The diverse crowd – a bold few, indeed, sporting ponchos – file to their seats in London’s cavernous O2 arena as calls of “ICE CREAM” ricochet about the aisles. The orchestra begins to emerge to ripples of applause before Ennio Morricone modestly takes to the stage and is welcomed thunderously by his London devotees. From our perch at the back of the upper tier, the legendary eighty-six year old composer looks impossibly tiny.
His instantly recognisable themes occupy the same pantheonic netherworld as the films that they accompany. It’s as tough to imagine him as a young man, gingerly tinkering around with guitars, harpsichords and endless combinations of “wah, wah, wah“, as it is to picture Clint Eastwood slinging his poncho over his shoulder to have a piss on the set of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966). The music is the stuff of pop-culture legend and has an Always Has Been quality to it. So to be present at what may be the maestro’s final ever UK performance last night was close to being a divine experience.
At the helm of a one-hundred-plus piece orchestra and a seventy-strong choir, Morricone launches into My Life In Music, a carefully arranged tour through his half-century career in film. The concert begins, fittingly, with an opening titles piece, from The Untouchables (1987), an urgent, nervous piece of music to draw us in. An audible creak as the entire hall shifts to the edge of their seats. The show is peppered with his well-known themes, many of which some fans have ventured solely to hear. The inimitable, coyote scream of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’s main theme was received by the excitement of a crowd who cut their film-watching teeth as it was beamed into their cathode-ray TV sets.
Other famous pieces such as Chi Mai from Le Professionnel (1981) and Deborah’s Theme from Once Upon a Time in America (1984) draw similar reactions as the hushed masses gleam intently. One of the real joys of the show however was to hear some of the lesser known works from the more obscure films in his portfolio (one must remember that this is a man whose prolificity seems to know no bounds). The arrangements hop around in chronology as their grouping is based on mood and style, a testament to his versatility as a musician.
Continuing in the vein of his opener, pieces from The Sicilian Clan (1969) and The Battle of Algiers (1966) resound with an edgy air of unease, before leading into a more upbeat, jazzy section filled with weird gems from a few Giallo horrors, whilst the beautiful, melancholic scores from The Mission (1986), Casualties of War (1989) and the Italian drama La Califfa (1970) give the event a true sense of gravitas. His diverse, often alarming implementation of particular sections and instruments (including a synthesiser packed with a fistful of samples) is a revelation, and in this live setting his orchestral arrangements are a joy to keep up with.
Of course, one can’t hear the name Ennio Morricone’s without thinking of his masterful use of chanting choruses and heartbreaking female vocals, and it is the pieces that indulge this penchant that really pull the audience together, into a unified stare of admiration. This stare is frequently transfixed on Swedish soprano Susanna Rigacci who triumphantly leads the way through some of the most beautifully written pieces of 20th Century music; chiefly Duck You Sucka! from A Fistful of Dynamite (1971), the heartbreaking theme from Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and the anthemic Ecstasy of Gold from The Good The Bad and The Ugly. The latter is recalled at the end of a trilogy of encores that closed off a two hour tour through one of the greatest living composers.
Words> Andrew Wilson