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A Day of Film Music

July 20, 2010

1008.jpgSaturday was a big day of film music for me. I spent the daytime hours preparing for and moderating a panel for the Silent Film Festival all about the composition and performance of silent movie scores. And in the evening, I went to Davies Symphony Hall to hear the San Francisco Symphony under assistant conductor Donato Cabrera perform Bernard Herrmann's score for the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock Movie Psycho. The movie was screened at the same time above the orchestra's heads.

Some brief observations, first about the Psycho performance and second about the silent film panel:

1. Hermann's music deserves the recognition that it gets. In fact it should get more. Hearing his score played live, with its combination of lovely lyrical passages and moments of taut needlepoint angst, gave me a fresh appreciation for the composer's writing. It's one of those film scores that could stand on its own in a concert hall, though it was fun to watch the film while hearing it.

2. The audience at the symphony hall (which was packed) was one of the most enthusiastic I've seen at the venue. I was tremendously excited to hear people clapping and cheering so passionately. I imagine that even a screening of the movie at a beautiful film house like the Castro Theatre wouldn't elicit as much of a response as the audience on Saturday night displayed for the live music performance. I would have liked people to have remained quiet until the orchestra finished playing at the end though - there was so much whooping for the final 30 seconds of the movie, that Herrmann's final bars were completely drowned out.

3. I'd be curious to know how many people who came to hear the orchestra on Saturday night also come to experience other kinds of symphonic performances at Davies. I am guessing that there isn't a great deal of crossover, but I may be wrong about that. The white, middle-aged couple sitting to my right looked like prime San Francisco Symphony goers. But they told me that they're just fans of Psycho and had been gifted tickets to the concert by their daughter; otherwise, they said, they don't get to Davies very often.

4. This final point is really the subject of an entirely different blog post or even an article: Is the San Francisco Symphony a happy orchestra? The players generally look like they're dialing it in. It doesn't matter if they're playing the music of John Adams, Bernard Herrmann or Gustav Mahler; they often have sour expressions on their faces. I wonder what's going on?

5. I couldn't really tell if the audience at the Castro Theatre for the lunchtime "Variations on a Theme" panel discussion about silent film music enjoyed themselves as I squinted beyond the spotlight into the darkness from my very exposed perch on the stage. People came up to me afterwards and said they got something out of the experience. I personally thought the best part of the show was at the end, when the musicians stood at the front of the stage and the audience was able to ask them questions.

6. The format for the rest of the hour and 20 minutes wasn't ideal in my opinion. With seven musicians all giving 7-10 minute presentations, there wasn't a whole lot of time for discussion or interaction. I was up on stage and the musicians, who should have been the stars of the show, were (besides the final 10 minutes) stuck in a cluster below in the dark by the piano and Wurlitzer organ. This made it both hard for me to see them to ask questions and the audience to see who was talking when they responded.

7. If the festival does a panel like this again - and I really think that it should as the subject is a fascinating one - fewer musicians should be invited to contribute. It would also help if the subject were more focused. For example, I would love to moderate a discussion on the difference between silent film scores that pay close attention to following historical precepts (as in the use of traditional improvisation techniques and source material from library archives of the period) and those that approach the art form from a contemporary standpoint (as in the use of textures, instruments and ideas that wouldn't necessarily have been heard in the silent film era).

8. I hope I get asked to do this sort of thing again. I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. But it was such a treat to get to meet and chat with so many experts in the field. In short, I had lots of fun.


  • I missed the Castro panel. (My schedule for this month has been far busier than I would have expected.) I am curious, however, as to whether or not the title of the discussion was a nod to Herrmann. Did anyone note that there is a theme-and-variations section in his Citizen Kane score (the montage of breakfast scenes between Kane and his new wife)?

    For all the well-deserved praise that the Psycho score has received, Herrmann's finest hour for me was in the film Hangover Square, which is about a concert pianist with a psychopathic response to dissonance. A key plot element involves his playing a very dissonant concerto, which Herrmann composed it its entirety and titled "Concerto Macabre." Listen to it at your own risk!

    By Blogger Stephen Smoliar, At July 20, 2010 at 10:01 AM  

  • Really interesting article. Hope to see same more!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 15, 2010 at 3:15 PM  

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