Sharks and Jets jostle with violins and horns in West Side Story

Conductor David Newman rehearsing the Philadelphia Orchestra (David M Warren, Inquirer staff)

When orchestra plays live to film, as the Philadelphia Orchestra increasingly does, you might find yourself consciously sorting out the essence of the experience. Are you in a movie house or concert hall? In West Side Story, with the orchestra playing beneath a large-screen showing of the 1961 film, Philadelphians Friday night easily out-rumbled the balletic thugs from the Sharks and Jets. But when the audience applauded at the end of songs, were they showering Natalie Wood with praise, or the orchestra’s alternately luscious and trenchant handing of Leonard Bernstein’s score? Those few who walked out at the end as the orchestra was playing music over credits made it clear where they thought they had spent the evening.

The question of concert versus movie apparently never worried the woman sitting in front of me; poor thing had mistaken Verizon Hall for her living room. Kicking off her shoes and setting stocking feet atop the first-tier railing made for a curious bit of social slouching not likely to be tolerated by any parent at one of the orchestra’s family concerts.

Audiences better get used to more “event” elements entering the concert realm. Management even aims to bring the circus to town, literally, in case the orchestra on stage isn’t enough to bring you in. This West Side Story, though, was an absolutely legitimate artistic project. For one thing, the city can take a special interest in Bernstein, who went to the Curtis Institute of Music, where the culture is now catching up with the composer/conductor’s prescient acts of career-inventing and comingling of classical with popular.

The tunes and even the ensemble itself reflect Bernstein’s catholic style – one that embraced a sweetness at one end (“I Feel Pretty”) that could have been penned by a slightly more evolved Franz Lehar, and on the other by the menacingly quiet drums and scattershot dissonance echoing through gorgeously bleak shots of New York squalor. The orchestra was augmented by freelancers with show chops, most notably a terrific trumpeter who belted out high notes of steel.

The orchestration is a story in itself. Materials for the original film score were lost, and so what’s heard in this concert presentation, which has toured nationally, is neither from the film nor the musical, but an amalgam overseen by composer Eleanor M. Sandresky and ultimately credited to five orchestrators. It is superb, and must be considered, along with Jerome Robbins’ choreography and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, a primary source of genius and pleasure.

Opera and ballet, after all, ask audiences to make decisions about whether to look or listen, crawl inside the heads of characters or heed the score. West Side Story has elements of both. Technology did the job of lifting and preserving vocals of the original soundtrack. Recalling, if just a bit, Fred Astaire’s posthumous dance in a vacuum cleaner commercial, conductor David Newman synced up the ensemble with Wood, Richard Beymer (Tony), Rita Moreno (Anita) and others as timed markers wiped across a small screen beneath him. The sound quality of the vocal recording, and the voices themselves, didn’t come up to the full-spectral sound of the orchestra, but you understood why this was a project worth doing when the love-addled “Tonight” is joined by the racing exhilarant of the orchestra. Juliette Kang, sitting concertmaster for the night, entered with a brief and touching solo at the end of the balcony scene. Hornist Jeffrey Lang – an orchestra member, but with an impressive Broadway resume – was as lithe and emotional as any singer.

Two 12-year-old boys I know told me afterwards they had a tough time waiting through “all that singing” for the next rumble. Gangs and knives? For some orchestra fans, this was a star turn for an important score, with a dim rectangle flickering somewhere off in the distance.