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Samuel Pisar 

Living Judaism

Leonard Bernstein, Symphony No. 3, Kaddish
Philadelphia Orchestra performance with a new libretto by Holocaust survivor, Samuel Pisar, commissioned by the composer.
-- Ben Burrows

When Leonard Bernstein completed his Symphony No. 3 in November of 1963, the composer was fulfilling a commission of the Koussevitsky Foundation and the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1955. Bernstein interned as a conductor at Boston, and premiered his Jeremiah Symphony there. In the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, Bernstein dedicated his symphony to the late president. Bernstein’s original Speaker’s libretto described a series of relationships between man and God, overstepping the bounds of Buber and Kaballah, and reaching for a kind of equality where man and God recreate each other as anthropomorphic archetypes. At times, Bernstein’s speaker in the symphony appears to treat the Deity as an elderly Isaac, deceived in old age by the images of His human creation. I was excited to read and hear this version as a high school and college student, but find myself put off by this vision as an adult.

Evidently, in his old age, Bernstein thought better of this libretto, and called on his friend, Holocaust survivor, international diplomat and lawyer, Samuel Pisar, to revise the Speaker’s part. Hearing this piece Sunday afternoon on the first Day of Passover, with Pisar as the Symphony’s Speaker, I was in tears to hear this wizened, humbled, and much more modestly human Kaddish. Pisar makes no pretense at equality with God: although Pisar questions and rebukes his God, there is never an invocation (as in Bernstein’s original) that He should magnify and sanctify the great name of Man.

Pisar takes us through his interrupted childhood, seeing his mother and grandmother being taken at Auschwitz, while he helplessly watches, and is inexplicably spared. Pisar is not obsessed with the past, however. He decries the zealots who “dominate our public discourse” and compares our modern age to the dark ages of medieval Europe. He prays that God will renew His covenant, and fulfill the promise of a just messianic age.

Conductor John Axelrod
The program notes at the Kimmel Center attempt to place Bernstein’s orchestration in the unemotional intellectual twelve tone construction of Stockhausen and Schonberg, but the music is relentless in its attempt to involve the audience, and to force a reaction. Bernstein is by turns distonic, percussive, pleading, angry, and mirthful. It was performed with an exceptionally full orchestra, with a large chorus from the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, and with a smaller chorus from the American Boys Choir. Soprano Kelley Nassief plumbed the depths and explored the heights. Bernstein noted about the symphony itself, “The agony expressed with the 12-tone music has to give way – this is part of the form of the piece – to tonality and even diatonicism, so that what triumphs in the end, the affirmation of faith, is tonal.”

John Axelrod, who conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in this performance, has recorded Kaddish with Pisar as Speaker, using Pisar’s revised libretto, with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra -- of which Axelrod is the musical director. While the recording lacks the immediacy of a live performance, and the immanence of Pisar’s presence, it is still a stunningly good recording. In the recording, the Bernstein Kaddish is the climax of three great works about the Holocaust – beginning with Kurt Weill’s Berlin Requiem, and proceeding through Schonberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw. The CD is well worth your investment.

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