Leonard Bernstein was never happy with the text to his Symphony No. 3, written to lament the death of President Kennedy. Following its 1963 debut, he believed the version of the Jewish prayer for the dead needed a stronger feel. When he met Samuel Pisar, he knew he had found the perfect librettist.
Pisar, the youngest survivor of Auschwitz, became an international lawyer, author, humanitarian, and adviser to presidents and world leaders. Pisar watched several decades pass before he was convinced to undertake revisions of the project.
"After 9/11, I knew I had to comply with Bernstein's final wish," he said. John Axelrod conducts the National Symphony Orchestra this week in Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony, narrated by Pisar. They are joined by the Cathedral Choral Society, the Children's Chorus of Washington and soprano soloist Kelley Nassief.
"The Washington concert has incredible significance because Pisar has dedicated his work to his good friend Bernstein, who composed the 'Fanfare for JFK' that he greatly admires," Axelrod said. "Now it is being performed for the first time in the building that memorializes Kennedy.
"When Samuel and I first met before the Ravinia debut and worked with Christoph Eschenbach to coordinate the score and the text, we were like kindred spirits, two young boys in a sandbox. The only major change we made was a space added after the Tower of Babel and before the finale to create a long interval in which he gives his sermon, first a message to the world, then his personal message of optimism.
"Sam has a voice like Gregory Peck and a commanding presence like the statesman he is. He has a tremendous ability to attract attention and the power a rabbi, a priest or an imam might present to a congregation. All four pieces on the program deal with the struggle of humanity. The 'Kaddish' is man's battle with god and each other."
Pisar's emotional text opens with an invocation. He is haunted by his own survival, having seen his father tortured, executed and tossed into a mass grave and his mother, sister and schoolmates sent off in a cattle train.
Pisar and Axelrod, who studied with Bernstein and shared a mutual interest in music of all genres, have presented this masterpiece many times with major orchestras in several countries since debuting it at Chicago's 1993 Ravinia concert. In September, they will appear in Moscow with the Russian National Symphony Orchestra at the invitation of the Russian government to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11.