CD Review: WEST SIDE STORY (San Francisco Symphony, First Ever Complete Concert Performance)

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by Tony Frankel on June 20, 2014



Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have just released a live recording of the first ever complete concert performances of West Side Story. I wanted to make sure that I gave the two-disc set four listens before writing a review. Why? I’m biased. The 1957 original cast album of the musical based on Romeo & Juliet was a high-water mark in my fledgling years as a lover of music and musicals. All of those styles in Leonard Bernstein’s rhythmic score—classical, jazz, be-bop, blues, vaudeville. All of those themes in Arthur Laurents’ story—belonging, true love, war, peer pressure. The dazzling street-wise sophistication of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. The grittiness and beauty of the seminal musical was captured so perfectly on record that I only had to close my eyes to vividly see actors’ facial expressions and Jerome Robbins’ dances—ballet, modern, cha-cha, and huapango, among others.

Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber sing ONE HAND, from SF Symphony's new concert recording of WEST SIDE STORY.Aside from some astounding jazz interpretations, nothing has come close to capturing the soul of West Side Story since that Columbia recording. Is it even possible? Mentioning all the crucial aspects of the show, namely dance and dialogue, Bernstein’s daughter, Jaime, wrote in the extensively fascinating 100-page booklet accompanying SFS’s recording, “West Side Story does not lend itself to a non-staged concert performance.” So what occurred when Thomas, a friend and colleague of Bernstein, amassed Broadway talent and beefed-up the original orchestrations for the entire SF Symphony and Chorus? A spiritual and almost indescribable beauty.

The TONIGHT QUINTET from SF Symphony's new concert recording of WEST SIDE STORY.Tilson brings out emotion from his players, and the recording contains the intimacy of the Broadway rendition combined with the enormity of a film score. Music fans will especially appreciate the clarity of the voicing from individual instruments that can easily get lost in original cast recordings. It’s massive, exhaustive, and thrilling. In addition, the actors’ interpretations of the songs are some of the best I’ve heard. In fact, Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber as Tony and Maria have such conviction of purity when they meet at the gym—and the strings slide in with such saintliness during their dialogue—that a friend crumbled in tears upon hearing it. It’s quite an accomplishment when a manufactured and recorded love is given such a masterful approach that it manifests the magic of truly falling in love.

This is an engineering issue, but I wish that the voices were more powerful than the orchestra. Also, while solos and duets are perfection, the group numbers are so clean that they lose some of their edge. And for whatever reason in singing “Somewhere,” Julia Bullock holds her “S” consonants for a disconcertingly long time. No one is more surprised than I that so few quibbles come up for me. Sumptuous, emotive, and complete, SFS’s release deserves its place right next to that time-honored 1957 recording.

Product Open - SF Symphony's new concert recording of WEST SIDE © SF Symphony

West Side Story
recorded live at
Davies Symphony Hall
June 27-30 and July 2, 2013
SFS Media
playing time: 01:22:51
available on iTunes
and as a 2-CD set

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