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Students Experience Vertigo!

November 7, 2013

Courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony, SFCV brought students to the orchestra’s performance of the complete score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo at the S.F. Symphony. Read their reactions here.

The high school students who took part in SFCV’s Write On! Workshop at San Francisco’s Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (SOTA) couldn’t have gotten a more delightful assignment. After a training session last week by SFCV writer Jeff Kaliss, the students, and their teacher, Kristen Brown, accompanied Kaliss to Davies Symphony Hall on Friday evening, for a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller Vertigo, with Bernard Herrmann’s film score performed live by the San Francisco Symphony. They took copious notes, worked on their reviews, had a followup editing session, and the results are here for you to share. The kids testified that the training and the excitement of the live event heightened their perception of both the music and the film, and their appreciation of how magically the two art forms were combined by Hitchcock and Herrmann.

1. By Jeremy Wei-Rosenstock

The Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo has come a long way since its premiere. Initially released to mixed reviews, the film has undergone a complete critical reevaluation to become acclaimed as one of the finest films of all time. In a year where the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight and Sound chose the 1958 classic over Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time, it makes sense that the first live orchestral arrangement of Bernard Hermann’s classic score would be given its world premiere last Friday by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Vertigo is the ultimate tale of mistaken identities, murder, conspiracies, romance, and humor. It tells the riveting story of Jack “Scottie” Ferguson, played by Jimmy Stewart, a retiring cop with crippling vertigo who returns to detective work to as a favor to a friend, who asks him to follow his apparently disturbed wife, Madeleine. Jack falls in love with her and uncovers a nexus of conspiracies in a desperate search for the truth. Hermann’s score fits perfectly with the tenor of this dramatic and mysterious intrigue, offering memorable motifs and connecting the classic sounds of Golden Age Hollywood soundtracks with modernist dissonance.

VertigoIn the context of a concert hall, the soundtrack more often than not adds new layers and a unique perspective to the film. At its best, the live music intensifies the movie to the highest degree, proving it to be more than just an expensive novelty. This is most apparent in the opening rooftop chase scene. An energetic chromatic ostinato opens the scene as Jack and a cop chase a criminal. Jumping from roof to roof, Jack stumbles and latches onto a pipe several stories above an alley. The camera quickly zooms in and out as Jack suddenly realizes he has vertigo. High muted brass blare out accented cluster chords with each inward and outward camera pulse. The brass hits intensify, crescendoing with each instance until the police officer falls to his death trying to help Jack. The live music makes each zoom more suspenseful.

In the rest of the film, the subtle yet deliberate movements of the actors match well with the music. In one instance, the friend’s real wife dies and Jack attends the funeral. An arpeggio ascends with the camera up to the sky before panning down to show the tombstone accompanied by a dissonant brass chord. The panning camera and arpeggio give spiritual meaning to the event, but the ultimate descent of the camera and chord powerfully illustrate that Jack has hit rock bottom, believing that the woman he loves has died.

Unsettling motifs, including one vaguely reminiscent of the first theme of Brahms’s Piano Trio in B-flat Major, are scattered throughout the score. The final repetition of the opening theme removes any lingering suspense in exchange for pure fear and terror. This theme plays in the last scene when Jack uncovers the conspiracy after being driven nearly insane in the process. Triumphant in discovering the truth, his victory is still is meaningless; Jack ends up even worse off. In a truly chilling moment, church bells ring resonantly at full volume as the timpani slowly and deliberately hits a fortissimo. It becomes clear that his apparent victory in discovering the truth was never a moral victory, but only a descent into darkness.

While inclusion of the live orchestra brings new depths of suspense and horror to the most dramatic scenes, it sometimes proves distracting, hampering rather than helping the film. The music drowns out parts of the dialogue and, worse, at times feels like a novelty added for the sake of bombast. Nonetheless, in proper balance, the orchestral accompaniment provides a rich layer of meaning to the story line, while enhancing the viewer’s sensory experience of the film.

Jeremy Wei-Rosenstock is a Piano student and junior at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. He has played piano for eight years.


