There are few composers in the 20th century with as much magnitude as Leonard Bernstein. His effect on both his generation of musicians and future composers is immense. Working as a composer with Steven Sondheim on West Side Story, still one of the best musicals ever written, and Stephen Schwartz for Bernstein’s “Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers,” he directly affected the two of the greatest writers in American musical theatre today. As an educator, his “Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard” is still a seminal work for music educators today. The list goes on, but this is not a review of Leonard Bernstein’s life’s work which is too vast for me to do it justice in this small space.
This is a review of Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s recent recording of Bernstein’s “Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers.” I started with references to Bernstein’s work to give some scope for the sheer size and weight of taking on a project like this. Certainly, Maestro Alsop was a protégé of Leonard Bernstein, and perhaps because of that she is one of the few people to be truly qualified to handle such an undertaking. And yes, numerous orchestras perform Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite, so his music can be performed. But his “Mass” is huge, complex, demanding on more levels than just musical performance. It requires two choirs, a full orchestra and a host of singers who are accomplished at not only operatic singing, but also in the more vernacular style of American musical theater.
The music is intense as well, containing elements of extreme angular lyricism as in the opening “Kyrie eleison” and the angelic “A Simple Song” in which Jubilant Sykes as the celebrant drifts lightly over some simple orchestration. However, as is typical of Bernstein, the harmonic structure is anything but simple, fluctuating from chord to chord in a seamless manner, but with numerous unexpected turns and shifts. Follow this with a jazzy “Responsory: Alleluia” which is as cool as it is beautiful. From the beginning to the “Pax: Communion” the music is a journey through some of the best and most intricate music Bernstein ever wrote. Throw in the musical styles of rock, pop, Middle Eastern, solemn hymns and dissonant counter point and you will begin to get a sense as to the musical complexity of this work. It takes nearly two hours to complete the full work, similar in length and demand of musicians as Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, but Bernstein’s “Mass” is also a theater piece so it demands acting, dancing - performance on all levels. And it is a mass, so there is a reverence to be maintained.
Bernstein wanted this mass to reflect the disillusionment of his time, mixed with a hope for the future. Lyrics like ”World without end spins endlessly on, only the men who lived here are gone.” followed by a rock ballad with ”I believe in one God, But then I believe in three. I’ll believe in twenty gods if they’ll believe in me.” give the “Mass” a sense of the desperation of society enmasse. But this is followed by the latin De profundis with an angular rich symphonic choral meditation leading into the a prayer by the Celebrant for the Offertory. Are we and our lives the sacrifice, that which is being offered up?
This is a massive work and done extremely well. The nuances of the music are not lost in the recording process, quite the opposite. When Jubilant Sykes sings tender moments, such as the “Lord’s Prayer” we can hear the affectionate pleading in his voice. Yet he also dances through the lyrics of “Gloria tibi” complete with bongo and the Boy’s Choir of the Peabody Children’s Chorus. Mr Sykes’ jazz and Gospel background mixed with his classical training is perfect for the demanding role as the Celebrant. There is never a lack of reverence in his voice and yet he is able to accomplish the broad variety of styles seemingly impromptu, rehearsed as a priest might memorize the mass, but still reflecting the immediacy of the moment.
The Morgan State University Choir under the direction of Dr, Eric Conway did an excellent job of the choral voices, the street chorus and numerous solo voices of the people. “Half of the People” with lyrics by Paul Simon is a searing comment on the state of the populace of today. “Half the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election,” is sung with a sense of anger and intensity that makes the sentiment as strong and indicting, as it should be. They also capture the fun of “God Said” which, like “America” or “Officer Krupke” in West Side Story, is another intense comment on the state of our world. By combining the humor with biting lyrics the commentary is all the more piercing. This track is an excellent example of the harsher style of American musical singing not just singing the notes but densely packing the emotions into voices so they sound more authentic, more intense and more honest. I would love to give specific credit to some of the outstanding solo vocalists, but other than a list of names there was no reference in the liner notes as to who sung what.
Marin Alsop does a wonderful job moving the orchestra through the extremely rhythmic music. “Meditation No. 2” based on a sequence by Beethoven goes through all the paces, from angular rhythms to passages of slow sustains. Maestro Alsop keeps the orchestra moving through each section capturing the moments of meditation, in between points of rage and anxiety. In “Mediation No. 1” the music is more lyrical - more meditative, complete with a beautifully tender violin solo. Although the orchestra is in more a support role in terms of the overall performance, they are solid support.
Bernstein’s Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers released by Naxos on August 25, 2009 is a solid recording, delicate when it needs to be but also displaying biting social commentary with power and authority. This will undoubtedly become a classic recording in terms of anyone’s Bernstein music library. Not only was this a massive undertaking, but done remarkably well.