Like the Shakespearean drama that inspired it, Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet version of “Romeo and Juliet” is a marathon course paved in potholes for performers. Clocking at two and a half hours in its full form, the score is packed with finger-numbingly fast passages, angular contrasts, gargantuan climaxes, and peculiar rhythms. It is music that regularly trips up the best orchestras in the world.
So the idea that the Missoula Symphony Orchestra – a small-budget band made up mostly of amateur community players – would even attempt to play a condensed 45 minutes worth of the ballet’s highlights might seem a recipe for “straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps,” to borrow the Bard’s own words.
But as the star-crossed lovers remind us in Shakespeare’s drama, love has a way of transcending expectations.
Lately, so does the MSO.
On Sunday afternoon, the orchestra undertook a concert program nominally built around a theme of “Forbidden Love.” Anchored by a sprawling suite of Prokofiev’s music, the concert also featured musical highlight-reels from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.”
First up was the Gershwin suite, an all-instrumental arrangement of the opera’s well-known tunes, assembled by composer Robert Russell Bennett. In a lecture preceding the concert, conductor Darko Butorac asserted that Bennett’s arrangement was so fine, it was a case of “genius dealing with genius.” Though pleasant enough, the score proved Butorac’s comments more generous than genuine. Dashing from familiar melody to familiar melody with little in the way of connective tissue to unify it, the music was certainly pleasant, but lacked the heft of the opera’s great moments. The orchestra gave the score a sonorous if dispassionate reading, leaving tunes like “It Ain’t Necessarily So” sounding more like a sleepy southern ditty than a spicy, wry jab at Biblical authority.
Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” by contrast, is truly a case of genius dealing with genius. Bernstein crammed most of his famed Broadway musical’s finest moments into this instrumental score, and he did so in a way that created a satisfying dramatic arch that never feels patched-together. Though shorter than the Prokofiev score, the Symphonic Dances are easily as difficult, racing along in multiple time signatures and packed with fiendishly difficult syncopations.
From the very first notes, the MSO played like a band on fire, with an intensity and punch unheard in the Gershwin. Both scores feature a well-known ballad – Gershwin’s “Summertime;” Bernstein’s “Somewhere.” Where the orchestra’s performance of the Gershwin tune swooned toward somnambulance, its take on “Somewhere” was edgy and vulnerable, perfectly capturing the music’s sense of yearning. Even more impressive was its sprint through the famous Mambo, which boasted not only articulate playing of the dizzying rhythms, but also a fine sense of shape and color. The performance roused the near-capacity crowd to an enthusiastic ovation to end the first half of the concert.
Where Bernstein’s score derives its sizzle from sharp Latin rhythms and unexpected rhythmic twists, Prokofiev’s music builds primarily around dramatic contrasts. This is evident from its opening bars, when enormous tangles of brutal sound alternate with delicate threads of musical filament. It is a score that ranges through comic, jaunty marches, nigh-hallucinogenic reveries, red-blooded musical battle-scenes, and lush ballads – sometimes all within the space of one brief musical section.
For the performance, the orchestra cut the house lights, leaving only some colored mood-lighting to silhouette the players on stage. The effect lent an added sense of drama to a performance that was taut, dramatic, even swaggering at times. The highlights were almost too plentiful to mention, from the playfully teetering pizzicato melody of “Romeo at the Fountain,” to the gloriously tender violin solo of Margaret Baldridge in the Balcony sequence, to the absolutely breathtaking string swirl of “Tybalt’s Death.” Aside from some recurrent intonation struggles with the high-register string writing peppered throughout the score, the orchestra managed the many challenges of the piece, giving it a reading that was not only clear, but illuminating.
All in all, the concert was perhaps the most impressive testament yet to the orchestra’s improvements in recent years. It wasn’t perfect; but as in love, sometimes it’s the rough edges that remind us of what’s good at the core.
The Missoula Symphony returns to the University Theatre stage on March 14 & 15 along with the MSO Chorale for concert performances of Giuseppi Verdi’s Requiem.