature some of Williams’ most poignant and touching writing of recent years.

Williams’ score is sparse and chamber-like, also featuring celesta solos (performed by Robert Thies) and very transparent textures, with the piano becoming the musical equivalent of the character’s inner emotions. The very delicate balance of the music is held together masterfully by the composer and his hand-picked featured soloist, accompanying and enhancing profoundly the story on the screen and the journey of its main characters, but also adding enormously to the very intimate and personal nature of the project for both Spielberg and Williams, who with this film celebrated 50 years of collaboration.

Joanne Pearce Martin, keyboardist Robert Thies, director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams during the recording sessions for The Fabelmans (2022)

In this conversation, Joanne talks about her experience of playing for John Williams and Steven Spielberg on The Fabelmans, sharing stories and insights about her unique collaboration with both the director and the composer during the creation of the film’s soundtrack. She also talks about her experience playing under John Williams at the Hollywood Bowl and at the Disney Hall with the LA Phil many times over the years and also as rehearsal pianist, giving her own perspective on the Maestro’s musicianship as a composer and conductor.

Pianist Joanne Pearce Martin was appointed to the Los Angeles Philharmonic by Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2001. She holds the Katharine Bixby Hotchkis Keyboards chair. A native of Allentown, PA and a graduate of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, she balances a busy career as soloist, chamber musician, & recording artist.

Ms. Martin has been featured with the LA Phil on multiple occasions at both the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall. In 2016 she was the piano soloist in a sold-out and critically-acclaimed performance of Messiaen’s epic 100-minute work “Des canyons aux étoiles” at London’s Barbican Centre with the LA Phil & Gustavo Dudamel.

She has performed at dozens of music series and festivals spanning four continents, collaborating with artists such as Joshua Bell, Lynn Harrell, Julius Baker, Joseph Silverstein, and Steven Isserlis. She has been guest soloist with many other orchestras in the U.S. and abroad, including the Charlotte Symphony, LA Chamber Orchestra, Florida West Coast Symphony, England’s Huddersfield Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Since the 1990’s, Joanne and her husband Gavin Martin have performed in the U.S. and abroad as a two-piano team, including multiple solo performances with the LA Phil. She also has collaborated periodically with pianist Jeffrey Kahane. They have done joint performances of Mozart’s Double Concerto, as well as the world premiere of Andrew
Norman’s “Frank’s House” and the West Coast premiere of John Adams’ “Roll Over Beethoven.”

Gavin Martin and Joanne Pearce Martin during a concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at New York’s Carnegie Hall (Photo courtesy of Joanne Pearce Martin)

Ms. Martin enjoys delving into new musical adventures, such as playing the Theremin. She has performed and recorded a commissioned piece (“Theremin’s Journey”) by Gernot Wolfgang, in which she plays both the Theremin and piano.She also commissioned a solo piano work (“D’Nato”) by composer and LA Phil Principal Timpanist Joseph Pereira. Additionally, she is a regular performer on the LA Phil’s groundbreaking Green Umbrella series.

Ms. Martin’s playing can be heard on Hollywood movie soundtracks and she has made numerous television appearances, most recently with violinist Joshua Bell at the Smith Center in Las Vegas and on the Tavis Smiley Show. She also performed on PBS television’s “GRAMMY Salute to Music Legends” honoring John Williams with a performance of his “Air and Simple Gifts.”

Joanne’s playing has been described by the Los Angeles Times as possessing “unusual fervor and fluency” and “stirring virtuosity”.

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