It’s said that Shabbat is a taste of paradise. It’s not that unusual to hear Hebrew spoken or chanted at Tanglewood in the Berkshires. Some welcome Shabbat with blessings over candles, wine and challah as a prelude to their festive picnic. Temple Anshe Emunah holds an annual Tanglewood Havdala service for its congregants and anyone else who wishes to participate or simply attend. This year, what was unusual is that Opening Night of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) full summer season began with the threefold priestly blessing—in Hebrew.
“Opening Prayer,” composed by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) had its premiere in December 1986 as part of a gala concert to celebrate the reopening of Carnegie Hall’s main auditorium. The famed building would have been destroyed had violinist Isaac Stern not spearheaded a campaign to save it.
This year, “Opening Prayer” was performed for the 2022 opening night at Tanglewood. The BSO, led by Andris Nelsons, played the six-minute composition for orchestra and solo baritone, with gusto. Jack Canfield sang the three Hebrew verses of the prayer admirably. The joyous round of applause that followed affirmed that not only was it well performed, the benediction was the perfect way to begin the full summer season—with singing—after the two-year covid-induced hiatus. Gorgeous weather seemed an additional blessing. People were clearly grateful to be back in Tanglewood, which was enhanced during the pandemic by new gates and buildings, including the Linde Center for Music and Learning.
Bernstein came to Tanglewood to study in 1940. He was a student in the first class of what was then the Berkshire Music Center, and which later became the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. Now it is one of the most prestigious summer music training programs for students ages 10 to 20, who come from all over the world. It functions under the auspices of the Boston University College of Fine Arts.
The second offering in the program was Yuja Wang performing Franz Liszt’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.” Wang was astounding in her sparkling emerald dress that called up images of the Land of Oz as depicted in the MGM classic “The Wizard of Oz.” Far more than a model of glamor, she soon had full command of the audience. Her playing was passionate, robust and nuanced, moving almost simultaneously from loud, abrasive sounds to soft, soothing, lyrical ones.
When her performance ended, the audience leapt to its feet, cheering and applauding. Following several curtain calls for an encore, she played a jazzy version of an aria from “Carmen.” Its composer, Georges Bizet, is rumored to have been Jewish through matrilineal descent. What is certain is that he studied with Fromental Halévy. The son of a cantor, Halévy composed one of the grandest operas, “La Juive” (The Jew), in 1835. Even the virulently antisemitic Richard Wagner admired the brilliant musician and wrote a rave review of his opera.
The audience would have been glad to hear and see Wang play the piano all night long. The mental, emotional and physical strength she expended were phenomenal.
The last piece on the program was another crowd pleaser, Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” which he had written for the Diaghilev Ballet Company. It, too, was vigorously performed by the BSO. It must be said that Stravinsky had a checkered past vis-à-vis antisemitism. He continued to perform for the Nazis until his music was banned as degenerate. Yet his ballad for baritone and orchestra, “Abraham and Isaac” (1962-63), was set to a Hebrew text and premiered in Jerusalem in 1964 with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. He also had a Jewish son-in-law in Paris who was murdered in the Holocaust, leaving Stravinsky’s granddaughter orphaned.
As I watched and listened, my thoughts wandered to all the elements and all the people, living and dead, involved in making that night so glorious. It was a reminder that music is a universal language. It transcends time and is eternal.
This brings me back to Bernstein, born to immigrants from Ukraine. The first American conductor to achieve international fame, he was a humanitarian and peacemaker who appealed to both popular and musically sophisticated listeners. His father, Samuel Joseph Bernstein, a successful and philanthropic businessman, hoped his brilliant son would become a rabbi. However, Lenny chose music. Or, music chose him to become a Jewish leader who taught, helped and healed multitudes.
By 1943, Bernstein was conducting the New York Philharmonic and composing. In 1947, Bernstein traveled to Tel Aviv to conduct the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, created by Bronislaw Hubermann, a Polish Jew who was one of world’s most brilliant violinists, to provide refuge from the Nazis to Jewish musicians and their families—a brilliant and heroic effort. It became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra when Palestine became a sovereign state. Bernstein would support it for the rest of his life, and the orchestra regularly performed in Tanglewood.
In 1948, Bernstein traveled to Europe to conduct. He visited Feldafing, in Bavaria. The first all-Jewish displaced persons camp established by the U.S. army in May 1945 was located in an area that included the site of a former elite school for Hitler Youth. Bernstein performed George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to cheer the still-homeless Jews, with whom he interacted, particularly the musicians among them.
Bernstein racked up Grammys, Tonys and the Kennedy Center Award, among other honors. He succeeded as a conductor, composer, humanitarian, author and public educator through a television series “Young Peoples’ Concerts,” televised from Lincoln Center. He mentored many, including Seiji Ozawa, Zubin Mehta and Yo-Yo Ma, and brought the late Gustav Mahler’s compositions out of the shadows.
Bernstein is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking 1957 musical, “West Side Story,” which was made into an iconic film in 1961. Originally intended as a Romeo and Juliet story, it won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. (Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake, written by Tony Kushner, received seven Academy Award nominations and an Oscar.)
Some people describe the Berkshires as heaven on earth. It certainly offers something for everyone, summer and year-round. Tanglewood is the jewel in the crown. It attracts people from all over the world, who congregate to learn from one another and listen to music in one of the most harmonious settings on earth.
Thanks in part to Bernstein, Hebrew prayers are sung in the place that was so important and meaningful to him. It would have greatly pleased his father, who gave generously to Chabad, that a Chabad Shabbat minyan takes place in the Lenox Community Center.
If You Go:
Observant visitors can stay at inns that are within walking distance of Tanglewood. Local markets sell kosher and vegan products. The Berkshires also has a number of synagogues (Chabad, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform). The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires has published a 30-page booklet listing various Jewish events and programs. One can attend talks, rehearsals and performances throughout the week and on Sundays. Nor is it only a venue for classical music. During the 2022 season, the popular artists’ series includes James Taylor, Judy Collins, Van Morrison and Ringo Starr.
By Barbara Wind