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Leonard Bernstein
Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers

Jubilant Sykes, Celebrant; Asher Edward Wulfman, Boy Soprano; Morgan State University Choir; Peabody Children's Chorus; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra,
Marin Alsop, conductor
Review by John Shinners

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  What's a nice Jewish boy doing writing a Catholic mass?  What's a nice Lutheran boy like Bach doing writing one too, for that matter?  In Bach's case, he may have meant his grand but liturgically unperformable mass as a showpiece, a masterwork offered both in homage to the Almighty and in imitation of his predecessors who had usually cemented their reputations with musical posterity by writing masses.  In Bernstein's case his Mass literally is a showpiece in two senses: it was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to open the Kennedy Center in 1971, and it incarnates his genius both for musical theater and for crossing musical genres.

Frankly, when I first heard Bernstein's recording of his Mass thirty-seven years ago as a snotty college freshman, I hated it.  I wasn't alone.  No Bernstein work has had a more enduring critical scorn hurled at it. New York Times critic Harold Schonberg famously dubbed it "the greatest mélange of styles since the ladies' magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce." In an interview from the early ‘90s he still thought it was "an overblown, rather preposterous exercise in self-indulgence." In his review of the premiere, John Simon found it "banal, inappropriate and rather vulgar."  Around 1994, Bernstein's friend and fellow-composer David Diamond called it "his one big mistake, and a mistake of taste," and thought that ultimately it "will probably disappear totally."  His biographer Joan Peyser, who sees the Mass as a thinly veiled Bernstein autobiography, agrees.

But for a work that was — and still is — so roundly reviled as a musical mess and consigned to the musical dustbin, almost forty years after its premiere here it is again in spades, with two fine new recordings in the last year and Kent Nagano's account with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester from five years ago for Harmonia Mundi, not to mention its now regular performance on the concert circuit. For that matter, Bernstein's 1971 recording with the musical forces from the premiere still holds up very nicely.  Its sound is a bit thin compared to the newer recordings, but it has the authority of the composer-conductor behind it and works well dramatically.  Still, I think Marin Alsop, a Bernstein protégé, delivers the most compelling and satisfying account of them all in her new Naxos discs. 

It may be that modern listeners, more plugged into a post-modern, grab-bag esthetic, are more comfortable with Bernstein's eclecticism.  I know I am, and over the years I've grown very fond of Mass.  I can't think of another piece of music about which I've had a greater change of heart. It is undeniably a messy business.  You could argue that it's another hurried product of the always overextended Bernstein (he was simultaneously writing his Harvard Norton Lectures) desperately rushing to meet a deadline. But for me it perfectly reflects Bernstein's personality, at once effusive, refined, vulgar, sentimental, insightful, and — above all — enthusiastically living and breathing every kind of music.

The models for Mass are clear: it's what you would get if you put Britten's War Requiem (1962) in a blender with Hair (1968) and hit "puree."  The conceit of merging the ancient formulas of the Latin mass with the modern vernacular is straight from Britten, who of course melded his requiem mass in commemoration of the destruction of WWII with Wilfred Owen's WWI pacifist poems.  So is the use of multiple orchestras, choruses, and soloists: a large chorus, boys choir, and orchestra to perform the mass, and smaller ensembles — chamber orchestra and choir, soloists — to deliver contemporary commentary.  Bernstein's "radical chic" (Tom Wolfe's famous epithet) is on display in the clichéd anti-war sentiments of his modern lyrics, which also most glaringly date the work as straight out of the cultural turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In composing it on the fly Bernstein, always a musical magpie, seems to have mad-grabbed for bits of everything he had written before.  He described it as "the whole Latin Mass, symphonic music, plus pop-sounds and blues."  It's way beyond that. His Broadway persona is definitely there in melodies that could have been sung by the juvenile delinquents of West Side Story or the philosophe choruses of Candide.  The hymns and harmonically dense chorales, the work's strongpoint, are reminiscent of his Chichester Psalms. He wrote the "Simple Song" that opens the work — constructed simply from a descending D-major scale — for his abandoned score to Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Franco Zeffirelli's film about proto-flower child St. Francis. The merry opening melody of the Sanctus began life as a birthday song for his long-time secretary Helen Coates.  (Another present: Paul Simon's lyric Christmas gift to Bernstein, the four stanzas "Half of the people are stoned / And the other half are waiting for the next election. / Half the people are drowned / And the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.") One of several collaborators on the work, brought in at the eleventh hour in the rush to finish it, was twenty-three-year-old Stephen Schwartz, whose Godspell had just become a smash, counter-cultural hit. He brought the lyrics some hippie street cred.

Structurally it is a complete Catholic mass. But its subtitle explains what Bernstein is up to: "A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers." Interwoven through Mass, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes clumsily, are Broadway ballads, operatic arias, moving chorales, a bit of unconvincing, trendy electronic atonalism (Bernstein: "It wasn't my idea!"), rock and roll, R&B, a Jewish Kedusha, a little klezmer music, spoken letters from a draft-resister and his family (slightly, and thankfully, abridged here), and, just for fun, a circus march (with an interlude for whistling and a kazoo chorus).  It is also eclectic — and gigantic — in its forces, more than 200 people: a very large orchestra (with nine percussionists, including some West Side Story bongos—and not counting some vigorous hand-clapping), a full chorus, a smaller on-stage chorus of soloists and a chamber orchestra "street band" including electric guitars, a boys choir, and two portable organs, one "church," one "rock." Robert Hilferty, in his excellent program notes for this recording, pinpoints it as "a kind of Symphony of a Thousand for the Vietnam Era."

