lady painting


Dec 2008 Journal

previous article:Christmas in Vienna, 1937
next article:AJR Report

In memory of Kristallnacht (review)

Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Axelrod
The Barbican, London

Kristallnacht calls for silence, as Stephen Smith of the Holocaust Centre observed at a commemorative concert at the Barbican last month. Originally, it was felt that no music at all should be heard on this most painful anniversary. However, the Barbican Hall echoed with the weight of Leonard Bernstein’s impassioned Symphony No 3, Kaddish, subtitled ‘A Dialogue with God’ and written in the last months of the composer’s life. The piece, augmented by the Philharmonia Chorus, the Trinity Boys Choir and soprano Kelly Nassief, resounded to a full house with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra expressing the anguish of Kristallnacht and the coming terror, which shook the Barbican to its modernist rafters.

Kaddish, a dazzling blend of symphony, tone poem and oratorio, includes a new text written and narrated by Auschwitz survivor Samuel Pisar at Bernstein’s behest. Pisar’s lament is basically a rant at God, but it is the music which articulates this requiem, its power and its fury, with Pisar’s narrative wavering between a calling to account for heavenly negligence and a longing for heavenly forgiveness. Though God is effectively put on trial here, it is music of a religious character that most influenced the composer – namely Mahler’s Resurrection and Bach’s Passion, with a possible touch of Prokofiev thrown in for good measure. Sometimes the choir was reduced to a vigorous hum or sung prayer, and sometimes Bernstein’s 12-tone visceral sounds filtered chaotically through the chorus and orchestra – jagged, frightened rhythms - with the drums invoking the clatter of skeletons.

The mourner’s Kaddish, written in Aramaic, is an ironic leitmotif to the score. Its elegiac phrasing simply praises the Creator. In his text, Pisar, who believes the Shoah eclipsed Dante’s Inferno, said he could never recite the Kaddish because he had no dates of his family’s death, which occurred when he was a child. The soprano evokes the voice of Pisar’s grandmother, who sang to him lullabies of praise, and here a sense of celestial peace, an inner feminine tranquillity, contrasts with the masculine anguish of the score. Pisar’s tirade ends with a plea for conciliation although Pisar himself remains torn between ‘belief and doubt’.

Bernstein was already a successful composer and conductor when Pisar, then a young Harvard scholar, entered his ‘magic circle’. The piece was first performed by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1963. Three weeks before the concert, President Kennedy was assassinated and his compatriot dedicated his symphony to him.

Bernstein was not satisfied with his own text for the score (said to have been an even angrier rant at God) and he turned to the poet Robert Lowell among others. But it was the authentic voice of the survivor that he sought and he called on Pisar after reading his autobiography. For Pisar, the request was fraught with emotional problems. He felt his lyrics could never equal ‘the grandeur of his music’ and he was not prepared to revisit his once ‘stormy relationship with the Almighty over his perplexing absence, silence and passivity during those cursed years’.

John Axelrod, who studied under Bernstein, conducted Kaddish with energy and sensitivity. It was preceded by another piece evoking the heroism of the fallen – Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Based on Goethe’s eponymous play, the piece recalls the sixteenth-century uprising against Spanish domination in the Netherlands. Symbolic in some ways of the twentieth-century Holocaust, Egmont describes the triumph of courage over evil. Axelrod evoked the full majesty of Beethoven in a well-paced performance in which every note was emphasised, achieving a final crescendo of strings and woodwind trumpeting glory in the face of death. Earlier, Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto was played with a contrasting staccato tempo and lilting phrasing by Israeli violinist Ittai Shapira.

The AJR joined the Holocaust Centre, London Jewish Cultural Centre, CST and JMI SOAS in supporting this commemorative concert.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:Christmas in Vienna, 1937
next article:AJR Report