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The BSO And Newman Make ‘West Side Story’ Sound New

David Newman conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in sync with the movie version of "West Side Story." (Hilary Scott)

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LENOX, Mass. – It was easy to predict that the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s live accompaniment to the film “West Side Story” would  be one of the highlights of the Tanglewood season. But I’m not sure that Saturday night’s crowd was prepared for just how powerful and dramatic the experience would be of hearing Leonard Bernstein’s magnificent music played the way it was meant to be  played. Even he, who labored to create more “serious” classical music, might have conceded that “West Side Story” is as good as it got for American music in the 20th Century if he had heard it Saturday night at his beloved Tanglewood. (The BSO will be repeating the program at Symphony Hall Feb. 14-16.)

My main fear was that the music would overpower the film or that Hollywood’s non-Latino Latinos would make it all feel a bit campy, or worse. None of that was the case; it was as successful a marriage as sight and sound as you could hope for except that the BSO playing under David Newman was so spectacular that the tension of their not playing kept mounting whenever they weren’t playing.

But then it’s easy to forget what an engrossing movie this is, particularly on the big screen, with Jerome Robbins’s meticulously filmed choreography matched with the professionalism of Robert Wise’s more Hollywood Panavision blocking. Wise was brought in to replace Robbins as the main director and they ended up sharing the credit.

Lyricist Stephen Sondheim never liked the film, but what does he know. In this incarnation, particularly, the drama keeps mounting from the BSO’s opening accompaniment. Digital technology has allowed orchestras around the country to remove the Hollywoodish orchestral soundtrack while keeping the dialogue and sound effects intact. The overture lets you know right away that this is going to be something special, beyond the mere “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,” which really only gives you a tease of the depth in the orchestral writing, with its jazz, pop and Latin influences infusing Bernstein’s already broad classical vocabulary.

When the music is joined by the overviews of New York City and the remastered film begins in earnest with the cool “Prologue” and “Jets Song” never looking or sounding better, you know you’re in for a treat. True, the dialogue sounds a little off the way that all movies outdoors sound a bit strange, but you get used to it. As the leader of the Puerto Rican gang George Chakiris transcends his Grecian roots and Rita Moreno is just plain transcendent as Anita, his girlfriend. Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony are as winsome as ever today.

Do we need, at this point, to say that Robbins-Bernstein-Sondheim, together with book writer Arthur Laurents, transplanted “Romeo and Juliet” to ‘50s New York with the old-school immigrant offspring Jets battling the Puerto Rican Sharks? Or that the Broadway score, with one magnificent song after another, hasn’t been equaled since? Or that the comparisons to today’s ethnic and gang battles remain sharp?
Probably not, but it does bear repeating to keep those February dates in mind when Newman, whose direction was superb, comes to Symphony Hall to recreate the experience. You’ll probably never hear this great music played better.

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