BSO ROCKS NEW YORK WITH 'MASS'

10.26.08
Marin Alsop
Baltimore Sun

Orchestra, Morgan choir bring Carnegie Hall crowd to its feet for Bernstein festival

NEW YORK - "This is exactly what my father wanted," Jamie Bernstein said yesterday afternoon, wiping away tears after a gripping performance of Leonard Bernstein's Mass led by Marin Alsop in the vast, gilded United Palace Theater at 175th St. and Broadway. "This was incredible," the composer's daughter said.

That performance, attended by more than 3,000 people, found the stage crammed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Morgan State University Choir and the large cast that, on Friday night, had brought down a sold-out house at Carnegie Hall that included actor Alec Baldwin and writer Anna Quindlen.

But at the United Palace, more than 400 New York middle and high school students took part as well, occupying the first several rows of the elaborate, Moroccan-style former movie and vaudeville house, adding their strong voices to an already powerful production of a work that reflects Bernstein's passionate belief in peace and brotherhood.

The students, who rehearsed with Alsop over the past few weeks, also offered the loudest cheers at the end, and seemed as caught up in the experience as the rest of the theater.

"It was so emotional," Alsop said later. "This is a piece that embraces everyone. That's the amazing thing about it."

The New York weekend spent presenting the ambitious, even audacious, Mass, a cross-pollination of musical genres that Bernstein called "a theatre piece for singers, players and dancers," added to the BSO's national profile. This marks the orchestra's second appearance at Carnegie Hall in 2008, and its debut at the United Palace Theater, where the Berlin Philharmonic offered a similar community-involved project last season.

For the BSO to be back at Carnegie eight months after its last concert there "means a lot," said Clive Gillinson, the hall's executive and artistic director. "One of our fundamental responsibilities is to showcase the best work going on around the country. The reason they're here is the quality of performances."

Another reason for this visit is a citywide festival celebrating conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, an event that wouldn't be complete without Mass. And the work, composed for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971 and steeped in the sensibilities of the Vietnam War era, has no more committed or persuasive advocate than Alsop.

When planning the festival, "Marin was my first call," said Gillinson, who worked with her on a London Symphony Orchestra production of Mass in the 1990s. "I loved her ideas about the piece. You have to have the right imagination and feel for it. It's completely wild, crazy, zany - and utterly compelling."

As Alsop demonstrated last week in Baltimore, she has a way of holding disparate elements of the Mass score together. The cohesiveness was even stronger yesterday and Friday, more forcefully drawing out the genius of Bernstein's fusion of Catholic liturgy with deeply personal views on faith, war and peace, justice and activism.

The BSO sounded vibrant, the Morgan State choristers delivered richly, and the well-chosen cast, headed by Jubilant Sykes as the Celebrant, came through with often electrifying intensity in this imaginatively staged presentation.

Baldwin was one of the first on his feet for the prolonged standing ovation Friday night and among the first to line up at the conductor's dressing room afterward. "I had heard some individual sections from Mass, but I had never seen the piece performed whole," he said. "It was great. And I love Marin. She's an incredibly gracious woman."

The backstage mob migrated next door Friday night for a reception at the Russian Tea Room, where Jamie Bernstein danced a little jig when asked about the BSO's performance. "Marin is a genius," she said. As for the work, the composer's daughter said, "I think the world has finally caught up with Mass."

The piece was panned by many critics after the premiere. Some had trouble with the wild mix of musical genres; others were bothered by the hints of flower-child sentiments. But today, after years of composers experimenting with hybrid musical works, Mass doesn't seem so strange. And conflicts of faith - religious, political, economic - certainly retain their relevance.

Alsop, who conducts the final performance of Mass today at the Kennedy Center in Washington, said she has been especially pleased with the project "because people were moved, a lot of them coming back to see me with tears in their eyes."

There are likely to be only smiles, though, running through the BSO after this eventful New York visit.

"People in the business notice that Marin and the orchestra are here as part of the Bernstein festival," said Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, a prominent service organization. "The Baltimore Symphony is capturing attention - and in a different way than it was. Something good is going on down there."