|Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo at Davies Hall, San Francisco, November 1, 2013|
A few months ago the San Francisco Symphony announced that it would kick off a season-long classic film series with Hitchcock Week, October 30 - November 2. Each night a different Hitchcock movie was to be presented with its music track scrubbed and the score performed live by the symphony orchestra. Psycho launched the series on the 30th, followed by The Lodger on Halloween, Vertigo on November 1st and, on the 2nd, a night of 'greatest hits' excerpts (To Catch a Thief, Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, North by Northwest) hosted by Eva Marie Saint. Most appealing to me among these events was the Vertigo program, not only because Vertigo is one of my favorite films of all time, but also because the symphony's musical accompaniment would be the world premiere live performance of Bernard Herrmann's full score. But the event was sold out by the time I found out about it. Only due to my good fortune in making a connection with a very considerate symphony representative did a pair of orchestra section seats come my way. And so it was that on the first Friday night in November my dear friend, Mike, and I, filled with anticipation and excitement, set off for Davies Symphony Hall to see Vertigo and hear its luscious score live. Once there, we sampled the special cocktail concocted for the evening, "The Voyeur" (sparkling wine, Grand Marnier, cognac), had a quick bite to eat, took our seats and waited for the lights to dim.
The presentation started with an informal talk by Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven Smith, an expert on the composer's music, who contends that "the pairing of a master visualist like Alfred Hitchcock and a composer like Bernard Herrmann, who set out to pull viewers 'into the drama,' remains the greatest director-composer partnership in cinema." Many consider Vertigo's score the ultimate of the composer's seven scores for the director (The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, Marnie), and Bernard Herrmann himself acknowledged that the music he composed for Vertigo was his favorite of his Hitchcock works.
|James Stewart and Kim Novak, Vertigo|
Within Herrmann's lush score is a deliberate nod to composer Richard Wagner, particularly the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde - what biographer Smith refers to as Vertigo's "Wagner-tinged love theme." Wagner described Tristan und Isolde as "a tale of endless yearning, longing, the bliss and wretchedness of love...a yearning, a hunger and anguishing forever renewing itself." I can't think of a better description of Scottie Ferguson's never-ending, obsessive love for Madeleine Elster, so flawlessly accentuated by Bernard Herrmann's heart-piercing theme.
I have seen Vertigo on many screens large and small over the years, from its re-release into theaters in 1983, to countless in-home viewings, to a screening last year at Oakland's movie palace, the Paramount Theatre. As I watched Hitchcock's dreamscape unfold onscreen at Davies Hall and listened to the live performance of Herrmann's score, I thought of Diane Ackerman's poetic Natural History of the Senses and her descriptions of the visual image as a "tripwire for the emotions" and of music that "like pure emotions...frees us from the elaborate nuisance and inaccuracy of words." My experience of Vertigo with orchestra was as profoundly moving as it was unique.
My friend Mike, who was once a sound engineer for CBS Records, remarked that the symphony was so perfectly in synch with the film that he found himself forgetting that an orchestra was onstage performing the score. When he did take a moment to watch the orchestra, he said he noticed that conductor Joshua Gersen was "playing to time," keeping a close eye on a clock as well as the sheet music and musicians.
In 2011 I attended my first film with live accompaniment at the San Francisco Symphony when Casablanca was screened and the orchestra performed Max Steiner's memorable score. It was exhilarating and I hoped there would be more such events to come. When I learned the Symphony had scheduled a film series to run through its entire 2013/2014 concert season I was thrilled. The Hitchcock Week launch was a great success and four more film-with-orchestra events are still ahead. Classic film buffs in or near the San Francisco Bay Area (or who may be headed this way for business or holiday) shouldn't miss the chance to experience an evening of great cinema backed with live orchestral accompaniment - a pleasure that nearly defies description.
|Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca|
Coming to the symphony on Saturday and Sunday, December 6 and 7, is the film classic voted the greatest musical of all time by the American Film Institute. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's Singin' in the Rain (1952), featuring Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed's music, will be presented at 7:30 pm both nights. Conductor Sarah Hicks will lead the orchestra.
|Gene Kelly, Singin' in the Rain|
On Saturday, February 15, Valentine's Day weekend, the symphony will present A Night at the Oscars. The program will begin at 8:00 pm, and conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos and the symphony will accompany excerpts from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Citizen Kane (1941) and Ben-Hur (1959) with the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Herbert Stothart, Bernard Herrmann and Miklós Rózsa.
|Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn, The Adventures of Robin Hood|
Saturday April 12, brings Charlie Chaplin's silent masterpiece, City Lights (1931), to Davies Hall. Conductor Richard Kaufman and the symphony orchestra will perform Chaplin's score, its main theme based on José Padilla's song, "La Violetera."
|Charlie Chaplin, City Lights|
The season's classic film series will end with Fantasia on Saturday, May 31, at 8:00 pm, and Sunday, June 1, at 4:00 pm. These presentations will feature a mix of elements from Disney's original Fantasia (1940) and Fantasia 2000. Sarah Hicks will conduct the symphony in selections including Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, Debussy's Claire de lune, Beethoven's Pastorale, Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice and more.
For detailed information on the San Francisco Symphony's classic film series and its "Compose Your Own" special pricing package, click here or call (415) 864-6000.
|Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco|