Orchestra lends its power to 'Kaddish' Narration by Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar is catalyst.

Posted: April 19, 2008

Transformation of meaning is the everyday miracle of great music, when the same notes say markedly different things on different days - in a spectrum dictated by a well-wrought musical spine. But Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 3 ("Kaddish") gained a new, better spine that allowed the piece's meaning to mushroom well into the profundity zone in Philadelphia Orchestra performances this week at the Kimmel Center.

The catalyst, here as in performances elsewhere, was Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar, who turned Bernstein's 1963 symphony into his own personal story of surviving the horror pits of Nazi Germany - but with extraordinarily wise twists.

This five-movement symphony runs the typically Bernsteinian stylistic gamut from jazz to atonal modernism, and has always been presented with a complex apparatus including orchestra, two choruses and a crucial role for the narrator, who must make it all fuse into something necessary to the human soul.

That necessity part was lacking in previous versions, when the narration was a redefinition of God in an age when nuclear annihilation lay in the hands of hostile governments. Now, Kaddish needs to be heard. Though each part of the narration has the Holocaust as a starting point, Pisar looks backward and forward at our "fractrical and suicidal world," from Crusades to jihads, making it all more real and relevant, delivered in plainspoken style with only the occasional raising of his voice.

The symphony was part of Thursday's Hear, O' Israel gala, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which included a 1945 radio broadcast of an open-air worship service at a newly liberated death camp. Oddly, that Kaddish performance felt tentative. But yesterday, in a second performance, all parties concerned - Pisar, the orchestra, the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, the American Boychoir and conductor John Axelrod - gave a sit-up-and-listen performance, tapping the symphony's newfound power.

Though Bernstein's own performances of the work were more eruptive (but focused on the music's structural felicities), Axelrod was just as effective with longer-built climaxes and a more theatrical sense of timing. Special mention goes to soprano Kelley Nassief, whose solos were vocalized with deep feeling and sound vocal strategy in melodic lines that have defeated others. Footnote: In respect to Pisar's European roots, the Hebrew was sung with Ashkenazi pronunciation rather than with tangier Sephardic consonants.

The Korngold Symphony in F-sharp major (Op. 40) was a sensible companion to the Kaddish symphony, but not such a satisfying one, even in the well-played, well-conceived performance yesterday. The composer was the paragon of deliciously overstuffed orchestration common before World War II. What sounds like classic John Williams/Star Wars music came from Korngold's world of 1930s Austro-German opera, but written in broader strokes with better stories.

By the symphony's 1954 premiere, this style was considered retro, though the piece's neglect probably wouldn't have been so severe with stronger thematic development. The fourth movement hovers on the verge of the typical fugato passage, for example, but goes no further. Conductors attempting an illusion of unity with the piece downplay incidental details. Instead, Axelrod smartly embraced the episodic nature in ways that downplayed the music's repetitious nature, and the orchestra responded with its best glamorous sonority. You could enjoy it on a purely sensual level, but the experience was largely superficial.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

Hear David Patrick Stearns discuss "Kaddish" on WRTI's "Creatively Speaking" at http://go.philly.com/stearnsonradio

Philadelphia Orchestra

Additional performance at 2 p.m. tomorrow, at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets $10-$133. 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

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