It’s Bernstein Season at the BBC Proms, with 11 concerts this year featuring his music. West Side Story is doubtless his best-known work, and the Proms is surely a natural home for this music: unashamedly populist, uninterested in generic or musical boundaries, and warm-heartedly keen to share the riches of musical history. In this semi-staged version both characters and text were truncated: much of Arthur Laurents' dialogue went under the knife, leaving only a skeleton of plot, and turned Anita, Riff and Bernardo into placeholders rather than characters with a real stake in the action.

Mikaela Bennett and Ross Lekites © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Mikaela Bennett and Ross Lekites
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Understandably, we lost the dancing, which could have been a catastrophic price to pay, given how integral Jerome Robbins’ extraordinary choreography is to the mood of both movie and stage versions. But all choreography came from the music and the John Wilson Orchestra, whose reading of the Mambo, ballet sequence, and Rumble were superlative. Wilson himself is quite something to watch, a conductor with a lightness of baton that one senses is very much amongst the musicians he works with, rather than directing them from on high: he just lets them get on with their considerable virtuosity.

A wise decision, as the condensed forces in the pit-band version of West Side Story demand bold, idiosyncratic participation from each individual player, so that the music swaggers and kicks its way into the audience’s sensibility. As much ink in the score of West Side Story is spent marking different kinds of attack as it is on the notes themselves, and in that respect we certainly got our money’s worth from Wilson et al. The brass playing throughout was indomitable, with the requisite shaking and sliding, jazzier and – dare I say it – more unrestrained than in Bernstein’s own recordings of the score.

John Wilson conducts <i>West Side Story</i> © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
John Wilson conducts West Side Story
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

But special mention should also go to luscious contributions from a (slightly augmented) string section, whose diaphanous playing in the more tender moments and Hollywood soaring in the expansive ones gave Wilson an exceptionally broad palette with which to paint. This was despite a slightly sluggish prologue – more a stroll in the park than pounding the pavement looking for a scrap – and a Cool that was, well, a little overheated and quick, even if the climax of the fugue section was the explosive release the music is begging for.

It was the big ensemble numbers that had the most fizz. America was a riot, as was I Feel Pretty; Gee, Officer Krupke was hilarious, with devilish characterisation and jocular physicality from the principal Jets.

Singing from the core cast was a little uneven, and the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustics present a challenge balancing voices with such a noisy, uncovered band, even with microphones. Ross Lekites’ Tony was suave and clean, and he walked the rhythmic tightrope of Something’s Coming with real panache, with a creamy legato when the song takes flight, and punchy delivery of the text elsewhere. His Maria was at its best when he vocally let loose at the top, but seemed to lose colour and definition in the lower register. Mikaela Bennett’s Maria was plangent and sweet-toned, and together her and Tony had real chemistry, though the sense of line in One Hand, One Heart seemed to escape them both, despite the tenderness they brought to it. Eden Espinosa’s Anita owned the stage whenever she was on it: A Boy Like That was spattered with venom, and the opening swirls and rushes of America had a bitter satirical edge.

Eden Espinosa and Mikaela Bennett © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Eden Espinosa and Mikaela Bennett
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The rest of the chorus was provided by students from ArtsEd and Mountview, who had real presence and force throughout, and the multipart Act 1 finale of Tonight – an ensemble number whose challenges, I remember from doing it at school, should not be underestimated – was thrilling and urgent. Louise Alder’s cameo in Somewhere was utterly ravishing.

Listening to the second iteration on the radio that evening, the balance was either much improved from earlier or simply better mixed in the broadcast, and the dialogue certainly had a bit more or a snap crackle and pop than the slightly fumbled back-and-forth of the afternoon performance.

Some dramatic and visual trade-offs were inevitable here; the performance as a whole should prompt companies like ENO or ETO to put on a version of their own, with all the bells and whistles and the technical and imaginative resources of a professional opera company. But scrapping much of the dialogue and dancing, and hearing the score’s key numbers in rapid-fire succession had its upsides, being a great reminder of its thematic economy and ingenious motivic construction. Beneath the stylistic gloss Bernstein paints on his music throughout the show, we hear a composer whose fearsome intellect generated a music of dazzling tautness and control.

***11