On Monday, June 15th, at Sunset Center, with the Bach Festival well under way, audiences attended “Psycho!,” where Peter Hanson and his string orchestra played a wide variety of pieces: “Holberg Suite” by Edward Grieg, “Shaker Loops” by John Luther Adams, and after intermission, extracts from the soundtracks of Psycho, Dunkirk, The Deer Hunter,The Lord of the Rings, Schindler‘s List, and an encore (which we’ll get to), as well as the famous Air on the G String by this festival’s namesake, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Perhaps some underprepared audience members, like me, assumed that music from the classic Hitchcock film, after which this concert was named, would consume, if not all, at least the bulk of the concert. One can imagine my surprise at hearing the opening, shuffling, Viennese dance that emerged, and more so learning it was the work of Grieg, who was adopting antiquated styles in the late 19th century when this piece was written. Grieg’s suite contains 5 movements: a Präludium, Sarabande, Gavotte, Air, and Rigaudon. This whole suite seems upon closer inspection, in fact, to be of a fundamentally mathematical design, because the writing of the odd movements drew from the First Viennese School of the 1700s, whereas the writing of the even movements drew more from the Baroque composers of the 1600s. As for this interpretation in particular, and in the context of the rest of the program, I found the “Holberg Suite” to be a nice palette cleanser, of refreshing modesty and warmth, and, also, a pleasant warm-up for what was to come — the more contemporary work by John Luther Adams.
Peter Hanson gave us an opportunity to deliberate upon the significance of this tour de force, briefly recalling the wan faces of the Bach Festival’s marketing team upon hearing this musically challenging (for both musicians and audience) work of art. Hanson prefaced the John Adams piece by stating that it has no melody, but lots of rhythm, and by making the analogy of the people being trapped in an airplane, forced to admire the clouds — a startling, but emotionally accurate description of what the Sunset Center audience was about to hear. Adams was a pioneer of Postminimalism, and this movement’s commonalities and digressions from the Minimalism of 50s and 60s are both imminently clear right from the beginning. We heard a perpetual motion, comprised of repeating 16th-note tremolos, but we heard it magnificently ebb and falter. It’s as if the deeply introspective rigidity of Steve Reich was taken over by the naturalists and subjected to the earth’s changing seasons. Chords undefinable by western harmony struck the ear as surprisingly tantalizing, and surreptitious beacon calls sang like whistles in the night. At one point, glissandos innocuously slipped into the aural lexicon and metastasized throughout the strings. At another, the violins quit their sixteenth-note tremolos and shrieked a few brash chords in quarter notes. They were joined by their lower counterparts in an earthly Satanic chant and gradually sped up until they collapsed into a new chord. The piece ended with the perpetual motion intact, but decreasing in volume until it heaved its fatal sigh. I overheard, during intermission, one of the listeners remark,“Boy, was that ever avant-garde!”
I feel it is appropriate to elaborate on the second piece we heard, as Peter Hanson dedicated a large amount of explanatory remarks to it. I found it to be the most musically interesting segment of the concert — although by no means the only one. After returning from intermission, with the string orchestra garbed in more colorful clothing, we heard the theme from Psycho, which was written by Bernard Herman, who is famous for his grotesque and discordant (not an insult, but a compliment) movie scores. There was definitely some influence from Ives and Stravinsky in this score, which the program rightfully remarks, since the work was wrought with polytonality. However, I also heard Shostakovich’s style coming through in the disjointed musical ideas and volatile time signatures. The shrieking violins from the murder scene aroused a jolt of laughter from the audience.
The backdrop had been red for the previous piece, but for what we heard next, it shifted to a more agreeable blue. Edward Edgar’s “Nimrod Variation,” featured in the WWII movie Dunkirk, was performed by Hanson and the strings. This theme took care to mollify the pent-up anguish of the audience and provide a more relinquished and subdued state of mind. A beautiful melody that embodied hope for the English people served well in this program. Stanley Myers’ “Cavatina” from The Deer Hunter had a similar effect in the concert, as another warm and welcome respite — the same effect, one might add, that it had in the movie in which it was featured.
For Howard Shore’s “Concerning Hobbits,” from Lord of the Rings, there were a couple of stage antics from the performers. Not only was Peter Hanson playing a drum and between breaks conducting with his drum stick, but a barefooted man waddled onto stage, dazed and confused, played the recorder with the string orchestra, and sheepishly waddled off stage after the piece ended.
The theme from Schindler’s List was a melancholy treat, romantic in style, but heartbreaking in its cinematic context. With this John Williams melody, as was famously recorded by Itzakh Perlman, the horrors of the Holocaust are painfully recalled. Bach’s “Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3”, or as it’s more commonly known, “Air on the G String,” was programmed because Peter Hanson remembered hearing it in a cigar commercial when he was a young boy, the details of which were recounted humorously to the audience. In this piece, as anyone who’s familiar with it would recall, the violin melody quaintly bounces off the basso continuo’s dainty quarter notes.
For an encore, a crescent moon was portrayed upon the screen and Peter Hanson said the soundtrack he was about to play was so well-known that it needed no introduction. As the first notes emerged from Peter Hanson’s violin, a collective sigh of reminiscence was heard from the audience. I, for one, did not recognize this melody at all and felt mild embarrassment having to approach an usher to ask what the title of the encore was (also apologizing humbly for my ignorance). The usher showed no sign of remorse, though, as he told me it was Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” from the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s, of which I had heard but had never seen.
Apart from my last embarrassment, the concert was hugely enjoyable and inspiring. If it seems as though the soundtracks were somewhat shortchanged, I’ll proudly admit that I’m biased in favor of contemporary classical music, but discrepancies aside, Peter Hanson’s show was, whether transcendental or affable, universally well-received.
[Editor’s note: the author of this review, Jordi Faxon, is a 17-year-old student at Carmel High School. Although he is a serious competition-level piano student with a repertoire that ranges from jazz to Arnold Schoenberg and Erwin Schulhoff, he is obviously less familiar with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a film that was released forty years before he was born.]