Contemplating Bernstein's 'Mass' the morning after
There's so much more I wanted to say about last night's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra production of Leonard Bernstein's Mass, but in the deadline rush to get a review in today's paper, I'm afraid I expressed myself poorly. Not that this morning's reflections will be any more coherent. But here goes.
Since experiencing the piece in 1971, when the ink was still drying on the score (I was fortunate to be at the first public preview), I've had a soft spot for it. The combination of music and theater in Mass left an indelible impression, partly, I suspect, because of the excitement of being among the first audience to get inside the Kennedy Center (Washingtonians had been putting up with Constitution Hall for an awfully long time), and partly because of the times. The Vietnam War still going its awful way, and I had just become vulnerable to the draft. The many references in the text that conjured up images of protest and pain could not help but leave a mark. But, ultimately, what I got caught up in was the sheer audacity of the work, the abundance of great melodic hooks and brilliant instrumental coloring. It was, in the dreadful tag of that era, a happening.
I didn't have another Mass encounter until ...
There are many other examples of how the words still have a point, from "sex should repulse unless it leads to results" and "we’re meek once a week" to the lines that Paul Simon contributed as a gift to Bernstein for the project: "Half of the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election." And, of course, that incredible finale, with the lyrical, enveloping "Lauda" and the exquisite hymn, "Almight Father." I also love the way Bernstein sneaks some Jewish musical styles into the piece, not just for colorful effect; in the Sanctus, the Latin text contains a Hebrew word, providing Bernstein a perfect entry point into the rich Kadosh section.
Throughout last night's performance at the Meyerhoff, conductor Marin Alsop, surely the world's most ardent champion of Mass today, ensured that the biggest emotional moments registered and the most lyrical passages had plenty of heart. I'm sure the remaining concerts will be tighter in terms of coordination and articulation, but this was still a poweful night.
I did have a few reservations about Kevin Newbury's stage direction (the production turned out to be a lot more theatrical than originally advertised by the BSO), but only regarding some seemingly strained attempts at creating dramatic action. In the end, however, Newbury achieved a remarkable fluidity and tension that counted greatly in the overall strength of the venture.
But top honors have to go to Jubilant Sykes, whose riveting performance of the Celebrant made me hear that role in a whole new light. Although he does plenty of classical singing, his voice takes on pop stylings naturally, more naturally than the more operatic Alan Titus, for example, who originated the role, and that made a world of difference. His tender falsetto and easily communicative phrasing added layer after layer of nuance to the music, and his acting likewise revealed a disarming reality.
I wish the amplification had not swallowed up some of the text and caused odd discrepencies between the miked voices and the valiant Morgan State Choir in the back of the stage, but those were minor details.
All in all, Alsop's embrace of Mass yielded a significant achievement for the BSO and all the others involved. Although it may not make believers out of everybody in the audience (I spotted a few folks heading early for the exit last night), it's bound to wear down some of the resistance. Unfortunately, from the latest box office reports, you may need a miracle to get a ticket. But, hey, you just need a little faith, right?
BALTIMORE SUN PHOTO/Elizabeth Malby