What 20th century American theatrical genius could conceive of a “Simple Song” that requires in excess of 200 participants to sing? Leonard Bernstein, naturally, whose legacy is being celebrated in New York this fall in honor of what would have been his 90th birthday in August. The piece is “Mass,” commissioned at the behest of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to honor the late president at the 1971 gala opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Controversy was almost guaranteed; Bernstein was high on Nixon’s enemies list — the president, at the suggestion of J. Edgar Hoover and John Mitchell, chose not to attend this event honoring a considerably more popular predecessor — and the composer did not shrink from the occasion. Working on the Catholic liturgical service model, he incorporated musical theater and rock elements while attacking hypocrisy and Nixon’s Vietnam War. (Paul Simon contributed the quatrain “Half of the people are stoned, and the other half are waiting for the next election.”)
It’s to be expected “Mass” might be dated today. Surprisingly, it’s not. The liturgical sections are sometimes a little murky, as they were in 1971, but the anti-war, anti-establishment sections ring true. “O you people of power, your hour is now, you may plan to rule forever, but you never do somehow” sounded startlingly relevant, 11 nights before Election Day 2008.
Central to the concert’s success were conductor Marin Alsop and singer Jubilant Sykes. Alsop garnered headlines when she took over as music director of the Baltimore Symphony 13 months ago — the first woman to do so at a major American orchestra — despite protests from some of the musicians. Any friction seems to have vanished, at least as evidenced by their playing at Carnegie Hall.
Alsop has long specialized in the works of her mentor Bernstein, and the complicated piece — which mixes a full symphonic orchestra with rock and marching band sections — went off without a hitch. This is her fifth “Mass,” and it’s time for her to take the piece into the studio to give us a much-needed second recording of this remarkable but overlooked work.
The always impressive Sykes outdoes himself with a bravura turn in the sole major role. His past experience as the Celebrant (with Alsop in London and Los Angeles), allows for a far more fully realized performance than is customary in concert versions of full-scale musicals. Starting with that gentle “Simple Song” to guitar and flute, Sykes works his way through the passion to the shattering final extended breakdown-in-music, “Things Get Broken.”
Also of note were contributions by the so-called Street Chorus, most of whom are given specialty turns within the piece. Standing out were the soloists in the Credo section, Kevin Vortmann (“Non Credo”), Morgan James (Hurry”) and especially Theresa McCarthy (“World Without End”). The Boy Soprano of the evening, alas, had audibility problems.
With what seemed to be 204 bodies up onstage, this is nevertheless not quite the full “Mass” as envisioned by the composer. The original piece included a full dance component from choreographer Alvin Ailey, which is understandably missing from this concert version. (The official title remains “Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers.”)
The piece also calls for a full Marching Band — absent at Carnegie Hall despite the the Stony Brook University Marching Band being listed in the program. No great loss, as their orchestral parts were covered by the Baltimorians. What was missing, though, was the Boys’ Choir; instead we had the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, which, based on a rough head-count consisted of 29 girls and only one boy. This group sang well, and contributed to a highly effective moment in the final Communion, lined up along the main aisles of the auditorium; but this was not the all-male sound Bernstein specified.
A significant portion of the lyrics come from Stephen Schwartz, then a 23-year-old wunderkind from “Godspell.” Schwartz rarely gets much notice for his effort here; he goes unnamed in the Carnegie Hall program, with his credit hidden in a program insert. Orchestrators Hershy Kay and Jonathan Tunick, who with an assist from Sid Ramin provided the masterful sounds that filled Carnegie Hall with flavors of Mahler, Ives, Copland and street brass, are ignored altogether.
Kevin Newbury provided effective direction on the small stage area. This “Mass” premiered Oct. 16 at Meyerhoff Hall, the Baltimore Symphony’s home base. A popular-priced showing followed on Oct. 25 at the United Palace Theater in upper Manhattan, featuring hundreds of New York City public school students. A final perf took place Oct. 26, back once again at Kennedy Center.