The San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra (SFCCO), under Music Director Mark Alburger, is an ensemble through which local composers can present their latest work to the listening public. Eight such composers were featured last night at Old First Church in one of the regular appearances of SFCCO in the Old First Concerts series; but in this piece I would like to focus attention on the one composer on the program who is no longer living, Bernard Herrmann.
If the primary agenda of SFCCO is to offer new listening experiences, then that agenda was satisfied in part last night by taking one of the most reputable of composers for film and television and bringing him into a concert setting. The implication is that, separated from the images they were intended to supplement, Herrmann’s scores have much to offer the serious listener. To make this point, last night’s program included the music that Herrmann had composed for “Little Girl Lost,” an episode of The Twilight Zone. The performance was prepared by Associate Conductor John Kendall Bailey.
While we tend to associate film music with the lush sounds of a full orchestra, Herrmann was probably at his most innovative when choosing to work with limited resources. This was not my first encounter with Herrmann in a concert setting. That was a little over two years ago, when the New Century Chamber Orchestra performed the suite he compiled from his score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho; and I was struck by the wealth of sonorities he could elicit without ever using more than a small string ensemble. The resources for the “Little Girl Lost” episode were both more limited and more diverse.
The performance only required ten musicians (plus the conductor). There was a featured solo line composed for viola d’amore. This is an instrument that flourished during the baroque period with a set of strings that vibrate sympathetically behind the bowed strings. This creates a richer sonority than those of the violin and viol families; and, when placed among those more familiar instruments, its sounds are decidedly alien. For this particular score, however, Herrmann did not use any other bowed string instruments. Rather, he instrumented the score for four harps, percussion, and four flautists who alternate among the different ranges in the flute family, going beyond the standard flute up to piccolo and down to the alto and bass instruments. Thus, the solo line of the viola d’amore (performed last night by Roland Kato, Principal Viola for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra) is distinguished primarily by its bowed sound, rather than its “otherness” among other string instruments. Instead, the entire ensemble conveys that sense of otherness; and the result was just as chilling (if not more so) as it was as a setting for Twilight Zone mystery and suspense.
“Little Girl Lost” was first aired on The Twilight Zone in 1962. That makes Herrmann’s score almost 50 years old. The fact that there is still a sense of novelty to its innovations should make the case that concert organizers should be paying more attention to this composer’s repertoire. Isn’t it about time that the piano concerto he composed for the film Hangover Square get similar treatment?