Music

West Side Story’s flick-knife-to-the-guts thrill never landed its final blow

17 August 2019

9:00 AM

17 August 2019

9:00 AM

It was as though Damien Hirst had confessed a secret passion for Victorian watercolours, or Lars von Trier had admitted his life’s ambition to direct a rom-com. When it was announced that John Eliot Gardiner — pioneer of the early music movement — would conduct West Side Story at the Edinburgh Festival the reactions were extreme. What next? Harnoncourt conducts Hair? Les Arts Florissants sing Phantom?

But is the leap from Bach to Bernstein really that big? Both live or die with rhythm, with the dances that pulse and lilt and churn through them. Minuet or mambo — really, what’s in a beat? And then there’s texture. The frayed edges and rough, rasping beauty of historical performance are surely far closer to Bernstein’s angry, urban shout than much of what comes between. Listen to the crowd scenes from the St John Passion, a community baying for blood, then to the musical pack-violence of the choruses leading up to West Side Story’s ‘Rumble’.

Which is why, when it came to it, Gardiner’s West Side Story was so surprising. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra (swollen to symphonic proportions) played deftly, and student and young professional singers from Scotland and America gave their all, but the result was still uncharacteristically limp, lacking that absolute collective conviction and intent that usually marks out a Gardiner performance.

Caught somewhere between concert hall and Broadway, the performance flirted with attack, with abandon, but never quite committed. Hips circled and fingers snapped but the American accent that drawls and snarls through this music was always in danger of slipping. The piece’s painful, flick-knife-to-the-guts thrill never quite landed its final blow. It was often very loud, but that’s not quite the same thing.

It was a similar story when John Wilson conducted the work at the Proms last summer (a concert-staging directed, as here, by Stephen Witson), which begs the question: if neither Gardiner nor Wilson — masters, both, of musical drama — can make the newly authorised concert version of West Side Story work, then maybe the problem is with the edition itself?


Heavily policed (now more than ever, with next year’s Spielberg re-make approaching), the rights to the musical have always been embattled, and while plenty of ensembles will seize the new opportunity to perform it in concert, this all-singing, no-dancing, barely-speaking version is at best an awkward compromise.

Telescoping the drama into barely 90 minutes — dashing from first-sight to last-rites at breakneck speed, stripping dialogue back to telegraphic shreds — strips emotion from the story and substance from its central lovers, forcing the music to carry a burden even this superb score cannot fully support.

But in Sophia Burgos we had an enchanting Maria, all spirit and sweetness. Draining the fierce anger from Andrea Baker’s life-scarred Anita, she was supported by the unexpected gleam and expansive softness of the SCO’s accompaniments, compensating in caress what they lacked in knock-out punch. And Ryan Kopel (Action) gave us a storming ‘Gee, Officer Krupke!’, Gardiner himself gamely donning cap and whistle as the put-upon policeman.

Assigning ‘Somewhere’ to a quartet of solo singers, cruelly distant in the steeply raked Usher Hall, didn’t come off however, and acoustic issues meant that we missed all the sly comedy in Sondheim’s lyric for ‘America’. Minimal stage-space constrained what choreography was permitted, which felt non-committal — more Morningside than Upper West Side.

There was drama of a different kind over at the Queen’s Hall earlier in the day — much of it before the first chord of pianist Steven Osborne’s solo recital even went down. Scarcely 24 hours earlier, originally scheduled performer Beatrice Rana had pulled out, indisposed. Chopin and Ravel were hastily swapped for Schubert and Messiaen, requiring a substantial set of pre-concert announcements, followed by an unusually restless, noisy sequence of audience coughs and clatters. But when that first chord of Schubert’s final Piano Sonata in B flat major sounded in a barely breathed pianissimo, it was like an incantation.

The hush was immediate, and only broken 45 minutes later when Osborne released us with the jolt of the Allegro’s final fanfare. The relief map of this final sonata is all pianissimo valleys and silent crevasses. Osborne scaled them to the bottom, drawing us gently behind him on long ropes of melody, never losing tension or grip. It was supreme playing.

Moving from the Schubert into excerpts from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus was like emerging into dazzling sunlight — inspired, unexpected programming. Scooping up brilliant handfuls of notes from the extremes of the keyboard, Osborne hurled them into our ears in a giddying assault — a cascade of light and purest energy — before drawing us in intimately close with the otherworldly lullaby ‘Je dors, mais mon coeur veille’.

‘You didn’t pay to hear me,’ Osborne had joked at the start of the recital. By the end, he could have taken every penny we had.

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