Monday, October 10, 2011

West Side Story - a Great OPERA

I cannot begin to tell you how much I love Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

It is easy to love the music of West Side Story, with all its memorable and catchy tunes – Maria, Tonight, America, to name just a few. Like any musical masterpieces, though, West Side Story is more than the sum of its parts. Looking through the music recently, I was reminded again how innovative the writing is from a compositional standpoint, not just melodically, but harmonically and rhythmically.

Some of the most interesting and innovative music in the score can be found in Bernstein’s writing for the orchestra, which also serves as a sort of Greek chorus to the drama. Because the tunes in West Side Story are so well known, we often overlook the music that serves as intermezzi between scenes, and as introductions to the many beautiful numbers. In the introduction to The Dance at the Gym, for instance, a seven-measure introduction with no key centre, finally settles harmonically, and gives way to a rather raunchy tune, marked “Rocky” in the score. It is also in the same scene that we first hear the famous melody to the song Maria, in the introduction to the graceful Cha-Cha, which precedes the dramatic meeting scene between Maria and Tony.

Bernstein was very interested in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and made a wonderful recording of the opera in his last years. In the justly famous Maria, Bernstein, like Wagner, introduces a chord that reappears often, a chord that is left unresolved. Unlike Wagner, Bernstein does not so much resolve the chord, but abruptly shifts the music from B Major to C Major (two completely unrelated keys) in the final three measures of the opera.

In the Tonight ensemble, Bernstein gives us a contrapuntal tour de force, merging the thoughts and emotions of all the main characters. It is one of the most exciting and innovative scenes in the opera where, like Mozart at the end of Act II of Le Nozze di Figaro where, in spite of the complexity of the music, every vocal line can be clearly heard.

Vancouver Opera is opening its 2011 season with a production of West Side Story, using a 30-piece orchestra. I think it is a mistake to perform West Side Story with a small orchestra. When Bernstein recorded West Side Story, he did so with a symphony orchestra, with a full complement of strings. Using an ensemble the size of a Broadway pit band trivializes the music, emphasizing only the “brassy” elements in the score, but taking away, almost completely, the lyricism that is such an important part of the score. 

Towards the end of his life, Leonard Bernstein was upset that people might only remember him as the composer of West Side Story. His fear was that people would overlook his “serious” compositions, and remember him merely as the composer of the famous tunes. Indeed, many critics, especially during Bernstein’s lifetime, have excoriated Bernstein as a composer of serious music, adding that his compositional talents should have been applied towards Broadway and not Carnegie Hall. Critics are almost always suspicious of works of art that are popular, as if popularity and greatness are mutually exclusive.

I think Bernstein should have been proud of being the composer of West Side Story. It is an American work, but it is also universal. It is music that is greater than any interpretation can bear, whether it is the local high school production, or one by the greatest opera companies with the most famous singers. And it is a towering, timeless, masterpiece, a great opera, just as loving and tender as La Boheme, just as brutal as anything Bartok wrote, and just as shattering as Tristan und Isolde

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