Synchronizing a Live Orchestra with a Bernstein Classic

United StatesUnited States Bernstein, West Side Story: San Francisco Symphony / David Newman (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 1.2.2018. (HS)

Presenting the 1961 film version of West Side Story in a concert hall with an orchestra that knows its way around the music can trigger some real thrills. As part of a string of subscription concerts celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth with works he composed, San Francisco Symphony is running the film with veteran Hollywood composer David Newman conducting the orchestra live for three performances.

Bernstein famously decried what he described as the overblown orchestral sound in the film version, but last Thursday’s performance paid dividends right from the top, with a stage full of plush strings, vivid winds, and a percussion section that can deliver the jazz and Latin rhythms with panache. The opening sequence, with its quirky ballet of rival street gangs in a squalid early-1960s New York, sonically grabbed one by the lapels. Romantic moments—both in underscoring and in pieces such as “Tonight” and “Somewhere”—enveloped the audience completely.

Although the film was front-and-center on a big screen, the presence of the orchestra put the focus on the score. (The dialogue and the rest of the sound were left intact.) That left the live orchestra to synchronize its work with the film, and Newman has shepherded plenty of studio ensembles in doing exactly that.

Each musician wore ear buds connected to a click track. From Row N it was fascinating to watch the monitor in front of Newman as he conducted: superimposed on the film, a white dot blinked on every downbeat. Even with these constraints on tempo and timing, Newman managed to draw out a rich palette of color and emotional content.

West Side Story, which debuted on Broadway in 1957, was a monumental musical collaboration of young giants of the American mid-century. Bernstein teamed with an unheralded Stephen Sondheim, who wrote lyrics for a string of unforgettable songs in this modern retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story. Arthur Laurents’ book replaced Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets with gangs called the Jets and Sharks. Instead of Romeo we get Tony, the white leader of the Jets, and instead of Juliet we get Maria, recently arrived from Puerto Rico.

Though the film traces pretty much the same story, it reshuffles musical numbers and scenes—shortening some, expanding others—and Sondheim rewrote a good deal of the lyrics. Ernest Lehman, who wrote North by Northwest, wrote the screenplay adaptation. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1962, its 10 Oscars still the most ever for a musical.

The high level of talent in a live orchestra makes an uneasy match with the cast’s Broadway and Hollywood voices. Bernstein’s own 1984 opera-stars recording of the score ushered in an era of concert performances that have attuned my ears to more polished singing than what is heard in the film. With the exception of Marni Nixon (who dubbed her singing voice for Natalie Wood as Maria) and the redoubtable Rita Moreno (as Anita), the other voices sound rough, compared to those heard in other San Francisco Symphony performances of this score.

This level of singing costs some of the musical value in expressively orchestrated songs and duets such as ‘Maria’, ‘Tonight’, ‘One Hand, One Heart’ and ‘Somewhere’. The orchestra carries the load. ‘I Feel Pretty’ benefited from Nixon’s light-lyric musical chops, and ensembles like ‘The Jet Song’, ‘America’ (a showstopper for Moreno) and ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ —and for that matter jazzy riffs like ‘Cool’ —actually benefit from colloquial singing.

But the orchestra caught the essence of vernacular elements. In the jazz sequences, principal percussionist Jacob Nissly on drum set drove the rhythms smartly, and principal trumpet Mark Inouye contributed an incendiary solo in “Mambo.”

Bernstein’s wonderful underscoring created several highlights, including the balcony scene (the film shows it on a tenement fire escape) and, in the closing moments, Tony’s death. On those occasions, the presence of a big, live orchestra made all the difference.

Harvey Steiman

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