“Ah-ha ah-ha aaaaaah! Waaaa waaaaa waaaa!” That’s how history will primarily remember Italian composer Ennio Morricone, even with 400-plus film scores to his credit not quite as iconic as that of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Still, that mid-’60s trio of spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood and director Sergio Leone—A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and Ugly—is where the maestro wed highbrow soundtrack conventions (old-school romantic composer knock-offs in the Beethoven or Wagner vein) to lowbrow pop maneuvers (twangy guitars, wailing harmonicas), making film scores a more distinct and stand-alone art form.
This is the year that the soon-to-be-septuagenarian truly gets his props. Morricone finally bagged an (honorary) Oscar, gave a private show for new U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and later this month will be gifted with We All Love Ennio Morricone, a tribute album featuring Springsteen and Metallica. Topping it off, the E-man gave his first ever American concert last weekend, conducting a 200-piece orchestra and choir for a sold-out Radio City crowd. Saturday night’s program made the most of Ennio’s hyper-romantic string arrangements (best typified by his 1986 soundtrack for The Mission), but came into its own when he explored his pop-pastiche roots. A western medley peaked with Ugly, the horns struggling to copy the famous howling vocals and guitar parts (even with a guitarist present). But the ominous piano theme for the film’s ending led to a moving climax featuring soprano Susanna Rigacci and the choir, both soaring as the horns charged in (a trick that sounded even better when revisited for his first encore).
Later, he hatched some surprises, reviving two obscure late-’60s scores. “Come Mddalena” (from
Metti Una Sera a Cena) started with post-rock chugging, church organ, and rubbery guitar (who needs Calexico?), and ended with Rigacci wailing over the din of more horns and the drummer’s splendid cymbal action. And “Abolisson” (from Burn!) featured pop-psych that the Elephant 6 gang should worship: Bach-goes-garage-band keyboards, rumbling congas, and majestic horns, all dramatic enough to be reprised during another encore—Morricone’s third. Eventually tired from bowing, the master waved off any more curtain calls. He’d made his point, no visuals required.