Sunday, July 24, 2011

On hearing Leonard Bernstein's Symphony 3, "Kaddish"

Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 3, Kaddish, is a massive work for orchestra, two choruses (one adult and one children), and a narrator.  The emotional impact is also massive. 

Leonard Bernstein once said that he loved both music and words, and that is why many of his musical compositions have singing or narration as integral parts.  His third symphony is built around the traditional Jewish prayer, the Mourner's Kaddish.  From the time the Kaddish Symphony was first performed, it received harsh criticism for its narrative.  Even Bernstein was unhappy with the narrative, and he found the right person to rewrite it when he read a book by Simon Pisar.

Pisar had unusual qualifications for the task.  His resume included Auschwitz and Harvard. Today he is one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors.  He was captured and taken to a Nazi death camp when he was only 10 years old, and he saw his family members taken to their deaths.  His perspective as a child, underscored by the children's chorus in Kaddish, gives a special meaning to the symphony.  When the American army came and liberated his death camp, Pisar ran joyfully to the white stars on their tanks.  After his release, he needed considerable caring and rehabilitation.  Fortunately, he had relatives in France and Australia who took care of him.  He finished college in Australia, earned doctoral degrees at Harvard and the Sorbonne, and became an international lawyer.  The came another miracle:  He decided to spend his life working for reconciliation between nations and ethnic groups who saw each other as enemies.  From his high ranking positions in the U.N., UNESCO, and the State Department, as well as his role as adviser to President Kennedy, he worked proactively to reconcile traditional enemies, including Communist and democratic countries, Jews and Arabs, and the U.S. and Muslim terrorists.

Bernstein tried in vain for many years to convince Pisar to write a new narrative for his Kaddish symphony, but Pisar believed that his writing skills were not good enough to accompany Bernstein's music.  Only after 911 and the surrounding hatred did he agree to write the narrative.  He also felt compelled to write because the memory of the Holocaust was fading.  It was very difficult for him because he had to immerse himself in his own personal memories of the Holocaust.

Since Pisar's narrative is far better than anything I could say about it, I will quote some of his words and insert a video of part of the performance.

In the invocation, the first part of the narrative, Pisar tells God that his Kaddish is dedicated to

...Your tormented children:
Jews, Christians Muslims and all others

Yearning for Freedom, justice, and peace
In our genocidal, fratricidal and suicidal world.

Then he describes some of his own emotions.

I utter this lament with grief and anger
Welling up from my own traumatic past

My first tears are for my family and my people,
Perpetual victims of religious and racial persecution
That reached its climax in my childhood
Destroying everything and everyone around me.

Then Pisar expresses, for the first of many times in this work, his anger against God.
While You, supreme ruler of the Universe,

Stood idly by.

Pisar speaks of his own personal losses in the Nazi death camps and rails against God for letting him down.  He speaks vividly of the cries of the victims before they died in the
gas chambers and honors their fighting spirit just moments before death.

In this part of the narrative, Pisar has a brief but dramatic utterance that is one of the most hard hitting parts of the entire symphony for me.

Can you pardon my sins, Lord?
Can I pardon Yours?

The climax of the narrative occurs when Pisar recalls endearing memories of his grandmother singing lullabies to him.  Even this sweet memory engenders conflicting feelings in him.

I can still hear my grandmother's sweet voice,
Singing me lullabies about how good, how loving,
How merciful a God You are
The memories of my grandmother's lullabies
Has always soothed me to sleep,
Even when I became an adult.
But in my nightmares all I could see
Were her eyes and hand
Raised in fervent prayers to You
As the killers took her away.

This part of the symphony features a solo soprano singing as Pisar remembers his grandmother singing.  In the performance I heard, the soprano sang absolutely beautifully.  The applause told me that the rest of the audience felt the same way I did.

For the remainder of the symphony, Pisar speaks of his love and devotion to God, but some anger and disappointment remain.

Yet I have never deserted Your fold
Nothing could ever shake my ancestral vow to worship You
It is high time that You reaffirm
Our everlasting covenant.

