This past weekend will be remembered as a highlight of the Tanglewood season. It featured a concert version of “The Great Gatsby,” an opera by John Harbison, and the 1961 film “West Side Story,” with Leonard Bernstein’s score played live by the full orchestra. Both are for singers (even if dubbed), and neither was in its originally conceived form.
As the Boston Symphony Orchestra awaits Andris Nelsons, its music director-designate, Harbison, who turns 75 this year, emerges as a major Tanglewood figure. Longtime faculty member and director of this year’s Festival of Contemporary Music, he composed “Gatsby” to honor James Levine’s 25th year at the Metropolitan Opera, where it was introduced in 1999, to mixed reviews before going to Chicago Lyric Opera.
Time has been kind to the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel that inspired Harbison. There have been films (most recently by Baz Luhrmann, starring Leonardo DiCaprio), public readings and this opera, from which Harbison has fashioned piano pieces and a suite. On Thursday in Seiji Ozawa Hall, the concert staging by the Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music was ably and unobtrusively conducted by the group’s director, Ryan Turner. “Gatsby” worked well in this form, as it reportedly had in Boston last spring, partly because it was revised and shortened.
Singers in front actually had some very clever staging, made to look easy even with onstage orchestra, and chorus crowded in the rear, They entered, moved from one music stand to another, acted a little and exited taking their scores, while two small screens with supertitles also gave scene settings. Formal dress — men in fancy shirts, women with ’20s headbands and similar head gear — suited both concert and period settings.
Harbison wrote the libretto himself, and its spot-on giddy Roaring Twenties pop tunes and tangos. Their jazzy lyrics were by Murray Hurwitz, and big dissonances that daunt outsiders were reserved for the orchestra. The new-fangled telephone functions as a character and an exit device, while the chorus leader, singing through a bullhorn, represents the radio. Old car horns, radios and a quintet over a backup of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March are Harbison’s gifts in orchestration.
David Kravitz, a capable baritone, portrayed Nick Carraway, the likable narrating visitor. His aria, with orchestrated train whistles, was a paean to the “middle west,” from where they all came to Long Island to meet their fates. Gordon Gietz, a strong, grainy tenor in a red vest, sang Gatsby, whose problematic history became a well-written, thoughtful soliloquy.
Soprano Devon Guthrie, a former Tanglewood Fellow in a sparkly white gown, put forth a sweet, unsettled and pastel Daisy Buchanan — not Fitzgerald’s careless coquette (played by Mia Farrow opposite Robert Redford in the 1974 film, or Carey Mulligan opposite DiCaprio in Luhrmann’s glitzy take).
It is hard to describe “West Side Story,” Saturday’s wildly popular concert in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, without frequently thinking “icon.” Bernstein, a Koussevitzky protégé whose show may be the definitive American musical, was lionized at Tanglewood during his annual visits, which included teaching lengthy, fascinating classes and conducting Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Music Center concerts.
This event, in which a full orchestra plays the original score (once misplaced, now recobbled) under the remastered film, has been a success in several countries over the past two years, and is on the schedule for Symphony Hall in Boston next season. The sound, elevated from pit band, is fabulous. That includes finger snaps rendered by mallets hitting blocks.
The haunting Romeo and Juliet story, with feuding families updated to inner-city white and Puerto Rican gangs, is grippingly conveyed, especially the second half. It is astonishing that the deadly rivalries and fights in this iconic work, with its dark resonances of “Carousel,” were filmed in garages, tenements and bleak ball courts. “Gee, Officer Krupke,” filmed in the street, is a breathtakingly complex, brilliant piece of work.
Another revelation is that the music is more important than the words to it. Stephen Sondheim is easily the greatest lyricist of our time, but these Bernstein tunes — well, everyone knows the tunes of “Tonight,” and also “Maria” but few know more words than the first couple of lines.
Conductor David Newman (son of Hollywood composer Alfred Newman) has led this piece in the Hollywood Bowl and in Lincoln Center, and has devised a complex system of two-second clicktracks and colored digital streamers to keep the orchestra and screen action together. He wore a black T-shirt and jeans, and sat during the dialogue.
The audience applauded each song and cheered as the orchestra played under the closing credits.