A taste of ‘West Side Story’ from the Aspen Chamber Symphony
Special to The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘West Side Story Symphonic Dances,’ Aspen Chamber Symphony
Where: Benedict Music Tent
When: Friday, July 26, 6 p.m.
How much: $82
Tickets: Aspen Music Festival box offices; aspenmusicfestival.com
Leonard Bernstein used to ruminate gloomily, usually after a concert of his more esoteric works, and generally having consumed a good deal of the contents of the scotch bottle in his dressing room, that, no matter what he wrote, played or conducted, “All I’ll ever be remembered for is ‘West Side Story.’” And that, very likely, is true. But he didn’t garner much sympathy for this complaint. Bernstein may have dismissed “West Side Story” as trivial, but we know it to be one of the greatest pieces of musical theater ever written, one of the two or three most perfect musical expressions both of its time — 1957 — and of ours. For “West Side Story,” both the full musical play and this orchestral work it spawned, harbors within it a fully realized picture of an era, expressed with a variety of tools, from jazz to Copland-style jagged edges, and from pop to Bach-like underscoring, liberally overlaid with Latin rhythms.
The Aspen Chamber Symphony will perform “West Side Story Symphonic Dances,” which Bernstein constructed from his own theater score, on Friday at the Benedict Music Tent. The piece will be conducted by Alondra de la Parra on a program that also includes Arturo Marquez’ Danzon No. 2 and Aspen favorite Inon Barnatan as soloist for Barber’s Piano Concerto.
The musical sprang from an idea by choreographer Jerome Robbins, just as Bernstein’s earlier successful show “On the Town” had originally been a Robbins ballet, “Fancy Free,” for the New York City Ballet. “West Side Story,” though, went the other way, being transformed from a musical play into a suite of dances which, given the revolutionary quality of the stage dances in the show, was not a long journey. It could be argued that much of Bernstein’s best early work was composed as ballets and these “Symphonic Dances,” while they follow the arc of the story and are recognizably and dramatically in line with the plot, are intrinsically the dances originally laid out by Robbins. They are symphonic in that their musical material is arranged as a series of thematic ideas, each one leading to the next, connecting from one to another without pause. The famous songs are all here in dance form from “Somewhere to Maria,” and the rumble between the Sharks and the Jets is both a dream and a programmatic manifestation of the fight.
“West Side Story Symphonic Dances” is both a serious musical achievement and an easily accessible piece of concert delight. But Leonard Bernstein was a complicated man and, until he died, he continued to disparage “West Side Story” as not worth as much as his other concert works. Indeed, Aaron Copland, Bernstein’s mentor, friend and sometimes lover, has a good deal to answer for, inadvertently, as the cause of Bernstein’s depression about “West Side Story.” Copland was Bernstein’s model of an important contemporary composer and he always believed that he himself would have been Copland’s artistic heir if “West Side Story” had not been so commercially successful; a success, incidentally, that Bernstein craved.
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