Conductor: Leonard Bernstein
Orchestra: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra
Transplanting the feud between Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets to rival Puerto Rican and
white gangs in New York may seem obvious in hindsight. After all, as Leonard Bernstein recalled:
“In New York we had the Puerto Ricans, and at that time the papers were full of stories about
juvenile delinquents and gangs.” The story goes, though, that Bernstein and playwright Arthur
Laurents had been toying with a Catholic/Jewish scenario until a chance meeting in southern
California and a Los Angeles Times headline about gang violence between Mexicans and whites
suddenly convinced them that this hot-button issue had greater creative potential. Their collaboration
with Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins took shape quickly, as Bernstein recorded in his diary:
“Suddenly it all springs to life. I heard rhythms and pulses and – most of all – I can sort of feel the
form.” West Side Story’s “rhythms and pulses” toss together everything from Tin Pan Alley to cool
jazz to Latin dances in an eclectic postwar urban soundscape. Bernstein’s deep empathy for the
universal human element in any particular musical style (it is what made him so effective a teacher)
found no better outlet; the historically specific musical clichés in West Side Story only throw the
classic nature of its plot and characters into greater relief.
Plans were quickly made for a film version of the musical, which in turn was adapted for these
Symphonic Dances. As Skitch Henderson described, “By the time MGM got around to doing the
picture, everybody had a hand in arranging or, should I say, re-arranging the original stage version.
These dances are the product of many different orchestrators with a thorough editing job by the
composer.” Most prominent among these was Sid Ramin, to whom Bernstein dedicated the work.
The crucial role of dance in West Side Story added to the challenge of adapting the music for the
concert platform. Bernstein and his orchestrators use vibrant instrumental combinations and a huge
percussion section (not to mention the vocal talents of the orchestra members!) to enhance the
kinetic quality of the rhythms. More deeply, they tilt the narrative weight from a love story to gang
confict. We hear first the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, then the utopian opposite; their
juxtaposition creates a dramatic tension that shapes the entire work.