In his later years, American composer Leonard Bernstein actively campaigned for world peace. When he spoke at the Johns Hopkins commencement ceremony in 1980, Bernstein, who received an honorary degree that day, described both his vision of global harmony and his hope for humanity.
Twenty-two years later, Bernstein's vision is reborn in Baltimore, in both his words and music.
A massive assembly of Peabody talent takes to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall stage this Saturday night to perform a trio of works by three of the 20th-century's most heralded composers, including a rare live production of Bernstein's Third Symphony, Kaddish. The narrative work, which takes its name from the Jewish prayer for the dead, has not been performed in Baltimore since its inaugural tour in 1964.
Sharing the evening's bill will be Alban Berg's Violin Concerto and Bela Bartok's Deux Images, Op. 10. Peabody faculty member Herbert Greenberg will be the soloist for Berg's Violin Concerto, a work written in memory of a friend's daughter who died at the age of 18.
The concert, which begins at 8 p.m., will be conducted by Peabody musical director Hajime Teri Murai, who had sought for nearly a decade to pair Peabody with the Bernstein piece.
Murai, who affectionately refers to the upcoming concert as "the three Bs of the 20th-century program," describes the emotionally charged Kaddish as Bernstein's musical version of an overstuffed suitcase. Crammed into its three movements are touches of folk, jazz and neoclassicism, the music segueing from chaotic moments of atonal dissonance to soaring and familiar Bernstein melodies. A lavish production, the work was written for orchestra, mixed chorus, boys' choir, speaker and soprano soloist.
"You name it, this piece has it," Murai says. "It is true eclecticism. Whatever your taste in music, if you come and listen, you will hear something strong, powerful, reflective, uplifting, joyful. This work does all that."
Kaddish reflects both the composer's search for a relationship with God and the period during which it was written--the turbulent early 1960s, when the threat of nuclear war was made palpable by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the ongoing Cold War. In a departure from his previous works, Bernstein wanted to compose a dramatic vehicle for his wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre.
On Nov. 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated just as Bernstein was putting finishing touches to the piece. He dedicated the symphony, premiered by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in December 1963, to the memory of the slain president.
Although Kaddish was met with somewhat mixed reviews when it debuted in America, many critics considered it among the composer's most serious and finest works. Bernstein, who in 1977 revised the piece by removing some of its more "melodramatic" text, performed it whenever the appropriate occasion arose. It was featured in concerts in Rome in 1981, following an assassination attempt on the pope, and in Hiroshima in 1985, the 40th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. It is now considered Bernstein's most important work.
Murai first heard Kaddish as a teenager in the early 1970s while driving home from an orchestra recital at his San Francisco high school. Captivated, Murai remained in his car, even when parked in his family's garage, so that he could listen to the remainder of the work and discover its name and author.
"I just found it so arresting," Murai says. "It is such a powerful and moving piece. It's everything Bernstein, combining layer upon layer of beautiful elements."
Throughout Murai's professional career, the work has remained atop his "wish-I-could-do list," he says. He was just waiting for the stars to align.
"It takes the school a lot of resources and people to put a production like this together," says Murai, who first hatched the idea of bringing Kaddish to Peabody in 1993. "You just have to wait for the right opportunity where everybody is available and you can handle all the logistics. This is a wonderful opportunity for the students to perform at the Meyerhoff and to get as many people involved as possible. This is something we can't do on our stage because it's just too small."
The performance of Kaddish will bring together the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, the Peabody Chamber Singers, the Peabody Concert Singers and the Peabody Hopkins Chorus. Featured on stage will be faculty member Phyllis Bryn-Julson as soprano soloist and Rheda Becker as the speaker. In all, more than 200 people will participate in the piece.
Becker, a former Peabody faculty member, specializes in the art of musical narration and has performed with orchestras all over the world. She made her debut in 1974 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and since then has appeared as speaker in works by Britten, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Schoenberg and Tchaikovsky, among others.
As the narrator in Kaddish, Becker represents all of humanity in a one-sided conversation with God, at times questioning and angrily reproaching Him for mankind's misery. In the work, the spiritual Bernstein wrestles with the themes of faith and suffering, ultimately resolving the tension with forgiveness and a hope for a better humanity.
In the post-Sept. 11 world, Becker says, the words she will utter are now all the more pertinent.
"What could be more appropriate than to perform this work now?" Becker asks. "We all have questions since Sept. 11, many of us questioning our own faith."
Becker says she is "thrilled" to finally be part of Kaddish, a work that never fails to bring tears to her eyes.
"I think people will walk out of this performance uplifted," Becker says. "This is a story that ends with hope. It's a piece for all people, a piece for all times."