Philadelphia Orchestra to meld music with 'West Side Story'

David Newman conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in a rehearsal of "West Side Story" as technical director Chris Szuberla (foreground) monitors video projection.
David Newman conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in a rehearsal of "West Side Story" as technical director Chris Szuberla (foreground) monitors video projection. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff)
Posted: October 06, 2012

Knives are drawn. Police sirens wail. The Jets and the Sharks are at war again on the mean streets of New York City - this time at the Kimmel Center, as the Philadelphia Orchestra plays live accompaniment to the 1961 film classic West Side Story.

On a wide screen over the Verizon Hall stage, images of gang warfare - and Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer declaring their love on a rusty fire escape - unfold, supported by state-of-the-art soundboards and video technology that allow the orchestra to collaborate with celluloid images that won 10 Oscars 51 years ago.

By the time the audience arrives Friday night, sound and sight promise to be meticulously coordinated. But as movie/orchestral collaborations go - and the Philadelphia Orchestra has done them, from Alexander Nevsky to The Wizard of Oz - "this is the most complicated," said production supervisor Steve Linder, who heads the three-person technical crew. "Musically, it's exceptionally difficult. There's a lot of it - 95 minutes."

"The film is not going to follow you. You have to follow the film," said conductor David Newman, 58, the son of the legendary film composer Alfred Newman.

"You can't do these shows in one rehearsal. This requires three," said associate producer Eleonor Sandresky from the Leonard Bernstein Office. "OK, the New York Philharmonic did it in two, but it really was a scramble."

Just back from a month's vacation, the Philadelphia Orchestra is facing perhaps its most regimented assignment of the season. Though the players all know Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the film takes the music at a faster, cinematic clip, with all manner of hairpin turns.

At Thursday morning's rehearsal, players were fitted with headsets that pipe rhythmic clicks into their ears to keep them in sync with the film.

Some were using the devices for the first time. "It's a little scary because we're not experts at this," said violinist Kim Fisher. The sweaty, hardworking Newman apologized: "It's annoying. Even those who work with these things all the time think they're annoying . . . ."

The result will be performances in Philadelphia like those that already have been enjoyed by 85,000 people worldwide since mid-2011: one of the great film classics with a magnitude of live sound unequaled by the best-equipped movie theater, and with a big-screen splendor rarely encountered in an age when people watch films on their phones.

But mention the concerts to the average symphony-goer and the reaction is puzzlement. How does it work? And the answer is, only with cutting-edge technology that lifted the original orchestra out of the film to make way for the live players.

The question then was what do the live musicians play. Even if the original orchestrations hadn't disappeared, they wouldn't be practical in a modern concert hall. "You can do things in a Hollywood soundstage that you can't replicate anywhere else," said Sandresky. "You can have six pianos and five xylophones. That's what they did at various points."

Surely, that many could be tracked down in Philadelphia. "But where would you put them?" she said. So the Kimmel Center will have one piano and three xylophones.

Orchestra members caught on quickly. By lunchtime, violinist Fisher was inviting her entire extended family to the performances. Violinist Davyd Booth was positively nonchalant. "I can understand the New York Philharmonic having problems," he said. "Not us."

The cliff-hanger now is the audience. Might ticket holders come dressed as the film's characters, prepared for a The Sound of Music sing-along-type event?

If precedents in other cities are any indication, West Side Story tends to be treated as a concert, though not a quiet one. Even the MGM lion in the opening seconds gets a reaction. The overture is always applauded. So is the "Dance at the Gym."

But in contrast to the mostly lighthearted Sound of Music, West Side Story seems to strike deeper chords, with both the underlying dissonance of Bernstein's music and the urban directness of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics. When West Side Story is lighthearted, the characters are describing their home lives amid junkies, alcoholics, and transsexuals. The film still has the capacity to disturb.

"There's a connection that happens as the concert progresses," said Linder. "People come in from different places, all with different perspectives, having had bad days or good days. And there's this funnel of emotion in people that all winds up in the same place by the end."

In other words, the film has 3-D emotions. So how long will it be before the visual element arrives in 3-D as well?

Sandresky seems to have her hands full enough with a West Side Story that stays within the borders of a screen: "But if MGM proposed it to us, we wouldn't say no."

If You Go

See a video of the Philadelphia Orchestra's "West Side Story" rehearsal at:

The Philadelphia Orchestra will perform its "West Side Story" concerts at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kimmel Center. Tickets: $40-$119. Information: 215-893-1999 or



Contact David Patrick Stearns at

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