Music review: NSO highlights Bernstein

For years now, women’s tennis broadcasts have been marred by announcers lamenting just how much better Venus and Serena Williams might have been had they only focused more on the game. That absurdity continues despite the fact that the Williams sisters — who have each won more Grand Slam titles than any other active women on the tour and have had longer careers than most other recent champions — keep demonstrating that their particular flair appears to be the secret to their impressive success.

Moral: We think we seek excellence and genius, yet we frown and tut-tut when someone goes about it in a nonconformist way. Exhibit A: Leonard Bernstein, whose music was the focus of the National Symphony Orchestra’s program Thursday night — and who is generally talked about in the same way as the Williams sisters. Had he only (focused more, composed more, been more disciplined — insert your remedy of choice here), he would have been truly great. So runs the party line. Bernstein’s greatness, in fact, lay in his being exactly who he was.

Thursday’s program (which repeats Friday afternoon and Saturday night), conducted by John Axelrod in his energetic NSO debut, was one of the most cohesive I’ve seen — every bit of it was connected. It linked three American composers: Bernstein, Samuel Barber and Aaron Jay Kernis, whose program-opening “Musica Celestis” is a veritable homage to Barber’s signature Adagio for strings, shimmering and emotive. That Adagio was represented in a choral arrangement (“Agnus Dei”) that Barber made of his most famous work, offered by the Cathedral Choral Society.

But the meat of the program was all Bernstein: a symphonic suite he fashioned from his film score to “On the Waterfront,” and his third and final symphony, “Kaddish,” itself a kind of film score. It is essentially a symphonic accompaniment to a long, narrated text, interspersed with settings of the Jewish prayer for the dead variously rendered by two choruses (the Children’s Chorus of Washington offered silvery voices and energetic syncopated clapping) and a soprano soloist (here, Kelley Nassief).

Bernstein shared with his confrere Gustav Mahler a penchant for theatrical music that longs to burst into words. Bernstein, however, often stumbled over the “word” part, mainly because he kept wanting to present great philosophical thoughts when his creative processes were actually a lot more simple and direct. In this symphony, written in 1963, his goal was to address the crisis of faith in our age — a subject he returned to in his “Mass.” But the text he wrote was sophomoric and embarrassing.

The alternate version that the NSO performed Thursday had its premiere in 2003 at Chicago’s Ravinia festival, also under Axelrod and also under the aegis of Christoph Eschenbach, then music director for Ravinia, now music director of the NSO.

Before his death, Bernstein spoke to Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor who went on to a brilliant legal and authorial career, about writing a new text. Pisar’s experiences and the directness of his prose, painful but never maudlin, gave him the moral authority to give weight to a conundrum of faith — how are we to reconcile religious faith with the nightmare events of our time? — that in Bernstein’s words sounded simply petulant.

The music is neither petulant nor profound; it’s just effective. The “Kaddish” symphony is not a deep work, but it’s certainly, with this new text, a moving one. Its melange of jazz and atonality and syncopated percussion and sweeping melody anticipates both “Mass” and the scores of John Williams (the symphony’s central theme evokes a passage in “Star Wars”) — a reflection of the towering influence that Bernstein had on a couple of generations of musicians that followed him, including Axelrod, who led it with a healthy if not very nuanced vigor.

The orchestra (which has played a lot of American music) sounded a bit rough around the edges but sometimes very beautiful (the violas, in particular, glowed). And Nassief — dark-toned, though hard to hear in the lower part of her voice — was a rich and tender presence, while the children’s choir threatened to steal the show.

It will be interesting to see how well the music holds up to the next generation, the people who weren’t yet born in 1990 when Bernstein died. I predict it will hold up better than we think.

It’s easy to find the flaws in Bernstein’s music, and yet it remains vivid: From the first notes of “On the Waterfront” to the crashing, Mahlerian surge at the start of the finale of “Kaddish,” it had a vitality that made it stand out from the other fine but more artsy pieces on the program. Bernstein’s virtue is exactly that he didn’t, try as he might, represent the kind of faux refinement in which classical music has come to traffic. Good breeding has no place here. That’s why it works.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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