Sunday, March 08, 2015

The Accidental Bernstein Festival


Over the course of the last three weekends, my wife and I had a sort of accidental festival of Leonard Bernstein's music, culminating with the Colorado Symphony's live orchestral performance of West Side Story, accompanying the projected film version.

Two weekends ago, the Colorado Ballet performed several short works, including Bernstein's ballet sketches Fancy Free. I had wanted to see this for a long time. I'm a huge fan of Bernstein as a composer. (I can only imagine what American music would be like if Bernstein had committed himself fulltime as a composer, instead of spending the majority of his later life as a conductor.) Bernstein, more than anyone, was successful at merging jazz and classical music, as well as merging art music with popular music. Fancy Free, like many of his works, is just too short, so much so that it is unsatisfying. It seems like a great set of ideas that he never had time to fully develop. I can see why he was talked into taking this short ballet about three sailors on shore leave, and adapting it into the musical On the Town. That movie is fun, but it is not the development of these ideas that I wanted to see.

Also on that program were two other short works, one a brief scene accompanied by a Bach Violin Concerto. It was almost as though the group were still warming up during this opening piece. The second piece on the program was outstanding, a piece title In Pieces, with music by Poul Ruders. But both the Ruders and the Bernstein were worth seeing.

Last week, the Colorado Symphony started a series called The American Festival, featuring modern works by American composers. (We will be at the second concert in the series next week.) The major reason I was interested in this concert was that they were playing Bernstein's Second Symphony (which is really a concerto for piano). Like Fancy Free, it is short. It is, however, a major work aesthetically, and very complex. I had never heard it before and immediately I went to the library to check out the score. The orchestra played extremely well, and soloist William Wolfram fluidly played very difficult passages in many different genres (including some jazz sections). This piece must have required a tremendous amount of rehearsal.

I like the direction that conductor Andrew Litton is taking the orchestra, including concerts like this that are pure art music. The other two pieces on the program were by contemporary composer Kevin Puts, Two Mountain Scenes, and his Clarinet Concerto, featuring Bill Jackson. Both were lovely pieces, and the Clarinet concerto was played very well.

Last night our accidental festival ended with West Side Story. The screening had an excellent turnout. I had never seen the film with an audience before, and it was pretty amazing seeing the audience react to the movie. There are some things about the film that have dated, most obviously the casting of non-Latinos as Puerto Rican (in brown makeup). Also, the very highly stylized production is more reminiscent of Broadway staging than it is realistic, and I think most contemporary moviegoers would be put off by that. However, the power of the story and the music is still overwhelming. I could hear numerous people in the audience crying during "Somewhere." (Ironic, as the stage version has the song sung by an offstage voice (the Greek Chorus effect), whereas in the movie is was moved onstage to be sung as a duet.) One of the biggest changes in the movie adaptation turned out to be the most moving moment emotionally.

The CSO played it with a full orchestra. Due to the fact that Bernstein was overbooked,  he did not do the orchestrations for any version of the musical. The Broadway version used a small pit orchestra with some nice additions (bass sax, 5 percussionists, etc.), and Bernstein probably had the most involvement with that version. Reputedly, Bernstein HATED the movie orchestrations, which more than tripled the size of the orchestra, and took some weird chances like using FIVE baritone saxes in some sections. The version played last night was somewhere in between. It was indeed a huge orchestra, but it seemed much more in line with what Bernstein had wanted.

The CSO played the music extremely well, and it is very demanding. The brass and percussion sections are especially challenged by the writing.

I should mention the oddity that Bernstein himself was incapable of creating a defining version of his own work. His late recording of the entire piece replaced the musical theater voices with opera singers (something he had apparently wanted from the start) but it really a travesty, as the main voices are both completely miscast. In addition, if you watch the video about the recording of the piece, it's pretty difficult to view. People who think that the movie Whiplash was not realistic have obviously never performed under a diva like Bernstein.

I have to mention the problems with last night's screening. Remember, I have worked as a music editor for decades, working with the best musicians in Hollywood, recording complex scores for film and television. The CSO seriously needs to rethink the method that they are using to project films in Boettcher. These tickets are not cheap, and the audience deserves a much better movie-going experience.

The screens are very small, and are very, very far from the audience. So far, that even with our excellent seats, the entire movie was clearly five or six frames out of sync for the viewing audience. This completely destroys the illusion that the people onscreen are singing when they are out of sync for the entire movie. This would be fixed by using a large single screen above the orchestra. The image is just too far away and too small to show the movie the proper respect that it deserves. (I know, Boettcher is a theater in the round, so going to a single screen would eliminate 75% of the available seats, but the audience deserves better.)

In addition to the sync problem with the vocals, there were also sync problems with the orchestra. This is some of the most complex orchestral music ever written, and trying to play it AT ALL would be a challenge for most orchestras. But trying to play it with a click track (especially with an orchestra that is not used to using a metronome in performance) made it tough in parts. For the most part, the orchestra was in sync with itself, but rarely were they in sync with the vocals. Other than more rehearsals, I'm not sure how that could be fixed.

Finally, the live mix was terrible. Every time I have seen a movie in Boettcher done with live orchestra, it has been impossible to hear the dialog from the film. In this case, that means the vocals were completely drowned out, and the lyrics in this film deserve to be heard. "Officer Krupke" should have gotten plenty of laughs from the audience, but it did not, apparently because the audience could not hear the lyrics.

I do love the CSO, but I really wish they would give the movies the respect that they deserve.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you probably noticed that I have not been writing much lately. I have been ignoring most of the concerts we go to, and I don't think I wrote a single movie review during awards season. This was a deliberate choice to see if anyone noticed. No one noticed. This does not suprise me, this blog averages about 1-2 hits per day, and most of those are hit and run (they stay for less than half a second before going somewhere else). So this is the last of my experiments to see if I should close up this blog. I'm leaning towards hanging it up, as clearly this is not making a difference, other than chewing up valuable time in my life. I do not enjoy writing, and I think of my blog as yet another chore that I have to do. It would be a relief to know that I don't have to do this any more.

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