Gustavo Dudamel (photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Gustavo Dudamel conducts Bernstein and Shostakovich

In 1944, at the age of just 25, Leonard Bernstein conducted the first performance of his First Symphony, a work based on the Old Testament lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah and which demonstrates astonishing musical and intellectual maturity. The same expressive intensity characterises Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, which dates from the same time, but from a completely different sound world. The conductor of this exciting juxtaposition is Gustavo Dudamel.

Berliner Philharmoniker

Gustavo Dudamel conductor

Tamara Mumford mezzo-soprano

Leonard Bernstein

Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah” for mezzo-soprano and orchestra

Tamara Mumford mezzo-soprano

Dmitri Shostakovich

Symphony No. 5 D minor, op. 47

Dates and Tickets

Wed, 31 Oct 2018, 20:00

Philharmonie | Introduction: 19:00

Serie I

Thu, 01 Nov 2018, 20:00

Philharmonie | Introduction: 19:00

Serie K


“I am always writing the same piece, as all composers do,” Leonard Bernstein said of his symphonic output. “The work I have been writing all my life is about the struggle that is born of our century, a crisis of faith.” Bernstein’s treatment of such an existential theme within the most important instrumental genre suggests other large-scale works of the twentieth century: the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, who wanted “to build a world with every available technical means”, or Jean Sibelius, who in one diary entry writes about musical “professions of faith”, and those of Dmitri Shostakovich, who is said to have described all his symphonies as “tombstones”.

For his First Symphony Jeremiah, Bernstein selected a total of eight verses from the Hebrew “Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet” about the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem as a symbol of the central crisis of faith. The use of melodic motifs from traditional cantillation (the form of ritual chanting practiced in Jewish worship) meant that the poignant three-movement work assumed a typically “Jewish” tone, which also gave it political significance: “How could I close my eyes to the problems of my own people?” said Bernstein in an interview before the first performance in Pittsburgh on 28 January 1944. “I’d give everything I have to be able to strike a death blow at fascism.” In these concerts, the direction of Leonard Bernstein’s First Symphony is in the hands of Gustavo Dudamel. The vocalist is the Canadian mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford who today is a regular guest at major festivals and opera houses as a graduate of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program of New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

After the interval, the programme continues with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony which since its triumphant premiere on 21 November 1937 has been one of the Russian composer’s most performed works. Officially, it was understood as a “Soviet artistʼs response to just criticism” (Shostakovich), although in the music, the socialist demand for monumentality and popularity is reduced to absurdity. “The rejoicing,” said Shostakovich, “is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying ʻyour business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicingʼ.”

About the music

Questions of Faith

Symphonies by Leonard Bernstein and Dmitri Shostakovich

“A kind of comfort, not a solution” – Leonard Bernsteins Symphony No. 1 Jeremiah

“Credo ergo sum”? The dictum (I believe, therefore I am) that was still regarded as an absolute certainty in the western world until well into the Middle Ages was subjected to thorough scrutiny by the time of the Copernican turning point and the subsequent Cartesian revolution in thought. Kantian enlightenment, the romantic “Ich” [I] movement and, above all, Hegelian dialectic represented the next levels of emancipation on this path to desacralization and anthropocentrization. Nietzsche finally delivered the decisive blow to religious immaturity, however, with his pronouncement that God was dead. Faith (and with it the world) seemed to have lost its mystique once and for all – the “age of extremes” could begin. After two world wars and an increasing clash of civilizations, intellectuals such as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor felt called upon to counter this agnostic, materialistic point of view with a sacral-spiritual consciousness in the broadest sense – aware that the secularized world is not the measure of all things.

Leonard Bernstein addressed the emerging renaissance of faith (together with the doubt intrinsic in it) especially in his (choral) symphonic works. The crisis is expressed in music, particularly in his Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah” from 1942. Faith is deeply shaken, symbolized by the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Bernstein explained the motivation behind his composition: “The work is about the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith. Even way back, when I wrote ‘Jeremiah’, I was wrestling with that problem. The faith or peace that is found at the end of ‘Jeremiah’ is really more a kind of comfort, not a solution.”

But what does faith actually sound like? The composer also provided details on this point: “The Symphony does not make use to any great extent of actual Hebrew thematic material. The first theme of the scherzo is paraphrased from a traditional Hebrew chant, and the opening phrase of the vocal part in the ‘Lamentation’ is based on a liturgical cadence still sung today in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. Other remembrances of Hebrew liturgical music are a matter of emotional quality, rather than of the notes themselves.”

The Symphony is much more strongly influenced by liturgical motifs than Bernstein publicly stated, however. The opening theme of the oppressingly solemn first movement, entitled “Prophecy”, is derived from two liturgical cadences – the first half from the traditional Amen for the three festivals of Pesach [Passover], Shavuot [the Feast of Weeks] and Succoth [Feast of the Tabernacles, celebrating the gathering of the harvest], the second from a cadence used on the High Holy Days during the Amidah (prayer of the Eighteen Blessings), the central prayer of the Jewish worship service. The development of the entire movement is comprised of these motivic fragments.

