Review: Son Confronts Father to End a Leonard Bernstein Festival

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Jeremy Irons as the narrator in Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony at David Geffen Hall. Credit Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

“Every son, at one point or other, defies his father, fights him, departs from him, only to return to him.”

Those words were spoken by Leonard Bernstein at the 70th-birthday celebration for his father, in 1962. But they could have come from the text the composer was writing at the time for “Kaddish,” his Symphony No. 3. This much-debated work was given a gripping performance on Thursday evening by the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

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Leonard Slatkin conducting. Credit Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Bernstein, who had complicated feelings about religion, conceived “Kaddish” as an argument with God. Though scored for large orchestra, chorus (here the excellent Concert Chorale of New York), children’s chorus (the wonderful Brooklyn Youth Chorus) and soprano soloist (the rich-voiced Tamara Wilson), this 40-minute symphony is driven by Bernstein’s text. A speaker (the riveting actor Jeremy Irons), while praying to God, takes him on in the prosecutorial manner of an angry Job.

But if the text’s focus is God, it’s also Bernstein’s father, a Ukrainian immigrant who ran a successful hairdressing supplies business in Massachusetts. Samuel Bernstein, James M. Keller explains in the Philharmonic’s program notes, eventually took pride in Leonard’s accomplishments but would have preferred his son continue in the family business or perhaps become a rabbi. From the start of “Kaddish,” when the speaker addresses “my father” as “angry, wrinkled old majesty,” the words betray resentment and disappointment, like a dutiful son finally taking a stand.

That’s certainly Mr. Irons, a master of understatement, delivered the text. In the “Din-Torah” section, he began almost meekly. “You surely remember me, father?” he asked, almost dripping with unctuousness. “And always you have answered me,” he continued, bitterness seeping through, “with a rainbow, a raven, a plague, something.” Take that.

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The forces of the Philharmonic, Concert Chorale of New York and Brooklyn Youth Chorus conducted by Mr. Slatkin with Mr. Irons (foreground left) and the soprano Tamara Wilson (right). Credit Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

When the speaker gets going, the choristers sometimes murmur nervously in the background. The monologue mingles throughout the symphony with Bernstein’s setting of the “Kaddish,” the traditional Hebrew prayer for the dead. These episodes can shift from radiant writing to jittery passages of tangled, tense counterpoint. In this teeming, vividly orchestrated symphony, Bernstein boldly draws from diverse styles, including episodes of wide-spaced, poignant harmonies evocative of Copland, and hurtling moments that screech with modernist intensity and break into 12-tone shards.

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