Hitchcock – Live!

Prague Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Psycho was a roaring success; what’s on tap next?

One of the most recognizable soundtracks in film history, Bernard Hermann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is also recognized as one of the most vital contributions of music to a motion picture, with the director himself later remarking that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.”

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The Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK) and conductor Jan Kučera faced a unique challenge in bringing Hermann’s score to life on February 19, when Prague’s Municipal House hosted a special screening of Hitchcock’s Psycho accompanied by a live orchestra. Over sixty musicians brought Hitchcock’s film to life at Obecní dům’s Smetana Hall. 

The result? A blast!

For someone whose seen Hitchcock’s film over a dozen times, the Orchestra’s reproduction of Hermann’s score was just about flawless. Each cue was perfectly matched, each note was perfectly hit, and the music was beautifully realized; this is easily the best I’ve ever heard it sound. The atmosphere inside Prague’s Municipal House – probably one of the best places in the world to catch a classical music gig – only added to the experience, with Hermann’s score reverberating throughout the beautiful Smetana Hall.

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Photo: Hitchcock Live / Kateřina Motýlová

The only recognizable difference in the score was one unusual (but intentional) choice: as Norman Bates races to Marion’s room following the infamous shower scene, Hermann’s soundtrack features a unique screeching stinger-like effect, while the Orchestra seemed to re-use a bit of the music from the shower sequence.

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As conducted by Jan Kučera, the overall score was a note-perfect fit to the events onscreen. Not watching the musicians perform, I frequently had to remind myself that what I was hearing was being performed live, and not part of the original soundtrack. Roughly half of the film has no music at all, yet the introduction of the strings-only score from FOK into the mix was seamless (done less subtly, I could easily imagine it having a jarring effect). 

While Smetana Hall was the perfect venue to listen to score being performed, however, it was a less-than-ideal space to watch the film. I’ve seen Psycho look better in cinemas (there seemed to be some minor interlacing issues in the digital projection, which I’m fairly sure was sourced from the 2010 blu-ray), and the smallish screen size wasn’t optimal for those seated in the back rows (given the flat layout of the Hall, there also wasn’t much view of the FOK performance).

And while the Orchestra was amazing, the acoustics of the venue gave the film’s soundtrack – dialogue and sound effects – a hollow, echo-y quality. The sound from the film was also mixed too high: during the shower scene, the sound of running water and Janet Leigh’s screams nearly drowned out the Orchestra’s beautiful work. The Hall’s sensitive acoustics also led to some unwanted distractions, drawing attention to light chatter from audience members and activity in next-door rooms.

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Photo: Hitchcock Live / Kateřina Motýlová

Still, these minor concerns did nothing to diminish the impact of the wonderful work done by Kučera and the Prague Symphony Orchestra, which was rewarded with five minutes of applause at the conclusion of the film. Hitchcock – Live was a wonderful way to experience Psycho, and I can’t wait for what the organizers will bring next; I’d love to hear FOK tackle Hermann’s work from North by Northwest or Vertigo, though I’ve heard whispers Rebecca and Franz Waxman’s score might be in the mix later this year.

But those are just rumors. Keep an eye out for future films and dates.


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