BBCSO Concert – 23rd February

A Quick Blast [London premiere]
Symphony No.1 (Jeremiah)
Kaddisch (from Deux melodies hebraiques)
Symphony No.3 (Kaddish)

Janice Watson (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Eleanor Bron (narrator)

BBC Symphony Chorus
London Oratory School Schola
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 23 February, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

If we can be grateful for only one thing since Leonard Slatkin has taken over the BBC Symphony Orchestra, then surely top of the list is his championing the music of his own country. It’s almost as if he has set forth on an A-B-C of American music. In his first season he conducted a weekend of music by Copland, and – following the January Adams weekend – we now have a two-concert package of Leonard Bernstein’s symphonies. Long may it continue: variety, as they say, is the spice of life.

I (perforce) missed the first concert of this diminutive mini-series of two, but was delighted to catch up with this second concert which found Slatkin and his BBC Symphony Orchestra in fine form. Perhaps the most overtly thematic of the two – given that Bernstein’s First and Third Symphonies are borne out of his Jewish faith – it was the Mark-Anthony Turnage London première which perhaps seemed out of place. The first of a triptych of works for the BBC Symphony, A Quick Blast is a sort of extended ’overture’ for wind, brass and percussion. Cast in an old fast-slow-fast style this is a vibrant ten-minute’s worth with the age-old conflict between semiquavers and triplets pitched against dotted rhythms in a style writ-large with gleeful abandon. The slow section, with its spotlit wind solos, offers suitable contrast before the relentless syncopated pounding of the opening returns.

Bernstein’s Jeremiah – with its third (and final) movement (despite the fact that both Bernstein’s father and Fritz Reiner both thought that he would compose an empathic finale to the work) based on Jeremiah’s lamentations at the fall of Jerusalem followed. Much of the work is steeped in Jewish themes, but to a modern audience they seem typically American, or – perhaps we should say – Bernsteinian.Virtuosic in parts – especially the second movement – and with a richly mellifluous Catherine Wyn-Rogers taking the roll-call of woes in the final movement, Slatkin topped his own performance at last year’s Proms. We perhaps forget that this work was written at the same time as Martinů’s first symphonies, amidst the horror – however distant – of the war raging in Europe. Shostakovich’s wartime triptych was just around the corner and there is much in Bernstein’s music that reminds one of Shostakovich.

Nearly a quarter-of-a-century later, Bernstein’s Third Symphony seems from an emphatically different world.Whereas the First Symphony confirms Bernstein’s Judaism, Kaddish, to a text written by the composer, he seems for the most part to be railing against his religion. Here the speaker’s role was taken by Eleanor Bron (with microphone, expertly amplified, but with the audience all in the stalls perhaps unnecessarily), who gave impassioned voice to Bernstein’s audacious questioning and cajoling of God. This is the early 1960s, flower-power and peace and love just round the corner and Bernstein sums up the heady cock-sureness of the time, rudely shattered just as he was putting the finishing touches to it by the assassination of President Kennedy, to whom he then dedicated the work.

Ultimately the work ends in a rapt re-affirmation of faith – beautifully epitomised by soprano Janice Watson and the children’s chorus from the London Oratory School – which can work its magic on any audience, whether Jewish or not.Throughout its course there are angry outbursts from the orchestra and chorus (the BBC Symphony Chorus taking to the additional requirements – clapping and self-conducting separate sections – with its usual aplomb), but it’s Bernstein’s simple assumption of a lilting melody that wins through.

For those that might have argued that the BBC favoured the Palestinians in its programming of Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer in January, then this concert made suitable amends. But in fact Kaddish voices concerns for all religions – doubt and faith – and can be enjoyed in its sometimes arch-profundity by any denomination. This performance was enhanced by being heralded by Ravel’s much more authentic-sounding Kaddisch (also sung by Janice Watson).Seemingly, at the time of composition, some thought that Ravel must have been Jewish; but then it seems that Bernstein – in his words written in direct conversation with God – may have seen himself equal to the Almighty!

Perhaps Leonard Slatkin could investigate more of Bernstein’s oeuvre with the even more audacious Mass written for the opening of the John F Kennedy Center in 1971, showing he felt equally assured in commenting on other religions. This would make an ideal Proms project.

  • This concert is broadcast on Tuesday, 26 February, at 7.30 on BBC Radio 3
  • Leonard Slatkin and the BBCSO have recorded ’Jeremiah’ and ’Age of Anxiety’ for Chandos – click hear to read Steve Lomas’s review

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