Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story"

Standing tall in the middle of a career marked by numerous “firsts” is Leonard Bernstein’s music for the now legendary musical West Side Story. Conceived as a modernized version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet — set in the culture of New York City ethnic street gangs — it was perfectly timed to appeal to late fifties audiences.

Nearly ten years in on-and-off development, the musical was completed concurrently with Bernstein’s other best-known work, the operetta Candide (1956), and individual songs were actually exchanged between the two.

The original score for West Side Story was orchestrated primarily by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, with later edits by Bernstein, perhaps because of his extremely busy conducting, recording and broadcasting schedule. Despite the great appeal of his music among audiences, Bernstein was often criticized for borrowing and adapting musical ideas rather than developing an original voice of his own, and he attributed this to not spending enough time concentrating on the art. He also was fond of saying his only real composition teacher was Aaron Copland, with whom he never actually studied.

The stunning success of the 1961 soundtrack album for West Side Story was not the only impetus for Bernstein’s arrangement of nine movements of its music that year: he was also celebrating a renewed contract as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. The Symphonic Dances are ordered for purely musical reasons and do not follow the original plot sequence.

In addition to his countless recordings, media appearances, books, lectures, teaching and conducting positions, Bernstein composed an impressive catalog of works in all of the major forms: operas, symphonies, ballets, musicals, film scores, chamber music, song cycles, and more. This sum total of work places him among the most important American musicians of any century, and his unique gift for incorporating popular musical language into classical forms and instrumentation has made him the second most often played U.S. composer in American concert halls.

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