‘West Side Story’: 61 years old and still as relevant as today’s headlines

CU Eklund Opera presents Bernstein’s masterpiece

By Peter Alexander Oct. 25 at 12:15 p.m.

Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story opened on Broadway just over 61 years ago — Sept. 26, 1957 — but for Leigh Holman, the story does not get old.

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West Side Story cast members Christine Honein as Maria and Patrick Bessenbecher as Tony. Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado.

Holman is the director of the Eklund Opera Program at the CU College of Music, which will be presenting Bernstein’s masterpiece Friday through Sunday, Oct. 26–28. The cast of CU students, freshman though graduate students, will be stage-directed by Holman. Guest conductor Philip Hesketh will lead the singers and student orchestra.

The show is a transplanted version of Romeo and Juliet, with New York street gangs replacing the rival families. The conflict is between immigrants and newer immigrants, the Jets and the Sharks, a white gang and a Puerto Rican gang.

West Side Story has a theme that’s important to talk about right now,” Holman says. “It’s a story about people who are immigrants, and nothing could be more relevant. When someone moves into our area, is in the workplace or in school with us, people who don’t look like us, what sort of fear ignites in us and how do we act upon that?

“To me it sounds like a story from 2018.”

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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Art by Janalee Robison for CU Presents

West Side Story
By Leonard Bernstein
Book by Arthur Laurents; Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Eklund Opera Theater

7:30 pm. Friday Oct. 26 and Sunday, Oct. 27
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28
Macky Auditorium

Tickets

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Prominent guests come to CU to join Bernstein celebration

Composer’s daughter, former NY Phil concertmaster, scholar visit College of Music

By Peter Alexander Sept. 20 at 12:25 p.m.

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Jamie Bernstein. Photo by Steven J. Sherman.

The University of Colorado College of Music has joined the rest of the musical world to celebrate the centennial of the unique American composer, conductor, teacher, writer, lecturer and humanitarian Leonard Bernstein.

Just about the entire College of Music is represented in the months-long festival, from individual faculty members to the University Symphony, the Eklund Opera Program and even the Marching Band.

The celebration gains an extra dimension starting Monday, Sept. 24, with the arrival on campus of three prominent guests: Jamie Bernstein, the composer’s daughter and author of the recently released memoir Famous Father Girl; violinist Glenn Dicterow, concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for 34 years who played many performances Bernstein conducted; and Carol Oja, William Powell Mason Professor of Music at Harvard University and one of the leading Bernstein scholars.

The three guests will open the week with a joint appearance Monday afternoon. Oja will present a keynote address for the celebration, followed by a public discussion moderated by Susan Thomas, director of the CU American Music Research Center. Each of the guests will then participate in individual events during the rest of the week.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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CU Bernstein at 100
Events featuring guest artists
All events are free and open to the public

Public Talk with Jamie Bernstein, Glenn Dicterow and Carol Oja
Moderated by Susan Thomas, director of the CM American Research Center
4 p.m. Monday, Sept. 24
Grusin Music Hall

Faculty Tuesday
Chamber Music of Leonard Bernstein, narrated by Jamie Bernstein
CU Faculty and Student performers
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25
Grusin Music Hall

“Citizen, Conductor, Composer: The Continuing Legacy of Leonard Bernstein”
Conversation with Carol Oja, presented by The Entrepreneurship Center for Music
5 p.m. Wednesday, Sept.. 24
Chamber Hall (C199), Imig Music Building

CU Symphony Orchestra
Gary Lewis, conductor, with Glenn Dicterow, violin
Jamie Bernstein, narrator
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27
Mackey Auditorium

Bernstein: Overture from Candide
Bernstein: Suite from On the Waterfront
Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto

Master Class with Glenn Dicterow, violin
3 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28
Grusin Music Hall

Bernstein at 100 at CU

CU Boulder and College of Music join in world-wide celebration

By Peter Alexander

It started Aug. 31 with the CU Marching Band’s half-time show.

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Leonard Bernstein

“It” is the CU Boulder contribution to the world-wide juggernaut that is the 2018 centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. If the CU-CSU “Rocky Mountain Showdown” seems an unusual place to celebrate the former director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein is a unique figure in American music. He famously wrote everything from serious symphonies to smash-hit Broadway shows. Indeed, he was such a protean figure that he is identified on the university’s Webpage as a “composer, conductor, educator, musician, cultural ambassador, and humanitarian.

