BWW CD Review: San Francisco Symphony's WEST SIDE STORY is a Triumph
When it comes to contemporary classics in American musical theatre, just the sheer mention of Leonard Bernstein's WEST SIDE STORY, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, is enough to get any fan of the medium listening. This beloved masterpiece first premiered in 1957 and Leonard Bernstein had hoped to change the face of the American musical theater with it. That goal wasn't quite accomplished, but his clever orchestrations, drive and ambition, and unique construction made the show a hallmark of the genre that is still adored and studied today.
San Francisco Symphony, with Michael Tilson Thomas as conductor, presented an enthralling staged concert version of WEST SIDE STORY in the summer of 2013. With an immense knowledge of the musical and the man who created the score, Michael Tilson Thomas has expertly lead the opulent San Francisco Orchestra and a cast of brilliant talent through the score. Recorded live from June 27 to July 2, 2013 at the Davies Symphony Hall at the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, the dual disc album is definitely one of the loveliest recordings of the score you'll ever hear.
Using the original Broadway orchestrations as his basis, Michael Tilson Thomas states that for this recording audiences will hear those original orchestrations "beefed up" because the San Francisco Symphony was able to remove the doubling that the original score required for the musicians in the pit. Listening to the album, the lushness of the full orchestra adds a distinctive emotional depth to this recording, making the music we all know and cherish all the more grand and utterly breathtaking. The 1984 Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft recording conducted by Leonard Bernstein will probably always be remembered and revered as the definitive recording of WEST SIDE STORY's score, but the San Francisco Symphony's recording is definitely a close second. The largest difference between the two recordings is that Michael Tilson Thomas gives us a more Broadway sound. The operatic nature of the 1984 album has been contemporized, with the cast utilizing the more pop/jazz vocalizations audiences associate with Broadway musicals.
As Maria, Alexandra Silber signs with all the sweetness that one would expect. Her impeccable soprano instrument and vocal skills show a certain maturity of artistry while still conveying the youthfulness of the character. With an operatic sensibility and all the control required for quality arias, her Maria shimmers on the recording. With radiance and charisma, she makes numbers like "Only You" and "I Feel Pretty" spring to captivating life. Also, her takes on numbers like "One Hand, One Heart" are filled with the folly of youthful romance.