“It is only fitting that we commemorate the 150th anniversary of The Temple with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, an iconic institution that is central to the cultural heartbeat of our city,” Temple President Lauren Grien said before a concert Wednesday, April 19, at the Woodruff Arts Center.
The hour-long Temple 150th Anniversary Concert featured Jewish-inspired compositions by Sergei Prokofiev and works by Jewish composers Ernest Bloch and Leonard Bernstein. Joseph Young conducted the orchestra.
“Music is inviting. It nourishes our minds and our souls and has no agenda,” Grien said. “It can be enjoyed equally by everyone of all ages, gender, religion and race.”
She described The Temple as being central to the Atlanta community and a cornerstone of the North American Reform movement.
ASO board Chairman Howard Palefsky spoke briefly. “I know I’m between you and music and dinner. That’s a bad place to be,” he said. “You’re going to hear a phenomenal concert this evening, a specially curated set of pieces.”
The program began with Prokofiev’s “Overture on Hebrew Themes,” Opus 34b, composed shortly after he moved to New York from his native Ukraine in 1918. Though not Jewish, Prokofiev reportedly was first exposed and attracted to Jewish music during childhood at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the only public education facility in Russia allowed at the time to accept Jewish students in any significant number.
According to Nelly Kravetz of Tel Aviv University, “Overture on Hebrew Themes” was “the first work to witness Prokofiev’s unexpected interest in Jewish music. It was also the first independent work (excluding arrangements) written by him in the United States. And Prokofiev was the first known Russian composer to base a Jewish score not on Jewish liturgical chants, but on klezmer tunes.”
Bloch’s “Schelomo, ‘Hebraic Rhapsody’ for Cello and Orchestra” followed Prokofiev, with soloist Matt Haimovitz shaking his mane while playing gorgeous, somber passages to Young’s effusive baton. With “Schelomo,” the Hebrew name for Solomon, Bloch claimed to be influenced by Ecclesiastes, which David was credited with writing.
Bloch wrote about Jewish themes in his work in a 1917 letter. “It is the Jewish soul that interests me — the complex, glowing, agitated soul that I feel vibrating throughout the Bible.”
The final scheduled piece was “Symphonic Dances From ‘West Side Story,’” excerpts from Bernstein’s modern opera, based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” about conflict between teenage gangs in New York. The rival groups are composed of Puerto Ricans and self-styled Americans, but the original idea for the play involved Catholics against Jews during Easter and Passover.
The show’s encore was the vibrant overture from “Candide,” also written by Bernstein.