nyphil west side story 1200x450
nyphil west side story 1200x450

A New West Side Story Experience at the New York Philharmonic

The New York Philharmonic is set to launch its latest season of “The Art of the Score.” It’s a popular program that finds its world-famous orchestra performing live alongside film screenings, and this season features one of the greatest scores ever written for the Broadway stage: West Side Story.

It’s a natural choice, given that the show’s composer, Leonard Bernstein, served as the Philharmonic’s music director from 1958, the year after its stage premiere, until 1969, leading hundreds of concerts and remaining laureate conductor after his tenure. The Philharmonic has in fact presented the score in live-to-film settings twice before, in 2011 and 2016; in both cases, it showed the original 1961 screen adaptation of the beloved musical, shot in the same neighborhood that now houses the Philharmonic’s Lincoln Center home.

This time, audiences will be treated to Steven Spielberg’s movie version of West Side Story, released in 2021 and featuring the Philharmonic on its soundtrack, which was recorded the previous year. Noted conductor and composer David Newman, who arranged the music for Spielberg — and has also led the Philharmonic, and other orchestras, in live-to-film performances of the 1961 movie — will conduct in the Wu Tsai Theater at David Geffen Hall on September 12–14 and 17.

“I’ve been involved with West Side Story all my life,” Newman notes. His father, Alfred Newman — also a renowned composer, conductor, and arranger — “loved it. I listened to it as a child, and we did it in high school. I had an amateur theater company in my twenties, and we did it. Nobody’s been able to do anything remotely like it. It’s a canon piece; when the New York Philharmonic premiered the Symphonic Dances” — assembled from the musical by Bernstein, and introduced in 1961 — “it also became part of the classical canon.”

Of his role in Spielberg’s film, for which he led a team that included Tony Award–winning composer Jeanine Tesori, Newman says, “I didn’t so much arrange as oversee. We were really trying to follow the Broadway show, and were very careful not to reorchestrate or rearrange.” The Philharmonic lineup conductor Gustavo Dudamel led in 2020 included “about 95 percent” of the musicians who will play in the live-to-film presentation with Newman — among them cellist Patrick Jee and associate principal oboist Sherry Sylar, who has been with the orchestra for 40 years and played under Bernstein when he led a special 1989 concert celebrating the removal of the Berlin Wall in that city.

Sherry Sylar (right), New York Philharmonic oboist. Photo by Chris Lee.
Sherry Sylar (right), associate principal oboist. Photo by Michael Divito.

“I think Bernstein had this orchestra in mind when he wrote this score,” Sylar says, as Bernstein’s history with the New York Philharmonic goes back to 1943. “The brass in this piece just lifts you out of your seats, and the woodwinds and strings come in at the poignant moments.” She adds, “Our new hall is very adaptable to this kind of performance. They put in special acoustical accouterments [and] it feels like a movie theater. The experiences I’ve had in the past year with live audiences have been so exhilarating.”

Cellist Chris Lee (right) in a recording session with New York Philharmonic for Steven Spielberg's West Side Story at Manhattan Center, 1/26/2020. Photo by Chris Lee
Cellist Patrick Jee (right) in a recording session with New York Philharmonic for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story at Manhattan Center in January 2020. Photo by Chris Lee.

Jee also cites the “electricity” that New York audiences have brought to these particular offerings by the city’s signature orchestra. “They cheer so loudly as soon as the opening title pops up on screen, and we as musicians love that. We feed off of them and they feed off of us.” He concedes there are challenges in playing live to a movie: “When you take a piece of music standalone, there’s flexibility; every night the piece will be something different. Here, you know the film is going to end at a certain time, and over the course of a long evening of music you can’t be lagging or pushing too much. Everything has to be in sync.”

But as Sylar notes, “We always, for the screen-plus-live-orchestra projects, have outstanding conductors who specialize in this genre, so they just point us in the right direction, and we do our thing.”

Newman observes that the “Art of the Score” outings “are a little more informal than regular concerts. There’s a lot of energy even before the film starts, this kind of anticipation. It’s live and it’s dangerous — things can go wrong. It’s visceral; you can see the orchestra playing. It’s not exactly pops, and it’s not concert music, because you’re accompanying a movie, which is this weird, disruptive medium. But the best of movie music is art.”

Certainly, no one would argue that point where West Side Story is concerned. “It’s part of our repertoire, part of my repertoire,” Sylar says. “It’s timeless, and playing it feels like coming home.”

Photo Credit: West Side Story (2021) © 20th Century Studios.