Kaddish (Symphony No 3) by Leonard Bernstein, Usher Hall. Edinburgh Festival. Julia Pascal.


This evening’s programme was performed by the Royal Scottish Orchestra.  Samuel Barber’s lyrical Violin Concerto, with a stunning performance by Vadim Gluzman, was the prelude to an evening which was more of a war cry than a polished musical offering.  It was an amazingly exciting event which was as political as it was artistic.  Bernstein was completing the work as John F Kennedy was assassinated and the composition is devoted to him.  The text is a struggle between man and God and therefore has roots deeply mined in Jewish tradition.  Kaddish was premiered in Israel to great acclaim but American reviewers were mixed in their response.  Critic Alan Rich observed ‘ Kaddish is a reasonable enough name for the piece but Chutzpah would do just as well’.  Musically it is a mixture of styles but, it is not the music, rather it is the presence of the narrator, Simon Pisar, that remains in the memory.

Pisar is Holocaust survivor of great reputation.  He was a lawyer, writer, advisor to JF Kennedy and founder of Yad Vashem, France.  With Bernstein’s Kaddish he performs regularly adjusting his narrative to current protests.  His references, to the Islamic murderers of other groups in the Middle East and their drive towards an international caliphate, were a fearless cry against brutality.  Pisar railed against terrorists with ballistic weapons, murderous fanatics and was unafraid to spotlight Isis and Hamas.  After I saw Israeli artists in Edinburgh silenced by pro-Hamas Scottish crowds this August, this was a refreshing protest against the bully boys who silence free speech.  What is most effective is that the text comes from someone who saw hell in Dachau, Auschwitz, Majdanek, Orianienburg,  Sachsenhausen, Blizyn, and, who at 85, still bears witness.

As for the music there was an electric direction by the conductor John Axelrod whose muscular style was thrilling.  Rebecca Evans as the narrator’s dead grandmother has the most haunting soprano voice as she evokes the lullabies of Pisar’s childhood.

The performance was about man blaming God for abandoning him but the text ends with Bernstein and Pisar asking God to make a new covenant with humanity.  The question we are left with is whether God is even listening.  Yet we are still innocent, or stupid enough, to still keep pleading.

Julia Pascal © 2014.