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 Recording of the Week  Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Bernstein's West Side Story

A fabulous new recording of a work that’s close to my heart this week – a childhood encounter with Bernstein’s West Side Story was the gateway to my life-long love-affair with music-theatre and opera. I got to know the work through an old cassette of the original Broadway recording from 1957 and through Bernstein’s own ‘operatic’ recording from 1984, starring Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras as the star-crossed lovers and immortalised in ‘The Making of West Side Story’, one of the finest music documentaries ever made.

Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber
Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber

Taken from concert performances in June 2013, this new set from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra steers an ideal course between these two earlier interpretations. It’s conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, who had a close working relationship with Bernstein and has been a wonderful ambassador for his music throughout his career – not least with a definitive recording of On The Town in 1992.

Fans of the 1961 film will certainly hear some differences in scoring: in an insightful booklet-note interview, Tilson Thomas explains that he’s using ‘the Broadway orchestration, beefed up a little’, with the string section expanded beyond what could be accommodated in the average theatre-pit and brass/wind parts which would usually be taken by a multi-tasking single player spread amongst various specialist musicians. The score of West Side Story is something of a moveable feast, with certain numbers being swapped around and even omitted according to directors’ preferences: Tilson Thomas follows Bernstein’s own running-order, leaving out only the music which serves to cover scene-changes in staged performances.

This San Francisco take on Manhattan is far slicker and more urbane than Bernstein’s own: the ‘Dance at the Gym’ scene, as a well-intentioned community ‘mixer’ spirals into an aggressive dance-off between rival gangs, lacks some of the sleaze and danger generated by the seasoned jazzers amongst Bernstein’s session-players (you can virtually smell the sweat and testosterone on that 1984 recording), but I love the organised chaos which Tilson Thomas’s exaggerated cross-rhythms and off-kilter accents bring to the famous Mambo, and the dramatic arc of the long sequence is superbly managed.

The young lovers here are a far more believable pair than Bernstein’s operatic veterans: Alexandra Silber’s warm-toned Maria is as heart-rending as anyone could wish as the couple’s ‘death-mark’d love’ unfolds, but also feistier, sexier and wittier than many of her predecessors, which only serves to heighten the tragedy.

Her Tony is Cheyenne Jackson, a self-confessed ‘Broadway Baby’ whose credits include the American musical-comedy series Glee. His is the least operatic voice on the set, and as such may take a little getting used to for anyone accustomed to hearing more ‘classical’ tenors in the big numbers, but I think it works beautifully; a highlight is his expectant, ardent singing in ‘Something’s Coming’, always rock-steady despite the music’s jittery syncopations. (Bernstein’s increasingly cranky attempts to fine-tune this number with a flustered José Carreras in the ‘Making of…’ documentary must be some of the most excruciating rehearsal footage on film!). The other voices are similarly idiomatic, and spark off one another quite wonderfully in the astonishing ‘Tonight’ quintet (which surely ranks with the greatest operatic ensembles in the repertoire).

Another aspect of this recording which outstrips Bernstein’s own is the dialogue: the melodrama as Tony and Maria fall instantly in love at the gym is beautifully done, all self-conscious hesitations and tender flashes of humour (Bernstein allocated this scene to his son and daughter, who approach it as if it were Shakespeare).

This new set’s definitely worth a punt for fans of the film and of twentieth-century American music in general: as Tony sings, ‘Something’s coming, something good!’

Bernstein: West Side Story

Alexandra Silber (Maria), Cheyenne Jackson (Tony), Jessica Vosk (Anita), Kevin Vortmann (Riff), San Francisco Symphony, Members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Michael Tilson Thomas

Available Format: SACD