At the second screening of three, the British Sinfonietta provided a live accompaniment to an Alfred Hitchcock 1960s masterpiece. Psycho Live! was a chance to see the powerful effect of American composer Bernard Herrmann‘s motion picture music played by a real orchestra. An absolute classic, British director Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film Psycho is one of his most famous films, known best by its chilling, iconic shower scene with its screeching theme for strings. The film tells the tale of Robert Bloch’s novel where a Phoenix secretary steals money from a company client and goes on the run. She checks into a motel in the middle of nowhere run by a young man who is under the domination of his mother - or so he thinks.

Psycho Live! © Chris Cooper | ShotAwayDotCom
Psycho Live!
© Chris Cooper | ShotAwayDotCom

On entering the venue, sitting up in the top balcony, I had apprehensions that the screen was too small to offer an immersive experience in the performance but straight from the start of the movie, it was clear I had misjudged. The volume of the track with speech and movie sounds was kept fairly low, which gave the audience the chance to connect with the music by having to be really quiet to hear the film. The screen was lit in red and the string orchestra in black, the colours of horror rose up to the balcony as the string performers entered the stage. Big cheers welcomed conductor Anthony Gabriele.

Principal conductor of the British Sinfonietta, Gabriele had no easy feat on his hands. Directly in front of him he had the score for string orchestra, a white clock and a miniature screen of the film to coordinate the musicians with the action of the film. The standard of musicianship throughout the evening was impeccable. The film used was edited to subtract the music whilst still maintaining the voiceover and sound effects to play alongside the live music. My main worry was that the music was going to be out of sync with the film. Impressively, this only happened at the very beginning of the film where the sharp Bridget Riley-style graphics moved punctually to the changes in the music and the orchestra was unfortunately just a fraction out. Otherwise, the timing was perfect. Once the ears were used to the sound balance between the speaker and the live audience, the film was utterly absorbing.

Main themes in the music reoccur throughout the film and though all exposed in the prelude to the film during the title credits, they did not become repetitive. Gabriele manipulated the sounds of each recurring theme so that it wasn’t only the score that was slightly different each time, but also the way in which the themes were played. The excitement and thrill of Hitchcock’s film that the British Sinfonietta conveyed through the music was fantastic.

The growing trend of live screenings is rapidly expanding and will hopefully continue to do so as it was every bit as successful as a normal classical concert. It brings a new audience to classical music and a further appreciation for classical music in film. There was so much demand for this concert that balcony seats were released a week before the night to cater for a larger audience.

I can understand why the venue wanted an interval, but the film didn’t need it, especially when it extended a good half an hour rather than the initial intention of a ten-minute pause. This meant that the second half had a rather slow start with some rowdy audience members causing the conductor to have to wait for everyone to stop making noise. Gabriele remained cool and calm, simply turning his back to the audience and waiting for quiet.

This was an utterly professional performance from Gabriele and the British Sinfonietta. They provided chills, thrills and horror exemplified at its finest. Hopefully, more orchestras will continue to introduce film music to the concert hall with the same respect as classical concert music. The applause and cheers at the end of the evening said it all – before the orchestra had a chance to finish their last note the audience had already broken into a cheering applause, marking the end of a memorable evening at Colston Hall.