2. Allison Shapiro

I was once told, “Film is emotional — just like music.” The combination of composer Bernard Herrmann’s score and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was the perfect recipe for proving that equation. Seeing the movie for the first time with live orchestra was an extraordinary emotional experience for me.

Hermann paid attention to every detail in the film. His arrangements created unexpected emotional states that would not have been achieved had there been no music. Although much of the film is mystery, entwined with a bit of humor, the soundtrack is consistently suspenseful — from ascending and descending harmonies in the strings and winds, to the synthesizer, an aspect that would reappear in the main theme of Psycho.

VertigoOne of my favorite parts of the performance was the conductor’s entrance at the very beginning. He walked in with ease, smiling and waving to the audience, yet once he turned his back to us, his stance changed completely. He moved as if the orchestra were an extension of his own arms. The orchestra started off loud in the opening credits, playing rhythmic and melodic motives, the iconic melodies that were repeated over and over again throughout the film.

The most intriguing arrangements were in the the strings. From plucking pizzicato violins to long stretches of romantic harmonies, the strings created the most powerful sound throughout the film. The suspenseful intro continued into the first scene of the film, providing an explanation for the vertigo suffered by Scottie, the main character.

The following scene had no live orchestration, but a record player from the film’s recorded score instead. Disappointed, I wondered: “Why are they not playing this part? I thought they were supposed to play the entire score!” After a moment, I realized they were showcasing the comparison of live music telling the story versus recorded music in the scene. The difference between the two was phenomenal. With the live music playing, it felt as if we were actually involved in the film, with the composer breaking the “fourth wall” between screen and reality, something recorded music doesn’t achieve.

The soundtrack also seemed directly connected to the characters, such as the record player that projected the personality of Midge, the first love interest. The recorded music, along with her character, is rather mediocre and banal. However, the main love interest in this film, Madeleine (played by Kim Novak), is always accompanied by the live orchestra with sweet harmonic strings and a sense of romantic desire. This difference in music reflects Scottie’s interpretation of both women, along with his thoughts about them. Hearing the music live was absolutely breathtaking (as is Novak’s appearance in every camera shot).

Overall, Vertigo is a not just a stunning film, but a masterpiece. Herrmann’s genius soundtrack plays emotion and dialogue into instruments, needing no conversation to give the audience a sense of what’s happening, and what emotion to feel. The combination of live orchestra with a classic film is an experience never to be forgotten, and will hopefully inspire all young artists out there today to do exactly what Hitchcock and Herrmann achieved: strive for genius, and give beauty, through art, to the world.

Allison Shapiro is a junior at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, studying classical voice. Her ambition is to write film/game soundtracks.


3. By Clover Austin-Muehleck

It only took moments for me to be transfixed by Friday’s showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with live music by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall. In the audience were frequent symphony goers, there for the music, and fans of the film, there for the experience. I had never seen Vertigo and I could not have picked a better way to experience it for the first time.

In the beginning credits, every time a name appeared on the screen, a dynamic boom played from the brass section and when composer Bernard Hermann’s name came up, the audience cheered. The enthusiasm got me excited, too.

Having a live orchestra playing made me feel more present in the film and certain instruments stuck out in places where they wouldn’t have if you were listening to the balanced soundtrack version of the score. Throughout the film, the music paints every thought and feeling that the character Scottie has. When he starts following Madeleine, the strings are lightly plucked or softly played showing his tentative, questioning thoughts. The first time Scottie sees her, a romantic string theme is played, giving the scene a “love-at-first-sight” feeling. This romantic string theme occurs throughout the film and particularly the first time they kiss. The strings intensify when they embrace and crescendo into a fortissimo by the time they kiss.

Another recurring theme plays every time Scottie looks down from a tall height and has vertigo. This aggressive cluster chord made it feel like I was experiencing his vertigo with him. With a live orchestra that feeling was greatly enhanced, because I could hear each instrument clearly and loudly.

