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October 27, 2008

Some final thoughts on BSO's electrifying 'Mass'

Bernstein's Mass

The music of Leonard Bernstein's Mass is still swimming in my head, and the emotions stirred by that music are still churning through me. I think that the Baltimore Symphony's production of the work, which wrapped up yesterday afternoon at a sold-out Kennedy Center Concert Hall after a couple of performances in New York and three in Baltimore the week before, will rank among its most brilliant efforts. And it surely has to be among Marin Alsop's finest hours. I can't imagine there is any conductor today who could have provided anything close to the experience she delivered. Her conviction in the once critically maligned Mass seemed to spread across each stage and envelop each audience. Every thing in the wildly diverse score came together under her careful guidance, creating a totality that was as cohesive as it was compelling (I attended four of the six performances).

Alsop had astute collaborators all the way, starting with Leslie Stifelman, who spearheaded the casting choices that yielded extraordinary results. As Alan Gilbert, music director-designate of the New York Philharmonic, said to me after Friday night's Carnegie Hall performance, "Marin was amazing, and the cast was amazing." Every member of the "street chorus," the ensemble of "congregants" that provides many of the musical highs in Mass, was thoroughly in character, thoroughly believeable and, almost without exception, vocally terrific.

Kevin Newbury's stage direction struck me as a little fussy and contrived the first night way back on Oct. 16, but kept growing on me with each performance. Ultimately, I think he did a tremendous job of getting to the heart of what Bernstein was exploring, all the individual struggles with faith and politics and society. I realized that I wouldn't have been so affected by the production had not Newbuey helped to make the theatrical element of Mass so persuasive and telling.

And then there was Jubilant Sykes. Despite battling throat trouble, the baritone came through, performance after performance, as the Celebrant. I just don't see how his interpretation, musically or dramatically, could be bettered.

I loved, too, the Morgan State Choir's dynamic response. And the BSO, overshadowed visually and sometimes unflatterred acoustically, proved rock-solid. There was a lot of distinguished playing going on.

My favorite performance was the one Saturday afternoon at the way-uptown United Palace Theater in New York, where hundreds of local students added their own voices and their physical exuberance to the performance, rising en masse from their seats to sing and gesture. The effect of all that youthful energy and commitment, especially in the fiercely confrontational Dona nobis pacem movement, was simply stunning. And when the kids joined in the subsequent, consoling Lauda section, it was impossible not to get misty-eyed (heck, I was a basket case at each performance).

At each presentation, when that poignant finale arrived, I was struck anew by the whole point of this astounding work. Bernstein confronted here the challenges of the human condition and touched on many a dark thought, but, ultimately, emphasized the possibility that faith and hope and love can lift up the fragile community of humankind. Thanks to Alsop and her marvelous company of singers, players and believers, Bernstein's vision was realized on four different stages in three cities, touching thousands of people in the process. That's what I'd call a really great celebration of Mass


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:39 PM | | Comments (0)

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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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