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Chicago by John Olson

West Side Story
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Also see John's review of Memphis

Leonard Bernstein, who as a symphony orchestra conductor spent most of his career inside concert halls and associated with the greatest classical musicians of the latter 20th century, was reportedly deeply disappointed that his most popular work and lasting legacy was West Side Story rather than one of his more serious opuses. Thus, it's especially poignant that the complete score of the musical's 1961 film version has been performed by three of the world's leading symphony orchestras this year, beginning with the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras and, most recently, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on November 25, 26 and 27th. Under the direction of film composer/conductor David Newman, these orchestras have performed the score in sync with a screening of the film, with the film's recorded orchestral tracks electronically stripped out. These sellout concerts are making the case for the score as a mightily impressive orchestral piece.

West Side Story

That alone is not a great surprise, as the suite called "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story" has long been a popular piece in the symphonic repertoire. Those dances, which include the musical's "Prologue," "Dance at the Gym," "Rumble" and "Cool" (as well as the "Somewhere" ballet which is not in the film), are exclusively instrumental in the musical and are the most impressive sections of these symphonic concerts. Bernstein also conducted a 1985 studio audio recording of the score with a cast of opera singers and a symphonic orchestra. Still, hearing the full score, which includes the film's overture, underscoring and end title music, not only performed by a symphony orchestra but in the complete dramatic context for which it was created to serve, gives one a new appreciation of the depth and breadth of Bernstein's accomplishment. His West Side Story includes not only a melodic vocal score and the equivalent of a full ballet piece, but is an orchestral composition with enough complexity for the concert hall. This was apparent in the film's soundtrack recording—which used a more than symphony-sized orchestra (including six pianists) as opposed to the 31-piece pit orchestra of the Broadway production. But as impressive as is the film's original soundtrack recording, its 50-year-old audio technology is eclipsed by the energy and sound of a live performance in a concert hall with state-of-the-art acoustics. The marriage of this uncompromised orchestral performance together with a viewing of the musical's drama, lyrics and dance makes it apparent that West Side Story is an even more monumental achievement than we might previously have judged.

Maybe it's even too monumental to taken in all at once. It was hard to choose between watching the orchestra or the movie as their most impressive sections happen at the same times. The dance scenes have the orchestra's most full and varied instrumentation and most exciting performances—but how can you watch the timpanist adding gravity and tension, a flute or trombone playing a key line, or the string sections plucking a delicate pizzicato in "The Dance at the Gym" when the brilliantly shot and edited Jerome Robbins choreography is playing on a giant screen above? The rich aural palette created by Bernstein and orchestrators Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal uses such a variety of instruments that you want to see how they did it. In fact, this score might have been a great piece for one of Bernstein's "Young Peoples' Concerts," demonstrating all the instruments of the orchestra. But how can one ignore those gymnastic moves of the dancers on screen? You can't, and while that's sometimes too much of a good thing, at other times some genuine movie and musical magic is achieved. For example, "Cool" starts out with Ice's solo vocal on screen and just a few instruments playing in the orchestra—the sound resembling no more than a modest jazz combo. As the number builds into a symphonic dance piece, with seemingly every instrument in the Ramin and Kostal's wind and percussion-heavy orchestration now playing and the Jerome Robbins choreography building to a frenzy, "Cool" becomes—unexpectedly—one of the most thrilling moments of the evening.

To his credit, conductor David Newman, himself a film composer, maintains a modest conducting style, doing nothing to draw attention to himself and away from the film. Even so, I couldn't help eyeing the laptop on his podium, which displayed the film with time-coded markings guiding him on the tempi of the recorded music which he had to follow and pass on to the orchestra. So far as I could tell, the white bars traversing the laptop's screen from left to right crossed the screen once every two measures, with a white dot flashing on the downbeat. A green bar would warn him of an upcoming section and a red indicated the section's end. Color coded bars also appeared to alert him to tempo changes. To my ear, the orchestra fell out of sync a few times, but only very briefly during some of the more orchestration's more complex rhythmic counterpoints.

If there's anything else that kept this concert from being a perfect reading of West Side Story, it was that the vocals were, well, the vocals from the film. It's well-known that most were dubbed by singers other than the on-screen actors—most famously, Marni Nixon singing for Natalie Wood's Maria, but also Jimmy Bryant for Richard Beymer's Tony, Betty Wand for some of Rita Moreno's vocals, and Tucker Smith for some of Russ Tamblyn's. So, the singing is competent if not coming completely organically from the actors' performances.

Still, nothing less than the movie in its widescreen format and restored high-definition print would have been big enough to match the grandeur of the CSO performing the score. Taking the film into a sold-out Orchestra Hall—and playing it beginning with the MGM Lion's roar and the stylized outline of the Manhattan skyline that accompanies the overture, all the way through to the end titles designed by Saul Bass over a subdued medley of songs from the show played underneath—brought back the glamour of the film's original road show presentation as well. (The orchestra even observed the film's original intermission.) Attending a first-run, big budget movie musical like West Side Story was an event back in the early sixties and for three performances at Chicago's Symphony Center it was once again.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed West Side Story on November 25, 26 and 27, 2011 at the Symphony Center's Orchestra Hall.


Photo: Todd Rosenberg

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-- John Olson



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