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Anarchic Ecstasy

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Performs Leonard Bernstein's Mass, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Oct. 16

By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/17/2008

Wow. That's the most basic, visceral response to the nearly two-hour monolith that is Leonard Bernstein's Mass--a "Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers"--as envisioned by stage director Kevin Newbury and maestra Marin Alsop leading the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Morgan State University Choir, the Peabody's Children Chorus, the Morgan State University Marching Band, a casually dressed 20-member street chorus, and the presiding vocalist, Celebrant (Jubilant Sykes). The entire ensemble numbers more than 250 performers according to the program notes (it would be impossible to verify that count during the actual performance), and when such a mammoth coordination of musicians and vocalists comes together, Mass soars into the ineffable.

That it only sparingly reaches for such heights indicates that Bernstein quite intimately understood the Roman Catholic Mass that inspires it, and recognized the theatrical functions of its ritualistic actions and pageantry of spectacle. I'm only familiar with Mass via the 2004 recording featuring the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin led by Kent Nagano (Sony Classics' 1997 CD issue of the Bernstein-conducted 1971 original is for sale in the Meyerhoff lobby for a rather steep $30), and seeing Mass as a performance emphatically spotlights its inspiring source. Anybody who grew up attending a Catholic church that still conducted Latin masses can recognize each and every ritualistic moment in Mass. Its ebbs and flows are very much inspired by liturgical rites, only without all the kneeling and genuflecting. (Bernstein's understanding of the subtleties of Catholic ritual also appear in seemingly minor details, such as knowing how to put the fear of God into an altar by giving a boy soprano--Asher Edward Wulfman here--a solo part introducing the finale nearly one hour and 45 minutes into the performance.)

Within that format, though, Bernstein freely, and often abruptly, moves from sacred-tempered strings to downright profane moods. Not profane in the sense of vulgar, merely worldly, incorporating rock-band instrumentation, Broadway-musical melodrama, popular song, carnivalesque interludes, jazzy inflections, and other such quotidian sound sources and musical forms. Handclaps? Whistles? Kazoos? Yes, yes, and yes.

And it all arrives in the sweeping, mash-up drama of popular and orchestral forms. Mass sprints and halts in the tempo shifts, fleet note runs, and dramatic surges into rests that mark Bernstein's compositions. Alsop steered the large ensembles through these sometimes stark changes with seamless aplomb, moving into the next movements by infinitesimal pauses or vocal cues (the Celebrant calling, "Let us pray"), and the performers were agilely responsive. The Morgan State choir--especially and, well, as always--was on point, either standing and seated on risers behind the orchestra, and provided the sensuous oomph to their vocal parts.

The various vocalists give this piece its pertinent, resonant, and powerful bite. Mass is an impassioned, angry, irreverent, witty, demanding, inquisitive, and hopeful work of art. And Bernstein crammed all of that humanity into his lyrics, especially for the street chorus, who introduce world troubles in the "I Don't Know" and "Easy" parts of Confession that segues in the orchestra's gorgeous performance of Meditation No. 1. Another standout: the blithe "God Said" song during the Gospel-Sermon portion, whose lyrics:

God said it's good to be poor,
Good men must not be secure;
So if we steal from you,
It's just to help you stay pure.

and

God made us the boss
God gave us the cross
We turned it into a sword
To spread the Word of the Lord
We use his Holy decrees
To do whatever we please.

feel even more prescient and pressing in 2008.

Sykes' Celebrant is this performance's anchor and star, though, and he delivers a varied and nuanced vocal and acting performance. He drives this Mass toward and into its knee-knocking climax, the overwhelming Angus Dei. Here, Sykes is required to dramatize a priest conflicted by faith as much as convey vocal emotion, and the music slowly builds into a roiling force, such that by the time the entire army of vocalists sings:

We're fed up with your heavenly silence
And we only get action with violence
So if we can't have the world we desire
Lord, we'll have to set this one on fire.

the Morgan choir is swaying, the Street Chorus has surrounded the crouching Sykes stage front, the entire orchestra is sawing into Bernstein's seismic music, and Mass reaches for an anarchic ecstasy, the sort of unbridled emotion that such a word conveys that describes both the body's sensual delights and St. Theresa's rapture.

The performance's quibbles are more matters of real estate than aesthetics. The marching band has to fill the aisles of the lower orchestra, and that proximity makes its part sound just slightly out of synch with the performers onstage. The thin stage runway bisecting the orchestra and leading to stage front became overwhelmingly dense anytime more than a handful of people tried to occupy it. And, occasionally early on, anytime the Street Chorus sang together, amplification caused their voices to become a hard-to-decipher morass.

But don't take this word for it. Mass is a piece of music that requires being witnessed by both eyes and ears, and it's not easily parsed into easily digestible descriptive passages. So if the above sounds way to wonky a reason to be impressed by this piece of music, then just stick with the very first word: Wow.

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