Composer: Leonard Bernstein
Conductor: Louis Langrée
Nmon Ford: Celebrant
Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Concert Chorale of New York
Young People’s Chorus of New York City
After a couple of very quiet weeks on the performance front, the time finally came for me to kick-start the Mostly Mozart Festival with…Leonard Bernstein, of all composers, and an awful lot of other performers for his extravagant MASS. The inclusion of the unique “theater piece for singers, players and dancers” in New York City’s major classical music summer festival may come as a surprise at first, but it makes more sense when one knows that this year is the 100th anniversary of the quintessential New York composer’s birth. If we’re going to celebrate, as we should, we might as well go big and loud.
My only experience of Bernstein’s MASS was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s expert take on it (Marin Alsop, Bernstein’s erstwhile protégée, probably having quite a bit to do with it) at the Kennedy Center back in Washington, D.C. almost 10 years ago. And I figured that this year was as good of a time as any to refresh my admittedly foggy memory. That’s how, on Tuesday night, I took a break from a busy week to join colleagues and friends, most of us being scattered throughout David Geffen Hall, for the first of the two sold-out performances.
When the MASS first came out, in 1971, the United States was going through politically and socially turbulent times (Some things just never completely disappear, do they?). Consequently, for better or worse, the crisis of faith at the center of it all is not exactly new material. Moreover, the generous mix of musical genres that may have sounded fresh and exciting back then has become commonplace throughout the years and is unlikely to bring the same kind of happy amazement. That said, it is not necessary an issue for a musical piece to reflect its time and place.
And there was plenty to enjoy in Tuesday night’s performance. Young baritone Nmon Ford, who threw himself whole-heartedly into the wild adventure as the Celebrant, stayed vocally strong throughout the whole evening. The two choruses contributed committed singing while occasionally partaking into the general staging. The vastly enlarged MMF orchestra seamlessly moved from pop to rock to jazz and more without missing a beat. And some vividly colorful visual effects, not to mention an exhilaratingly rambunctious protest riot, had the unmistakable psychedelic flavor of the late 1960s.
On the other hand, the score is unquestionably uneven, over-extended and features a borderline cheesy Hollywood ending, the staging was sometimes lacking direction, and the dreadful combination of David Geffen Hall’s challenged acoustics and the production’s amplified sounds did not help matters either. For a while, my friend Dawn and I thought we were going to make it to the end without a cell phone ring, which is always a plus, but we were not quite that lucky.
Bottom line is, if, as a music lover, you’re not particularly into the Catholic or the Broadway tradition, the main benefit for attending was probably a shorter bucket list. And this by itself is nothing to sneeze at.