Classical CD Review: San Francisco Symphony’s “West Side Story” — A Brashly Invigorating Performance

The music of West Side Story sounds grippingly urgent and colorful as ever in the hands of one of America’s best orchestras and conductors.


By Jonathan Blumhofer

Thirty years ago this September, Leonard Bernstein made what was billed as the “definitive” recording of West Side Story, casting opera singers in all the main roles. The result remains a fascinating document. The energy crackles. No pit band (or standing orchestra) ever sounded better playing the score. The choral sections (mainly in the “Jet Song” and “Gee, Officer Krupke”) come off with great power and idiomatic character. Marilyn Horne sings a luminous “Somewhere.”

But all the lead roles suffer. Totally miscast as Tony, Jose Carreras, for all his musicianship and vocal power, never shakes his Spanish accent. Kiri Te Kanewa isn’t convincing as a sweet, innocent, and – above all – young Maria. The marvelous Tatiana Troyanos comes closest to at least sounding like an authentic Anita, though her operatic training undercuts her believability in the part. Similarly, Kurt Ollmann, while conveying youthful bravado, too often sounds stiff and uncomfortable as Riff.

In short, it’s an extraordinary mixed bag: so much indisputably great vocal talent has rarely – if ever – sounded as wrong as it does there. And yet the instrumental playing is virtually unbeatable. How much more successful might Bernstein’s recording have been had he actually cast appropriate singers in the primary roles? Now, thanks to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) new recording of the complete West Side Story on SFS Media, we have a pretty good idea. It likely would have scorched.

Tilson Thomas, Bernstein’s most notable protégé, has recorded plenty of Bernstein over the years – his 1992 account of On the Town (ironically, with a cast mostly comprised of opera singers) remains brashly invigorating – but this was his first time through West Side Story. You wouldn’t guess it from his sure command of Bernstein’s musical language.

He gets tremendous assistance from Alexandra Silber (as Maria) and Cheyenne Jackson (singing Tony). To hear Silber’s growth in her role – from the initial purity of her first encounter with Tony to the far more shaded wisdom of her character at the end of Act 2 – is one of the marvels of this live performance.

And Jackson delivers a remarkable Tony. He easily traverses the fine line between the spirit of awe and the streetwise edge that the character inhabits. Listening to “Maria,” it’s hard to believe that Jackson’s pushing forty, so effortlessly does his voice convey the sense of fresh, young love. Yet one never doubts his credibility as a gang tough: the exchanges with Riff bristle with honesty. It’s a performance that makes you wish Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim had written much more for the character to sing in Act 2.

As Anita, Jessica Vosk brings a commanding presence to the proceedings. And Kevin Vortmann’s Riff exudes smooth, cool energy. In all, this is as well cast a group of singers as you’re likely to hear in these roles and they all deliver.

The SFS proves itself a superb backing band, at its best moments equaling Bernstein’s crackerjack freelance ensemble from ’84. Yes, there are moments when Tilson Thomas seems to rein things in a little too much (“Gee, Officer Krupke” is one of the few tracks where Bernstein’s “definitive” recording is, hands down, better), but this is flexible music and it sounds grippingly urgent and colorful as ever in the hands of one of America’s best orchestras and conductors.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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