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October 10, 2017
Lalo Schifrin's 85th Birthday Concert
LA's finest musicians tribute beloved Mission: Impossible composer by Jon Burlingame
GLENDALE, Calif.—"We've got a whole Lalo Schifrin goin' on," said producer Robert Townson, echoing the title of the composer's 1968 album, "and it just doesn't get any cooler than Lalo."
With those words, Townson introduced Saturday night's 85th-birthday tribute to the Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated film, television and jazz composer at the Alex Theatre, certainly one of the greatest big-band concerts in recent memory. And the multiple standing ovations accorded the composer of Mission: Impossible, Dirty Harry and other movie and TV favorites amply demonstrated the love and appreciation felt by the 700 in attendance.
Conductor Chris Walden led a 22-piece ensemble in an astutely chosen cross-section of Schifrin's work from the past half-century, from his jazz originals to film themes and several of his best movie songs. Interspersed throughout were rare clips of Schifrin talking and performing, and video tributes from friends and collaborators including John Williams, Barbra Streisand and director Norman Jewison.
The playing matched the brilliance of the material, mostly Schifrin's own arrangements, and the crowd was wowed by one great solo after another. It was a treat to hear such rarely performed originals as a movement from his Gillespiana suite (written in 1961 for Dizzy Gillespie), music from his Grammy-winning 1965 Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts, and a track from his legendary 1966 Marquis de Sade album (combining jazz with early classical forms). Flutist Sara Andon shone in her performances of the latter two.
Schifrin's terrific – and often unheralded – work as a songwriter was also in focus, with performances of "Down Here on the Ground" (from Cool Hand Luke) by Sandra Booker, "People Alone" (from The Competition) and "That Night" (from The Fox) by Denise Donatelli, the title song from The Cincinnati Kid by Steve Tyrell, and "On Rainy Afternoons" (from The Eagle Has Landed) by the lyricist Alan Bergman.
A highlight of the first half was the premiere of a new seven-minute suite from the 1970s Clint Eastwood movies Dirty Harry and Magnum Force, arranged by French pianist Jean-Michel Bernard (whose new Varese Sarabande album celebrating Schifrin was released on Friday). Eastwood's son, bassist Kyle Eastwood, introduced the piece via video. The jazz waltz from TV's Mannix closed the first half.
The second half of the two-hour, 45-minute concert opened with Schifrin's theme for Once a Thief and music from his Steve McQueen classic Bullitt. Producer Townson proved an affable host, and the choice to accompany many of the film themes with the original movie trailers was a fun and welcome one.
Director Brett Ratner appeared late in the program, explaining that, long before he came to Hollywood, "Lalo's music was my inspiration, part of my dreams," and that his music for the Bruce Lee kung-fu classic Enter the Dragon inspired his Rush Hour trilogy (which he convinced Schifrin to score). "There is no one hipper than Lalo," Ratner said. "Look up 'maestro' in the dictionary and Lalo's picture is there." Ratner characterized the original Enter the Dragon score as "Chinese instrumentation with urban grooves" and the band offered a lively rendition.
Composer Michael Giacchino, who composed the scores for the big-screen Mission: Impossible III and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, rushed onto the stage carrying the original Mission: Impossible score, confessing "I forgot to bring this back." He then led the band in a rousing performance of Schifrin's most famous work.
Guitarist Angel Romero (for whom Schifrin has written two concertos) brought the composer to the podium. The composer described himself as "honored and overwhelmed... touched very deeply" by the evening and raved about the band: "I'd like to take you home with me," he told them, to laughter from the audience.
American Federation of Musicians Local 47 president John Acosta appeared briefly to explain the work of the Music Fund of Los Angeles, a non-profit organization benefiting struggling musicians and aiding youth music programs; proceeds from the event went to it, and to the Musicians at Play Foundation. Local 47 vice-president Rick Baptist spoke about the experience of playing lead trumpet on the Rush Hour scores, and Society of Composers & Lyricist president Ashley Irwin presented Schifrin with a lifetime achievement award.
The esteem in which the composer is held by the L.A. music community was amply demonstrated by the number of top composers who attended, including Jeff Beal, Bruce Broughton, Alf Clausen, John Debney, Sharon Farber, Dan Foliart, Robert Folk, Charles Fox, Lee Holdridge, Penka Kouneva, Mark Watters and Christopher Young. John Williams, in a video greeting, called Schifrin "one of our greatest musicians."
©2017 Jon Burlingame