For Bernstein's 'Kaddish,' a bold, personal voice

Posted: April 17, 2008

Though few figures in American music are as iconic as Leonard Bernstein, even fewer major composers have so many significant white elephants in their past. Bernstein's biggest, most ambitious, and only mature-period symphony has long been one such candidate for rehabilitation. And this week at the Philadelphia Orchestra, the boldest version yet is unfolding.

Just in time for Passover, Bernstein's Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish) arrives tonight at the Kimmel Center, with a fury the composer sought but couldn't quite get at on his own. Stepping in for him is Polish-born Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar.

Written for large orchestra, two choruses and soprano soloist, the Kaddish symphony, which depicts modern man's struggle to believe in God, always had a prominent role for narrator. Pisar, 79, wrote his own about surviving Auschwitz - he was liberated by Allied troops at age 16 - after witnessing the deaths of his family.

"In the beginning, I never spoke about it," said Pisar, who went on to become a successful international lawyer, now based in Paris. "It couldn't be inflicted on other people. But with time, and the way the world was evolving - after 9/11 particularly - there was a newly inflamed world. For someone who had once lived through the collapse of one world, it was essential to say certain things, [also] because Leonard Bernstein put me up to it."

In 1989, a year before the composer's death, the two participated in a concert commemorating the start of World War II. Bernstein and Pisar's wife, Judith, were old friends from New York. Yet Pisar, also an author, scholar and adviser to Steven Spielberg for Schindler's List, resisted Bernstein's invitation to bring his own story to the piece until 2003, when he performed his own narration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with guidance from Philadelphia music director Christoph Eschenbach, and conducted by John Axelrod, who had studied the symphony with Bernstein.

Soprano soloist Kelley Nassief (who also sings the piece in Philadelphia) had sung the old version and found the new one "overwhelming. Right before I have to sing my solo, he [Pisar] talks about his grandmother teaching him prayers and how to trust God," she says. "Whereas before I was just a voice . . . now I'm placed as the voice of his grandmother."

The Kaddish symphony, it would seem, finally arrived after a gestation of 48 years.

Originally commissioned to write it in 1955 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein didn't start composing until 1961 after going through three librettists, including poet Robert Lowell, who was imprisoned in World War II for being a conscientious objector. Eventually Bernstein wrote his own text.

The symphony's 1963 completion was cause for celebration at Bernstein's country home. "I remember he came out of the studio and said, 'I did it! I finished Kaddish!' " recalls daughter Jamie Bernstein Thomas. "Then my mother jumped into the swimming pool with all her clothes on."

But after a series of celebrated premieres and revisions, the Kaddish symphony faded from view. Its first recording had a high-octane but less-than-phonogenic narration by Bernstein's wife, the accomplished actress Felicia Montealegre, adding to the perception that Kaddish was a confrontational experience. Nobody could argue that it didn't contain some of Bernstein's best music, but in later years he was so shy about the piece that Vienna Philharmonic members had to prod him to let them perform it. Eventually, they called it "our symphony."

Yet the narration problem persisted. "You have to ask yourself, what did Bernstein have to be angry with God about? His life was rather blessed," says Axelrod, who will guest-conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra performances. "He was an incredible wordsmith and had the ability to say things in profound ways. But what he was able to create in the music was more than the words could say. The words he wrote limited the power of the music."

Now, Pisar's words account for the music's intensity - and arrived on the page unfiltered by modern post-traumatic stress therapy. "I was both the patient and the doctor," Pisar says. "I had to decide with some clarity whether I was an atheist or an agnostic, a believer or a doubter. . . . There were two human beings cohabitating in me. One was the little one going through the Holocaust alone, the other one a very modern, sophisticated man of affairs. I had to decide which is the one I was dealing with."

What resolution did he reach? That depends on the day. "I supposed everyone does that to some extent," he says. "What was strange . . . is that I feel very comfortable with this oscillation."

In retrospect, what Kaddish always needed was a first-person story, as opposed to an abstract argument. In that spirit, daughter Jamie wrote her own narration around the same time Pisar wrote his, making the symphony a personal portrait of her father's ceaselessly probing character. As the symphony becomes more specific to a particular life, it appears to become more universal.

Says soprano Nassief, "My husband was deployed to Iraq in '05 and was there a year and a half. I thought of this piece a lot. My trials can't compare to Pisar's. I had the car, the microwave, the Internet. My struggle was time away and worrying. . . . But it [the symphony] is not about what comes to us in our lives . . . but finding strength of character to survive what's in front of you."

One of many ironies is that Bernstein ached to write an opera that would encompass the Holocaust. But his health was in decline (he died in 1990 from a pleural tumor) and Pisar discouraged him.

"The image of . . . who was that great opera singer? Renata Tebaldi? . . . emoting in front of a gas chamber was a little more than I could accept," Pisar says. "I'm sure if he had done it, it would be in the best of taste . . . but he ran out of time. And maybe this is what pushed him to put the [Kaddish] project to me."

So it could be argued that the Kaddish symphony is now the Holocaust opera that Bernstein never wrote. Though recently recorded by Axelrod and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra for the Nimbus label (out on May 13), Pisar's version may only live in live performance as long as he is willing to deliver it. And that's not easy.

Currently, the Bernstein estate wants only Pisar to deliver his narration. It's his story and it may lose authenticity without his telling it. Pisar himself is a bit more openminded: "I think that if someone ever decides they want to do it, I won't oppose it."

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at


Philadelphia Orchestra

8 tonight, 2 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday, at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets $10-$133. 215-893-1999 or

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