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October 17, 2008

Contemplating Bernstein's 'Mass' the morning after

Jubilant SykesThere'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 ...

just a few years ago (the logistics involved keep it from being performed frequently), when Catholic University produced it. I was surprised how much of the music and text still got to me. By that point, of course, I knew how well most critics had dismissed Mass as a trashy, flashy, pseudo-touchy-feely, musically vapid thing. But I never bought into that reasoning. I understand what bothers some listeners, and I admit a few passages bother me. Last night, for example, the circus music that breaks out at one point in the Celebrant's pivotal mad scene struck me as a particularly tacky, pointless episode. And a couple of the rock and blues tunes have never persuaded me entirely. But, man, what great stuff Bernstein poured into this huge vehicle -- songs as good as any he wrote for Broadway (the soprano solo, "Thank You," for example), the soulful orchestral Meditations. And I don't know how anyone can resist the steadily churning anthem, "The Word of Lord," with its ever-relevant zingers: "There are local vocal yokels who we know how to collect a crowd, they can fashion a rebuttal that’s as subtle as a sword (remind you of anyone today?) and "Oh you people of power, your hour is now; you may plan to rule forever, but you never do somehow" (Bernstein had Nixon in mind, but a few guys on Wall Street come to mind now).

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?


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:44 AM | | Comments (2)


Beautifully written, Tim -- a bona fide event for Bernstein, Baltimore, and the BSO. I've always felt that people are too quick to dismiss Bernstein the composer (arguably the arena in which he most longed for appreciation). One can argue that some of the large-scale works are sprawling, but in doing so we risk overlooking the eloquent moments in the music. Not to mention aspects of the work that are just plain fun: it's easy enough to write off the notion of an "Agnus Dei" as a roof-rattling 6/8 number, until you're sitting there listening to it: it's tough not to break out into a broad smile at music of such genuine verve and charm. I also think Bernstein would have deeply appreciated the sense of occasion and community fostered by the concert. Happy Birthday, Lenny!

Thanks, Judah. I have a feeling the critical view of LB's compositions will shift over time, especially since, as you say, some of his music is so much fun. And when he is at his emotional best, as in several portions of 'Mass,' you've got to be awfully cold-hearted to resist the pull. T.S.

Thanks for the excellent follow-up on your review. Mass may be a bit uneven, but it does have some great music and I find it fascinating - so many different styles. Among my favorite moments are the Simple Song, The Almighty Father, "God Said" and "I believe in God", and of course the finale (which leads back to the Almighty Father hymn.)

Fortunately, I managed to snatch up tickets to the Kennedy Center performance the day they went on sale, because it is sold out here in DC. It should be fascinating to see it performed live. I have the original recording on CD, and the DVD from Vatican City performance in 2000 (though the recording/sound on the DVD seems to be lacking.)

Thanks for writing. I'll be attending the DC performance, too, following the ones tonight at Carnegie Hall and tomorrow in the way-uptown Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. It may be a long while before another production of 'Mass' comes along, so I figure I might as well make the most of this one. -- TIM/i>

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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