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Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone

The commercial instincts of Sony Classical's management, a belief in a film composer's work sans visual accompaniment and the presence of the world's biggest classical instrumentalist drive the creation of the cellist's latest work, "Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone." Concert had a purpose greater than supporting the new disc -- it brought together students and administrators from film and music schools along with Ma -- but with all the powerhouse backing, there's no way to avoid the lightweight nature of the project.

The commercial instincts of Sony Classical’s management, a belief in a film composer’s work sans visual accompaniment and the presence of the world’s biggest classical instrumentalist drive the creation of the cellist’s latest work, “Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone.” Concert had a purpose greater than supporting the new disc — it brought together students and administrators from film and music schools along with Ma — but with all the powerhouse backing, there’s no way to avoid the lightweight nature of the project.

As on disc, the softest of Morricone’s sides are emphasized; in three suites performed, one from “The Mission,” and the others dedicated to the music composed for the films of directors Giuseppe Tornatore and Sergio Leone, there was never the sense of adventure Morricone brought to Italian cinema in the 1960s and ’70s. (For a truly exotic take on his work, John Zorn’s “The Big Gundown” remains the standard.)

Opening with the eloquent calm of “The Mission” — tag this as new age and it ascends to the top of the genre’s finest moments — concert was full of sweeping movements that shifted from a bank of violins to a sea of cellos to woodwinds paired against Ma’s cello. It was all very pleasant and heartwarming, yet ultimately the interlocking nature of the instruments was the most fascinating element of the suites.

The hard-charging Morricone style from his spaghetti Westerns popped up only once in the suites, in the theme from “Once Upon a Time in the West,” which was paired with three equally idiosyncratic works from “Once Upon a Time in America.” Despite the absence of a guitar playing one of Morricone’s best-known riffs, the ork charged through the work with glee, ultimately drowning out the soloist.

Ma clearly developed a quick rapport with the ensemble; he often turned his head and nodded to the violinists and harpist behind him and raised his eyebrows to signal the cellists across from him. His command of the band appeared far greater than that of conductor Andrea Morricone, the composer’s son, who did little more than keep time.

Concert also included the debut of four short, impressionistic films created to accompany Morricone’s music. Adam Stein’s “Suburban Symphony,” a quaternary domestic drama set to “Ecstasy of Gold,” was the standout. The four films will appear on the DualDisc version of “Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone,” which Sony Classical will release early next year.

Ma will perform with Ennio Morricone conducting the Orchestra Roma Sinfonietta in Rome on Nov. 16.

Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone

Bovard Auditorium, USC; 1,200 seats; $15

Production: Presented by USC Thornton School of Music, the School of Cinema and Television, USC Spectrum and KUSC. Performers: Yo-Yo Ma, USC Thornton Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Andrea Morricone. Program: Music by Ennio Morricone from the films "The Mission," "Cinema Paradiso," "The Legend of 1900," "Malena," "A Pure Formality," "Once Upon a Time in America," "Once Upon a Time in the West" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Reviewed Nov. 5, 2004.

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