The aching gap that the death of Leonard Bernstein left in the music world eight years ago was poignantly evident at what was supposed to be a Bernstein 80th birthday concert. Indeed, John Mauceri, usually an engagingly sardonic commentator whenever he conducts at the Bowl, chose to let Bernstein’s music speak eloquently for itself without so much as a word from the podium.
Rather than roll out the tried-and-true Broadway Bernstein — already attended to at the Great American Concert two weekends before — Mauceri linked together a couple of works that do not receive much exposure: “Chichester Psalms” and a new 25-minute cantata that he patched together from “Mass.” Like Mahler, his predecessor at the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein strenuously tried to embrace the whole world whenever possible in his music — and both pieces do so from a religious base, with “Mass” fusing just about every style under the sun with Bernstein’s personal signature.
As a result, one work led almost seamlessly into the next, with “Chichester’s” exuberance and naive faith extended and deepened by the wilder shifts in mood and idiom in “Mass.”
Mauceri’s “Mass” cantata forms a remarkably unified arch, hinting at the diversity of the score and effectively showcasing many of its staggeringly beautiful passages. In fact, this arrangement may do for “Mass” what the “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story” did for that work — propelling it permanently into the concert repertoire where it belongs.
Mauceri, a former assistant to Bernstein, didn’t stray too much from the composer’s tempos in either work — and he made the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra play with real gusto and a minimum of angst on an uncomfortably warm night. The young baritone Nathan Gunn sang the celebrant’s songs in “Mass” beautifully, almost ideally, as did the even-younger boy soprano Theo Lebow in both pieces; the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Children’s Chorus gave the texts dynamic shadings that would have made Lenny leap for joy. Alas, a madly honking car alarm went off during “I Go On” from “Mass,” but Mauceri wisely didn’t go on — he stopped conducting until it was silenced.
Since Bernstein and Gershwin make good companions as the mighty bridges between the concert halls and the streets, there was another reminder of the Gershwin centennial in the form of his “Concerto in F.” Here, after a wayward start, Peter Donohoe laid down a mean, brittle, rambunctiously jazzy piano part and the Orchestra displayed passages of grace and raucousness.