Berlioz is the big B at the Ravinia Festival this season, thanks to the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1803. But two other B-initialed composers are major parts of the mix as well, mainly because they are favorites of Christoph Eschenbach, Ravinia's music director who closes his nine-year tenure at the festival's helm this summer.
Both of Eschenbach's favored composers were included in Friday night's Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert led by Texan-born guest conductor John Axelrod. Beethoven, hardly a surprising presence, was on hand with Leon Fleisher as soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor''). But the other composer, Leonard Bernstein, might surprise those who consider Eschenbach an exponent of more weighty, solidly mainstream repertoire.
Bernstein, as both composer and conductor, was a major influence on Ravinia's outgoing music director, and his Symphony No. 3 ("Kaddish'') opened Friday's program. Axelrod's performers for the Bernstein symphony included soprano Kelley Nassief, the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus. Samuel Pisar, a noted international lawyer, longtime friend of Bernstein and, at age 16, one of the youngest Holocaust survivors, served as narrator. He read his own, newly written text in place of the original written by Bernstein himself. Never satisfied with his own text, Bernstein frequently asked Pisar to write a new one.
Premiered in late 1963 and built around the ancient Jewish prayer of mourning, Bernstein's "Kaddish'' Symphony resonates with all the flamboyance and aggressive emotionalism of its composer. God is praised in the most lavish terms as fragments of the Kaddish prayer emerge throughout the symphony, but He is confronted, criticized and argued with as well. Organized in three movements, "Kaddish'' includes a melting lullaby for soprano that appears like a welcome oasis in the final movement. But it also rattles the heavens with fierce eruptions from the chorus and orchestra whose percussion section includes raps, sandpaper blocks, whip and ratchet. Dominated by Pisar's compelling new text, "Kaddish'' received a powerful performance under Axelrod's baton.
Recited at funerals and in private devotions as a memorial for dead loved ones, Kaddish can be a puzzling prayer for non-Jews. In times of mourning, when the human spirit naturally rails against loss and pain, Kaddish is an unambiguous outpouring of praise for God's greatness and a request for peace on earth. No mention of death, no hint of "mourning and weeping in this valley of tears,'' as a once-ubiquitous Catholic prayer succinctly put it. Kaddish is as unshakable a confirmation of faith in God's goodness as human beings can make.
But alongside the Kaddish verses in his symphony, Bernstein's original, lengthy text lambasted God for the world's chaos. The narrator ultimately seeks reconciliation, but like a prodigal son, at first he shakes his fist at an implacable father and demands recognition for his own achievements and sufferings.
Pisar's text retained that anger-sparked trajectory, speaking of those "so cruelly annihilated in the Shoah/While you, King of the Universe, stood idly by'' and the concentration camps "where Eichmann's gruesome hell/Eclipsed Dante's imaginary Inferno.'' Delivered in a strong, clear voice, Pisar's words were both deeply personal, a Kaddish for his entire family murdered in the Holocaust, and evocative of every person's suffering throughout the world.
In its only Ravinia outing this year, the Chicago Symphony Chorus was glorious, often filling the idyllic summer night with squalls of clamorous, scornful rage. In the final, more hopeful moments, they were almost giddy with joy, aided by the youthful, light voices of the Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus. Nassief's lullaby was luminous, and she held her own nicely when orchestra and chorus were going full throttle.
Beethoven's piano concerto, coming after intermission, was equally extroverted but elegantly phrased. Fleisher's playing sounded muddy in many of the showier moments, but the concerto's quieter passages were full of delicate filigree.
With Eschenbach's departure, Ravinia is losing not only a music director but a chamber musician as well. A pianist like his predecessor James Levine, Eschenbach made sure that his Ravinia seasons included a large number of chamber concerts from accompanying solo singers to appearing with instrumental colleagues.
On Thursday night he made his first chamber appearance of the summer, joining the Borodin String Quartet in Shostakovich's familiar G minor Piano Quintet, Op. 57 in the Martin Theatre. Formed in Moscow in 1945, the Borodin Quartet worked closely with Shostakovich, and they have had a close relationship in recent years with Eschenbach in his post as music director of the Hamburg NDR Symphony.
The pairing was a robust one, with Eschenbach's lean, muscular piano jangling against the gleefully swaggering strings.