Nothing could be more natural than that the New York Philharmonic play West Side Story. The musical is set on the very ground that is Lincoln Center today—and Lincoln Center has been the home of the Philharmonic since the 1960s. West Side Story was composed by Leonard Bernstein, who was the music director of the Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969. Bernstein is the conductor with whom that orchestra is most associated.

The Philharmonic is supposed to have Bernstein and West Side Story “in its dna.” The Philharmonic is “Lenny’s orchestra.”

I would take that with a grain of salt. And the claim that the Philharmonic is “Mahler’s orchestra”? I would take that with a sack of salt. Mahler hasn’t conducted the orchestra since 1911; Bernstein since 1989. Conductors and players come and go. Things change, over the eras. I don’t believe in orchestral dna (outside the Vienna Philharmonic and a handful of other orchestras). But we tell one another nice stories.

Like other orchestras, the New York Philharmonic has movie nights. An orchestra plays a soundtrack as the movie unspools on a big screen overhead. These nights are meant to put fannies in the seats, and do. At the beginning of the current season, the Philharmonic accompanied—played the soundtrack of—West Side Story. Not the original movie, from 1961, but the movie that came out two years ago.

Bernstein feared that he would be remembered as a conductor, not a composer. In other moments, he feared that he would be remembered for West Side Story, to the exclusion of everything else he wrote. But consider: West Side Story is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a masterpiece (and there is no need to qualify “masterpiece” with “popular” or any other word).

West Side Story offers one enduring song, or duet, or ensemble piece, after another. “Maria” is an outstanding tenor aria. “Tonight” is a rhapsodic duet. “America” gets under the hardest skin. “I Feel Pretty” is a model waltz-song, something that Brahms would have admired. “Gee, Officer Krupke” is comedy gold. “I Have a Love” is another duet, with a Straussian nature. “Somewhere” is an art song, or Lied, if you like. In a centennial appreciation of Bernstein, published in the February 2018 issue of this journal, I said that “Schubert wouldn’t have minded putting his name to it.”

I further wrote,

As long as there is anything like musical theater, there will be West Side Story. As long as people want to sing and play and dance, there will be West Side Story. Those proverbial cockroaches that will survive a nuclear holocaust? They will have West Side Story to enjoy.

The two movies are exactly sixty years apart. The 1961 movie is etched in the memories of many, many people. The 2021 movie ought to be too. It is a great movie, in my estimation. I could argue for it across many pages. But I will confine myself to a few words, a few facts: music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; choreography stemming from Jerome Robbins; direction by Steven Spielberg; all undergirded by William Shakespeare. What more do you want?

I have a complaint, actually: there is some poor singing in the movie. In other circumstances, poor singing might kill a musical. But the Spielberg movie overcomes it, easily.

The movie was a flop at the box office. This put me in a gloomy mood about the cultural condition of our country, and it still does. “But,” you could say, “the movie came out during a pandemic!” True—but so did a Spider-Man, which made squillions.

Spielberg’s conductor—the conductor of Bernstein’s score in the Spielberg-directed movie—is Gustavo Dudamel. He is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and is set to take up the same post at the New York Philharmonic in 2026. The orchestra in the movie is the New York Phil. Also the L.A. Phil. Apparently, the pandemic necessitated recording sessions on separate coasts.

In 2016, Dudamel conducted West Side Story at the Salzburg Festival. That is, he conducted a theatrical production, a quasi-operatic one. The production was screwy, in my judgment. But the playing was idiomatic and moving. On that occasion, Dudamel conducted his Venezuelan orchestra, the Simón Bolívar.

And who led the New York Philharmonic in Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, at the beginning of this season? Who conducted as the 2021 movie played on the screen overhead? David Newman, who had an important role in the film: he was the arranger and adapter of the score. He is from an illustrious musical family. His father, Alfred Newman, was a prolific film composer. One of his cousins is Randy Newman, of “Short People” and other fame. And there are yet more composers and musicians in the family.

If I remember correctly, the first music heard in Geffen Hall on the night in question was the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare. The music did not come from the orchestra sitting on the stage but from the screen, so to speak. I thought it would have been kind of neat for the orchestra to play the fanfare.

The orchestra played well on this night. When someone in the brass flubbed, early on, I thought, “You would never hear something like that on the soundtrack.” Which leads to a broader point: the Philharmonic did not improve on the playing that one hears simply when watching the movie—watching the movie in a theater, or even at home (especially with a good sound system). The evening seemed a little . . . unnecessary.

