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The Ecstasy of Film Music

Ennio Morricone is one of the best, most prolific and widely recognized film composers in over a hundred years of the medium’s existence. On February 6th, Kraków, Poland saw the legendary Italian musician perform some of his greatest compositions with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra as a part of Ennio Morricone – 60 Years of Music world tour. Suffice it to say, hearing some of Morricone’s pieces live with an orchestra attuned to his sensibilities, as well as a full choir, was nothing short of extraordinary.

Film scores are becoming increasingly popular because they combine the beauty and elegance of classical music with a wide range of aural stimuli – essentially representing an era during which the given themes are composed – that compliment the cinematic images to which they are initially attached to. Only later on the music gains ‘an independence’ and can indeed be listened to without the slightest knowledge of its origins. Throughout his prolific career Ennio Morricone has composed literally hundreds of memorable themes that made a difference, not only for Sergio Leone and Giuseppe Tornatore with whom he is most often linked, but also for dozens of other directors who had put their mark on the world of film. Starting in the 1960s and working to this day despite being 88 years old – his Oscar®-winning score for Quentin Tarantino’s 2015’s The Hateful Eight being a testament to that – Morricone is one of the last living true giants of cinema.

What surprised me the most during Morricone’s 60 Years of Music concert, of which he was the sole conductor despite it lasting well over two hours and three encores, was the sheer power and magic of some of his oldest compositions. I mean, I do not know how many times I have listened to the score for Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but sitting there, in the Tauron Arena Kraków, with an audience almost 10.000 strong, I could not believe my eyes and ears. When Morricone, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and soprano Susanna Rigacci performed the famed The Ecstasy of Gold (a theme some of you may know from Metallica’s S&M album), the audience went wild. To state I had goosebumps all over my body at the beginning, in the middle, and towards the end, at two thirds of its length, when, after a few moments of tranquility, Morricone unleashed the full potential and skill of the orchestra, the choir and the soprano (what a voice!), would be the biggest understatement I have ever told in my life.

A general view of Ennio Morricone and all of the musicians during the concert

Photo by Maciej Drewniak, courtesy of JVS Group

This was literally a life-altering moment. No exaggeration in that, I will remember it for the rest of my life, just as I will never forget the concert of the music composed by Joe Hisaishi I attended years ago in Kraków, or the possibility to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl with live music while sitting in a third row and seeing the breathtaking synchronicity of all of the instruments going into full swing to the rhythm of Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer’s impressive score. In addition to that, hearing The Ecstasy of Gold live and in an enormous hall full of people is a far cry from listening to it on even the best home audio system, or alternatively playing it on YouTube on your computer. It is a trivial remark, I agree, but we rarely do get an opportunity to confront music in conditions required to experience its true beauty and emotional scope. Therefore, we tend to delight in it in an imperfect way, and only once in a while get to fully immerse in how the composer intended it to be heard, with dozens, sometimes hundreds, instruments and voices working in a perfect unison to make these several minutes unforgettable.

Kraków’s Ennio Morricone – 60 Years Of Music concert, organized by JVS Group to which I will for ever be indebted for inviting me, was abounding in such surprises and delights, as well as a number of discoveries. For example, I took an instant liking to a choral, exotic, soaring, joyful and yet inexplicably poignant Abolisson from Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1969’s forgotten film masterpiece Queimada (also known as Burn!). It was composed by Morricone only three years after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and only one year after another of Leone’s masterpieces, Once Upon a Time in the West, but sounded like from a completely different period of his career. It reminded me rather of luminous and spiritual On Earth as it is in Heaven from Roland Joffé’s 1986’s The Mission (a wonderful surprise to hear it live) than Leone’s westerns. And at the same time, Abolisson had something very much in common with other Morricone’s compositions from 1960s – the sheer musical bravado and soaring lyricism which compliment everything the film offers and simultaneously make it quite epic in scope.

