Saturday, August 1, 2009

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, a great musicologist and music writer who wrote for the Boston Glove and was Artistic Advisor to the San Francisco and Minnesota Orchestras, died earlier this week. Anyone interested in learning more about The Symphony or The Concerto would do well to read his books on the subject. But more than anything else, he revolutionized the art of program annotation. His program notes were not just informative -- they put you there, at the time. You can smell the coffee Beethoven was drinking.

Long before he began writing program notes, however, he wrote for the Boston Globe. Here is a review (taking no prisoners) of Bernstein's Symphony no. 3, "Kaddish," printed in the Boston Globe 45 years ago:

Bernstein's 'Kaddish'

There is something enviable about the utter lack of inhibition with which Leonard Bernstein carries on. His Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish) is a piece, in part, of such unashamed vulgarity, and it is so strongly derivative, that the hearing of it becomes as much as anything a strain on one's credulity. Can the narrator really have said "Do I have your attention, Majestic Father?" and did she declare to her God, "We are in this thing together now, you and I"?

But yes, there it was, along with, at the end, the familiar figure of the composer himself, fetched from the wings by his wife (who had narrated), and bowing to the cheers and to the applause amid a veritable extravaganza of bear-hugs and kisses.

"Kaddish" was commissioned by the Boston Symphony and the Koussevitzky Music Foundation for the orchestra's 75th anniversary season, 1955-56. The composer responded with an ambitious work, laid out on a large scale. At its center stands the Hebrew Kaddish, the prayer of sanctification, traditionally used as a prayer for the dead, though its text speaks not of death, but of the praise of God and the hope of peace. Bernstein has troped the liturgical words with an English text of his own, one in which the speaker fights her way, Job-like, from despair faith.

The idea is splendidly imaginative, and it is tempting to think of what a poet like Auden might have made of it. But Bernstein as a writer of words has only fluency at his command, and that fluency produces a lava-flow of cliches wherein a few cozy intimacies (speaker to God, "We'll make it a sort of holiday") are contrasted against the tinny rhetoric of Norman Corwin's radio plays from the forties.

As a composer of music, Berstein's bent is principally theatrical. He knows how to make an effect, and "Kaddish" is full of detail that really tells: the dense and anguished cadenza for chorus a cappella is an example, and so is the tremendous orchestral outburst, with trumpets shrilling on high C flat, that starts the finale. The last ten bars of Amen are quite wonderful, not only for the magic of their sonority, but for the precision and skill of their harmonic preparation as well.

At such a moment, Bernstein shows that he can compose, and I just wish he would. Mostly, he seems to prefer the easier way of assembling a series of tricks. These tricks are mutually incompatible, and they are generally irrelevant to the task at hand. The program notes explain how atonal chromaticism is associated with despair and G flat major with faith, but no symbolism can justify the musical illogic of the transition. The idea of such a symbol is perfectly plausible, but Bernstein just has not managed to compose it out properly.

"Kaddish" was in the final stages of scoring last November when circumstances commanded its dedication "to the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy."

Charles Munch, during whose directorship "Kaddish" was commissioned, conducted this, its American premiere, and he led a spirited and exciting approximation. There were many ragged attacks and not quite comprehensible rhythms. I suspect that balances perhaps suffered because crowded conditions on stage necessitated the exile of a number of violinists. The principal chorus was that of the New England Conservatory, impeccably prepared by Lorna Cooke de Varon, and superb in every way. The Columbus Boychoir, Donald Bryant, director, had a substantial part as well: pitch and tone are amazing, rhythm less so, and there is no diction to speak of. The narration was by Felicia Monteleagre (Mrs. Bernstein), who for all of her intensity is not really an interesting performer, and who was made to sound metallically cold by the electronic amplification. Jennie Tourel sang the soprano solos, and she did so with utmost beauty and distinction.

The concert began with Handel's Concerto Grosso, Opus 6, Number 4, in a curious reading that demonstrated that it is possible to achieve a certain charm even with every imaginable feature of sonority, speed, articulation, dynamics quite wrong. There followed Bizet's youthful Symphony in C, so attractive in its evocation of the 17-year-old boy's playing of Schubert duets. Mr. Munch slammed through it rather roughly, and I am afraid both its performance and that of the Handel demonstrated how much rehearsal that the Bernstein Symphony had required. I found it interesting that even Handel's and Bizet's relatively simple patterns of quarters and eights came out pretty much all over the place, and I was the more braced, therefore, against the confusion caused by Bernstein's rather more complex metrical requirements.

Michael Steinberg
February 1, 1964