Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Q&A: Jayce Ogren

The stars aligned like no other in September 1957, when “West Side Story” premiered on Broadway. Rarely before or since have arguably the greatest figures in their respective fields combined to produce a work of art: The show produced unforgettable lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, in his Broadway debut; majestic choreography by the inimitable Jerome Robbins; and a lavish, operatic, hip score from Leonard Bernstein. And oh yeah—the story was a modern, streetwise riff on Shakespeare, who was no slouch, either.

A few years later, another artistic titan was thrown into this passionate cauldron: Film director Robert Wise, the consummate craftsman behind “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “The Sound of Music,” who would direct the movie adaptation of “West Side Story.”

The work of all of these great minds will come together in a kind of aural 3-D this coming Friday, when “West Side Story” will be screened at Festival of the Arts Boca with live musical accompaniment from the Festival Orchestra, under the baton of accomplished conductor Jayce Ogren. This won’t be the first time the Festival has presented a film-concert hybrid, but Bernstein’s dynamic score in “West Side Story” is a more ambitious and exciting choice than its more previous, statelier choices, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Casablanca.” It’s not just a score; it’s an experience, and the music is an indelible element of the film’s drama, romance, comedy and tragedy.

Ogren, a dashing young composer and conductor from Brooklyn, will surely be up to the challenge. His previous conducting work, including Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw,” Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place,” have earned him wide acclaim, and he tells Boca Raton that he is “really excited about the prospect of bringing this piece down to Boca.”

What was your reaction when you learned you’d be conducting the orchestra for this iconic score?

I’ve conducted “West Side Story” in this version a number of times, and it’s a project I really love. The music is incredibly rewarding and feels fresh every time, so I was really looking forward to encountering that music again. And it’s also a total joy for the audience. It’s unique, and I think it’s an experience that really enhances the film for the audience.

You’ve conduced operas before. Do you feel like there’s a connection in “West Side Story” to opera—at least the gravitas of opera—that isn’t there in a lot of Broadway musicals?

Definitely. It’s really a piece that treads this middle ground between opera and musicals. My experience in opera does seem to enhance what I do with the score. But that’s the genius of Bernstein: You can’t really categorize or define what he does. He just wrote what he heard, and what he thought would be exciting and what would speak to people. And “West Side Story” is the prime example of that.

(Leonard Bernstein)

Even though you’ve conducted this score before in a live movie setting, it hasn’t been with the players in our orchestra, correct?

That’s true.

So how much rehearsal time do you need, and what is that process like?

We have three rehearsals. Whenever I’ve done this project, that’s the amount of time we’ve had. In the first rehearsal, we just make our way through, and it’s a big challenge, because the orchestra needs to keep up with the film. And a lot of the tempos in the music from the film are very, very fast. A lot of that has to do with fitting with Jerome Robbins’ beautiful choreography. So a lot of the tempos need to be a lot quicker than we’re used to in orchestras, like symphonic suites. So after that first shock of how challenging the project really is, things start to settle in in that second rehearsal.

In the third rehearsal, we have a run-through of the whole show, and a chance to fix any small issues that may come up. So it’s an amount of rehearsal time where we have everything in order, but also there’s still that excitement of everybody needing to really be on the top of their game for the show to go well.

That does not sound like a lot of rehearsal time, but I guess you’re working with top-notch professionals who probably at least know the music by ear before the first rehearsal.

Everyone knows the tunes, and they even know the difficult mix from “Symphonic Dances” that are a big part of the repertoire. But there’s a lot of music that most of these players will have never done. And even a lot of the music they know will be with slightly different orchestrations and very different tempos. But definitely, with “West Side Story” being an iconic piece that’s part of our culture, there’s no figuring out the style or how it should go. Top-notch players in America know this music and the style. Once they have a couple of read-throughs, it comes together very well.

Does the fact that you’re conducting in front of a movie, with a live audience reacting to the story, affect what you do?

It’s wonderful hearing the audience’s reactions, because when I hear them laugh at something, or when I can feel, in the room, the atmosphere that people are truly touched by the drama going on in the film, it’s inspiring to me, and to the musicians as well. With this show, we want to provide entertainment in the best possible sense. We want it to be fun and exciting and also for it to be a deeply moving experience. And when you get that audience reaction, it prompts even more expressive playing, and even more commitment.

I was reading your list of accomplishments, and seeing works like “Turn of the Screw,” and pieces by John Adams and Rufus Wainwright. Would you say that you are attracted to artists who are more alternative, who stand a bit away from the mainstream?

Not particularly. I just love conducting great music, and I think that comes from a lot of different types of musicians. I did my undergrad in Composition, and I’ve always been attracted to contemporary music. I think if anything, I just haven’t let inventions get in the way of my taste.

For example, there are people in the classical music world who approached Rufus Wainwright’s opera “Prima Donna” with a closed mind. They expected it to be unsuccessful, and then they didn’t really listen to it. But I think if you really listen to what he did, in a first effort in the classical genre from a singer-songwriter, it’s a remarkable piece. So I just try to be open. I enjoy working on projects that are inspiring and are full of quality music.

“West Side Story” will be screened/performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 6 at Mizner Park Amphitheater, 590 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $25-$125. For tickets and information, call 561/368-8445 or visit

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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