Marin Alsop reflects on her early studies with Leonard Bernstein and how the themes of “West Side Story” are still relevant today. She also discusses her participation in The Somewhere Project, Carnegie Hall's 2016 citywide exploration of “West Side Story.”
Video: The Making of West Side Story: "I Feel Pretty" / Bernstein
How has Leonard Bernstein shaped your vision for the power of music in people’s lives?
I first saw Leonard Bernstein conduct when I was nine years old during one of his famed Young People’s Concerts. From the moment he came out on stage and began speaking to the audience, he shared his charisma and his obvious joy for what he was doing. And from that day on, I knew I wanted to be a conductor.
My father, who was the longtime concertmaster of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, knew how much I adored and idolized Bernstein. He later invited me to observe sessions as Bernstein prepared for what would be a famous remake of West Side Story. I remember sitting way in the back just in awe of him, listening to him work with the musicians and the singers and talk about West Side Story. For him, it was such a compelling story—I think for all of us it is—but the way he spoke about it was with such incredible passion. But it wasn’t just about music. It was about sharing his excitement about this great experience—one that he wanted everyone to have.
One of the greatest experiences for me was becoming a student of Bernstein’s in my late 20s. He exceeded all of my expectations—he was so generous, so loving, and so caring of all of his students, but I felt especially of me. Maybe each of his students felt that way—that was his gift. One of the most valuable things I learned from him was this idea of telling stories through music. He was a great storyteller. If he didn’t know the story of a piece, he’d make it up. He was always inventing stories because he understood that we, as human beings, needed a story. We need a beginning, we need a middle, we need an end; most important, we need a moral to the story.
Image: Marin Alsop in rehearsal
What elements of West Side Story resonate most personally for you?
I think the themes and the moral of West Side Story are what really resonate with us, even today: the themes of youth and independence, wanting to be your own person, making your own decisions, but being hampered by conflict and prejudice. There’s so many things that resonate so sadly with us right in this very moment of history. I think in the end, the moral of allowing love to prevail is one that is a great lesson for all humankind.
What makes West Side Story such an enduring work?
While the story is extraordinarily compelling, the music of West Side Story has its own narrative. Bernstein used the interval of the tri-tone—which used to be called the “devil’s interval”—to illustrate and embody conflict. That conflict resolves—albeit temporarily—when we finally arrive at the song “Somewhere.” We have this moment of true introspection and true questioning, but also a sense of belonging. “There’s a place for us,” and I think everyone wants to feel that. You want to feel that there’s a person for you, there’s a place for you, there’s a group for you … and there is.
Video: Marin Alsop on the influence of Leonard Bernstein
What opportunities does The Somewhere Project give you personally to build the world you imagine?
The Somewhere Project is so compelling for me and feels so close to my heart because it brings together my adoration and love for this man, Leonard Bernstein, with this idea that story and music can change the world. That is the thing about art: Art can protect us. We can explore feelings and issues, while being in a protective cocoon of creating. I think that’s why it’s so important not to shy away from issues of our time, but to really challenge them—full force—yet be willing to look at them with an open constitution.
What do you hope people take away from this production of West Side Story, as part of The Somewhere Project?
With The Somewhere Project, Bernstein would be most thrilled about seeing so many different factions—people from different demographics, of different ages—involved and participating. I think, ultimately, he would hope (and maybe it’s my hope, too) that everyone takes away a sense of belonging, that we have each made a contribution to this project and, in turn, this project has changed each of us.
Marin Alsop spoke with Carnegie Hall for this interview in late 2014, in preparation for Carnegie Hall’s 2016 production of West Side Story and The Somewhere Project, a sprawling citywide exploration of West Side Story.
The video clip of Marin Alsop speaking about Leonard Bernstein is taken from Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds, the 2008 festival co-presented by Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic, which commemorated the 90th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth and the 50th anniversary of Bernstein’s appointment as music director of the New York Philharmonic.
The excerpt from the 1985 documentary The Making of West Side Story is courtesy of the Bernstein Office.