West Side Story at Tanglewood
July 13, 2013 performance; by Dave Read
Two nights after a merely modest audience was attracted to Tanglewood for the concert performance in Ozawa Hall of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, an ungainly horde assembled at the Koussevitsky Music Shed for a screening of West Side Story with the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing the score. While some of that can be attributed to Thursday vs. Saturday scheduling, an audience disparity in the neighborhood of 8 – 1 cannot be overlooked. (See our review of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby)
Both programs featured genre-swapping hybrids with significant Tanglewood roots. The Great Gatsby was born a Book, became a Hollywood movie four times (plus TV movie and series), and an opera, when the Met commissioned it from Tanglewood Fellow, instructor, and administrator John Harbison in honor of former BSO Music Director James Levine.
West Side Story was an idea of choreographer Jerome Robbins who brought it to Leonard Bernstein, a member of the first class in 1940 of the Tanglewood Music Center. It opened on Broadway in 1957, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents. It won 2 Tonys out of 6 nominations; the 1961 movie won 10 of 11 Oscars. That doesn’t mean that the movie adaptation was that much better, but it sure was an overwhelming success.
Tonight’s presentation may be deserving of awards for the myriad technical work that it represents, deleting the orchestral score while maintaining the dialogue and lyrics, for example, but we found it somehow lacking. Rather than cohere into a unified artistic expression – a sensory experience of some measure, it remained in parts: 1. Leonard Bernstein’s score, 2. the heavily re-worked movie. (Besides, the Shed plus 15k patrons make for an infelicitous film venue.)
While these concerns colored the overall experience, they didn’t lessen the excitement of so many passages, particularly the brilliantly operatic songs America, Cool, which seemed to get an additional buoyancy from the orchestra’s masterful playing. The BSO, under David Newman’s muscular direction, delivered the tour de force performance required by so-varied a score. The orchestra was augmented tonight by mandolin, electric guitar, drum kit, and several additional brass players.
But, what’s the point of monkeying around with something that worked so well the first time around? Why not work up an Opera version, instead, which is the genre Bernstein originally proposed when Robbins told him he wanted to make a modern day version of Romeo and Juliet? And then schedule it for a Saturday night!
The usual Film night at Tanglewood, featuring a performance by the Boston Pops of music composed by John Williams for movies often directed by Steven Speilburg, is scheduled for Aug. 24; tonight’s conductor David Newman will return to the podium for that program.