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Led by Esa-Pekka Salonen, this chilling program begins with the legendary sounds of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Mirroring the film’s infamous twists and turns, Bernard Herrmann’s string music slashes with vivid effect as it plunges into the darkest corners of the human psyche. Then, with pounding intensity and bleak foreboding, Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin takes hold with a lurid tale of fraud, seduction, and murder. Capping off the evening of frights is HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!!, a raucous and humorous work for orchestra and vocalist that merges genres from jazz to Viennese cabaret.
Illustration by Heather Vaughn.
At A Glance
Last week’s concerts dwelled in 19th-century Gothic, and this week’s program picks up with 20th-century horror. Each piece has a dramatic dimension, originating in cabaret, film, and pantomime ballet.
HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!! sets children’s rhymes by HC Artmann for a “chansonnier” who pushes his delivery toward the realm of performance art. The orchestra chips in playing instruments outside their job descriptions. The piece doesn’t recount the usual story of Frankenstein, but as the composer explained: “Frankenstein—or whoever we choose to identify with that name—is not the protagonist, but the figure behind the scenes whom we forget at our peril.”
Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho: A Narrative for Strings includes essential music from the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film, following Marion Crane from her dreary life in Phoenix to the Bates Motel, including the infamous shower scene. The film editors thought the sequence only worked when the music was added, but the music slashes away even without the film.
While many pieces that once shocked the world seem tame with time, Béla Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin remains controversial. The ballet’s 1926 premiere was a succès de scandale, but without the success. The “pantomime grotesque” by Hungarian playwright Menyhért Lengyel takes place in a post-apocalyptic city where three thugs force a girl into prostitution to lure men into a robbery, but a mysterious Mandarin proves invulnerable to their attacks until a completed sex act. Generally considered a reaction to World War I, it makes a bit more sense considering Lengyel also sought psychological help from Sigmund Freud.