Last Friday, October 5th, 2018, Gorka Oteiza attended the screening of the film in concert West Side Story at the Euskalduna Palace in Bilbao (Spain), performed by the BOS Orquesta Sinfónica de Bilbao – Bilbao Orkestra Sinfonikoa, under the baton of the guest conductor Ernst Van Tiel.
Previously we published Gorka‘s comments on the rehearsals (read article), and now here you have his impressions about the concert, as well as an interview with its conductor, Ernst Van Tiel, exclusively for SoundTrackFest.
After a successful first show on Thursday, October 4th, the second and last performance of fabulous film West Side Story in concert arrived on Friday Oct-5th at 7:30 p.m. in Bilbao, in charge of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra – Bilbao Orkestra Sinfonikoa (BOS), under the attentive, precise, and diligent conducting of the Ernst Van Tiel.
In total we had almost three hours of a fantastic audiovisual show. A unique experience to enjoy a classic movie, in a way that can only be lived in a concert hall.
The truth is that having attended the dress rehearsals on Wednesday, October 3rd (read article), we could already guess the quality of what we would find in the final concert, but the expectations were surpassed in the moment of truth.
But let’s go step by step and let’s start with the details. The first thing to note is an almost full house at the Euskalduna Palace, in which, according to the organization, only about 100 tickets were available to complete the total of 2,164 seats, clearly showing the interest that the public has for this work.
West Side Story in concert was a risky and courageous bet by the team that prepares the programming of the BOS, since the usual public of the orchestra, and mainly its subscribers, are more used to traditional symphonic concerts. But as it could be seen by the box office success, the bet was widely corresponded and very well received by all the attendees.
Leonard Bernstein, who would have turned 100 on August 25th, 2018, is the author of the fabulous music of West Side Story; a perfect amalgam of order and chaos, Latin rhythms and symphonic sound, melodies for love and for conflict, music to express the nonsense of hate or the story of Romeo and Juliet. All of them are perfect ingredients for a great show, with jazz, mambo, cha-cha-cha and salsa rhythms, accompanied by the symphonic potential of the whole orchestra.
Although the main inspiration for Leonard Bernstein came from the Shakespeare‘s story of Romeo and Juliet, the musical West Side Story (1957) was finally shaped shortly after reading a brief article in the Los Angeles Times about Latino gang fights from the West Side of San Bernardino, which transformed the original story into a conflict between a Puerto Rican gang (represented by the Sharks) and a Polish gang (represented by the Jets).
The film West Side Story (1961) directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, is the adaptation of the 1957 musical, and in addition to the fabulous music by Leonard Bernstein, has some great and accurate lyrics by the legendary Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by award-winning Jerome Robbins.
The 2 and a half hours of the film were divided into two acts for the concert: a first act of about 80 minutes, which after a break of 20 minutes, was followed by the second act of 74 minutes. Although it may seem that the almost 3 hours of film in concert could be long, nothing is further from reality, since the masterful structure of the film, that intersperses musical numbers with scenes with dialogues of the actors, makes it agile and light. In addition, the fact of having the orchestra in sight, on stage, playing Leonard Bernstein’s powerful music live (a music that hooks you from the beginning), also played a good part on it.
Once in the venue, you could find that there was a large screen over the orchestra, in which the film could be seen in its original format, Panavision 70 mm, leaving two black bands at the top and at the bottom. These were skillfully used to show the subtitles in Basque above and in Spanish below, since the film was screened in its original English version, keeping the dialogues and the voices of the songs intact, as well as the sound effects.
Talking about the music, I have to say that the BOS was great, exceeding in an outstanding way the difficult challenge of performing such a changing music, so varied, and with so many alterations in rhythm, in a synchronized and precise way with the film. The musicians had the help of small headphones, from which at times they received the temporary marks (the famous ‘click-track’), with which they were able to match with precision the most complex scenes of the movie.
But let’s not forget that much of this merit also falls on the work of conductor Ernst Van Tiel, who with an attentive look, firm pulse, and precise indications, kept the rhythm and tension throughout the concert, getting power and strength from the orchestra, especially in those scenes that required intensity and a perfect fusion of image and music.
