Scream Along With The Bso In 'Psycho' Live Soundtrack

July 10, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,

Taking a shower has never felt truly safe ever since Janet Leigh stepped under the spray in the bathroom of nondescript Cabin 1 at the Bates Motel, during the most famous scene of Alfred Hitchcock's stylish horror film from 1960, Psycho.

It's chilling enough to see the mysterious assailant's knife come slashing through the air at the unfortunate woman. What really makes the scene click is the accompanying sound of Bernard Herrmann's music, with its piercing strings underlining every jab of the violence.

"It's a great score, that's for sure," says Constantine Kitsopoulos, who will conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the premiere "live soundtrack" presentation of Psycho today at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Two summers ago, the BSO scored a popular hit with a similar version of The Wizard of Oz, also led by Kitsopoulos, offering audiences a fresh way of enjoying a familiar celluloid classic.

Making such opportunities possible is an enterprise initiated by Emmy-winning producer John Goberman, best known for Live From Lincoln Center on PBS, and involving John Waxman, a film music archivist and son of one of the greatest Hollywood composers, Franz Waxman.

They have devised several symphonic/cinematic programs over the years, some made up of diverse clips with music. In the case of complete movies, the process starts with putting a copy of the film through a digital process.

"You drop out all sound effects and then put everything back except the music," says Waxman. "Then you run a new print without the score, and the orchestra supplies the music live."

Waxman finds a distinct advantage to this way of going to the movies.

"Anybody can rent or buy a DVD," he says, "but it's a special experience to see a film with a great orchestra playing a great score as it should be heard. It's better. Every film composer would love to hear his music played under these circumstances."

Even the best sound system in a movie theater or at home will not necessarily reproduce everything contained in a movie's soundtrack. As Kitsopoulos notes, "When a film is mixed, the music recedes. When you listen to the score live, you hear a lot more detail. Take Ben-Hur. In the naval battle scene, the whole orchestra is pounding away, but you barely hear it in the film. I'd love to hear that music played live."

Filmmakers typically tone a score down to ensure that dialogue is heard clearly. Putting an orchestra onstage to compete with that dialogue can open up balance issues.

"When we did The Wizard of Oz, it was very hard to get the music soft enough," Kitsopoulos says. "But that score used a full orchestra. Psycho uses only strings. It is going to be a lot easier, I think. And a lot of the time, when the music is playing, there is no dialogue. One of the challenges will be to have the orchestra play loud enough."

The 40 strings of the BSO involved in this multimedia performance of the iconic Hitchcock chiller will be digging into one of Herrmann's most economical and distinctive scores.

"The score was ahead of its time," Kitsopoulos says. "When I saw what he had written, it was so much simpler than my first impression from seeing the film. When you analyze the music, it's pretty minimal in terms of harmony and rhythm, but the way he puts it altogether is amazing. He wrote just the right amount of music for this movie."

Herrmann's talent served him well in a long career that spanned from Citizen Kane in 1941 to Taxi Driver, which he finished scoring just before his death in 1975.

The composer's collaborations with Hitchcock on such masterworks as Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho are held in particular esteem. (That productive relationship ended when the director fired Herrmann for refusing to write a pop-flavored score for Torn Curtain.)

"P sycho is one of the best examples of film music you could use if you were teaching a film course," says Waxman, who was a longtime friend of Herrmann's. "Take the scene where [the character of] Marion has stolen the money. As she's driving away, she looks left, looks right, looks ahead. Play it first without music, and it's endless. Try it the second time with music and there's all this excitement and tension and fear. Herrmann conveys all of that."

The composer, who reused parts of a concert work he wrote in the 1930s to fashion the Psycho score, had strong ideas of where and how he wanted to score the film. But Hitchcock, naturally, had strong ideas, too, especially in the case of the notorious shower scene.

"Hitchcock originally wanted that scene unscored," says Waxman. "But he was on vacation while the music was being recorded. When he got back, Herrmann surprised him by showing the scene with the music and Hitchcock immediately agreed that it was exactly right."

If you go

The BSO presents Psycho at 7:30 p.m. today at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $25 to $55. Call 410-783-8000 or go to

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