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Bernstein's Mass:  Soloists, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor), United Palace Theater, New York City, 25.10.2008 (BH) 

Bernstein: Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers (1971)

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop, Music Director and Conductor
Kevin Newbury, Director
Jubilant Sykes, Celebrant
Asher Edward Wulfman, Boy Soprano
Ryan Kiernan, Acolyte
Street Chorus
Morgan State University Choir / Eric Conway, Director
The Brooklyn Youth Chorus / Dianne Berkun, Founder and Artistic Director
Leslie Stifelman, Music Supervisor
Seán Curran, Musical Staging
Alan Adelman, Lighting Designer

By an odd coincidence, the night before hearing Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in Bernstein's Mass (1971), I heard Rhys Chatham's Two Gongs, written the same year.  But while Chatham chose a doggedly monastic approach to sound, Bernstein was just the opposite, constructing an almost ungainly amalgam of classical, pop, twelve-tone, Broadway, and other musics, into a huge, hyperactive, sometimes uncomfortable tapestry.  Bernstein explores a single person's exploration of religious thought and transformation, a "Celebrant" whose faith gradually deteriorates, leading to an ending in which members of the audience are encouraged to help him, and themselves, pick up the pieces.  Needless to say, those who might have expected a more traditional Roman Catholic mass are bound to be disappointed.

This performance, the second of two, was staged at the United Palace Theater, a quintessentially over-ornate venue in upper Manhattan, where Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra presented last season's The Rite of Spring Project.  Although sonically the previous night in Carnegie Hall no doubt benefited from the mellow acoustic, the sense of occasion the United Palace provided was perfectly suited to Bernstein's extravagance.  And with her committed Baltimore players in fine form, Alsop proved decisively that she is one of today's foremost Bernstein interpreters.

Baritone Jubilant Sykes made a charismatic Celebrant, commanding the stage with both luminous voice and agile movement, in adept musical staging by Seán Curran.  Kevin Newbury made an impressive Director, and young singers Asher Edward Wulfman and Ryan Kiernan were endearing in roles that could easily have slipped into treacle.  Twenty superb singers from the worlds of opera and Broadway melded into a fluid "street chorus."  They were joined onstage by the Morgan State University Choir and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and in the entire front middle section, hundreds of New York City School children—young singers who leaped into action when needed.  Together they made an outsized choral presence that rocked the room.

It's not hard to let one's mind wander back to the early 1970s, with the Vietnam War front and center.  Bernstein wrote this frisky, slightly nose-thumbing piece to open the Kennedy Center, and surely opening-night patrons were left rather confused.  But as time has gone on, although some aspects of the score have ended up sounding dated (comparisons to Hair are not out of line), overall, Bernstein's concept has benefited from the omnivorous appetites of composers who are eager to see atonality bump up against minimalism, or an orchestra welcome electric guitars.  Now, happily, there are any number of ways to write music.  Mass may have seemed something of an oddball when it first appeared, but to my ears its eclecticism now sounds almost radical.

Bruce Hodges

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