Concert Notes

West Side Story

Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Leonard Bernstein
b. Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA / August 25, 1918
d. New York, New York, USA / October 14, 1990

The virtually operatic West Side Story (1957) is Bernstein’s masterpiece of musical theatre. It updates the spirit of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into the twentieth century, placing the star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria on opposite sides of a conflict between street gangs in the slums of New York’s Manhattan Island.

The concert suite Symphonic Dances from West Side Story appeared in the wake of the show’s 1961 film version. It used the original Broadway orchestrations by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, expanded under Bernstein’s supervision to full symphony orchestra. Lukas Foss conducted the New York Philharmonic in the première, in February 1961.

Dance – dramatic, even violent in nature – plays a prominent role in the show. It provided plentiful material for this symphonic synthesis, which links together many of the most familiar themes into a digest of the plot. 

The following synopsis appears in the published score.

Prologue: The growing rivalry between the teenage street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets.

Somewhere: In a visionary dance sequence, the two gangs are united in friendship.

Scherzo: In the same dream, they break through the city walls and suddenly find themselves in a world of space, air and sun.

Mambo: Reality again; competitive dance between the gangs.

Cha-cha: The star-crossed lovers see each other for the first time and dance together.

Meeting Scene: Music accompanies their first spoken words.

“Cool” Fugue: An elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets practice controlling their hostility.

Rumble: Climactic gang battle during which the two gang leaders are killed.

Finale: Love music developing into a procession, which recalls, in tragic reality, the vision of Somewhere.

Symphony No. 4 in G Major
Gustav Mahler
b. Kalischt, Bohemia / July 7, 1860;
d. Vienna, Austria / May 18, 1911 

After creating colossal canvasses that addressed profound philosophical issues in his previous two symphonies, Mahler decided to shift direction in the Fourth. The result was a shorter, gentler composition, scored for a smaller orchestra. 

Its origins lay several years in the past. In 1892, he composed a setting for soprano and orchestra of The Heavenly Life, a poem from The Youth’s Magic Horn, a collection of German folklore. Intending to use it as the seventh and final movement of his Third Symphony, instead he put it aside because this would have made the piece nearly two hours long.

When he began his Fourth in 1899, he settled on using the discarded movement as the finale, then composed the first three sections. He completed the symphony during the summer of 1900, and conducted the première himself, in Munich on November 25, 1901. Few listeners cared for it initially. Its lightness and grace confounded many who had come to appreciate his massive, soul-stirring creations.

His numerous detractors fell upon it like wolves, condemning it as a sick joke, a circus act, or even a “Black Mass,” to quote one reviewer. They also criticized him for concluding so serious a work as a symphony with a folk-like song. During the remaining decade of his life, as audiences came to understand what to expect of it, it won its due share of esteem.

The naïveté which may appear so pervasive an ingredient on first hearing proves entirely superficial on closer acquaintance. A sophisticated creative mind and a total mastery of the orchestra are at work in every bar. Mahler’s previously demonstrated insight into life, and his deep faith in humanity, here strike no less moving a chord for his clothing them in such intimate, literally angelic radiance.

The first movement immediately captures the ear with the most innocent sounds imaginable: silvery flutes and jingling sleigh bells. The movement presents a wide array of concise, warm-hearted themes. The art that underlies their evolution – materials blend into each other and back out again – is altogether extraordinary. Mid-way through, trumpets sound a clear reference to the opening theme of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which he began to compose during the summer of 1901.

The scherzo-like second movement evokes the fairy-tale world of the Brothers Grimm, and The Youth’s Magic Horn. It has the character of the ländler, a lilting Austrian peasant dance which prefigured the waltz. Early on in the symphony’s composition, Mahler wrote that in this section “Friend Death strikes up the dance for us.” The music is too genteel ever to venture anywhere near the truly macabre. He instructs the orchestra’s concertmaster to tune his or her violin a whole tone higher than normal to give an eerie effect in solo passages. This is usually accomplished by the concertmaster’s using a separate instrument for this movement.

The slow third movement presents expansive variations on two themes. The first is serene, the second, unsettling. After a series of compelling passages, the gates of heaven burst open gloriously at the climax. In the finale, the sleigh bell theme of the opening movement returns as a lively refrain, as a young angel praises the manifold delights of her domain. Mahler asked the soloist to “adopt a joyous, child-like tone, without the slightest hint of parody.” At first, the subject of her song is largely food. In the final verse, it shifts to music, surely the art through which one draws closest to the deity. 

Symphony No. 4 in G Major
1. Bedächtig. Nicht eilen
2. In gemächlicher Bewegung. Ohne Hast
3. Ruhevoll (Poco adagio)
4. Sehr behaglich


Programme Notes © 2018 Don Anderson

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