BSO Makes Bernstein's 'Mass' Something to Celebrate

By Joe Banno
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 18, 2008

BALTIMORE -- Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" is due for some reassessment. While not without its champions over the years, this hybrid work embracing classical, avant-garde, rock, blues, Broadway and world music has drawn much critical drubbing -- for its crazy-quilt of styles, purported showbiz gloss, countercultural agenda and brash questioning of traditional religion -- since its premiere as the inaugural production at the newly built Kennedy Center in 1971. But as performed Thursday at Meyerhoff Hall by the Baltimore Symphony, under Bernstein protege Marin Alsop's disciplined baton, the seldom-revived "Mass" re-emerged as the moving and visionary piece it's always been -- arguably the best thing Bernstein ever wrote.

And there will be more chances to hear this work. The BSO will present it in Baltimore again Saturday, and at the Kennedy Center on Oct. 26.

The work's 32 numbers (some of which were pre-recorded and played over the Meyerhoff's sound system) are scored for huge forces -- here including a rock band, the Morgan State University Choir and Marching Band, the Peabody Children's Chorus, a "Street Chorus" composed of 17 cannily chosen young singers from Broadway and the opera stage (who functioned as soloists and ensemble), boy soprano Asher Edward Wulfman and, in the role of "the Celebrant," Jubilant Sykes -- who alternated between a full-throated operatic baritone and a wispy pop croon, and whose acting had a touching, gentle glow.

Commissioned by John F. Kennedy's widow, "Mass" not only expressed the anger and frustration of its composer but functioned as something of a "JFK Requiem" -- both for the man and for the hopes of the generation grappling with his death. Accordingly, Bernstein has the members of his Street Chorus rail against a silent God and an ever-weakening Celebrant, while choral settings of the Latin Mass (written in the composer's best bluesy-Anglican, "Chichester Psalms" style) strive for supremacy.

Echoes of Bernstein's scores to "West Side Story," "Candide" and the "Kaddish" Symphony are unmistakable, and Alsop pointed up the music's debts to Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Orff and Weill, as well. Wisely, all the soloists were miked, giving prominence to the Sondheim-worthy lyrics by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz, and helping the "Dona Nobis Pacem" achieve its scorching effect.

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