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)


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?


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