New York Philharmonic 2023-24 Review: ‘West Side Story in Concert’

Company Thrills With Sonorous Ode to Bernstein & New York City

By Logan Martell
(Photo Credit: Chris Lee)

On September 12, 2023, the New York Philharmonic opened its “The Art of the Score” series with Steven Spielberg’s 2021 film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” The series features the orchestra playing the score to a selection of films projected onto the screen above the stage, creating a truly immersive musical experience.

The choice of this particular “West Side Story” is fitting for numerous reasons beyond the relation between the composer and the orchestra; the film’s conductor Gustavo Dudamel is set to assume his position as the NY Phil’s Music Director Designate in the 2025-26 season. The recognition of the historic San Juan Hill neighborhood before its redevelopment into the current Lincoln Center campus and conducting the orchestra through these performances was David Newman, who served as arranger for the film’s score.

The new David Geffen Hall made a splendid venue for the music to unfold, where the acoustics highlighted each phrase, motif, and idea with palpable clarity. One could feel the grate of the strings through the opening number before the brawl between the Jets and Sharks devolved into a controlled, symphonic chaos. While keeping things aligned with the film’s pace limited the options in tempi, there was an abundance of nuance to be found through the orchestra and Newman’s sense of interpretation.

One of the film’s biggest weaknesses in my opinion, apart from the mostly non-Puerto Rican casting, is the heavy use of auto-tone. However, the actors’ lines were frequently illuminated by the orchestra without feeling overpowering. This was most apparent in earlier numbers such as “Something’s Coming” and the “Tonight” duet. Instrumental moments provided ample time to savor all the intricacies of Bernstein’s score; the leading measures for the dance at the gym were utterly hypnotic as they flowed into the rich and brassy textures of the blues promenade. The ensuing mambo carried with undeniable flair and energy through the presence of the Latin instruments.

This orchestral presentation made for the best possible experience of Spielberg’s film, which excels in its visual execution and articulate choreography. These qualities set the tone for the rest of the performance, and the orchestra kept the audience rapt as long as they were playing. While this may seem self-evident, being able to bask in the music so fully may transport the listener into the events and drama of the film. I felt far more emotionally invested in this presentation than I did during the three times when I watched the film beforehand. Nearly every moment of joy or turmoil found captivating expression, something I felt most strongly towards the finale as Tony lay dying and the strings highlighted Maria’s anguish with pathos enough to melt any heart.

The orchestra and Newman truly succeeded in creating an aural landscape to bring the most out of the film. Their experience as musicians and involvement with the film’s recording process showed itself in spades. In that sense, one can hardly imagine a better selection for their “Art of the Score” series.

The company presented “West Side Story” through September 17, and will continue later this year with Marvel’s “Black Panther” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” How these particular films will translate for this approach in presentation remains to be experienced, given their respective styles and backgrounds. But, no doubt the New York Philharmonic will find a way to reinvigorate the familiar, celebrate the new, and thoroughly delight audiences.


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