Thursday, June 14, 2007

West Side Story

West Side Story is a Masterpiece. No two ways about it.

Leonard Bernstein, who was the composer of the music of West Side Story, (Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics) and also the most famous Music Director ever of the New York Philharmonic, was, as all proper artists are, a tortured soul. His loyalties were split between so many polar opposites: – popular music / classical music – composing / performing – American / European Arts – the whole human race / the Jewish people – heterosexual / gay. In all these areas he was a bridge-builder, or at least a valiant pioneer striving to unify the possibly incompatible.

Much of the music he composed, especially later in life, has a rather self-conscious earnestness about it, a desire to be serious and respectable, coupled with a need not to be snobby or aloof. And sometimes that can make for an awkward compromise, a voice that is neither quite one thing nor the other. But in West Side Story, he hit the vein of gold. Perhaps it was the book, with all the tribal tensions he knew so well, but in a form distanced from his own Jewish identity. Perhaps it was the condition of Broadway at that moment – ready for something a little more sophisticated than a run-of-the-mill love story, but not yet overtaken by the mindless pap of more recent years. Perhaps it was its place in the trajectory of his own life, - an increasingly accomplished serious musician immersed in the world of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and many of the great musicians of the world, but not yet weighed down by the responsibilities of heading the nation’s oldest orchestra, the New York Philharmonic.

Leonard Bernstein went on to be a formative influence in the musical awakening of untold young people, (and older ones too) through his magical Young People’s Concerts with the NY Philharmonic. I have never forgotten seeing one of these presentations myself when the New York Philharmonic was on tour in Manchester, England. It was riveting, and I remember the program in every detail. (A tiny personal note: the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic that day was Frank Gullino, whom I came to know very well as a close personal friend when he retired to be Concertmaster of the New Orleans Symphony throughout the years when I was Associate Conductor there. No-one prepared a better pasta or offered a finer Manhattan. He played the fiddle quite well, too.)

It was Leonard Bernstein who conducted Beethoven’s 9th in East Berlin just after the infamous wall came down in 1989. He delivered wonderful, and controversial, lectures at Harvard University on the structure of music, seen through the perspective of Noam Chomsky’s linguistics.

I am not trying to make him out to be even more of a heavyweight than he was, I am just trying to describe the breadth of his achievement and talent. For he was also a showman unmatched. He would leap and yearn and weep on the podium in an almost bizarre, and certainly unique, manner. Whereas Fritz Reiner, with the Chicago Symphony, was famous for hardly twitching an eyebrow, Bernstein would break his own heart and weep publicly, on cue, on contract.

And in composing West Side Story, all this passion, showmanship, vitality, and expertise came together as never before, and as never again. At that point in time, 1957, Bernstein was able to write music in an American idiom, on an American plot set in New York City, for that especially American medium; the musical. Like so many great works, it was successful; but not instantly recognized as the classic it became. That year, it lost out in the Tony contest to “The Music Man”, but there has hardly been a Broadway Show more quoted, transcribed, adapted, than West Side Story. Songs such as Tonight, Somewhere, Maria, I feel Pretty, America, One Hand One Heart; all of these have become staples of the repertoire in their own right, whether or not they are connected to West Side Story on any given evening.

The theaters of Broadway do not have large pits, so the bands that play the music for musicals are generally quite small. Certainly small compared to a symphony orchestra. The band for West Side Story was unusually large, needing 30 players. But 30 players is much smaller than a symphony orchestra. So when it comes to concerts such as those of the Vermont Symphony this summer, it is generally an arrangement for the purpose that is used. That is the case in our concerts, but it in no way weakens the music. In fact, the full power of the symphony orchestra more than compensates for the absence of a stage with actor/singers. After all, the “classical” in classical music just means music that has stood the test of time, and come to be regarded as indispensable, central to the whole activity of music. West Side Story qualifies in every way as a classic in that sense.

Andrew Massey