A thrilling concert version of West Side Story

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A thrilling concert version of West Side Story

Post by Ricordanza » Mon Oct 16, 2017 4:53 pm

It shouldn’t have worked.

For the opening of its subscription series for the 2017-2018 season, the Philadelphia Orchestra announced that it would perform a concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. The orchestra would play the complete Broadway score, and vocalists would perform the songs, but there would be no dancing.

West Side Story without dancing? I’ll admit that I was skeptical (even though I bought tickets). After all, when it opened on Broadway in 1957, West Side Story was notable for incorporating dance more than any prior musical. And not just any dance sequences, but the innovative and exceptional choreography of Jerome Robbins added an unforgettable dimension to this musical, as well as the 1961 film version.

As we entered Verizon Hall on Saturday night, October 14, we noticed some changes from the usual concert format. The orchestra, somewhat reduced from its usual size, occupied the front of the stage. Instead of their formal outfits, the musicians were dressed in plain black shirts and bottoms. There was a platform at the back of the stage for the vocalists, and dramatic lighting had been added. I’d also note that just about every seat in the hall was filled.

Before the performance, Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin came on stage to provide an introduction to the program. No formal wear for him—he wore a black tee shirt and red pants (the colors, respectively, of the Jets and the Sharks). Addressing the format of the performance, Yannick quipped that the only dancing to be seen would be from him on the podium. But he asserted that having a semi-staged concert performance, with singers but no choreography to speak of, would place the focus on the music.

As the performance progressed, I realized that Yannick was right. Rather than missing the dancing, my attention was on the music—and what magnificent music it is. We’ve all heard the “big” songs—“Maria” “Tonight” “Somewhere”—dozens of times, perhaps hundreds of times. And I’ve heard the “Symphonic Dances” (essentially, a suite from the musical) on many occasions. But to hear the entire score, and to note how each musical sequence advances the story, is to recognize the unique place of this score in the history of the musical theater. But let’s put that label aside. This performance underscored the basic notion that great music is great music, no matter the genre.

The entire score is a marvel, but some segments stand out for me: the angular, uneasy Prologue, so distinct from the traditional overture; the contrasting vocal lines and disparate points of view that somehow come together during “Tonight;” Bernstein’s dazzling use of Latin rhythms in the “Dance at the Gym;” and the confluence of jazz and classical form in the jazz fugue “Cool.”

The music requires a virtuoso ensemble, and the Philadelphians, under Yannick’s energetic direction, were more than up to the task. The vocalists ranged from very good to outstanding. Isabel Leonard brought an operatic quality to her portrayal of Maria, which seemed somewhat out of place, but there’s no question that she has a voice of great beauty and power. Ryan Silverman (Tony) clearly had the pipes to conquer the incredible vocal range required for “Something’s Coming” and “Maria.” Timothy McDevitt (Riff) and Isabel Santiago (Anita) were perfect for their roles. Morgan James delivered a stunning rendition of “Somewhere.”

West Side Story is timeless, but this performance happened to be especially timely. As Yannick noted in his introduction, when the performance was first planned years ago, no one would have predicted that Puerto Rico would have been so recently devastated by Hurricane Maria. Indeed, it gave special relevance to the line from “America:” Always the hurricanes blowing. And when the singers delivered the following lines:

Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico's in America!

The audience interrupted with applause, obviously in rebuke to the current occupant of the White House. Before and after the concert and during intermission, representatives of a Puerto Rican based charity collected funds in the lobby for hurricane relief.

So, with all these factors—the superb music, the knockout performance, and the sense of occasion that evening--it definitely worked. More than that, it was one of the most thrilling experiences in the nearly 20 seasons that I have been attending Philadelphia Orchestra concerts.

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Re: A thrilling concert version of West Side Story

Post by lennygoran » Tue Oct 17, 2017 9:48 am

Ricordanza wrote:
Mon Oct 16, 2017 4:53 pm
Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico's in America!

The audience interrupted with applause, obviously in rebuke to the current occupant of the White House.
Great! Regards, Len :D

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