“Moon River” has proven itself a startlingly sturdy composition, capable of standing the test of time and weathering a multitude of stylistic fads since it won the best song Oscar in 1961. Performed with grace and exquisite detail by Stevie Wonder on harmonica and vocal harmony group Take 6 at Tuesday’s all-Mancini fete, it rang as true in this performance as the composer once said of Audrey Hepburn’s take in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”: “It’s just perfect.”
Certainly the most-recorded song in the Henry Mancini canon, “Moon River” was the evening’s strongest reminder of Mancini’s way with romance and tenderness, his ability to balance sensual strings and an off-the-beaten-path lead instrument (in this case the chromatic harmonica). Many of the musicians who recorded Mancini’s works in the 1960s and ’70s were on hand to revisit and in some cases reminisce about the legendary composer’s effect on their lives and careers.
Two-hour concert was held to benefit the Mancini Institute, a music education org, on the day the U.S. Postal Service released a Mancini stamp. He would have turned 80 on April 16.
Julie Andrews, whose husband Blake Edwards started working with Mancini in 1961, and Sen. John Glenn emceed with tales that reinforced Mancini’s reputation, per Andrews, as “a fun-loving goofy guy.” Film clips, nearly all of them from interviews with Mancini, provided a thorough overview of his take on music, the movies and education; still photos captured him as composer, conductor and family man.
Program was chock full of the greatest hits: “Baby Elephant Walk” with James Galway on penny whistle, a rambunctious “Peter Gunn” with Quincy Jones conducting and bassist Abe Laboriel wildly thumping away; tenor sax man Plas Johnson re-creating “The Pink Panther Theme.” Orchestra, sharp and skilled in Mancini’s nuances, and the soloists were at their best when gently swinging in his distinct, 1960s West Coast jazz-influenced style.
But it was the film scores and lesser-known pieces that revealed the consistency and elan of the Mancini touch. It was heard in the voicings that found a moment of perfection of “Days of Wine and Roses” and then creep up in music from “10” and “Victor/Victoria,” the pastoral qualities that frame the rolling flute lines of Gregory Jefferson in “Cameo for Flute … for James” and the unique “Piece for Jazz Bassoon and Orchestra” written for Ray Pizzi in 1984. Composition showcased Mancini’s trademark swelling melodies that resolve and then settle sweetly. A few more surprises like that, instead of his well-worn TV themes, would have helped more fully limn Mancini’s oeuvre.
The mixing of amplification and an orchestra continues to reveal a horrible weakness in the Disney Hall acoustics. Soloists would alternate between the front of the stage — where the mix was decent — and a riser behind the orchestra — where problems arose, making a soloist either echoey (Monica Mancini’s vocals on “Charade” and “Days of Wine and Roses”) or nearly inaudible (Richard Greene fiddling “Oklahoma Crude”).
Pizzi and Johnson, on the other hand, shone from the back of the orchestra. When microphones were on, the brass tended to overwhelm the strings; when left in their natural state, their sound was natural and the playing bright and buoyant.
Anniversaries and the stamp have brought out several new releases. RCA has released “Midnight, Moonlight & Magic: The Very Best of Henry Mancini”; Virgin Records has marked the 40th anniversary of “The Pink Panther” with the electronica compilation “Pink Panther’s Penthouse Party”; and Concord Records has taken the approach of the tribute, pairing Patrick Williams and the orchestra with guest soloists.