Thursday, May 30, 2013

West Side Story With Orchestra

Getting in on the movie of the year (several orchestras have had it on the program recently), and following up on the successful Oz with Orchestra from last season, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra played the score to West Side Story live, accompanied by the movie, at the end of May.  For me the movie was indeed secondary.  I don't much care for the plot (what can I say, I'm a sucker for happy endings), but adore the music!  The dancing is worth watching too.

50 years after it's debut in 1961 MGM released a restored, high definition print of the film.  It's pretty stunning.  I watched an older DVD not that long ago and didn't notice some things, but the colours just popped out in the HD version.  Of course watching it on a huge screen above the orchestra might have helped too.
High flying Jets  (MGM photo)

The tech behind the concert is impressive as well.  A sound technology developed by Audionamix was "taught" to distinguish between the orchestral score and all the other sounds in the movie.  The score was removed and everything else (vocals, sound effects etc.) remained.

But there was a problem with the score.  Namely there wasn't one.  The original musical arrangements for the film were lost.  Research uncovered papers from the original orchestrator Sid Ramin, conductor/music director Johnny Green, director Robert Wise and producer Walter Mirisch that were used to piece together a new score.

Then of course the conductor needs some indications of what should happen when in order to keep everything synchronized.    In addition to a click-track, in fact the orchestra wore single ear headphones for the concert, conductor Steven Reineke had a monitor playing the movie with timing indications superimposed.  Quite simply these were bars that moved across the screen.  I found myself watching that more often than the big screen.  From what I could determine the white bars and flashes were a steady beat, a green bar was start, red for stop, and magenta bars for tempo changes.
TSO pre concert

Regardless of how it's heard, the music is the best part of West Side Story.  But there really is something special when it's played by a live orchestra.  Unfortunately I couldn't see the brass section because of the screen, and there's so many good brass parts.  Nothing I heard though indicated any problems.  In fact the French horn solo at the end of the opening credits and to close the first half, was spot on.   The percussion was certainly on top of things as well.  I imagine the rhythms in the mambo section of "Dance at the Gym" aren't easy at the best of times but when it has to be spot on with the film, it seems it would be an extra challenge.  That piece and "America" are probably my favourites from the movie and they were perfect to my ears, as was the whole evening.  It was touching and a testament to how much the audience enjoyed the concert that they cheered for Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and others in the credits.

Next year they're doing Casablanca.  Stay tuned.

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