Psamantics Goes Psycho - November 22, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
Looking back on the Samantics concerts that I’ve attended, I’d say that the common denominator is fun. They’re full of clever touches and humorous content, and “Psamantics Goes Psycho” was a perfect example of what makes me look forward the next quirky, creative project from director Sam Schieber and his exuberant singers. On this night, the fun began with the clever program (one look, and you’ll see what I mean). Then there were the decorations that surrounded the piano (recalling that “The Birds” was one of Hitchcock’s most memorable achievements).
On this night, the chorus set the stage for their antics with a serious demeanor. They filed into the church quietly, the men in tuxedos and the women in evening dress, many with elegant gowns. It’s the serious undercurrent that accentuates the comedy. And so they began performing the “Marche funèbre d’une marionette.” Those of us of a certain age recognized it as the theme from the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television show (1955-1962), and gave it the laughs it deserved. It even ended with the iconic Hitchcock “Good evening.” More laughs.
I don’t know what I expected from a revue of music from Alfred Hitchcock movies. Probably something dark. On the contrary, most of the songs were upbeat or romantic, and since Hitchcock worked with a many composers over many years, there was great variety in the music of this concert. Much of the program consisted of solos by 11 different chorus members. What struck me about these were not so much the quality of the voices – though they were all strong and eminently listenable – as the fact that each song was “sold” – essentially acted as much as sung, often comically but just as often with genuine feeling. It reinforced another impression of mine that a lot of this program was a rare opportunity to hear some sweet old songs – often with clever lyrics – that one might never have heard, and would probably never hear again. But it was, for me at least, very pleasant listening. No, more than just “pleasant.” When Christine Nicholson sang “The Laziest Gal in Town,” she was practically channeling Marlene Dietrich, who sang the song in the movie Stage Fright. And then Madeline Wieland made a serious, grand entrance to sing, “Love, Look What You’ve Done to Me,” half-way through pushing aside her long scarf to reveal a baby bump.
Many of these singers have a comic flair, and they all seemed to relish the humor that surfaced during the course of the concert – while making good music, of course. And the audience delighted in the gags that punctuated the generally serious concert. One special bit of audience fun was with “Que Sera, Sera,“ from The Man Who Knew Too Much. Schieber invited us to sing the refrain, which we did, lustily and without hesitation. Then, with the help of words in the program, we sang the refrain in Italian and French. More fun!
This was followed by what was probably the two musical high points of the concert. First, was “The Storm Clouds,” a big, dramatic composition from The Man Who Knew Too Much that was played brilliantly by Schieber and included difficult singing, beautifully performed by the chorus. It verified Schieber’s observation that it was music that “deserves to be in the repertoire of major symphony orchestras.” After we in the audience had been completely lulled by the serious quality of the music, it ended with a piercing scream from a chorus member who had surreptitiously moved to the balcony behind us – the perfect Alfred Hitchcock touch. This was followed by a “Medley of Vertigo Themes,” similarly interesting, engaging music, that included more difficult and this time wordless singing that illustrated the skill of the chorus.
Throughout the evening, each song was preceded by an introduction from Schieber, and all of these set-ups were both informative, and delivered with Schieber’s characteristic wit, tinged with a bit of sarcasm. Not only did these comments give a good picture of the scope of Hitchcock’s use of music, but they were a highly entertaining part of the show, a foil for some of the more serious songs that were delivered.
As with every Samantics performance, Sam Schieber directed from the piano, accompanying every piece. And just listening to his expressive playing is a highlight of each of these concerts for me. But the penultimate piece in the program, the “Spellbound Concerto,” rose to the level of virtuosic playing (as did the accompaniment to “The Storm Clouds”). I should note here, too, that all the choral music (except for “The Storm Clouds”) was arranged by Schieber.
So, what do you do to represent The Birds, one of Hitchcock’s most famous ventures that nevertheless lacked a memorable song? Standing up from the piano, Schieber directed the chorus in a series of 12 levels of bird sounds: rustling, cooing, chirping, cawing, and the flapping of wings, accomplished by rapidly opening and closing their music scores. It was the most I’ve laughed at any choral concert, and I think that was true for the rest of the audience, as well.
After all the humor in the program, I was feeling a little let down to have the concert end on a serious note with the music from Spellbound. But I should have known Samantics better. As an encore they gave us a choral version of the theme music from Psycho, complete with lyrics of “eeek, eeek,” that were reminiscent of that characteristic sound from the score that sounds more like fingernails on a blackboard than the violins that I presume were used in the original soundtrack. It made us all leave with a smile – the way I leave every Samantics concert.