Ennio Morricone and the sound of silent symphony

The legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone delighted a crowd of 40,000 on June 7 with a concert highlighting Krakow?s 750th anniversary celebrations that was excellent except for sound-system problems.
His orchestra was the sterling Roma Sinfonietta, which has been collaborating with him for 12 years. He was also ably supported by two vocal ensembles, Nuovo Coro Lirico Sinfonico Romano and the laconically titled Coro Claudio Casini Dell?Universita Degli Studi Tor Vergata, Roma.
All the music, both sacred and secular, at the concert in Rynek Glowny was Morricone?s. The prolific composer has written soundtracks for more than 450 films since the 1960s, when he made his name scoring spaghetti westerns. These included Director Sergio Leone?s ?The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,? which made young Clint Eastwood a star in 1966.
His output has led to claims that he churns out so many scores that some are of dubious quality.
In a press conference preceding the concert, he said his work should be considered in light of his 50-year career as a conductor and composer.
He certainly has a wide range of influences. The oratorium which started the concert was inspired not only by early liturgical
music, but also Greek and Jewish. He also reminded the press about his forays into the avant garde.
One listen to his adventurous trumpet improvisations on the recently re-released 1976 rarity ?Musica Su Schema? confirms that link. One reporter asked why he no longer plays trumpet. The response was cheeky, but with obvious merit. Playing the trumpet is exhausting, he said, and he didn?t want to drop dead in his prime.
Some people forget that Morricone?s mimicry of real sounds, like the famous coyote calls in ?The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,? were extremely innovative at the time.
He made clear, however, that although there would be elements of experimentation in the concert, he wanted to take the music in ?a concrete direction? which would appeal to people of all backgrounds.
Unfortunately, despite the quality of the music, the event turned into a fiasco because of sound problems. From the press box just in front of the stage, it appeared as if the crowd were listening to the concert in silent reverence.
In fact, the reason that most of the crowd was silent was because it was straining to hear the performance. Some in the back of the square even applauded and whistled during drops in dynamics that were part of the score, believing they were a break between numbers.
Morricone is a perfectionist, so he agreed to appear only if allowed to bring his own sound crew. The crew apparently had state-of-art equipment, but failed to take into account two crucial factors ? the acoustics of the square when it is full and the range of the music to be performed.
The first work was ?Pieśń o Bogu Ukrytym? (?Hymn to a Hidden God?), a delicate oratorium dedicated to the late John Paul II, a public figure closely linked to Krakow. Not only was he brought up in Wadowice, just outside the city, but, as Karol Wojtyla he was Archbishop of Krakow from 1965 to 1978.
Morricone scored the work to give prominence to a recitative made up of quotations from the pope . These included the published works of Karol Wojtyla and words the pope addressed to European intellectuals and the youth of Paris.
The chosen texts on the whole were rather whimsical withs ?Dostrzegam tyle, ale nic nie widzę? (?I discern so much, but see nothing?) and the narrator, Jerzy Trela, delivered them in an appropriately dreamy style.
The orchestra?s role was to support without getting in the way.
The choirs invested the words with spiritual significance by creating a surprisingly effective ethereal backdrop.
Occasionally solo instruments offered subtle interludes and interjections. A bassoon traded melodic fragments with a solo violin. A single-note piano melody was answered by strings playing the prematurely clipped notes that are a feature of Morricone?s style.
A tympani rumbled ominously under the ?Dies Irae.? And at one point the orchestra played a simple continuo that created tension by cutting out some of the notes that dictate harmonic development.
It appeared as if Morricone were trying to create the atmosphere of a chamber concert in a large public space, a very laudable aim. It is a shame that so many in the audience were unable to appreciate the subtleties in his work due to the unacceptable sound levels.
After the oratorium, Morricone played extracts from two films directed by Giacomo Battiato that tracked the rise to prominence of Karol Wojtyla ? ?Karol: A Man who Became Pope? (2005) and ?Karol: The Pope, The Man? (2006).
The first film extract was subtle, with a simple but plangent piano melody underscoring delicate brass. In stark contrast, the second extract sprang to life with an almost military-sounding drum. It climaxed with a jagged but funky lower-register piano riff punctuated with brass stabs. Maybe the maestro was trying to portray the humanity of ?The Man.? Although enjoyable, it appeared a little out of place.
The dynamics then dropped again as the concert edged into the secular half, which many of the crowd had been waiting for. It consisted of extracts from three critically acclaimed films: Director Sergio Leon?s ?Once Upon a Time in America? (1984), Director Brian De Palma?s ?Casualties of War? (1989), and Director Roland Joffe?s ?The Mission? (1986)
Morricone started with three slow adagios which many in the crowd struggled to hear. The first was the most poignant, partly because of a beautiful solo violin melody reminiscent of the slow movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto and partly because ?Once Upon a Time? was Leone?s last film.
Morricone?s and Leone?s childhood friendship blossomed into extraordinarily successful artistic collaboration, including the Leone-directed ?The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.?
Predictably, the concert ended with an extract from ?The Mission.? Many critics contend the soundtrack for this film should have been awarded an Oscar. The maestro agreed, labeling the decision to award the Oscar to the soundtrack for the film ?Round Midnight? as ?a theft.?
Morricone has consciously distanced himself from the Hollywood lifestyle, refusing to learn English and turning down a free Hollywood apartment. He prefers to live in Italy.
This year, the five-times-Oscar-nominated composer was finally embraced by the Hollywood establishment, receiving an Oscar for lifetime achievement.
It is a shame that poor sound quality prevented many in the crowd from appreciating the concert. To make matters worse, TVP, the television station that was filming the event, was unable to negotiate live recording rights, so enthusiasts who weren?t there will be unable to hear the concert until its autumn screening. It will be worth the wait.

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