Americana

May 16 & 17, 2015

Program Notes by Matthew Naughtin

Overture to West Side Story

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), arranged by Maurice Peress

One night around midnight in October of 1943 a young dancer named Jerome Robbins came to Leonard Bernstein’s Carnegie Hall studio and asked if he would write a ballet score. The Ballet Theater had hired Robbins to choreograph a work, he had an idea about three sailors, and he wanted someone who could write jazz. Bernstein played a few bars of something he had been “fooling around with,” and Robbins went wild. “That’s it! That’s it!” he screamed, and they were off. They were off in the frenetic way that characterized Bernstein’s life ever after, and made his mother worry about his health. One month later Bernstein was called in on short notice to substitute for conductor Bruno Walter and directed a difficult program brilliantly with the New York Philharmonic. This was the beginning of one of the most illustrious composing and conducting careers of the century. Bernstein went on to become the first American-born Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, an internationally renowned guest conductor, a respected composer of theatrical and concert music, and a popular and beloved television personality. He also went on to collaborate with Jerome Robbins in creating Fancy Free, On the Town, The Dybbuk and one of the most electrifyingly successful musicals in Broadway history: West Side Story.

After its triumphant premiere in 1957, West Side Story ran for 772 performances on Broadway, went on tour nationally for a year, then returned to New York in 1960 for another 253 performances. 1960 also saw the beginning of shooting on a filmed version of the musical starring Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, Richard Beymer and George Chakiris. As was the custom for movie musicals of the era, a 5-minute instrumental “overture” was inserted at the beginning to help entice late-arriving audience members into their seats. This overture was created by conductor Maurice Peress (who served as Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic) using music from the ensemble before the Rumble in Act I, the songs “Tonight” and “Maria” and the Mambo from the Dance at the Gym. Peress later arranged the current concert version of the overture, replacing “Maria” with the song “Somewhere” from Act II. Bernstein, who preferred that the musical begin “in media res” with the familiar finger snaps and the Jets and Sharks gang members encountering each other in a danced sequence asserting their claims to disputed turf, was evidently not pleased with the addition of the overture, and preferred it not be included in live stage performances.

Program Notes Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Naughtin

Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1957)

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Leonard Bernstein had a love affair with New York City. It wasn’t a blind love; he saw the tragedy, poverty and violence of the city as well as its high spirits, its glitter, its moments of poetry and human warmth. When Robbins approached him in January of 1949 with an idea for a serious musical that could perhaps become the “real, moving American opera” that Bernstein had been dreaming of, the excited composer wrote in his journal: “Jerry R. called today with a noble idea: a modern version of Romeo and Juliet set in New York slums. Feelings run high between Jews and Catholics. Former: Capulets; latter: Montagues. Juliet is Jewish. Friar Lawrence is a neighborhood druggist. Street brawls, double death—it all fits. But it’s all much less important than the bigger idea of making a musical that tells a tragic story in musical-comedy terms, using only musical-comedy techniques, never falling into the ‘operatic’ trap. Can it succeed? I’m excited. If it can work—it’s the first. Jerry suggests Arthur Laurents for the book.” But Bernstein was a very busy man and librettist Laurents had mixed feelings about the project. East Side Story was quietly shelved and Robbins, Laurents and Bernstein went their separate ways. Five years later, in June of 1954, Robbins and Laurent visited Bernstein and brought up the Romeo and Juliet idea again. Bernstein was in the midst of a collaboration with author Lillian Hellman on Candide, a musical adaptation of Voltaire’s great satire, but the project had bogged down for want of a lyricist. Bernstein decided to start work on East Side Story straight away with himself and Laurents handling the lyrics. While he was in Los Angeles that July discussing the new musical with Laurents, Bernstein noticed a newspaper headline: “GANG RIOTS ON OLIVIERA ST.” The story reported violence between Mexican and Anglo gangs. At last they had a contemporary equivalent to the rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets. As he and Laurents brain-stormed the idea, the setting moved from Los Angeles to New York, the Mexicans were recast as Puerto Rican immigrants. Bernstein’s imagination caught fire and Latin-American rhythms began to throb in his mind.

East Side Story became West Side Story when it was discovered that the notorious tenements on Manhattan’s East Side had all been torn down and gang war had moved west. When Stephen Sondheim was chosen as the lyricist in October of 1955, he was reluctant: “I can’t do this show. I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even known a Puerto Rican.” His friend Oscar Hammerstein convinced him that the chance to work with such outstanding talents could not be turned down. Sondheim and Bernstein enjoyed working together and the musical took shape quickly during the winter of 1955-56. But the road to opening night was a bumpy one. Because of the subject matter and extensive dance sequences it was a difficult work to cast. Delays and postponements accumulated and producer Cheryl Crawford withdrew from the project in the spring of 1957 to be replaced by Sondheim’s friend Harold Prince. There was to be more dancing in West Side Story than had ever been done in a Broadway show and Robbins demanded four extra weeks of rehearsal time to set the choreography.