For the record, the marching band played arrangements from West Side Story at the CU-CSU game in Denver. They will repeat the performance, with assistance from the Dance and Theatre Department at the Folsom Field halftime shows Saturday, Sept. 15, and Friday, Sept. 28.

Locally, the observance of the Bernstein centennial actually started long before August. Last April, the Boulder Philharmonic presented a sold-out performance of West Side Story in concert, and several of the concerts at the Colorado Music Festival this last summer were arranged around music Bernstein wrote, conducted, or was influenced by.

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Andrew Cooperstock

With nearly 20 events on the calendar, the CU celebration will be the most wide-ranging Bernstein festival in the region. “We wanted to feature the University of Colorado, and involve as much of the College of Music as possible,” says Andrew Cooperstock, professor of piano in the College of Music and artistic director of CU Bernstein at 100.

“I think we’ve done that pretty well. We have faculty chamber music, we have student performances, we have all of the major ensembles, opera and wind symphony, and orchestra—and marching band! We have music theory and musicology as well, and extramural partnerships with the Program in Jewish Studies and the Department of Cinema Studies and Moving Image Arts.”

Cooperstock also noted the wide variety of Bernstein’s interests as a motivating aspect for the broad range of events. “Bernstein said he didn’t differentiate among different kinds of music,” Cooperstock says. “He had an interest in the Beatles, and Mahler, and jazz, and everything in between.”

Information about the CU Bernstein at 100 project can be found on their Web page, which also includes a calendar of all the CU Bernstein events. The calendar includes concerts and other performances, lectures, a masterclass, film screenings, and a full production of West Side Story by the Eklund Opera Theater. You can also find a page about Bernstein that has a brief bio and links to videos and essays about various aspects of his career written by people who knew him.

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Jamie Bernstein, the composer/conductor’s daughter

Among the authors is Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s daughter, whose remarkable book Famous Father Girl: A memoir of growing up Bernstein was published in June. Jamie Bernstein will be one of three special guests at CU during the week of Sept. 24–28, along with Glenn Dicterow, former concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and Carol Oja, the William Powell Mason Professor of Music at Harvard University and one of the leading scholars on Bernstein and his music.

Events involving these guests will be covered in more detail later this month.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CU Presents Update: Eklund Opera will present ‘West Side Story’ Oct. 26–28

By Peter Alexander May 1 at 5:40 p.m.

When first announced as part of the coming 2018–19 CU Presents season, Eklund Opera’s major fall production was listed somewhat mysteriously as Title TBA, music by Leonard Bernstein.

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Art by Janalee Robison for CU Presents

In case you haven’t guessed, the title, which can NBA (now be announced), is West Side Story. As noted previously, contractual arrangements did not allow for the title to be revealed until May 1.

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Leonard Bernstein

The production will be part of the year-long, globe-spanning celebration of of the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth. Boulder has already seen a sold-out concert performance of West Side Story presented by the Boulder Philharmonic and Central City Opera (April 28).

Later this month the Colorado Symphony will present music by Bernstein paired with one of his favorite composers, Gustav Mahler (May 25–27),  and several Bernstein works will be featured as part of this summer’s Colorado Music Festival. It is not difficult to find other Bernstein tributes at summer festivals around the country, including Bravo! Vail and the Aspen Music Festival.

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Scene from the original 1957 production of ‘West Side Story’ with Jerome Robbins’ landmark choreography

When it first appeared in 1957, West Side Story was truly genre-changing for Broadway. A New York-based updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the show did not shy away from  serious social issues or a tragic ending. Its book, lyrics, music and dance were conceived not as separate pieces but as a unified work of art, which therefore required a cast equally skilled as actors, dancers and singers. Bernstein’s music was unusually complex and difficult for both players and singers, and Jerome Robbins’ choreography set a new standard for singer-dancers.

With the combined team of Bernstein, Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story is certainly one of the most influential musicals in the history of Broadway. It has also become one of the most loved Broadway shows in history, revived by theaters and opera companies world wide. And be warned: it often sells out.

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West Side Story
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book by Arthur Laurents; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Based on a concept by Jerome Robbins
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26, and Saturday, Oct. 27
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28
Macky Auditorium

Subscription tickets 2018–19 CU Presents performances, including West Side Story and other Eklund Opera performances, are available here.

Tickets to individual performances will be available starting Aug. 20.
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Edited 5/1 to replace generic West Side Story poster image with art created for CU Presents by Janalee Robison.

