Bernard Herrmann was the score composer for many great film directors, beginning with Orson Welles and continuing with Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese.
Joseph Horowitz, whose PostClassical Ensemble is co-hosting a festival honoring the composer, wants us to remember that Herrmann was more than just a film composer, even though the majority of the festival’s events are film screenings. PostClassical Ensemble’s last festival performance fell on Sunday afternoon at the National Gallery of Art.
There should be no shame in being known as a film composer, especially when one’s credits include Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” which critic Alex Ross once described as “a symphony for film and orchestra.” Five of PostClassical Ensemble’s principal musicians played the gorgeous “Souvenirs de Voyage,” a quintet for clarinet and strings in lush late romantic harmony. Clarinetist David Jones shone brightest in the piece, always mellow and poised in tone, while the mushy acoustic of the West Garden Court covered some of the shortcomings of the string players, a little off from each other in the sections without mutes.
When Herrmann composed his earlier “Sinfonietta for Strings,” he was influenced by the dissonant serialism of Schoenberg. Herrmann later saw in that style a device for ratcheting up cinematic tension when he adapted parts of the piece in his score for Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” PostClassical Ensemble made the connection clear by pairing it with John Mauceri’s reconstruction of Herrmann’s “Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra,” a concert tapestry of various bits from his film score, including the shrieking glissandi of the infamous shower scene. Negatives in the performance of both works, such as intonation discrepancies in very high and very low ends of the string sound, were overshadowed by the satisfaction of hearing both scores side by side.