by Nick Stubblefield
The New York Philharmonic delighted enthusiastic crowds at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall two weeks ago with the return of its popular “Art of the Score” series, in which classic films are presented with live orchestral accompaniment. This year's "Art of the Score" featured John Williams’ music for Stephen Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The scores are starkly different — Close Encounters is grandiose, Psycho intimate and cerebral - but each has firmly cemented its place in American popular culture.
Close Encounters calls for a large orchestra, including a massive battery of percussion that includes tuned metal, tam-tam, anvil, and tuned logs. It also features choral music (performed here by Musica Sacra), which heightened the film’s drama by juxtaposing tone clusters and heavy vibrato with calm and airy long tones. Musica Sacra's dynamic performance underlined the human qualities that have made this film resonate with audiences for decades.
The Philharmonic’s percussionists injected the performance with adrenaline. Sections of murmuring, dissonant strings were punctured by thunderous percussion hits and slams. Among all of the rich and layered performances, principal tubist Alan Baer may have had the greatest weight on his shoulders: namely, the famous five-note "doorbell" motif that the alien spaceships emit as communication. Fortunately, Baer rose to the occasion with sparkling tone and joyful exuberance. Each note rung out through the hall, showcasing the surprisingly decent acoustics of Geffen Hall.
Bernard Herrmann, who was known for being temperamental, reportedly had an excellent rapport with Psycho director Alfred Hitchcock, who allowed Herrmann the latitude to do as he wished. Psycho's strings-only score was highly unusual at its release in 1960, but Herrmann made full use of the vast array of string tone colors — eerie tremolos, strange, unnerving harmonics, and unsettling polytonality. Not to mention the shrill string stabs from the famous shower scene.
The prelude over the opening credits of the film is anything but timid, and the Philharmonic thrust a wave of jitters into its audience right at the onset. The rhythm bounces along, teasing and childlike, but with an unpleasant urgency. The orchestra deftly navigated quickly changing moods in the first musical cue, an important one as it sets the film tone, rendering the bouncy, rhythmic underbelly of the work with exceptional clarity and clean articulation.
The physical separation of the strings on the stage yielded rich detail to the lush, often strange harmonies in the score. Bass pizzicatos resonated like the thump of a heartbeat, and the iconic ‘string stabs’ sliced through the hall with precision and tremble-inducing dynamic power.
The score for Psycho can be as lush and romantic as it is eerie and unsettling. Themes like “The City” permeate the action with mystery and romance, even elements of French impressionism. The Philharmonic played those cues with heartrending phrasing and dynamics.
The Philharmonic, under the skilled hand of guest conductor Richard Kaufman, navigated Williams’ massive percussion breaks and Herrmann’s restrained string clusters with equal aplomb. If you're a fan of film scores, be sure to check out next year's "Art of the Score" at the start of the season.