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Marin Alsop Conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Leonard Bernstein for 'Great Performances'

Daniel Hautzinger
Marin Alsop conducts an orchestra
Marin Alsop conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony at Ravinia in a 'Great Performances' broadcast. Photo: Patrick Gipson

Great Performances: Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony airs Monday, August 21 at 8:00 pm and is available to stream at the same time on the PBS app and

Leonard Bernstein's third symphony, which includes the Jewish prayer for the dead known as the Kaddish, was nearly finished when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. "On November 22, 1963, Bernstein had come to the orchestration of the final amen section of the Symphony when, abruptly, fate commanded the dedication: 'To the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy,'" a note at the beginning of the symphony's score says. 

The following day, Bernstein conducted Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony in a nationally televised memorial. Several days later, he made a speech in which he said, "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before." 

Marin Alsop, a protégé of Bernstein's who conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Bernstein's "Kaddish" Symphony at Ravinia that is being broadcast via Great Performances, has found inspiration in those words, as she told our sister station WFMT. "I think in the world in which we live, which can be quite violent, that’s a beautiful way to think about things," she said. "If we invest ourselves in creating beauty as opposed to destroying each other, maybe the outcome will be what we all hope for."

Alsop believes that Bernstein's artistic activity as a composer and conductor was always directed outwards, as she says in a video previewing the Kaddish Symphony broadcast. "The music is just the vehicle to express his concern about the world or his love for the world or his worry," she says, continuing that the Kaddish is "a prayer that not only remembers people who have passed, but it also celebrates the cycle of life."

Bernstein's symphony features a narrator who wrestles with God and faith before imagining a better, though still imperfect, world. In the American premiere of the symphony, Bernstein's wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre, was the narrator; their complicated marriage is the subject of the upcoming film Maestro, starring Bradley Cooper as Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Montealegre. In the Great Performances broadcast, the role is taken by Jaye Ladymore, while the soprano soloist is Janai Brugger, a native of the southwestern suburb of Darien and onetime resident of Chicago. The performance also features Uniting Voices Chicago, formerly known as the Chicago Children's Choir. 

Alsop is the chief conductor at Ravinia, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where she has organized a Breaking Barriers Festival to promote diversity in classical music and the arts the past two years. She is the world's most visible woman conductor, and was the subject of a recent documentary that WTTW Passport members can stream via the PBS App. You can read an interview with her about that documentary.