By John W. Lambert
PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Orchestra set new standards of excellence as its year-long series of tributes to Leonard Bernstein continued in the very week of the 60th anniversary of the first performance of West Side Story, the great American artist’s most celebrated stage work.
Readings of the score by live orchestras accompanying the 1961 film version are not uncommon, but these four Philly presentations of the complete score in its original (theater) version — with an augmented string section — marked the orchestra’s first attempt to deliver the work as its composer intended. The first of four performances, heard Oct. 12 in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, was a stunning success in virtually every respect.
Because West Side Story was presented in concert on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s series, and because due to contractual arrangements there could be little or no formal staging or dancing, the orchestra itself was front and center, with such action as there was offered on a raised platform, behind the instrumentalists. To facilitate audience engagement, television screens showing close-ups of the singers at essential points flanked the stage. The vocalists were amplified, albeit never excessively. Because they were so well suited to their roles and because their diction was consistently so superb, at no point did the absence of projected titles impede the proceedings.
The orchestra’s young, energetic, and highly animated music director, 42-year-old Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conducted, eliciting playing of exceptional merit from the instrumentalists. That there were no violas (as originally intended) meant that the violins extended across much of the front of the stage; there were numerous and invariably felicitous solo bits scattered among them, but they were hardly alone, for the lower strings, the winds, the brass, and the percussion sections were at once outstanding and magnificently integrated, technically and interpretively. The orchestra was in fact an ensemble in the finest sense of the word, often evoking thoughts of the world’s finest chamber music groups.
And then there was the vocal ensemble, which consisted of 26 singers who uniformly acted with their voices in the classic manner, each fully engaged in his or her work at all times. The grouping were of course the Jets (ten singers), the Sharks (nine), the Shark Girls (six), and A Girl (to whom falls “Somewhere”). Stage director Kevin Newbury served up all the drama and interactions with keen attention to emotional details, managing the “show” part of the evening with consummate skill. (Were one to quibble, one might have wanted a greater pause following that aforementioned “Somewhere,” to allow for more reflection on the part of the audience and then more substantial appreciation for the singer.)
The vocal groupings included some distinguished principals who nonetheless seemed never to forget that they were part of a true ensemble — one that suggested the levels of total commitment that is sometimes associated with the world’s leading operatic companies. These solo singers were Isabel Leonard as Maria, Ryan Silverman as Tony, Isabel Santiago as Anita, Nora Schell as Rosalia, Nathaniel Stampley as Bernardo, Timothy McDevitt as Riff, and Morgan James as A Girl. All enjoy notable careers; all meshed into the proceedings with high sensitivity to the music, the unfolding drama, and their relationship with the others and their surroundings. What more could one ask?
Yet it was Nézet-Séguin who drove this train, infusing the score with ideal tempi, as well as incisive singing and playing that elevated the proceedings far above the Broadway norm, and with interpretive touches that marshaled silence every bit as much as full-throated performance. The dynamics were often electrifying. From a purely emotional standpoint, this was a revealing occasion in every respect.
This was a rare opportunity to hear not only all the famous tunes – “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” Tonight,” “America,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere,” “A Boy Like That,” and “I Have a Love” – all so thoroughly imprinted from that long-ago Columbia original cast album that, for those of us of a certain age, served as the sound track, as it were, of our then-young lives — but also all the magnificent dances and other music for orchestra, sections sometimes perceived as interludes between the vocal numbers but here revealed as the true masterworks they are.
Given the characters involved in this show and considering the recent hurricane, the first-act songs “Maria” and “America” took on added meaning, and indeed the latter was one of the most amazing performances of anything this listener has ever heard. Money for Hurricane Maria relief was collected in the lobby and may be contributed online here.
As noted, three additional performances ensued. We can hope these concerts will be preserved in a recording and/or video form. We need this documentation, because the sound track of the movie is a less-than-ideal musical document, and because Bernstein’s own concert version, issued by DGG, remains one of his more enigmatic undertakings, thanks in part to the less-than-idiomatic solo artists he engaged. This even more spirited Philadelphia Orchestra presentation proved victorious on all counts. It merits being heard by far more people than were able to attend this series of concerts.
This is just the beginning of the big Bernstein birthday bash. See here for additional events in the weeks and months ahead.
John W. Lambert is the former executive editor of Classical Voice North Carolina.