HowRwan­daand9/11movedme to write for Leonard Bern­stein

Holo­caust sur­vivor was nagged by the Amer­i­can com­poser to write a text to his work, Kad­dish. He tells why he fi­nally agreed to do it

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

As mon­u­men­tal mu­si­cal works g o , l i t t l e c a n b e a t l e o nar d Bern­stein’s 3rd and l a s t s y mphony, called K a d d i s h . o n stage are three choirs, a full or­ches­tra, a con­duc­tor and a singer. over five move­ments the mu­sic ranges from hints of Bach’s Pas­sion and mahler’s Res­ur­rec­tion to atonal moder­nity and play­ful per­cus­sive jazz.

most com­pelling of all is the quiet voice at its cen­tre, the nar­ra­tor, 79-yearold sa­muel Pisar. Born in Poland and now liv­ing in Paris, he sur­vived auschwitz to be­come a re­spected in­ter­na­tional lawyer, ad­viser to pres­i­dents and was short-listed for the no­bel Peace Prize.

next week the Bar­bican of­fers the uK pre­miere of a new ver­sion of Kad­dish, to mark the 70th an­niver­sary of Kristall­nacht. this per­for­mance will fea­ture Pisar’s text writ­ten spe­cially for the piece at Bern­stein’s re­quest. John ax­el­rod will con­duct the lucerne sym­phony or­ches­tra, sup­ported by the Phil­har­mo­nia Cho­rus, trin­ity Boys Choir, amer­i­can­mezzo-so­pra­noKel­ley­nassief and Is­raeli vi­o­lin­ist It­tai shapira.

since first re­leased in 1963, Kad­dish has un­der­gone sev­eral in­car­na­tions. Pisar calls it “a dra­matic por­trayal of mankind’s cri­sis of faith and the dis­ori­en­ta­tion it pro­vokes in the con­tem­po­rary world”. Bern­stein was never en­tirely comfortable with his own text, though. “His words were el­e­gant but he felt they seemed weak and needed a stronger spine,” says Pisar.

the com­poser im­plored him to cre­ate some­thing new based on his ex­pe­ri­ences of suf­fer­ing and re­birth. But Pisar re­sisted, say­ing that he “could not write po­etry at the level of your mu­sic”. though Bern­stein died in 1990, Pisar’s wife, Ju­dith, and oth­ers, “con­tin­ued to nag”. even­tu­ally Pisar, who in 1980 had writ­ten a pow­er­ful au­to­bi­og­ra­phy called Blood and Hope, re­lented.

so what changed his mind? af­ter see­ing new tragedy un­fold in Cam­bo­dia, Bos­nia, Rwanda and so­ma­lia, Pisar won­dered whether “the un­think­able still re­mains pos­si­ble”. then with 9/11, he saw per­pe­tra­tors who were not pa­gans like Hitler or stalin, but zealots pre­pared to kill in God’s name. He de­cided to write a text that would be Jewish and uni­ver­sal, per­sonal and pub­lic — a warn­ing against our ca­pac­ity for evil, yet also a tes­ti­mony to hu­man­ity’s in­ti­mate, at times doubt­ing, re­la­tion­ship with an ever-present God. It was not an easy task, touch­ing on the old ques­tion: “Where was God at auschwitz?”

“I didn’t want to re-open my quar­rel with the almighty. I was con­tin­u­ally float­ing be­tween faith and doubt, ask­ing: Do I be­lieve or don’t I be­lieve?” Pisar ex­plains. “I also won­dered: ‘should I do it in the voice of the lit­tle one, my­self at 10, thrown into the pit of hell? or should it be the voice of the so­phis­ti­cated, worldly adult? Fur­ther, would my fel­low sur­vivors un­der­stand if I came out as an athe­ist, or would mod­ern friends un­der­stand what had hit me if I sounded like a born-again be­liever?”

ul­ti­mately Pisar “let the child speak”; and as a re­sult, he has, he says, “at­tained a uni­ver­sal feel­ing pre­cisely be­cause it is so per­sonal”. In an au­da­cious di­a­logue with God he re­minds the de­ity that those who died did so with his name on their lips. thus, they are bound to Him and He to them. “It’s a com­plex con­cept yet also quite a ba­sic one,” he notes, adding: “mine is a lay­man’s kad­dish, ded­i­cated to your tor­mented chil­dren, Jews, mus­lims, Chris­tians, be­liev­ers and non-be­liev­ers.”

Pisar’s ver­sion of Kad­dish was pre­miered in 2003, yet his role be­gan nearly 50 years ago when he met Bern­stein via his own wife, Ju­dith, an amer­i­can mu­si­col­o­gist. the gen­e­sis of the work was ar­du­ous. Bern­stein con­ceived Kad­dish in 1955 yet took eight years to fin­ish it. Its in­au­gu­ral con­cert in tel aviv in 1963 occurred just weeks af­ter the slay­ing of Pres­i­dent Kennedy, to whose mem­ory it was ded­i­cated. (In 1960, Pisar was made a se­nior pres­i­den­tial for­eign pol­icy ad­vi­sor to Kennedy, whose first act in of­fice was to grant him us cit­i­zen­ship).

the tale of “Pisar’s Kad­dish” re­ally started in april 1945 when al­lied troops lib­er­ated the then 15-year-old. Pisar had es­caped from a death march out of Dachau, hav­ing ear­lier wit­nessed the mur­der of both par­ents and been in­car­cer­ated in auschwitz. He was per­suaded by an aunt to leave for aus­tralia and plunged him­self into english stud­ies — “it is my adopted mother tongue, even though I find my­self re­turn­ing to lit­vak Yid­dish”, he jokes.

Hap­pily men­tors en­cour­aged him and helped him “undo the Holo­caust, even at an in­fin­i­tes­i­mal level, par­ti­cle by par­ti­cle”. Pisar even­tu­ally took a PhD at Har­vard and for decades cru­cially helped bro­ker us-soviet talks dur­ing the Cold War. He and Ju­dith built a happy fam­ily with their four chil­dren.

once con­sid­ered an orches­tral white ele­phant, Kad­dish is now be­ing recog­nised as one of the most pow­er­ful pieces of 20th-cen­tury mu­sic. to Pisar it “ex­presses a deep af­fec­tion for the almighty. Yes, I was an­gry with him as a kid, yet now I re­alise that, il­lu­sion

or re­al­ity, we are stuck with him.” Kad­dish is per­formed at the Bar­bican, Lon­don EC2 on Tues­day Oc­to­ber 28 at 7.30pm. Tick­ets on 020 7638 8891. Pro­ceeds go to the Aegis Trust and the Holo­caust Cen­tre in Not­ting­ham

Pisar: his text is an au­da­cious di­a­logue with God

Bern­stein ( right) and Pisar em­brace at a per­for­mance of Kad­dish. Anewver­sionofthe­wor­knowhasaUKpremiere

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.