Bernstein Mass

Mass – A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers

Celebrant – Jubilant Sykes

Street Chorus:
Donna Bateman, Carmen Cusak, Katie Newman, Josie Walker, Tabitha Webb (sopranos)
Rebecca Bainbridge, Jacqueline Tate, Rebecca Vere (mezzo-sopranos)
Mig Ayesa, David Colvin, Richard Colvin, Mark O’Malley, Ian Virgo (tenors)
Michael Cooke (bari-tenor [sic])
David Waterson (baritone)
Rodney Clarke (bass)

Edward Phillips (treble)
London Symphony Chorus
LSO St Luke’s Children’s Choir
New London Children’s Choir
Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School Choir
Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama Marching Band

London Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop

James Robinson – Director
John B Read – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 5 June, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

It has taken the best part of thirty-four years for Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” to receive this, its first fully professional presentation in the UK.

Whilst the composer’s subtitle for “Mass” – ‘A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers’ – is key to understanding the nature of the work, this was not a fully staged production. The Barbican space would not have accommodated this in addition to the vast array of singers and players, but the director had organised appropriate entrances, movement and gestures within the imposed constraints, and the singers were aptly costumed.

“Mass” was conceived and created for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and was the first music heard in that building’s Opera House on 8 September 1971 (intriguingly, the score is dated the 9th).

It caused a stir – to put it mildly – then, and it continues to proveitself to be a troubled and troubling work, with its questioning of the traditional words of the Mass, the crowd’s increasingly hostile demands for peace, the smashing of the symbols of the Mass – chalice and monstrance – the defiling of the altar and the Celebrant’s ‘breakdown’ of control over himself and the proceedings.

Much of the above ‘action’ could only be hinted at in this performance, though the intent was clear through the power of Bernstein’s score and the commitment of the performers.

A work which is now commonly held to have been influential onBernstein’s “Mass” is Britten’s “War Requiem”, with its ‘layering’ of the forces and the interspersing of non-sacred texts into a liturgical context.

But Bernstein goes further than Britten does by assigning different’styles’ to different sections of the work.

The liturgical portions are invariably given over to a ‘formal’ adultmixed-voice choir, usually singing in Latin, accompanied by a ‘pitorchestra’ of strings, percussion and organ. In this performance,strings and percussion were on the left at the front of the stage.Opposite them were the winds, brass and busy guitar and keyboard players who, in a theatrical performance, are on-stage and function as cast-members.

The guitars and keyboards, not forgetting a drummer, provide rock and blues-inflected music to accompany the musing and questioning of the so-called Street Chorus. This is an ‘everyday’ assemblage of persons – in dramatic terms representing the Congregation – from whom soloists are drawn.

A group of sixteen singers had been assembled largely from the ranks of the commercial musical theatre. Numerically this was too small a chorus to enable some of the bigger moments to really “blow the roof off the Barbican Hall” (as the Barbican’s publicity would have it) and there were some moments of insecurity and uncertainty which perhaps suggested that the intricacies of Bernstein’s writing (especially in terms of rhythm) were not second nature. However, collectively, the singers were feisty andengaged, and there was some attractive solo singing, especially from the women.

What was not attractive were the ‘cod’ American accents which were put on for the spoken sections in the “Epistle”. This was quite unnecessary, as were the jeers and cheers when the various speakers read out their respective passages.

Members of the London Symphony Chorus provided the robed choir, and the singing was full and strong, responsive to attack and dynamics, and moving at moments of reflection.

Although not the Boys’ Choir specified by the composer, the mixed-voice children’s choir was excellent, being firm and confident and the projection and strength of tone belied such youth. This group’s contribution in “Mass” is largely to supplement the singing of the liturgical texts, though there is one delightful passage in English during the ‘Prefatory Prayers’ – “H ere I go up to the altar of God” – which was led by the resolute Edward Phillips from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

The central role of the Celebrant was taken with both aplomb andsensitivity by Jubilant Sykes. Reading his biography, one concludes that he is what might be termed a ‘crossover’ artist. He certainly has a fine baritone voice, though in his upper register he had a tendency to croon and linger in a way that probably would not have been possible without amplification. On one or two occasions he was holding and hesitating in a way which caused Marin Alsop to urge him on, but, in general terms, his was a authoritative portrayal of a taxing part.

His ‘mad scene’ was made especially credible through a histrionic presence and considered projection of the text.

The LSO was on terrific form. The strings, allied with a small army of percussionists, delivered their music with considerable conviction, and the woodwinds and brass were telling in their contributions. Solo playing was outstanding, the flute and cor anglais being quite striking.

The unnamed guitar and keyboard team did all that was required, being plausible in delivering vernacular styles.

A pity that space prevented the presence of an acoustic piano. The phrases for that instrument in the ‘Second Mediation’ were re-allocated – none too convincingly – to the organ.

But the majority of the plaudits must go to Marin Alsop who held the whole together with unflappable authority and who demonstrated a close empathy with Bernstein’s prodigious score.

I must part company with her in one respect in her condoning therevision of lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, who worked with Bernstein on the original texts for “Mass”. He may well have wanted to re-visit and re-think these, but the fact remains that Bernstein set particular words to particular music and I think a librettist – however distinguished – is not really in a position to tinker with them with the composer deceased. In any event, what I could hear of the words did not strike me as any more effective than the hard-hitting and provocative originals.

However, I do not wish to end on a sour note as Marin Alsop, the LSO and the singers gave a performance of Bernstein’s “Mass”which served – as all performances of conviction should – to force one to think about the work anew. What was clear is that Bernstein’s “Mass” is still posing questions which remain – to a large extent – unanswered.

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