As if possessed by the impish spirit of Alfred Hitchcock, RDSO conductor Claude Lapalme prompted peals of audience laughter at Saturday’s Halloween! concert by pulling out a cleaver instead of his baton.
This sight gag set the tone for an interesting program of creepy, supernatural themed music at the Red Deer College Arts Centre. The Red Deer Symphony Orchestra took the nearly full-house crowd on a spellbinding journey to the forests of medieval France, a gypsy encampment in Andalusia — and the Bates Motel.
The trip started with special guest Mandy McKee providing eerie narration for R. Murray Schafer’s “chamber opera” of the French fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast.
The quirky Canadian piece that calls for two violins, a viola, cello, as well as narration and singing was written in 1979, but its experimental mood is reminiscent of the German expressionist/surrealist films made in the 1930s.
Red Deer native McKee is first seen crouching behind stark birch branches that are meant to represent a forest. She reaches for a large puppet hanging from a branch and it takes on the role of Beauty’s father in the story — one of five characters McKee personifies in various ways.
A monster mask became The Beast, while McKee acted the role of Beauty without props — but not the familiar Walt Disney heroine.
There were no cheery chorus numbers, dancing teacups, or loutish village bullies in Schafer’s story, which was adapted from the 1757 version by Leprince de Beaumont.
McKee was called to speak, chant, or sing lines such as “‘Beauty, will you marry me?’ ‘Oh no, how could I? You are a Beast!’” as the chamber orchestra created a tense soundscape of sawing violin bows and plucked cello strings.
While there are neither rhymes nor hummable melody lines in Schafer’s work, McKee created a memorable narration, telling the Beauty and the Beast story with pathos and empathy. Her performance was, well . . . haunting.
Next, the RDSO’s strings section served up Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings, a compilation of music from Hitchcock’s famous thriller.
Lapalme called Psycho “one of the cleverest movies ever made” — and all the more so because of its idiosyncratic score.
Apparently, Herrmann decided to pare the orchestra down to just the strings section to achieve the same stark effect as Hitchcock’s use of back and white film.
Who can forget the shrieking violin sounds as Janet Leigh’s character is being stabbed to death in the shower?
Well, the same shrill tones filled the Arts Centre — as did some sinister slower music, made by rapidly vibrating cello, violin or bass strings.
While the score from scenes titled The Madhouse, The Swamp, The Stairs, and The Cellar, were also used for this Suite, the shower sequence is the only one that really gets under your skin.
The last work on the program was for full orchestra. Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo (Love, The Sorcerer) is too folkloric and colourful to be really scary.
But Lapalme told the audience it belonged on the Halloween program because the story-line is about a gypsy girl who’s haunted by the spirit of her ex-husband — “and what could be more horrifying?” the conductor quipped, to crowd laughter.
Red Deer’s mezzo-soprano Sharon Braun sang during three of the 13 movements, her rich voice helping tell this Spanish tale of romantic complications beyond the grave.
De Falla’s popular work incorporates flamboyant flamenco music at its most atmospheric, conjuring images of crowded bull rings and passionate dances.
While there are some gentle, delicate movements, there’s also a lot of bombast — which makes El Amor Brujo a fun listen, regardless of whether it’s Halloween.