During intermission, I walked up to the stage to the conductors stand. On the stand was a clock and a timer that the conductor had to keep a cautious eye on in order to cue the musicians at the correct time. Joshua Gersen’s job was incredibly hard and took a great amount of skill and concentration. The live orchestra made my first exposure to this film thrilling. It also taught me to appreciate the film score much more because it transforms the way the characters emotions and actions are portrayed.

Clover Austin-Muehleck is a Junior in the Classical Voice department at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts.


4. By Julia Lin

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is one of film history’s more perplexing and daunting works. Playing Bernard Hermann’s brilliant orchestral score, the San Francisco Symphony put on a beautifully accented emulation of a character suffering from vertigo.

The audience were able to truly put themselves into the love and lies of Scottie and Madeline/Judy. While the film had its plot line motives of a twisted and sinister murder, the orchestra narrated the film’s cynical tone. The brass became the symbol of fear and danger, blaring when Scottie comes face to face with his vertigo. The fluidity and the lack of resolution in the strings’ cadences aided in the clever effect of distortion. Another perfect example is in the scene where Scottie falls in and out of a dream built upon memories of Madeleine, where visual illusions spiral about: memory, illusion, repeat. Inversions of orchestral sound and color created a dream-like state, allowing us to be submerged into Scottie’s psyche.

Though the film has its dark moments, the audience was live throughout the night, frequently laughing at the most familiar of San Francisco locations. It was interesting to see our beloved city narrated by orchestral movements instead of the usual selections from jazz. A symphonic perspective of the city moved away from the stereotypical business and entrepreneurial S.F. Rather, it highlighted the class and elegance of San Francisco's architectural and social spaces.

Friday night’s performance was a unique experience, to say the least. A brilliant score for an innovative film was played live in a resonant venue and expectations were high. Without a doubt, Davies premiere performance of Hitchcock’s Vertigo fulfilled those expectations and left nothing short of a wonderful evening.

Julia Lin is a current senior studying classical voice and performance at Ruth Asawa's San Francisco School of the Arts.


5. By Sean Goldring

When initially hearing an incredible piece of music, especially when performed live, I can’t help but associate it with the nervousness of a first kiss: that hesitance and vague discomfort as the bows first slide across the strings and lungs empty into the chambers of the woodwinds and brass until it gives way to passion, enveloping us as the pictures come up on screen and the sounds of the orchestra cascade in unison with the opening titles.

As a performance, Vertigo was impeccable. Not only was the timing executed flawlessly but the interpretation and connection to the film material playing above the orchestra was audible in the dynamics: When Scottie, the detective, is tailing our heroine, the score swells and winnows as well, at times dramatically, as it searches while the characters on screen do their own detective work.

Another excellent example of this understanding of the dramatic material is the way the orchestra approached the film’s creative and original double climax, with the death of Madeleine at the top of the bell tower followed by the same scene playing out again 45 minutes later with similar dissonant chords driving in intensity. As Scottie climbs the stairs, our tension mounts as well but with a resounding almost overpowering resolution.

Sean Goldring is a junior at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts.


6. By Haley Ebert

Last Friday’s performance of Vertigo at the San Francisco Symphony was absolutely mesmerizing. Under the direction of Joshua Gersen, the night was a complete sensory experience.

The movie itself is captivating; however the live soundtrack is what made the experience so exciting. Because of the live orchestral performance, details were emphasized and another level of intensity was added to the movie. You heard how the timpani contributed to the dramatic effect, as when the police officer fell in the beginning, and when Madeleine fell later on. Love scenes were heightened, such as the waves and cymbals crashing together behind Madeleine and Scottie’s first kiss. Some of the music was recorded, however, which was confusing as well as disengaging from the movie.

The ending was incredible; the racing up the stairs combined with the racing of the orchestra was reflected in my heartbeat and the movie ended with all of us in suspense and heartache. The symphony deserved the applause for their timing, execution, and creativity in support of the movie.

Haley Ebert is a junior at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, majoring in Vocal Performance.


If you are a music teacher who would like your high school class to take part in SFCV’s Write On workshops, or for more information about them, contact Cynthia Mei, [email protected].