It was Leonard Slatkin’s turn to salute Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic, a performance of his ‘Kaddish’ Symphony.
First off, Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, which Bernstein had conducted in his 1943 Philharmonic debut, when he stepped in at very short notice and without rehearsal for the ailing Bruno Walter, in a nationally broadcast concert that made Bernstein an overnight success.
Slatkin’s reading of the Strauss was true to its essentially narrative character, allowing the story, adapted from Cervantes’s novel, to be told by its protagonists, here Philharmonic principals – Don Quixote represented by Carter Brey’s cello and Sancho Panza by Cynthia Phelps’s viola (also Alan Baer’s tenor tuba and Amy Zoloto’s bass clarinet). Brey painted an elegant portrait of the Don, quite different from Sancho’s earthier signature (played by Phelps from her usual chair), the contrast emphasized in their lengthy dialogue in Variation III; and in the succeeding episode the cellist sang-out eloquently to depict the Don’s dream of Dulcinea, the latter introduced by an ardent oboe melody, played gorgeously by Liang Wang. The bassoon duo portraying a pair of monks who Quixote mistakes for sorcerers was rollicking and humorous, and concertmaster Frank Huang contributed several fine solos. There was also flutter-tonguing brass to depict bleating sheep and a wind-machine to simulate a breeze that has the blindfolded knight and squire believing they are flying. Slatkin marvelously crafted the final Variation, in which Quixote is defeated in battle, and in the Finale he nurtured Brey’s sensitive depiction of the protagonist’s demise.
After intermission, Slatkin directed a thrilling account of ‘Kaddish’ Symphony. Jeremy Irons recited the text in the composer’s revised version, but without its few words in Aramaic – a modification made by Slatkin to emphasize the universality of the Speaker’s dialogue with God. Irons’s rendition took its cue from the declaration at the outset of the second movement, ‘Din Torah’ (the hearing of a dispute before a rabbinical tribunal), that he approaches the presence of the Deity “with a certain respectful fury.” By remaining reverent in his impassioned argument with God and refraining from undue histrionics, Irons left space for a verbal crescendo later. In a fine dramatic touch, Irons deepened his voice when he quoted the words of God from Genesis Chapter Nine, declaring the rainbow to be a reminder of His covenant with all living creatures. Slatkin took advantage of Irons’s restraint in shaping this eclectic music’s overall arc.
Tamara Wilson, with a mixed youth chorus (rather than a boy’s choir, as specified by Bernstein), gave a lovely, lyrical account of the Kaddish prayer, completely different in spirit from the strident, even chaotic version that had been brilliantly brought off by the Concert Chorale of New York in the opening ‘Invocation’. In the third-movement ‘Scherzo’, winds and pizzicato strings accompany the Speaker as he beseeches God to believe in mankind, and the young vocalists give the Kaddish its third traversal. The music becomes more ponderous to usher in the ‘Finale’, in which the Speaker proclaims, “We are one, after all, You and I”, and all of the singers join in a joyous completion of the prayer.