SF Symphony soars through magnificent West Side Story

West Side Story 1
Cheyenne Jackson is Tony and Alexandra Silber is Maria, two star-crossed lovers surrounded by musical theater’s greatest music in the San Francisco Symphony’s season-ending concert of West Side Story conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Below: The company performs the Quintet near the end of Act 1. Photos by Stefan Cohen

It’s hard to imagine but it’s true: the music is so glorious you barely even miss the dancing. The San Francisco Symphony concludes its season with the first concert presentation of the full score for West Side Story, and it’s simply mind blowing. For the original 1957 production, composer Leonard Bernstein apparently made concessions in the orchestrations based on what was available to him at the Winter Garden Theatre. Then, when the chance came along to re-orchestrate for the movie in 1961, orchestrators Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal (under Bernstein’s supervision) went big but perhaps too big. According to Symphony program notes, Bernstein then worried that the work had become “overblown and unsubtle.”

In 1984, Bernstein put together his dream West Side Story for a Deutsche Grammophon recording and finally got the orchestrations he wanted. That’s what we hear in this concert under the astute direction of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, a friend and admirer of Bernstein’s.

This concert does not preserve any of Jerome Robbins’ original direction or choreography, nor is there much of Arthur Laurent’s book. This is truly a concert concentrating on the score. While Bernstein utilized opera stars like José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa for his dream recording, Tilson Thomas wisely goes with more score- and story-appropriate Broadway voices.

West Side Story 2

This allows the focus to be squarely on Bernstein’s music. Even the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim seem less important when a fully symphony orchestra allows Bernstein’s music to jump, pop and soar so magnificently.

If it seemed like we were watching a recording session, well that’s not far off. Very little attention was paid to directorial flourishes like getting the actors and chorus members on and off the stage efficiently because all the attention was lavished on the music.

From the scintillating prologue to the tear-stained finale, Bernstein’s score has never sounded more vital, more full of brilliance and heart. The relationship between songs like “Maria” and “Somewhere” become even more pronounced as we hear them running as leitmotifs through the piece. And it’s such a pleasure to hear the delicate underscoring of some dramatic scenes, most especially the balcony scene between Tony (Cheyenne Jackson) and Maria (Alexandra Silber) when they profess their love for one another.

Jackson and Silber do an awful lot of kissing (will that come across on the recording?) in an effort to convey the instant and soul-deep connection between Tony and Maria. They do a marvelous job, and Silber especially, with a soaring soprano and a light touch, emerges as a real star. Jackson’s boyish charm carries “Something’s Coming” but his “Maria” is achingly beautiful.

The doomed couple’s improvised wedding, “One Hand, One Heart,” had special poignancy this week. Here are two people in love who want to get married with every cultural and social force around them telling them they are forbidden to do so. The resonance of that in the wake of the Supreme Court rulings involving same-sex marriage only added new depth and even more beauty to the scene.

Julia Bullock makes only one appearance, but it’s a powerful one. She sings a “Somewhere” that is not overstated (easy to do with this song) but captures the open-heart and hope amid oppressive darkness.

The show’s more comic numbers, “America” and “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” come off beautifully and don’t feel completely out of place as they sometimes can. Having Symphony Chorus members present to beef up the vocal sound is also pretty wonderful.

At only two hours, with the second act being much shorter than the first, you really feel the absence of the book in Act 2 when the tragedies descend. The music conveys a lot, and Tony’s death by gunshot is well handled, but the concert can only take the narrative so far.

Still, when the music is this a live, so full of rhythm and soul and breathtaking beauty, it’s hard to complain about anything. This San Francisco Symphony recording can’t come soon enough.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Cheyenne Jackson for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here. (subscription may be required)

The San Francisco Symphony presents West Side Story at 8 p.m. June 28 and 29 and July 2 and 2 p.m. June 30 at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F. Tickets are $47-$160. Call 415- 864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org.

