Friday, 22 May 2009

Music on a Knife-Edge: Psycho LIVE

While I’m yet to see all of his films, I can say with my hand on my heart that I am a Hitchcock fan. I remember going to the cinema – The Watershed in Bristol to be exact – eleven years ago to see a film which would have a huge impact on me for years to come. To this day Psycho is my favourite film, for various reasons, and last night I was able to experience it on the big screen for a second time at Notting Hill’s glorious Coronet Cinema. That experience in itself would be enough to write home about – or indeed to blog about – but Hitchcock’s visual masterpiece was brought even more vividly to life with its groundbreaking score by Bernard Herrmann played live.

In what was essentially a brilliantly conceived, though wonderfully random promotional event, Sky Movies laid on the film and music as a way of launching their new Hitchcock Season. With that in mind it was very much a private affair, with a scattering of tickets given out to prize winners and alike, with the rest dished out amongst interested and related parties, not to mention a handful of ‘celebrities’ (I use that in the loosest sense of the word and although the names Gabriel and McCartney were mooted, sadly I only happened upon Who Wants To Be a Millionaire host Chris Tarrant). I was fortunate enough to come under one of those categories (and no I didn’t win a competition) and took my seat, clutching my gleefully acquired complimentary drink and sweets, thinking I knew full well what to expect. I was entirely wrong… well, mostly.

Twenty or so string players from The London Soundtrack Orchestra (formerly known as The London Ensemble) did an admirable job of hacking away at Herrmann’s busy, rhythmic and always thrilling music, with conductor Ben Foster at the helm. It was quite a task and Ben steered them through cue after cue, sometimes with as little as a second or two to breathe before the next onslaught. Obviously it was a slightly smaller ensemble than we might be used to hearing play this music, but that didn’t mean it was any less impressive or immediate, in fact it was downright startling in places.

The clincher was always going to be the shower scene as blade meets flesh (or does it?) to the shriek and hack of those immortal glissando notes. It was this moment that shook me out of my otherwise state of quiet enjoyment. This scene was always meant to shock of course, but after years of seeing it on the small screen, the sharp edge has gone a little blunt… not so last night. With the music being played right before us, the intensity of that famous scene was dialled up to max and it was almost heart stopping, while the enlarged screen meant the eyes of the killer – shrouded in inky shadow – shone out larger than ever. The moment leading up to the frenzied attack was given extra atmosphere with the low rumbling of a passing tube train far below us. What a thrill.

Another reason it’s great to see a classic film in the cinema is the audience experience… Moments that you laugh at on your own, are funnier still, while moments that make you catch your breath are even more breathless – the scene where Lila is frightened by her own reflection in Mrs. Bates’ bedroom was one such moment and everyone laughed nervously at how much we had jumped, helped along of course by our musicians’ on-the-nail performance.

Everything about this film is so well considered, from the carefully planned shots and even-tempered script, to Herrmann’s intricately symmetrical musical puzzle. It’s ultimately a very simple film, but it’s no less masterful. The conservative nature of its production gives way to the fact that the story at its heart is simply marvellous, the performances brilliant and it never fails to enlighten me, excite me and make my heart pound. Even more so last night and thanks to that my passion for this film, and its music, has been fuelled once more.

My fellow audience members appeared to agree and with the spine-tingling notes of the ‘Mad House’ motif, as Marion’s car is dragged from the swamp, a wave of applause rang out across the gilded room. Ben Foster and the London Soundtrack Orchestra created a bit of magic in a small corner of the capital last night and for the first time ‘in the history of Planet Earth’ as our host Alex Zane put it. I’m amazed this landmark piece of music hasn’t been performed live to its picture before, but it’ll surely happen again though. ‘Sometimes just one time can be enough…’? Not this time Marion.

Sky Movies’ Hitchcock Season begins on Monday May 25th with screenings of fifteen of the master’s classic films throughout the week, including world premiere HD presentations available on demand through the SkyHD channel. For more information visit

With thanks to Ben Foster.

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