Exciting: Bernstein's appeal lies in melody

11.24.08
Jamie Bernstein
Winston-Salem Journal

If nothing else, the late Leonard Bernstein could churn out one memorable melody after another, and his dance music abounds in infectious rhythm. That's why West Side Story and other works have such enduring appeal.

But Bernstein feared that these assets didn't make him a "serious" enough composer for the influential academic community of the 1960s and '70s. His largely atonal Symphony No. 3, Kaddish, which the Winston-Salem Symphony presented yesterday at the Stevens Center, was an effort to gain acceptance with this crowd.

And yet even in the Third Symphony, accessible melody eventually prevails over all those "thorny" sounds in a process that mirrors Bernstein coming to terms with Jehovah, with whom he had a complicated, tumultuous relationship. That's essentially what his daughter Jamie Bernstein, who served as the narrator in the performance of the Third Symphony, proposed during a question-and-answer session after the concert.

I happen to buy this thinking. But even if you don't, you should find plenty to admire in the Winston-Salem Symphony's account of the Third Symphony, a 1963 work that highlights a presentation titled "Lenny's Spiritual Side." The performance, conducted by Robert Moody, was so precise and exciting that I'm a bit mystified it did not prompt a more enthusiastic response from the audience.

Jamie Bernstein read her own humorous and provocative text, which she described as a "completely new" departure from the original, which was written by her father.

"My father's angry with God," she said. "I'm angry with my father."

Her reading revealed plenty of dramatic flair and, unlike other concert narrations, blended in seamlessly with the music.

The chorus -- prepared ably by Carole Ott, the symphony's new chorus master -- sang settings of the Kaddish, or "Prayer for the Dead," that came across in polished-yet-gripping fashion. This was hardly a foregone conclusion: The chorus had to work extra long and hard on what might well be some of the most difficult music they have ever sung. It consisted of the symphony's Chorale, the Cantata Singers of the UNC School of the Arts and the Winston-Salem Children's Chorus.

The soprano soloist, Amy Johnson, emerged as a commanding presence as well, singing with fervor and intelligence.

More familiar fare came after the Kaddish symphony, which opened the concert. This consisted of Chichester Psalms and "Simple Song" from Mass, in which Johnson teamed up with flutist Kathryn Levy. The latter was simply gorgeous; the former introduced symphony audiences to one of the city's most talented boy sopranos, Zachary Covington, who sang his part with felicitous piety.