For this opening night concert, special guests Renée Fleming, Josh Groban and Joshua Bell joined Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in La Dolce Vita: Music of the Italian Cinema. This celebration of treasured Italian film music featured suites from beloved motion pictures, as well as two favorite Rossini overtures. The concert aimed to celebrate this music by presenting the film scores with special lighting and animated projections providing impressions of the films. Falling leaves, scenes of Italian streets, and a larger-than-life Fellini head drifted across the screen suspended above the orchestra.

The evening opened with an introduction by Alec Baldwin, artistic advisor for the New York Philharmonic, and remarks by acclaimed Italian American filmmaker Martin Scorsese who kicked off the evening by commenting on the inseparability of a film and its music.

<i>La Dolce Vita</i> © Chris Lee
La Dolce Vita
© Chris Lee

Following a skillful performance of Rossini's overture to The Barber of Seville, Nino Rota's Theme from Amacord was fittingly the first piece of Italian film music on the program. Rota, a prolific composer of both classical and film music, stands as a towering figure in Italian cinema. His partnership with director Federico Fellini yielded some of the nation's most famous titles including 8½ , The Leopard, and the concert's namesake La Dolce Vita. In this first suite, the orchestra softly romanced the audience back into the world of movies with lush chromatic lines, constantly rising and falling with a sense of golden nostalgia.

Cipriani's suite from The Anonymous Venetian featured violinist Joshua Bell. This suite (one of many on the program gorgeously arranged and orchestrated by William Ross) was artfully unpaired from the 1970s sound of the film and given new richness and depth with these fuller orchestrations. Floating atop the orchestra's melodic leaps, Joshua Bell played with unbridled passion, bringing unmatched dexterity and clarity to his interpretation of the scores. Rota's music from La Dolce Vita offered moments of gritty, dark tones that served as a welcomed change of mood from the otherwise lovely scores. This contrast not only helped to balance the evening, it demonstrated a side of Rota's compositional palette previously unheard in the concert.

Renée Fleming's first performance, "Your Love" from Ennio Morricone's Once Upon a Time in the West, changed the molecules in the room. Letting the motion of the music carry her, she sang with uplifting ease and grace, characterizing the music with heartfelt depth and beauty. It's worth noting that the diva's gowns (yes, plural) earned an audible collective intake of breath from the room.

Since the beginning of his career, Josh Groban has showed a passion and facility for performing Italian repertoire. This performance was no exception, laced with Mr Groban’s signature fervor and quirk. In his performance of "Non penso a te" from Ennio Morricone's Incontro, Groban dove into the music with a velvety smoothness, reaching the high notes with sumptuous warmth and soulfulness.

Renée Fleming, Josh Groban and Joshua Bell © Chris Lee
Renée Fleming, Josh Groban and Joshua Bell
© Chris Lee

The program was bookended by Rossini overtures, opening with The Barber of Seville and closing with William Tell (before an encore performance with the guest artists). The big screen is not unfamiliar territory for these overtures either; they've been heard in countless movies, cartoons, and television shows. Under the elegant baton of Alan Gilbert, who conducted from memory, the orchestra performed these pieces with absolute precision, shining a spotlight on these melodious works that paved the way for future Italian composers. The Rossini overtures were the only pieces presented without accompanying projections. After almost an hour of hypnotizing (and sometimes distracting) animations, William Tell was presented absolutely naked, and the music spoke for itself. When the piece abruptly shifted into the famous trumpeting finale section, the audience’s response was electric.

Few things could match the sound and raw star power of Renée Fleming, Joshua Bell, and Josh Groban performing together with Alan Gilbert and the orchestra. The finale performance of Bacalov’s “Mi mancherai,” from Il Postino was powerful enough to melt you in your seat. The inimitable voices of Renée Fleming and Josh Groban came together in a beautiful fusion encircled by Joshua Bell’s rapturous playing.

As a concert experience, La Dolce Vita was remarkably inviting. Members of the orchestra were dressed in their own colorful gowns and suits, projections and theatrical lighting created a rich sensory experience, and at roughly 80 minutes without an intermission, the orchestra presented a pleasantly compendious evening.  

The New York Philharmonic’s opening concert was an absolute hit, and a promising start to a strong season. As Josh Groban said to Renée Fleming during a candid moment on stage, “We’d better rock.” And they unquestionably did.