Fine-tuning of the score went on throughout the early summer and the Winter Garden Theater was booked for the run. After Bernstein heard the house orchestra at the Winter Garden, he told his orchestrators to leave out violas: “I couldn’t stand listening to my show every night and hearing what those guys would do to the viola parts.” This made more room in the pit for the elaborate percussion section he needed for a score heavy with jazz and Latin-American rhythms. The show opened in Washington, D.C. on August 19, moved on to Philadelphia then made its Broadway debut on September 26, 1957 to rave reviews. West Side Story proved that a serious musical was not only possible, but could be an enormously popular success. It ran for 973 performances on Broadway and was made into a hit movie. Bernstein arranged the dance sequences from the musical as an integrated orchestral suite in 1960. Because of the way the musical was conceived, most of the dances grow out of a few basic themes that are transformed and combined to convey a variety of moods and action. Never strained, sentimental or phony, the dance music from West Side Story is hard-edged, big-city, sexy. Bernstein spoke with a unique, multi-cultural urban voice, a world away from the folksy, cowboy style Aaron Copland evolved in his ballets for Agnes De Mille. This is American theater music at its best.

Program Notes Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Naughtin

Divertimento for Orchestra (1980)

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Bernstein agreed in April 1980 to write a work to celebrate the Boston Symphony’s centennial season. He had deep personal connections to the orchestra and its great music director Serge Koussevitsky (1874-1951) who was his mentor as a young student conductor. Bernstein eagerly welcomed the opportunity to write “…a fun piece. It reflects my youthful experiences here where I heard my first orchestral music.” The Divertimento is a series of eight light-hearted vignettes spiced with whimsical musical puns and unified by a two-note melodic motto—B-C (for “Boston Centenary”)—that is the thematic germ from which each movement grows.

The opening movement’s title “Sennets and Tuckets” is a stage direction from the Elizabethan era indicating a fanfare or trumpet call announcing the entrance of a royal character, but Bernstein’s music is anything but noble…in fact, his fanfare theme is a bit reminiscent of the introduction to a Woody Woodpecker cartoon. After a slightly off-kilter waltz in 7/8 time (a wry homage to Tchaikovsky’s 5/4 waltz in the Sixth Symphony), the Divertimento visits various fondly-remembered scenes and melodies from Bernstein’s student days in Boston before concluding with a tender memorial to deceased members of the BSO and a final rousing, raucous march that quotes tunes from the “Radetzky March” (a favorite at Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops concerts) with instructions in the score for the piccolos and brass to stand up à la Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Program Notes Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Naughtin

Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture

George Gershwin (1898-1937), arranged by Robert Russell Bennett

Poet and novelist Dubose Heyward grew up in Charleston, SC, and knew the Gullah people who lived on James Island east of the city. He decided to write a book about them, using Sammy Smalls (a cripple like himself) as his protagonist. Even before he finished his first draft, Heyward’s sister Dorothy, a playwright, began adapting the book into a play. The novel Porgy was published in 1925 and became a best seller. Heyward’s treatment of the Gullah Negroes as fully-rounded, compassionate figures and the protagonist Porgy as a tragic hero led to its acceptance by the socially progressive Theatre Guild of New York for production as a play in 1927.

The play, with an all-black cast, was a spectacular success and had a triumphant year’s run. Gershwin, who read the novel in 1926 and shrewdly assessed the dramatic qualities Porgy possessed as a vehicle for the musical stage, immediately wrote to Heyward saying he wanted to set the story to music. In July and August of 1934 Gershwin traveled down to Charleston to be near Heyward and the actual locale of Porgy while working on the score. He stayed at Folly Beach on a small barrier island adjacent to James Island with its large population of Gullah people

By August 1935 the opera was orchestrated and ready to go into rehearsals. A cast of black singers and actors had been painstakingly selected after hundreds of auditions. Gershwin toyed with the idea of having the work premiered at the Metropolitan Opera, but settled on the Theatre Guild, which would accept an all-black cast and give him a longer run of performances. Rouben Mamoulian directed the staging, Alexander Smallens conducted the orchestra and Morton Gould was the rehearsal pianist. Porgy and Bess had its glittering New York opening at the Alvin Theater in October 1935 and had a successful run of 134 performances.

Several revivals of the opera followed after Gershwin’s death: a much shortened 1942 restaging in New York and a glitzy 1959 movie version. Also in the ’50s, Porgy and Bess toured the Americas and Europe under the aegis of the State Department. In 1976 the Houston Grand Opera triumphantly staged Gershwin’s original version of Porgy and Bess using the uncut original score and orchestration. This urtext (“original text”) production has since become the standard version, vindicating Gershwin’s vision of creating a vital, entertaining theatrical experience that united sophisticated European techniques with uniquely American musical idioms. Is Porgy and Bess really an opera? If you believe opera should express deep, basic human emotions and depict real human drama using the power of great musical ideas, then it is, indeed, a great opera.

Program Notes Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Naughtin

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