Learning to Hate: A Story Whose Relevance Reaches Beyond the West Side

West Side Story

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Hollywood Bowl. Photo: my iPhone

At the climax of West Side Story, Maria brandishes the gun that killed her star-crossed lover, Tony, and declares that, “We all killed him,” because of the unbroken cycle of violence and hate between the two rival gangs.

“I can kill now,” Maria screams, “Because I hate now too!”

When they programmed a concert performance of West Side Story for this summer at the Hollywood Bowl, the LA Phil didn’t know the shows would take place at a moment when Americans are having an earnest, frank discussion about race, guns, power, and fear of The Other in the wake of a series of tragic murders by and of police. But as rapper Jay Z said when he released the song “Spiritual,” (written in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, but not finished or released until last week) sadly, “this issue will always be relevant.”

And that’s the problem with America, the problem with this planet. These kinds of stories will always be relevant. West Side Story, performed Thursday night by the LA Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, felt chillingly relevant. The story of learning how to hate a human being simply because of who he or she is was relevant when Shakespeare told it in the 1590s, it was relevant when Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim told it in the 1950s, and it will be relevant when the next writer, composer, or filmmaker tells it in the future.

Thursday’s performance, for me, had the urgency of the moment on its side. Three hours before the downbeat, President Obama had gathered law enforcement officers and advocates together with activists for #BlackLivesMatter and families of victims of police violence for a public conversation about how each side viewed The Other and how we could find common ground on this contentious battleground. As he did in his speech at the police officers’ memorial service in Dallas, President Obama voiced his optimism, saying, “Nobody’s more hopeful than me. I’m Mr. Hope when it comes to these issues. I’ve said from the start that we are not as divided as we seem.”

Those words, and more, from the President’s town hall meeting were ringing in my ears as Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil started playing Leonard Bernstein’s music. Considering the challenging circumstances of the Hollywood Bowl, the performance was remarkably well-executed. (The orchestra was set up in front of a raised area that acted as the stage for the actors–the regular stage of the Bowl functioned as an orchestra pit. The actors were miles away from the conductor; sight-lines seemed awkward for the actors and some of the musicians of the orchestra. Hearing one another is always difficult on a stage that large.)

Still, it was well-executed…and also fun. The audience was primed to be swept up in this familiar show. They snapped along with “Cool,” and shouted out at the appropriate times during “Mambo.” For purely nostalgic reasons, I was super-excited to hear Dudamel and the LA Phil do “Mambo,” because that’s the first piece of music I ever saw Dudamel conduct. (You know, that 2007 performance from the BBC Proms with the dancing, trumpet-spinning Bolivares.)

Solea Pfeiffer, making her Hollywood Bowl debut, was stunning as Maria. As Tony, Jeremy Jordan was solid, but played the character a bit on the smarmy side. Drew Foster brought the house down as Action in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a song which is more than just comic relief–it’s the song which points us back to the thesis of the entire show and forward to the climactic moment with Maria brandishing the gun.

In “Gee, Officer Krupke,” Action looks to everyone else as he searches for a reason as to why he’s “so bad…psychologically disturbed…a mess…sociologically sick…a jerk…no good…no damn good.” He blames his parents, society, the system, anyone but himself.

Later, after Action and a group of Jets assault Anita in the drug store and she leaves to go set the fatal flaw in motion, Doc asks Action, “What does it take to get through to you? When do you stop? You make this world lousy!”

To which, Action replies, “That’s the way we found it, Doc.”

For Maria, however, it’s no one’s fault but her own. In the end, gun drawn, Maria owns her own hate. She says, “We all killed him,” but she includes herself in that indictment. In so doing, Maria accepts responsibility for the perpetuation of the story. “I can kill now, because I hate now too!”

Tony’s death is not the tragedy. That Tony and Maria are never able to realize their love for each other is not the tragedy. The tragedy is that we will continue to learn to hate The Other. The tragedy is that the story will go on.

Ultimately, Maria lays her weapon down, but Leonard Bernstein’s music suggests she doesn’t lay her hate down with it. The upper strings and woodwinds try to resolve the drama with a reprise of the theme from “Somewhere,” but the lower strings and timpani punctuate this with the dissonance of a tri-tone. The interval that was designated as “dangerous” by medieval composer Guido d’Arezzo and referred to as “The Devil in Music” in the 18th century is the interval that punctuates the conclusion and attempted resolution of this story.

Hate wins in West Side Story. But in life, love must win. Otherwise, we keep telling this same tragic story over and over and over again. Accepting responsibility is a start. Maria doesn’t say the Jets made her hate or the cops made her hate or the culture of gang violence made me hate. She just says, “I hate.”

When we recognize hate of The Other in ourselves, how do we respond? Do we blame someone or something else like Action did? Or do we accept responsibility like Maria did? We all fail. We all hate. It’s what happens next that counts.