SF Symphony scales Bluebeard’s Castle

Bluebeard 2
Michelle DeYoung plays Judith, Bluebeard’s new wife in the San Francisco Symphony production of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Below: Bluebeard director Nick Hillel. Photos courtesy of SF Symphony

There are seven locked rooms in Duke Bluebeard’s castle, and Nick Hillel knows what’s in each one. From blood to torture to tears, the contents of the rooms were originally devised in French folklore and then formalized by the writer Béla Balázs for his friend, the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, for the short opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. But it was up to Hillel, who helms a London-based digital media company called Yeast Culture, to bring those mysterious chambers into the 21st century.

Hillel is the director of an acclaimed new production of Duke Bluebeard, which had its premiere last October with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen. After a tour through Europe, the production comes to Davies Symphony Hall for three performances by the San Francisco Symphony.

As conceived by Hillel, who has worked with artists as diverse as the Beastie Boys and Cirque du Soleil, Davies is transformed by a stage-engulfing set that is 24 feet high onto which he projects all sorts of wild video projections (the seats behind the orchestra are not in use for this performance). And hovering over the orchestra itself is what Hillel calls “the sails,” a sculptural origami-like structure that also provides projections surfaces as it unfolds over the course of the hour-long opera.

“I wanted the sails to mirror the character Judith’s journey,” Hillel explains in the sunny Davies lobby before a rehearsal. “She has just arrived at the castle of Duke Bluebeard, her new husband, and she wants to know what’s behind all the locked doors. The deeper she goes, the more is revealed and the more we see.”

Nick Hillel

Bluebeard’s American premiere was with the New World Symphony in Miami under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, who also conducts the San Francisco performances. But the Miami performances did not include the full set and full complement of six projectors that will be part of the San Francisco run.

In conceiving the production, Hillel, who was a fan of the 1918 opera, knew he wanted to delve into the subtext of the story – a wife unlocking all her new husband’s secrets, even as he pleads with her to simply love him and let the secrets lie – without overwhelming the music.

“I love a challenge, and the challenge here was not to be too literal with the story and not to overwhelm the music or overcrowd it with ideas,” he says. “I know that I have tremendous power as a video artist, and that power can outweigh what is right. I can ruin the experience by directing attention with a color or an image when attention should be on the emotion of a singer or passage of music being played by a certain instrument. I wanted to do some delicate work here with lighting and images.”

In keeping with his notion of not taking things too literally, Hillel worked with his team – most of which traveled with him to San Francisco – to create images that, even if they weren’t literal or specific to the story, evoked just the right emotion. He’s even using the orchestra itself to help set the mood.

“You have this huge, beautiful orchestra on stage, so you have use it,” he says. “For instance, there’s a recurring ‘blood’ theme in the score, and depending on which part of the orchestra is playing it, we light the musicians in red. It helps with the storytelling and moves the recurring themes forward.”

Described as “semi-staged,” the production could be better described as “almost staged.” If the orchestra weren’t on stage, you’d still have two actors – mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Judith and bass-baritone Alan Held as Bluebeard – in costume and inhabiting the towering castle set and its ever-changing projections. Talk about your hybrid projects – here you have an opera performed with an on-stage symphony orchestra with a set designed for a venue that’s not used to housing sets. As Hillel says, he likes a challenge.

“We tend to piss off the opera purists,” Hillel says with a laugh. “Some of them just don’t like the use of video. Some say we use too much, some say we don’t use enough. Some people love it; some people hate it. You can’t please everybody. If everybody liked it, it would probably be middle-of-the-road, and what’s interesting about that?”

In keeping with the unusual, adventurous spirit of Bluebeard, the Symphony is planning some special events. Laura Stanfield Prichard gives a pre-show take an hour before each performance (free to all ticket holders). And on Friday, June 22, things get really interesting with Davies After Hours, a post-concert music event featuring the Magik*Magik Orchestra with special guest John Vanderslice performing their musical response to Bluebeard. The event will also feature artwork curated in partnership with the Crucible in Oakland. The event is free to June 22 ticket holders.

[bonus video]
Nick Hillel, director of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle discusses his concept for the production.

The San Francisco Symphony’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is at 8pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday (June 21, 22 and 23) at Davies Symphony Hall on Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$145. Call 415-864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org.