Odd Bernstein tribute lifted by excellent conducting

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra rehearsing the song I Feel Pretty from West Side Story.
The Singapore Symphony Orchestra rehearsing the song I Feel Pretty from West Side Story.PHOTO: FACEBOOK/SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

REVIEW / CONCERT

WEST SIDE STORY

Singapore Symphony Orchestra/ Joshua Tan (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Friday


With the Chichester Psalms last week, the Mass in a few weeks' time and West Side Story this weekend, Singapore seems to be in the grip of Bernstein fever.

It is understandably so, as this year marks the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, pianist, conductor, inspirational communicator and uneven composer who, in 1957, produced a real masterpiece - West Side Story.

In West Side Story, Bernstein successfully merged musical and opera. So, it was rather perverse of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) to choose as its centenary tribute an adaptation made by a team of arrangers and orchestrators for a 1961 Hollywood movie, of which Bernstein disapproved.

In the movie, much of the music was replaced by spoken dialogue and the rival gangs' aggressive posturing and street fights transformed into brilliantly choreographed dances.

For the soundtrack, off-screen singers dubbed over the actors and a studio orchestra performed the music for the dances and accompanied the songs.

Recent technology has allowed the original orchestra to be erased from the soundtrack, leaving the rest intact. For this screening, the SSO played the orchestral bits live against the film and remaining soundtrack.

It was the brass section, blaring out in all its stridency, who helped transform the SSO into a truly American-sounding band, vividly complementing the gritty reality of the scenes filmed in grimy, run-down New York.

It was the posse of extras brought in to boost the non-symphonic elements of the extended orchestra, who helped create a credible jazz big-band sound.

However, the real star of the show was conductor Joshua Tan, on whom the success or failure of this somewhat silly venture rested.

Working on cues, which often came deep into the actors' spoken dialogue, Tan had to anticipate the speed so that when the soundtrack broke into song, when an onscreen ball hit an onscreen foot or a fist slammed into a face, the live orchestral sound was there, spot on, to match it.

It was a brilliant exhibition of meticulous preparation and deep knowledge of the score and the screenplay. Tan rarely slipped up and his ability to synchronise with the movie soundtrack was uncanny.

It was, perhaps, unfortunate that probably the best-known song - Maria - was the one in which the synchronisation slipped up most obviously.

Tan can be forgiven for this. Even Richard Beymer, the actor playing Tony, had difficulty following the free-flowing approach of his singing alter ego (Jimmy Bryant), and with the orchestra never quite with either of them, it all seemed a little fuzzy.

If the bitter irony and biting satire of New York society in the 1960s appeared merely funny to the Singapore audiences in the packed venue, they clearly enjoyed the movie.

But this reviewer suspects that just about everyone in the audience forgot there was a live orchestra on stage until the end, when the lights went up and they took a bow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 16, 2018, with the headline 'Odd Bernstein tribute lifted by excellent conducting'. Print Edition | Subscribe