Leonard Bernstein’s legacy as a composer is based on “West Side Story,” “Candide” and other classics from the post-World War II era, but he also focused on Jewish music in both sacred and secular settings.
From a “Hashkiveinu” written for a Shabbat evening service in 1945 to his “Kaddish Symphony” dedicated to the recently assassinated President John Kennedy in 1963, Bernstein’s Jewish upbringing often was reflected in his scores.
Both aspects of his composing genius will be on display Saturday, Jan. 26, in a cantors’ concert at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos. The event, which will occur five months after the 100th anniversary of the late Bernstein’s birth, was organized by Shir Hadash Cantor Devorah Felder-Levy and will include six other cantors.
“Any time I have an opportunity to do music that is not Jewish, I do Broadway music. I’ve always loved ‘West Side Story,’” said Felder-Levy, who said she is expecting about 300 to 400 people will attend the event. “As I’ve put this concert together, I’ve discovered a lot of music I didn’t know, and that’s been a lot of fun to learn and to hear.”
Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1918 to Jewish
immigrants Jennie and Samuel Bernstein. He said he was deeply influenced in his childhood by the sacred music at Congregation Mishkan Tefila, a Conservative synagogue that had a mixed-gender choir and organ music, and later by meeting Holocaust survivors in Germany in 1948 while leading an orchestra of displaced persons in George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Bernstein died in 1990 at age 72.
Though most of the music on the Jan. 26 program will be secular and selected from among Bernstein’s more popular compositions, there also will be a smattering of religious music — and some of his musical theater gems include references to Judaism.
“The ‘gang call’ — the way the Jets signal to each other — in West Side Story, was really like the call of the shofar that I used to hear blown in temple on Rosh Hashanah,” Bernstein said in an interview published in Rolling Stone a month before his death.
This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.
The upcoming concert will feature five Bay Area cantors in addition to Felder-Levy: Amanda Edmondson of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose; Alexandra Fox of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame; Elaya Jenkins-Adelberg from Congregation Beth El in Berkeley; David Margules from Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael; and Leigh Korn from Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. Joining them will be Cantor Josh Breitzer of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York.
Shir Hadash congregant Elizabeth Herman will play the keyboard, and Felder-Levy will be accompanied by a cellist and a flautist when she sings a number from Bernstein’s 1950 version of the musical “Peter Pan.”
Felder-Levy said she got inspired to do a Bernstein concert after receiving a “cantors kit” from the National Museum of American Jewish History last year. The museum, based in Philadelphia, dedicated an exhibition to Bernstein and his music to mark the centennial of his birth.
Felder-Levy said she was particularly impressed by Bernstein’s belief that music could be a salve for a hurting world, part of the reason he wrote his Kaddish Symphony, his third symphony, after Kennedy’s death.
Two days after the assassination, Bernstein spoke at Madison Square Garden at the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York’s annual fundraising event. He explained why music was needed during that time of national grieving.
“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art,” Bernstein told the crowd. “Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
Those words, Felder-Levy said, resonate today.
“I just felt like, right now, it’s so timely,” she said. “To continue the arts in any way, whether it’s through the music of Bernstein or anything new on Broadway, and obviously Jewish music, that music is really something that brings people together in times of sadness and in times of joy.”