BSO delivers a thrilling live soundtrack to “West Side Story”

February 15, 2014 at 2:21 pm

By Stefanie Lubkowski

David Newman conducts the BSO in “West Side Story” Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Hilary Scott

For Valentine’s Day weekend, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of film composer David Newman, presented a screening of West Side Story with live orchestral accompaniment Friday night at Symphony Hall.

This most iconic of American musicals was the culmination of seven years of discussion and two years of intense collaboration between composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents, choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.  After premiering on Broadway in 1957, West Side Story gathered acclaim and was brought to the screen in 1961, winning ten Oscars, including Best Picture.

This combination of sound film and live music comes to us through a coordination of  musical skills and emerging technologies: cutting-edge software has been used to remove the original orchestra soundtrack from the digitally restored film while leaving dialogue and vocals intact. Newman then draws on his years as a film composer to keep the live elements in sync with the prerecorded sound.

From the opening aerial shot of Manhattan to the lurid colors of the ensemble dance sequences, the restored print recaptured all of the film’s original technicolor vibrancy. The level of detail on the large screen hung above the stage was so clear that even the graffiti scrawled on the sets was legible.

The BSO’s performance of Bernstein’s score was similarly crisp and well balanced. Even though the pacing was rather rigid at times, with little room for the musicians to get caught in the moment, the orchestra under Newman’s exacting baton still captured enough dynamism and nuance to make this performance thrilling.

Truly, there is nothing like a live orchestra. The warm timbres and the sense of space as live music fills the hall gave a natural immediacy to the kitsch of the too-bright costumes and the stagey artifice of the set pieces.

It was in the big ensemble pieces such as the dance-fighting of the opening prologue and action-packed mambo of the Dance at the Gym that the experience of live accompaniment bristled with the most energy and excitement. The BSO’s brass and percussion sections gave tremendous performances in these tense action sequences as well as in exuberant dance pieces such as “America,” which they imbued with a boundless energy.  In the second act’s big dance piece “Cool,” the brass and percussion intensified Robbins’ explosive choreography.

The quiet ballads did not fare as well. The reverb added to the overdubbed vocals of songs like “Maria” and “Tonight” sounded out of place with Newman’s quiet rendering of the orchestral accompaniment. The orchestral tempos also dampened the tenderness possible in the slower songs. Nevertheless, there were still many moments of beauty, particularly in the simultaneously mournful and hopeful “Somewhere.”

The high caliber of the BSO’s performance puts Bernstein’s music at the center of the film experience, revealing the genius of his score. While the need to sync with the film limits some of the music’s expressive potential, the irreplaceable sound of the live BSO performance gave this West Side Story experience a vitality that will please film and music fans alike.

West Side Story will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. bso.org

Posted in Performances


2 Responses to “BSO delivers a thrilling live soundtrack to “West Side Story””

  1. Posted Feb 18, 2014 at 12:10 pm by John Zipeto

    I thought your comment about the rigidity of the musical pacing was a bit unfair. The musicians had to keep pace with the vocal score, which was intact from the original movie. Impossible to add feeling where the vocal digital rendering was the driving force.

  2. Posted Feb 19, 2014 at 8:28 am by mplo

    I admittedly attended all three performances of the BSO/West Side Story concert at Symphony Hall here in Boston with friends, loved every minute of all three performances, and I also disagree with the notion that the musical pacing was too rigid. Hearing a famous orchestra (The Boston Symphony Orchestra) play a live rendition of an already-brilliant musical score brought an already-great golden oldie-but-keeper of a classic film (i. e. West Side Story) to a whole new level, and seemed to also bring the various characters of this great film even further into the Heavens.

    Here’s hoping that this performance comes back to Boston in the future!