NY Phil’s “West Side Story”: Restored Score Trumps Film Flaws

13/09/2011

  Bernstein, West Side Story: David Newman (conductor), New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall. 8.9.2011 (BH)

Bernstein: West Side Story (1961)

Production Credits (for this concert version)

Producer: Paul H. Epstein for The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.
Production Supervisor: Steven A. Linder
Technical Director; Mike Runice
Sound Engineer: Scott Bauer
Music Supervision: Garth Edwin Sunderland
Original Orchestrations: Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal
Additional Orchestrations: Garth Edwin Sunderland and Peter West
Music Preparation: Peter West
Original manuscript reconstruction: Eleonor M. Sandresky
Technical Consultant: Laura Gibson
Soundtrack Adaptation—Chase Audio by Deluxe: Robert Heiber, Chris Reynolds, Andrew Starbin, Alice Taylor
Sound Separation Technology provided by Audionamix
Click Tracks and Streamers created by Kristopher Carter and Mako Sujishi

 

After you renovate a single room in your home, one of the unintended side-effects can be to make those that remain seem sorely in need of spiffing up themselves; the flaws now seem more naggingly obvious. This thought cropped up again and again during the New York Philharmonic’s fascinating restoration of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story score, accompanying a new high-definition print marking the film’s 50th anniversary. One of the pluses: with the painstaking research of Eleonor M. Sandresky, snippets of additional music were audible throughout, the new portions orchestrated by Garth Edwin Sunderland and Peter West.

But the evening’s real draw came with the help of state-of-the-art technology from Audionamix (based in Paris), which “erased” the instrumental portion of the soundtrack, leaving the singing and spoken dialogue intact. The orchestral portions were then performed live, the orchestra smartly conducted by David Newman and with physically thrilling work by the musicians – all using click tracks to ensure precise synchronization. (At the podium, Newman – the son of film composer Alfred – was keenly attuned to small vertical bars of light, pulsing from left to right across a small screen.)

There’s no way to overstate the impact of hearing this ensemble in this particular score. The electrifying Overture and Prologue, as the Jets and Sharks breeze through the gritty Upper West Side neighborhood (now the site of Lincoln Center) were worth the entire evening, but the dance sequence in the gym and the chase through the streets following the tragic double murders were no less sensational.

In contrast to the live fireworks onstage, however, the spoken and sung portions sounded boxed-in and one-dimensional. And some viewers complained that the dialogue was difficult to hear, muffled and blurred. It’s probably pointless to carp, since there’s little to be done about the original source material: it is what it is. And the new HD print (which to these eyes seemed slightly washed out, color-wise) reveals, among other things, how much make-up was used to create some members of the Sharks. (Rhetorical query: wasn’t Rita Moreno’s Puerto Rican heritage visible enough already?) And finally, there’s no getting around it: the two leads, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, seem completely miscast. He’s almost too handsome but as wooden as a two-by-four, and her efforts to persuade as a Latina seem quaint.

But never mind all that. To bask in the New York Philharmonic brass section’s searing arcs in the “Mambo,” to be seduced by the strings in “Somewhere,” to be playfully tossed about by the winds’ chatter in “America,” and to revel in the composer’s incandescent percussion – all was forgiven. I don’t expect to hear Bernstein’s monumental icon done with such complete elán anytime soon.

Before the film began, Newman welcomed three celebrities in the audience: Walter Mirisch (the film’s executive producer), Russ Tamblyn (who played Riff) and George Chakiris (Bernardo). When the latter, now 77 yet still sporting the rakish hair, leaned over from his perch to wave to the crowd, there was no holding back a roar of enthusiasm from the sold-out audience.

Bruce Hodges

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