WHAT: When Alfred Hitchcock first planned out his ideas for Psycho he imagined no music at all accompany the now-famous "shower scene". But at that time Herrmann's stock with Hitchcock was such that he was allowed to persuade the director to let him score that scene with what has now become one of the all-time iconic music moments in movie history. Just hearing one note (maybe two) of Herrmann's dissonant strings is all it takes to evoke the shock and dread of this scene for anyone who has seen the film- and many who haven't. The rest of Herrmann's score, written only for a string ensemble, is brilliant as well. For more on Hitchcock & Herrmann's approach to music and sound in Psycho read this article at FilmSound.org.
WHERE/WHEN: Tonight at Davies Symphony Hall at 8:00, and at the Vine Cinema & Alehouse in Livermore at 7PM on November 7th.
WHY: Last month I attended a concert at Davies Hall, home of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, in which the Symphony performed famous musical excerpts from Jaws, Star Wars, Schindler's List and other movies made during my lifetime, with their composer John Williams behind the conductor's podium. Steven Spielberg was on hand to discuss his career-long collaboration with Williams and give a cursory introduction to how music makes its mark on motion pictures.
Most of the pieces were played without any visual accompaniment outside of the spectacle of seeing a celebrity conductor and a world-class orchestra in action, or whatever images from the films or other associations might dance in our minds' eyes. But for a few of the pieces a screen hung above the orchestra, allowing us to look at clips from Close Encounters of the Third Kind while a suite of music from the film played, or clips from a wide variety of swashbuckling adventure films from throughout cinema history while a rousing piece from Spielberg's animated The Adventures of Tintin was performed by the orchestra.
But the most unique surprise of the evening, for me, was a side-by-side comparison of one continuity-intact sequence from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade screened twice in a row. If you know the film, it was a version of the "circus train" sequence that had been specially prepared so that sound effects and dialogue were audible but the originally recorded music score had been digitally "scrubbed" out somehow. For the second viewing of the scene, the orchestra performed the music live, occasionally coming close to drowning out an individual line of dialogue or sound effect, but gloriously conveying a sense of rollicking adventure and excitement.
If the intent was to show how 'flat' a Spielberg action scene is in the absence of his composer's contribution, it didn't have that impact on me. Williams is a terrific film composer, don't get me wrong. But I found the scene no less gripping, and indeed found more gravitas to its evocation of urgency and physicality, when stripped of its underscore. Whether or not such gravitas is appropriate for an early sequence in an Indiana Jones film is certainly debatable. I've probably seen too many Jean-Pierre Melville films to have a sensible answer, but I did very much enjoy this enhanced peek into the moviemaking process.
I'd seen entire films screened at Davies Hall before, both with the San Francisco Symphony performing (as with The Gold Rush in 2010) and with an outside group using the space (Philip Glass presenting Powaqqatsi in 2006) but these are, music aside, completely silent films. I was aware of the fact that the Symphony had in recent years performed live alongside screenings of sound-era films such as Psycho, Casablanca, and The Matrix, but last month was the first I'd gotten to see the technology in action, and was curious to learn more. Knowing there were four days of Alfred Hitchcock screenings coming up starting with tonight's reprise of Psycho and continuing with Friday night's premiere presentation of the "score-scrubbed" Vertigo with live symphonic accompaniment, I decided to inquire with the symphony about the series. Here's what SF Symphony Director of Artistic Planning John Magnum had to say about the year-long series this week launches at Davies.
We’ve been doing films as part of our Summer and the Symphony concerts for a few years now, and we’ve had a terrific audience response to them. We heard from our audience that there was an appetite for more of these projects throughout the year, and so we thought we’d pilot a four-concert series in 2013-14. To launch the series, we put together a week of performances around the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and the starting point for that was actually the world premiere of Vertigo in concert, which seemed perfect for San Francisco.
We have a list of films that we know are out there, available for performance with orchestra. We also have some ideas of other films and projects that we’d be interested in producing. We want to have a balance between full-length films, and mixed programs with highlights from various movies – it’s half and half this season, and we’ll probably have about that mix going forward. And of course the basic criteria is that the film is known for having a great score – Bernard Hermann in the case of Vertigo and Psycho, great classical pieces for Fantasia, and so on.
There are a few producers working with the studios to create the projects, which we then license from the producer for live concert performance. In a couple of cases, we have worked directly with the studios or a creator’s estate, which basically accomplishes the same thing. This is an area that other orchestras are interested in as well – Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, for example, as well as some of the European orchestras and presenters – so there are new projects in the pipeline for future seasons, too.The Symphony's Hitchcock week has been recently profiled by Thomas Gladysz, The Saturday "Hitchcock! Greatest Hits" program focuses especially on Dimitri Tiomkin's music for Strangers on a Train and Dial 'M' For Murder, as well as Herrmann's for North By Northwest (including the main title, the drunk driving scene, and the Mount Rushmore finale.) It's filled out by two scenes piece from Vertigo and To Catch a Thief (music by Lyn Murray), and of course Charles-Francois Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette, which became synonymous with the Master of Suspense from its use in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series.
Unlike the Symphony's silent film presentations (such as that of Hitchcock's The Lodger tomorrow night), these programs are not ideal for purists or for newbies, but for fans of a film interested in experiencing it in part or in full again on a large screen in a unique way: with live musical accompaniment from a terrific ensemble, If you can't make it to the Hitchcock series, the Symphony will screen Singin' in the Rain with live music December 6th and 7th.
HOW: Tonight's digital presentation of Psycho at Davies Hall. will be a version with the original music recording "scrubbed" off the soundtrack while sound effects and dialogue remain. Herrmann's score will instead be performed by the San Francisco Symphony with Joshua Gersen conducting. The Vine Cinema screening will be the original 1960 version, sourced from a Blu-Ray.