Program Notes – Bernstein’s West Side Story

Welcome to the opening concert of the 2018 National Repertory Orchestra season! The musicians of the NRO are competitors who have been chosen to work as one amazing team to bring this season’s concerts to you. And summer in Summit County is nature’s call to stretch ourselves in the sun and push ourselves up. So a great way to open our season is with music that reflects that strong, sunny, ennobling attitude. John Williams, whose music is ingrained in American popular culture through dozens of iconic film scores, began composing music for American broadcast coverage of the Olympics starting in 1984. Our concert- and season opener, The Olympic Spirit, was penned for the 1988 summer games in Seoul. This opener commemorates the NRO’s trip to the Seoul Olympics 30 years ago.

An Olympian of the musical arts, Samuel Barber was a triple threat—or at least, a triple major—when he enrolled in the inaugural class at the prestigious Curtis Institute in 1914: voice, composition, and piano. Soon after graduation he was already internationally recognized as one of America’s leading composers. Barber worked on his Second Essay and the Violin Concerto concurrently, though he started the concerto first. The Essay, a one-movement work of ten minutes’ duration, opens with a sparse four-bar opening phrase containing only four pitches. But these four tones, arranged in a code-like rhythmic pattern, generate everything which is to follow: a fidgety, Rubik’s cube of a fugue; a few cinematic scenes of grand spectacle and sparkly starscapes; a little toadstool jig; and the broad, muscle-bound climax.

In 1939 Barber was contacted by Samuel Fels, scion of the Fels-Naphtha laundry soap dynasty. His son played the violin, and Fels wanted Barber to write him a concerto. Barber’s response, as you’ll hear in the first and second movements, is majestic, lyrically expressive and full of memorable phrases—but Fels thought the third movement lacked pizazz. So Barber replaced it with the finale you’ll hear tonight: a perpetuum-mobile that thwarts any but the most fearless virtuoso today.

As we celebrate the centenary of Leonard Bernstein this year, we seize the chance to perform music from his landmark 1957 Broadway production, West Side Story, a reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where Romeo becomes Tony; Juliet, Maria; Montagues, Jets; and Capulets, Sharks. Bernstein later arranged the jazz- and latin-infused score into a quasi-suite. But unlike a string of songs from a musical, the materials of West Side Story were crafted from the outset to fit together symphonically—hence, Symphonic Dances. Bernstein evokes the tension of the play with cunning orchestrational choices: the taut snap of the opening lick, with bongos; the literal fingersnaps of the orchestra musicians; later on, pounding percussion in the Rumble; everything adds to the drama. You’ll not be deprived of your chance to relive the heartbreaking beauty of the twin love songs Somewhere and Maria, either. Bernstein reminds us in the bleak and unresolved final bars of the piece, that this is, after all, a tragedy.

Bernstein, Barber and Williams occupy a pretty rarified tier of American composers, but there’s room in that club for one more: George Gershwin. His 1928 jazz-influenced concert piece An American in Paris, a landmark work in the development of 20th-century American orchestral music, is many a conservatory-trained percussionist’s first opportunity to master the finer points of playing taxicab horns. (Gershwin and his friend Mabel Schermer actually went in search of the exact horns in the auto showrooms along the Avenue de la Grande Armée in Paris.) But it’s also full of bluesy tunes for woodwinds, sometimes strings, and most prominently, muted trumpet. There are masterful touches everywhere—dizzying piccolo and flute accompanimental figurations, brash trombone interjections, and even a duet between violin and tuba. While in Paris, Gershwin approached both Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky for composition lessons. They both turned him down—who could teach anything to the composer of Rhapsody in Blue?


© Jamey Lamar 2018