The middle movement of the work, “Profanation”, is a chaotic, rhythmically vehement Vivace con brio, whose first theme is based on motifs from melismas which are used in the cantillation, or chanting, of readings from the Hebrew bible on Shabbat. The dissonant torrents of sound stream over and into each other so tumultuously and violently that the music resembles a ride through Dante’s Purgatory. The catastrophe is followed by an intense lament over the lost temple of Jerusalem; the “Jeremiah”Symphony concludes with a “Lamentation”. During this movement, Bernstein uses motifs from the kinnot, the elegies and dirges sung on Tisha B’Av, an important fast day and day of mourning in memory of the destruction of the temple. These songs – one of which turns out to be a variation of the Amidah cadence from the first movement, suggesting that the prophecy has been fulfilled – are based on verses from chapters 1, 4 and 5 of Jeremiah’s biblical lamentations. Bernstein assigns the texts to a mezzo-soprano; imploring God for absolution at the close, she cries: “Turn Thou us unto Thee, O Lord!” The entire movement is pervaded with emotion and musical ambience but does not fail to achieve the desired effect.

Pathos and Introspection: Dmitri Shostakovichs Fifth Symphony

If one believes the words of a contemporary witness, that was also true of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. The evidence is found in a note written by Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky on the day after the work’s premiere: “The sensation-filled atmosphere disappeared completely, for everyone understood: here a magnificent philosophical, profound and enduring work of enormous power saw the light of the world.” What Bogdanov-Berezovsky wanted to say in a roundabout way was that this Symphony was also an autobiographical political commentary by its composer. Shostakovich had forgotten neither the attacks against him of the previous year after his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which had been premiered three years earlier, nor the fact that Stalin’s cultural henchmen had prevented the performance of his radical Fourth Symphony. And he naturally realized that the same people would also listen very closely now; in other words, he had to find a “creative response” to the hostility towards the previous work. And he succeeded, by expanding the thematic motifs and taking up the words of the Russian writer Aleksey Tolstoy: “The theme of my Symphony is the formation of a personality. In the centre of this composition – conceived lyrically from beginning to end – I saw a man with all his experiences.” Moreover, Shostakovich thought it was appropriate to give the symphony a literary-ideological (that is to say, socialism-affirming) programme. He called the Moderato a “heroic tragedy”, described the following Allegretto-scherzo as the “expression of healthy exuberance”, the Largo had the character of a “meditation” and, on the surface, the triumphant, Tchaikovskian finale proclaimed the “achievement of victory”.

That only outlined the visible level, however; under the surface, the Fifth presents a different image. Behind the facade of a romantic-subjective way of thinking is the critical, ambiguous spirit that Shostakovich could not (and did not want to) give up all his life. One can hear that already in the Moderato, which follows sonata form only to a limited extent but is instead structured in an A-B-A pattern. At first glance, the scherzo actually does seem like a “healthy” and “exuberant” response to the introspective character of the first movement, but a second look reveals parallels with the sermon to the fishes from the scherzo of Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony – a mocking satire of the ever narrow-minded petit bourgeois.

The Largo made a powerful impression on the entire audience at the premiere. One of those typical slow movements in Shostakovich’s symphonies, it dispenses with brass and percussion, harks back to romantic subjectivism and presents, even joyfully celebrates, a cantilena of at times painful beauty. This “meditation” unfolds a transparent lament which is so soft in its final bars that one might think the music was coming to an end here.

All the more violent is the shock that follows. The main theme of the Allegro non troppo sweeps across the musical landscape like a hurricane, carrying everything and everyone along in a whirl of ecstasy. The strings rejoice with Russian tunes, the trumpets exult above them with radiant melodies in the rhythm of the first movement. Whether this movement sounds like a conflagration or – according to Shostakovich’s programmatic notes – an “achievement of victory” is up to the listener.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Phyllis Anderson


Gustavo Dudamel was born in Barquisimeto in Venezuela in 1981 and trained as a conductor, violinist and composer: he studied the violin with José Francisco del Castillo at the Latin American Academy of Violin and took lessons in conducting with Rodolfo Saglimbeni. In 1999 he was appointed music director of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and began conducting studies with the orchestra’s founder José Antonio Abreu. He was only twenty-three when he won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition organized by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in 2004. He went on to become principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (2007 – 2012), where he currently holds the title of honorary conductor. Until today, he still serves as music director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Since the 2009/10 season he has also been music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At his initiative, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has dramatically expanded the scope of its community outreach programme, including most notably the creation of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), influenced by the philosophy of Venezuela’s admired El Sistema. In addition, Dudamel is a regular guest conductor with renowned orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Staatskapelle and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. His many distinctions include the 2014 Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society and in 2018 the Pablo Neruda Order of Artistic and Cultural Merit in Chile. Dudamel was inducted into the “Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” as a Chevalier in Paris in 2009 and into the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 2011. He has been named Musical America’s 2013 Musician of the Year. Dudamel made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at its annual Waldbühne Concert in June 2008; he last conducted the orchestra a few days ago in a programme with works by Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Mahler.

Tamara Mumford, a native of Sandy (Utah), studied at Utah State University and began her stage career as part of the Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, where she made her debut in 2006 and has since appeared in more than 140 performances (including productions of Anna Bolena, Rigoletto, Ariadne auf Naxos, Parsifal, Idomeneo, a complete RingCycle, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Wozzeck and L’Amour de loin). Other engagements have taken Tamara Mumford to the international festivals in Caramoor (New York), Glyndebourne, the BBC Proms and to renowned opera houses around the world. Also an active concert performer and recitalist, Tamara Mumford appeared with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the world premiere and subsequent tours of John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary. In concert Mumford has also worked with the New York Philharmonic and the symphony orchestras of Boston, San Francisco, Dallas and Oregon. Tamara Mumford made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2017 under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle in John Adam’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary.

Gustavo Dudamel (photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Tamara Mumford (photo: Dario Acosta)