Leonard Bernstein's Mass, Happily Reconsidered

Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic are celebrating Leonard Bernstein this fall, on the occasion of what would have been his 90th birthday this past Aug. 25. Of all the myriad events between Sept. 24 and Dec. 13, none was more anticipated than the staged (or semi-staged, with the orchestra flanking the singers, as originally intended) performance of Bernstein's "Mass" last night at Carnegie. (This was scheduled to be followed this afternoon by one of Carnegie's Berlin-Philharmonic-style community events at the United Palace Theater in northern Harlem, complete with school choirs singing related songs of their own devise.)

"Mass" had a mixed critical response when it helped open the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1971. Paul Hume of the Washington Post called it "the greatest music Bernstein has ever written," while Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times was famously vituperative. What seems to be have stuck as the provisional judgment of posterity is a modified version of Schonberg's negativity. The score's pot-pourri stylistic melange seemed unfocussed and the story an epitomization of the composer's mawkish, maudlin, kitschy side.

As such it resembled too much of Bernstein's later music (compared to the brilliance of the earlier shows and ballets), often weak or patchy or sentimental, as he guiltily devoted time to his lavish (and also brilliant) international conducting career. And yet advance rumblings before last night, no doubt parrly engendered or encouraged by Bernstein partisans, had suggested "Mass" was ripe for reconsideration. To my taste, it emerged sounding far stronger than I had remembered, even if I had been guardedly sympathetic all along. This was partly because the score itself holds up, and partly because the conductor Marin Alsop and the stage director Kevin Newbury and a mostly strong cast made such a persuasive case for it.

Musically, Jubilant Sykes as the Celebrant, who is transformed from a comman man to a priest to a paranoid megalomamiac before settling back humbly into the community, was a tad too theatrical, and his baritone struggled sometimes shakily as a crooning quasi-falsettist. But the rest of the cast was affecting, and Alsop did a terrific job with her Baltimore Symphony and various choruses (but what happened to the Stony Brook University Marching Band? no room on stage for them?).

Alsop's control was impressive on two counts. She held this sprawling score together, one in which the disparate idioms closely entwine; William Bolcom's similarly grand and diverse "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" more rigorously segregates the idioms into discrete numbers. And the use of amplification (except for occasional anomalies as the dial-twiddlers struggled to project some of Sykes's crooning) helped smooth out disconcerting disjunctions between unamplified classical music and the more poppish material.

This musical unity had the added effect of minimizing one aspect of the score that bothered me back in the 70's, when I was chief rock critic of the Times. Lenny fell on the wrong side of the pop standards and show biz vs. rock generational divide. "Mass" owes a lot to "Godspell" (Stephen Schwartz did much of its lyrics) and to "Jesus Christ Superstar" (as well as to Britten's War Requiem), but the younger Andrew Lloyd Webber was a lot surer rock composer than Bernstein. Last night, one didn't mind the unconvincing blues-rock passages because they were subsumed into an overall musical voice that Alsop helped articulate.

But the "rock" wasn't missed also because Newbury, the director, did something simple and clever. He purged the staging of the dated hippie trappings that made "Hair" this summer in Central Park so lame. Bernstein was inspired by the counter-culture of the 60's and anti-Vietnam War protests. Newbury made the piece into a broader, more timeless drama about ego-mania and youthful renewal, which come to think of it is pretty timely today, after all.

Was it a perfect evening? Of course not. Some of the performers were still a little too pushy/Broadway for me. The Celebrant's mad scene goes on too long. I, for one, sitting on the aisle in the parterre, could have done without the fresh-faced, church-robed young choristers with electric candles lining up, shaking my hand and blocking my view of the stage.

That curmudgeonly moment out of the way, this performance of "Mass" did much to resurrect (to use a too-apt verb) a score that may not have needed resurrection but surely welcomed rehabilitation. Alsop and Carnegie are to be congratulated, and thanked.

October 25, 2008 12:41 PM | | Comments (1)

1 Comments

I think somebody needs to retire from writing about music. Especially music and theatre.

"Jubilant Sykes as the Celebrant... was a tad too theatrical, and his baritone struggled sometimes shakily as a crooning quasi-falsettist."

Excuse me, this is a theatre piece, much like the Bach St Matthew Passion, get over your aversion to theatricality or leave the hall.

"Andrew Lloyd Webber was a lot surer rock composer than Bernstein?"

Yeah, with a lot less to say.

"Some... a little too pushy/Broadway for me. The Celebrant's mad scene goes on too long. I... could have done without the fresh-faced, church-robed young choristers with electric candles lining up, shaking my hand and blocking my view of the stage."

Geesh. Why not just stay home and listen to the CD?

Leave a comment

Blogroll

For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by John Rockwell published on October 25, 2008 12:41 PM.

Dance, Modern/Contemporary/Physical was the previous entry in this blog.

Personal Contact and "Objectivity" is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

AJ Ads


AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

culture
About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Dewey21C
Richard Kessler on arts education
diacritical
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Flyover
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

dance
Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

jazz
Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
ListenGood
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Rifftides
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

media
Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Overflow
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
PianoMorphosis
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
PostClassic
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Sandow
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

publishing
book/daddy
Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

theatre
Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

visual
Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
Artopia
John Perreault's art diary
CultureGrrl
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.