Talking Movies

February 12, 2015

Ennio Morricone: My Life in Music

Film composer Ennio Morricone belied his 86 years for a sprightly concert conducting some of his most beloved scores in a sold-out Point last Saturday.

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Morricone was conducting the full Czech National Symphony Orchestra, some 86 musicians, backed by the 76 singers of the Kodaly Choir of Debrecen in Hungary. He began with the piano-led title theme from The Untouchables with its unusual wailing brass, before segueing into a suite of rich string-led themes from his last collaboration with director Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in America, and then his lengthy theme for frequent collaborator Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Legend of 1900, which combined lush orchestration with surprising diversions into cabaret and blues to musically recreate the feel of years going by on a cruise ship. Morricone’s fondness for bundling so many themes into one set caused more than a few disruptive moments where the audience determinedly applauded, drowning out the start of the next tune, leading my sometime co-writer John Healy to suspect rhythmic holding patterns in later segues…

Morricone has scored an unreasonable amount of films and TV miniseries, most of them Italian, so he showcased his less familiar work with a selection from the late 60s and early 70s, including H2S and Metti, una sera a cena. Two themes from Love Circle had an unfortunate tendency to lapse into 70s romance pastiche, but Maddalena and The Sicilian Clan were unfamiliar works which stood out; utilising electric guitar and drums gave a rockier feel akin to Lalo Schifrin’s Dirty Harry score, and Sicilian Clan in particular managed to combine romance and menace simultaneously. Morricone’s final pre-interval set showcased his career-defining work with Leone with the slowly building choral and orchestral splendour and jagged guitars of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dynamite, and ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’.

After the interval Morricone unveiled three more sets of themes. Collaborations with directors Tornatore, Brian De Palma, and Gillo Pontecorvo were highlighted in the choice of themes from Cinema Paradiso, Malena, Casualties of War, The Battle of Algiers, and Burn! all. While those scores for Tornatore and De Palma are all about tugging at the heart-strings thru lush strings, the edgier music for Pontecorvo is all about percussion – indeed the ironically joyous ‘Abolisson’ from Burn! was performed with no fewer than five percussionists. Morricone also conducted more scores from obscure Italian films, with the jokey percussion instrumentation and mock-suspense melody of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and the distorted keyboard and jaunty melody of La classes operaia va in paradise particularly noteworthy. Morricone’s final set was inevitably The Mission: ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, ‘Falls’, ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’.

The maestro spoke only thru his music, but his three encores; ‘Here’s to You’, ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’, ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’; said it all. Morricone is one of that select band of composers whose music has escaped the films they were meant to complement to take on a life of their own. Whether it’s the inimitable whistling of Leone’s Wild West or the quasi-sacramental effect of his famous oboe solo Morricone has transcended the medium.

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