Slatkin returns to conduct ‘Kaddish’ at Powell

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Conductor Emeritus Leonard Slatkin is back in St. Louis to conduct Bernstein’s “Kaddish” on April 27 and 28 at Powell Symphony Hall.

By Larry Levin, Special to the Jewish Light

Leonard Slatkin, conductor laureate of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, will lead the orchestra in Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, known as the “Kaddish Symphony,” on April 27 and 28 at Powell Symphony Hall. 

The “Kaddish” is a work of massive proportions, written for full orchestra, adult and youth chorus and voices, and a narrator. Bernstein’s piece reflects his lifelong challenges and struggles with religion and belief. 

Slatkin, who will be conducting the score for the fifth time, reflected recently on Bernstein’s piece, its meanings and relevance.  

Those who are familiar with the more melodic points of entry for Bernstein —“Candide,” “On the Town,” “West Side Story” — may be surprised to hear the angst-filled tones of the “Kaddish Symphony.” He weaves 20th century atonality in and out of his score alongside some of his more typical themes and styles. Why did he choose this piece, his final symphony, to take this approach, and is there anything else in his literature akin to this?

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The (Kaddish) Symphony is all about Bernstein’s fractious relationship with the Creator. In order to depict his conflicts, the composer needed to adopt a harsher way of presenting them musically. He also wanted to be more accepted by the academic musical community, so Bernstein, at least for about 20 minutes of the piece, uses the language prevalent and favored by critics at the time. 

Bernstein’s student, the conductor Marin Alsop, said, “This symphony is a vehicle — the Kaddish prayer a vehicle —for Bernstein to explore his lifelong issues of personal faith, the elusive concept of peace and the conflict arising from our great human potential for, and attraction to, destruction.” Why was he willing to lay these strikingly personal thoughts and feelings bare for all to hear?

All of Bernstein’s concert pieces usually have something to do with guilt. Sometimes it is about faith, sometimes about sexuality, sometimes about social and political discourse. He wanted to be everything to everybody. The symphony is not really about Kaddish, but rather about coming to grips with a God that he felt had sometimes abandoned him as well as society. Bernstein basically put into his music everything that he could not express through words.

The piece is named after and built upon a Jewish duality, the Kaddish prayer that’s recited in mourning, but which says nothing of death and is a doxology, a celebration of God’s greatness. And on almost every level the piece careens between faith and its rejection, between hope and despair. As the conductor, are their particular approaches you take with the music so the audience can appreciate and understand this duality?

There is a reason that Bernstein called it a symphony.It follows, more or less, the traditional structure of that form. My job is to try and make it as seamless as possible, one coherent piece made up of several different parts. The role of the narrator is key, and a performance can succeed or fail depending on how that person delivers the text. I had the great pleasure of doing it with Jeremy Irons last year, and hopefully the St. Louis performances will be equally well presented.

How do the music and themes of the symphony personally resonate with you and your own experience? 

Everyone has his or her own way of dealing with faith. The music resonates with me more than the spoken word.Perhaps this is actually too personal a matter to write about.

When you conducted the “Kaddish Symphony” in 2017, the actor Jeremy Irons performed as the narrator. This time you have the acclaimed storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston narrating.  Does the gender difference lead to different interpretations, or are the distinctions based less on gender and more on style and interpretation?

Bernstein wrote the piece with his wife in mind, and she was the speaker in the first performances and recording. He would go on to do it with other male narrators. Of course, theoretically, the Kaddish itself is not supposed to be spoken by a woman, and the narrator never intones those words. If you want to hear the best musical version of the prayer, listen to the one by Maurice Ravel. 

Has your own understanding of the score evolved over time, listenings and performances, and if so, how? 

I have performed this work five times and recorded it with one of the composer’s daughters as speaker. The harsh parts have gotten edgier, the more serene moments are more relaxed. In other words, I go for more contrast now than I did previously. 

If listeners would like to compare, are there other pieces in the orchestral literature that address this personal spiritual struggle? The theme would seem to suggest more operatic than orchestral comparisons, but if there are those from the concert hall that you would recommend for comparison, what might they be?

As with most of his concert pieces, “Kaddish” is unique, but strangely, I would suggest Berlioz’s “Roméo et Juliette.” It is also called a symphony but contains vocal elements. 

In St. Louis, we have a nonprofit, Arts and Faith, which offers an annual 9/11 commemoration through music, with different faith groups performing. How is music able to help us wrestle with big issues like faith, as Bernstein does here, in ways that the spoken word alone cannot?

I remind people that on 9/11, the Congress did not offer speeches but were on the Capitol steps singing the national anthem and “God Bless America.” The words did not matter, as the former is about war and the latter is idealistic. It is the music that counts. We also use the (Samuel) Barber “Adagio” as a piece that seems to express what cannot be said. Perhaps society needs the abstract rather than the direct. There is something from the heart and soul, when a composer writes something that touches the listener without words. Listeners must create their own imagery, using the imagination rather than having visual elements imposed.