Wherefore Art Thou?

The Tucson Symphony and Arizona Opera each take on the classic tale of 'Romeo and Juliet'

In perhaps William Shakespeare's most-famous play, the young lover Juliet muses aloud from her balcony, "Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?"

We can help her out.

(Yes, we know the line is more a question about her would-be boyfriend's lineage than his physical whereabouts, but please allow a little interpretive leeway.)

In the next couple of weeks, Tucson audiences will be able to hear a bounty of works representing the artistic responses of some of the world's most-revered composers to Shakespeare's story.

This weekend, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra is presenting a program that includes selections from Prokofiev's popular ballet Romeo and Juliet, teamed with Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances" from his groundbreaking Broadway marvel West Side Story, which, of course, is a modern, urban reworking of the R&J story. In addition, contemporary composer Richard Danielpour's Toward the Splendid City will be presented.

Of Prokofiev and Bernstein, TSO conductor George Hanson says, "There's one big thing going on, and that's two great retellings of the most-famous love story of all time. I'm fascinated at how connected the two pieces of music are, how the composers are inspired in similar ways.

"When you hear the composers' reactions to when the lovers meet and dance together, you'll hear a number of parallels, although they are telling the same story in two different musical styles. They are two of the most popular and appealing works in the entire repertoire, so I thought it would be fun to put them together."

Hanson actually had a long relationship with Bernstein, as both a student and an assistant, and his respect for the composer is obvious.

"He first invited me to study with him at a new music festival in Los Angeles. The following year, I joined him at Tanglewood as a student. Then, in 1984, I went to Vienna as a student; he was in Vienna to premiere what turned out to be his last work for the stage, an opera called A Quiet Place. I worked with him until his death in 1990 as an assistant on various projects, particularly recording.

"He was enormously personable and extraordinarily giving. But I would say the most-inspiring thing that a musician got from Leonard Bernstein was his total passion and complete immersion and commitment to the music he was conducting. That could be someone else's music, or it could be his own. But when you saw him work, you saw someone so completely consumed that it inspired all of us young musicians who had a chance to work with him to emulate at least that aspect of his music-making—total commitment."

Hanson also speaks with admiration about Bernstein's revolutionary contributions to the musical world.

"He succeeded in doing what George Gershwin tried and failed to do: to bridge the gap between what used to be called 'legit'—in other words, classical—music, and jazz, and he did it by force of will."

Hanson says that it's hard to imagine what it must have been like for the staid subscribers of the famed orchestra when Bernstein introduced the jazzy flavors of his music and also included the work of his American friends, including Aaron Copland.

"From that time on," Hanson says, "we American musicians have had the freedom to be involved in any kind of music. It used to be that if you were working on Broadway, you could never dream of being highly regarded as a classical musician, and vice versa, frankly. Leonard Bernstein is the one who really opened that door.

"He used to say there are only two kinds of music—good and bad—and this was the creed he lived by."

Hanson remembers being with Bernstein in Los Angeles in 1986 when, during the intermission of a performance, Michael Jackson came to the dressing room to praise Bernstein. "Bernstein embraced him and told him how much he loved his music, and he loved the Thriller album, especially. He had great respect for Jackson and the creativity of Quincy Jones. And then he could go out and conduct a Tchaikovsky symphony that would have you on your knees, weeping."

Hanson points out that Danielpour's Toward the Splendid City is a great fit for the program, because his piece and West Side Story "are focused on a patch of ground in Manhattan upon which today stand Julliard and Lincoln Center. You could play Richard's piece and segue directly into Bernstein's work with no stop, and it would make perfect sense to everyone.

"Anyone who comes to the program loving Prokofiev and Bernstein will leave loving the music of Richard Danielpour as well."

If you want a further fix of the haunting story of the young lovers, Arizona Opera will present Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette on Nov. 10 and 11. Candace Evans will direct.

Although Evans has directed the opera twice, and also the play, she says she is always discovering new dimensions to the story, because with each telling, "I am new. We mature and have experiences that allow us to recognize things that may have been right in front of us, but we weren't able to understand. And every new company brings new energy and personal experiences as well as their innate abilities."

Evans intends to use actors reading some of Shakespeare's text as "sort of a Greek chorus. Gounod's opera is a distillation," and there are some important omissions from the story most of us know so well, she says. "It provides a different sort of connectivity with the audience."

The story itself is "about the one constant—love versus hate," Evans says. "We have to be taught to hate. There's that wonderful song from South Pacific—'You've Got to Be Carefully Taught.' Why do we use labels? Why can't love prevail? We learn and then we forget, and we need to be reminded again and again."

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