Few composers own a particular sphere of music as completely and utterly as Ennio Morricone owns that which surrounds the spaghetti western. In partnership with Sergio Leone and others, Morricone’s work has become as much a defining part of the genre as the close-ups of sweating, twitchy faces in the climactic duels, dodgy dubbing and the cheerful demolition of the myths of the Old West.
Anyone watching the final scenes of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly could not fail to be swept away by Eli Wallach running through the cemetery, the camera spinning his point of view round and round and round while Morricone’s Ecstasy Of Gold propels the whole thing into a kind of delirious dream. The same can be said for at least a dozen scenes in the genre that bear Morricone’s musical stamp. It would take a brave or foolhardy group of musicians to try and replicate this unique mixture of film and music on stage.
As the haunting notes of The Harmonica Man drifted out into the auditorium, the five Australians that make up the Spaghetti Western Orchestra made to set their stall out early: moody lighting, smoke blowing in from the sides and a theatricality to their performance enhanced by heavy makeup and a commitment to playing the whole concert while taking on personas like the Storyteller, the Bank Teller and the Young Fella. The wheezing death rattle of the harmonica was quickly followed by the theme to The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, which got pretty much everyone in the audience grinning happily and mouthing "AYEYAHEYAH! WAH WAH WAH".
We were promised a trip deep into the ”serious sonic territory” of Morricone’s western scores, but it was clear even after only two pieces that recreating the emotional content of the films was an impossible task. Luckily, the Spaghetti Western Orchestra wisely decided not to bother trying to duplicate this, and the elegiac tone of much of Morricone’s work was replaced instead with some humour and a sense of fun that drew the audience in all the more. Tracks from the Dollars trilogy, Once Upon A Time In The West, A Fistful of Dynamite, the Ringo films and several more were all given a singular spin, occasionally punctuated by Leone’s inimitable echoing gunshots. Only once, when a theremin was used for the sound of the voice in the theme to Once Upon A Time In The West, did their choice ring a bum note. Brilliantly played, but the theremin was too harsh a noise for one of Morricone’s most tender pieces.
Cue cards for the audience bearing instructions like “evil laughter” and “bar hubbub” were held up at the appropriate times, along with moments where everyone was encouraged to join in the wordless singing. Such jollity didn’t lessen the impressive musicianship on display. Utilising over 100 instruments, from the familiar to the homemade, the five members of the Spaghetti Western Orchestra left no one in doubt that they could play.
From the world class whistling integral to so many of Morricone’s pieces to a rendition of his Chi Mai that started as a tune played on bottles and ended up, somehow, as a lounge jazz number to the finale of the first half, a scene that seemed to use fifty or more objects to recreate a western vignette. Umbrellas, bubble wrap, packets of cornflakes, hammers, half a bush, an alarm clock and inhalers were among the more bizarre instruments.
The highlight was either a thundering sing-along of Death Rides A Horse, or the mini play performed in the encore, in which a cabbage met an untimely end in a bar fight. Much of the audience stood to applaud the orchestra as they left the stage, and while the operatic emotional heights of Morricone’s work remain untouched, a rollicking good time was had by all.
The Spaghetti Western Orchestra played at Nottingham's Royal Concert Hall on 2 March 2012.