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.