A Symphonic Night at the Movies

Hitchcock: Vertigo and Psycho

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Saturday 26 November 2016, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Hamish Mckeich, conductor
Bernard Herrmann, composer


6:00pm: Vertigo (1958)
10:00pm: Psycho (1960)


What an extraordinary – and wonderful – accomplishment.
Wall-to-wall audio!
Dolby © – eat your heart out!
The ultimate ‘home-theatre’ experience (with 500-600 other people)!

I have seen Vertigo and Psycho four or five times already, so I was keen to focus on the soundtrack. The cinematic spectacle was pervasive but, thankfully, the screen was not so big – no CinemaScope here. Some people were disappointed that the live orchestral sound obscured some of the dialogue, but that was the point for me!

Most often, a orchestral concert has a similar format – for example: a overture, a concerto and a symphony. Obviously these two concerts didn’t follow that format but there was a virtuoso performance on the night: Hamish McKeich. No doubt he practiced assiduously with a DVD, but his timing and pacing was impeccable. He had a tv screen on his podium and some sort of chronometer – maybe a pace / tempo marker – but he cued the various elements of the orchestra to perfection.

A note about cinema music. B-grade film composers (or C-, D-grade composers) often err on the side of too much music. Every scene has audio colours –  in effect aural wallpaper or muzak. Bernard Herrmann didn’t make this mistake. Long periods of dialogue and compelling pauses meant that when the music was added is was a significant ‘character’ in the film.

Another thing about cinema music: digetic and non-digetic music. The soundtrack is termed diegetic if it is part of the narrative sphere of the film: the characters in the film are listening to the music. If, on the other hand, music plays in the background but cannot be heard by the film’s characters, it is termed non-digetic. For example, in Vertigo, John “Scottie” Ferguson ex-fiancée Midge Wood plays a stereo recording of a Mozart Symphony – digetic. Clearly they are listening to it themselves, and it was not appropriate for the NZSO to mimic that element of the soundtrack! But when Scottie and Madeleine finally succumb to passion and they kiss, amidst the crashing waves on the rocky shore, the emotive throbbing and the swelling string crescendo was not actually audible to the characters themselves – obviously.

So, the films were prepared with the dialogue, sound effects (the foley artists) and digetic music included, but the orchestra soundtrack was omitted.

At the outset the prelude to the police chase scene in Vertigo, with busy strings, brass punctuation and woodwind interjections, was stunning in the force and the breadth of the orchestra sound. The timbre was thrilling.

Vertigo requires a full orchestra and basically it was a like a opera score. Other commentators have said that Herrmann modelled the score on elements from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. I couldn’t comment about that – but certainly, even when the score built to a rapturous and passionate climax, there were touches of pathos and tragedy.

Psycho, on the other hand, requires only a string orchestra, but what a score! The strings were subtle and savage, passionate and poignant. Often the melody was lower down – with the violins as a descant. Repetitive rhythm patterns and chords structure with contrary motion in the parts was well used – and in effect, it was focusing the disparate characters to the Bates Hotel and their madness of Norman.

Both films were applauded robustly – and it was gratifying to see that accolades were shared by the composers and the musicians, AND the actors and director.


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