Not just any night

New York Philharmonic offers live performance of the West Side Story score.






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Publication: The Sondheim Review
Author: Nottle, Diane
Date published: April 1, 2012

Tony and Maria wouldn't have recognized the old neighborhood. Their tenement blocks on the West Side of Manhattan, where Jets and Sharks once rumbled, disappeared a half-century ago, fallen to the urban renewal movement that built Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. But Tony, Maria and company came home when the New York Philharmonic accompanied a newly restored, high-definition print of West Side Story at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall on Sept. 7 and 8, 2011.

The sold-out screenings, in honor of the film's 50th anniversary and its Blu-ray release on Nov. 15, 2011, were the orchestra's first live performance of Leonard Bernstein's full score, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim for his first Broadway show. The conductor, David Newman, had led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the premiere of this West Side Story at the Hollywood Bowl in July 2011.

Sound separation technology developed by the Paris company Audionamix and implemented by Chace Audio by Deluxe made the live accompaniment possible. "Audionamix 'taught' its technology to recognize and then remove orchestral elements on the sound track while retaining vocals, dialogue and effects," Steven Smith explained in program notes. The orchestral score was assembled by the Leonard Bernstein Office, working from bits and pieces in archives around the country. Newman conducted from not only the score but also a laptop-size monitor on the podium. It functioned as a visual metronome, with bars moving across and dots exploding from the center to guide him in beats and timing, while also showing him the film.

"Leonard Bernstein is so much in the blood of this great orchestra," Newman said in a welcome speech. As music director of the Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969 and then conductor laureate until his death in 1990, Bernstein conducted hundreds of concerts in the same auditorium, then known as Philharmonic Hall. Although the orchestra had not played the full West Side Story score before, it has often performed the "Symphonic Dances," a suite of nine sections that Bernstein assembled for a 1961 gala.

Indeed, the night belonged to Bernstein. From the three-note whistles that opened the overture (added for the film), the score was a revelation, no matter how many times you've heard it. The visuals kept pace: soaring aerial views of Manhattan as it looked in the days when Bernstein and Sondheim collaborated gradually closed in on a basketball court in a seedy neighborhood. (The urban landscape brought to mind another film with choreography by Jerome Robbins, New York Export: Opus Jazz, a setting of his 1958 ballet filmed by two New York City Ballet dancers.)

As the film progressed, the strengths and weaknesses of the separation process became evident. The major strength: the orchestra's rich, lush sound. (Some wind and percussion instruments were amplified to maintain balance with the recorded tracks.) "Quintet" was memorable, as always, for its sheer beauty, as was "Cool" for the way the song burst from both screen and stage. A section of "Dance at the Gym" that has always sounded a bit tinny tinkled like a celesta, thanks to a piano barely visible upstage. Nowhere was the orchestra subtler than in the first bars of "Somewhere," when it entered so softly it was barely perceptible until it came to its turn to swell. At that point, the synchronization was seamless. It did falter a few times, most notably when Maria sang "Tonight." (New York Times critic Allan Kozinn reported that it was perfect the first night.)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The major weakness: the spoken dialogue, muffled and indistinct in the eternally problematic acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall. It made the onscreen action feel removed from the score - but then, what recorded track could match the vibrancy of the Philharmonic live? The songs, though, came across loud and clear. Sondheim's lyrics sparkled, even for those in the audience who didn't already know all of the words. It was a welcome opportunity to rehear and appreciate the verbal intricacies of songs such as "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke."

The big screen highlighted visuals that might make less impression on a smaller one - the flair with which Rita Moreno wields a skirt, for example, or the fear on the boys' faces as they fight to the death for no good reason except testosterone. Bernardo's early taunt to the cops - "Would you mind translating that into Spanish?" - now seems to foreshadow Arthur Laurents's 2009 Broadway revival with Spanish passages by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Entrance applause greeted Natalie Wood (Maria) and Moreno (Anita); most of the musical numbers also got a round. If the onscreen actors, many of whom are dead, couldn't hear the acclaim, the live musicians could. So could special guests who had worked on the movie. They included Russ Tamblyn (Riff), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Marni Nixon (Maria's singing voice) and Harvey Hohnecker (who replaced the role of Gee-Tar during the run of the show and later, as Harvey Evans, originated the role of Young Buddy in Follies). The orchestra played through the graffiti-themed closing credits - two each for Bernstein and Sondheim. As requested in the program, almost no one left before the end.

Enjoyable as the screening was, one couldn't help thinking West Side Story would sound even better in a concert performance like the Philharmonic's Follies (1985), Sweeney Todd (2000) and Company (2011). Sondheim: The Birthday Concert played on the same stage last year.

Had that rumble never happened, Tony and Maria would be in their 70s now, like any number of couples in the audience. They might well have married, decided that "a place for us" was the suburbs, had a family and, like many of their reallife contemporaries, moved back to Manhattan in retirement, possibly to one of the apartment towers along the once-mean streets where their dances were filmed. In today's New York, no one would blink an eye at a marriage between a Polish-American and a Puerto Rican, not even if they were the same sex. Time has healed at least some of the rifts addressed in Sondheim's lyrics, with their message of acceptance and humanity.

Author affiliation:

DIANE NOTTLE is a New York City-based writer on the arts, language and travel. She was an editor at The New York Times for 20 years, specializing in cultural news.

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