By Ray Bennett
LONDON – The machine-gun drum of his Oscar-nominated score for “The Untouchables” opened Ennio Morricone’s 75th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Nov. 10 and signalled that the Italian maestro’s film music enthrals even without the pictures.
Stately and commanding upon the conductor’s podium, Morricone directed the 94-piece Roma Sinfonietta and massed voices of the Crouch End Festival Chorus in an almost three-hour review of some of his most memorable scores.
To demonstrate his seriousness of purpose, the pieces were separated into four sections, “Life and Legend” and “The Modernity of Myth in Sergio Leone’s Cinema” in the first half, and “Social Cinema” and “Tragic, Epic and Lyrical Cinema” in the second.
Morricone employed his original film orchestrations and followed the “Untouchables” rat-a-tat-tat with the plangent strings of “Once Upon a Time in America”. That led to the clarinet intro to his astonishing work for “The Legend of 1900”, which soon soared with strings and horns and the pulsating power of six bull fiddles and nine cellos.
Solo harpist Vincenzina Capone took over before muted trombones teased into the full orchestra and then emerged the piano of Gilda Butta and the beautiful melody from “Cinema Paradiso”.
What marks Morricone’s music, besides his peerless ability with melody, is his inventive use of found instruments. Here, he used musical instruments to replicate those sounds but they still sounded fresh, from the piccolos’ coyote cry of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” to the soaring chorale and violins of “ The Ecstasy of Gold”.
“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” surprises with its smooth beginning before the instantly recognisable cues break forth. Morricone’s mastery in evoking visual images in music are demonstrated once and forever in his breathtaking score for “Once Upon a Time in the West”. Soprano Susanna Rigacci’s heartbreaking solo rode within and above the surging full chorus over music that echoed sagebrush and a wild frontier, filled with yearning.
From the romance of the west, Morricone turned in the second half to the realities of such films as “Battle of Algiers”, “Sacco and Vanzetti”, and “Casualties of War.” Portuguese fado singer Dulce Pontes lent her emotion-filled voice, wrenching in its purity, to these scores. Pontes used her Fado improvisation on other classical Morricone pieces, as she does on their new Universal album, “Focus”, in which Morricone allowed lyrics to be set to some of his most popular works.
Elsewhere, the concert matched Morricone’s own new Warner Bros. Release, “Arena Concerto”, taken from performances in various Italian cities. Both albums reflect the Italian’s passion for film music that not only illuminates cinema but stands boldly on its own.
His orchestrations put every member of the Sinfornietta to work and revealed the newly refurbished acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall in all their spectacular glory. You could taste the ashes of battle during “Casualties of War” and it was impossible not to be moved by the full power of orchestra and chorus in the inspiring “The Mission”.
In one of the many standing ovations at the end, the sell-out crowd insisted on singing “Happy Birthday” to Morricone and you were left to wonder how it is possible that this remarkable septuagenarian doesn’t yet have an Oscar.
This story appeared in The Hollywood Reporter but is not available on thr.com. For more about the concert