Ennio Morricone

Italian maestro opens the Belfast Festival at Queen's with a bang

This year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s opens in the Waterfront Hall with a gripping, bravura two-hour orchestral and choral performance led by the world renowned Italian composer Ennio Morricone.

With a back catalogue conservatively estimated to number some 400 film scores – though others say the true figure is closer to 450 - Morricone is truly a legend of modern cinema. Tonight he certainly lives up to his illustrious billing, delivering a performance that manages to be as familiar and comfortable as a classic novel and yet as experimental and challenging as any high Modernist text.

For what is very much a celebration of his most famous cinematic moments, and the first of two back to back performances at the Waterfront, the avuncular octogenarian - dressed in tails, a white waistcoat and sporting Dennis Taylor glasses - is joined by the Roma Sinfonietta Orchestra and the Belfast Philharmonic Choir.

Although Morricone contributed the scores for everything from The Battle of Algiers to Cinema Paradiso, he is best known for his work with the director Sergio Leone on the fabled Spaghetti Westerns. Tonight, the ‘greatest hits’ of this fecund creative collaboration is included in a movement entitled ‘The Modernity of Myth in Sergio Leone’s Cinema’ for which Morricone and his orchestra are joined by the siren-esque figure of soprano Susanna Rigacci.

The movement begins with a flute salvo sounding the ‘Ay-ee-ay-ee-ay’ coyote howl that introduces The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. As the ensemble of whipcracks, Italian folk instrumentation and Fender Stratocaster licks builds, it is impossible not to picture Clint Eastwood chomping on a fat cigar, a dusty poncho draped across his chest.

Morricone follows this up with sounds from Once Upon a Time in the West and A Fistful of Dynamite, the full orchestra opening up with evocative and memorable string arrangements. It’s all very anthemic stuff, and probably the closet contemporary classical music gets to football chant, sing along recognition.

Morricone’s compositions consistently invoke the distinct atmospheres of the movies he worked on. Whether it is the faux eastern European horns that illuminated the Spaghetti Westerns or the more moving, strings filled pieces for the gritty tales of Once Upon a Time in America, the mark of the maestro is always in evidence.

It might have been expected that the performance would be accompanied by visuals from the films, but this is not the case. Perhaps an opportunity missed, though the composer’s work is so strong that it remains powerful and engaging even when divorced from the visual content of the films it scores.

Morricone is a genius of instrumentation as well as composition, with the power, as he demonstrates with the score of Casualties of War, to rehabilitate even those most denigrated of instruments, the panpipes and the bongos. Here the panpipes are used to create heartbreaking paeans to the loss of the Vietnam War, the insistent thump of the bongo drum beating home the sense of sadness and loss.

The music often mixes energetic, almost tribal rhythms – the stomp of jungle drums, high violins - with ecclesiastical sounds and motifs – keyboards that mimic church organs - and so it seems rather fitting that the scheduled performance ends with a movement taken from the score of The Misson. In this beautiful piece the oboe is used to evoke mourning and melancholia in the face of religiously-inspired colonial oppression.

The audience are clearly enraptured by Morricone, and the aged maestro seems to revel in the attention. Smiling broadly, he bows to the first of many standing ovations, and, when presented with a bouquet of flowers, seizes the opportunity to display his romantic side by making a present of a bright yellow sunflower to a beaming first violinist.

The Waterfront can often feel rather cold and sterile, but tonight Morricone transforms it into a cathedral of cinematic sounds from his unrivalled back catelogue. 

Though such a triumphant opening begs the question: has the Belfast Festival at Queen’s peaked too soon, or can it provide another fistful of cultural dynamite? 

Peter Geoghegan