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Bernstein: West Side Story / Thomas, San Francisco

Release Date: 06/10/2014 
Label:  San Francisco Symphony   Catalog #: 0059   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Leonard Bernstein
Performer:  Cheyenne JacksonAlexandra SilberJessica VoskKevin Vortmann
Conductor:  Michael Tilson Thomas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony OrchestraSan Francisco Symphony Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

In an interview included in this release’s smartly produced booklet, Michael Tilson Thomas responds to Leonard Bernstein’s speculation that West Side Story would “change the face of American musical theater” with this shrewd observation: “That didn’t really happen. West Side Story is a stand-alone piece. Bernstein never wrote anything like it again. And although others have tried, nobody succeeded in doing something similar.” This, I think, is exactly the answer. There are certain pieces of music that are simply so “right” for their time and place, that capture a style or create a distinctive idiom with such inevitability, that they seem not so much “composed”, but rather it’s as if they emerged
Read more fully formed through a process of spontaneous generation. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring may be the iconic example of this phenomenon, but West Side Story is surely another. It encapsulates a special moment in American musical culture, and for that reason it remains unique, and unrepeatable.

It’s precisely for this reason that the piece works in concert, where the focus necessarily shines the spotlight on that remarkable music to the exclusion of all else, and in this respect Tilson Thomas has made all of the right decisions. He plays the original Broadway score, and has selected a cast of trained Broadway voices. The result couldn’t be more different from Bernstein’s “definitive” DG recording, with his miscast operatic leads, however beautifully sung it was in the abstract. As Maria, Alexandra Silber reveals a pure and lovely soprano that soars above the orchestra effortlessly. When she sings “I feel pretty” you believe her completely. As Tony, Cheyenne Jackson creates a character nicely poised between a man and a kid–no small feat for a guy who in real life is two decades older than the role he’s playing. His initial meeting with Maria has an affectingly bashful, “gee whiz” quality.

The voice, though, is a bit odd: smoothly baritonal in its low register, and almost countertenorish when pressed on high. At times he seems like two different people, but this is, in its way, a typical Broadway sound–that shift from “character” to “singer”. Justin Keyes, who sings Action in “Gee, Officer Krupke”, has a voice of similar shape. He starts each verse with a gravelly sprechstimme, and then all of a sudden opens up and sings as the main melody takes off. Ultimately if this is a fault, and I’m not sure it is or feel we even need to care about it particularly, then it must be Bernstein’s: the songs demand both qualities, “face” and musicianship, shifting blithely back and forth between them. Bernstein’s decision to go whole hog with operatic singers the last time around and jettison the authentic Broadway style was an experiment that arguably lost more than it gained, even in musical terms.

The remaining cast members, including Jessica Vosk’s Anita and Julia Bullock singing a truly beautiful “Somewhere”, are all excellent and thoroughly inside their parts. I was particularly pleased that Tilson Thomas did not permit the girls in “America” to shriek and scream “Puerto Ricanly” as Bernstein did, thus allowing us to hear the marvelous orchestration in the orchestral interludes. Even more than in Bernstein’s more aggressive, almost heavy-handed DG production, MTT captures the work’s sophistication, stylishness, spontaneity, and sheer, easy melodic flow, while the playing of the San Francisco Symphony is simply beyond criticism. You won’t hear the orchestral numbers–the dances in the gym, or the ballet sequence in Act 2–done better, anywhere.

Recorded live before a very quiet audience (there are a few moments of gentle laughter here and there), the sonics capture both singers and players up close, but never harshly. If you want West Side Story complete, then this is the set to own.

– David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com Read less

Works on This Recording

West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein
Performer:  Cheyenne Jackson (Voice), Alexandra Silber (Soprano), Jessica Vosk (Voice),
Kevin Vortmann (Voice)
Conductor:  Michael Tilson Thomas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra,  San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1957; USA 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  7 Customer Reviews )
 complete score January 21, 2015 By David N. (New York, NY) See All My Reviews "Good to hear the ballet sequence that was missing from the movie. Glad that there are no opera singers involved...much more believable like the original Broadway and West End shows. Well worth having if you love musicals." Report Abuse
 beautiuful recording September 19, 2014 By JEFFREY MARSHALL (Erskineville, New South Wales) See All My Reviews "What a wonderful cd this is. The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra plays with gusto , feeling and is obviously enjoying itself . Thanks to maestro Thomas you know what you are doing with this. Cheyenne Jackson has the most amazing voice, my first listening of Maria brought tears. Equally Alexandra Silber is a great find for me. Bravo to the remaining cast. The booklet with this cd is as detailed as any booklet ive ever seen. All in all I am 100% happy with this recording and recommend to anyone who loves this musical masterpiece and also to anyone who loves classical music. The fact that a symphony orchestra is the backing "band" makes this a wonderful symphonic experience. WELL DONE ALL CONCERNED WITH THIS RECORDING." Report Abuse
 Almost perfect August 21, 2014 By Alec Rogers (BETHESDA, MD) See All My Reviews "As a Bernstein fan, esp. of West Wide Story, I highly recommend this recording. It has one significant flaw, but only one: America is simply too restrained, without the energy of the soundtrack or Bernstein's own recording. Everything thing else is quite perfect, and I'm hoping that MTT goes on to make new recordings of Bernstein's work." Report Abuse
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