Bernstein at 100 is celebrated by Boulder Phil and colleagues

West Side Story in Concert is sold out, but Monday’s tribute concert is not

By Peter Alexander April 20 at 4:30 p.m.

Leonard Bernstein has become the singular enduring icon of American concert music.

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Leonard Bernstein

His Broadway hit West Side Story, his leadership of the New York Philharmonic, his televised music education programs, his membership in the jet-set glitterati of the arts world, his famous performance of Beethoven’s Ninth on the site of the fallen Berlin wall—these made him the most recognizable classical musician in the world. As such, he was one of the most influential cultural figures of his time.

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Michael Butterman

“Composer, conductor, pianist, educator, advocate, communicator: he could do it all,” says Michael Butterman, music director of the Boulder Philharmonic. “I would say he was one of the most significant figures in 20th-century music, period.”

The 100thanniversary of Bernstein’s birth arrives in August of this year, and his centennial is being celebrated by virtually every orchestra in the country. That includes the Boulder Phil, whose sold-out concert performance of West Side Story leads local celebrations.

While that performance has gotten the most attention, another, more intimate concert will take place Monday evening that explores some lesser known corners of Bernstein’s creativity (7 p.m. April 23 in Boulder’s Jewish Community Center).

“Bernstein at 100: Leonard Bernstein in Concert” was put together by Eve Orenstein, the Phil’s director of development. Wanting to bring the larger community into the celebration, she contacted local musical organizations and musicians, assembling a program of solo and duo performances that will also include spoken tributes to Bernstein by Butterman, pianist Andrew Cooperstock from the CU College of Music, and Kathryn Bernheim, cultural arts director of the JCC.

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Charles Wetherbee

Two of the Phil’s musicians will perform: concertmaster Charles Wetherbee will play an arrangement of “Somewhere” from West Side Story and clarinetist Stephanie Zelnick will perform Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Both will collaborate with Cooperstock, who has recorded Bernstein’s complete solo piano music. Cooperstock will also play two shorter solo pieces.

Tenor Eapen Leubner will perform “Maria” from West Side Story and “Two Love Songs on Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke” with pianist Mac Merchant. Also performing with Merchant, vocalist Faye Nepon will sing “So Pretty,” and “Lucky to be Me” from On the Town; and soprano Rose Sawvel will sing the “Simple Song” from Bernstein’s Mass, “La Bonne Cuisine,” and the showpiece “Glitter and be Gay” from Candide.

This diverse program ranges from the serious (Clarinet Sonata) to the more humorous (“La Bonne Cuisine”) to pure entertainment (“Glitter and be Gay”). As such, it complements the familiar West Side Story and gives audiences a chance to expand their musical horizons—which was the constant goal of Bernstein’s own teaching.

The performance of West Side Story itself is noteworthy. For one thing, the fact that it sold out ten days in advance shows both the draw of Bernstein’s show, some 61 years after its premiere in 1957, and the success of the Phil’s programming for the Boulder community. There have been a few sellouts in recent years, but none as far as 10 days in advance.

It is also noteworthy that the Boulder Phil is one of the first, if not the first regional orchestra to present West Side Story in concert. The Bernstein estate had not permitted concert performances until 2014, when conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony received their consent. Since then several orchestras have done the concert version, although it remains more popular to perform the music live with the 1961 film.

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Robert Neu

For Saturday’s performance, the orchestra will be seated on stage and the actors will be limited to the front apron and a single raised platform behind the players. In a score as complex as West Side Story, this could create challenges keeping orchestra and singers together, but stage director Robert Neu is not particularly worried.

“I’ve done a ton of concert performances of operas,” he says. “I’ve found two things. One is that there are plenty of easy ways to have it staged that somebody’s near the conductor and out of the corner of the eye catch a beat. And I’ve found that the force of that many musicians, the energy on stage, you can tell what’s happening behind you.”

A larger issue for Neu is that dancing, which creates so much energy, is only allowed in fully-staged productions. For concert performances the use of any choreography is forbidden.

“The hardest thing about semi-staging this piece is that the dancing is so iconic and we’re not doing any dancing at all,” Neu says. “The dance music is so descriptive that if you set up the action before and after satisfactorily, the music helps to tell the story. (The action) is told by the music in such a specific way that you can still follow the story.”

West Side Story has become so familiar that it is easy to overlook how revolutionary it was in 1957. “I’m reminded of how tightly constructed it is, the way that themes are introduced at various times in a very subtle and foreshadowing, or backward looking, way,” Butterman says. “This is the sort of thing that opera composers do all the time, but not as often encountered in Broadway musicals.”

