Lalo Schifrin: Playing Mission: Impossible

By David Lasserson, April 4, 2008
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Lalo Schifrin writes hit TV and movie themes, and plays everything from jazz to symphonies.

Lalo Schifrin wrote one of the most famous pieces of television-theme music in the world. The bass line is so infectious — and so easy to pick out on the piano — it has almost become the new Chopsticks. When that driving rhythm starts up with the lop-sided riff like a train out of control, and the treble instruments scream out their descent in unison, you know you are at the start of another Mission: Impossible — the hit TV series from the late ’60s that ran for seven years, and later became a big-screen vehicle for Tom Cruise.

Schifrin is in London to perform with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. There is no shortage of material for them to choose from. He has a back catalogue of over 100 movies and TV scores to choose from, including the classic Bullitt, Rush Hour (starring Jackie Chan), and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. Schifrin, following the great tradition of Erich Korngold and Franz Waxman before him, is a Jew who sets Hollywood to music.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1932, Boris Claudio “Lalo” Schifrin was raised in a Jewish musical family. His father was a principal violinist in the prestigious Teatro Colon Orchestra. Music tended to eclipse religion in the young Lalo’s outlook. “My grandmother would go to synagogue and sometimes I went too, but my father had no time as he was always busy with music.”

At six, he started learning piano with Enrique Barenboim, Daniel’s father, and showed a precocious talent. In his teenage years he was performing classical repertoire and exploring jazz harmony. At 20, he applied successfully for a scholarship at the Paris Conservatoire and came across a great inspiration, a composer playing the organ for Catholic church services: Olivier Messiaen.

“Messiaen was a mystic, a Catholic who played mass in the cathedral every Sunday,” he recalls. “Sometimes I went to mass to hear his improvisations.”

Schifrin has since made it a habit to cross cultures in search of musical knowledge. “I studied ethnomusicology. I have researched the music of the Orient, the Middle East, including Israel, Africa, the Americas. I’m very interested in Indo-American music.”

His discography reads like a world atlas — Sol Madrid, Symphonic Impressions of Oman, Brazilian Jazz… This is not to mention his facility with the European classical canon. How can one musical mind reach in so many directions? “The main thing is to see what the essence of a genre is. The great classical composers each have a secret, some way they organise their music. It is the same thing with world musics. I don’t mean to sound immodest, but I can find these.”

The Barbican concert will be centred on his home territory, concentrating on his Latin repertoire. Schifrin is fond of many Latin styles, especially Argentine ones. He recorded tangos with the great Astor Piazzolla, and has just composed the violin concerto Tangos Concertantes.

Schifrin’s memories of growing up in Buenos Aires are a world of rumour and anxiety: “I recall family talk about dangers, politics and Hitler.” In later years, he welcomed the chance to perform in Israel. “Pinchas Zuckerman invited me to conduct there many times. And I was commissioned to write a work, Psalms, by the Tel Aviv municipality.”

Perhaps it is an irony that the composer of such a work, whose philosophy stands for the universality of musical communication, spends much of his day job responding musically to movie imagery, including some of the most cruel and unsettling scenarios. He is fond of quoting Alfred Hitchcock’s regular composer, Bernard Herrmann: “There is no such thing as a film composer. There are only composers.”

In recent years a figure from his youth has become a colleague — the prodigiously gifted son of Schifrin’s first teacher. “Two years ago, Daniel Barenboim commissioned me to write for his orchestra in Chicago. He learnt the score so thoroughly, he knew it incredibly well. I was very impressed.”

Aside from fusing music and cinema, Schifrin’s other recurring recipe is the mix of jazz and symphonic music. A entire sub-catalogue of his output goes under the name “Jazz Meets the Symphony”. For the concert in London, there will be symphonic arrangements of Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine, and timeless Latin-jazz standards like The Peanut Vendor. But one glance at the discography shows that he could have just as easily programmed “Swinging Baroque” or some of the music of his greatest jazz influence, Dizzy Gillespie.

It was Gillespie who heard Schifrin playing with his concert band in Buenos Aires in the mid-50s, and asked him to become his pianist and arranger.

The signature of Lalo Schifrin, a man whose tastes and talents embrace the world, is to write big. From the fat orchestral sound of Mission: Impossible, to the stadium performances of the Three Tenors, Schifrin writes to scale. He will raise the roof at the Barbican, but there is no telling what he will bring next time. “My conclusion is that there are no labels.”

Lalo Schifrin with the LSO is at the Barbican, London EC2, on April 10. Tel: 0845 120 7500

    Last updated: 2:32pm, March 18 2009