Nightmare Romance – Bernard Herrmann & Alfred Hitchcock

Music for films including Psycho, Taxi Driver, Citizen Kane and Fahrenheit 451

Marty Ehlrich (saxophone/winds)
Bill Frisell (guitar)
Erik Charlston (vibraphones/percussion)
Gil Goldstein (piano/celeste/harmonium)
Danny Kaplin (double bass)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Joel McNeely (conductor/co-music director/arranger)
Greg Cohen (conductor/co-music director/arranger)

Kerry Shale (narrator)
Brian Millar (visual design)

Conceived and produced by Danny Kaplin

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Edward Lewis

Reviewed: 17 March, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

There is no doubting that Bernard Herrmann (here gratingly pronounced ‘Bernard’) was a dynamic and creative composer of film music who forged an exhilarating new approach for many generations of later film composers and whose music endures with fascination, in some cases to a greater extent than the films it was written for. Herrmann’s name is forever coupled with that of director Alfred Hitchcock, and it is this unlikely partnership that Danny Kaplin sought to explore in “Nightmare Romance”.

It is an intriguing tale, and in telling it, the BBC Concert Orchestra included some of Herrmann’s most memorable work, not only from Hitchcock’s films, but also from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (Herrmann’s first film commission), Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Herrmann’s last score, his death following on the night he finished the recording. From this list it is obvious that Herrmann’s influence on the history of film is far-reaching, and it is refreshing and fitting that a concert should celebrate his immense opus.

With the studied air of a faux-intellectual American documentary, we were guided by the comfortably arm-chaired Kerry Shale, whose ability to voice Hitchcock, Herrmann and most of the other characters from this chapter of film history was astounding. With readings from him and a selection of recorded interviews we were introduced to Herrmann’s awkward, sometimes arrogant personality, Hitchcock’s often-difficult relationship with him (“…as far as I’m concerned, he does what he likes. What can we do?”), and the method with which they approached their work. The journey was supplemented by appropriate renditions by the moodily-lit orchestra and a five-piece jazz-band huddled stage-left that looked as if the members had taken a wrong turn and were sure the Café Royal hadn’t looked quite this big last week.

The orchestra captured superbly the overtly romantic elements of Herrmann’s music, with swooning strings and beautifully chorded and balanced wind playing, not to mention some supremely brazen horns and gorgeously sleazy muted-trumpet passages. Even so, the BBC Concert Orchestra didn’t quite bring out the unashamed heart-wrenching qualities that Herrmann himself produced.

While the music is, in this case, invariably worthwhile in its own right, a great deal of any film-composer’s skill is in writing music to an image within the context of a greater narrative flow. Without that image and the context of the film. In several instances here Herrmann’s music was accompanied by slides of the film’s original storyboards, which was fascinating, but this is not what the music was intended for.

Also, and unlike most other musical works, the public comes to know film music through the soundtrack, and often conducted by the composer: anyone knowing the films will compare subsequent performances to this and note differences as to deviations from that ‘perfect’ performance.

But why have film music? Herrmann himself pleaded ignorance: “after a lifetime writing it, I still don’t really know”. It was certainly not the intention of this concert to find an answer, but simply to successfully bring to our attention the fact that, for whatever reason, music does have an important role in film.

The only distraction from a superb concert was the jazz band. Consisting of percussion, upright bass, keyboards, accordion, guitar and winds, it was intended to reflect Herrmann’s “wild innovations” in orchestration. Fair enough, Herrmann was renowned for eccentric scoring, but the music – a collection of meandering pseudo-improvisations – was unexciting and time-consuming. If this was wild, then Psycho is a side-splittingly funny film, the topography of the Barbican is a model of breath-taking simplicity, and the vibraphone ranks with pop-up headlights as a mark of sophistication. That said, the band did come into its own with Taxi Driver, featuring some utterly gorgeous saxophone playing from Marty Ehlrich.

As a celebration of Hermann’s music, his immense contribution to the often-overlooked art of film-scoring, and a brief exploration of his personality and relationship with those he worked with, the evening proved a success. I doubt I was alone in a desire to re-watch the many films to which Herrmann contributed so memorably.

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