That a massive crowd of New Yorkers was extremely eager to greet the legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone in his first-ever American concert was made eminently clear by the rousing ovation that greeted an assistant who carried the maestro's scores to the podium. That awkward moment, which generated a hearty laugh when the mistake was realized, also illustrated the extent to which Morricone has achieved universal fame while largely avoiding the spotlight. Practically everyone knows what Morricone's music sounds like; relatively few, it seemed, know what the composer looks like.
The concert, presented on Saturday night at Radio City Music Hall, was prefaced with the most hyperbolic introduction I'd ever heard: "the most magical evening in New York City history," or words to that effect. I don't really consider myself a connoisseur of film scores and own a mere handful on disc; still, this seemed like far too historic an event to pass up, even if rumors of guest appearances by Bruce Springsteen and Metallica (who appear on a new Morricone tribute CD from Sony Classical) proved to be just that.
Instead, what was offered was an extremely efficient overview of Morricone's most famous works. Leading the massive Roma Sinfonietta, a group with which Morricone has been working for more than a decade, the taciturn composer opened with selections from The Untouchables and Once Upon a Time in America. The concert included passages from Cinema Paradiso and Malena, The Sicilian Clan and The Mission, as well as numerous less familiar scores.
The centerpiece was a medley of cues from films that cemented Morricone's fame: Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West and A Fistful of Dynamite. While the program stated that the evening's orchestrations were those used in the original soundtrack recordings, some sounded notably different: missing (or at least understated), for instance, were the electric guitar twangs and vocal shouts in the main theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The range of material covered in the program accounted for "the good" in Morricone's concert. "The bad" was the sound quality, overamplified and compressed. True, Morricone's music is filled with odd sonorities and striking timbres; one could argue that many of his most famous pieces depend upon unnatural sound to some extent. Even so, the loud, flat acoustic allowed for little nuance. Throughout, I kept thinking about how rich the New York Philharmonic sounded when Xian Zhang conducted Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky in dry, dull Avery Fisher Hall not so long ago -- and how gorgeous this music would sound if afforded the same treatment. (That thought was especially present when an otherwise attractive harp solo was panned from left to right and back again.)
Despite the bothersome sound, this was striking music played competently, and often considerably better. Harold Rosenbaum's Canticum Novum Singers and University at Buffalo Choirs produced rich, supple sounds. Several soloists -- soprano Susanna Rigacci (in the Leone numbers), oboist Stefano Cucci (in the cues from The Mission) and an unnamed saxophonist and piccolo trumpeter -- were especially fine. And I was completely smitten with the unflappable silver-haired drummer, who looked like an extra from the wedding scene in The Godfather and played with the economical flair of a Las Vegas pit-band lifer. (That is a compliment, by the way.)
Having worked his way through a tidy, effective set, Morricone was called out for three encores, in which he reprised music previously heard during the program. After the last, he gathered up his scores and escorted the principal violinist offstage.
As for "the ugly," I'm torn between the ache in my neck from craning to see past a mushroom cloud of hipster hair in front of me and the ring in my ear from someone behind me who bellowed like a gored wildebeest during each of the many ovations. That's petty, I know, and even so, this was quite the event. Morricone's status as a composer of genius, both for his eclectic appropriations and simple, winsome melodies, was entirely confirmed.
But magic, however it may be defined, is a subtle quality, hard to pin down. I found considerably more of it on hand at a concert presented by the Argento Chamber Ensemble at Merkin Concert Hall on Wednesday night. An evening devoted to German and Austrian Expressionism opened with a playfully theatrical account of Stockhausen's Der Kleine Harlekin, performed by clarinetist Carol McGonnell and a hidden percussionist.
I'd heard McGonnell play this piece before, unaccompanied, in a concert by the ACME Ensemble. (New York freelancers, by necessity, belong to any number of groups.) Here, freed of time-keeping duties, she marched around the stage and through the aisles, playing the music flawlessly while simultaneously acting it out in gesture, posture and facial expression. Based on what I've witnessed, this young Irish musician is one of the most exciting players currently working in this city.
The evening's most compelling discovery was Nach-Ruf ... ent-glientend ... by Georg Friedrich Haas, heard in its U.S. premiere. Norman Ryan at Universal Edition, Haas's publisher, tipped me off to this Austrian composer's work some months ago, but this was my first encounter. The piece, the title of which translates as "obituary... slipping away...," surrounded a dark, mournful viola part played by Stephanie Griffin with trembling microtonal clusters. What resulted was a rich, gripping sound, which I'm eager to experience again.
Another American premiere, Wolfgang Rihm's Chiffre VI, was brief and explosive. The ensemble also offered earlier works that illustrated the point at which conventional tonality disintegrated: the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, played in an effective reduction by Kimmy Szeto that featured the tremendous solo efforts of cellist Caitlin Sullivan, and Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, which received a ferocious performance.
A last-minute addition to the program, breaking from its theme, was Tristan Murail's icy Feuilles à Travers les Cloches. The piece was included to celebrate the Argento Ensemble's first CD, an all-Murail program. Newly issued on the French label Aeon, the disc is an early but commanding candidate for best-of-year honors.
Ennio Morricone's American debut may have been the more headline-worthy event, but it was the Argento concert that reminded me how fortunate I am to live and work in this city. Allan Kozinn's New York Times review is here.
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John King - AllSteel; 'Round Sunrise; Lightning Slide - Ethel (Tzadik)
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Jerry Goldsmith - Planet of the Apes (Intrada)