A 1999 Hallmark Hall of Fame film, Durango is the story of a young Irish cattle farmer called Mark Doran who must travel 40 miles with his cattle to get a fair price for his herd. American actor Matt Keeslar plays Doran and appears alongside a noteworthy cast including Brenda Fricker and Patrick Bergin. As with so many of the Hallmark movies, the film received more recognition in the USA, where the prestige of the long-running TV series holds more significance. But it nevertheless offers another fine showcase for the music of Mark McKenzie. The score was recently re-released by Hallmark Records to coincide with St Patrick's Day – but parts of it may already be familiar to many listeners around the world. That's because it was used during the "In Memoriam" tribute at the 72nd Academy Awards in the year 2000. It's the latest McKenzie release from the record label – the score for fellow Hallmark film The Lost Child recently received a welcome re-release. McKenzie says himself that due to his own Irish heritage, this particular re-issue is close to his heart – and on listening to the lovely music, it's sure to move closer to the hearts of listeners too.
McKenzie has over the years established himself as one of the finest orchestrators in film music, working alongside such esteemed composers as John Williams, Danny Elfman and Alan Silvestri. His extensive credits include Sleepy Hollow, Spider-man, The Patriot, Young Sherlock Holmes and countless others. In recent years, he has focused more on his own compositional career – and this is where the years of working with all those film music veterans come into their own. It's apparent that the years of honing, orchestrating and adapting themes for other composers has imbued McKenzie with a sensitivity and understanding that shines through in his work. Durango is no exception.
Whereas McKenzie's recent masterpiece The Great Miracle was a soaring, ecclesiastical joy and The Lost Child a homely, appealing work, Durango sweeps us across the ocean to the Emerald Isle, taking us on a rollicking musical journey. One of the things that's appealing about the score is how understated the Irish inflections are – the clichés of Celtic music have become over-exposed in film music recently (James Horner being one of its chief exponents). But, similar to the ethnic touches in The Lost Child, McKenzie refuses to use them obnoxiously, instead using the Uilleann pipes, Bodhran drums and pennywhistles to first and foremost enhance the 70 piece, City of Prague Philharmonic ensemble. Again, this is surely due to his years of experience working alongside such esteemed professionals.
Ironically enough, it's Horner's warmly symphonic influence that's most apparent throughout the score. It also calls to mind John Williams' oft-overlooked 1992 work Far and Away. The opening "Durango Suite" is a charming start, introducing McKenzie's principal ideas. Here is where Horner's influence becomes immediately apparent, particularly in the noble brass/string section of the main theme that calls to mind, among others, Courage Under Fire. This central idea is the core around which the Irish influences circulate, and gives everything an enjoyable structure and nostalgic grounding.
As the multitude of ideas introduced in the suite indicates, Durango is a complex score. In addition to the main theme, there's also a charming jig piece (with prominent pennywhistles) that captures the beauty of the landscape; and a beautiful love theme for graceful, rhapsodic strings. The score's complexity is in fact deceptive as the themes are often cut from the same tonal cloth and can be mistaken from one another – but what this means is that the score stands up to repeat listenings. Many of the pieces introduced in the Suite later get their own stand-alone airings.
The main theme gets a prominent airing in the second half of "Main Titles" before "Farewell Speech" introduces some ethereal panpipe textures. "She's a Beauty" offers the first stand-alone traces of the love theme on harp and strings, while "Elope?" is a rambunctious piece where the bodhran and whistles take centre stage (there's also a lovely trumpet solo). The score really takes off however in the enveloping and rich "The Journey Begins". After a boisterous rendition of the jig theme, the main theme is introduced in soaring fashion. "God Save the Republic!" and "Making Progress" are two of the score's most delightful tracks. The orchestra opens up and the Irish inflections add greater resonance, creating a real sense that a journey is being undertaken.
"Haunted Hill" demonstrates one of the score's nicest touches – that of piping woodwinds to presumably suggest outdoor birdsong. The score never loses its amiable personality – even a track with the title of "Dog Attack" is never truly dark, McKenzie instead favouring a sense of rhythm over anything truly uncomfortable. After a rendition of the "Love Theme", there's another genuinely charming piece for skipping strings, whistles and pipes in "Fight for Privilege". McKenzie's great skill is that the music never becomes too saccharine or ingratiating; there's always a feel of sincerity to the music. The Uilleann pipes add a notable sense of ethereal mystery to "Good Day to You" before the main theme gets a triumphant statement on the full orchestra in "Mission Accomplished". This particular clue also introduces Horner-esque snare drums to lend a more purposeful sense to the music, But that's not the end of the score! "Fire!" as with the "Dog Attack" track, is one of the score's more pensive moments, brimming with a sense of tragedy. Luckily there's one final rendition of the love theme in the climactic "We're Getting Married" to leave everything on a positive note.
Although Durango (understandably) lacks the sweeping, grandiose qualities of McKenzie's The Great Miracle, and although its unceasingly positive personality may be too much for some listeners, the score nevertheless highlights the composer's versatility. Adapting to different musical cultures in a tasteful and dramatically appropriate way is a challenging thing to do – but he pulls it off with aplomb. It's a skill that he no doubt gleaned from one of his mentors – the late, great Jerry Goldsmith. That McKenzie is able to skirt the pitfalls of Irish cliché, and come up with a fresh twist on overworked music, is quite marvellous. That it's underpinned with actual distinct themes is another wise move – the score has a real sense of structure and movement, befitting the film's narrative. All in all, Durango shows us that McKenzie is one of the great unsung heroes of modern film music – and anyone with a love of beautiful melody would be wise to check the score out.