in: Reviews

February 18, 2014

An Audiophile on “West Side Story” at BSO

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It was not like other BSO concerts at Symphony Hall. Three  columns of loudspeakers and a large screen were hanging within the proscenium arch as the players filed onstage to provide the accompaniments to the singing and dancing in “West Side Story” (1961 directed by Robert Wise with choreography by Jerome Robbins; music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim). Dialogue and singing were intact but the movie’s soundtrack was shorn of the orchestral playing as was the case at Tanglewood [reviewed here].

I won’t attempt to review the live performance aspects, since the players did not have the freedom that they would have if they were not needing to be in such tight synchrony with the visuals. But I would like to impart an audiophile’s thoughts on this encounter.

A mixing board and video console stood in the aisle between the front and rear floor sections. A laptop computer on one of the consoles was from noted Boston recording engineer John Newton’s studio. Here was the control center which was to mediate between the head and the heart as they said in “Metropolis,” or between the live and recorded elements we were to experience in this unusual performance.

Matt, the man running the sound board, told me that the audio of the vocals had been extracted from an optical soundtrack. That doesn’t quite accord with what I recall John F. Allen saying at the BAS July meeting. I thought that they had been extracted from a mixed magnetic track. Matt also said that the reason not to use a magnetic track was print-through, but I’d think this wouldn’t be much of an issue with motion-picture film, which is much thicker than recording tape. Also, print-through should be easy to remove when extracting the vocal from the orchestra.

There were about 15 microphones suspended some 10 feet above the orchestra. Matt told me—heresy!—that some sections of the orchestra were lightly amplified at the concert, because their sound was obstructed by the screen.

Matt said that WGBH placed 28 microphones for the Saturday evening broadcast, in addition to the ones for sound reinforcement.

He also said that the sound taken from the film was a mono mix, “not the original quad.” Evidently, the side speakers were to get stereo spread of the orchestra instruments. I didn’t hear any stereo separation in anything that was on the original soundtrack. The original soundtrack was thus somewhat degraded, as well as enhanced by the live orchestra.

There was tape hiss at some times when ambient sound/sound effects were playing, and at one time I heard a flanging effect which I presume resulted from a delay between audio tracks that were mixed together, but I didn’t hear any leakage of the original orchestra track which had been removed from the vocals. The dialog sounded a bit “squawky” though the singing sounded better. The balance was good but the sound was very loud at times, to balance the large orchestra.

The image quality was excellent except for a slight rapid flickering at times.

In addition to the score, conductor David Newman had a screen which duplicated what was on the large screen, only with a flashing blob of light at the beginning of each measure, and vertical stripes which moved across from left to right to indicate the tempo within a measure. These cues were large enough to be clearly visible from the rear of Symphony Hall, and obviously designed to be visible in Newman’s peripheral vision. Performers also were wearing headphones to hear a click track (often used for studio sessions). I heard no synchronization problems (in contrast to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at a Pops concert a few years ago, with Gershwin’s original piano roll, where Keith Lockhart was unable to keep the orchestra in synch.) The Globe critic complains of “the lack of coordinated breath” but I question whether this criticism is relevant, as much of the singing was probably overdubbed in the original recording of the soundtrack, and the actors onscreen only miming the lyrics. From some seats there was some slight delay between image and sound due to the length of Symphony Hall. The long reverberation time muddled the dialog occasionally.

As the credits rolled at the end of the film, the audience applauded several of its creators, most loudly for Leonard Bernstein. After the music finished, Newman asked one section of the orchestra after another to rise, and also gave thanks and directed applause to Marni Nixon, who dubbed the singing for Natalie Wood as Maria in the movie, and who sat in the audience; she had given a talk before the performance. I thought that thanks also would have been appropriate for the technical people who did the elaborate processing and preparation which made this performance possible, as well as the copyright owners who were willing to license the rights for such a bold endeavor.

Due to licensing issues, the broadcast will not be repeated or offered over the Internet, though perhaps digital files which WGBH recorded at Symphony Hall will one day be played again.

 John S. Allen has been active in the Boston Audio Society for more than 35 years.

22 Comments

  1. I wonder if the lack of clarity was due only to the length of the hall. We were seated on the side balcony, and had trouble understanding a fair bit of the dialogue (and lyrics, as well). I’d guessed that if we’d been equidistant from the speakers on the center of the floor it would have been better– from that point of view, anyway. I do prefer the sound of the orchestra upstairs.

    Comment by Camilli — February 19, 2014 at 7:26 am

  2. I attended all three performances of the Boston Symphony Orchestra/West Side Story concert at Symphony Hall here in Boston, with friends/acquaintances…and loved every minute of all of them!

    Hearing a live orchestral rendition to an already-great musical score, a beautifully restored and remastered version of an already-great, golden oldie-but-keeper of a classic film (West Side Story)which brought an already-great classic film further up to the heavens, and having great views from both the balcony and the orchestral tier of Symphony Hall was a real treat! I’d always wanted to see the film West Side Story on Valentine’s Day…and I finally got my wish!

    Seeing these performances at Symphony Hall was even better than seeing it at Tanglewood last summer, because Symphony Hall presented a much more intimate place for such a great performance.

