Q&A with Charlotte Blake Alston about Bernstein's "Kaddish Symphony"

Q&A with Charlotte Blake Alston
By Larry Levin, Special to the Jewish Light
Apr 18, 2019

You performed the “Kaddish Symphony” with the Philadelphia Orchestra earlier this year. The narrator wrestles with such powerful and intimate thoughts and feelings about God and faith during the piece. How did your understanding of the narrator evolve from when you began preparing through the time of your performance?

When I first read the text, what jumped out at me were the emotions of anger and rage. The narrator rails at God with a kind of fist-shaking, finger-pointing fury. To me, much of the sensibilities of the text, its language, pushed the limits of blasphemy. Certainly, among my own thoughts was the personal question: “Do I really want to stand on a stage in front of thousands of people and have words of blasphemy come out of my mouth – Bernstein or no Bernstein!?”  

I read the text several times, then shifted my focus to the primary word in the symphony’s title: Kaddish. I am not a practitioner of Judaism so while I was aware of the Mourners’ Prayer I was unfamiliar with the actual language of the prayer. I began engaging in conversations with Jewish friends and colleagues. My first question: “Are anger and rage ever components or sentiments of the Kaddish prayer?” The answer was ‘no’. Those extended conversations really helped me to think differently about the text and about Bernstein’s internal conflicts framed by what was happening in our country and in the world in the mid-1960’s – including the assassination of John F. Kennedy — into a broader and deeper perspective. …