The Choristers of Saint Paul's Choir School were honored again to sing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus at performances of Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish, Symphony No 3. The performance marked Bernstein's Centennial and featured Giancarlo Guerrero as Conductor, actress Laila Robins as Speaker, and Mary Wilson as Soprano soloist.
Boston Globe review.
By Jeremy Eichler GLOBE STAFF MARCH 16, 2018
The classical music world tends to lean a bit too readily on composer anniversaries as an engine to drive both programming and marketing. But every once in a while, the
attention focused by a big round-numbered year can occasion a broader and more
salutary reassessment of the composer’s place in his own time and ours. This is
actually happening right now in the case of Leonard Bernstein, who would have been
100 this year. During his own lifetime, and even afterward, his celebrity as a conductor
greatly overshadowed so much of his own music beyond the breakout hits. And so
there’s now a great potential for the ongoing centenary celebrations, coming to a head
this summer at Tanglewood, to give listeners a rare chance to acquaint themselves with
a fuller range of his output across so many genres.
Take, for instance, Thursday night’s Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of the
composer’s Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish.” Even though the BSO commissioned the
Symphony No. 3, this week’s performances are — rather tellingly — the first BSO
performances of the piece since its American premiere, in 1964.
More broadly, of all the many musical spheres in which Bernstein was active, his
reputation remains the least secure in the domain of his concert music. On one level,
the reasons for this are not difficult to discern. He wrote across decades during which
many “serious” composers were erecting ever-higher walls around the contemporary
composition and then retreating behind them, forsaking any role as performers and
tacitly casting suspicion on those who did not follow suit. It was also a time when
battle lines between adherents of particular styles were fiercely drawn. Bernstein,
however, refused to cast his lot with any one camp, preferring instead an extravagant
eclecticism that could in itself generate suspicion or downright scorn.
That said, fast forward some five decades, and the time seems ripe to hear these works
through fresh ears. Composer-performers are back on the rise (see: Adès, Thomas) and
the once-fierce polemics around myths of musical progress have, in most places, all
but disappeared. One can in fact view Bernstein’s eclecticism as anticipating our own
current moment, when so many rising composers treat the entire 20th-century gamut
of styles as a toolbox from which they freely pick and choose.
For his part, Bernstein scored his Symphony No. 3 for vast forces, including speaker,
soprano, chorus, and boys’ choir, and the work is titled “Kaddish,” after the traditional
Jewish prayer of mourning that Bernstein sets in each of the piece’s three
interconnected movements. The orchestral and choral writing covers a vast expressive
range, from thorny chromaticism and dissonant howls to passages of glowing
tenderness that feel as if they had slipped from the pages of a classic Bernstein
On Thursday, guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero led an organically shaped and
viscerally powerful reading of the score, one that fused the work’s disparate gestures
toward jazz, Broadway, Jewish liturgy, and the 20th-century avant-garde into a single
forceful whole. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus embraced its role with capacity and
zeal, as did the fine young singers of the Choir of St. Paul’s, Harvard Square. And Mary
Wilson, stepping in on short notice, contributed honorably as the evening’s soprano
But alas, in the case of Bernstein’s Third, it is of course the work’s extensive spoken
text, originally written by Bernstein himself, that has proven the most controversial
over the years, and here once more it proved the biggest barrier to an easy embrace of
this music. Sonically, it steals the foreground and diverts the ear from some of
Bernstein’s most ingenious orchestral writing. And in its actual content, it’s something
of a hash — a personal religious monologue that swerves melodramatically through
Oedipal, theological and political terrain, suggesting by turns a composer on the
psychoanalyst’s couch, an atomic-age Tevye-in-tails shaking his fist at the heavens,
and a skeptic’s post-Holocaust quarrel with a deus absconditus. Laila Robins, as
Thursday’s speaker, forcefully delivered the composer’s original version of the
narration, at times pleading in tone (“Do I have your attention, majestic
father?”) while also deftly walking a fine line, neither overplaying the text’s rhetorical
excesses nor pretending they didn’t exist.
All of this said, perhaps the distance of the decades can afford us at least the option of
responding to this symphony’s problematic overlay more contextually. It is, we might
say, the part of the work that speaks not as art but as artifact — as a window onto its
own composer’s fragmented inner life, the chaos churning beneath the commanding
maestro sheen. The text is also, incidentally, very much of a piece with its own Cold
War moment, when the dawning threat of nuclear annihilation had a way of
quickening the thoughts of religious believer and skeptic alike.
Opening Thursday’s program, in a canny pairing, was Tchaikovsky’s emotionally
churning “Pathétique” Symphony, here given a broad and spacious reading that aptly
set the evening’s tone. The Bernstein celebrations continue next week with his
Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety,” to be led by Andris Nelsons.