Touring a trio of musical events

The setup in Avery Fisher Hall was this: West Side Story, the movie, played on a big screen. The New York Philharmonic played the orchestra part. The singing was left to the people in the movie (or those who dubbed for them). By some wizardry, technicians were able to separate the voices from the orchestra in the soundtrack. Very cool (or, as they say in the movie, coolie cool, boy).

Our conductor this evening was David Newman, who made some remarks to the audience before the performance began. He pointed out that some of the movie’s scenes were filmed on the very site we were now occupying. He also introduced some special guests.

The New York Philharmonic’s performance of Henry V. Photo courtesy of Chris Lee

The New York Philharmonic’s performance of Henry V. Photo courtesy of Chris Lee

“Representing the Jets,” he said, was Russ Tamblyn, who played Riff in the movie. The crowd went wild. And “representing the Sharks” was George Chakiris, who played Bernardo. The crowd went wilder. MGM’s lion roared—more cheers—and the show began.

In general, the Philharmonic made a poor sound on this Thursday night. It was not really the sound of a major orchestra. And they committed some sloppiness. Newman did yeoman work in trying to keep the orchestra in synch with the movie. He mainly succeeded. The success of the evening rested on the music that Leonard Bernstein wrote (and the lyrics supplied by Stephen Sondheim).

Bernstein himself made a recording of West Side Story with classical musicians. This was in 1984. His Maria was Kiri Te Kanawa, his Tony was José Carreras and his Anita was Tatiana Troyanos. In a kind of cameo, Marilyn Horne sings “Somewhere.”

Carreras is a bit funny, singing the Polish American who woos the Puerto Rican girl, and doing this in a strong Spanish accent. The story goes that Bernstein wanted the tenor Neil Shicoff, but, in some terrible mix-up, requested Carreras instead.

Personally, I doubt that much of Bernstein’s classical music will last. His violin concerto (called a Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp, blah, blah, blah) is a good piece. So are a few others. But in general, I think the classical music will die out when his friends and groupies do.

West Side Story is a different matter. As long as there is something like musical theater in the world, it will be sung, played, danced to and loved. It is a masterpiece. It has, what? Seven, eight, nine, 10 immortal songs? Isn’t that enough for one lifetime? For eight?

EVERYTHING BUT THE KITCHEN SINK

Passing through security at the 92nd Street Y, a man said, “I’m here to see Sting.” The British rock star was to have a hand in a new chamber piece, written by Stanley Silverman. His collaborators were the musicians of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio.

By the time I arrived at the hall, ushers were out of programs. This is a mistake that should not happen in a professional concert series. You pay your money, they should give you lights, toilets, music—and programs. Let me tell you what I gleaned from the 92nd Street Y website: The new piece is Silverman’s Piano Trio No. 2, “Reveille.” It was commissioned by the composer’s son, Ben, in honor of a friend of Ben’s who was killed on 9/11.

Not having a program, I can’t tell you what the piece is supposed to be “about”—though I know it’s a “9/11 piece” of some type. Nor can I tell you what a person is supposed to think. All the better: I can only tell you what I heard.

The first movement is eclectic, containing an assortment of styles and an assortment of moods. The music is bleak, reflective, playful. Pretty, sad, elegiac. Mysterious, squirmy, distracted. There is a hint of an Ives-like remembrance. There are dances, which sound a little Hebraic, then a little Latin American. There are songs—instrumental songs—that are neither happy nor unhappy. An interesting ambivalence prevails.

In the second movement comes a real song, if you will, and it was sung by our star, Sting. He sang roughly. And it took me a while to figure out what language he was singing in. Finally, I heard the word “chimney-sweepers,” followed by the word “dust.”

The third and final movement brings more eclecticism, much more. Jazz, bluegrass, easy listening, rock ‘n’ roll. Modernist feints. A touch of Claude Bolling, a touch of Edgar Meyer. I’m not sure the various elements of this work ever really cohere. And I’m quite sure the work grows too long, trying the patience even of a sympathetic listener. I often quote Earl Wild: “Music ought to say what it has to say, then get off the stage.”

I’m sure of this, too: that Stanley Silverman was utterly sincere when writing his piece, and that this sincerity has a winningness all its own.

CAPTAIN VON TRAPP DOES KING HARRY

Nine days after the West Side Story evening, another Philharmonic evening began with Wagner: the Overture and Bacchanal from Tannhäuser. On the podium was the orchestra’s music director, Alan Gilbert. The orchestra’s sound was much better than it had been for West Side Story. But Wagner was let down.

His overture got too loud too soon, and was therefore robbed of its climaxes. You know that swirly thrill? Absent. The strings kept sawing away at the same dynamic level. The overture was without its magic, its scintillation. The horns were solid and unflubbing, which was nice. But they also lacked suppleness, simply bulling straight ahead. Two violinists, however, gave pleasure. They were Glenn Dicterow, the concertmaster, and Sheryl Staples, the No. 2, and in their music they were sweetness itself.

How about the Bacchanal, the Venusberg music? It ought to have an achy, yearny feeling. The notes were present, but not the feeling.

The main work on this program was the score that William Walton wrote for Henry V, meaning the Laurence Olivier film of 1944. An actor played upon Avery Fisher Hall’s stage, and he was Christopher Plummer, commanding at 81. He resorted to the use of a microphone. But he did not resort to the use of a script, having his (ample) material memorized.

On the podium, Alan Gilbert was an excellent, alert manager of affairs. The orchestra played with rhythmic crispness. To single out a section, the trumpets were wonderfully bright. As for Walton’s score, there is much good music in it. He could do more than viola concertos and marches, you know. And that playwright, Shakespeare? Talented.

The Philharmonic’s program notes told us that Olivier had recited two monologues from Henry V over the radio in 1942. This got the attention of people in the film industry, “who felt the tone of the play was right for the patriotic, bellicose fervor of the times.” Patriotism and bellicosity in the Britain of 1942? Imagine.


 

Music & Opera

Bed-Stuy Restoration: Mos Def & members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic play Derek Bermel’s arrangements of Mos Def’s music. The program also features Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together.” Oct. 8, 1368 Fulton St., Brooklyn, bphil.org; 8, free.

Carnegie Hall: The Mariinsky Orchestra performs in “Tchaikovsky in St. Petersburg” as part of Carnegie Hall’s 120th anniversary celebration. Oct. 5, 6 & 9–11, 881 7th Ave., carnegiehall.org.

Roulette Performance Space: Violinist Mari Kimura performs 4 new works for violin, electronics & integrative graphics, as part of the New York Electronic Art Festival. Oct. 9, 509 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, roulette.org; 8, $15.