George Hanson and the Tucson Symphony Orchestra had us seeing things Friday night.
The bustling chaos of Richard Danielpour’s New York City. The tense standoff between rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks in Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” The tragically star-crossed young lovers in Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
In the darkness of Tucson Music Hall, we could see it all clearly, brought into amazing focus through an impressively taut, emotionally balanced and at times breathtaking performance by the TSO.
Hanson has long wanted to pair the two versions of Shakespeare’s love story — the traditional, classic take of young lovers caught in their families’ longstanding feud and the contemporary story of starstruck young lovers caught in the middle of a gang war.
Adding in Danielpour’s ode to New York “Toward the Splendid City” was a natural segue to Bernstein. In a pre-concert talk, Danielpour, who was in Tucson several days this week leading up to the TSO concerts, talked about how Bernstein influenced him early in his career. The two men lived within walking distance of one another in New York City and Danielpour would often run his works by the composer/conductor.
Hanson created the frenetic energy and unbridled chaos that paints the picture of Danielpour’s beloved city. The TSO’s New York was so full of life it was bursting at the seems. You could hear the restless heartbeat and thundering busyness conveyed with equal nods to the Beatles, Broadway and jazz.
Hanson, who like Danielpour worked with Bernstein in the early 1980s and was similarly affected, conducted “West Side Story” without a score. Under his baton, the orchestra was remarkable.
Bernstein wrote “Symphonic Dances” as something of a hit-parade medley that included “Somewhere,” “Mambo,” “Cha-Cha” and “Rumble.” It was fun watching the orchestra get downright jazzy, right down to the finger-snapping that opens the “Prologue” and speaking the word “cool” during the “Cool” fugue.
Prokofiev’s version of “Romeo and Juliet” leans more classical, with sweeping string passages and urgent percussive and brass interruptions that paint a picture of desperation and hopelessness. But Hanson let us linger in the moments of remarkable tenderness, reminding us that at the center of the hatred was two young people discovering love for the first time.
Friday night reminded us of how music — especially when performed at this caliber — can help you escape. The hardest part for the 1,329 people in the hall was coming back to reality after the final applause.
Tucson Symphony Orchestra “Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story” repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday at Tucson Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Click here for details.