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  • 'West Side Story' enlivens Britt candidate's audition

  • When "West Side Story" hit Broadway in September of 1957, critic John Chapman called it "a jukebox Manhattan opera." He meant it as a compliment.
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  • When "West Side Story" hit Broadway in September of 1957, critic John Chapman called it "a jukebox Manhattan opera." He meant it as a compliment.
    Even if you've seen the groundbreaking musical, and the film, you don't truly appreciate the the operatic magnificence of the score until you've heard Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story" performed by a symphony orchestra such as Britt's, with its 90 musicians (three times the size of the orchestra for the 1957 Broadway show). Wow.
    As David Danzmayr, the final conductor of three vying for the music director's job at Britt, led the orchestra on a lively journey through the "Dances" Friday night at Britt, Chapman's metaphor came to mind.
    Like an old jukebox, the suite offered up music for many moods.
    In the "Cool" segment alone (in which in the musical a gang leader tells his soldiers to play it cool) the music built from a spare theme suggesting a jazz combo through several transitions to a crashing frenzy that involved the whole orchestra.
    In 1961, Bernstein, who had written the score for the musical, arranged a suite of the orchestral music from the show (which he didn't make a recording of until 1982). He built much of the story's drama into musical contrasts. From slashing hints that the knives are coming out to the rather sentimental mooning of "Somewhere."
    The prologue, with its street-wise vibe, introduced the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks. The screech of a cop's whistle punctuated the segue into "Somewhere," an adagio in which the gangs briefly united in friendship, an accord that was reflected in the harmonies.
    In a scherzo fantasy the gangs escaped the city in a vision of open space with fresh air and sunshine.
    The mood of detente was abandoned in the Mambo as the violence began to build. The Cha-Cha turned to romance as the violins played a pizzicato treatment of "Maria," and you could picture the Jets in some macho posing as the Rumble built.
    The Finale presented Tony's death in gorgeous passages ending in a chord that left things hanging.
    Too bad this couldn't have been a dance show. Lovely as the music is, we sometimes forget that "West Side Story" had more dancing than any Broadway show in history.
    Shostakovich's seldom-heard Piano Concerto No. 2 was composed in 1957 for the birthday of the composer's son, Maxim. It is an unusual effort for Shostakovich in that it's cheerful.
    It's also full of difficult syncopation beneath its smooth surface, but guest pianist Lisa Smirnova, a graduate of Moscow s Tchaikovsky Conservatory, handled them (and the score's difficult octaves on the piano) with aplomb.
    Smirnova was born in Moscow and later studied with the famed piano teacher Karl-Heinz Kammerling. She has performed widely in Europe, Asia and the United States and made her Carnegie Hall debut at age 20 in 1992.
    In the allegro, the main theme was introduced by the bassoon and soon taken up by the clarinets and oboes. The piano entered gently and soon introduced a new theme, a variation of which was later played by the orchestra. The main theme resurfaced just before the end of the movement.
    The andante's romantic melody was subdued almost to the point of melancholy. After some orchestral passages the piano entered with a theme built on triplets. Smirnova handled the leisurely movement with warmth and expressiveness.
    The allegro introduced a spirited dance and some pentatonic scales. A new theme was introduced by the piano accompanied by the strings playing pizzicato. A new motif arrived a la Hanon exercises (based on the piano teaching of Charles-Louis Hanon). The practice-like runs were apparently the composer's little joke for his musical son's graduation.
    Smirnova's playing was soundly conceived and beautifully executed, handling even the difficult octaves and the most intricate passages with a fluid grace. Asked before the concert how you get emotional dynamics into a piano note that, once struck, is gone forever. She said it's about your intention, and it goes from the head to the fingers. She accomplishes this with, for want of a better word, soul.
    As an encore, she played Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" with simple clarity as the sky darkened and a gibbous moon hung above the Britt Pavilion, stage left.
    Georges Bizet wrote an orchestral suit for Alphonse Daudet's play "The Woman from Arles." The play flopped, but the score lived on.
    The familiar, dignified "March of the Three Kings" announced the prelude with a slightly ominous air. The Adagietto, a paean to romantic love, culminated, like a comedy, with a wedding.
    Bizet's friend Ernest Guiraud put together the second suite from music Bizet didn't use in the first. The epic melody of the Pastorale gave way to Bizet's "Intermezzo" with bassoon, winds and strings playing a folk song, and the familiar opening march returned in the finale and built to a titanic climax.
    Danzmayr's direction was assured and expressive throughout. He's a commanding presence on the podium at 32, with a bit of a rock star thing going. He clearly has affection for the Russians, and Tchaikovsky's Concerto of Violin and Orestra is on tap at Britt tonight.
    Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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