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'Morricone in Concert', Fistful of Themes, No Clips, From a So

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February 5, 2007

Music Review | 'Morricone in Concert'

Fistful of Themes, No Clips, From a Soundtrack Maestro


If the Italian composer Ennio Morricone has a musical signature, it is probably the wild-turkey squawk of the ocarina in his theme music from the 1966 spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” That squawk, an anarchic battle cry that evokes a warped yodel and is sounded over martial equestrian drum rolls, was heard again on Saturday evening at Radio City Music Hall, where Mr. Morricone conducted 200 musicians performing excerpts from his film scores. Although he has written music for 400 movies, the musicians had prepared so little material that the last fourth of the two-hour event billed as “Morricone in Concert” was devoted to reprises of highlights from the previous 90 minutes.

In sheer size, the forces arrayed onstage were impressive: the Roma Sinfonietta of about 100 was augmented by the Canticum Novum Singers, an ensemble of roughly the same size. The solemnly presented event was the latest salvo in an international Morricone blitz whose climax will be an honorary Oscar later this month. (Over the years he has been nominated five times.)

By most measures this was a strange event: frustratingly short, the music unaccompanied by film clips or any other images. Although a program listed the selections, there were no annotations and no introductions to the themes, which were grouped in blocks with titles like “The Modernity of Myth in Sergio Leone’s Cinema” and “Social Cinema.” The orchestrations were conspicuously billed as “the same as the original soundtracks.”

What that meant acoustically was a blend of the natural sound of a large string orchestra with instruments like a heavily amplified harp. If the sound was passable, it was texturally thin, and it all seemed manipulated on a mixing board: unfortunate for a composer of some of the most voluptuous movie music ever created.

If it’s odd that Mr. Morricone’s music for westerns, which constitutes less than 10 percent of his output, has been so fetishized, while his more overtly symphonic film music has been relatively ignored, it’s understandable from an American point of view. His scores for Sergio Leone westerns revolutionized the vocabulary of western movie music standardized by Hollywood.

His introduction of rock ’n’ roll guitar descended from surf music out of Duane Eddy was an American cultural export. And the resulting hybrid, a slightly cheesy mixture of rock ’n’ roll and European formality, created a dramatic tension that energized movie music around the world.

Without the synergy between music and images that a visual component would have provided, Mr. Morricone’s Mediterranean variant on that European formality loomed large. If the musical forces were widescreen in size, the textures were simple and emphasized transparency and repetition. Melodic themes were short and tuneful, with the strings often doubled by a soprano (Susanna Rigacci) singing without words.

The romantic, contemplative side of Mr. Morricone’s film music found its richest expression in excerpts from the movies “Cinema Paradiso” and “Malèna,” in which he evokes an Old World nostalgia in sweet, dreamy passages that often feature a single wind instrument plaintively standing in for a character looking back. This particular emotional atmosphere is a specialty of Mr. Morricone, whose scores for “Bugsy” and “Lolita” locate the yearning little boy inside the corrupted adult. Unfortunately neither score, nor the great end title theme from “In the Line of Fire,” was included in the program.

What we heard of that style would also have been better served had the scores been rearranged as suites with themes and variations that evoked a narrative. This was also true of the concert’s abbreviated final block of three themes from “The Mission,” the 1986 film for which Mr. Morricone wrote one of his finest scores. For the few minutes it lasted, this pop pastiche of Mahler’s Second Symphony sounded magnificent, but it was over almost before it began.

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