West Side Story with the Philadelphia Orchestra

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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Richard Beymer and Natalia Wood as Tony and Maria in “West Side Story”
West Side Story © 1961 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All rights reserved. © A.M.P.A.S.

Surroundsound ‘West Side Story’

Philadelphia Orchestra
David Newman, Conductor
Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, Oct. 6, 2012

IMAX imaging is a main attraction at the movies now, but just as impressive is the live hi-def sound achieved by The Philadelphia Orchestra playing Leonard Bernstein’s complete film score to “West Side Story” as the film was being screened above them in Verizon Hall. This was, in fact, a unique musical experience, and the Fab Phils made it so rather than just leaning on the built-in appeal of an iconic film.

Conductor David Newman (son of film composer Alfred Newman) is an obvious specialist in the all-but-lost art of orchestral accompaniment of films. But, it’s trickier than it may seem with sound films, presenting challenges of precision and sound modulations, synced with the singers onscreen and Jerome Robbins’ electrifying choreography in the dance numbers.

The entire score treatment, including incidental music, restored here in every note detail, shows the full force of Bernstein’s achievement. Newman demonstrated that he was invested in every line of romanticism, glitter and grit Bernstein composed — a revelation even for concert audiences used to the oft played abridgment of Bernstein’s own “Symphonic Dances” version.

One thing the full rendition of the score reveals is the jazz symphonic vernacular, in the same league as both Gershwin’s and Ellington’s innovations. Bernstein’s theatricality makes it all the more universal, so it is no accident that almost all of the tunes with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim are stand-alone popular hits, similar to arias plucked out of operas. Is there any other musical with so many universally recognized tunes? Starting with “Tonight,” “Maria,” “Somewhere,” “One Hand, One Heart” and the show-stopping numbers “Mambo,” “America” and “Cool”— all equally loved on theater stages, jazz renditions and in the classical concert hall.

The ballads were beautifully handled. The cellos under the ascending lines in “Maria,” for instance, make it sound all the more like a prayer. The support under soprano Marni Nixon, who dubbed for Natalie Wood’s voice, better cushions her silvery vocal quality, than the flatter recorded version does. The mid-tempo tunes are more challenging for Newman, especially the “Jet” number with the various voices, using accent flats and talk-singing, which gives the live orchestra no lag room. The dance numbers, “America” andCool,” are really fabulously realized and Newman gives the dance hall “Mambo” the meatiest cross-rhythm swing I’ve ever heard from any symphonic orchestra.

The Robert Wise film, with its great urban cinematography, has lost none of its star power with the talents of Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer and George Chakiris still so potent. For unforgettable cinematic-symphonic moments at Verizon Hall in 2012, surround-sounding Maria and Tony embracing on a fire-escape in New York 50 years ago, this is pure movie magic. The artistic excellence all around was much appreciated by this audience, who stayed as the credits rolled, lustily applauding Bernstein, Sondheim, Robbins, and of course, the luminous Natalie Wood.

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