“Psycho” Comes Alive with the Minnesota Orchestra

1 11 2010

A special report by Keating DuGarm, our midwestern Foreign Correspondent:

On October 30, 2010, the Minnesota Orchestra performed for one time only the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-year-old “Psycho,” which was composed by Bernard Herrmann. By the time of “Psycho,” Bernard had already scored five Hitchcock movies including “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.”

This score was written for just the string section consisting of violins, violas, celli and basses. I counted 54 string musicians on stage this past Saturday night. Seeing this live production reminded me of viewing a larger version of a chamber orchestra. No brass. No percussion. No woodwinds. Since for this film Hitch confined his palette to black, gray and white, his composer chose to limit his music choices to strings alone. By 1960, When “Psycho” premiered, virtually all important films were made in color. Bernard Herrmann stated, “In using only strings, I felt that I was able to complement the black-and-white photography of the film with a black-and-white sound.”

Joseph Stefano, the film’s screenplay writer, said he had asked Bernard Herrmann what the soundtrack would be like. When Bernard told Joseph that he was only using the string section, Joseph had “never heard of anybody doing a movie score with all strings.” After Stefano saw the finished film with the music, he “realized what he (Herrmann) had done. He had just taken everybody’s guts, and used them for music.”

In the years before “Psycho,” strings were usually reserved for love scenes. The “Psycho” score, with its throbbing and screaming sounds, changed all that forever. The aggressive pluckings and bowing of the strings in this concert perfectly underscored the tension, mystery and emotions of the movie. In fact, when one considers the physical motion of the bow on string, one is reminded of a stabbing motion. A whole stage of bows moving while a giant knife moved toward flesh on the big screen above the orchestra proved to be quite an experience for the audience at Orchestra Hall. The orchestra did a fine job with their string work suggesting the shrieking of birds, the slashing of blades and frenetic action.

Arguably, this score and the one for “Jaws” by John Williams are the most well known and quoted movie soundtracks in history. In fact, John Williams used a motif from the “Psycho” score as an homage in his “Star Wars” soundtrack. According to film editor Paul Hirsch, Williams used a three note motif from Psycho at the point in “Star Wars” where Luke, Han and the others pop up through a hatch after not being discovered by storm troopers who had just searched the Millennium Falcon. Hirsch worked with both composers and he states that Williams and Herrmann were friends and colleagues.

One would think it is safe to assume that someone reading a blog called “Hitchcock and Me” would have some idea about what the film “Psycho” is about. Adam will be reviewing this film soon, but suffice it to state that “Psycho” involves killing going on in a lonely house and motel in the middle of nowhere. Major characters include motel owner Norman Bates, his mother, and Marion Crane.

Sarah Hicks conducted the piece. Surprisingly, Sarah first took to the stage dressed in seemingly nothing more than a towel when she first stepped on the stage. She then dropped the towel to reveal herself dressed as the Marion Crane character (played by Janet Leigh in the movie.) Maestro Hicks spent the first half dressed as Marion in a sleeveless shirt, blonde wig, and pants. After a twenty-minute intermission, the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal conductor of pops and presentations came back dressed as Norman Bates’ mother with old lady dress and grey wig.

Sarah had her own flat-screen monitor on which to follow the film in order to synchronize the live string players with the action on the screen. This she and the orchestra achieved extremely well. For a conductor used to slowing down and speeding up an orchestra during a symphony, conducting music for a movie being shown live is a technical challenge. To this listener, Sarah Hicks and the Minnesota Orchestra met and exceeded the technical and the musical challenges inherent in such an undertaking.

Many members of the orchestra also eschewed their normal formal dress to don Halloween costumes including clown suits and psycho killer outfits. Of course, those costumes are not mutually exclusive. A model of the corpse of Norman Bates’ mother sat on a rocking chair in the lobby of Orchestra Hall where fans lined up to take her picture. At least, I assume it was a model . . .

Keating DuGarm (right) with Mike Callies and . . . Mrs. Bates, is that you?

In addition, snacks and beverages including movie fare such as popcorn and candy were sold in the lobby and patrons were encouraged to bring these in to Orchestra Hall. Fans even laughed and gasped throughout the movie at the appropriate points. Patrons crazily crunched and munched on their snacks. This is not normally allowed during normal concerts where silence until the maestro puts down her baton rules the Hall.

The huge screen showing the film above the orchestra on the stage could be seen easily even up in the third balcony where I was. My brother and sister-in-law (Katy and Delano DuGarm) and I subscribe to a series of orchestra performances cheap seats close to these every year. After all, Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis was built to have great acoustics no matter where one sits. Normally, going to a symphonic concert is not much of a visual experience. Seeing the string players lit up below the screen from my perch on high reminded me of seeing documentary footage of soundtracks being recorded while a given film was being screened.

Next up for Bernard Herrmann fans in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area will be the staging of his opera “Wuthering Heights” this coming April by the Minnesota Opera company at the Ordway Center in Saint Paul. More details can be found at www.mnopera.org.

Meanwhile, Hitchcock fans in this area can attend the just-started Guthrie Theater production of “The Thirty-nine Steps” which runs October 30 to December 19, 2010 in Minneapolis. More can be found at www.guthrietheater.org.

Sources:

Royal D. Brown, “Herrmann, Hitchcock and the Music of the Irrational,” Cinema Journal, Spring, 1982 p. 35.

“The Making of Psycho” documentary film, 2008

Thanks to Mike Callies for attending the concert with me and making suggestions after reading a rough draft of this piece. Also, Martin Simmons for attending and for taking the picture, above.

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