Recordings > Editor's Choice

BERNSTEIN: West Side Story

spacer Silber, Vosk, Bullock, Hansen; C. Jackson, Vortmann, Markgraf; San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Tilson Thomas. English text. SFS Media 821936 0059 (2)

Classic Treatment

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony give West Side Story the full symphonic heft it deserves


Although he would never dream of saying so, Michael Tilson Thomas's new live concert recording of West Side Story can almost be seen as a corrective to Leonard Bernstein's own symphonic version of the show from 1985. That controversial release had, as one might expect, spectacular instrumental playing from a full-sized pickup orchestra but was widely criticized for its casting of opera singers (José Carreras, Kiri Te Kanawa, Tatiana Troyanos) who were wrong for the leading roles and had seemingly little affinity for the musical-theater idiom.

Tilson Thomas's recording finds the happy medium: his San Francisco Symphony gives this magnificent musical the full symphonic heft it deserves, but he has cast (as he puts it in the accompanying interview) singing actors, all of whom hit the stylistic nail on the head, sounding superbly musical on one hand, completely natural and unaffected on the other. This makes the point that West Side Story can have sweep, weight and the loftiest of artistic standards without top-heavy, anti-vernacular voices that just don't fit the setting of the piece.

As Tony, Broadway veteran Cheyenne Jackson (Xanadu, Finian's Rainbow) leads the way and sets the standard early on in "Something's Coming." Jackson has a multitude of vocal colors at his command — he can float, whisper, yearn and soar, and that's just in the introduction. Tilson Thomas's tempo when the verse kicks in is slightly slower than usual, allowing us to hear the orchestration and blossoming harmonies with absolute clarity . Jackson doesn't fight it — he makes it work, and the result is sublime. His "Maria" also takes flight beautifully. He doesn't take the optional high B-flat, but it's hard to complain when his voice is surging with such authentic exuberance.

Opposite Jackson, Alexandra Silber (Sophie in the 2011 Broadway revival of Master Class) sounds simply gorgeous as Maria. Her performance is thoughtful, naturally phrased, tremulous with emotion, and colored with a natural shimmer that sounds lusciousand communicates directly. Silber and Jackson really connect, too; their stretch of dialogue when Maria and Tony meet at the gym is convincing and thoroughly gripping . In "Tonight," they weave musical-theater magic . Silber eases slowly and tentatively into the beginning, as a young girl might, while Jackson's more headstrong Tony drives the tempo forward. When they sing in unison, her silken legit soprano and his bright theatrical tenor meet in a sweet spot in the middle, and the deal is sealed. Their transfixing "One Hand, One Heart" is even better : it has historic, ageless weight. The vocals are pure and perfect, and with Tilson Thomas's supremely controlled pacing, time seems to have stopped.

As Anita, Jessica Vosk has a powerful, appealing belt, and her "A Boy Like That" has fire and import . She also reveals a lovely head voice in her duet with Silber at the end of "I Have a Love." Vosk and Juliana Hansen's Rosalia make a tasty meal out of "America." I especially liked Vosk's growl on the first syllable of "population," which kick-starts the rhythm . Tilson Thomas's tempo, once again, is on the deliberate side, but it gives us a good chance to appreciate the lyrics, orchestration and vocal harmonies better. Later, soprano Julia Bullock nearly steals the show with her urgent, heartbreakingly beautiful "Somewhere"

In the minor-quibbles department, the orchestra lacks some swing and swagger in the opening Prologue, which is clunky and leaden. To be sure, a symphony orchestra is usually not going to swing as well as a pit band, but this should have been better. Silber's "I Feel Pretty" is mature and restrained, not girlish and impetuous. Parts of the "Rumble" ("All that Prokofiev stuff," as Jerome Robbins once referred to it) are a little polite and polished. Mostly, though, the San Francisco Symphony sounds tremendous, and the swing feel improves for "Cool," which is propelled by Kevin Vortmann's suave vocals as Riff . The instrumental section of this number comes off especially well. (How did Bernstein manage to sneak a complex, quasi-atonal fugue into a Broadway show?) The "Dance at the Gym" sequence and the Act II "Ballet" are stellar. Sound and balance are superb; the album sounds much more like a well-engineered studio product than the live concert recording it is. The goody-bag booklet has an illuminating conversation with Tilson Thomas, observations from Jamie Bernstein and Rita Moreno, a West Side Story chronology and an informative essay by James M. Keller. spacer 


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