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September 29, 2012

Marin Alsop, BSO peform Bernstein's 'Kaddish' featuring Claire Bloom

As a conductor, Leonard Bernstein seemed to be ever sure of himself, certain that his tempos and phrasing would uncover the very soul of a score. No wonder he made believers out of so many listeners.

But when Bernstein composed his own music, he frequently revealed that, in his own heart, he wasn't so confident.

Some of his most interesting and adventurous works are permeated with his doubts about faith in God and humanity, questions about why and how we become who we are.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is devoting this weekend to Bernstein's Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish," which finds the composer at his most confessional.

The symphony is propelled by a lengthy text the composer wrote in the form of a one-sided, equal-footing conversation with God. Bernstein essentially goes through a crisis of faith and expects that the Almighty is doing exactly the same.

Most of us would probably hold this sort of thing in, or only discuss it in private. Bernstein couldn't resist letting it all hang out.

Since the premiere of the "Kaddish" in 1963, the piece has earned its share of complaints about the indulgent text, as well as the music, which mixes agitated atonality, soaring lyricism and jazzy riffs in a way that only Bernstein could.

But, over the decades, the symphony has ...

gained more respect and more performances. More recordings, too -- a handful have joined the two conducted by the composer; the BSO's performances are being recorded for future release on the Naxos label.

Judging by Friday night's performance at Meyerhoff Hall, the eventual CD ought to be a winner, on par with the orchestra's recent recording of "Mass," Bernstein's most brilliant faith-doubt fest.

On Friday, music director and Bernstein protege Marin Alsop demonstrated firm control of the demanding symphony, which surrounds the lone speaking voice not just with a full-force orchestra, but adult and boys' choirs and soprano soloist (intoning the traditional text of the Kaddish).NOTE: I originally and mistakenly identified the text as Hebrew, rather than Aramaic.

Alsop's keen rhythmic sense helped keep the often abrupt shifts in mood and musical style on track, so that the structural cohesiveness of the symphony emerged. And she outlined the emotional arc of the work, the journey from worried and argumentative to assertive and hopeful, with satisfying, often gripping results.

In Claire Bloom, the eminent British actress, Alsop found a very persuasive narrator. Bloom spoke in an intimate tone and gave the words an almost musical quality. She made even the most over-the-top lines seem thoroughly natural.

If a little of the text was lost in the hall amid orchestral outbursts (the amplification for Bloom was kept low), the Naxos microphones will no doubt catch them for the recording.

Soprano Kelley Nassief, alone in a balcony above the stage, began her second movement solo with an exquisite pianissimo and proceeded to shape the rising phrases most tenderly. Some top notes revealed strain, but the singing remained impressive throughout.

The Washington Chorus (Julian Wachner, music director) fulfilled its considerable challenges with distinction, pouring out a solid, well-balanced tone. The Maryland State Boychoir (Stephen Holmes, artistic director) made a sweet-sounding, vibrant contribution.

The BSO turned in a terrific performance. Articulation was incisive, phrasing alive with character, right from the start, when the music seemed to emerge through a mist, bringing light with it.

The first half of this all-American concert proved far less memorable, and hardly a fitting complement to the Bernstein work.

To begin, there was a bright romp through John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," which is always fun to hear, but has now become a chestnut; something fresher ought to be easy enough to find.

Alsop programmed "Ansel Adams: America," written by jazz legend Dave Brubeck and his son Chris, two years ago. It did not need to come back.

The music is earnest and occasionally colorful, but vaporous, and the hall does not have sophisticated enough projection equipment to do justice to the Ansel Adams photographs that go with the score. The whole experience is terribly lightweight.

That said, Alsop gave the Brubeck piece plenty of expressive attention, and the orchestra responded with consistently colorful playing.   

The concert will be repeated Saturday night at Strathmore, Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:10 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


I was in attendance of the Friday night concert, and I agree with almost everything. I think the Bernstein was an amazing piece, sculpted very well by Maestra Alsop. The strength of the narrator made it oddly intimate, and I think that's what touched me the most. The soprano's voice was gorgeous; perfect for this solo. The Washington Chorus was very solidly prepared by Julian Wachner (though I might be biased as a former alto of the chorus) and the Boychoir performed admirably.

The first half really didn't complement the Bernstein well. The Adams is always fun, sure...but the Brubeck really left me feeling unfulfilled. The music was fine, and played very well by the BSO, but I felt it just didn't work with the projection of the photographs. The quality of the images wasn't very good to begin with, and really, the piece just didn't work for me.

I want to offer one correction though: the text of the 'Kaddish' is actually in Aramaic, not Hebrew.

Thanks for the reminder about the text. Sometimes, I just can't disguise my goyishe roots. Somewhere, I seem to recall that the text is in both Aramaic and Hebrew, but that's no excuse. As we say in the language of my old faith, Mea culpa.TIM

Did no one else find it odd if not objectionable that the BSO would perform the Kaddish symphony in Friday night, the beginning of the Sabbath after Yom Kippur when observant, and even some secular Jews are home or in the synagogue.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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