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New York Philharmonic Plays Bernstein's "On the Waterfront"

by Nick Stubblefield


The themes and motifs from many famous film scores are undeniably and inextricably linked to much of our pop culture. It's hard not to hum the "da-dums" from Jaws when swimming, or the triumphant trumpets from the Superman theme when playing in the backyard as a kid.

That said, the film score so often goes unnoticed, even in beloved films. And generally, this makes sense. The score's purpose first and foremost is not to draw attention to itself, but to highlight the emotion and atmosphere of the action onscreen.

When the New York Philharmonic performs a film score live along with a film, you can imagine that these dynamics must change, considerably. Especially when it's former Phil Music Director Leonard Bernstein's only film score, On the Waterfront, which they performed this past week at Lincoln Center to a packed house as part of their "The Art of the Score" series. Film composer David Newman guest conducted.

Attending a live film score performance is a bit like attending two simultaneous events, and requires a bit of open-mindedness to fully enjoy. Once adjustments are made though, it definitely works. First and foremost, accept that the newly-renamed David Geffen Hall was designed for live music, and not for playing films. As such, the film sound from the speakers reverberated and bounced around the hall, making the clarity of dialogue a bit of an issue at times. Secondly, the balance of sound is not that of a film -- the orchestra would often play at a much higher volume than the film sound, drowning out any dialogue. These small issues, however, were far outweighed by the joyful benefits that only a live concert experience can deliver. 


Leonard Bernstein, composer

Jack Mitchell, Wikimedia Commons

Unlike your typical moviegoing experience, the film score was quite literally, out in front of the film. Hearing a dense and beautiful score like that of Bernstein's, performed with the clarity and dynamics that the New York Philharmonic can deliver, greatly heightened the emotion and excitement. Limitations of recording technology, especially in the 1950s, hindered the dynamics and clarity a great deal - which in turn limits the impact that a film score can give. From the first, lonely and soaring horn line at the opening "Andante (with dignity)", to the thrilling and suspenseful passages of the "Allegro Molto Agitato," the orchestra delivered the thrills, playing cleanly and confidently.

The performance was a heightened and intense emotional experience. That's exactly what a film score is supposed to do, and hearing it live offers more of everything: more emotion, more dynamics, more excitement, more clarity. The tension felt between the protagonist, Terry Malloy, and the mob bosses he resists was heightened to heroic new heights. As Malloy took his triumphant steps to his final confrontation, the orchestra underlined those moments with precision and power.