The Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO) executed an impressive and entertaining feat on February 26. They performed the music to West Side Story as the film played on the screen above them. Part of the ASO Butler Pops Series, the “Film With Orchestra” event pleased the packed-house audience at Austin’s Long Center on many levels.
What is “Film With Orchestra”?
The event adapted an upgraded version of the 1961 film West Side Story.
West Side Story, a modernized take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, was originally a 1957 Broadway play with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins. The film adaptation starred Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris. It went on to win 10 Academy Awards.
Wood and Beymer play Maria and Tony, two young lovers. They find themselves caught between street gangs, the Jets and Sharks, battling for control of New York’s Upper West Side.
The version used for the ASO concert had all the original dialog, sound effects, and singing, but none of the music. It also added subtitles for the lyrics when the actors sang. This was probably done just in case the orchestra was too loud.
Did It Work?
The execution of the event went perfectly. Under the baton of music director/conductor Peter Bay, from overture to the music under the closing titles, the performance held the audience’s attention and brought them joy. Several times, after obviously difficult or beautiful passages, the audience spontaneously broke into applause.
One of the highlights to me was when the orchestra finished a particularly delicate, quiet passage being sung by the character Maria. This was followed by a beat, then a loud brash opening for a song/dance featuring gangs on the street. Such a transition is not a challenge if you’re editing a film, but for a live performance this was an impressive moment. It got applause.
My first reaction when I saw the subtitles for the lyrics was “Why are they doing this distracting thing?” It turned out the orchestra and film volume balanced, so the subtitles were unnecessary, but a revelation followed.
I first saw West Side Story the year it came out. (Yes, my mother took me to the movie theater with her). Subsequently, the vinyl album played at our house again and again for many years. As the orchestra in the Long Center began the overture, I noted I knew all the words to the music. Later, however, the subtitles showed me I had been hearing a couple of phrases wrong for over 50 years – another reason I enjoyed this great concert.
When it ended, as I slowly made my way out of the theater with the other guests, I had the feeling that I had never seen an audience leaving a theater in such a happy, buoyant mood. The standing ovations Conductor Peter Bay, now in his 25th year with ASO, and the musicians received were not just the polite applause that follows any concert. They were earned, well deserved and sincere.
Find Information on more live ASO events here.