Even his current blessings are mixed with past sorrows every single day.

Above all, Father
You blessed me with a new and happy family --
A wife, children, and grandchildren
Whose sparkling faces
And sterling characters,
Resurrect every day
The memory of those I have lost.

Pisar's written narrative and, particularly, his reading of it, are what make the symphony truly great for me.  He is a gifted speaker who increases the emotional impact of his already forceful narrative.  I am glad that his performance is recorded on video so that many more people can appreciate it now and in the future.

The performance by the orchestra and the choirs was nowhere near as strong as Pisar's narration.  Music critics have blamed the conductor.  Pisar's fear that he could not write words strong enough for Bernstein's symphony were proven false.

Although the memory of the Holocaust is already fading, it remains fairly strong with some of us.  I come from a Jewish family, and I was brought up on memories of the Holocaust which gave me nightmares and triggered my childish fear of persecution.  When I grew up, these memories receded from center stage in my mind.  However, I could never bring myself to read accounts of the Holocaust or to see Margaret Bourke-White's photos of the death camp Buchenwald.  I almost did not go to hear the Kaddish Symphony, but I'm certainly glad that I did.  I needed to be reminded.  Many other people, including Jews younger than I and Gentiles, did not have the horrors of the Holocaust instilled into their minds during childhood, and they needed to be taught or re-taught.  I believe, as Pisar does, that the memories must be kept alive to honor the dead and to work hard to prevent another Holocaust.

And what is my message if not that man
Remains capable of the worst, as of the best
That unless we curb our predatory instincts
Heed the lessons of the horror-filled past,
Cherish the sanctity and dignity of human life,
And uphold the universal values shared by all our noble creeds
The forces of darkness
Will return with a vengeance
To doom our dreams of a radiant future.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The jam must go on

Saturday I took a 2 1/2 hour trip by public transportation to go to a sing/jam session, as I've been doing for several months. It is always well worth the trip. Even on a hot, humid day with bad air pollution and huge crowds of holiday tourists, it was well worth the trip. Some of the members are very good singers or instrumentalists who know lots of great songs, and everyone is high spirited.

Friday night I had played my viola and loved it, and I packed it in its case and carried it with me on the long trek on Saturday. When I arrived, I eagerly took it out and tried to tune it, but I met with disaster. Every single tuning peg was stuck. I couldn't move a single one of them one little bit. I knew why, too. During that long, hot, humid trip, the wooden pegs had swelled so much that they got stuck in their holes. I asked a guitarist to help me, knowing that his hands would be stronger than mine. Turning a wooden peg, as on the viola, is quite different from turning a geared, metal peg, as on the guitar, so I gave him detailed directions. He had some success but wisely stopped before he might do any harm. Desperate to play along with the others, I chose one string and played moving my hand up and down that string, playing melody whenever I could and improvising harmony the rest of the time -- quite a challenge. When the group played another song in another key, I was stymied. Desperate to cool my viola down, I put it on the AC vent. (In general, cool air is less harmful for wooden instruments than warm air.) I hoped this would help, but it didn't.

During our break, one of the fellows, who had seen my troubles across the room, came over to help me. Of course, I thought. Why didn't I think of him? He plays guitar at our jams, but he also plays violin and viola. He understood the problem completely and knew just how to solve it. Within a few minutes, he loosened all the pegs and tuned all the strings. I was so happy and so grateful.

When the jam restarted, I played along happily. Shortly before my turn to lead, I thought of a song that I really love that is rather complex and that I hadn't played in a while. I played the song anyway, and it went really well. I played it with spirit and love. I could see the others transfixed by the music. When I finished, a few told me that I sounded really good. However, the magic didn't end there. One woman who knew all the lyrics sang the song solo, beautifully, and the whole group hung on to the song again. When she was finished, the two of us quickly agreed that this was one of our very favorite songs.

I was really high. I felt the great excitement of playing music for an audience when things go very well. It was as if I had lit a spark and thrown it into a fireplace, and in response, I got a roaring blaze.