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SPCS sings with BSO

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.



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