Leonard Bernstein’s Mass/Marin Alsop

Mass – A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers

Celebrant – Jesse Blumberg
Actors and singers from the Guildford School of Acting, Voicelab Chorus, Wyvil Primary School Children’s Chorus, New London Children’s Choir, The Bromley Boy Singers, choruses from Clapham Manor Primary School, Heathbrook Primary School and Lilian Baylis Technology School
The Third Davyhulme Scout and Guide Marching Band, dancers from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire
The Mass Orchestra, with players from the National Youth Orchestra, the Youth Orchestra of Bahia (Brazil), the Sphinx Organisation (US), the Iraqi NYO and Aldeburgh Young Musicians

Marin Alsop – Conductor
Jude Kelly – Director
Mary Kelly – Casting & Vocal coach
Les Anderson – Choreographer
Nick Hillel & Nick Corrigan – Visuals

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 10 July, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Leonard Bernstein.  Photograph: Christina Burton, courtesy The Leonard Bernstein Office, IncThis must have been the third time I’d heard Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 music-theatre monster “Mass” in concert. I can remember how uncomfortable and embarrassing it made me feel – all that heavy emoting about religious doubt, the extreme celebration of ‘Me’ at the centre of everything. It’s a real teenager of a work – stroppy, brattish, uncompromising, totally self-referential. What I wasn’t prepared for and had forgotten is how pessimistic the work is – pessimism on a grand, look-at-me, almost Mahlerian scale, this is Bernstein after all – and also how prodigiously generous the music is, not always the case in Bernstein’s large-scale works.

“Mass”, rather than, say, “West Side Story” or “Candide”, was the whole point of Marin Alsop’s Bernstein Project, which has been a significant presence at Southbank Centre since September last year and has produced a number of memorable events. Alsop, who has recorded the work, has a sure sense of its outline of a spectacular crisis of faith, in which Bernstein, the brilliant, Jewish, American, show-man humanist locks horns with the mysteries of the Catholic mass, unpicking the basic tenets of religious belief with the endlessly inquisitive, confrontational doubts of the blissfully egocentric me-generation, where self and identity are all.

Leonard Bernstein. ©Arthur Umboh/DGThe staging in the Royal Festival Hall was simple, almost crude – a raised platform for the squadrons of singers, actors and dancers, surrounded by the orchestra and choir; behind and above it (recorded), in front of the organ console, an altar; and, above that, five video screens showing images of the Kennedy assassination (which brought about the commission for “Mass”), Vietnam, flower-power and Martin Luther King. They were pervasive enough to run the risk of fixing “Mass” in a historical context – especially for those under the age of 30 – although there was enough music and action on the stage and throughout the hall to bring it crashing back to the here and now.

The role of the Celebrant, whose crisis of faith is at the heart of “Mass”, has become strongly identified with the wonderfully named Jubilant Sykes’s performance. Jesse Blumberg was just as convincing, and, if anything, he made the Celebrant’s doubt and despair even more painful. He was particularly fine in the passage where the Celebrant is crushed by the weight of expectation heaped upon him, which was so devastating as to threaten to defuse the consolatory chorale finale.

There were times when the heart-on-sleeve emotionalism of “Mass” and its relentless rock-music idiom got too much, as though all these young people were auditioning for a particularly angst-ridden role in “Glee”; there were excruciating moments when you thought that a beaming tot, running and singing through the auditorium, might grab you by the hand to ‘come and join us’, like a Billy Graham rally. Yet, by concentrating on the intimate, Christ-like dilemma that drives “Mass”, Alsop gave it integrity and made it sing – and nearly made me believe in it.

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