The Mariinsky Orchestra
Conductor: John Axelrod
Symphonic Dances from the musical Westside Story
Divertimento for Orchestra
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
West Side Story is one of the most popular Broadway musicals which brought the composer Leonard Bernstein and the librettists Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents world fame. The original Broadway production ran for over seven hundred performances; the musical is still performed today with great success at music theatres throughout the world, while the screen version of 1961 received an Oscar as “Best Film”.
The success of West Side Story came from both a new take on the story of Romeo and Juliet transposed to post-war New York and the music itself. Bernstein created an innovative and vivid score, combining techniques of traditional theatre music with language of the 20th century and elements of sympho jazz (the orchestra features a saxophone section, electric guitar and a huge percussion section).
In the suite, created by the composer himself using the music of the instrumental numbers of the musical, the lyrical adagio is matched with the rhythms of the mambo and the cha-cha-cha, while the Cool dance takes on the unexpected features of a jazz fugue.
Bernstein’s Divertimento is a tribute to the Boston Symphony Orchestra marking the ensemble’s centenary year. Bernstein had longstanding links with Boston – in the early 1940s it was there that he studied conducting under the renowned Serge Koussevitzky, later setting out for New York where his career reached its apogee. The eight movements of the Divertimento are symbolically united by a two-tone motif of B and C notes, the “B” meaning Boston and the “C” standing for Centenary. The genre variety of the movements is incredibly broad – there is the mazurka, the waltz (apropos, the latter written in the unusual 7/8 measure), the samba and blues. In the finale we hear the triumphant march The Boston Symphony Orchestra Forever.
Living abroad, Sergei Rachmaninoff only rarely returned to working as a composer, fundamentally appearing as a concert pianist. Four years after completing his Third Symphony he began work on his last creation – Symphonic Dances. Initially Rachmaninoff proposed naming the movements of the work Day, Dusk and Midnight but subsequently abandoned the idea.
In Symphonic Dances there is no strict obeisance to any particular genre-dance models – it is only in the second movement that there are features of a waltz.
The introduction of the first movement contains two contrasting elements – a short three-chord motif of the woodwinds and the strident accords of the tutti. The main section of the first movement is constructed around the first theme – a grotesque march. The lyrical middle passage, in terms of character close to the brightest pages of Rachmaninoff’s scores, grows from a Russian-natured theme, taken up by the first appearance of the saxophone (the only time Rachmaninoff made use of the instrument). The reprise – a return of the march – cedes to a tranquil coda in which Rachmaninoff quotes one of the motifs from his own First Symphony.
The second movement – a waltz – is imbued with nostalgic moods. The incredibly menacing fanfare signals of the trumpets and trombones with mutes form the boundaries between the movements; the rhythm of the waltz gradually becomes distorted and almost disappears by the end.
In the finale of the cycle the plot of a dance of death, common in European culture, is transformed. In terms of its rhythm this movement is somewhat reminiscent of a gigue. The motif of the mediaeval sequence Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) here meets the rhythmically distorted theme of Rachmaninoff’s own All Night Vigil (1915). The tension, ending in a frenzied infernal dance, finds no resolution – the music stops suddenly in the culmination.
© Mariinsky Theatre, 2015/Vladimir Khavrov