But then, not every evening, or concert, has to be necessary. A good time was had by all, I think. And West Side Story, for a hundred reasons—musical, dramatic, social—is overwhelming.

In recent years, many of us have worried about the song recital: its durability; its appeal to the public. In an interview, Anne Sofie von Otter, the great mezzo-soprano, told me that people would no longer sit for a song recital. They needed a show of some sort—something visual. More recently, another great mezzo-soprano, Frederica von Stade, told me the same thing. Songs, well sung, would no longer cut it.

If this is true, it is a cultural tragedy. But we have discussed that before, and can discuss it again, later.

In the Park Avenue Armory, Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch performed Schubert’s Schwanengesang. “Performed” is the word, really. More on that in a moment. Kaufmann is a starry tenor (German); Deutsch is a pianist (Austrian) who has long been Kaufmann’s recital partner and is one of the best in that business. The Park Avenue Armory is a vast space—as armories tend to be—and maybe the last place in which you would want to hear Schubert songs.

A scene from Schwanengesang at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo: Monika Rittershaus/Park Avenue Armory.

But on this evening, the songs had a produc­tion—by Claus Guth, the German stage director. “It was like an opera,” said my cousin afterward. True. Guth sets Schwanengesang in a field hospital, it appears. During World War I, possibly. The soldiers have been gassed, possibly. In any case, the production has a general point of view. You, in the audience, are told what the song-cycle is “about.”

But look: Schwanengesang is not even a song-cycle. It is fourteen or so songs that Schubert composed toward the end of his life, grouped by a publisher, after Schubert’s death, under the title Schwanengesang (meaning “swan song”). The songs aren’t meant to be a whole—production or no production.

In the ordinary course of things, Schwanengesang takes about fifty minutes to perform. I was wondering how Guth et al. were going to make an entire evening out of that. It turned out that there was music, or sounds, between the songs: in the main, big, drone-like sounds, industrial. Sometimes there was music that sounded like Muzak, a.k.a. elevator music, particularly of a creepy sort. At one point, Mr. Deutsch reached into the belly of the piano and strummed the strings, John Cage–style.

A scene from Schwanengesang at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo: Monika Rittershaus/Park Avenue Armory.

At another point, midway through the songs, Deutsch played a Schubert piano sonata—or rather, the slow movement of one of them: that of the Sonata in B flat, D. 960. That slow movement is one of the profoundest things that Schubert ever wrote (in a lifetime, however brief, of profundity).

Mr. Kaufmann was miked, and so was the piano. It could not have been otherwise, in the Armory. The tenor struggled a bit when high and soft, but he sang with intelligence, feeling, beauty. Deutsch was sovereign as usual, even in the bizarre, or unaccustomed, circumstances.

I did not like the idea at all—Schwanengesang with a production, Schwanengesang as an opera, or mini-opera. In fact, I almost resented it. These songs are to be absorbed by a listener, on his own terms. But the idea—whatever I thought of it, or you might have thought of it—was well executed, by all concerned.

The Metropolitan Opera opened its season with Dead Man Walking, the opera by Jake Heggie, an American born in 1961. The opera premiered in 2000. According to Met publicity, Dead Man Walking is “the most widely performed new opera of the last twenty years.” It is based on the 1993 book by Sister Helen Prejean, about her experiences with convicts on death row. The book was made into a movie in 1995. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song for the movie—a song nominated for an Oscar.

Sister Helen’s book has received a lot of artistic attention. She raises interesting and never-resolvable questions about the death penalty.

In the 2000 operatic premiere, Susan Graham portrayed Sister Helen, and Frederica von Stade portrayed the mother of the convict Joseph de Rocher. On the Met’s opening night, a third American mezzo, Joyce DiDonato, portrayed Sister Helen, and Graham was the mother. In opera, as elsewhere, there are shifts and phases. It can be sad and sweet at the same time.

A scene from Dead Man Walking, by Jake Heggie. Photo: Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera.

The Met’s Joseph de Rocher was Ryan McKinny, an American bass-baritone. Two seasons ago, in the same house, he sang the title role of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. I wrote, “He sang handsomely and embraced his role with pleasure. He did several athletic things onstage, including pushups during ‘Non più andrai.’” Those two sentences apply to his Joseph de Rocher, too (although “pleasure” is a funny word to use about that role, and he did not sing “Non più andrai”). He carried out this difficult role—difficult in its theatrical or mental aspects—persuasively.

