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November 3, 2004
Celebrated cellist and legendary composer team on sparkling new CD
by Jon Burlingame

Ma/MorriconeWhen film composers revisit their music, sometimes years later and often for "greatest hits" re-recordings, the results are often unsatisfying.

That is not, happily, the case with Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone, the new Sony Classical recording that features the world's finest cellist in collaboration with Europe's most celebrated film composer.

Morricone, who turns 76 on November 10, has reconceived a number of his famous themes for Ma. It's cause for celebration on two counts: First, because Ma's own fame in the classical world may introduce Morricone to a wider, musically discerning audience; and second, because this recording conclusively demonstrates the inherent, lasting value of this music. It may have been written as "functional" music for the cinema, but it will have an emotional resonance with any listener whether or not they have seen the movies.

Film buffs, and certainly Morricone enthusiasts, will recognize most of the titles. But as a practical matter, titles like The Legend of 1900, Malena, A Pure Formality, Casualties of War and The Lady Caliph will be meaningless to most – even more so, forgotten television miniseries like Moses and Marco Polo.

The material is organized into suites, including three for directors (Giuseppe Tornatore, Sergio Leone and Brian DePalma), one for television (Moses, Marco Polo) and two devoted to individual scores (The Mission and The Lady Caliph).

It all works marvelously, and while the essential thematic material remains intact, Morricone has reimagined it specifically for Ma and his remarkable talent. As the maestro said during the June 2003 recording sessions: "While Yo-Yo was practicing...I was watching his bow. The connection from his body to his arm and to his instrument made me realize that this isn't just from study. It's his soul."

Morricone was effusive in his praise of the artist: "Music needs his magical touch. Besides his musical abilities, there is his beautiful personality. He's been a friend and a brother to the whole orchestra. He's so open and available. Instead of being jealous of him, the orchestra regards him as a member of their brotherhood."

Ma returned the compliment. In conversation, Ma told Morricone, "Looking at the way you wrote the Leone suite, the depth of what you feel is in the music. It's in every note that you write. That, to me, is extraordinarily moving. I can't get the music out of my head because it goes very deep."

Cameras (both still and video) recording the sessions capture not only Ma and his soulful renditions of Morricone classics, but a surprisingly animated Morricone at the podium. The maestro, well-known for his professionalism and business-like approach to recording film music, can be seen smiling, even reveling in a rehearsal of the cello-piano duet of Ma and Gilda Butta on The Legend of 1900.

It is a particular pleasure to cite the final five tracks on the album – the Moses/Marco Polo suite and the music from The Lady Caliph – as highlights. The music from Moses and Marco Polo, miniseries that aired in 1975 and 1982 respectively, is among the most evocative ever written for the small screen, and Ma's passionate performances bring the music to magnificent life once again.

As for The Lady Caliph, probably better known to Morricone buffs as La Califfa (1970) – a forgotten Italian melodrama starring Romy Schneider and Ugo Tognazzi – it features some of the maestro's most memorable music, and Ma adds, to quote Morricone, "his magic touch" to these great themes.

Los Angeles residents will be among the fortunate few to hear Yo-Yo Ma perform this music in a live concert setting, with the composer's son Andrea Morricone conducting (at 8 p.m. Friday, November 5, on the campus of the University of Southern California). The concert will also feature four short films by USC film school students, inspired by Morricone's music.

The maestro himself will conduct Ma in the same program November 16 in Rome.

© 2004 Jon Burlingame

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