BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Hitchcock & Herrmann
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Hamer Hall, 6 February
What’s more incredible than watching a scene from your favourite film played on the big screen?
A live soundtrack performed by world class musicians.
Such was the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concert Hitchcock & Herrmann, which took place in the Hamer Hall under the baton of skilful young maestro Benjamin Northey.
The evening opened with excerpts from North by Northwest. As the orchestra performed the notes and chords I’d heard so many times before in the context of an old recording, I felt both disoriented and taken aback with the sheer impact of the masterfully performed live music. The first piece of vision for the night showed Cary Grant’s intoxicated car ride, and the live soundtrack not only heightened the suspense but somehow appeared to place the audience within the film. Members of the audience gasped as our lead character’s car was shown dangling over the edge of a cliff – proving the effect of the scene hasn’t outdated.
The screen was behind the orchestra, so the musicians were unable to see it, though Northey had an additional little screen next to his score. The scenes were well projected – though the audio quality of the voices was unimpressive. Spoken words were heavy on the bass and too reverberant, making some words difficult to distinguish and clashing with the clear and defined sound of the instruments.
The Trouble with Harry: Portrait of Hitch was next on the list, combining the musical score with still images of Hitchcock and various actors such as Anthony Perkins and Tippi Hedren displayed on screen. Brass and low strings were satisfying drivers of this music, and players mimicked articulations with success when interacting across sections. The music was buoyant, witty and rigid – and when juxtaposed with images of Hitchcock’s inflated face it suited him to a T.
The moments I’d been waiting for arrived with five scenes from Vertigo, and I have no doubts much of the audience was equally familiar with the score and, consequently, had equally high expectations. The film’s credits opened with a blast, the resonance of the hall blending the flurry of brass and strings with high impact in the prelude. It created the impression of hearing the score for the first time. Perhaps the most similar musical moment was felt in the scenes when James Stuart discreetly follows Kim Novak across the city – Northey conducting the repetitive harp rhythm against a delicate and slow wind line sounding typically Herrmann. Though, the performance did become messy as the scene progressed and Novak’s character jumped into San Fransico Bay. Similarly, the Spanish-influenced dream sequence could have been crisper and more detached – though, minor observations in an otherwise incredible performance.
Vertigo wrapped up with the ‘Scene d’amour’ – a long, tense, and highly romantic kiss between the two leads and an important moment in the film. The green lighting of the scene was matched in the concert hall as the colour was cast over the orchestra, seamlessly blending the musicians into the moment.
After interval, the orchestra came back with Marnie. It was a bit off-putting watching a horseride and hunt without sound effects of the animals galloping, but the orchestra did compensate by providing an energised soundtrack.
Psycho was next, which our presenter Phillip Sametz quoted Hitchcock in stating ’33 per cent of the effect of Psycho is due to the music’. However, after moments of heavy brass and wildly romantic strings, this significantly lighter score heard live lacked presence and power. Further, melodies from the cello were drowned out by the violins – though the latter performed well, the acoustics were unfortunate. The famous shower scene was anti-climactic, though still a lot of fun as red lighting was thrown over the orchestra through the murder scenes. The programming was understandable – we couldn’t have heard Psycho first up, as we needed to anticipate it. But it was poorly placed between heavier works, nevertheless.
Herrmann’s unused score for Torn Curtain was premiered, matched to the moments in the film which the composer had originally intended. Trombones pumped away, sometimes with contrasting flutes and a stringline was reminiscent of Vertigo’s love scene. The live score was exceedingly effective when juxtaposed with the gruesome and drawn out killing.
But the absolute highlight of the evening was the innovative performance of The Storm Clouds Cantata composed by Arthur Benjamin and filmed in The Man Who Knew Too Much. On screen before Northey, Herrmann conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall, the film showing the entire live concert. While here in Hamer Hall, Northey led the MSO and choir through the scene as he mirrored Herrmann’s conducting. Our live musicians were skilfully synced to their onscreen counterparts in this knockout performance. At the climax of the scene, as Doris Day screamed and the cymbals – real cymbals – clashed, the night came to a magnificent close. It was mesmerising, gripping, magnificent. Perhaps it’s time we label Benjamin Northey as the new ‘master of suspense’?