Concert Review: Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony returns to Symphony Hall

This symphony is the finest synthesis of Leonard Bernstein’s considerable theatrical instincts within a concert framework, idiosyncratic and singular.

Giancarlo Guerrero, Mary Wilson, and Laila Robins with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the Choir of St. Paul’s Harvard Square. Photo: Robert Torres

By Jonathan Blumhofer

“Tin God! Your bargain is tin! It crumples in my hand! And now where is faith now – yours or mine?” So shouts the Speaker at the climax of the second movement of Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony. If you’re wondering where this piece has been all these years – the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) played it on Thursday night for the first time at Symphony Hall since giving its American premiere in 1964 – that contumacious line may provide a hint.

Finished in 1963 and dedicated to the “Beloved Memory of John F. Kennedy,” Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3 sets the familiar Jewish prayer amid the backdrop of a world coming apart by the seams. As he would do eight years later in Mass, Bernstein pulled no punches: with memories of the Holocaust and the shadow of the Cold War looming, the Symphony’s protagonist is not a musician but a Speaker, who hurls accusations at God, calling out His seeming indifference to the world’s ills before working through to a resolution in which, essentially, humanity and divinity are coequal.

It’s a tall order, not to mention a provocative one. But it’s thoroughly a product of its time and composer. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Bernstein wrote and spoke with some frequency about what he called the “crisis of faith,” the culmination of a mix of musical, societal, and religious breakdowns that marked the decades after World War 2. His three-movement Third Symphony wrestles with these themes directly and openly.

Often inventively, too: in its forces and organization, Kaddish must rank among the most original symphonies of the last sixty years.Click To Tweet Often inventively, too: in its forces and organization, Kaddish must rank among the most original symphonies of the last sixty years. It’s easily the finest synthesis of Bernstein’s considerable theatrical instincts within a concert framework, idiosyncratic and singular.

First, there’s the inclusion of the narrator who’s actually much more than that: an archetypal representative of humanity locked in a cosmic argument with the universe’s Creator.

Then there are the choruses (a mixed, adult one and a boys’ choir), which both engage in the ritual (singing the score’s three settings of the Kaddish prayer) and echo the narrator’s text (with clapping, foot stomping, and, most thrillingly, a multi-part cadenza just after the “Tin God” line in the spoken part). A solo soprano also participates in the last two prayer settings.

The orchestra’s involvement in the proceedings is similarly elaborate and often subtle, articulating the score’s principle musical conflict, namely the tension between atonality (which represents chaos, disorder, and unrest) and tonality (which embodies spiritual and emotional resolution).

From a musical standpoint, then, Kaddish is a forgetive score, tightly motivic, clearly thought through, and brilliantly orchestrated. It integrates two seemingly antithetical musical languages – Serialism and tonality – with a fluency that remains breathtaking (a technique that only became more refined over the last quarter-century of Bernstein’s life).

But its text is wordy, uneven, tendentious, and cliché-ridden. Bernstein was many extraordinary things, but a consistently great poet wasn’t one of them: “I have you Father locked in my dream, And You must remain till the final scene” goes one line in the Scherzo. An earlier one states “We’ll make it a sort of holiday, and, hand-in-hand, like eager children, we’ll watch in wonder, wide-eyed, the working wonders of perfectedness.” You get the idea.

Moreover, the narration sets forth a maze of philosophical and theological arguments that are impressively diverse in their sourcing – ranging from Old Testament traditions to the writings of Rabbi Levi Yitzhok of Berditchev to the radical, atheistic commentaries of Ludwig Feuerbach – but sometimes contradictory and simplistic in their application. How God can simultaneously be responsible for the universe but also a fictive invention of Man’s imagination is perhaps the fundamental riddle Kaddish presents and doesn’t satisfactorily answer.

At the end of the day, then, Kaddish is probably an irredeemably flawed piece. Yet somehow its shortcomings, especially in a convincing performance, don’t do it in: the strength of its music can raise it, if not entirely then mostly, above its narration.

That’s what happened on Thursday night, when Giancarlo Guerrero drew a spectacular, kinetic reading of the original 1963 version of the score from the BSO and extended forces. The orchestra’s playing was rhythmically tight, brimming with color, carefully balanced, and delicately shaded: this is a piece that was obviously well rehearsed but, more than that, one that the BSO took to with an alacrity it doesn’t give to all new (or recent) music. Their enthusiasm told and resulted in quite possibly the most persuasive take on the work one could have hoped to hear.

The night’s reading was anchored in Laila Robins’ straightforward but impassioned account of the narration. She’s not an actress given to histrionics and her fervent performance didn’t (couldn’t, really) cover for the text’s pleonastic episodes (Bernstein’s 1977 revision of Kaddish isn’t perfect, though it’s better and tighter, text-wise). But she didn’t dwell on the part’s cornier moments and, from the very beginning, tapped into a current that the rest of the night’s large cast easily channeled.

Among them was soprano Mary Wilson, filling in on short notice for an indisposed Tamara Wilson. She made the most of her moments, singing her second- and third-movement solos with child-like purity of tone, note-perfect intonation, and elegant diction.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) stomped, clapped, hummed, and sang their way through Bernstein’s involved choral writing, playing up the score’s theatrical effects (the wordless, aleatoric clusters at the beginning; the “Amen” cadenza in the second movement; etc.) with aplomb. They also navigated the contrapuntal rigors of the first and third movements with a nice mix of agility and gracefulness: clearly, conductor James Burton’s work with them is already paying dividends.

And the Choir of St. Paul’s, Harvard Square delivered the handful of moments given to the boys’ choir with gusto.

What to pair with Kaddish? Well, this weekend’s concerts frame it with Tchaikovsky’s moody Symphony no. 6.

It’s an apt choice. On Thursday, Guerrero drew a proficient performance of the Pathétique from the BSO, one that didn’t unveil any new, hidden depths in this familiar score but was well played and enjoyable, all the same. The brooding finale, in particular, might have made for a strange ending to the first half of a concert, but its despairing last gesture perfectly set up the Bernstein.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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