Although there are many special moments, I would like to highlight the fabulous overture of almost 5 minutes at the beginning of the film, where without projecting any image, and only with the music and the strength of the orchestra, a summary of all the main themes that we will be able to enjoy later is made, establishing the musical tone of the rest of the movie. In addition, we have the great dance scene in the gym at the rhythm of mambo, where the brass and percussion sections of the orchestra were outstanding, and we could also highlight the development of the theme ‘America’, which although started a bit slow for my taste, immediately picked up the rhythm and managed to transmit all the musical intensity of the scene, in perfect synchronicity with the verbal and choreographed confrontations of the protagonists.
In summary, an excellent film with a wonderful music, which we greatly enjoyed thanks to the fabulous quality performance of the BOS conducted by Ernst Van Tiel.
Starting the 2018/2019 season of the BOS with West Side Story, paying homage to Leonard Bernstein on the centenary of his birth, has been a risky bet but at the same time very well received by the orchestra’s subscribers and by the public in general. From here we would like to send our congratulations to the BOS programming team and to its technical director Borja Pujol, for using film music within the repertoire of the orchestra.
And looking at the success of the two shows of West Side Story this year… maybe next year it would be possible to consider something similar? How about a classic musical movie like “Singing in the Rain”? It seems like a very appropriate title for Bilbao!
Could you introduce yourself to somebody who doesn’t know you? Who are you and what do you do in a regular basis?
Well, my name is Ernst Van Tiel, I’m a conductor of many, many different kinds of music in many orchestras around the world. Like normal conductors, do I do the classical, romantic, all that music… but since a few years, I do a lot of film concerts with live orchestra, for several reasons. First of all… I love theater, I love Opera, I love conducting Ballet, and for me, the film concert is at the same level. The music is also fantastic. In the past film music was not very highly respected. The orchestras are now discovering how fantastic that music is. Not only from these days. Not only John Williams but also in the past like Bernard Hermann. The first film I conducted live, and this was for me the eye-opener, was Alexander Nevsky. The famous film of Eisenstein, with music of Prokofiev.
And also for this I can say, that people who know the Alexander Nevsky cantata, they do not know the Alexander Nevsky film music. It is much longer, much different. And there’s a funny story because after the recording of Alexander Nevsky, they lost all the scores.
Oh, no! Really?
Indeed! And Prokofiev wrote by heart the cantata for everything that he remembered. And this cantata is, I think, 33 minutes… but music for the film is 65 minutes! So a very, very, very serious man, Frank Strobel, reconstructed the original music in 2001, and this is what we play now. So in 2004 it was my first big film concert, Alexander Nevsky and it was a thrill for the orchestra and for everybody. And then I was asked for more and more, and I’m recording a lot of film music, and… yeah I love it!
Did you always knew you wanted to be an orchestra conductor? Or you just went into the music world and then it just came?
No, I started quite late with music and then I played several years in symphony orchestras. I also played jazz music and I played pop music, and then I started to study piano… and then I started quite late to study conducting. So by the first time I was conducting I was 38, 39… it was quite late. In fact, when I was a student for conducting, I was twice as old as most of the other students. But…
Well, so you have more experience…
Yeah, yeah. (*laughs*) That’s true, but you cannot be seen as a young promising conductor. But I love to study and here I study a lot. When I’m in front of a new movie, and I have a new score, I have to learn it, the technique, what the composer wanted to achieve…. That’s challenging but I love it. And in the case of this fantastic music of Bernstein, but also most music of John Williams, you feel that they are both great conductors. And John Williams is not just a conductor of his own music, he is very experienced in conducting the Hollywood Bowl in all kinds of music for years. And you feel that everything is so natural.
What kind of skills does a conductor need for a live to picture concert or for a recording session for a movie, compared to conducting classical music in a concert hall?
