Tucson Desert Song Festival presents LEONARD BERNSTEIN’S SYMPHONY NO. 3, KADDISH Review – New Symphonic Perspective on the Traditional Jewish Prayer

Maestro Gomez conducts the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Maestro Gomez conducts the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Photo by Anna Meuer

Leonard Bernstein Talks to God

Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead.  The words glorify and sanctify God’s name.  There is no mention of the departed.  Perhaps the meaning is that we have no control over life and death, only God has, and as such, He should be praised, not vilified for taking a loved one. 

Around this prayer, repeated in each movement, Bernstein talks to God—shouts at Him, rails about the presence of evil and suffering in God’s creation, especially when God has the power to make all things right.  He loves God for the beauty of His world, for His majesty, and longs to “rock His maker in his arms, child enfolding father in a warm, sheltering embrace.”  This tempestuous relationship is not resolved within the symphony, presented as part of the Tucson Desert Song Fest.  In fact, its dissonant ending promises more challenges in the God-man dialogue.

Tucson Desert Song Festival Artist-on-Residence Jamie Bernstein

Kaddish was performed by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, directed by Maestro José Luis Gomez, and the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, directed by Dr. Julian Ackerley.  The Narrator was Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein.  Her warmth and love for her father radiated with her words.  She spoke in her own voice, the daughter, commenting on her father’s dialogue with God. The soprano soloist, Kelley Nassief, provided a warm and loving tone to her Kaddish, a welcome contrast to the musical strife around her. Kaddish is part of the Tucson Desert Song Festival: Leonard Bernstein at 100.

Three Tucson Musical Groups:  Symphony, Chorus and Boys Chorus

As a symphony, the three-movement Kaddish is hall-marked with percussion.  The Tucson Symphony roster lists two percussionists.  They brought in at least three more for this piece.  But it is not just the drums, chimes and incidental percussive instruments.  The stringed instruments used several forms of “off the bow” strokes for staccato beats.  

Jamie Bernstein Photo by Stephen J. Sherman
Soloist Kelley Nassief
Soloist Kelley Nassief Photo by June Jacobson

The wonderful Symphony Chorus, directed by Dr. Bruce Chamberlain, was played like percussion instrument, sometimes in unison, but also with different words from each member, sounding like heavy raindrops.  The horns and woodwinds contributed with both sharp and mellow punctuation. The Boys Chorus, hidden a bit below the stage, arose in the third movement to lead the repetition of the Kaddish prayer in the sweet, vibrato-less tenor that only comes from boys. 

Though there is a lullaby in the second movement, you don’t come away from Kaddish thinking of a refrain or dominant melody.  You come away impressed with the incredible talent of Leonard Bernstein who takes the Jewish tradition of talking to God and asks that he, Bernstein, be “respected for the rigor of his thoughts, delight for the joy in his notes.”

Over the next two weeks, look for Picture this Post reviews of three more Bernstein events: Candide presented by the Arizona Opera, Mass presented by True Concord Voices and Orchestra, and Bernstein and Ballet presented by the Tucson Ballet.


Through February 4, 2018


Various Tucson locations


Some events are free, others have a charge.  Please consult the Tuscon Desert Songfest website for locale and curtain time details.

Ann Boland Portrait by artist Paul Sierra

About the Author: Ann Boland

Ann Boland is involved in the arts community from the audience POV.  She was seduced by the true grit of 1980’s Steppenwolf and got involved with Wisdom Bridge Theater as a Board Member.  Today, in addition to reviewing for Picture This Post, she manages two careers.  First is as a publicist for authors-- Ann Boland . Second, she is EVP for a company she helped found, NeuVanta, which provides online continuing profession education and exercise programs for seniors to help with agility, balance and mobility.


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