The complexity of the music was particularly startling in 1957, when most musicals did not have complicated ensembles like “Tonight,” or quite such virtuosic orchestral lead parts. “It was a genre-changing piece,” Neu says. “I would love to have been there in 1957 at that first orchestra read, when the principal trumpet and the percussionist were first seeing the parts, going, ‘say what?’”

The complexity and difficulty of the music is still a challenge, 61 years later. The Boulder Phil will bring in a few brass players who are specialists in the jazz-inflected style of the score. “Some of the brass playing is incredibly virtuosic and very, very, much like a big band,” Butterman says. “In spite of the fact that the tunes are familiar, it’s complex. It’s difficult, it’s relentless.”

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Leonard Bernstein

Amidst all the celebration, we should remember that Bernstein’s impact continues today, present in much of the musical activity around us. Butterman talks about having conducted the Rochester Philharmonic, an orchestra that Bernstein once led, and having found a lingering “ethos that Bernstein then displayed when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic.”

I shook Bernstein’s hand and collected his autograph once when I was in high school. Many of us in the musical world had such brief or tangential contacts with him. But his influence on our national musical life is far greater than any individual’s near or remote degree of separation. “Because of the breadth of what he did, he became larger than life,” Butterman says.

“He left an amazing legacy for anyone involved in orchestral music. It’s important to celebrate his music, which is the most long-lasting legacy he left to the world, at the same time remembering the work he did to bring classical music to as many people as possible. I see him as an inspiration.”

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Bernstein at 100: Leonard Bernstein Tribute Concert
Presented by the Boulder Philharmonic with musicians from CU College of Music, Central City Opera, Colorado Music Festival, and Opera Fort Collins

7 p.m. Monday, April 23
Levin Hall of the Boulder Jewish Community Center, 6007 Oreg Ave, Boulder

Tickets

westsidestory

West Side Story in Concert: SOLD OUT
Boulder Philharmonic, Michael Butterman conductor, and Robert Neu, stage director
In collaboration with Central City Opera

7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28
Macky Auditorium

NOTE: Corrected for typos 4/20/18

Boulder Phil sells out West Side Story 10 days in advance

Orchestra ends 60th-anniversary season on a high April 28

By Peter Alexander April 18 at 10:40 a.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic has announced that their concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story on Saturday, April 28, has sold out 10 days in advance.

westsidestoryThe orchestra’s 60th-anniversary season has already been a success at the box office, leading to a modest expansion of next year’s season. When announcing the 2018–19 season April 6, Katherine Lehman, the Boulder Phil’s executive director, observed that “We have been extremely successful with ticket sales, and we’re ending the year particularly well this year.”

The sellout of West Side Story adds success to success. “This is thrilling news for us,” Lehman says today. “We can’t imagine a better way to bring our 60th-anniversary season to a close than to share West Side Story with a sell-out crowd!”

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Michael Butterman will conduct the sold-out West Side Story in Concert with the Boulder Phil

Boulder Phil has sold out a few performance in Macky Auditorium in recent years. Besides the Sunday Nutcracker performances with Boulder Ballet, these include several performances with Cirque de la Symphonie. Another sellout was the Boulder performance of the “Nature and Music” concert in March, 2017, that was subsequently performed in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Performances by the orchestra with ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukaro in 2017 and violinist Sarah Chang in 2013 both sold out the day of the performance. The current production of West Side Story marks the first time in recent years that Boulder Phil has sold out a concert 10 days in advance.

The performance, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, is a presentation of the Boulder Phil in collaboration with Central City Opera. Boulder Phil music director Michael Butterman is conducting, with stage direction by Robert Neu, and a cast selected in audition by Butterman, Neu, and Central City Opera artistic director Pelham Pearce. The orchestra will be seated onstage, with action occurring on the front apron of the stage, and on a platform erected behind one side of the orchestra.

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San Francisco Symphony: West Side Story in Concert (photo by Stefan Cohen)

A few years ago, this performance would not have been possible. It has been popular for many years for orchestras to perform live with a screening of the film, but rights were not given for concert performances until 2014, when the San Francisco Symphony gave the first live in concert performances. Their performance was subsequently released on CD.

There have a been a few other orchestras who have performed West Side Story in concert, but the Boulder Phil is one of the first, if not the first, regional orchestra to do so.