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Cleveland Orchestra closes season in style with spectacular 'West Side Story' film presentation

By Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer ,

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Call it unorthodox. Call it populist. Just don't call the Cleveland Orchestra's season finale anything less than spectacular.

Sure, by performing "West Side Story" live with the film, the orchestra is breaking a few tired, unwritten rules. Instead of its traditional subscription brochure, the orchestra is taking a page out of its "At the Movies" pamphlet.

But who cares? The reward justifies the risk. Any number of core classical works might have filled the season finale slot, but the fact is "West Side Story" suits the occasion perfectly, better than just about anything else.

It's not just the season finale, you see. In addition to Severance Hall for the year, the orchestra is also bidding farewell to associate conductor Brett Mitchell, a staunch advocate of American music and of Leonard Bernstein's in particular. In that sense, then, this "West Side Story" is also an homage to his memorable tenure.

But let's make one clear: Even out of all context, this presentation is a joy. You may know "West Side Story" like the back of your hand. You may have seen the film or show a million times. Unless you were in attendance Thursday night, however, you've truly never seen a "West Side Story" quite like this.

Talk about larger than life. The screen Thursday night was big, but the Cleveland Orchestra was even bigger. To the experience the ensemble provided, no studio or pit orchestra comes close.

Anyone who's attended an "At the Movies" showing knows of the orchestra's ability to amplify a film, to bring a soundtrack into the forefront and make every action and emotion doubly poignant. Well, imagine the effect when that score is already one of the greatest of its kind, the tale is centuries old, and the film is an acknowledged classic boasting star power on just about every front.

The success of the overture might have been expected. As a stand-alone piece, it's part of the orchestra's repertoire. The rest, though, came as a series of miniature triumphs, surprisingly bold performances that made even the most familiar of tunes sound fresh and new.

Again and again, too, there was something magical in the contrast between the realistic (for the time) grit of the visuals and the supreme elegance of the music. At times, even as Mitchell kept the players in seamless balance with the film, not even Rita Moreno or a dubbed Richard Beymer or Natalie Wood were equal to the orchestra.

To call out highlights would be to list almost every musical number in "West Side Story." Still, a few moments stand out from the pack. "America" is always a hit; in this account, it was a smash. "Tonight," too, was thrilling, and "Gee, Officer Krupke" was a tsunami of song. "Cool" never gets much respect, but in this version, it fully lived up to its name, right along with the rousing "Jet Song."

At first, Thursday night, the audience kept its clear desire to applaud in check. But that restraint did not last long. After two or three of the bigger numbers, the floodgates burst open and remained open through the credits and beyond.

Bernstein. Jerome Robbins. Stephen Sondheim. The orchestra and Mitchell. All, in the end, received due praise for a job exceedingly well done.


Cleveland Orchestra

What: Brett Mitchell conducts Bernstein's "West Side Story."

When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 2 and 3, and 3 p.m. Sunday, June 4.

Where: Severance Hall, 11001 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.

Tickets: $49-$162. Go to or call 216-231-1111.
Tags: 1961 film, leonard bernstein, music, reviews
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