Leonard Bernstein, the brilliant American conductor and composer, did not just wear his heart on his sleeve. All his worries were clearly exposed as well.
This comes through in many of his compositions, where there's a palpable sense of struggle — between light and dark, conviction and doubt, tonality and dissonance.
His Symphony No. 3, the "Kaddish," composed in 1963 and dedicated to the "beloved memory" of John F. Kennedy, is a major case in point. Another is "Mass," the astounding theater piece Bernstein wrote for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971.
Both works pose tough challenges, and not just technical ones for the musicians. Listeners have to confront subjects that they may not care to deal with in a concert hall.
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra got to experience the eclectic, infrequently encountered "Mass" in sensational performances led by music director Marin Alsop, a Bernstein protege, in 2008.
This week, the conductor turns to the "Kaddish" Symphony. Alsop and the BSO will be joined in this venture by the Washington Chorus, the Maryland State Boychoir, soprano Kelley Nassief and distinguished British actress Claire Bloom.
"Bernstein uses this symphony as a vehicle, like he uses everything, to discuss his own personal, existential questions about faith, humanity, extinction," Alsop said. "The music is illustrative of that conflict. There is a duality, a paradox about it."
The starting point for the piece is the Hebrew prayer, Kaddish, traditionally said for the dead (though the word "death" does not appear in it). Bernstein surrounds the liturgical words, sung by the soloist and choirs, with his own spoken text. That text forms an extensive, often-heated discussion with the Almighty — one-sided, of course.
Since its first performance, that confrontational aspect of the "Kaddish" Symphony has been known to raise a few hackles, even if the concept of debating God is a time-honored one in Jewish tradition. The tone of the speaker has been considered blasphemous by some, insipid or melodramatic by others.
Bernstein himself decided later that his text was "corny" and revised it in 1977. (Narrations by other writers, including the composer's daughter, Jamie Bernstein, have appeared over the years.)
Alsop has decided to bring the 1963 version back.
"I thought the original was perfect," she said. "I couldn't really understand the reason for changing it. Bernstein was absolutely brilliant with words. I find them extraordinarily compelling."
In either version of the symphony, the main message is clear: We might not have much time, God, so let's get a few things straight.
"It's Bernstein saying that humanity is heading for disaster, which it seems we are, and asking, 'Why have you let the world get into this mess?'" Bloom said. "Bernstein chose to ask God about it. I'd rather ask a great scientist. But, then, I'm a strict atheist."
The 81-year-old actress, granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, hastened to add: "All Jews have the right to argue with God. And if you want to have a conversation, you couldn't pick a better conversationalist."
The speaker in the symphony, feeling shaky about faith because of so many tensions and fears in the world, imagines God's faith to be just as uncertain.
"I find it absolutely fascinating how the narrator shows enormous compassion for God, which is highly unusual," Alsop said. "The narrator is saying, 'I feel badly for you.' That's not typically what you think of when you pray to God. Bernstein puts man, or woman, on the same level as God: If we expire, then you expire, too. He puts mankind in a very responsible position."
To underline his debate with God, Bernstein offers a kind of musical debate, too.
"It's atonality versus tonality," Alsop said. "Bernstein lived in a moment when he had to grapple with the question of whether you could be a great composer and use tonal music."
Bernstein employed the atonal 12-tone system in the symphony with considerable imagination, but his instinctive preference for a tonal foundation is never in doubt. That leaning provides at least a glimmer of hopefulness by the end of the score.
There is much to engage the ear in the "Kaddish," given the myriad orchestral colorings and the equally vivid vocal writing. But it is the speaker's role that invariably is the focal point. Bernstein wrote the work with his wife in mind, actress Felicia Montealegre, who was featured in the American premiere of the piece in 1964 and the first recording.
"It did suit her voice very well," Bloom said.
Bloom's voice is likely to prove just as effective. The actress has a history of performing speaking parts in works with orchestras, including a Boston Symphony Orchestra engagement last spring reciting Shakespeare in between Mendelssohn's Incidental Music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"I find it tremendously exhilarating to be onstage and have that sound right in your ear," Bloom said.
Alsop had been interested in Bloom for the speaking part in Arthur Honegger's "Jeanne d'Arc au bucher" ("Joan of Arc at the Stake"), when the conductor led that work in London last year, prior to programming it in Baltimore. Bloom had done the piece before, but only in an English translation.
"Marin asked me if I would do it in French," Bloom said, "and I said I wouldn't like to try that."
When Alsop programmed the "Kaddish" for the BSO, she approached Bloom again. The actress, who had never done the role before, agreed. She has been studying the work in her London home, consulting a piano reduction of the orchestral score, "which I can read at the most Neanderthal level," she said.
"Is it daunting? Yes," the actress added. "When you do something like this, you'd better come prepared, and you'd better not make a mistake. You go out on the stage and there is a wonderful, great orchestra there. You greet the orchestra and they greet you — and then you'd better deliver the goods."
Alsop is confident that will be the case.
"It's really nice that this opportunity happened," the conductor said. "I'm a huge Claire Bloom fan. And we're recording the 'Kaddish' for Naxos, which I am really excited about."
If you go
The BSO performs Bernstein's "Kaddish" Symphony on a program with works by Adams and Brubeck at 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sept. 30 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.; 8 p.m. Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $28 to $90. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times