Under the glow of a waxing crescent, San Francisco Symphony conjured the raucous spirit of Halloween on Oct. 28 for the “Frankenstein and Psycho” concert. The symphony’s quintessential all-black uniform enhanced the delightfully spooky atmosphere as patrons left their formal attire on the hanger to arrive in costumes that ranged from ornate witchy ensembles to shark onesies.
The concert opened with “Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra,” composed by Bernard Herrmann for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller of the same name. With only string players present on stage, Herrmann’s score captured a haunting singularity of texture and demonstrated the versatility of the string sound.
Even without the film, Herrmann’s score prickles under the skin. Violins are traditionally used to evoke romantic, sentimentalist moods, but Herrmann’s music washed over listeners like icy water. The suite is built around a pulsing, almost percussive motif that stirs suspense and paranoia.
Music director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted and set the piece at a thrilling tempo, layering its different parts with precision. His urgent movement titillated fright and excitement, unmuffled by the audience’s familiarity with the score. Quiet passages pulsed with anxiety, taut like the spring of a mousetrap. Wicked anticipation penetrated lyrical lines as their wailing expression departed from beauty and grew feverish and maddening.
The most recognizable part of Herrmann’s film score is that which accompanies Hitchcock’s shower scene — where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is repeatedly stabbed by a shadowed figure in the shower. Giggles bubbled from the audience when the famous passage finally arrived, which only mildly defrosted the sense of terror. At first, the strings’ repeated strikes landed a bit slow and soft; it seemed as if the slashing was done with a butterknife instead of a dagger. In the following iterations, however, the violins’ shrieks grew more formidable, violent and robust.
The rest of the orchestra filed on stage for the oldest piece of the night’s program, the concert suite from Béla Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin.” The 1926 debut of Bartók’s bawdy ballet about sexual exploitation sparked riotous uproar and was banned by the mayor of Cologne, Germany on moral grounds. Salonen and the orchestra kicked the piece off with vigor, creating an atmosphere of surprise that steered audiences through a house of mirrors. Percussion and violin players hissed like snakes in Cleopatra’s garden. The orchestra’s flair for the dramatic soared to astonishing heights that generated an epic, triumphant conclusion.
The ensemble’s performance of Bartók shot through Davies Symphony Hall like a meteor hitting earth. Yet, the symphony did not leave the dust to settle in its wake and instead set its course on a wholly new planet. The night ended with HK Gruber’s “Frankenstein!!” and featured baritone Christopher Purves in a dapper kilt.
“Frankenstein!!” is the kind of contemporary orchestral music that appears nonsensical on paper but is significantly more fun in performance. Mary Shelley might not even recognize her own work to be the namesake of this devilishly unusual piece. “Frankenstein!!” ran like pandemonium: It featured complex rhythms and interpolations on top of atypical instrumentation, such as wheezing kazoos, whistling and paper bags that got blown up and then popped in rhythmic succession.
The outlandish piece took unexpected and over-the-top musical turns, sounding like the scariest episode of “Tom and Jerry.” It also featured jaw-dropping vocal passages taken from several sources including the eponymous novel, “Dracula” and a fanfiction-esque passage that describes Batman and Robin at breakfast. Modulating his voice and showing off his impressive range, Purves proved himself to be an expressive, whimsical and entertaining performer. Salonen and the symphony gripped the reins of control in this shambolic piece while simultaneously letting the melodies cannonball and romp at will.
“Frankenstein!!” aired a childlike wonder, capping off the night with buoyant joy. With its eclectic and enthusiastic program, SF symphony wished its audience members a happy Halloween by giving spine-tickling tricks and gut-busting treats.