Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish)

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God on Trial

 by René Spencer Saller

 According to Jewish tradition, mourners recite the Kaddish to prove that they still praise God, even in their grief. Although the title for his third symphony explicitly refers to the Jewish prayer for the dead, Bernstein’s Kaddish focuses on the living. More specifically, it deals with our need to find meaning in an absurd and indifferent universe. In the emotionally fraught original text that shapes this dramatic narrative, Bernstein’s speaker and stand-in hectors God, who remains maddeningly silent; after much pleading and recrimination, the speaker eventually finds, if not peace, at least a way to go on.

In Judaism, arguing with God is a time-honored tradition. From the Old Testament’s Job to the American poet Allen Ginsberg (whose Beat epic Kaddish, dedicated to his late mother, had appeared a few years earlier), Jews had been taking the Creator to task for thousands of years. Although Bernstein expected that his Kaddish would be controversial, this challenging and underrated symphony left audience members and critics more perplexed than outraged. The score presented various difficulties, mostly owing to its outsize ambition. It juxtaposed a crisis of faith with an underlying faith in humanity; it dramatized the dream of peace in a world of strife as a struggle between harmony and dissonance. As the music shifts from sublime melodies to unsettling 12-tone excursions, the narrator accuses, negotiates, and consoles.

Written for a large orchestra, a full mixed choir, a boys’ choir, a soprano soloist, and a narrator, Kaddish asks tough existential questions and doesn’t settle for pat or reductive answers. Even though it is nominally a prayer for the dead, it never mentions death at all. Instead, it grapples with the human drive toward self-destruction, the elusiveness of faith, the infinite ways we betray and redeem one another. In English, Hebrew, Aramaic, and an even greater number of musical languages, the symphony builds a Babel, a welter of voices. Our civilization remakes itself in crisis; out of the welter of voices comes a fragile, tentative hope. The final movement ends with a resolution, but it’s an uneasy one. Whereas a conventional Christian Requiem would end on a note of triumph, Bernstein’s Kaddish closes with a dissonant, suspense-laden chord.

Bernstein was finishing up the scoring of Kaddish on November 22, 1963, when the U.S. President, whom he not only supported but considered a friend, was assassinated in downtown Dallas. Stunned and grief-stricken, he dedicated the symphony “to the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy.” A few weeks later, in Tel Aviv, Bernstein led the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the world premiere. A month after that, he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the U.S. premiere, with his spoken text recited by his wife, Felicia Montealegre. Dissatisfied with the recitation’s excessive length, he revised the work in 1977 and recorded it for the Deutsche Grammophon label. In 1981, he conducted a performance of Kaddish in Rome, where the Pope, who had recently survived an assassination attempt, was in attendance. In 1985, Bernstein led the European Community Youth Orchestra in a performance to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Do yourself a favor and track down the Youtube video. By the final movement, the Maestro’s face is wet with tears.

Copyright 2015 by René Spencer Saller

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Ravel, Chausson, Falla, Sarasate

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This weekend (November 24–26), guest conductor Jun Märkl leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in works by Ravel, Chausson, Sarasate, and Falla. My program notes are here:

http://tinyurl.com/y9ffwr5x

If you can’t make it to Powell Hall on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, tune in to the live stream on St. Louis Public radio at 8:00 pm CST:

http://news.stlpublicradio.org/#stream/0

 

Berlioz, Khachaturian, Walton

Aram Khachaturian

This weekend, the St. Louis Symphony performs works by Hector Berlioz, Aram Khachaturian (pictured), and William Walton. If you can’t make it to Powell Hall this weekend, be sure to tune in to St. Louis Public Radio for the broadcast or live stream, which begins at 8:00 CST.

My program notes can be found here:

http://tinyurl.com/yclyk2up

The Flying Dutchman

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On May 4 and 6 (Thursday and Saturday) the St. Louis Symphony and St. Louis Symphony Chorus perform Richard Wagner’s opera Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) in its entirety. I’m very much looking forward to attending the Thursday evening performance with my mom, and I’ll be sure to tune in to the live broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio on Saturday night as well.

My notes begin on p. 25. Yes, I realize that I left a great many things out, but that’s what happens when you attempt to stick to your word count (and fail, but only mildly). I guess no one will miss my wanton gothisms.

http://tinyurl.com/mysgj9x

Nietzsche, Strauss, Dylan

Among other things, Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra is the 19th-century version of  “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:

“Verily,” says Zarathustra to his flock, “I counsel you: go away from me and resist Zarathustra!…. Perhaps he deceived you. The man of knowledge must not only love his enemies but also be able to hate his friends…. You are my believers—but what matter all believers… All faith amounts to so little. Now I bid you to lose me and find yourselves.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

(From Digressions I Must Omit from my Program Notes, a work in progress)

Lutoslawski, Mozart, and Brahms

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I wrote about Witold Lutoslawski (pictured at his piano), specifically his Concerto for Orchestra, as well as Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27, Mozart’s final work in that form, and Brahms’s Fourth (and final) Symphony. A slightly altered version of these program notes accompanied a recent Dallas Symphony concert.

 

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All-Mozart, SLSO

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I wrote about an All-Mozart program for the St. Louis Symphony concerts of October 7 and 8, with special guest violinist Jennifer Koh, who performs Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Also on the program: Symphony No. 31 (“Paris”) and Serenade No. 9 (“Posthorn). My notes begin on p. 26. (Please excuse the typo in the penultimate line on p. 29; I would fix it if I could.)

http://tinyurl.com/zow4rqo

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3

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Beethoven bust in Tower Grove Park. Photographed by me.

I wrote about Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (along with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte overture and Benjamin’s Viola, Viola) for the St. Louis Symphony concerts of September 24 and 25, with special guest Yefim Bronfman. (My notes begin on p. 31.)

http://tinyurl.com/zlvlgjd

I had far more material than I was able to publish, given the word constraints, so I’m also including some supplementary content in the form of a PDF, which I hope turns out OK. If it does, I will probably start posting my notes for Dallas Symphony, which aren’t archived on the symphony website for some reason.

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Vaughan Williams, Berg, Holst

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On May 6 and May 7, the St. Louis Symphony and St. Louis Symphony Chorus performed Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Flos Campi, Alban Berg’s Altenberg Lieder (with special guest soprano Christine Brewer), and Gustav Holst’s The Planets. That’s Holst in the photo. I feel tenderly disposed toward him because I am also extremely myopic.

My notes begin on p. 26:
http://tinyurl.com/z6y4rt8

 

Kraftwork

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I had the good fortune of interviewing Shannon Wood, St. Louis Symphony Principal Timpani, for Playbill. We met in his percussion studio/rehearsal space, across the street from Powell Hall. We talked about Kraft’s Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra, No. 2, his mallet business sideline, and lots of other fascinating stuff.

You can read it here if you like:
http://tinyurl.com/zs6g9mq