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20, Dec 2017
Silverman & Leonard in West Side Story with Philadelphia Orchestra

Bernstein Centennial continues in Philadelphia

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

Yannick Nézet-Séguin seems to be a logical leader of the celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial, because he’s today’s most prominent conductor who straddles the worlds of concerts and operas. The main thing that differentiates is that Yannick, so far, has no presence on Broadway.

He tried to make that link with a semi-staged version of West Side Story at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia in mid-October 2017. Bernstein’s 1957 show has never sounded as good. Nézet-Séguin even made Bernstein’s own recording seem sluggish in comparison. Yannick and the Philadelphians gave a jazzy performance that sounded like a Broadway show but even bolder. Playing and singing were full of urgency and excitement, with an exciting mixture of jazz and Latin music, shifting meters and passionate emotions.

The Philadelphia Orchestra was reduced in size to 57, from its normal 90 plus. (The 1957 original cast album has an orchestra of 28, and the CD of the 2009 Broadway revival uses 30.) Nézet-Séguin placed an expanded percussion section on the left part of the stage. As per Bernstein’ score, the section included bongos, castanets, claves, conga drums, cowbells, glockenspiel, gourd, maracas, police whistle, ratchet, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, timbales, triangle, vibraphone, xylophone, and more.

At the rear of the stage, singers appeared on a raised platform. Kevin Newbury (who directed the premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at Santa Fe) directed the 26-person cast as if this were a stage production, with dramatic movements simulating the dance in the gym and the gang fights. Paul Carey did a fine job of costuming. But audience members in the front of the ground floor were unable to see this because the orchestra blocked the view. Perhaps the platform might have been raised higher.

Ryan Silverman as Tony sang with a strength that suits his role as the leader of the white “American” gang. (He starred in the recent London production of the show.) Isabel Leonard looked perfect as Maria; her Hispanic accent was authentic (her mother is Argentinian) and she sang beautifully. But her vocal technique was problematic.

I overheard a patron complain that Leonard sounded too “operatic” because she used the head tones that the public associates with sopranos. In conversation afterwards, Leonard said that she decided to stick to her trained voice, using varied interpretations but never messing with her basic tone. I can accept that, because Maria always seems, to me, to be from another world. She stands apart from the other Puerto Rican girls; we see hardly any interaction with her brother Bernardo, and she appears to us, as well as to Tony, as heavenly. But a gutsier vocal delivery would be better.

Comparisons with the 1957 original cast recording are inevitable. Its Tony and Maria, Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence, seemed realistic as they reached beyond their normal range to hit notes that were strange and wonderful; thus they depicted the emotions of two youngsters experiencing love for the first time. Imagine yourself hearing the end of “Something’s Coming” for the first time, with the dissonant four notes on the words “maybe tonight” — G-sharp, A, D, C. And the odd triplet, ascending and descending as Tony repeats Maria’s name at the conclusion of his song to her — D, high mezza-voce A, low G. They are unexpected, unlike anything heard in previous Broadway shows.

I was lucky to have that experience when I attended the Philadelphia tryout of West Side Story before its Broadway opening. The show had not yet been recorded, so we in the audience had no preparation for what we were hearing. Bernstein did suggest his ideas for the show when he appeared on the Sunday TV broadcast Omnibus two years before, presenting a history of American musical theater. He traced its roots to German-language operetta, and discussed its modernization by Gershwin, Berlin and Rodgers. But I was shocked when he declared that a real American musical had not yet been written.

I was offended when I heard him dismiss my favorite Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, and I told him so. But he said that Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific were like operettas in their reliance on exotic locales: they were set in faraway places in earlier times (although South Pacific was set during World War II, only one decade in the past). He said, with a charming lack of humility, that what America needed was a musical in the present time, in an American city. Clearly, he was thinking ahead to West Side Story. It would be a new and sophisticated integration of dance, music and book.

West Side Story spotlights racial prejudice, and it contains prescient words. The lyrics of the song “America” say: “Nobody knows in America / Puerto Rico’s in America.” This is pertinent at a time when government officials speak dismissively about requests for aid from Puerto Rican hurricane victims. Nézet-Séguin talked about this before the concert and, during the performance, he brought singers and orchestra to a momentary halt at the end of that line, causing the audience to burst into applause.

The 40-year-old Bernstein who created West Side Story (in collaboration with Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim) was brash and funny. As I had further conversations with him in the 1960s, he still had that personality. In our meetings during the 1980s, however, he was less ebullient, more serious, and seemed burdened by the responsibility of living up to his own image. By the time he got around to conducting his own musical, Bernstein was a changed man. This is evident in the West Side Story recording which he conducted in 1984, at age 67, and that’s why Nézet-Séguin’s performance sounds better than Lenny’s. Bernstein’s is also marred by the inexplicable casting of the Latin Jose Carreras as the leader of the gang that fights against the Latins. The best modern recording of West Side Story is led by Michael Tilson Thomas, with Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber in the leads.

