sat 20/07/2024

Prom 39, West Side Story, Wilson review - best heard on the radio | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 39, West Side Story, Wilson review - best heard on the radio

Prom 39, West Side Story, Wilson review - best heard on the radio

This concert version must be experienced on its own terms

Maria (Mikaela Bennett) and Tony (Ross Lekites) with John Wilson All photos: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

In West Side Story, those great, familiar songs just keep on coming. Already by the end of the first half an hour, there have been “The Jet Song”, “Something’s Coming”, “Maria”, “Tonight” and “America”, and there is no shortage of them still to come.

Saturday’s “concert version” of the show, in celebration of the Bernstein centenary was always going to be one of the big events of the Proms season. The John Wilson Orchestra have increasingly become a welcome fixture at the Proms since their debut in 2009, and a mainstay of the Saturday night programming. The decision to put on an extra show on Saturday afternoon for this their 10th season was hardly controversial. But you can never please all of the people all of the time, and some grumpy sentiments were finding repeated expression on Twitter about the fact that the show wasn’t being televised, as has become the norm with the John Wilson shows in recent years. There were presumably good reasons why that couldn’t be done.

This was a performance focusing above all on the music, in which the strengths of this hand-picked orchestra and its charismatic conductor shone brightly throughout. John Wilson gave the sense that the score had been worked on, loved, and its strengths, its variety and its myriad influences were to be constantly brought to life. A section such as the “Dance at the Gym” sequence (above) brought out the jazz strengths of this orchestra, the blazing brass with trumpeter Mike Lovatt as ever resplendent with the top line, the crispest of all possible kit drummers in Matt Skelton. The co-ordinated finger-clicks from the combined forces of the students of ArtsEd and Mountview deserve praise. The gorgeous, impassioned whole-section string sound was heard for the first time in “Maria” and has strength and quality right the way through it. The bass section had a wonderful moment in the postlude to “Somewhere”; principal flute Cormac Henry’s lyrical line in “One Hand, One Heart”, and elsewhere, was deeply affecting. When it came to the final applause, it was understandably Wilson (pictured below) and the orchestra who earned the loudest plaudits.

There is so much power, there are so many riches in this score. It can only be a matter of conjecture what compositional paths Bernstein might have taken if he had not been appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic just a few weeks after the opening of West Side Story. And there is also so much to marvel at in the art of the lyricist in the contribution of Stephen Sondheim, twelve years Bernstein’s junior. And yet, there is an irony about this live “concert version” venture. As was pointed out in the Proms Extra event which preceded the concert, this was to be a performance shorn of much of the spoken dialogue and with virtually no dancing. And yet the original instigator of the whole West Side Story concept, a figure whose influence in the genesis of this unique show was immense, was Jerome Robbins the choreographer. There are extended sections of music which are mightily impressive as vehicles for orchestral expression or as showpieces, but as show to see, one has to accept that the "concert version" must be seen and above all heard on its own terms, because the whole West Side Story is simply not being told.

That said there were extremely touching and dramatic moments, Wilson’s timing and pacing of the score was masterful, the gangs of Jets and Sharks delivered menace as they confronted each other. But in the hall, from where I was sitting, just behind the sound desk, the lack of audibility of Sondheim’s words in the hall, - with the admirable exception of Ross Lekites- was a real problem. The experience on the radio is very different and the words from all the principals are crystal-clear. And the drama? From my seat, one of the big moments was completely invisible: after Tony has been shot and fallen to the ground, all I could see was rows of audience heads blocking the view. Of the principal singers, it was not just his diction that singled out Ross Lekites. As Tony he was vocally superb and also drew the audience in to the drama. I loved the remarkably characterful voice of Eden Espinosa as Anita. The Canadian Mikaela Bennett, a relatively late replacement in the part of Maria, shows promise. The decision to bring on Louise Alder (pictured above) to sing the one number, “Somewhere”, produced one of the memorable moments of the show. It is not just her vocal quality, she is blessed with an intelligence to make every word count, and an ability to give utterly convincing shape to every phrase of song and to the song as a whole.

The very best experience of this show is definitely to be had via the radio broadcast; it is stunningly good. There are seven more Proms this season featuring works by Bernstein.

After Tony has been shot and has fallen to the ground, all I could see was rows of audience heads


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters