“A Theater Piece for Singers, Players & Dancers”
Conductor: Marin Alsop
Morgan State University Choir
Morgan State University Marching Band
Peabody Children’s Chorus
Celebrant: Jubilant Sykes
A never-ending subject of controversy for over three decades, Bernstein’s Mass had always appeared to me as a highly complex, extremely ambitious, hard-to-define extravaganza, and I had willingly stayed away from listening to any recording of it because I wanted to first experience it live. Commissioned by Jackie Kennedy as one of the Kennedy Center’s opening performances in 1971 and a tribute to her late husband, Mass is many things to many people. Some see it as a product of its time, evoking the anti-Vietnam war protests and the emerging religion-centric rock musicals such as Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Others consider it the timeless and deeply felt expression of a spiritual crisis and a compelling call for more love, peace and understanding. Inspired by the Tridentine mass of the Roman Catholic Church, it indiscriminately covers a wide gamut of various musical genres such as, among others, classical, folk, blues, gospel, easy-listening and rock. To add to this eclectic blend, the traditional Latin texts are freely interspersed with non-liturgical numbers.
This grand-scale mishmash did not fail to provoke passionate reactions among audiences and critics alike when it first came out. The Washington Post’s Paul Hume called it “the greatest music Bernstein has ever written” while his much less impressed colleague Harold C. Schonberg at the New York Times deemed it “cheap and vulgar.” Rarely performed due to its impressive scope, I was very excited to finally be able to experience it with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the eminently qualified baton of no less than Bernstein’s erstwhile protégée, Marin Alsop. So on Sunday afternoon I went to the Kennedy Center where the Mass was taking place in the sold-out concert hall, next door to the opera house where it had made its debut. I’m not a big fan of musicals in general, and even less of a fan of organized religion, but I was determined to fully embrace the opportunity to finally see this intriguing work, and to approach this unique piece with open ears and an open mind.
The best way to describe the next two hours would be a lot of loud exuberance on a very crowded stage, with a few calmer, more introspective flashes. In short, there was never a dull moment. There was a lot of talent out there as well. Although the music and songs remained the same, the singers impersonating the mass attendees were by all definitions modern in their clothing, accessories and attitudes. They took the stage with poise and vigor, and the Celebrant, Jubilant Sykes, displayed all the charisma, humanity and vocal capacity required for the part. The choir was in impressive form and whole-heartedly delivered beautiful tunes. Last, but by no means least, the BSO managed to shine through all the on-going agitation. A few numbers easily stood out, which were quite representative of the broad range of the repertoire, from the quietly beautiful “Simple song” to the no-hold-barred anger of “Dona Nobis Pacem.”
My main objection to musicals, besides the fact that I really can’t understand why in the middle of a narrative people suddenly stop acting and start singing, is the fact that the singers are usually miked. As an opera buff, I’m used to hearing all the nuances and colors of the singing human voice in its purest form and I have a hard time connecting with the loudness and roughness of an amplified voice. Sunday was no exception. While the singers on the stage were obviously Broadway’s crème de la crème, the noise level sometimes got so high that it garbled what they were saying and occasionally made me want to run for cover. It sure added some extra power to the already hair-raising numbers, but it also deprived the Mass of all subtlety or grace.
All in all, it was still an unforgettable experience. I personally suspect that it takes quite a few listenings to be able to dissect and digest all the various levels and meanings of this very challenging piece. In any case, I don’t think the “sacred/profane” issue should stand in the way of appreciating the Mass as a purely musical adventure. Although at the time the experimental musical mix proved quite controversial, it has remained one of its intrinsic elements, if not a convenient marketing tool (Nothing like a little controversy to spark people’s interest.) All things considered and with now full knowledge of the actual piece live, it seems to me indisputable that it is the polysemic nature of this work that gives it its force and universality.