Conductors Conducting the Climax of Mahler 2

The Symphony No. 2 by Gustav Mahler is the biggest, most epic symphonic statement since Beethoven’s 9th. It’s subtitled “Resurrection,” and the work climaxes with the words:

O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!

With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!

Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!

Mahler wrote the text himself and set it to the most glorious, heaven-storming music that had ever been written.

Here’s what it sounds like:

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No doubt, Bernstein is the best. He seems to be genuinely reacting to the ecstasy of the moment. As you can imagine, such an epic musical and poetic statement elicits an incredible amount of podium histrionics from various conductors. A close second to Bernstein, in terms of raw emotional choreography, is Sir Simon Rattle.

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You’d think Gustavo Dudamel would have a similarly crazy reaction to this music–after all, one of the great inspirations in his life is Leonard Bernstein–but here, he is remarkably restrained.

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Oh, sure, he’s still into the music, but not with his trademark unbridled passion.

If there’s one general consistency throughout conductors’ interpretations of Mahler 2, it’s that the mouth must be open. From typically reserved Claudio Abbado…

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…to the exuberance of Zubin Mehta.

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Valery Gergiev (not famous for being a Mahler conductor) tries to keep his mouth closed…and, it seems, choke back some tears.

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Myung-whun Chung has ice in his veins and wields his baton with the precision of a surgeon.

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Pierre Boulez has steely resolve that borders on stoicism. (Would you expect anything else from Pierre Boulez?)

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Mariss Jansons wins the award for Best Facial Expression.

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Christoph Eschenbach wins the award for Best Head Movement.

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And Riccardo Chailly wins the award for Most Deranged.

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So, there you have it. The many faces of the ecstasy and bliss that is Mahler’s Second Symphony. Now, go listen to a complete performance of it. I suggest this one:

11 Conductors Who Are Doing Something Else While Conducting

1. Herbert von Karajan grumpily churning the butter.

Karajan Churning Butter

 

2. Valery Gergiev mostly likely suffering from food poisoning.

Gergiev Has Food Poisoning

 

3a. Gustavo Dudamel suddenly noticing there’s a scorpion on his hand.

Dudamel Scorpion

3b. Gustavo Dudamel touches a hot stove and refuses to learn that he will get burned.

Dudamel Hot Stove

 

4. Pierre Boulez brings you the glass of wine you ordered which he totally disapproves of.

Boulez as a Waiter

 

5. Otto Klemperer does not want anyone disturbing his nap. Even Beethoven.

Klemperer Falling Asleep

 

6a. Esa-Pekka Salonen surfing while high, dude.

Salonen Surfing High

6b. Esa-Pekka Salonen is an angry Atlanta Braves fan.

Salonen Tomahawk Chop

 

7. Carlos Kleiber casually pulling a tiny baby out of his pocket.

Kleiber Baby Pocket

 

8a. Sir Simon Rattle: sex machine.

Rattle Watching

8b. Sir Simon Rattle reenacting a few tricks from his Vegas magic show.

Rattle Magic Tricks

 

9. Charles Munch talking to himself and not caring what you think.

Munch Talks to Himself

 

10a. Leonard Bernstein trying and failing to keep his heart from exploding.

Bernstein Ectsasy

 

10b. Leonard Bernstein looking like someone who’s really happy about stabbing his wife.

Bernstein Stabbing

 

11. Stanisław Skrowaczewski is genuinely moved by the music.

Skrowaczewski is Moved

Number 9, Number 9, Number 9…A Symphonic Revolution

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What if there were only nine symphonies? That’s the question CK Dexter Haven over at All is Yar asked himself over the holiday season, while on his way to Santa Barbara wine country. (Ah, the things we ponder while pursuing wine…)

“Nine has been a magical number of sorts for symphonies ever since Beethoven wrote that many and stopped,” CKDH wrote. (There’s also that whole curse of the ninth thing.) So, CKDH proposed making a list of nine he couldn’t live without. His ground rules included:

  • Only one symphony per composer
  • Only symphonies numbered 1-9.  No names either: e.g. Symphonie fantastique, Symphony of Psalms, Symphonic Dances, etc. (Or even Harmonielehre, even though that’s totally a symphony no matter what John Adams says.)
  • No duplicate numbers. In other words, one Sym #1, one Sym #2, one Sym #3, etc.

CKDH called this a “puzzlechallengegame of sorts.” And then he challenged me to come up with my own list.

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My response?

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And “fun/impossible” is exactly what it turned out to be. Nevertheless, I have done it…for now…and I absolutely reserve the right to change any or all of these at any time in the future, because I’m *not* stuck on a desert island, damn it! At least, not yet.

Okay…deep breath. Continue reading