It’s not uncommon for movies and music to be fused at Tanglewood, where an annual film night regularly offers such fare as the greatest hits of composer John Williams, played by the Boston Pops in synch to selected film clips.
But this is different. Like the music itself, Saturday’s performance of Leonard Bernstein’s score to “West Side Story,” alongside a screening of the 1961 film, confounds easy categorization.
It will be performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, not the Pops, in a beefed-up configuration including a saxophone section, guitar, mandolin, and a specially recruited expert in high-pitch “screech” trumpet playing. And artistic administrator Anthony Fogg can remember only one other occasion when Tanglewood screened a film in its entirety with live accompaniment: Sergei Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky,” with Seiji Ozawa at the podium some 20 years ago.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, David Newman, conductor
“It’s a grand, big, symphonic undertaking, and we think it should be performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” Fogg says. “It deftly brings together so many influences. Harmonically, it’s very daring, very rich, far beyond the language of musical theater of the time. It’s really symphonic, almost operatic, in scope.”
Bernstein’s music originated, of course, as the score of one of the best-loved Broadway musicals in the canon. The urbane subject matter — a love story amid New York’s gang culture, inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” — was matched with choreography by Jerome Robbins, a book by Arthur Laurents, and lyrics by an up-and-coming Stephen Sondheim, making his maiden voyage on Broadway. (Robbins and Robert Wise are credited as co-directors of the film.)
The concert marks conductor David Newman’s BSO debut. He cites Bernstein’s often-noted ability to combine popular music and high art, writing a score that can entertain a theater audience but also stand up to symphonic exploration.
“I think it’s one of the great achievements of the 20th century, if not of all Western music, that he was able to combine Broadway populism with rigorous composition and make something that can be played in concert halls all over the world,” Newman says.
Newman is primarily known as a composer of film scores, with credits ranging from “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” to “The War of the Roses” and “Ice Age.” But he’s become a “West Side Story” specialist in the past two years, developing technological aids (like an audio click track, and color-coded video prompts visible only to the conductor) to help keep the musicians in synch with the film. He’s previously led the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic, among others, in this program.
“If Natalie Wood starts singing on bar 20, you’ve got to be right there,” he says. Yet the character of Bernstein’s music, he adds, offers ample opportunity for a conductor to add individual colors to the mix.
“In this structure that seems limited, you can find great freedom and nuance and style, much more than it logically seems the conductor could,” Newman says. “It’s about the style and the feel. This is really a hybrid of jazz, Broadway, Latin pop, and operatic music. You have to get all of it. If anything, you have to be more vigilant about phrasing and dynamics than usual. There is a lot of room for nuance.”
The concert has added resonance owing to Bernstein’s special relationship with the BSO and with Tanglewood. In 1940 he studied conducting at Tanglewood’s summer institute with BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky. An immediate success, he was made a faculty member two years later and was a regular presence there for five decades. He gave his last concert at Tanglewood in 1990, just two months before his death, at 72.
“We always say that Bernstein’s spirit hovers around the grounds of Tanglewood. He’s one of the iconic figures in our history,” Fogg observes. “He was here practically every summer and was a major force in terms of both teaching and performance. The arc of Bernstein’s life and career is very much framed around the Tanglewood festival.”
As for the music from “West Side Story,” Bernstein conducted the suite known as “Symphonic Dances From West Side Story” at Tanglewood only once. But in a nod to Bernstein’s importance here, the composition was included in the program of last summer’s 80th anniversary concert.
Another personal twist on Saturday’s concert comes courtesy of four cast members from the film who will be on hand. David Bean (“Tiger”), Harvey Evans (“Mouthpiece”), Bert Michaels (“Snowboy”), and Edward Verso (“Juano”) are among a dozen onscreen gang members who published a group memoir in 2011. The four will participate in Friday evening’s “This Week at Tanglewood” discussion, and hold a series of book signings over the weekend.
Michaels says the full import of his work on “West Side Story” was brought home to him only in recent years, when he attended a spate of 50th anniversary screenings and heard testimonials from many who cited the film as a huge influence.
“It was such a catharsis of everything that you ever wanted to do in theater and in film, and we got to be part of it, which is just astonishing to me,” Michaels reflects. “We remember the choreography step by step, count by count. If the bodies could do it, we could knock it out incredibly.”
At Newman’s performance of “West Side Story” with the New York Philharmonic, Michaels was surprised by the depth of emotion in the room. “It was hair-raising. We all stood up at the end,” he says of his castmates, “and we didn’t realize it but we were crying.”
For all the cultural and historic connections, Newman says he has a simple goal for the Saturday performance.
“What you want is for all the technology to disappear, and you’re just telling the story.”