Nathaniel Stampley (Porgy in the national tour of Porgy and Bess) was a powerful Bernardo for Nézet-Séguin. Isabel Santiago was a spunky Anita, Bernardo’s fiancé, who sings “A boy like that will kill your brother.” Timothy McDevitt was vivid as Riff, who succeeded Tony as leader of the Jets gang. Morgan James was a standout as the nameless young woman who sings “Somewhere.” That song was sung by the high coloratura Reri Grist in the original cast, by mezzo Marilyn Horne on Bernstein’s recording, and by Kiddo, a young Jet, in the 2009 revival. James, using a mixed voice (blending head and chest), gave the best rendition of it that I’ve ever heard.

*

December 2017 Philadelphia Orchestra concerts featured one of Bernstein’s most interesting compositions — his Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium), for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion.

That Plato Symposium was a series of dissertations in ancient Athens about the nature of erotic love. If you can’t quite recall that, you’re in the company of many educated folks. But the erudite Bernstein was well-versed in philosophy and considered it a fun sport to translate philosophic disputations into music.

The men at the Symposium included the philosopher Socrates, the general Alcibiades, the physician Eryximachus, the tragedian Agathon, the lawyer Pausanias, and the playwright Aristophanes. They all gave speeches about aspects of Eros, the god of erotic love and desire. Pausanius analyzed the attitudes of different city-states relative to homosexuality. Aristophanes said that in primal times people had double bodies, with faces and limbs turned away from one another. Zeus split them apart because he feared their power, and ever since, people have tried to “make themselves whole” again. Alcibiades entered the symposium drunk, and said that he had tried, but failed, to seduce Socrates, concluding that Socrates has no interest in physical pleasure.

Bernstein translated all of this orchestrally, without words. He explained the finale thus: “The famous interruption by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revelers ushers in the Allegro, which is an extended Rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jig-like dance music to joyful celebration. If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party-music, but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party.”

Bernstein’s predilection for Greek culture emerged when he was a student at Harvard and wrote the score for Aristophanes’ play The Birds in the original Greek. Bernstein wanted to gain credibility as a serious classical composer in addition to being a Broadway tunesmith. Serenade was written in 1954, between his Wonderful Town and West Side Story and before he was named Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.

This was the Lenny that I first met around this time — smart, sassy, handsome. He retained those qualities during the 1960s when we did several broadcast interviews, but gradually he became weighted down with cares and responsibilities.

In this Serenade, a lilting waltz is interrupted by an off-kilter counter rhythm. Skittering violins are answered with woodblocks and kettledrums. Cleverness abounds, but the totality is hardly romantic. Therefore a listener is best off if he or she does not expect a serenade about love. The speeches and music are cerebral, not erotic. Violinist Hilary Hahn plays the roles of each speaker, leading the Grecian discussions. Her tone is sweet, and her technical mastery is superb. She added a gigue by Bach as an encore.

The concert opened with a suite by Thomas Adès (pronounced AH-dez) of music from Powder Her Face. That examination of the promiscuous life of the Duchess of Argyll was the first opera by the British composer, and he has followed it with The Tempest and The Exterminating Angel. Powder Her Face is a chamber opera with a small orchestra, but this suite is a 27-minute piece for a large symphony orchestra, and was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Some opera lovers dislike Ades’s compositions, objecting to his sonic stunts. He specifies automobile brake drums, cymbals, glockenspiel, güiro, bongo drum, washboard, lion’s roar, paper bag for bursting, pop gun, anvil, tam-tam, tambourine, tubular bell, whips and wood chimes. I find much of his writing to be enjoyable but his operas have mainly surface brilliance. With its foxtrots, tango, waltz and bits of jazz, this suite gave the Philadelphia Orchestra, and us, great fun, regardless of its lack of depth.

After the Adès and Bernstein, Nezet-Seguin led an exciting rendition of Jan Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1. This is one of the best first symphonies by any composer, a full-throated expression of longing and yearning. Starting with a mournful clarinet solo by Ricardo Morales and tympani roll by Don Liuzzi, the symphony built to a thundering climax which brought the audience to its feet.

A Finnish nationalist who wrote Finlandia, which became his nation’s anthem, Sibelius nevertheless studied in Germany and Austria and mastered classical structure. He married his craft to his soul when he wrote this symphony. His eerie, open chords suggest the vast and bleak landscape of Finland, and his ascending melodies represent his nation’s striving for independence from neighboring Sweden and Russia. Despite that spirit, this symphony also contains Tchaikovsky-like crescendos of strings and brass which, of course, bring out the best qualities of this orchestra.