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2008 JFM


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Bernstein's Kaddish, April 18-20, at the Kimmel Center.
The Philadelphia Orchestra's exploration of the symphonic works of Leonard Bernstein continues on this program featuring his sprawling “Kaddish”, in which the composer’s own “conversations with god” strive to give emotional perspective to life’s meanings and reasonings. Guest conductor John Axelrod is joined by Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar for this challenging symphony, in which Bernstein struggled to find a voice against 20th-century musical currents and events. The program also includes an arresting Symphony by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, in which this melodious composer’s own wrestling with musical demons ends triumphantly.

Leonard Bernstein 90th Birthday Festival

-- Ben Burrows

The Philadelphia Orchestra celebrated the birthday of the late Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the finest and most famous American born orchestral conductor of the twentieth century. Bernstein championed classical orchestral music in the European tradition, as well as more modern forms. His televised "Young People’s Concerts" brought attention to the talents of young American performers, from rock singer Janis Ian, to pianist Andre Watts. Bernstein broke many taboos in his lifetime, both musically and socially. Some still dismiss Bernstein as a musician and serious thinker because they did not respect his politics. Others dismiss his commitment to classical forms, because of his enthusiasm for popular musical theater, writing scores for On the Town, and West Side Story.

Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony, performed January 17-19 in the composer’s honor, is sometimes dismissed because of its tonal similarities with composer Aaron Copland, one of Bernstein’s many mentors. Copland’s music was often based on generic American folk melodies, set with Jewish modal harmonies. Bernstein, in addition to the harmonies, made actual use of Jewish religious musical themes. To an ear untrained to Jewish liturgy, Bernstein may sound derivative. Even Jews listening to the Overture to West Side Story neither expect nor recognize the Tekiah of its opening theme. Yet the sounds of Tekiah, Teruah, and Shevarim call upon the musical’s audience to the theme of forgiveness and mercy, which might have prevented the tragedy of Tony and Maria which encompass the musical’s drama. The opening Tekiah is perhaps the most obvious, played on trumpet solo. Teruah, played on percussion instruments, is entirely unexpected. Shevarim, in full orchestra, anticipates “The Rumble.”

In this performance of Jeremiah, we hear the original Hebrew of the Lamentation, with an elaborately orchestrated traditional chant for the 3rd movement; the performance by Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham was both emotional and involving. The 2nd movement Profanation contains rhythmic and musical references to the V’ohavtah and the Shema in counterpoint – with the corrupt idolatrous High Priests dancing in jest to the former, while Jeremiah interjects with the latter. Jeremiah protests that these religious leaders hearken to the still small voice he alone is apparently able to hear. It is only through the distortion of the V’ohavtah melody that one is able to discern that the Profanation of its title is even taking place. The 1st movement, Prophecy, is like a historical tour of Jewish musical styles, from Mahler to shtetl klezmer. A chordal and rhythmic battle first involve Jeremiah’s calling, and then his frustration in communicating to his people. It is sad that the Inquirer’s Stearns seem largely unaware of this religious sophistication. The performance I attended January 19th had a full house, and the performance was spectacular. The musicians seemed tense and excited even before Maestro Eschenbach entered the auditorium. Their enthusiasm throughout the piece was palpable.

Leonard Bernstein, 1971.
The concert two weeks later, with Joshua Bell on violin and Rossen Milanov conducting, involved not only Bernstein’s music, but Bernstein’s enthusiasms for American modern composers, and for musical prodigy. The Inquirer’s Dobrin could not bring himself even to dismiss Bernstein’s music. Perhaps Dobrin was too young to recall Bernstein’s championing of Barber’s music. Perhaps, too, Dobrin could not draw the connection between the mature Joshua Bell and the young prodigy he once was, whose performance Dobrin dismissed as “lacking warmth” and whose relationship with the audience was described as a “personality deficit.” Both Bell and Milanov, in their Saturday night performance, were warmly received and justly celebrated.

It is an odd coincidence that critics of Christian composers take for granted that their audience is familiar with features of the Catholic Latin Mass, ranging from the Kyrie in Bach, to the Dies Irae in Berlioz and Verdi (or in the soundtrack of The Shining). When reviewing the music from other cultures, it is best for critics to make themselves familiar with the background of their subject composers. When the composer is Chinese Tan Dun, such background is often provided, and the critics relay this to their audience. Bernstein, even with his great success and acceptance, might have been afraid to provide program notes of an ethnic nature, for fear of being too pushy about his Jewishness. We are so much the worse now, with Bernstein’s passing, that we have to recognize the Jewish roots of his music all by ourselves.

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