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July 15, 2009
"Wider Than a Mile"
LA Phil crosses Mancini's vast body of work in style by Jon Burlingame

HOLLYWOOD, Calif.—The Los Angeles Philharmonic, together with several "name" guest stars, presented one of the finest collections of Henry Mancini music ever heard on Friday and Saturday nights, July 10 and 11, at the Hollywood Bowl.

Veteran film composer Bill Conti conducted the ensemble, while vocalists Monica Mancini (the composer's daughter) and Brian Stokes Mitchell performed classic songs, and composer-pianist Dave Grusin joined the orchestra for some jazzy keyboard stylings on Mancini tunes, as did saxophonists Plas Johnson and Tom Scott.

The show, called "Ultimate Mancini!", combined the composer's film and TV themes with a few of his concert compositions and many film clips that brought a nostalgic flavor to the proceedings. Actor Richard Chamberlain also appeared, and actress-singer Julie Andrews sent greetings via video.

Each evening opened with "Overture to a Pops Concert," which Mancini wrote in 1985 for the Boston Pops and then used to open many of his own concerts, at the Bowl and elsewhere, in subsequent years. It, along with a colorful excerpt from his 1969 Philadelphia Orchestra commission Beaver Valley '37 (a musical reminiscence of his youth in West Aliquippa, Pa.), demonstrated the composer's facility in writing for orchestra.

Conti proved a chatty host, talking about "sharing many great Italian meals, and glasses of red wine," with the Mancinis – although Conti characterized him as "a mediocre poker player," to audience amusement – and adding that Mancini "devoted his life to the pursuit of excellence in music – with soul, passion, emotion and feeling."

He introduced the music for "a large feline of an unusual color" – the famous Pink Panther theme – along with tenor sax player Johnson, who played the solo in the original 1964 version. It was accompanied by a riotous collection of film clips from several entries in the Peter Sellers series.

Monica Mancini

Monica Mancini

Monica Mancini was in fine voice. She offered "It Had Better Be Tonight" from The Pink Panther as well as the themes from Days of Wine and Roses and Two for the Road, two of the composer's memorable 1960s ballads. Mitchell sang the haunting "Whistling Away the Dark" from Darling Lili and an unexpectedly swinging take on the theme from Charade. Together, they brought down the house with a duet on the Oscar-winning Mancini favorite "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's.

A five-minute suite from The Thorn Birds was accompanied by a montage of clips from the 1983 miniseries that starred Chamberlain and Rachel Ward. Chamberlain called it "music for the ages" and its composer "warm, friendly, easy, a totally unpretentious genius" whose music "so wonderfully captured the epic and tragic love story."

Brian Stokes Mitchell

Brian Stokes Mitchell

Grusin joined the orchestra as pianist for the lengthy finale to the first half, comprised of the TV theme for Mr. Lucky; the touching songs "Life in a Looking Glass" and "It's Easy to Say" from That's Life! and 10, respectively; and a rousing version of Mancini's first hit, the TV theme Peter Gunn. Tom Scott, on alto sax, traded riffs with tenor player Johnson on the latter.

Grusin praised Mancini for "breaking down barriers" for jazz-oriented composers in the film business. "Ever an innovator," he said Mancini was "a consummate, skilled composer" and "a generous, warm person [who was] almost a mentor" to many younger composers coming up through the ranks, including both Grusin and Quincy Jones.

During the second half, the orchestra played a terrific medley from Victor / Victoria, which won Mancini his fourth Academy Award (shared with lyricist Leslie Bricusse) – the film montage was an ideal reminder of the visual delights of that 1982 film starring Julie Andrews.

Andrews was seen on the Bowl's big screens, reminiscing about her (and her husband Blake Edwards') long relationship with Mancini, calling him a "friendly, dear, loving" colleague and friend. She recalled working with him on his last project, the Broadway version of Victor / Victoria, pleased with the new songs he was writing and commenting "I wish I'd done ths a little bit earlier in my life."

Conti introduced a pair of "monster" movie clips: a terror scene from Creature from the Black Lagoon, scored when Mancini was under contract to Universal doing B movies, horror and second-rate comedy films; and the opening scene from Mommie Dearest, the Joan Crawford biopic with Faye Dunaway.

He also played "Baby Elephant Walk" from Hatari! and closed the show – to a display of fireworks that wowed the crowd (estimated Saturday at 11,000) – with the march from The Great Waldo Pepper and "Hong Kong Fireworks" from Revenge of the Pink Panther. Friday night's audience was also treated to a montage of one of Mancini's fine dramatic scores, The Molly Maguires, but that was omitted from Saturday's concert.

©2009 Jon Burlingame
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