Washington (June 2, 2011) – Perhaps understandably, there were at least two good-sized blocks of empty seats Thursday evening in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. After all, the National Symphony Orchestra’s program, led by guest conductor John Axelrod, consisted entirely of music by American composers—20th and even 21st century composers, in fact. And many veteran concertgoers long ago concluded that such repertoire was predictably unlistenable. Hence the empty seats.
But Thursday’s program proved the missing patrons wrong. Yes, there were some challenges in this music, but not daunting ones. And the centerpiece-finale of the evening, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3(“Kaddish”), a serious 1963 composition long ago consigned to the ash-heap by many critics and pundits, was given its own startling resurrection thanks to a fine performance by the NSO, assisted by the Cathedral Choral Society and the Children’s Chorus of Washington and given a greater seriousness of purpose by a new spoken libretto.
Mr. Axelrod, a champion of modern music, assembled the evening’s program with astonishing care, using each successive composition to develop the setting and mood for this concert’s signature work.
The program opened with contemporary American composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ Musica Celestis (“Celestial Music”), an intriguing, shimmering, shape-shifting piece that could be described as an uncanny blend of minimalism, impressionism, and New Age. Mystical, yet intellectually stimulating, Kernis’ composition—derived from the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1—continually morphs from one otherworldly mood to another, setting the stage for a program intended to be nothing less than a conversation between man and his creator.
From the sublime, Mr. Axelrod and the orchestra next shifted back to the seamier side of Planet Earth—namely the violent, corrupt, union-controlled docks of Hoboken depicted in Elia Kazan’s classic film “On the Waterfront” (1954). After some cajoling, Leonard Bernstein was persuaded to compose the score for the film, a fair chunk of which ended up on the cutting room floor—precisely the kind of thing the composer had feared.
The following year, he gathered his original “Waterfront” music and created a Symphonic Suite that he felt better conveyed, musically, the feelings and moods he wanted to provide for the film.
NSO’s performance of the suite was nearly as fired up and inspired as its performance earlier this year of Bernstein’s dance music from “West Side Story.” Ranging from the violent, crunchy fight music to the film’s all-too-brief romantic scenes, Bernstein’s “Waterfront” suite expresses a world gone terribly wrong and needing a hero to right it—expressed later on with greater sophistication in his Symphony No. 3.
Mr. Axelrod followed this composition with yet another contrast, the Agnus Dei of Samuel Barber. Barber’s composition is actually quite familiar to nearly everyone under its best-known title, Adagio for Strings, which—similar to Musica Celestis—is derived in turn from the slow movement of Barber’s own String Quartet No. 1. The Agnus Dei, however, is scored for orchestra and chorus with the latter singing the Latin words to the ancient Roman Catholic pre-communion supplication asking God to forgive the congregation’s sins. The choral setting is unexpectedly beautiful and deeply moving and was sung with great understanding and sincerity by the members of the Cathedral Choral Society.
With these preceding works, Mr. Axelrod completed the musical and spiritual context for his combined forces’ performance of the Bernstein symphony—a performance aided enormously by a deeply personal, deeply moving new spoken libretto penned by Samuel Pisar, a remarkable 20th century figure in his own right.
Bernstein’s symphony is a difficult work to play, sing, and conduct. Its jazzier and more violent sections converge in unusual, rattling meters, anticipating the robust 7/4 rhythm he later adopted in the first of his 1965 Chichester Psalms, which in turn borrowed thematic snippets and motifs from the symphony. The symphony’s more contemplative moments likewise were an influence on the second and third of these psalm/movements, both of which offer somewhat clearer insights into the musical ideas he developed for the symphony.
Critics of many stripes pounced on Bernstein’s symphony after its 1963 premiere. Music critics frowned on the work’s many-hued musical styles, which range from jazz to Romantic, to acid-tipped Schoenbergian twelve-tone rows. Religious critics were bothered by the composer’s apparently cavalier approach to Jewish theology in the work’s spoken narrative, which Bernstein penned himself. (He was later to irritate Roman Catholic theologians and critics roughly a decade later in his controversial Mass which was composed for the opening of the Kennedy Center.)
Truth be told, Bernstein was a uniquely American composer, attempting, perhaps, to be too many things to too many people. He was a Broadway boy at heart, seeing in nearly every human situation something theatrical. This is clearly evidenced in his Broadway music, particularly his astoundingly creative score to West Side Story.
But, somewhat like the poet Walt Whitman, Bernstein felt the need to incorporate “multitudes” into his compositions, attempting to re-create the American experience by creating a new American classical music incorporating the multitude of styles and influences to reflect the diversity of the only country in the world where national character is ultimately a state of mind. This would lead to what some would view as serious inconsistencies in his more “serious” compositions.
Not surprisingly, Bernstein also viewed religious experience as something both personal and inherently theatrical, a conflict that emerges front and center in his Third Symphony.
Legend has it that the symphony was composed as a kind of elegy for President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated just prior to the work’s premiere. The work was, in fact, commissioned by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the mid-1950s. Given the composer’s heavy schedule, he did not get around to working on it until the early 1960s, ultimately dedicating the work to Kennedy just prior to its premiere.
The inspiration for the symphony itself was the Kaddish, an ancient Hebrew prayer whose initial, central theme is the sanctification of the name of God, although it is now probably better known to the general populace as the Jewish mourning prayer (“Mourner’s Kaddish”).
While Bernstein’s music in the symphony is highly dramatic, his original spoken libretto—which he cast as a dialogue with God—was deemed as weak, superficial, egotistic, and theologically nonstandard. Along with the work’s more astringent musical sections, this awkward libretto helped consign the symphony to relative oblivion not many years after its premiere.
Bernstein himself was dissatisfied with the composition as it stood, continually refining the music and orchestration over the years. Yet it was his own uneven libretto that dissatisfied him the most.
Eventually, in a moment of great insight, it occurred to Bernstein that his longtime friend, Samuel Pisar, might just be the man to write a new libretto. One of the last of the Holocaust survivors, Mr. Pisar had led a remarkable, successful, peripatetic international life as an attorney, diplomat, and author since he was liberated, in his teens, from the Nazi death camps by American soldiers. Above all, unlike the composer, Mr. Pisar experienced the Holocaust first-hand. Any libretto written by him would have the immediate impact of utter and literal authenticity.
Mr. Pisar, however, did not feel himself up to the task and initially declined to write a new libretto. However, over a decade after the composer’s death and directly after the horrendous events of 9/11, he reconsidered his initial refusal and set to work on his new dramatic narrative, which he himself is delivering in these NSO performances of the symphony.
Mr. Pisar’s libretto possesses the overwhelming power and truthfulness of a passionate argument with God by a Holocaust survivor who can justifiably question the actions and the motives of a seemingly negligent or even absent Creator. Given the authenticity of his passions and observations, Mr. Pisar in one stroke eliminated the major weakness at the symphony’s emotional core. When he questions God’s motives and rails against His abandonment, his voice is actual, not theoretical.
But perhaps most importantly, Mr. Pisar’s narrative raises the horrific—and plausible—thought that evil forces once again seek control, planning in plain sight for a new Holocaust that won’t simply stop this time with the Jews. With booming and passionate conviction, Mr. Pisar, both in his libretto and in his delivery seems transformed into a 21st century prophet whose warnings of existential threat we ignore at our peril.
The NSO, choruses, soprano soloist Kelley Nassief, and above all Mr. Pisar combined in Thursday’s performance of the symphony to create one of the most frightening, thought provoking, and inspiring concerts of the season; and, in the process, resurrecting Bernstein’s neglected 20th century work as a 21st century warning to all of mankind.