About the great DiDonato, I have written thousands upon thousands of words over the years. Here and now, I will say something about language. It’s not easy to sing in English, even for native speakers. People often sound stilted or affected. DiDonato sounds utterly natural. She was that way in her singing—and in her acting—overall. She was straightforward, unfussy, honest. She was natural in her “classical” singing, let’s say, and in the bluesy singing that Jake Heggie also includes.

One could say the same about Susan Graham (and I do).

In the pit was the Met’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. He conducted with his expected combination of head and heart. He does not slum or phone in when conducting a contemporary work; in fact, he rises. The orchestra played deftly and transparently. There was often a French quality about this playing. The principal clarinet, Jessica Phillips, was outstanding, as was the bass clarinet, Dean LeBlanc.

A scene from Dead Man Walking, by Jake Heggie. Photo: Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera.

Sister Rose is a minor-ish role, but Latonia Moore, the American soprano, made the most of it. She was her usual warm, personable self. Father Grenville, the prison chaplain, is a thankless role in that the man is unsympathetic and uptight. Chad Shelton, an American tenor, handled it very well, and sang with a bright, focused sound.

At the end of last season, Ivo van Hove, a Belgian stage director, made his Met debut in a Mozart opera—not The Marriage of Figaro but Don Giovanni. In his hands is the production of Dead Man Walking. The production is sensible, fitting, and swift. It moves from one thing to another, seamlessly. The production uses a lot of video—the audience is taken to the movies at key moments. Is this cheating? It is often easier to depict something in a movie than on a stage.

People say that if Wagner had lived in the twentieth century, he would have made movies—musical movies—and nothing but.

In any event, a director is entitled to communicate as he sees fit, within the bounds of artistic sense. In addition to showing pre-made videos, so to speak, Van Hove has the singers onstage filmed, projecting them onto a screen or screens above. Videographers do this, standing right there on the stage. At first, you think, “Are these characters? Are they part of the opera? Or are they technicians, amid the cast?” This is awkward.

The composer, Mr. Heggie, was on hand for a bow. The opera’s librettist, Terrence McNally, died in 2020. Sister Helen, too, was on hand for a bow. She is an activist against the death penalty. Dead Man Walking takes a position in this debate, or has the weight on one side. But there is room for an audience member’s own ruminations as well.

Before curtain, I said to a fellow critic, playfully—not intending anything serious at all—“Does this show have a happy ending?” He answered, thoughtfully, “It depends on your point of view.” Shrewd.

Yo-Yo Ma has made almost a specialty of playing gala opening nights for orchestras. He flies in, plays the Dvořák concerto (often), and flies out. That’s what he did for the New York Philharmonic this season (although I’m not sure about the flying part). I once asked a well-known cellist, “Do you ever get tired of the Dvořák concerto?” He was scandalized by the question, or pretended to be—this interview was before an audience. Without an audience, he might have responded differently. The most famous cellist of all, Rostropovich, started to play the concerto eccentrically toward the end of his career. I had the impression he was a little bored with it and was keeping himself entertained.

With the Philharmonic, Ma did not play the concerto eccentrically. He was free but reasonable all the same. Missing, to a large degree, was the traditional Ma sound (one of the most beautiful string sounds we have known). His best moments were in the cadenza, or quasi-cadenza, of the slow movement and in the final pages of the work at large. Those are good times to shine. (I have a cellist friend who maintains that, without the final pages—written by angels—the concerto would be very good instead of great.)

Yo-Yo Ma, Jaap van Zweden & the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo: Chris Lee.

On the podium was the Philharmonic’s music director, Jaap van Zweden. The program began with Beethoven: the Egmont Overture. Van Zweden conducted it like Van Zweden, and like Beethoven. The two are made for each other. In fact, Van Zweden has been known to conduct composers other than Beethoven like Beethoven: with that same solidity and rigor and bristling compactness. (The same was true of James Levine.)

After Beethoven came Tchaikovsky: one of that composer’s souvenirs from Italy, the Capriccio italien. (Don’t ask me why the noun is Italian and the adjective French.) This piece can be dull and dorky. It was not that at all in Van Zweden’s hands. He conducted the piece with flair and intensity. Frankly, I could have used a dose more sentimentality.

The evening began, not with the Egmont Overture, but with the national anthem. So had the Met’s opening night, the night before. Nézet-Séguin, the Quebecker, and Van Zweden, the Dutchman, conducted our anthem with care and intelligence—with a sense of responsibility, I think. To be appreciated

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 3, on page 46
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