Despite Flaws, BSO's 'Mass' is Compelling

10.17.08
Marin Alsop
Baltimore Sun

It is impossible to be noncommittal about Leonard Bernstein's unprecedented, unbridled, unapologetic Mass. Since its premiere in 1971 for the opening of the Kennedy Center, this "theatre piece for singers, players and dancers" has generated strong opinions, quite a few of them unkind.

But those who believe in the quality and power of Mass cannot be dissuaded from that confidence. Count Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop among these faithful. Count me in, too.

Last night, Alsop led about 250 performers in an energetically staged presentation of the work at a packed Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, a presentation that revealed total commitment to Bernstein's deeply personal exploration of religion, individuality and community.

Some of director Kevin Newbury's ideas might have got in the way of the material, and some amplification issues and first-night jitters might have taken a technical toll, but the overall impact was compelling.

I found myself as involved and, ultimately, moved 37 years ago, when I got to attend the first preview performance of Mass at the Kennedy Center, a couple of days before the official opening. Even in my cynical teens, the piece got to me. It seemed that last night's crowd was caught up in it as well.

Bernstein embraced just about every possible genre when he created the score, including traditional chorale and almost Mahler-like orchestral musing, folk music, blues and Broadway ballad. And, with the help of composer Stephen Schwartz, he fashioned a contemporary text to mix with the traditional Catholic liturgy, using those words to address issues such as war, peace and tolerance.

The composer was onto something brilliant with his shameless mix of musical styles, reflecting the diversity of the real world; the nuances that people find in matters of dogma and ritual; and the many, often secret ways they part company with the authority of church or state, even while going through the proper motions.

Alsop, who was mentored by Bernstein (he died 18 years ago this week), has put together a dynamic cast that gets right to the heart of Mass, starting with Jubilant Sykes as the Celebrant. Sykes' approach to the role, vocally and theatrically, was a revelation. He produced a symphony of tone colors and inflections, digging deeply into the character of the faith-challenged priest.

The crucial Street Chorus, which functions as the sometimes unruly congregation, contained expressive singers who connected vividly to melody and words alike. The Morgan State University Choir was as refined and spirited as ever. The Peabody Children's Chorus also contributed beautifully. Asher Edward Wulfman, the boy soprano, sounded a little nervous, but produced a touching sweetness in the exquisite finale.

The BSO was not helped acoustically by the seating arrangement, but played with conviction. The Morgan State Marching Band, playing in the aisles, wasn't entirely in sync with the stage.

While some of the choreographed stage business got overly busy or tried to be too cool, the actions generally served the drama of Mass. Most importantly, the music shone through with consistent emotional power. I think Bernstein would have loved it all.