Showcase January-February 2015 - page 28

Program Notes
30, 31
Leonard Bernstein
August 25, 1918, Lawrence, Massachussets
October 14, 1990, New York City
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
West Side Story
, one of the most popular
musicals ever, presented multiple challenges. It
involved adapting
Romeo and Juliet
to a contemporary
New York setting: the warring Montague and Capulet
families were transformed into the rival street gangs, the
Sharks and the Jets, while Romeo and Juliet became Tony
and Maria. Shakespeare’s tragedy also had a conclusion
seldom experienced in a Broadway musical. Yet following
its premiere in Washington, D.C., on August 19, 1957,
it became a huge success, and it probably ranks as
Bernstein’s most memorable score. Dance was central
to the original conception of the work, and Jerome
Robbins served both as choreographer and director; some
members of the cast were chosen more for their abilities
as dancers than as singers.
Several years after the premiere, Bernstein made an
orchestral suite of dances from the musical, and the
the friar, the families, the lovers
Tchaikovsky based his work on three separate themes,
each meant to portray one of the forces in the play. The
chorale-like opening passage suggests the pivotal gure
of Friar Laurence, alone in his cell. At the
Allegro giusto
the music leaps ahead with a dark and thrusting idea
that re ects the violent struggles between the Montague
and Capulet families. And this in turn gives way to the
most famous part of this composition, the soaring love
music of the young Romeo and Juliet themselves. But
Tchaikovsky tries to treat this music symphonically rather
than letting it simply become tone-painting. The themes
develop in a sonata form-like structure: they alternate,
collide, contrast, and nally drive to the great cataclysm
of the end, a shattering climax. Then the music falls
back to remember the lovers one last time and ends
While the themes may represent speci c characters,
listeners should be careful not to search for too literal
a depiction of the events of Shakespeare’s play. Rather,
Romeo and Juliet
should be understood as abstract music-
drama, inspired by Shakespeare’s tale but not bound by
the need for exact musical depiction. This may explain
Tchaikovsky’s curious choice of subtitle: he called this an
“Overture-Fantasy after Shakespeare.”
The rst performance, in Moscow on March 16, 1870,
was not a great success. Under Balakirev’s guidance
Tchaikovsky revised the work several times before he
reached a nal version in 1880; this may explain why it
is one of his few works without an opus number. While
early audiences may not have reacted positively,
and Juliet
soon became a popular favorite, so much so
that when Tchaikovsky made a tour of the United States
in 1891 to conduct his own music, he included
Romeo and
on every program.
2 utes, piccolo, 2 oboes,
English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns,
2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani,
bass drum, cymbals, harp and strings
The balcony scene in the
original 1957 production of
Bernstein’s West Side Story,
with Tony (Larry Kerts) and
Maria (Carol Lawrence).
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