Sunday, April 17, 2011

Alfred Hitchock Presents the Sarasota Orchestra

Long ago when Jay and I were dating, we saw the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood perform a night of movie music composed by John Williams.   Williams also conducted that night, which was a huge treat.  A big screen had been erected so that we could see clips from the movies as the music was being played.  We laid on a blanket under the stars and watched Harrison Ford gallop away in Raiders of the Lost Ark and fight Darth Vader in Star Wars.    We watched ET bicycle across the sky and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park roam their island.  It was an incredible evening and I still recall how magical it was almost 15 years later.  So, when I read that the Sarasota Orchestra was performing an evening of music from Hitchock movies, how could I resist???

Our host for the evening was John Goberman, the creator of Symphonic Cinema, a series of film/orchestra performances featuring music from movie soundtracks.  Goberman has an incredible resume.  Among other things, he created PBS' Live from Lincoln Center, has won 12 Emmy awards (53 nominations) and was named by Symphony Magazine as one of the 50 people who has made the most difference in American music.   Goberman served as narrator, telling the audience about the movies that we were going to see clips from and about Hitchcock himself.  He reminded us that music has always played an important role in the movies.  Even when movies were "silent," live music (initially played on a piano, later played on Wurlizter organs or by small musical groups) accompanied the action, enhancing the mood in the films and creating tension that the actors might not have been able to create on their own.   He talked about how music was incorporated into movies onscreen in the early days of talkies, with roaming musicians suddenly appearing in the countryside just at the right moment.  He shared that Hitchcock was one of the first to buck this trend in his movie, Lifeboat (1944).   When asked why there wouldn't be music in the movie, Hitchcock replied, "Where would the musicians come from?"  I don't know when directors realized that musicians did not need to physically appear in a movie in order for there to be music, but Hitchcock's movies from the early 1950s had soundtracks composed specifically for these films.

The evening included clips and music from To Catch a Thief, Dial M for Murder, North by Northwest, and Strangers on a Train.  It also included an ad made by Hitchcock for North by Northwest that was a travelogue of sorts of Alfred, his wife Alma, and their daughter Patricia traveling from the East Coast to--you guessed it--the Northwest.  It was fun to see clips from these great movies in this setting--watching Cary Grant in action is never a hardship!--but I had to keep reminding myself that I was there to appreciate the role that the music played in the films.

Movie soundtracks have come a long way since the 1950s.   The Hitchcock soundtracks certainly added to the suspensefulness of the pictures, but I didn't find the music nearly as impactful as the compositions of John Williams are in the movies whose scores he wrote.  I also enjoyed the variety of the music from the movies featured in the BSO concert much more than the evening of music from Hitchcock's films that, although wonderful, are all cut from the same cloth.

While the concert was fun (the audience clearly had a great time), I came away feeling that it was the movies that had been showcased rather than the music or the musicians.  As I was mulling it over, I began to wonder if the nature of Pops concerts creates this sort of tension, since they are intended to be crowd pleasers rather than nights of serious music.  Pops concerts have a well-established place in American music.  In 1881, Henry Lee Higginson, who was the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (the BSO does seem to keep popping up!), wrote a letter to his board that he would like to introduce "concerts of a lighter kind of music."   It wasn't until Arthur Fiedler joined the BSO as Pops conductor in the 1930s, however, that Pops concerts really took off.  The intention was for the orchestra to play music that would be appealing to a broader audience, be it "lighter" classical music, songs from musicial theater or, yes, even music from movies.   Fiedler is credited with started the practice of holding Pops concerts on the Fourth of July, a tradition that our own Charlotte Symphony Orchestra has adopted.

Before the Sarasota Orchestra's performance began, its chief executive told us that the number of Pops concert subscribers doubled in the last year, from 400 to 800, and that the POPS:  Hitchcock performance was sold out.  In this day and age of tight budgets and greater competition for the audience's discretionary dollars, playing second fiddle to a Hitchcock movie might well be a trade off that musicians are happy to make in order to get people in the door for their performances.

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