West Side Story Suite for Violin and Orchestra
Tonight’s concert opens with two scenes from Bernstein’s cabaret of theater works: one a smash hit from opening night, the other a piece that fought for its popular life for some 30 years. Candide predated West Side Story by only a year – the former appeared in 1956 – but in many ways, the similarities end at that. Both are based upon classic literature (Candide upon Voltaire’s work of the same name, West Side Story upon Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), but they approach their subjects in strikingly different ways: Candide struts along in the same sly manner as Voltaire’s satire, while West Side Story pulls out the full register of romantic stops.
Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents had been debating the idea of a theater piece based upon Romeo and Juliet for some six years, but it wasn’t until Bernstein visited Los Angeles (for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl’s “Festival of the Americas”) in the summer of 1955 that the idea began to crystallize. In between conducting at the Bowl and sunbathing poolside, Bernstein met with Laurents to discuss the collaboration, and the idea that made West Side Story sing finally arrived: why not transfer the Montagues and the Capulets to the heat and the steam of the modern city? Two years later, West Side Story took its place onstage – albeit with changes of geography from Los Angeles to New York, and an edit in title from East Side Story to today’s moniker – and wowed audiences with its modern take on ethnic strife and timeless love.
One notable aspect of Bernstein’s score for West Side Story is its constant conception as music for orchestra. Even through the jazzy Latin-American rhythms and the loud, raucous fight scenes, Bernstein’s writing is always orchestrally-inspired, and the result is that the music seems equally at home on the stage as it does in the orchestra pit. It only seems natural, then, that the popular 1961 concert reduction of the score has fared so well. William David Brohn’s version for violin and orchestra, however, is a slightly different take on Bernstein’s music: where the Symphonic Dances condense the spirit of the score into a unified voice, tonight’s edition preserves some of the original characters’ spirit through highstepping writing for the soloist. The violin becomes, in turn, Tony, Maria, and the rest, a blissful chameleon act supported by orchestra.
The piece opens with a sultry introduction for flute and saxophone, leading straight into the Mambo and a cadenza that swaggers with all the magnetism of Tony himself. From here, it’s a joyride through the hits of the show; all the favorites are here, including a particularly ebullient “I Feel Pretty” (a tune missing from the Symphonic Dances) and an elegant setting of “Maria.” The instrumentation, percussive throughout, reads like a dream sequence, shimmering beneath the soloist and finally leaving the violin in a cadenza that runs the gamut from sugar to fire. The orchestra joins in once more for “Somewhere” before sliding into a dizzying reprise of the entire show that, just at the point of no return, comes to a sudden, brilliant stop.
- Jessica Schilling has written for The Denver Post and the Boulder Daily Camera and is Assistant Editor of Hollywood Bowl Magazine.