    Comment by mplo — February 19, 2014 at 8:58 am

  3. I guess it was very much enjoyed by people who like that sort of thing, but I still question why, with all the repertoire that is available, all the repertoire that they neglect, the BSO thought that it was worthwhile to become the Pops for a movie. Building audiences, I suppose — hoping that people who are enticed into Symphony Hall for the first time by this event will come back and keep coming back. Isn’t that what the officially designated Pops is supposed to do?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 20, 2014 at 3:16 am

  4. Perhaps they thought that broadening the taste of Symphony subscribers was also worthwhile…

    Comment by Camilli — February 20, 2014 at 3:50 pm

  5. I think that the idea of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s playing a live rendition of the brilliant Leonard Bernstein’s musical score to the film version of West Side Story and showing an HD digitally-restored, reprinted, cleaned up and remastered copy of the film version of West Side Story was wonderful. I hope it comes back some day.

    Comment by mplo — March 9, 2014 at 12:00 am

  6. If broadening the taste of subscribers means exposing them to 1950’s musicals then I think they need narrowing. I’m already too broad, I like Gubaidulina.

    If the BSO expects to attract a new, younger audience by offering live accompaniment of 60-year-old movie musicals, they have a peculiar view of what that potential audience might be interested in. The actual audience for this kind of thing is likely to be older than the current one, not younger. What’s up next, Tony Bennet ? Ice Capades ? Perhaps the Ghost of Lawrence Welk should be invited in as a guest conductor.

    Comment by SamW — March 10, 2014 at 10:26 am

  7. Holographic duets! Winehouse and Sinatra, or Gaga and Ponselle, and Welk for sure.

    Comment by David Moran — March 10, 2014 at 10:55 am

  8. Well, it’s only one datapoint, but my 17-year-old daughter— who does sometimes go with me for more conventional fare— went and was hugely excited. For some reason, she had never seen the film. It also helped that she is a dancer.

    Comment by Camilli — March 10, 2014 at 11:06 am

  9. Also, I’m not especially a film or musical theater guy, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a re-run of the Prokofiev/Eisenstein evening from a few years back, which I missed. I don’t know what else there is of that caliber. Shostakovitch did a few film scores, I think. And if there’s enough of a salvageable score to make Walton’s Henry V workable I would be up for that. Some music isn’t quite interesting enough on its own, but is nevertheless made with great skill and worth hearing in context.

    Comment by Camilli — March 10, 2014 at 11:14 am

  10. And there are some great silent movies with full orchestral scores like Rosenkavalier and Carmen, not to neglect Fritz Lang’s Niebelungen Saga and Metropolis- both with great scores.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 10, 2014 at 11:48 am

  11. I like the idea of holographic duets very much (let’s hear it for technology !), but I think when applied to conductors Holographic Duels would be more interesting. Abbado vs. Karajan ! Toscannini vs. Furtwangler ! For those that insist on live action, you could have Nelsons vs. Dudamel on the undercard. For the finale, bring ’em all on at once and let a free-for-all commence. Let each member of the orchestra follow the conductor of their choosing, or switch between them if they prefer. Then the audience could select a winner. I am sure this would bring a new audience to Symphony Hall.

    Comment by SamW — March 10, 2014 at 12:24 pm

  12. WWF/MMA musics and musicians — excellent. Tractor pulls too. Are you ready to drumroll?!!

    Comment by David Moran — March 10, 2014 at 2:41 pm

  13. And let’s not forget the Symphony Hall once hosted auto shows and boxing matches.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 10, 2014 at 4:53 pm

  14. About that particular movie qua movie:

    http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s3729west.html

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 10, 2014 at 5:36 pm

  15. I am not high on anything, and I use my will power to stay calm to preserve my web etiquette.

    I think Im allowed to say this, There are many many terrible terrible ideas above.

    An better idea is offered here, do whatever audio/video mixture at your home as you please and invite your small circle to enjoy. But I would not suggest that any “Beethoven” inscription be in your house.

    Sorry that I disapproved those ‘interesting ideas’. But I am willing to sign my name on my petition. —- A Sober Concert Goer

    Comment by Thorsten — March 10, 2014 at 7:15 pm

  16. But did the auto shows and boxing matches have orchestral accompaniment by the BSO ? And if not, why not ? An opportunity is being squandered, and the Sober Concert Goers Society is being denied a portion of their due dudgeon.

    Comment by SamW — March 10, 2014 at 7:51 pm

  17. The auto shows and boxing matches did not arrive with benefit of the BSO players, but a short-lived silent movie series did- including the premiere of DeMilles’s Carmen with a silent Geraldine Farrar.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 10, 2014 at 8:10 pm

  18. Hmm… would that have been Karl Muck or Pierre Monteux? The fantasies are fascinating.

    Comment by Camilli — March 10, 2014 at 8:13 pm

  19. Due Dudgeon is a good name for a band.

    Comment by David Moran — March 10, 2014 at 8:51 pm

  20. You could do a boxing match (or, for that matter, a football game telecast) with appropriate battle music accompaniment. Maybe the Biber Battaglia, or Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory. — From the bad ideas club.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — March 10, 2014 at 11:04 pm

  21. Excellent. But for the Dueling Conductors grand finale, with six simultaneous conductors, four of them appearing from beyond the grave, only one work will do – Symphonie Fantastique.

    Comment by SamW — March 10, 2014 at 11:50 pm

  22. They could team up with some Ives or Elliott Carter as an encore.

    Comment by Camilli — March 11, 2014 at 3:26 am

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