New York Philharmonic – Norman Huynh conducts Bernard Herrmann’s score for a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo

John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson – James Stewart
Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton – Kim Novak
Majorie ‘Midge’ Wood – Barbara Bel Geddes
Gavin Elster – Tom Helmore
Coroner – Henry Jones
Scottie’s Doctor – Raymond Bailey
Manager of McKittrick Hotel – Ellen Corby
Pop Leibel – Konstantin Shayne
Car Owner Mistaken for Madeleine – Lee Patrick

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Cinematography by Robert Burks
Edited by George Tomasini
Production design by Henry Bumstead and Hal Pereira
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Costumes by Edith Head
Screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor

New York Philharmonic
Norman Huynh

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 25 January, 2024
Venue: Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

The New York Philharmonic continued this season’s ‘The Art of the Score’ series with a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a highly stylized exploration of the tragic consequences of obsession and betrayal set in 1950s’ San Francisco and tells the story of John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, a vertigo-afflicted private detective, and his fatal fixation with the enigmatic, suicidally possessed Madeleine Elster he is hired to follow and protect. The now 65-year-old soundtrack – made in London and Vienna with conductor Muir Mathieson when a musicians’ strike prevented it from being done with Herrmann in Los Angeles – suffers from frequently dull and uneven playing. Watching the suspenseful taleon a giant screen while hearing the 100-plus New York Philharmonic play Bernard Herrmann’s mesmerizing music allowed one to experience the score and the movie in an exceptionally vivid way.

Herrmann, who scored more than 50 films, seven of them for Hitchcock, was at his peak in Vertigo. In a four-decade career stretching from Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver, he revolutionized the art of writing film music. Dispensing with the lush, decorative melodies prevalent in 1930s’ Hollywood, he composed in his own, idiosyncratic idiom – replete with short repeating figures, static groups of chords, and parodies of earlier musical styles. Much of Vertigo’s famously eerie atmosphere is in debt to his sparingly orchestrated score, the perfect complement to Hitchcock’s highly subjective camera style.

The Philharmonic players were very much at home with the off-center tonality and relentlessness in Herrmann’s music – the trembling dissonances, the endless circles of major and minor thirds – and were especially effective in the iconic opening title sequence where a series of string arpeggios is constantly interrupted by ominous brass chords that mirror and intensify the dizziness evoked by graphic designer Saul Bass’s rotating spirals. At other times the strings were uncommonly tender, most notably in the love theme introduced in the long sequence where Scottie first tails the woman purported to be Madeleine as she makes her somnambulistic way around the city, from a chapel to a graveyard to an art gallery. The poignant music, dominated by violins and bass clarinets and played almost continuously, created an atmosphere of inexpressible mystery. The brass and woodwinds were suitably ominous in the scene where Scottie and Madeleine visit a forest of giant sequoias. But the most beautiful playing came from the strings in the haunting ‘scene d’amour’ as their luscious, sighing sounds underlined the ecstasy felt by Scottie when he first sees Madeleine reincarnated, gorgeously photographed by Robert Burks. That scene alone was a vindication of the important, but frequently underrated work of film composers. 

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