Oakland Symphony Collaborates for ‘West Side Story’ Production

The May 10 Paramount Theatre production is a celebratory centennial concert of Bernstein’s legacy to American music.


Photo courtesy Oakland Symphony

Oakland Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan no longer waves his baton at the leisurely pace he long ago used as a 19-year-old conductor. While leading an orchestra reading of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony as a fledgling maestro in 1977 at Tanglewood Music Center in western Massachusetts, Morgan strove for clarity. “It was slower than the way I conduct it now. The tempo didn’t match the metronomic marks, which are actually very, very fast,” he recalled in a phone interview.

Marking the occasion as permanently memorable, composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein made a rare appearance. He praised the young conductor for his approach. “Bernstein as the guest artist taught very little that whole summer at Tanglewood. He only happened to walk into the session I was conducting because his rehearsals had been moved back.” Bernstein shared impressions and instructional feedback with Morgan and the musicians, and Morgan found Bernstein’s admiration a boost that decades later he continues to savor.

On May 10, the Oakland Symphony will play a celebratory centennial concert of Bernstein’s legacy to American music, West Side Story. With lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the Romeo-and-Juliet story is presented by the orchestra joined by guest artists Julie Adams (Maria), Bobby Conte Thornton (Tony), Eileen Meredith (Anita), and Ryan Bradford (Riff). The Oakland Symphony Chorus, led by director Lynne Morrow, and members of Mt. Eden High School Concert Choir, under director Ash Walker, also collaborate.

“We’re playing all of the music of the original show,” said Morgan. Instead of casting OS singers as Sharks and Jets gang members for pivotal pieces like “Gee, Officer Krupke,” young male vocalists from Mt. Eden have been added to the choir. “It makes no sense to have the adult chorus doing that song,” Morgan insisted. “You can get away with using an adult choir for other songs, but this one needs young people.”

With the focus on the music, instead of “the tremendous dancing you usually pay attention to,” according to Morgan, rising star singers contribute vital momentum. “Julie Adams is getting more important parts at San Francisco Opera. She won an award that comes with the invitation to do something with us and this work is a favorite of hers. Bobby is a rising Broadway star.” Thornton’s winning in 2011 of Bay Area Cabaret’s competition, Bay Area Idol, and his recent debut in A Bronx Tale on Broadway, drew positive critical, peer, and audience notice. Bernstein believed an all-orchestral/vocal production of West Side Story lacked the narrative arc of the complete production. Because there wasn’t an equivalent dramatic musical ending to mirror the tragic death of Tony, all-symphonic versions were not allowed during Bernstein’s lifetime. To address that issue and emphasize the work’s contemporary relevance and central themes, the symphony score will reprise “Somewhere,” in a choral version to end the show. “What audiences will take away is the possibility of the unity of the two sides. Or, in our current society, the many sides,” said Morgan. “The whole of Bernstein’s life was about social justice and the impact of what we now call diversity on American culture. He used the conflict between the white gang and the Puerto Rican gang. Bringing people together across various differences was a social statement; it’s a Romeo and Juliet story, updated and made relevant to a modern audience.”

Oakland Symphony, West Side Story, May 10, 8 p.m., $25-$90, Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland, 510-444-0802, OaklandSymphony.org.

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