Bernstein and Rossini, Celebrating Religious Diversity in Concert

By Adam J. Sacks

Gioacchino Rossini, circa 1855

Gioacchino Rossini, circa 1855

A program that literally embodies the two halves of the journey of a music director like no other.  A modern update of the Catholic Baroque with Rossini’s Stabat Mater meets Bernstein’s “Kaddish” an urbane, post-modern, Judaic expression self-tortured expression of criticality. Yannick Nézet-Séguin comes from the French world of Quebec where the revolution never happened and has come to make his career in New York and Philadelphia, cosmopolitan centers of post-protestant American business.

There is however so much more than meets the eye between these two works of religiosity composed in a secular era. Both highly theatrical they draw upon acts of religion as performance and upon performance spaces as sacred sanctum.  Bernstein and Rossini turned to such cosmic questions only after establishing their career as writers for a new kind of vibrant theater. But as “buffa” composers who “got religion,” Bernstein broke entirely new ground with his Kaddish. Unlike Stabat Mater, which has been covered by countless composers, no other of the numerous Jewish composers ever took on the Aramaic prayer which is perhaps Judaism’s most characteristic.

Despite the abstraction and non-corporeal nature of the dialogue at the heart of Bernstein’s unconventional Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish”, the soundtrack features demonstrative shifts from Schoenbergian serialism to Coplandesque Americanisms. A late 1950s artefact of “I-Thou” existentialism, certain sections would not be out of place with a “sword and sandals” Hollywood epic of the same period. The turn to tonality reads like reconciliation after a bout of anger with the almighty and a boy’s choir, as tradition would hold, brings force the winning grace of angels. These operatic lullabies contrast with the manic crescendos whose huge sound maestro Nézet-Séguin excels at filling the entire room. The reading of the protagonist, by Charlotte Alston, brings a kind of solemnity to the proceedings otherwise overwhelmed by the drama.

If Kaddish is a prayer for the dead that in actuality is a hymn of praise to the eternal, Rossini’s Stabat Mater is a witnessing of a mother’s pain at the death of a child, which Rossini at times conveys with an incongruous saccharine sweetness. The processional pageantry of the of much of the piece does give way to an ecstatic retelling of the passion which verges on an excessive “mardi gras-lite” celebration. If the dramatic dialogue of Kaddish is abstracted and cosmic, in Stabat Mater it is familial and intimate, the drama of a “holy family” not an interior dialogue. The ominous rollercoaster of choral-brass blend contrasts with an unanguished rollicking rhythem which bespeaks the early 19th Century context of a romantic catholic resurgence. The soloists here were brought to a pinnacle by the mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong whose vocal character stood out most prominently as haunting and singular. Taken in tandem, these two pieces underline the fact that religious experience can and should be possible inside the modern concert hall which somehow negates sacred space while continuing to play act its part.

Adam J Sacks holds a PhD from the Department of History at Brown University. He holds a Masters of Arts from Brown University, a Masters of Science (High Honors) from the City College of the City University of New York, and a Bachelor of Arts, Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell University.