Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

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        Almost twenty years after Leonard Bernstein’s death, the critics are still arguing over the meaning and impact of his legacy. What is clear, however, is that the world rarely enjoys the genius of someone who excels supremely in so many artistic endeavors. Pianist, conductor, television personality, teacher, mentor, social gadfly, and composer of both popular musical theatre and “serious works,” Bernstein wore all hats with avidity. And he enjoyed stunning success in most. He had a passion about everything that he essayed, whether conducting the Mahler that he loved so well, or helping audiences “peel” apart the mysteries of music in his many teaching roles. He knew so much, and could do so much, that he genuinely thought that he could do it all. His leadership of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and other orchestras is legendary, but everyone knows there were some concerts that, frankly, got away from him in his self-indulgence. He worked assiduously as a composer of “serious” music, but those works—from youthful successes to his late efforts--have enjoyed mixed success. But, all that says is that simply he was human. Other than his epochal conducting, there is one field in which he garnered almost universal acclaim, and that is musical theatre. When all is said and done, he possessed a talent and a facility for the stage that was as deep as it was prolific. He simply understood the genre and its demands.

        He plunged in early, writing for student productions at Harvard, and working with a cabaret group (that included Judy Holiday) while at student at the Curtis Institute. At the age of twenty-six his ballet Fancy Free was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera and On the Town opened on Broadway. Wonderful Town, Peter Pan, Facsimile, Candide, and, of course, West Side Story, followed in succession.  Later works, like his still-controversial multimedia theatre piece, Mass (1971), and the unsuccessful musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, some critics point to as evidence of a weakening sense of his audience and times. But his masterpiece is clearly West Side Story, and has stood the test of time as a document of the Big Apple in the fifties.

        It’s a masterful blend of pop sociology, bebop and Latin jazz, and a fantastic integration of dance. Bernstein had “big” ears for the jazz idiom—and came up with a score that rather better makes the case for “symphonic jazz” than did ever Gershwin or Copland. He simply had an innate feel for the dance and for jazz rhythms and harmonies to which few “legit” composers could ever aspire. The “Symphonic Dances” were gleaned from the score of the musical in 1960 and dedicated to that genius of orchestration who had collaborated on the original show, Sid Ramin. In it one will hear the familiar “Somewhere,” a mambo and a cha-cha, the ultra cool “Cool,” and the gripping “Rumble” music, as this synopsis of a time-shifted Romeo and Juliet reaches its inexorable tragic conclusion.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan