Last year it was Richard Strauss’s Elektra that got Seattle’s classical music lovers in the Halloween spirit, this year it is three concert showings of Alfred Hitchcock’s classical film Psycho. A concert performance of Psycho is definitely not your typical Seattle Symphony concert. There was no symphony, dazzling, prodigy soloist, and definitely no stuffy atmosphere – just a classic movie and one of the most memorable film scores in history.
Psycho unsettles audiences with sparse cinematography and orchestration. Herrmann used a string orchestra for the score and most of the Seattle Symphony’s musicians were gone from the performance as a result. Even among the string players that did play, there seemed to be a number of subs on the stage. Leading the musicians was Adam Stern. Serious classical music lovers know Stern as an advocate for unknown and neglected repertory. He conducts the local Seattle Philharmonic and was once the Seattle Symphony’s assistant and associate conductor. A few years ago, the Hollywood born maestro, conducted Herrmann’s little known Symphony with the Settle Philharmonic.
Psycho has justly become a pop culture icon. The shower scene where Norman Bates knifes Janet Leigh’s character is legendary and so is the stabbing, screeching string music that accompanies the scene. This isn’t the only memorable moment in the score. The opening prelude jumps between two different disconcerting themes. The first theme slashes and the second, more lyrical, wavers frenetically, giving the impression of a chase.
Stern and the orchestra approached the score with maximum effect in mind. The low strings ground with eerie effect and filled the hall with foreboding. Other times, the first and second violins strained, creating almost unbearable moral tension matching the projection above the stage. A slight imbalance between the film sound track and the orchestra made it difficult to make out what some of the characters on screen were saying. After a short intermission, the volume was evened out.
One of the most impressive parts of the evening was the size of the Benaroya Hall crowd. It has been a while since I have been to a SSO performance where there were so many eager people in the hall. From my seat, each tier appeared crammed with teenagers, young adults, middle aged film buffs, and Bernard Herrmann fans. The crowd was different from what normally shows up at an SSO concert, and I hope they will consider coming back for something else. New people tend to bring a different energy that can turn a drab concert experience into something special.
What should they come back to hear? There is a lot to choose from this season, I would suggest Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Henri Dutilleux’s Cello Concerto; John Adams’s Harmonielehre; and Leonard Bernstein’s Second Symphony (The Age of Anxiety).