By ALLAN KOZINN
Orchestras have discovered in the last few years that film nights — concerts that present live accompaniments to movies — are huge audience draws. Often they involve excerpts, usually without dialogue, and sometimes edited for the occasion, though silent films with newly composed scores have been popular too, as have quirky productions like the Godfrey Reggio dialogue-free “Qatsi” trilogy, with its through-composed scores by Philip Glass.
The New York Philharmonic is expanding its film offerings this year and covering familiar ground: the composer John Williams will present an evening of his works (Oct. 25), and the Philip Glass Ensemble will join the orchestra for performances of “Koyaanisqatsi” (Nov. 2 and 3). But the series opener — a screening of “West Side Story,” complete, at Avery Fisher Hall on Wednesday evening (with a repeat on Thursday) — was a considerable expansion of what an orchestral film concert could be.
Here the soundtrack was stripped of its original orchestral music but not of its dialogue and singing. The Philharmonic, led by David Newman, replaced the deleted music with a complete live performance of Leonard Bernstein’s colorful, jazz-tinged score: not only the ample dance music and background cues, but also the vibrant accompaniments to the songs.
The occasion, if one were needed, was the 50th anniversary of the film’s release. Because the film has an intermission, the concert did too, and before the second half, Mr. Newman furthered the celebratory atmosphere by introducing at least a dozen members of the original production team and cast, who took bows from the audience.
Like a Verdi or Rossini opera, “West Side Story” exists in several versions and has a complicated history. It began life as a Broadway musical in 1957, and to Bernstein’s chagrin, it remained his best-known and most beloved work, eclipsing the large catalog of symphonic music he poured his soul into. It was originally scored, with composer-approved orchestrations by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, for a pit band of 30, but when United Artists filmed the work in 1961, Mr. Ramin, Mr. Kostal and Saul Chaplin expanded the orchestra’s size and palette to full symphonic heft. They also added a long overture.
Bernstein is said to have had reservations about the film version and outright objections to the overture, which he dropped when he recorded the score with operatic voices (José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa as Tony and Maria) in 1984. Still, for many people the film version, more than the theater score (and certainly more than Bernstein’s semi-operatic recording), is “West Side Story.”
In a way, this concert presentation was an even stranger stretching of reality than you get in a normal film screening: during “Somewhere” and “I Feel Pretty,” for example, you saw Natalie Wood appearing to sing, but actually heard Marni Nixon, who dubbed Wood’s vocal parts when the film was made in 1961, now accompanied by an orchestra performing before your eyes.
Was it an improvement over watching the DVD on a large screen with a good sound system? Yes and no. Avery Fisher Hall’s acoustics often muddied the film’s dialogue and singing, and the film voices sounded a bit tinny beside the three-dimensional orchestra.
But it was easy to put that out of mind. The orchestra, which was amplified (mainly as a way to control the balance between the ensemble and the recorded voices), sounded spectacular: its percussionists and brass sections were in their element in the dance pieces, and the strings and woodwinds moved easily between lushness and the rhythmic brashness the score sometimes demands. Mr. Newman kept the stage and screen perfectly synchronized: no mean feat, given the complications of Jerome Robbins’s choreography and the degree to which the orchestral rhythms follow the characters’ movements, to say nothing of the need to provide perfectly matched vocal accompaniments.
Mainly, the performance did what an orchestral reading of a film score should do: it let the audience see the details of a film’s musical component — usually invisible and too often taken for granted — being created on the spot. And even for listeners who know this score inside out, the vividness of the playing was a reminder that Bernstein’s score — with Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and the Ramin-Kostal-Chaplin orchestration — is a magnificent, timeless creation.