Veteran Italian film composer Ennio Morricone made his U.S. conducting debut Saturday night, performing many of his best-known movie themes with a 100-piece orchestra and a 100-voice choir before an enthusiastic crowd at Radio City Music Hall.
Morricone, who will receive an honorary Oscar on Feb. 25, chose 15 of his 400-plus original film and TV scores for concert presentation, starting with the staccato rhythms of “The Untouchables” and ending with a suite from his widely lauded magnum opus “The Mission.” Most were arranged into medleys of 11 to 18 minutes, eliminating the choppy “and-then-I-wrote” feel of many solo film-composer programs.
Although the maestro received six standing ovations during the evening (including the responses to three encores), the biggest hit was clearly his medley of colorful themes from Sergio Leone Westerns including “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Duck, You Sucker,” which featured the remarkable voice of soprano Susanna Rigacci. After a shaky start, she hit the high notes with the same soaring power of Edda dell’Orso, whose wordless vocals adorned the original soundtracks in the 1960s and ’70s.
Never showy as a conductor, Morricone led the ensemble with precision and quiet authority through a diverse stylistic range of material, from the alternately classical and jazzy “Legend of 1900” to the pop sensibility of “Maddalena” and the nostalgic strains of “Cinema Paradiso.”
High points for the massive choir were a medley from two politically themed films, Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War” and Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn!,” and a stunningly executed suite from “The Mission” that featured both Latin religious texts and South American native chants.
Also featured was music from Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America,” his Oscar-nominated “Malena” and themes from more obscure films such as “H2S,” “The Sicilian Clan” and “Love Circle.”
Morricone fanatics in the crowd could not be appeased, however, shouting titles from the balconies in hopes of hearing them as encores. Unfazed, the 78-year-old composer — who speaks no English and did not address the audience — simply bowed graciously and strode off the stage, baton and music under his arm.
The previous evening, the composer conducted the same orchestra and a smaller choir in a private concert in the United Nations General Assembly Hall to welcome incoming Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The centerpiece was Morricone’s “Voci dal Silencio” (Voices From the Silence), a half-hour cantata written in response to the 9/11 attacks and dedicated “to the victims of all tragedies in the world, especially the forgotten or unknown tragedies.”