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Art of the Score: New York Philharmonic plays "Manhattan"

by Nick Stubblefield 

Manhattan at NY Philharmonic

"To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin."

Woody Allen said it best himself in those opening lines from his classic 1979 film Manhattan. The all-Gershwin soundtrack was originally recorded by the New York Philharmonic, so it was only fitting that the Phil presented Manhattan two weeks ago in David Geffen Hall as part of their annual "Art of the Score" series, which replaces a projected film’s recorded score with a live performance. Given that the Philharmonic recorded the soundtrack nearly 40 years earlier in this same hall, they could not have sounded more at home in this performance.

Gershwin's iconic "Rhapsody in Blue" opens the film, set to a montage of black and white images of the city that perfectly capture it's grandeur and frantic energy. The Philharmonic performed it with virility and enthusiasm, starting with the famously identifiable clarinet glissando. Throughout the film, the score subtly underscores the emotion playing out on screen, often unaccompanied by dialogue or other sound. In this live performance context, the movie's witty dialogue and score shined independently of one another.

Queensboro bridge

Conductor Alan Gilbert executed the cues precisely — important because in Manhattan, Gershwin's songs often start abruptly and stop before reaching their actual conclusion. (The film uses arrangements made by Tom Pierson.) Typically in cinema, music generally serves the story, but in Manhattan the music very much is the story. 

Gershwin's music can sound great in a variety of formats: solo piano, solo piano with voice, or jazz combo, but nothing quite compares to the classic, lush feel of his orchestral arrangements. Highlights included "Someone to Watch Over Me," in which the delicately expressive violin passages seemed to evaporate into the air. Toe-tappers like "Oh, Lady Be Good," were bouncy, light, and fun, while slower, more sensitive numbers like "Embraceable You" conjured images of a classical Hollywood romance. On slower numbers, rich, lush orchestrations worked their emotional magic. 

Hearing the Philharmonic perform the score of this beloved film allowed for an enhanced sense of immersion in the story, giving concertgoers and cinephiles alike a new appreciation for Allen's classic ode to New York. The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, but my love for "The Art of the Score" is here to stay.