Ennio Morricone, Susanna Rigacci and part of the orchestra during the concert

Photo by Maciej Drewniak, courtesy of JVS Group

No wonder Abolisson was played as an encore, with the second encore being a welcomed return to the brilliance of The Ecstasy of Gold and captivating Tauron Arena once more. Another discovery of mine were the themes from Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1969’s The Red Tent. I have not seen the film but knowing the basics of the plot (reminiscing the real 1920s failed dirigible expedition to the Arctic), I think I can now well imagine the tone and the rhythm of it. Which is one of the greatest responsibilities of film music. Incidentally, Kraków’s Ennio Morricone – 60 Years of Music concert, though reasonably divided into two sections, was abundant in many striking contrasts. To hear the ominous and surprisingly layered Stage Coach to Red Rock from The Hateful Eight (again, listening to it on headphones does not do justice to what Morricone came up with for Tarantino’s latest) and the heartbreaking Deborah’s Theme from Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, was a treat in itself. Ultimately, the concert was a series of musical journeys to the distant past and unforgettable scenes that enriched the cinema as we know it.

However, for me, the most important part of 60 Years of Music was always going to be the opportunity to listen to themes from the films of Giuseppe Tornatore, especially his 1988’s Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, one of the best films I have seen in my life. Morricone did not fail me, or possibly hundreds of other fans sitting amongst the ten thousand, and lead the Czech National Symphony Orchestra to perform the film’s main theme and its extremely touching love theme. At one point, I closed my eyes and immediately found myself with adult Toto in the final scene’s screening room to watch the montage of cinematic kisses which always makes my eyes go wet. An extraordinary symbiosis of cinema’s everlasting power of inspiration and film music’s capacity to convey the same emotions isolated from the images. Tell me, in perfect honesty, is there anything apart from music in this world that has the same effect?

Ennio Morricone conducting during the concert

Photo by Maciej Drewniak, courtesy of JVS Group

Morricone’s tribute to the cinema of Giuseppe Tornatore started way earlier, at the very beginning of the concert, with the main theme from the incredible (though, I feel, already becoming a bit forgotten) The Legend of 1900 (1998), and continued with Baarìa’s (2009) Ribellione, a theme Quentin Tarantino fans may recognize for bearing a striking similarity to Inglourious Basterds prologue’s Rabbia e Tarantella (itself taken from Morricone’s score for 1974’s Allonsanfàn directed by the Taviani Brothers). Hearing these four pieces of music from Morricone’s collaboration with Tornatore was another proof of the composer’s versatility and his absolute talent to create something unforgettable out of instruments and ideas that were used countless times before, and to a far lesser effect. The same could be said about the well-known Chi Mai from the not-so-well-known Georges Lautner’s 1981’s Le professionnel. The theme is so simple and pure that it became associated with romantic love, even though it serves an entirely different purpose in the film (e.g. Jean-Paul Belmondo as action hero walking in slow motion!). Obviously, hearing it live made it even more beautiful.

What I love about concerts dedicated to the everlasting magic of film music is the opportunity to hear the given composer’s decades of achievements condensed into a well-programmed and relatively short flow of themes that illustrate the similarities between seemingly different parts of his or her career. I mean, it is probably not as big a deal as we think to choose two or three dozens themes out of over 500 film and television scores (that is how many IMDb lists for Ennio Morriconefive hundred, can you imagine?) and arrange them in an appropriate manner for the fans to be in seventh heaven. But still, from the point of view of a guy actively shaping his life with cinema’s aural and visual journeys it is the greatest gift possible to experience it in such a form. In cinema, as well as in music and art in general, everything stems from something else and nothing truly dies or is completely forgotten.

How wonderful is that?

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It should not come as a surprise that I recommend everyone to add attending Ennio Morricone’s concert to your bucket list, but also to open yourself to film music as a way of enhancing your way of experiencing films, both those watched for the first time and your favorite moving pictures of all time.

Finally, do me a favor and listen to this performance of The Ecstasy of Gold from one of Morricone’s previous concerts and be ready to be amazed, while remembering that this is only a small part of what happens when it is performed live.