Photo: Jelmer de Haas

Ennio Morricone in Oslo

A major cultural happening occurred on January 28th as the Italian maestro Ennio Morricone (90) made his appearance at Telenor Arena, Oslo for his first and final concert in Norway. The programme itself consisted of both famous and less famous works from his vast back catalogue, but sadly the experience itself was marred somewhat by the terrible acoustics of the arena.

Ennio Morricone’s “60 years of music” tour is the composer’s farewell to the concert scene and has been going on since 2016, an impressive number of dates for a 90-year-old. Oslo was fortunate to be featured at the tailend before its final leg in Rome and Italy.

On a freezing January night, thousands of Norwegian fans flocked to Telenor Arena, filling about two thirds of the venue’s capacity this evening – representing a smaller age range than Hans Zimmer’s spectacular concert at the same venue back in 2017. But then this is less about musical fireworks and generation-crossing light shows and more about enjoyment of the compositional purity, with a static, bright light and two huge screens on each side of the stage.

At almost precisely 8 PM, the musicians wander onstage – 200 in total, featuring the Czech National Symphony Orchesta and Stockholms Musikgymnasium Chamber Choir. Then the maestro himself to thunderous applause, still sprightly for his age, but in need of a bar stool at the podium (as opposed to his 2010 performance in London, where he conducted the entire 3 ½ hour concert standing up). There is no chatting to the audience for the entirety of the concert, only occasional bows and greetings, while the conducting is limited to fairly minimal movements – heavily absorbed by the note sheets, and only very rarely making eye contact with the orchestra members.

The programme itself is mostly organized in suites, highlighting scores with similar thematic threads in one segment. The first segment is labelled “Historical Epics” and kicks off with the famous main title theme from Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) before devoting three whole tracks to Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soviet/Italian co-production The Red Tent (1969) about the 1928 arctic rescue mission that caused the death of our very own Roald Amundsen (played by Sean Connery). This was one of several new musical acquaintances this evening, a surprisingly lyrical score for such a brutal story with longlined, reflective violin lines underlining the impending tragedy of the story.

The Red Tent (1969)

The historical segment ends with the theme from Bernardo Bertolucci’s landmark epic 1900 (1976), with its gorgeous, spinetingling writing for solo woodwinds, before inserting three individual cues as connective tissue between the main segments:

First Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), Pedro Almodóvar’s dark comedy about a psychiatric patient who obsesses over and kidnaps an actress. It’s a cue of contrasts, as so often in Morricone’s approach – an “innocent” glockenspiel is set against a regular drum beat which eventually segues into a jazz/funk style, not that dissimilar from Alberto Iglesias’ music for the Spanish director. Second is the composition «Ostinato Ricercare per un’Immagine», apparently a reworked cue from the score to Guiseppe Tornatore’s 2010 documentary about an Italian film producer,  L’ultimo gattopardo: Ritratto di Goffredo Lombardo – again a piece that starts off lyrically with an interplay between cello, strings and orchestra before flutes and a steady ostinato (per the cue’s title) create a more whimsical tone.

But the third connective cue is the best – the gorgeous, expansive theme from Alastair’s Reed’s TV series Nostromo (1997), based on the Joseph Conrad book about a man caught in the political and social turmoil of a South American country in the early 1900s. Featured in this cue is not the ethnic elements of the (at times challenging) score, but rather the sweeping romance with longtime Morricone singer Susanna Rigacci called on-stage to do the haunting vocalise.

Finally, it’s time for what most audience members have paid for this evening – selections from Morricone’s spaghetti westerns, in a segment named “The Modernity of the Myth in Sergio Leone’s Cinema”. Curiously, the harmonica that plays so famously throughout Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) seems prerecorded; there is no evidence of any solo performers onstage. The tempo also seems rather hurried compared to the original recording. The three selections from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) fare better, with soulful trumpet solos recalling the solitude of Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” character, although purists will miss Alessandro Alessandroni’s iconic whistling (replaced with winds) and the goosebump-inducing use of tubular bells at the end of «Ecstasy of Gold» (replaced with tutti orchestra). But the audience seemed pleased, applauding in careful recognition as the famous first few notes of the latter score sound through the venue, and especially as Rigacci takes it all out in «Ecstasy» (not quite on Edda Dell’Orso level, but then again who is?).

