Leonard Bernstein could never decide whether he wanted to be the greatest composer Broadway ever knew or a modern Gustav Mahler, so he made up his mind to be both. Few of his major works walk the tightrope between concert music and theater music so precariously as his Symphony No. 3, subtitled "Kaddish," which John Axelrod conducted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus over the weekend at Ravinia.
This latest entry in the festival's summer-long survey of the Bernstein symphonies marked only the second time our orchestra has ventured this wildly ambitious symphony. Forty years after its premiere, debates continue to rage over its musical merits. That said, it is ideal outdoor fare, just the sort of big novelty that can attract audiences at a time when pavilion attendance is down 5 percent and there have been rumblings that CSO concerts could be cut back when the orchestra's contract comes up for renewal next year.
The Third Symphony takes up a concern central to Bernstein's music - the struggle between religious faith and doubt in a secular age - using the Hebraic prayer for the dead as a philosophical pretext. In its original form, the composer's text demanded that God put not only man's house in order but also his own before He were worthy of belief and praise. Even Bernstein devotees found it a melodramatic rant.
The composer later trimmed and tightened the narration, softening some of the more embarrassing passages. He left no definitive text at his death in 1990, which has opened the doors for others to create their own texts, with the blessing of the Bernstein estate.
Friday's performance marked the public premiere of a new "Kaddish" text written and spoken by Samuel Pisar, an international lawyer, author and Holocaust survivor who had lost his family in the Nazi death camps.
Pisar's text is very different from the original, but it fits the music. At once specific and universal, yet entirely personal, it holds the Almighty to account for his indifference to the mass annihilation of the Shoah; modern-day terrorists and religious fanatics, along with the history of oppression of the Jewish people, are addressed also.
One came away from Friday's performance pleased about the high level at which the "Kaddish" was rendered by the orchestra and choruses, unconvinced by Bernstein's background music - an extravagantly eclectic mix of 12-tone angst, jazzy riffs and Mahlerian sprawl. High-minded the score may be, but to these ears it veers too readily into pretentious bombast.
Pisar is not a trained actor, yet there was something deeply moving about his narration. Speaking deliberately and quietly, sometimes flaring into anger, this eyewitness to unspeakable horrors delivered an eloquent testimony of warning and hope to all people, Jews as well as non-Jews.
Axelrod, a protege of Christoph Eschenbach's who was making his Ravinia debut, led a tight, confident and commanding performance; the percussion-laden orchestra unleashed a controlled explosion of musical violence in the "Din-Torah" section. Kelley Nassiev floated her two solos with a dusky, vibrant soprano that soared readily. In its first appearance of the summer, the adult chorus delivered precise, fervent singing, humming and clapping, augmented by the bright, pure responses of the Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus.
Back for his 10th season as a member of Ravinia's Steans Institute faculty, Leon Fleischer celebrated his 75th birthday by playing the Beethoven "Emperor" Concerto. One has too much respect for this great American pianist to belabor the shortcomings of Friday's performance. One could only think back to the brilliant young Fleisher who gave definitive Beethoven performances before repetitive stress syndrome nearly ended his career as a two-handed pianist. He uses his right hand rather gingerly now, and this necessitates technical adjustments that did not save him from smudging entire passages. The grand arch of the music was missing in action.