Candide – Overture
Mass – A Simple Song; Pax – Communion ‘Secret Songs’
Beethoven, arr. Phil Snedecor
Ode to Joy
Clive Rowe (singer)
Matthew Barley (cello)
Southbank Centre Voicelab
Singers from The Centre for Young Musicians
Grimethorpe Colliery Band
The Mass Rally Orchestra [including members of Britten Sinfonia, Southbank Sinfonia and Orchestra Europa]
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 20 September, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Described by Marin Alsop as the “kick-off event” for the Southbank Centre’s Bernstein Project which culminates next July in two performances of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass”, this concert lasting less than an hour also featured a filmed résumé (with surprisingly poor picture quality) of Bernstein’s life and career introduced by broadcaster and biographer Humphrey Burton plus two of the composer’s children – Jamie and Alexander – answering a few questions posed by Alsop.
As to the musical content, a specially-formed orchestra, its members meeting for the first time the day before the concert, supplied secure enough playing if, perhaps not surprisingly given its ad hoc nature, rather lacking in individuality.
Alsop provided a steady hand at the tiller for the Overture to “Candide” overture, but a more effervescent approach is needed for music which bubbles delight?
It was a good idea to separate the two brass ensembles – members of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band – and place them in the aisles for Shivaree, thus emphasising the antiphonal nature of the piece (with two themes later used in “Mass” which don’t quite go together – in boisterous Ivesian fashion) but this wasn’t a secure performance, with a number of ensemble issues and numerous cracked notes.
Clive Rowe provided attractive tenor-ish tone for the Celebrant’s opening song from “Mass” – less pleasing was his alteration of the vocal line at one point – the strings accompanying most sensitively. ‘Pax’ (which concludes “Mass”) featured some excellent solo-singing – all un-named, though – especially from a confident young treble – and some fine choral contributions.
The final item was, frankly, bizarre. Phil Snedecor (appointed by Alsop to the post of principal trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony, and arranger for Washington Symphonic Brass) concocted what might be generously termed ‘variations’ on the ‘joy’ theme from the concluding movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A solo cello played the theme and there were subsequent sections for the different performing groups in a variety of styles – bagpipers and members of the folk-group Bellowhead being prominent. Parts of the movement were played ‘straight’, the words were indistinct and the whole really rather distasteful. I cannot imagine for a moment that Leonard Bernstein – a great Beethoven interpreter – would have done anything other than smile indulgently.
No information about the performers or programme notes was available, though a handsome brochure-style booklet about the Bernstein Project as a whole was informative. Apart from the afore-mentioned culminating performances of “Mass”, however, it does seem odd that Bernstein’s own music should feature less than prominently. A missed opportunity.