The theatricality of Mass is in the contemporary story played out alongside the traditional liturgy. It traces the Celebrant's journey from pure, simple faith ("A Simple Song"), to the ritual formalism of his role as high priest of the Latin mass (ironically, introduced by the circus march) and the crisis of faith it sows ("Things Get Broken"), and back again to a simple faith, now tempered, in the conclusion's recapitulation of the reverent simplicity of the beginning.  All of this is spiced by the now sincere, now sardonic comments (modern liturgical tropes) of the street chorus, which itself wavers between faith, doubt and anger at a silent G-d.

Alsop gives that story a spectacular telling here. The jewel in her crown is baritone Jubilant Sykes's Celebrant, whose emotionally expressive voice (despite the rumor that he had a cold during recording) moves easily between the musical theater and operatic demands of the role.  All the Celebrants in the four available recordings — Alan Titus for Bernstein, Jerry Hadley for Nagano, Randall Scarlata for Järvi, and Sykes — are appealing, but Sykes brings a poignancy to his performance that makes it stand out. This is, after all, a theater piece, so someone who can sing and act serves it well. Sykes gives a tour-de-force performance of "Things get Broken," the fourteen-minute aria at the end of Mass that both dramatically sums up the perplexed theology behind the story and brilliantly repeats fragments of pretty much every melody that has gone before it. (In that sense, it's a key to understanding the melodic elements on which Mass is built. Here again, Hilferty's notes are a helpful guide to the motifs of the sprawling work.)

Alsop is better than her competition, even better than Bernstein, at making sense of the musical threads that actually hold together what struck so many early critics as just a mishmash. There are so many disparate elements to coordinate in the almost two-hour-long Mass, from the solemn and grand, to the colloquial, to the frankly corny, but she keeps things moving and coherent. I particularly like her transition into the Offertory, a quiet Latin sequence that erupts in a wild dance — perhaps King David and the Israelites romping before the Ark — that surges forward like some mighty crowd abandoned in joy. Alsop is especially effective at conveying the several dramatic shifts in mood at the end of the Mass: from the Sanctus, at first cheerful, and then peaceful as the Kedusha emerges from it, and finally triumphant, to the percussive and belligerent Agnus dei with its harsh shouts of "Dona nobis pacem" that give way to a long R&B demand for peace before collapsing into musical chaos, to the Celebrant's emotional breakdown in the schizophrenic "Things Get Broken," to the very moving, simple hymns that end the work.

The singing is uniformly excellent. The Morgan State University Choir is absolutely solid in tone and articulation. There's not a weak voice among the twenty or so soloists of the street band; even better, their every word is clear, which is important to appreciate Bernstein's attention to the wordplay in the English lyrics.  This is the first recording of Mass I've heard that I didn't need its libretto in hand to understand the words. The intonation of the Peabody Children's Chorus is always light and steady, unlike some of Alsop's competitors. Give a special nod to boy soprano Asher Edward Wulfman's absolutely assured solos. With so much singing, it could be easy to forget the orchestra, but the Baltimore players are full of energy throughout and easily switch among the many musical idioms of the piece. They shine in the three purely orchestral "meditations" that punctuate the music.

Setting aside Bernstein's indispensible original account, Alsop's competition in mounting this musically diverse work is Kristjan Järvi's recording for Chandos with Randall Scarlata as an excellent Celebrant, the Tonkünstler Orchester of Austria (Järvi's orchestra), and his own Absolute Ensemble.  It has great energy and ramped up tempos but it's also scrappier (which may be a virtue given the collision of styles in Mass).  His Austrian choruses sing well but are a little shaky on English pronunciation, especially the boys choir and some of the multinational soloists of the Credo.  It's a bit distracting in this very American work. The boys also sing in that rather heavy, throaty, Vienna-Boys-Choir style that I find a little grating, and they sometimes have trouble with intonation. But Järvi does a great job capturing the modern vibe of the rock and jazz elements of Mass, which feel better integrated in his account than Alsop's.  Scarlatta probably has a better voice than Sykes too, but Sykes crosses the opera-musical theater divide more successfully.  (As for Nagano, his account is OK, but it feels lackluster in comparison to the others.)

Järvi's big advantage over Alsop is his Chandos SACD sound, which outdoes the Naxos standard stereo. It's too bad that Naxos didn't see the advantage of SACD recording, probably a choice driven by their economical production values.  Nagano's account is SACD too, which is an ideal medium for the huge musical canvas of the Mass. Still, the Naxos sound is very present here and the stereo separation is nicely judged to give some sense of the placement of the various ensembles.

Bernstein's musical theater classics will be around for as long as people perform musicals; that part of his legacy is secure, as is his spectacular career as a conductor.  By all accounts, it pained him that he was never taken more seriously as a serious composer.  Indeed, besides the overture to Candide, how much of his symphonic output do we still regularly hear?  It occurs to me that, ironically, Mass may turn out to be his greatest work, a distillation of all his styles, popular and serious, warts and all, that both reflects its era and its creator and still speaks today.

 

 

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