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August 28, 2009

Roundup of critical reactions to Baltimore Symphony's recording of Bernstein's 'Mass'

The BSO's just-out recording of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" reconfirmed my impressions of the performance the orchestra gave with music director Marin Alsop last fall. My earth-shattering review ran in the paper earlier this week (if you missed it, a single click will speed you to it). Here are excerpts from some other viewpoints, starting with my regional colleague, Anne Midgette, from her blog, The Classical Beat



Alsop's recording is certainly the best of the recent crop ... she captures the sense of Bernstein's irreverent exuberance. She also, in effect, synthesizes the approaches of the other two recordings: the BSO sounds a lot cleaner and richer than the orchestra on the original-cast album, and at times there's a hint of classicizing care, a sense that the singers, in particular, are trying to make it as pretty as they can.

Admittedly, a couple of those singers come a little short of the mark ... Bernstein was writing for Broadway singers who can really use their voices, and that's a Fach that scarcely exists today. It's important to remember that "Mass" is not a Mass as such, but a theater piece; it's written for theatrical singers. It also needs a singer in the title role who can actually act. One particular liability with Jerry Hadley's performance on the Nagano recording is the sententiousness he brings to the role of the priest, declaiming his texts with a kind of phony holier-than-thou plumminess.

Jubilant Sykes, Alsop's Celebrant, has a hint of sententiousness at times as well. He's an interesting choice for the role -- Alsop had performed the piece with him before, at the Hollywood Bowl -- since he's a singer who combines classical training with gospel. Unfortunately, he ...

had a cold during last fall's run of "Mass," and this badly compromises his performance (the recording was made live). It's thus difficult to give an objective evaluation beyond saying that it's an awful shame he was unable to bring his A game to an exciting project, especially since his hoarseness interferes with a few of the dramatic high points, like the Celebrant's extended mad scene, which drags on all the more when sung by someone who sounds like he's in danger of losing his voice.

...To my ear, there's a little more substance to the original recording, which transmits not only a gritty energy but a naivete -- an idea that music really can change the world -- that may be almost impossible to recreate. The prayer "Almighty Father," a simple but not-so-easy unison melody, has an unselfconscious awe for me in the original, a more manufactured prettiness in Alsop's version; that's the kind of thing I mean. But what I am hearing in the former is in part the sound of my own childhood, which, of course, no one can replicate. It doesn't diminish from the vigor of this new "Mass," which is one of Alsop's happiest achievements. DAVID PATRICK STEARNS, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER:

... ["Mass"] can now be viewed as the product of an era when sacred cows were casually slaughtered as America rebelled against any kind of authority and Pope John XXIII allowed populist innovations such as "guitar masses."

Bernstein joined the protesters, though since his generation was being rebelled against, he was considered a poser. I don't believe that. But as a composer, he wanted to matter, even though his musical idiom -- applicable both to Broadway and symphonies in ways that made each side suspicious of him -- was out of fashion. So if he couldn't be a musical radical, he would be an ideological one -- and he had the conviction to back it up. Maybe too much. "Mass" probes the nature of belief with all the grace of a battering ram and with such sprawling musical means that even the sympathetic album notes by the late Robert Hilferty describe Mass' details as "zany" and "goofy" ...

How could such a thing be rehabilitated? By performers, namely conductor Alsop and baritone Jubilant Sykes. Neither artist is always brilliant, but they are here, thanks to a deep belief that, however recklessly Bernstein expressed himself, the underlying issues are important. Alsop is the voice of solidity and integration. Sykes turns his role into a monologue that's too personal and vital to seem dated. Paradoxically, the more Sykes achieves dramatic specificity, the more I hear Bernstein himself talking in lines like "I feel like ev'ry psalm that I've ever sung turns to wormwood. . . . And I wonder . . . was I ever really young?"


Love it loathe it, Bernstein's "Mass" is here to stay. This is the second recording of it this year and next July it will form a mainstay of Marin Alsop's Bernstein Project at London's Southbank. It is a work that has something for everybody, or nothing for anybody, depending on your point of view. But Alsop passionately believes in it and, if anyone can pull together its diverse traits and make them gel into a dramatic entity, she can.

Bernstein harnesses the concept of Seventies radical chic with typical aplomb. He doesn't make things easy for his performers, what with all the syncopation and other demands of articulation, but Alsop directs a performance that attests not only to her admiration for the piece, but also to the way she can tap the musics colour and spirit. Naysayers need not apply, perhaps, but enthusiasts need look no further for a first-rate recording.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:09 AM | | 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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