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REVIEW: All strings, all Hermann, all Hitchcock at Fisher Center’s ‘Psycho’ with live score

Hitchcock, believing the murder scene would be most dramatic with no music, instructed Hermann not to score it, but Hermann did anyway. When he insisted Hitchcock listen, after just a few notes, Hitchcock changed his mind (and increased Hermann’s fee).

The most recognizable film music of Bernard Hermann, one of the greatest Hollywood composers of all time, thrilled audiences last weekend as the Bard Conservatory Orchestra performed live Hermann’s music score to a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” The audience was captivated right from the start as the instantly recognizable opening notes of screeching violins (over Saul Bass’ brilliant title design) pierced the Sosnoff Theater at Bard College’s Fisher Center for Performing Arts.

Most distinctive about Hermann’s score is that it’s all strings, which film historians ascribe in part to financial reasons. Hitchcock, in dispute with the Paramount studio, financed “Psycho” himself. Hermann, who had worked with Hitchcock several times before (in the end a total of seven films together) refused to reduce his fee. He economized nevertheless: With a reduced budget came a smaller, strings-only orchestra, and not the full symphony — or so the story goes.

In any event, the string tension achieved by the screeching down-bows used in the shower scene — one of the most famous scenes in film history — has enduring effect. The American Film Institute ranks “Psycho” as Number 4 on its list of the Top 25 film scores of all time. Ironically, Hitchcock, believing the murder scene would be most dramatic with no music, instructed Hermann not to score it, but Hermann did anyway. When he insisted Hitchcock listen, after just a few notes, Hitchcock changed his mind (and increased Hermann’s fee).

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ was screened at Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts and featured a live score performed by the Bard Conservatory Orchestra. Photo: Dan Dwyer

What made the Bard Conservatory presentation unforgettable was SEEING the orchestra accompany the film’s action, specifically its famous scene. The Sosnoff is a large hall; suspended above the onstage orchestra was the film in marvelous, stark black and white and original screen aspect ratio. Arranged below, washed in warm, low lighting, was a glistening arc of 42 strings: stage right to stage left, two sections of violins, then viola, then cello, then bass. To witness the staccato, unified, down-bow of all 42 instruments at the same time as the swift stabs of Norman Bates’ knife into his victim secretary Marion Crane was, well, startling despite the countless times I’d seen “Psycho” before.

The other memorable aspect of the score is the brooding musical theme that stalks Marion as she drives her car in a troubled state (having stolen $40,000 from her boss). The dark, foreboding music, hypnotic in effect, swirls about Marion as she struggles driving in the rain, fighting fatigue, leading her, desperate to find lodging — and her doom — to the Bates Motel. For any student of film, the event was a master class in how music scoring and editing makes a movie work.

No longer the shocker it once was, “Psycho” has become a little bit camp. The Fisher audience chuckled here and there where, in 1960 on its original release, moviegoers gasped. At the end at the police station, an enlightened interrogator of Bates explains in layman’s Freudspeak to an assembly of law enforcement officials Norman’s psychosis and transference of his mother’s personality. An attorney from the district attorney’s office interjects “but …the woman’s clothes — he was a transvestite!” We’ve come a long way, baby.

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