Concert review: Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in outstanding Rachmaninoff, difficult Bernstein

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Concert review: Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in outstanding Rachmaninoff, difficult Bernstein
By Sarah Bryan Miller St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Apr 28, 2019

Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra are celebrating his 50th anniversary with the orchestra with a pair of concerts. For the first of them, he led three pieces: a new work, a standard work with a favorite artist and a rarity.

On Saturday night, Slatkin received an enthusiastic reception when he stepped on stage. He briefly introduced the evening’s repertoire (a very Leonard thing to do), and then launched into it.

First was “Smothered by Sky,” by Loren Loiacono (b. 1989); she was among the young composers commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to celebrate Slatkin as he finished his tenure there. The percussion-heavy piece demands a large orchestra and packs a lot into its energetic seven minutes, as dense strings contend with outbursts from the brass; it ends with a soft sizzle on a cymbal. It would repay further hearing.

Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish,” was a long time a-borning: commissioned in 1955, it wasn’t completed until 1963, soon after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, to whom it is dedicated. Questioning God and veering between faith and anguish, it prefigures his 1971 “Mass” in many ways, with spiky music occasionally giving way to a limpid tune. First and last performed here in 1965, it is not an easy work to embrace.

The Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead; it does not mention death. Bernstein set its reverent words for a soloist and choirs (adult and children’s) against his own spoken texts: “Your covenant! Your bargain with Man! Tin God! Your bargain is tin! It crumples in my hand! And where is faith now — yours or mine?”

As specified by Bernstein, Slatkin used a female speaker, the excellent Charlotte Blake Alston. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (in the singer-friendly spot at house right of the podium) brought a big, beautiful voice to her solos. Amy Kaiser’s St. Louis Symphony Chorus and Barbara Berner’s St. Louis Children’s Choirs sang with accuracy and feeling throughout, and the tricky score held no terrors for the orchestra. Slatkin made the best possible case for it.

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. …