Would Leonard Bernstein want his the score for his classic musical West Side Story played on synths, instead of an orchestra?
That’s the question asked by a thought-provoking New York Times article that looks at how synths are replacing musicians in the orchestras of not only new musicals, but classic ones.
Violinist Paul Woodiel writes:
I have been fortunate enough to have had a rich and varied career as a theater musician. I’ve toured the world as the fiddle on the proverbial roof, sweltered in a marching band uniform in “The Music Man” and played a languid tango in Norma Desmond’s mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Last year, the stars aligned, allowing me to perform “West Side Story” again, this time at the Palace Theater on Broadway.
Now, after 500 performances, our producers have told us and our union that in order to cut costs they will chop our string section in half, releasing five musicians and “replacing” them with a synthesizer piped in from another room. I don’t think Lenny would have approved.
If all goes according to plan, these songs will be produced by a skeletal string section accompanied by an inert, artificial, electronic device, which an engineer will try to manipulate, hoping to deceive audiences into thinking it’s the real thing. The producers are doubtless betting audiences won’t notice the difference. But if you happen to be listening, as Lenny would have suggested you do, you will notice.
While Woodiel presumes to speak for “Lenny”, it’s impossible to know whether Bernstein would have preferred to have his musical reorchestrated with synths vs having it possibly not be played, because of the cost of the additional musicians.
Virtual instruments are becoming better and better and, at least in some cases, an synthesizer-enhanced orchestra can sound more convincing than a conventional one. It’s become common for soundtrack composers to expand on the orchestras available to them using virtual instruments.
And, if your idea of synth orchestras is the sound of 80’s sci fi movies, state of the art virtual orchestration may surprise you. Check out this version of Beethoven String Quartet, Opus 132, sequenced by Eric Lindemann:
It’s safe to say that well-done synthesizer orchestration could be indistinguishable to show-goers.
Does that mean that musicians like Woodiel are luddites intent on bringing period performance practice to musical theater?
There’s a difference between Philip Glass or Hans Zimmer’s use of a synthesizer-expanded orchestra and rejigging Bernstein’s West Side Story.
Glass & Zimmer choose to include synths in their work and use them to expand the range of their orchestras. With the updated West Side Story, synths are just being used to replace musicians, and it’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t cheapen the sound.
What do you think? Would Leonard Bernstein want West Side Story played on synths?
Leave a comment with your thoughts!