“Simplicity is the last refuge of the complex,” according to Oscar Wilde. Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”), performed at Merrill Auditorium Tuesday night by the Portland Symphony Orchestra, with the Choral Art Society Masterworks Chorus, soprano Mary Wilson and the Boston Children’s Chorus, is a case in point.
It was narrated by the composer’s eldest daughter, Jamie Bernstein, with her own text. The trend of Bernstein’s unresolved argument with God, the theme of the symphony, is toward simplicity, and the new spoken version seems to have been sanitized a bit as well. As it is, the symphony must be considered unfinished, since the narrative it illustrates is still a work in progress.
That said, the orchestra, under Robert Moody, gave the jagged score, which flirts with serialism – in a Latin beat – a superlative performance, enhanced by Wilson’s marvelously clear and powerful voice. She could be heard, sotto voce, over the massed choruses.
Her long, lyrical solo in Kaddish III was the high point of the symphony.
In spite of the best reading it could have been given and the standing ovation that followed, the symphony as a whole was something of a disappointment. The narration, well delivered, prompted uncomfortable recollections of Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.”
The supertitles were unnecessary, all of them being translations of standard religious encomiums that Bernstein employs to contrast with his rage.
The primary problem with the symphony is that the composer has no language with which to convey his impotent anger. A rant against heaven should be in C-sharp minor, at least. Bernstein’s dissonances are Schoenberg’s everyday language. And what are all those woodblocks doing amidst the hellish percussion?
Both vocal groups were effective, especially the Children’s Chorus in the “simple song” that provides a partial resolution of the conflict. In the opening movements however, most of the vocal parts were swallowed up in the prevailing cacophony.
Schoenberg also appears off-stage in Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” for Chorus and Orchestra that followed after intermission. They were written as a tonal reaction to the younger composer’s experiments with 12-tone writing, and in their contrasts of atmosphere, work better than the Symphony No. 3.
Boy soprano Benjamin Wezelberg was marvelous in “The Lord is my Shepherd,” but Bernstein spoils the effect by inserting unnecessary blue notes into the melody. Wezelberg sang them perfectly but he should not have been subjected to the indignity.
The program concluded with another “Simple Song” from “Mass,” soulfully delivered by Wilson.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: