Dallas — The Dallas Symphony, under musical director Jaap van Zweden, delivered a definitive performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, subtitled “Kaddish,” on Thursday evening at the Meyerson Symphony Center.
The program also included the composer’s quasi-violin concerto, Serenade, which is based on Plato’s Symposium, a famous discussion about love. This received a stunning performance featuring the Dutch violinist Liza Ferschtman.
It was a remarkable evening to hear these two works played in such a fine manner on one concert. The Serenade is heard occasionally—the DSO’s Senior Associate Concertmaster Gary Levinson gave it a stunning performance with the DSO in 2004; but the symphony is rarely performed. In fact, this is its first performance by the DSO.
Little wonder why. It requires huge musical forces to perform.
The Kaddish symphony premiered in 1963 and is dedicated to the memory of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated just a few weeks before the first performance.
It is safe to assume that the DSO performed the 1977 revised version of the symphony. The composer was unsatisfied with the original version and took out a lot of the text (more could go, in my opinion) and made other changes to tighten up the work.
It requires a large virtuoso orchestra, a speaker/actor (on whose shoulders the work rests), a soprano soloist (although a mezzo sang the premiere), a boys’ chorus (here a mixed children’s choir), and a large SATB chorus. It is a budget-buster for certain, but CEO Jonathan Martin promised to program works such as this when he arrived and he is delivering on that promise, as circumstances permit.
First of all, what is Kaddish?
Not to get off on a religious tome, but a definition of this word is critical to understanding the symphony. Besides, the speaker’s text, written by the composer, is a cris de coeur, thrown directly in God’s face, from an angry doubter. He takes the opportunity to express all of the humanist thought that permeated the 1960’s. “You ask for faith, where is Your own?” he sneers. But all is reconciled at the end, although the final chord is unsettling.
The Kaddish is a prayer of praise to God, sanctifying and glorying in his holy name. As used in the symphony, it is a variation called the Mourner’s Kaddish and is a part of funeral services and other mourning rituals in the Jewish faith.
“I would say Kaddish,” the speaker intones. This phrase always refers to the Mourners Kaddish and is used in funeral services (other than at graveside). It never mentions death, by the way.
The definitive line of text comes early and it is, roughly translated, “May his glorious name be blessed for ever through eternity.” It is sung in Hebrew now, but was originally in the language of the early Jews, Aramaic.
This line of text is based on Ezekiel 38:23 (King James Version): “Thus will I magnify myself, and sanctify myself; and I will be known in the eyes of many nations, and they shall know that I am the LORD.”
The Orthodox Union translates it this way: “I will magnify Myself and sanctify Myself, and I will make Myself known in the eyes of many nations and they will know that I am Hashem.” (There are echoes of this in Daniel 2:20.)
There is a subtle change in responsibility when comparing the Kaddish text to its Biblical origins. “I will magnify myself…” becomes ours to make happen with “May his glorious name be blessed.”
Bernstein’s music is a kaleidoscope of musical styles: European Jewish music, Klezmer, 1960’s jazz (with its new Latin-American influences), Broadway musicals, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Miles Davis and even Chubby Checker. There are smidgeons of his previous and fragments of his future compositions, as well as a whiff of what he was conducting at the time, floating around as well.
The DSO’s performance was magnificent. Van Zweden is at his best at the helm of large sprawling works such as the Kaddish. He is able to steer multiple forces so that they are all going in the same direction – no easy task. He also relaxed some of his usually tighter control, giving the music its head where possible, and the DSO responded with a sterling performance.
Ronald Guttman used his rich baritone voice to give life to Bernstein’s occasionally overwrought text. Rather than an actor reading lines, he became an Everyman who is suddenly given a chance to directly talk to God. He is angry, questioning, doubtful, awestruck and even reverent. He delivers the touches of humor with the irony of that other, more lovable, character that regularly talks with God; think Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof.
Soprano Kelley Nassief sensitively sang the texts and projected the feel of a lullaby, soothing God to sleep so that the narrator can direct his dreams to reveal the faults of his creation. (“MAGNIFIED...AND SANCTIFIED...BE THE GREAT NAME OF MAN!” he shouts.)
This symphony completely depends on the choruses, and it is hard to image better performances than what was delivered by the Dallas Symphony Chorus (Joshua Habermann, director) and the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas (Cynthia Nott, director) on opening night. Even the way they stood up and sat down added to the drama of the work. Further, the children sat with almost unnatural stillness for a very very long time until it was their moment to sing.
When it was over, some 45 minutes later, the ovation was overwhelming. Because of the power of this performance, the piece will stick with the listener long after leaving the Meyerson. It is Bernstein’s mastery of music’s magical power to express the inexpressible and to move the listener on a level that is beyond comprehension that makes works like the Kaddish rise above its slightly dated text to the world of the sublime.
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