After the intermission, Morricone makes sure to haul in the younger audiences by playing «L’ultima diligenza di Red Rock» from Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), unquestionably the most famous, new piece for the film which propels itself into a wild frenzy (especially in woodwinds) in an arrangement that is even more energetic than the original – a delightful ode to Corbucci’s Il Grande Silenzio (1968), if anything.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The next major segment is labelled “Social Cinema” and includes a wide variety of known and lesser known material that highlights social issues in one form or another. Miguel Hermoso’s La Luz Prodigiosa (2003) certainly belongs among the lesser known, a cue that starts with undulating piano figures, but eventually gives way to Arabic-sounding vocals by Rigacci in the style of Lisa Gerrard (occasionally bordering on Eurovision Song Contest territory, but only barely).

Next is the far more famous The Battle of Algiers (1966), a score which director Gillo Pontecorvo wrote himself, in collaboration with Morricone. The theme is based on extreme urgency, underlining the precarity of the war situation (and especially in the snare drums), and could perhaps have benefitted from an even more staccato performance. Guiliano Montaldo’s docudrama Sacco e Vanzetti (1971), about the accusation of two Italian anarchists, is perhaps more famous as a Morrione score than a film, and starts off cautiously on harpschicord before Rigacci belts out another vocalise – perhaps overdoing the vibrato a bit.

Morricone’s “collision philosophy”, in which tonal lyricism is often countered with odd meters or orchestrational alienation effects, is on display in the next selections: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), a satirical look at corruption, employs grunting woodwinds and staccato flutes, while the obscure journalist drama Sostiene Pereira (1995) features wood blocks and aborted chords over a beautiful, descending vocal line. Perhaps most interesting is the communist commentary The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971) with prerecorded industry “noise” and electric guitars countering gorgeous melody lines for strings and flutes.

Brian de Palma’s acclaimed war drama Casualties of War (1989) is less experimental, with its chilling, minormoded melody performed primarily on strings (and choir) as a requiem to the fallen – certainly one of the evening’s highlights. The social segment ends with an oddity, however: Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn! (1969), starring Marlon Brando as a manipulative British agent in the creation of a Caribbean republic. The piece is all over the place – an unlikely combination of church organ, choir and tam tam drums, with an over-the-top, African-inspired vocal element, probably the closest to an audience sing-along performance this evening.

The final segment, however, brings us back to the familiar: Three selections from Roland Joffé’s iconic Jesuit drama The Mission (1986), an obligatory inclusion in any Morricone concert, and once again greeted with applause as the first few notes of «Gabriel’s Oboe» are heard – more of an overplayed ‘evergreen’ these days, perhaps, but still with emotional potency in all its melancholic beauty.

We’re now at almost 3 hours, but Morricone and Rigacci return to the stage for three encores – the nostalgic theme from Cinema Paradiso (curiously absent from the main programme), «Ecstasy of Gold» and the hilarious «Aboliçao» from Burn! once again, as a fitting, inclusive final piece.

Ennio Morricone at Telenor Arena, Oslo

There will always be omissions to point out for longtime fans – «Deborah’s Theme» from Once Upon a Time in America (1984), the Dollar scores (which Morricone himself allegedly hates), La Califfa (1970),  Mission to Mars (2000), The Professional (1981), Days of Heaven (1978), Il Grande Silenzio (1968), The Legend of 1900 (2002), Malena (2000) and so on and so forth, but with more than 500 titles to his name, the selection this evening is a fairly representative overview of his career and his stylistic variety.

More glaring than issues with the selection, however, are the issues with the venue itself. Telenor Arena has received lots of criticism for its sub par sonic qualities for quite some time now, but it becomes particularly apparent with orchestral performances. They had no doubt done their best to mike up the musicians this evening, with the sound primarily emanating from huge speakers above the stage rather than the stage itself, but the result was terrible – as if someone had channeled the music through a tube, and then converted it to the lowest mp3 format. Gone was any kind of organic experience where the complexity of the music resonates naturally from the venue’s own acoustics. Whereas the Zimmer concert had too much bass, resulting in a dense ‘wall of sound’, this had the opposite result – a narrow, “pinched” sound that betrayed the many fine details of the huge acoustic ensemble.

It’s a real shame that such an important, cultural happening – a once-in-a-lifetime concert performance in Norway – should be marred by terrible sound, but perhaps it speaks more to the fact that we don’t really have any venue that can house that many people and simultaneously offer sufficient acoustics for orchestral performances. On the bright side – it allowed more people to say farewell to the legendary composer than if it had been in one of the more suited Oslo arenas.

The main attraction this evening was seeing the maestro himself (reserved stage presence as he might have), and observing the “invisible” meeting place of his own physical person and the music that has been such an iconic part of film history. As the composer himself retreats from concerts and most score assignments (except a few selected directors, like Tornatore), that’s a memory worth cherishing for the lucky few who traversed snowy winter conditions for the warmth of classic, Italian film music.

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