Sunday, June 10, 2012


June 8

Smiles all around after an unforgettable Kaddish.

Eliahu Inbal finished his tenure with the Czech Philharmonic in dramatic fashion on Friday night, conducting a thundering performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish symphony. With a large orchestra, two choirs and a soprano soloist providing explosive accompaniment for a riveting narrative by Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar, it was a night for the ages.

The evening started on a calmer note with a deft rendering of Ravel’s Scheherazade song cycle. Full-bodied yet beautifully transparent, the piece was an engaging showcase for singer Pavla Vykopalová, with Inbal layering subtle shadings and warm tones to complement her dusky soprano. A regular on the National Theater and State opera stages, Vykopalová has a rich, round voice with no sharp edges, even in the upper registers, that drew generous applause from the musicians as well.

Vykopalová was also the beneficiary of a perfect balance that Inbal struck between the singer and the orchestra; not once was her voice overwhelmed by the music. That’s difficult to achieve, and a reminder of Inbal’s high professional standards and skills. Watching him some nights over the past few years has been like attending a clinic in how to conduct a symphony orchestra.

Bernstein’s Kaddish is an overwhelming piece on every level, and deliberately so. Conceived as a traditional Jewish prayer set to “expressionistic and Schoenbergian” music, as Bernstein described it, the work immediately took on profound overtones when it was finished in 1963, in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The narrator not only prays and mourns but inveighs against God, demanding to know how He can allow suffering and persecution in the world. Pisar came to the piece after Bernstein’s death – though with the composer’s encouragement – writing a new, updated “Dialogue with God” that recounts his experiences in Auschwitz in horrifying detail.

The symphony opens with minimalist background music for the narrator, but quickly roars into a full maelstrom during the narrative breaks, with atonal horns and swooning strings underpinned by as many as eight percussionists at a time. A full mixed choir adds searing, apocalyptic vocals that washed down from the empora like acid rain. In the later passages, as the rage and terror die down, a solo soprano and children’s choir provide moments of solace. But the overall effect of the piece is like being slammed by a tidal wave, with the orchestra seemingly on the verge of tearing itself apart at times.

Inbal knit all this together with superb control, punctuating lines like “Never again!” with outbursts of volcanic intensity, then taking the sound down to fine gradations – murmurs from the choir, metronomic tapping from a single percussion instrument. The fireworks were spectacular, the quiet moments somber and contemplative, and the interplay between the narrator and the music finely honed. Inbal never serves up anything less than a sharp performance, but to achieve that with literally hundreds of performers on and offstage (the Kühn Children’s Choir had to sing from a balcony in the audience) was a particularly impressive feat.

One could argue that the Kaddish is not a symphony at all, but a series of sound effects that underscore and amplify a sustained lament, with comparatively little music at the core. And Pisar’s contemporary references to Iran and Islamic jihad were a bit confusing in a 50-year old piece. But there was no denying the power of the work in Inbal’s hands. And the Czech Philharmonic provided him with A-list support in Vykopalová, the Kühn Children’s Choir and the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno.

Like so many concerts in Prague, this one ended with a standing ovation. That particular response has never made sense to this critic – if every concert is superlative, then none is superlative. But in this case, it was well-deserved, not just for Friday’s concert, but for the fine job that Inbal did under often difficult circumstances the past three years. As a satisfying finish to a turbulent time, it was a note-perfect performance.

Photo courtesy of the Czech Philharmonic

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