Sunday, November 1, 2015

Symphonic Psycho (1960)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                               Writer: Joseph Sefano
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann                       Cinematography: John L. Russell
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles & John Gavin

I was given a real treat this Halloween when I was able to attend a showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with a live performance of Bernard Herrmann’s score by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Even though it was not a complete orchestra, it was still the first time I’ve been able to see a film with live music--other than an organ accompaniment for a local silent film series--and it was a tremendous experience. Herrmann scored the film for a string orchestra, something he was familiar with from his “Sinfonietta for String Orchestra” in 1936, to match Hitchcock’s use of black and white, and the music is stunning. And ever since obtaining Herrmann’s early work I’ve been a huge fan of string orchestra pieces. For this movie, repetition, polyphony and dissonance all blend together to make one of the most distinctive and frightening film scores in cinematic history. Under the deft direction of longtime Seattle conductor Adam Stern the orchestra melded seamlessly with the images on the screen and there were long stretches where I completely forgot that the music was an entirely separate entity.

If there was a small downside to the evening it was technical deficiencies in the film itself. Either the film that was provided by Universal had a bad dialogue track or, more likely, the sound system in Benaroya Hall wasn’t up to the task and most of the dialogue was brittle and slightly distorted. But it did have the unintended effect of making the sound of the music that much richer. I wanted the striking of the opening chord to be stronger, but again, it was only in the moments when the filmmakers have the ability to push up the music on the soundtrack on the actual film that the music in the hall seemed weak. Once the brisk opening theme was underway, however, it was a real joy to experience. The knowledgeable crowd gave Bernard Herrmann a round of applause when his name appeared on the screen. But what really struck me throughout the night, as it usually does in film revivals, just how powerful Hitchcock’s film really is. We tend to take such classics for granted without giving a lot of though to those elements that truly set them apart from other production-line films. Particularly the acting, by everyone involved, stood out as tremendous. Anthony Perkins was absolutely masterful in his performance, and playing off of Janet Leigh in the parlor he was riveting. But even John Gavin and Vera Miles are excellent, and it makes me mourn again for the fact that she wasn’t available to be in Vertigo.

It also struck me how different the audience reaction to the film is in modern times than it would have been in 1960. There was certainly intention humor in Joe Stefano’s screenplay, especially in the opening scene with Janet Leigh and John Gavin. But there was also quite a bit of knowing laughter from a large audience that was quite familiar with the story, and at times I found it disappointingly distracting. In the end, however, all of the quibbles were minor. The experience was once-in-a-lifetime for me. Having served as assistant and associate conductor for the Seattle Symphony through most of the nineties, Adam Stern is still as lively and energetic as ever. And like the great John Mauceri, he is a champion of film scores as America’s true classical music. I missed his performance of Casablanca four years ago, but I won’t be missing any more in the future. One of the benefits with being familiar with the film myself, is that for at least half of the film I could focus on his direction of the orchestra, heightening my consciousness about when the score was used and for what purpose. Stern has a wonderful way of cuing in the musicians and seamlessly fading them out again. This performance of Psycho was so supremely satisfying on so many levels it will be difficult to top, and being able to experience the live performance of Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of the best symphonic experiences I’ve ever had.

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