Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Intensities and meltdowns; Behind the scenes of the West Side Story Recording

The recording industry for orchestral music is a breeding ground for meltdowns, but was particularly so when recordings were done in live sessions without click-tracks. Orchestras are expensive and run by union regulations. Time is of the essence. Fifty people or more are listening, playing, observing--even when a film crew is not present.

This infamous film of the recording process for "West Side Story" from 1985 documents a fascinating series of obstacles.

It was intended to be Bernstein's signature recording of this work as a conductor. Under his supervision it would be authoritative. What happens when unfixable problems begin to surface? What happens as these problems seem to multiply and threaten to overwhelm the process? Bernstein drops the F bomb.

José Carreras was chosen to sing the part of Tony. Carreras is a gifted singer who has had a major career. But he was not used to the rhythmic language of this music. The English language is also extremely difficult to sing--even for a native speaker. Most people agree that the end product, while not perfect, has gorgeous moments.

Reactions to this video, as documented by informal responses on Youtube, run the entire gamut: pro-Bernstein, anti-Bernstein, pro-Carreras, anti-Carreras, and several combinations of two or more categories...

This clip is not a battle with a winner and a loser. It is a lesson in the dynamic of intensity, and how, even though it was not always delicate, things got done back then:

[0:00-1:41] A quiet and ordinary rehearsal with Carreras, a pianist, and Bernstein.
It is an ordinary day; details are being worked out. Bernstein is very complimentary to Carreras in the voiceover, recognizing that "Carreras is a fresh element; that I can tell you."

[1:42-2:25] The rehearsal is already running late and Bernstein is becoming increasingly impatient. He asks Carreras to take a breath at a very specific location in order to have wind to carry the rest of the phrase.

[2:26-3:28] "What happens!?"
Bernstein discovers that his markings were not transferred to the parts and vents anger toward his assistant.

[3:29-3:52] "Carreras, I'll never stop saying Carreras"
A pun that does not relieve tension for anyone else given the intensity of concentration.

[3:53-6:34] A run-through that derails. Carreras asks to work on three bars alone so that he can get his bearings. The rehearsal, already running late is stopped. Carreras reacts. Bernstein reacts. Bernstein lights a cigarette...imagine. "Such problems."

[6:35-6:52] "At that moment I was...not too happy" says Carreras.
[6:53-10:04] "One More Time"....."Great Take."

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