REVIEW: West Side Story – San Francisco Symphony

Originally published on

Recording Cover

Leonard Bernstein only wrote four Broadway musicals in his career, and all four already have widely available symphonic recordings to complement their various stage cast recordings and film and television soundtracks. What need could there possibly be for new recordings of any of these scores in 2014? The new symphonic recording of West Side Story from the San Francisco Symphony, under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, makes such questions irrelevant by sheer force of artistry. (We’ll revisit this question in the fall when the 2014 revival cast recording of On The Town debuts.)

The liner notes for this album stake its uniqueness on it being the only live, symphonic, nearly-complete recording of the Broadway version of the score, but the hair splitting requited for that distinction to mean anything likely doesn’t matter to most listeners. What does matter is this: it’s the entire show, including all dance music (but thankfully excluding most scene change music, bows, and exit music), played by world-class musicians utilizing the excellent original Broadway orchestrations. Unlike the dreadfully operatic symphonic recording conducted by Bernstein himself back in the 80s (starring Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras), this recording features appropriate tempi, an orchestra that knows how to swing when necessary, and most importantly, a cast of singing actors from the world of Broadway who understand the idiom for which the music was intended.

Despite having been recorded live during a series of concert performances, the sound is studio-clear and the audience is not audible on the recording. The orchestra and singers are perfectly balanced, and the orchestration comes alive with elements buried on other recordings jumping out in this beautifully rendered mix. As befits an album recorded by a symphony orchestra, the true highlights of this recording are the instrumental passages, which of course West Side Story offers in abundance. “The Dance at the Gym” in particular comes alive with a vibrancy enabled by the pairing of great playing and twenty-first century recording technology.

The disc version is offered in high-definition SACD format (also playable on standard CD players) and comes with a beautiful, hard-cover 100-page booklet featuring photography, essays on the history of West Side Story and Michael Tilson Thomas’s relationship with Leonard Bernstein, and all the lyrics to the show. The digital-only version was specially mastered for iTunes and offers bonus materials through the iTunes LP program including nearly nine minutes of video.

Cheyenne Jackson perfectly captures the urgency of Tony’s lovesickness without sacrificing the clear, open tones that remind us of his youthful innocence. Any worries about Jackson being too old for the part fall away the minute he opens his mouth. Alexandra Silber’s legit soprano carries a weightiness that conveys Maria’s beyond-her-years seriousness, although some may find she tips the balance too far from Maria’s teenaged naïveté. The two leads’ chemistry with each other is palpable, their voices blending gloriously in their duets, and the small dialogue scenes included are so good I wished they had recorded the entire script.

The supporting cast is largely on point, with Jessica Vosk as a forceful Anita leading the pack. Kevin Vortmann’s singing is a little prettier than one might wish for Riff, but he’s balanced by a gang of Jets with voices full of individuality and comic timing to boot. The Shark Girls featured in “America” and “I Feel Pretty” are similarly delightful. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus (led by Ragnar Bohlin) falls into the trap of sounding too much like a choir rather than a group of characters in “America,” although they serve their purpose fine in the scant other choral moments in the show. Julia Bullock offers a “Somewhere” that leans more towards art song than show tune, which fits the symphonic setting of this performance.

While I can’t imagine this recording will become my go-to West Side Story album – and as I type this, I realize I’m not sure whether for me that would be the original Broadway cast recording or the soundtrack – this is a score that I’ve always been glad to have in multiple versions. Just as renditions by Oscar Peterson, Stan Kenton, and Schlong all form part of my regular West Side Story rotation, I have no doubt that I will enjoy revisiting this new entry for many years to come.

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