Great Performances: Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony
Last summer, I had the privilege of joining the Chicago Symphony Chorus for my first concert as an associate member. Since 1936, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has called the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois, its summer home, performing more than a dozen concerts there over six weeks. In July 2022, the chorus joined the CSO for Brahms’ German Requiem and Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 ("Kaddish"). Now, the Brahms is a choral singer’s bread and butter, but the Bernstein—well, it’s done far less frequently and is much harder to sing. An added layer of pressure was that PBS’ Great Performances was filming our concert.
With the retirement of longtime CSO Chorus Master Duain Wolfe in February 2022, the CSO has been auditioning candidates to succeed him. For this program, we had the privilege of working with Dr. Eugene Rogers, director of choirs at the University of Michigan. He had no easy task teaching us the rhythmically and vocally challenging music in Aramaic and Hebrew in only four chorus rehearsals before maestro Marin Alsop took the podium.
The first chorus rehearsal with the conductor is called a conductor piano rehearsal, or CPR. In a CPR, the maestro rehearses the choir alone in advance of the first rehearsal with the orchestra. We then had two rehearsals with the CSO at Ravinia: one the day before the concert, and a dress rehearsal the afternoon of the performance. Usually, you don't have to be dressed in performance attire for a dress rehearsal, and you don't even necessarily run the whole piece. However, because of the filming, we were instructed to wear our concert blacks and have our hair and makeup done. Then we ran the whole piece without stopping. That way, if anything went wrong in the performance, the film crew could splice in footage from the rehearsal with minimal continuity errors.
If you've never been to Ravinia, it's an outdoor venue where most people bring lawnchairs, picnic blankets, and elaborate spreads to enjoy while they listen to the concert from the lawn. (Many go all out, packing tables, vases of flowers, and even electric candles for extra ambience!) Others choose to sit in the pavilion, where there is normal concert hall seating that radiates from the stage. Though there is a roof above the stage and pavilion, the performers are still exposed to the heat, humidity, and bugs! Luckily, the weather had cooled down by performance time, though my score bears the reminants of dead bugs squashed between the pages...
Despite the short rehearsal period and having to contend with the elements, everything came together in the performance. The music had finally "clicked," the hours of drilling difficult choral passages paying dividends. Janai Brugger was a stunning soprano soloist, and actress Jaye Ladymore brought emotional depth as the narrator. Seated in the soprano section (second row on the end), I had the best view of the percussion section and marveled as they leapt between instruments in Bernstein’s intricate score.
When programming this piece, festival organizers could not have known the horror that would befall Highland Park that July when a gunman opened fire at the town's Independence Day parade, killing seven people. Tragically, Brahms' German Requiem and Bernstein's "Kaddish" Symphony proved apt choices for a community in mourning. In the Jewish religion, the Kaddish is the name of the prayer chanted at funerals and at synagogue services. Though there is no mention of death in the prayer, it mentions life three times. Like the Brahms Requiem, which is a requiem not for the dead, but for the living, in his "Kaddish" Symphony, Bernstein plays on the prayer’s dualism: its reputation as a requiem and its celebration of life. This context made the performance even more meaningful to be a part of. I only hope our small musical offering could provide some healing for the community.
Tune into WILL-TV at 9pm Monday, August 21 for Leonard Bernstein’s "Kaddish" Symphony from Great Performances, or watch in the PBS App.