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Marin Alsop Has Recorded Bernstein’s Mass for Naxos

October 29, 2008

Acclaimed conductor Marin Alsop has recently recorded Leonard Bernstein’s Mass for future release on Naxos. This concert review, from The New York Times, is of a performance of this work that she has just conducted in celebration of the 90th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth:

Youthful Choristers Imparting New Life

Leonard Bernstein suffered crushing disappointments as a composer. The most hurtful of them all was surely the premiere of his “Mass” in September 1971, inaugurating the Kennedy Center in Washington. That he conceived this eclectic score as “A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers” did not give pause to the many critics, mostly classical music critics, who dismissed it as a vulgar exercise in antiestablishment pandering.

It was fairly daring to turn a setting of a liturgical Mass into a drama about a shattering spiritual crisis for a pastor and his disillusioned and rebellious congregation. And Bernstein’s unabashed mixing of musical styles in “Mass” (Mahlerian richness, show-tune pizazz, hard-driving rock, 12-tone counterpoint, hymnal simplicity and more) was considered glib and cheap.

If only Bernstein could have been at the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights on Saturday afternoon. There is nothing like young performers to refresh older pieces. And the performance of Bernstein’s “Mass” that Marin Alsop conducted at this palatial former vaudeville house involved hundreds of young, inspired and inspiring performers.

This was actually the second performance of “Mass” in two days. As the major event in its contribution to the citywide celebration of the 90th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, Carnegie Hall sponsored the Bernstein “Mass” Project. On Friday night Ms. Alsop conducted the work at Carnegie with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a dynamic roster of solo singers and two ensembles of gifted choristers: the Morgan State University Choir (Eric Conway, director) and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (Dianne Berkun, director).

On Saturday afternoon Ms. Alsop took all those performers up to the Heights, where they were joined by some 250 schoolchildren from the New York area, including the members of the All-City High School Chorus. Seated in the first 12 rows of the theater, facing the orchestra, the students lent their ardent voices to several of the work’s pivotal choruses.

The theater almost shook with the vehemence of the music-making during the most bitterly angry section of the work, the “Dona Nobis Pacem,” when the Celebrant, here the charismatic baritone Jubilant Sykes, collapses in despair over the inflamed protests of the people he has been trying to reach, who are demanding peace, demanding proof and answers: “Give us something, or we’ll just start taking!” As a rock band drove the orchestra through spiraling riffs of pummeling rhythm, the soloists portraying the street people encircled the Celebrant, shaking their fists, shrieking “Dona nobis” at him. The choristers onstage and the hundreds of schoolchildren in the hall joined in, singing with vehemence, swaying in sync, as drums pounded and steely rock guitars wailed.

Some pieces that seem trendy at their birth soon fade away. But the essence and achievement of Bernstein’s “Mass” have become clearer over time. In other scores, like his loftily titled “Jeremiah” Symphony, Bernstein was perhaps guilty of self-conscious striving for profundity. But “Mass” was driven by a deeply personal agenda.

He did not care if a passage seemed a rip-off of Copland, Pete Seeger, buzz-saw rock or “Godspell,” the musical that opened off Broadway while Bernstein was composing “Mass.” Bernstein even tapped that show’s creator, Stephen Schwartz, to help write the vernacular lyrics added to the Roman Catholic liturgy. Surely, viewed in retrospect, Uncle Lenny was worried about the young people who were protesting the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, the very generation he had tried to reach as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic through his landmark Young People’s Concerts.

A lingering criticism of “Mass” is that with his brash mixing of pop and classical styles, Bernstein came across as just too hip. But the evocations are expertly done. And today such blending of styles is commonplace. Young composers, who disdain categories, borrow from any style they care to. And why not?

Bernstein sweated the details in composing this score. “A Simple Song” is as alluring a tune as he ever wrote. The sublime chorale “Almighty Father,” with its hauntingly wide-spaced harmonies, had the audience at the United Palace Theater, full of restless families, utterly hushed and attentive. “The Word of the Lord” is an artful transfer of a Pete Seeger-type folk song into an orchestral setting.

There are cringe-inducing moments in “Mass,” especially some too-clever lyrics, like the riff on “do, re, mi” that the Celebrant sings: “Mi alone is only mi./But mi with sol/Me with soul/Mi sol.” But there are cringe-inducing moments in many works that I love, including Mahler symphonies and Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”

How to stage “Mass” is a built-in problem. Is it a theater piece? A concert work? This production, directed by Kevin Newbury, found a good compromise solution. The orchestra was divided in half, strings to one side, everything else to the other. Ms. Alsop stood on a high podium toward the right, leaving a space in the middle for the cast to perform. There was even a set of sorts, when two altar boys set up a makeshift altar for the Celebrant, in his priestly garb.

Amplification is always an issue with “Mass,” which includes recorded segments and all manner of electronic instruments. As in most performances, the Celebrant and the solo singers used body microphones. There were balance problems and much garbled text at Carnegie Hall, a place that has never made peace, to my mind, with amplification. Balances were better and the words clearer at the United Palace Theater.

Some vocal patchiness suggested that Mr. Sykes might have been struggling with a cold. And his singing in high, pianissimo passages was not always steady. Still, he gave a volatile and courageous performance. When the Celebrant breaks down and goes through a theatrically modern version of a bel canto mad scene, Mr. Sykes was a pitiable and touching hero.

The boy soprano Asher Edward Wulfman was endearing, soothing the anguish of the Street Chorus and healing the Celebrant with his sweet singing of “Secret Songs” in the work’s conclusion. Young Ryan Kiernan was also affecting as the Acolyte. But the choristers were the heart of the performance, especially at the United Palace Theater. The schoolchildren in the hall joined in the ovation, shrieking with enthusiasm when the solo singers, Mr. Sykes and Ms. Alsop took bows.

Had Bernstein taken better care of himself and had a little better luck, he might have been around for this day. And how he would have loved seeing his “Mass” touch so many people in Washington Heights.

- Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, 27 October 2008

Leonard Bernstein Biography & Discography

Marin Alsop Biography & Discography


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