At 80, Famed Argentinian Jewish Composer Still on a ‘Mission’
Best known for composing the classic theme to “Mission: Impossible,” Lalo Schifrin believes that his first composition was commissioned when he was just 15, by a synagogue in Buenos Aires.
“It was a cantata for a piano, chorus and orchestra based on one of the segments of the Bible,” Schifrin said in an interview with JNS.org, noting that the specific passage was “Thou shalt not make war anymore.”
In the years since, the Argentinian Jewish composer, conductor and musician—now 80—has composed more than 60 orchestral pieces, including for such dignitaries as the last monarch of Hawaii and the Sultan of Oman. He has also served as conductor and musical director for famed international orchestras, including the London Symphony and Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Israel Philharmonic.
Schifrin is also a legendary contributor to the jazz world. Collaborators have included Dizzy Gillespie (who originally asked Schifrin to serve as his pianist), Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Count Basie, and James Moody.
So what can this 20-time Grammy nominee and six-time Oscar nominee do for an encore? The answer lies in Schifrin’s recently released four-CD, career-spanning box set.
“Lalo Schifrin: My Life in Music,” from Schifrin’s own Aleph Records, includes nearly 75 tracks and features many previously unreleased takes from such beloved Schifrin scores as the themes to “Coogan’s Bluff” and “Joe Kidd.” From classical to jazz to vocal compositions, this new compilation offers a window into the creative mind of one of the world’s most prolific and well-known composers—and hints at what might still come in the years ahead.
The name of Schifrin’s label is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Schifrin noted that the name also comes from the title of a famous short story, “The Aleph,” by South American literary giant Jorge Luis Borges.
“Aleph is the point where all the things in the world get together,” Schifrin. “My music has many parts—classical, jazz, folk music—so that is where it all comes together.”
Schifrin reflected on his childhood in Buenos Aires with JNS.org.
“My father was concertmaster of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic Orchestra,” he explained, noting that he grew up just steps from the famed Theatre Colon. “There was opera and ballet there, too, and he would take me to the rehearsals, the concerts, and the recitals.”
In addition to being able to meet the performers, Schifrin was also given audience with such great conductors as Toscanini, among others. “I was moved by their performances,” recalled Schifrin, who began his own music lessons at the age of 5.
“Piano was my instrument,” he said.
Soon thereafter, Schifrin was granted a scholarship to the Paris Conservatory of Music. It was there that his musical proclivities expanded out of the realm of classical and into the world of jazz. “I started to play more jazz because near the place where I was living, there were jazz clubs and I met jazz musicians,” he said.
Schifrin first interest was classical music, but when he discovered jazz he “became addicted to it.”
“I liked the fact that it was improvisational,” he said. “I did like to improvise before, but I couldn’t find a vehicle for it, so it was very appealing to me.”
Among Schifrin’s early favorites were such giants as Charlie Parker, Gillespie and, as he put it, “all the modern jazz people” like Miles Davis and George Shearing.
“All of them I loved,” Schifrin said. “I listened to records and tired to copy the solos, and then I made my own solos.”
Upon his return to Argentina, Schifrin put together his own jazz band and began to perform on radio and television.
“That gave me a lot of exposure,” he said, noting that his first film score gig came from a director who had seen and heard him on television. That film, El Jefe (“The Chief”), started Schifrin’s streak of renowned film scores, many of which are included in his collection.
While Schifrin claims to not have “favorite” pieces. “I like everything I do,” he said, noting that, for any given concert, he does not have a predetermined set list, preferring instead to “draw from my entire catalog.” But he has especially enjoyed scoring films for his son, Ryan.
“I must tell you that working with him is very beautiful,” Schifrin said, “because when I work with him, I am not thinking that he is my son. He is a great director and I hope he keeps calling me to write for him.”
As he has performed in many diverse styles, it may be difficult to determine a “Schifrin” sound. Even Schifrin himself said there is no such thing.
“I do not have a ‘sound,'” he said. “I do whatever is necessary for the project.”
Crediting his ability to serve the score to his “open mind” and his “really good teachers,” Schifrin said that, as with all other creative artists, when he has something to say, he finds a vehicle through which to say it.
“If I have something to say,” he said, “music is my way to say it.””¨ As he has no one “sound” and has amassed a catalog including hundreds of compositions for everything from solo piano to jazz trio to symphony orchestra, Schifrin has often had difficulty finding a vehicle to distribute and organize his copious catalog. That is why he and his family founded their label, Aleph Records.
“I am active in so many aspects of music,” Schifrin said. “There was no record company that could [handle it all].”
With a family supportive of his music, Schifrin had no trouble allowing his wife, Donna, to suggest the tracks for the new collection.
“She really helped me. Because I have so many things, it was really impossible for me to start from the top,” he said. “She started and then gave it to me for approval.”
While Schifrin admits that he was “surprised” with some of the selections, he gratefully acknowledges those surprises and all the music he rediscovered in the process of compiling the new set.
“In some cases, I was really surprised what I had written, but in the end, I knew what it was about,” he said.