The stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was crowded last night to make room for the National Symphony Orchestra and 185 singers needed for the U.S. premiere of the revised version of Leonard Bernstein's Third Symphony, the "Kaddish," under the composer's conducting.
In addition, there were also mezzosoprano Claudine Carlson and narrator Michael Wager. In the "Kaddish," Bernstein wrote not Only strong music but strong language. Paralleling the ancient text of the Kaddish, which is sung in Aramaic, the narrator engages God in a one-sided conversation. At times he is angry: "With Amen on my lips, I approach Your presence, Father. Not with fear, but with a certain respectful fury. Do you not recognize my voice? I am that part of Man you made to suggest his immortality."
At times he is conciliatory: "Forgive me, Father. I was mad with fever. Have I hurt you? I forgot you too are vulnerable." Bernstein has explained that it is an ancient Jewish tradition to speak directly to God, to argue with Him, and to plead. It is a tradition that pervades the psalms of David.
Bernstein's Kaddish is a work of faith about a crisis of faith. In this it is a direct ancestor of his Mass, written to open the Kennedy Center nearly a decade ago. The music of Kaddish, written eight years earlier, reflecting the shifting emotions of the speaker and of the prayer that is its core, moves through waves of open anger to passages of serene lyric beauty. Much of the soprano solo, which Carlson sang exquisitely, is muted. The boys choirs from the Washington Cathedral and the St. Mary's Boychoir of St. Mary's County carried off their assignment handsomely.
The big chorus participates dramatically in the work, at one point even dividing itself into six or eight independent groups, each with its own director. Norman Scribner's Choral Arts Society handled every aspect of its role impeccably and the orchestra discharged its tough assignment with beautiful sounds and exciting playing.
Nowhere in his music as in the Kaddish does Bernstein more vividly and directly recall the music of Gustav Mahler which he has so long and so eloquently championed. In this choral symphony, he mixes characteristic jazzy ideas with some of a profoundly lofty manner to create the conflict and the ultimate resolution that is the core of the prayer and narration. A unique work, it makes a singular impression.
The concert opened with the Third Symphony of Brahms taken with unusual deliberation in a manner reminiscent of Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter. For Bernstein, the orchestra played with extreme beauty, following his infinitely detailed directions minutely. The pattern he established at the outset was followed logically to its conclusion. Ritards that threatened the very lifeblood of the music were never allowed to lose the necessary momentum.If no other conductor could make the great symphony work this way. Bernstein did. It was a moving reading.