A Double Dose of Leonard Bernstein

As I mentioned in a previous post, last week my choir appeared in two concerts. On Sunday March 22nd, the massed forces of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir and the Israel Chamber Orchestra, with soloists Daniela Skorka and Yair Polishook, opened the Jerusalem Festival of the Arts with Bach’s ever- popular Cantata no. 140 (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme), under the baton of Na’ama Nazarathy-Gordon. Well, we were supposed to open with the Bach, but we played a trick on the audience by having the men of the choir “hijack” the show with a rousing rendition of Yehezkel Braun’s Vayimalet Cain (“And Cain Fled”), sung from the aisles to thunderous applause, before joining us on the stage for the rest of the concert.

After the Bach, we were joined by  the girls (and one brave boy!) of the Efroni Children’s Choir and together, we performed Fauré’s lovely Cantique de Jean Racine, after which the children sang the song Vois sur ton chemin from the film “Les Choristes“.

It was then time for a complete change of mood, as the women of the choir (and three brave men!) took to the stage to perform a short selection of songs from Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s colourful Romancero Gitano, arranged for a women’s choir and conducted by the equally colourful Flora Vinokurov. For these pieces, we were accompanied by guitar, violin, cello and harp, as well as by the mezzo-soprano Ella Wilhelm and flamenco dancer Michaela Harari. In the absence of any video-clips from the concert (I understand the committee is working on producing a DVD), the link is to a clip I found on YouTube, where the arrangement is, of course, completely different, but will serve as an introduction for those not familiar with the work.

The final item was Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, where the central section (Psalm 23) featured the delightful 12-year-old soloist Yael Shapira. The piece was written with a boy soprano in mind, but Yael was wonderful and, as I heard later from my guests, completely charmed the audience. The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir has performed this piece before, but it was a first for the full Oratorio Choir, and it is by no means an easy piece to sing,  so the fact that Na’ama persuaded them (most of us, anyway) to learn the piece by heart and sing without notes was nothing short of miraculous. 🙂  We performed the version for choir, piano, harp and percussion but apparently, we will be performing the piece again in the autumn, this time with a full symphony orchestra.

The following day, March 23rd, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir appeared at the same venue, the Henry Crown Auditorium at the Jerusalem Performing Arts Centre, together with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Shahar Choir from Rehovot, the Ankor Youth Choir and members of the Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir, soprano soloist Sharon Azrieli Perez  and the actor Richard Dreyfuss, in Bernstein’s powerful Symphony no. 3 – Kaddish, under the baton of Maestro Steven Mercurio.


While the Kaddish has some things in common with the Chichester Psalms, such as the frequent changes of rhythm and tempo, it is a much more difficult piece, being (for the most part) in twelve-tone form.  Having to perform it one day after the Oratorio Choir’s Gala concert made for an extremely tight rehearsal schedule, with as many as four rehearsals a week (two for each concert) and one memorable week, a rehearsal every day except for Shabbat!  Moreover, we took this engagement upon ourselves at very short notice and had only six weeks to prepare. Had it not been for the determination and encouragement of our conductor, the indefatigable Kate Belshé, I don’t know how we would have done it!

I would never have believed that I would actually enjoy singing atonal music – and to be quite honest, the bits that I liked best were the bits where the Speaker’s despair finally resolves into a re-affirmation of faith and the music turns tonal. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the piece, and with the concept, I should explain that the Kaddish is a Jewish prayer which is recited daily but which is particularly associated with the memorial prayer for the dead, although it never mentions the word “death” and is, in fact, a hymn of praise to the Almighty. In Bernstein’s version (dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated shortly before the work was due to have its premiere performance), the original Aramaic words of the ancient prayer are sung by a soprano soloist, a boys’ chorus and a mixed choir, while a Speaker conducts a dialogue (or, more accurately, an argument) with God, in which he castigates the Almighty for failing to keep His covenant with His people, in a way which some have considered almost blasphemous and which made me feel pretty uncomfortable myself, wondering if God was going to punish us by striking us down with a thunderbolt any minute. The full text can be found here.

In fact, this calling of God to account, has more than one precedent in the Jewish tradition, the most famous probably being the Kaddish of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who called the Almighty to a Din Torah (דין תורה – a lawsuit) and demanded to know why God so punished and oppressed such a faithful people, and that He should immediately put a stop to it! It has been recorded many times, both in the original Yiddish (here sung by the great tenor Jan Peerce) and in translation – for example, this version, in English, sung by Paul Robeson. It is hard to escape the thought that the English text of Bernstein’s Kaddish, written by the composer himself, was almost certainly  a reaction to the Holocaust and the horrors of World War Two.

I have no film of the concert itself, so here are some clips from one of the rehearsals (credit to Raul Roitman, from the bass section of our choir). In this clip, we can see one of the most difficult pieces for the choir, where we have to enter, clapping, with perfect timing:

This next clip is the start of the Din Torah section. I have chosen to share it with you because it displays most clearly why some people may think that Bernstein went too far, as he calls the Almighty a “Tin God” and hurls the accusation at him that “Your bargain is tin.” I also show it because I think that Richard Dreyfuss was particularly good in this bit.

Now here is a bit from the section Kaddish 2, featuring the soprano soloist and the women’s choir:

And here is the Finale, where tonality returns (more or less) to the music, as despair turns to hope, and Speaker, choir, soloist and orchestra re-affirm their faith in God, praise His name and pray for peace:

The concert, which was in memory of the soloist’s father, Israeli-Canadian real-estate tycoon, architect and philanthropist David Azrieli, also included Ernst Bloch’s Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello, Schelomo, performed by Michael Fitzpatrick, and ended (by audience demand!) – as it had begun – with Ben Steinberg’s setting of the ancient Jewish prayer Shalom Rav (שלום רב – “Abundant Peace”), from the Shabbat Evening Amidah prayer, arranged and orchestrated by Maestro Mercurio:


Grant abundant peace unto Israel thy people for ever;
For thou art the sovereign​ Lord of all peace;
and may it be good in thy sight to bless thy people Israel at all times and in every hour with thy peace.
Bless​ed art thou, O Lord, who blessest thy people Israel with peace.
Trans​lation from The Standard Prayer book by Simeon Singer (1915) (public domain)

Tomorrow evening is the Seder night, marking the start of the Pessach (Passover) festival. It’s a time that has often been chosen by our enemies to attack us, whether it was pogroms carried out by Christian worshippers whipped up to a fury against the “Christ-killers” by the anti-Jewish preaching of priests in their churches at Easter, or “Palestinian” terrorists butchering Jews gathered to celebrate the Seder in a Netanya hotel. It seems fitting, therefore, to end with this prayer,  especially since this year, the first day of Pessach falls on Shabbat:

Grant abundant peace unto Israel, thy people, for ever

Chag sameach – חג שמח


About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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