West Side Story, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances a Draw for Audience

There are many who will argue which is the greatest love song of all time, and they will all be correct of their own merit. I will join that argument and say that “Somewhere”* from West Side Story is probably one of those songs. It’s a song about love in another place, another time perhaps, where two people can live together in a world free of the injustices and hatred prevalent in today’s world. When Tony and Maria perform this duet (in the movie version), they are faced with the prejudice of two rival gangs, and all they want is to be together without the fear of separation because of where they were born.

Tony and Maria, West Side Story (photo: Pacific Repertory Theatre)

West Side Story is an updated Romeo and Juliet set in New York, complete with a romance between Tony, an American, and Maria, a Puerto Rican; scuffles between rival gangs—the American Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks; social injustice among the masses; teenage rebellion; and the quest to conquer hatred with good and love.

When West Side Story premiered in 1957 it was controversial for its time. The gang wars and prejudice were deemed too realistic for a Broadway musical. Composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990, considered one of the greatest of the 20th century) is clearly a master at weaving the variety of songs for the story into one movement of “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.”

During Friday night’s concert, the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra brass section held the floor for the opening “Prologue” and for anyone that has ever seen the Broadway play or the movie, it was easy to picture the story unfolding. For those who haven’t, the back and forth intensity of the street fight between the Jets and Sharks; the serene melody of “Somewhere” and “Maria”; and the lively, foot stomping “Mambo,” created a musical vision of an incredible story. And in the “Finale,” the agonizing sadness with the revisit of “One Hand One Heart” and “Somewhere” (I won’t give away the end for those who haven’t seen it), indicates an evident message in West Side Story.

Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” is full of jazz inspiration, and the brass and percussion play key roles that make this piece a joy to hear.

The Orchestra carried the symphonic dance theme to the second half with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s (1873-1943) “Symphonic Dances, op. 45.” The work premiered two years before he died from cancer at age 70.

Sergei Rachmaninov, 1901

The woodwinds in the opening movement, Non allegro, had a distinct flavor—calm, serene and melodic. The bassoons used their deep voices to draw in the strings that seemed to float in and carry the movement into further repose. The rumble of the drums was incredible and they pulled the orchestra toward the familiar rhythm and theme from the opening of the movement.

The second movement, Andante con moto (Tempo di valse), is inspired of Tchaikovsky, with a dream-like waltz. There seemed to be a bit of Parisian dance hall flavor, though Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff are both Russian. The end of the movement is intense as if everyone has crowded onto the dance floor and they are dancing themselves in circles into a frenetic state.

The third movement, Lento assai-Allegro vivace-Lento assai-Allegro vivace, is a cross between jazz and the opening phrase of the “Dies Irae” chant. Here, the strings take front and center and assist the movement to flow seamlessly through each measure. The harp and woodwinds join the melody and they are like a tornado approaching announcing the explosion that happens toward the end. Like a matador in the arena, Rachmaninoff was a fierce composer, full of bitterness and sadness, but a creator of fine music. “Dances” is considered one of his greatest works.

Maestro Fabio Machetti is also an inspiration to watch. Though many in the audience do not have the pleasure of seeing his facial expressions, for those that are able to catch glimpses, it’s clear he was enthusiastic about each piece. He was smiling and enjoying the moment while dedicated to delivering a perfect performance. The orchestra is thus energized and performed a remarkable concert to a full house.

What about you? What do you think is the greatest love song ever written?

(See video of the original Broadway version with soprano Reri Grist)

*Movie version with actors Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, and vocals by Marni Nixon and Jim Bryant. See the video.

Upcoming Jacksonville Symphony Performances:
Feb. 5, 2011

Donizetti: The Elixir of Love

Feb. 24-26, 2011
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth
Glazunov: Spring (Vesna), Musical Picture in d
Stravinsky: Violin Concerto
Jennifer Frautschi
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 4

Upcoming Performances:
Feb. 1, 2011

Mozart: Violin Concerto no. 4 in D
Arabella Steinbacher
Dvorak: Symphony no. 7
Boston Symphony Orchestra

Feb. 1, 2011
Beethoven: Symphony no. 8 & “Ah, perfido!”
Sibelius: Selected Songs for Soprano and Orchestra
Soprano Karita Mattila
New York Philharmonic

Feb. 1, 2011
Mozart: Piano Concertos no. 21 & no. 11
Mitsuko Uchida
Mozart: Divertimento in B flat major
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Feb. 2-5, 2011
Beethoven: Symphony nos. 1 & 2
Beethoven: Triple Concerto
Chee-Yun, violin; Alisa Weilerstein, cello; and Jeremy Denk, piano
San Francisco Symphony

Feb. 3 & 5, 2011
Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 4
Helene Grimaud
Schmidt: Symphony no. 4
The Philadelphia Orchestra

Feb. 3-5, 8, 2011
Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain
Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 3
Radu Lupu
Prokofiev: Symphony no. 6
Boston Symphony Orchestra

Feb. 3-5, 8, 2011
Schumann: Piano Concerto
Mitsuko Uchida
Shostakovich: Symphony no. 5
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Feb. 3-5, 2011
Mendelssohn: Symphony no. 3, Scottish
Van Otterloo: Intrade for Brass and Percussion
Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Feb. 3-6, 2011
Mozart: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro
Mozart: Violin Concerto no. 5
David Coucheron
Mozart: Serenade for Winds in C minor
Mozart: Symphony no. 38, Prague
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Feb. 3-6, 2011
Walton: Violin Concerto
Gil Shaham
Beethoven: Symphony no. 7
Houston Symphony

Feb. 4-6, 2011
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto no. 1
Denis Matsuev
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet for Soprano, Tenor and Orchestra
Soprano Danielle Pastin, Tenor James Flora
Actress Sara Trapnell and Actors Ryan Melia and Anthony McKay
Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

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