A memorial service of sizable proportions was held last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Eduardo Mata gave the East Coast premiere of Benjamin Lees' Symphony No. 4, "Memorial Candles." This ambitious work, commissioned by the Dallas Symphony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, had its official debut just three days ago in Dallas, and four more performances are scheduled for this season. Even at such an early stage in the piece's history, there seems little doubt that Lees has created an impressive, emotionally stirring symphony, one whose programmatic implications recall a traumatic period with harrowing detail.
Lees began his draft of "Memorial Candles" four years ago while visiting Israel. Early on, he decided that vocal portions based on texts by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Nelly Sachs (herself a survivor of the Holocaust) had to be included. In the finished product, two of the three sprawling movements contain her powerful verses "That the Persecuted may not become persecutors," "Someone blew the Shofar" and "But who emptied your shoes of sand?"
In last night's performance, an equally powerful voice, belonging to mezzo-soprano Zehava Gal, sang the despondent lines. She joined forces with the passionate violin playing of Pinchas Zukerman.
"Memorial Candles" gives both singer and violinist prominent roles, but always within the concept of the composer's grand scheme. Lees has painted a broad canvas with bold strokes. Amid numerous textural changes (the work is heavily scored to feature brass, percussion and the lower strings, especially the cellos) one seldom loses sight of the form. The opening motive by the winds, for instance, recurs just frequently enough and with just slight enough modification to ensure unity without monotony.
The three movements, titled "Visitations," "Manifestations" and "Transcendence," have another important connecting thread: a mood of desolation. Dark and brooding are words that only begin to describe the relentless heaping of intensity upon intensity manifesting at times into a "wailing wall" of sound, which the orchestra dismantles with wrecking-ball efficiency. There are periods of respite. The cello yearningly opens "Manifestations" with a fragmented Jewish folk song. Celesta passages add a magic sparkle. But sadness prevails. Even Zukerman's magnificent playing, whether sounding an outraged cry against the orchestra or whispering a delicate harmonic alone, conveyed deep suffering, an endless lament.
One obvious lapse in the performance was that Gal could not be heard when the orchestra operated at full force. Though texts were provided, a better balance needs to be struck in the future. Gal has a strong, dramatically acute voice (as her reading of two Mozart arias showed in the first half of the program), capable of rendering a line like "Tomorrow you will be dust/ In the shoes of those to come" with devastating conviction.