Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony present a world premiere this week – a concert version of the music from West Side Story. This marks the first time that the complete musical has been performed in a live concert setting, and the SF Symphony is the first musical entity to receive permission from all four West Side Story rights-holders to present it as such.
The soloists are all making their San Francisco debuts – Cheyenne Jackson appears as Tony, Alexandra Silber as Maria, Jessica Vosk sings Anita, and Riff is sung by Kevin Vortmann. They are supported by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, directed by Ragnar Bohlin.
In 1949, choreographer Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein with the concept of collaborating on a musical based on the story of a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. Bernstein thought it a “noble idea”. Playwright Arthur Laurents was engaged to write the book, and in time the then-novice composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, was persuaded to write the lyrics.
Due mainly to the crowded schedules of its creators, the project was to take eight years of setbacks, delays and revisions, before it even started to become a reality. Based on the feuding between American and Puerto Rican street gangs in New York’s Upper West Side during the 1950s, it was a reflection of the social issues of the time, and marked a significant turning point in American musical theatre. Finally, with overall direction and choreography by Robbins, Bernstein’s score, the book by Laurents and lyrics by Sondheim,West Side Story was given its official Broadway opening at the Winter Garden Theatre on September 26, 1957, making what was described as a “seismic impression on the sold-out audience”.
Michael Tilson Thomas first met Leonard Bernstein several years after the premiere of West Side Story, and he and Bernstein remained friends and colleagues, working together closely until Bernstein died in 1990. They also shared a dedication to music education and a passion for promoting the music of Mahler.
Tilson Thomas has frequently led the San Francisco Symphony in the music of this celebrated composer and conductor, highlights of which include semi-staged performances of On the Town in 1996, and the all-Bernstein gala concert at Carnegie Hall in 2008, celebrating the 90th anniversary of his birth – a concert which was broadcast on PBS in the Great Performances series – it’s available on the SFS Media label.
While for many people Bernstein is revered as a conductor, MTT believes that it’s for his music that Bernstein will be remembered. “It’s a very authentic voice,” he says, a voice that expresses “the cares and concerns and hopes of a whole generation of American society.”
The music from West Side Story has certainly attracted its fair share of awards. After the release of the film adaptation, the soundtrack won the 1962 Grammy Award for Best Sound Track Album or Recording of Original Cast from Motion Picture or Television. In 1984, Bernstein recorded the score from the musical – featuring Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria, José Carreras as Tony, Tatiana Troyanos as Anita, Kurt Ollmann as Riff, with Marilyn Horne’s offstage rendering of Somewhere. The recording won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album in 1985, and the recording process was filmed as a documentary. The 2009 new Broadway cast album, with Josefina Scaglione as Maria, Matt Cavenaugh as Tony and Karen Olivo as Anita won the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.
Leonard Bernstein recorded the suite of Symphonic Dances from West Side Story with the New York Philharmonic in 1961, and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1983. This suite has since been taken into the repertoire of a number of the world’s major orchestras, and amongst the many recordings of the work is one by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Seiji Ozawa.
The San Francisco Symphony Chorus has an impressive list of Grammy’s to its credit as well. Recordings by the Chorus have won a total of eight Grammy awards. The 150-member ensemble, led by Ragnar Bohlin, featured on the SFS Media recording of Mahler’s Symphony No 8, with MTT and the San Francisco Symphony, which won three 2010 Grammys, including the award for Best Choral Performance. Previous Grammys include Best Choral Performance, for Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem in 1995, Best Choral Performance for Orff’s Carmina burana in 1992, Best Classical Album with the SF Symphony for Mahler’s Symphony No 3 and Kindertotenlieder in 2004, and Best Classical Album for its performance of Perséphone as part of a collection of Stravinsky’s music in 2000.
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony present West Side Story in Concert at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, from June 27th to July 2nd. The performances are to be recorded for release in 2014 on the Symphony’s in-house label, SFS Media.
Production photographs taken at rehearsal at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
San Francisco Symphony
Amanda Vaill – Somewhere – the Life of Jerome Robbins