Well, what is very important for playing with film, is that you have very, very, very strong feeling for tempo. And this is also for recording: to be able to keep this tempo, but that the orchestra can still feel free and breathing. Not rigid like… (*chop, chop, chop*). So this is what I’m still developing… to give the orchestra the feeling that they are free, but in the meantime they are really strict. This is important.
Let’s talk about West Side Story. This one of the most known works from Leonard Bernstein. What can you tell us about the music of West Side Story from the point of view of the conductor? Because you will see it in a very different from the way from how we see it… and you will enjoy it differently as well…
Well, of course. I experience the music as top, top music, but I see the effect the music has to support the drama, which is superb. I feel the wonderful orchestration. How he is using the instruments, for which theme he’s using, or the balance between singers. And this is also part of Bernstein’s experience in opera or playing with soloists. What’s very important is that as soon as you start playing the first rehearsal, the orchestra is caught by the music, and this is just because of its quality.
Also I can say that when I was a student in the conservatory, before I was starting conducting, many students loved the music, although it was not done to love this musical which was a ‘deeper world’. It was very difficult for Bernstein to be accepted as a conductor, because he wrote a musical! It was so below what people expected. But all the music lovers, they had a secret love for the music of West Side Story.
So they loved it, but they could not say it openly and widely, because they would not be taken seriously…
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I remember the first time I heard the music of West Side Story, I did not know what it was. My sister played the record, and I was caught. One second.
Same happened to me. It was one of the first CDs I owned and I was trapped. I played it once and again, once and again…. and then I saw the movie later, months later! Let’s talk about Leonard Bernstein, because he would have turned one hundred in 2018…
Yes! And I just want to say… don’t forget about his other music…
Well, that was the question!! (*laughs*)
Was it? (*laughs*)
Yes! If somebody comes to see West Side Story, and enjoys the movie and the music, and doesn’t know Leonard Bernstein, what would you recommend to him or her to listen?
I would recommend really to listen to Chichester Psalms… to Candide. Then you’ll be caught by that style. That kind of music that he wrote. And also I wish I had one of his talents; he was a great conductor, a great composer, and a fantastic piano player so… (*laughs*)
And a good storyteller…
And a storyteller too! I’m jealous. (*laughs*)
Well who knows, maybe in 10 years, you’ll get to that point!
Who knows? (*laughs*)
Let’s talk about the rehearsals. How do you prepare a concert like this?
It depends on the quality of the orchestra, and the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra is a very good orchestra. So, we had time to prepare everything very much in detail, and I trust them very much; that’s important. I don’t have to do everything three times before I’m sure they can play it. I just give small advice, small questions. Now we have the dress rehearsal, and in the dress rehearsal I’m not stopping for mistakes, I just stop for things that are not clear. Because the orchestra is so good that they know what’s wrong.
Are you using a click-track when you are conducting?
Usually not. In this case, because we have the original voices, it is very special. It was originally not recorded with a click-track, it’s very free in tempo. And the dance is also there, so for a few of the songs we use the click-track, but most of them are free.
And let’s go for the final question, let’s talk about one score you conducted, the music for ‘The Artist’ by Ludovic Bource, that won the Oscar in 2011. How was that project and how would you describe the music?
The music is incredible, because Ludovic Bource prepared himself for years to be able to have the atmosphere of the 20s/30s. I met him on the first day of the recording, we never met before… but since then, we are friends. And we had a very short time to record. Only four days. And even on the last day, at six in the morning, there was new music under by the door of my hotel!
So you have to read it and learn it before going to the studio!
Well…This is how it usually goes. I just made a recording for a Dutch film, and the same thing happened (*laughs*). Also I did some recording with Foreigner, the rock band. Some crossover music, and let me tell you that all the recordings have their things!
You can bet! I sure you have many stories to tell, but we’re running out of time and you have to get back to the rehearsals. Thank you for dedicating some minutes for SoundTrackFest in your busy schedule, and good luck with the West Side Story concerts in Bilbao!
Thanks! See you there this Friday?
Indeed you will. I’ll be there!!
Article and Interview by Gorka Oteiza