Prom 32: Leonard Bernstein’s Mass

Bernstein
Mass – A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers

Celebrant – Morten Frank Larsen (bass-baritone)
Solo Boy – Julius Foo (treble)

Massed Children’s Choir:
Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Pwll Coch, Caerdydd
Ysgol Gynradd Gymunedol Gymraeg, Llantrisant
Ysgol Gynradd Dolau, Llanharan
Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg, Rhydaman

Street People:
Specially formed ensemble, including students from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama

Rock & Blues Band: Matt Herskowitz (keyboards), Damien Bassman (drums), Matt Fieldes (double bass) and Students from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama

National Youth Choir of Wales
Aelwyd y Waun Ddyfal
Musicians from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama
BBC National Chorus of Wales
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
National Youth Orchestra of Wales
Kristjan Järvi

Thomas Kiemle – Stage director


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 6 August, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Kristjan Järvi conducts Bernstein’s Mass at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouIn a word: superb. This was a quite stunning presentation of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dances’, created at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to open the John F. Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., in September 1971. (Incidentally, a photograph caption in the programme inferred that she attended the premiere; she did not, but saw Mass the following year.)

This was not a full staging, but there was appropriate movement; entrances, exits and so forth. In any case, the musical performance was so compelling that one hardly missed the theatrical element. It was evident that the work had been most thoroughly rehearsed, and so the score was delivered with the kind of requisite panache and commitment that it had not received hitherto in this country.

Performers in the Street Chorus perform in Bernstein’s Mass at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouPerformances of this still-controversial piece are still comparatively rare, though in more recent years it has been heard in London on a number of occasions. Indeed, Mass can be said to have ‘come in from the cold’ to a certain extent and can be seen, in retrospect, as one of Bernstein’s most original and forward-looking works. Though dismissed – and infrequently performed – during the composer’s lifetime – posthumously it has come to be regarded with greater understanding and respect, its eclectic qualities no longer perceived as being inapposite or irreconcilable; rather to be embraced as a product of its time, which indeed it is.

The political background – both anti-Vietnam and anti-Nixon – now seems to be of less significance than the message of the work itself. Namely, a plea for peace and the need to recognise that a reliance on religious symbols is insufficient in and of itself – one must recognise ‘inner’ peace and reconciliation before it can be spread out into the wider world: naive maybe, but one deeply-held by the composer.

Performers in the Street Chorus perform in Bernstein’s Mass at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouPraise cannot be too high for the performers under Kristjan Järvi’s dynamic direction. He marshalled his forces with uncommon assurance, delivering the multifaceted score with a commendable sense of integrity. Järvi was fortunate with his largely Welsh performers. The orchestral playing was of an extremely high order – many details of the score (such as the tangy saxophones in the ‘Credo’ strophes, and the precise playing of the blues and rock elements throughout) registered as never before in a live performance in my experience. Advantage was taken of the RAH organ. Adrian Lucas contributed to the ‘Confiteor’ and ‘Fraction’ in such a way as to alert one to the miraculous orchestration which is to be heard throughout Mass.

To be sure, there were one or two passages where the tempo might have been questioned – the impetuous ‘Prefatory Prayers’ and the slightly hurried ‘Gloria Tibi’, for instance – and some moments of ensemble imprecision, as in the ‘Confiteor’ – but these did not detract from the overall performance.

Performers in the Street Chorus perform in Bernstein’s Mass at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe choral singing was exemplary. Large numbers helped and both diction and projection were impeccable. Whilst not the boys’ choir requested by Bernstein, the mixed-voice children’s choir – all of primary school age and singing from memory – produced a delightful, fresh-voiced sound that was quite infectious. Passages in the ‘Kyrie’, upon their first appearance, reminded one of moments from Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

The rumbustious Street Chorus (who function as both congregation and commentators) – for once was not understaffed. Their youthful panache made for a strong contrast to the ‘formal’ setting of the Mass texts delivered by the choirs. It was a pity, therefore, that the soloists from this ensemble were not identified individually. There were some strong performances from the males, the women (an unbelievably touching soprano delivery of “Thank you” from the ‘Gloria’) and the Preacher, whose biting delivery of the ‘Gospel-Sermon’ was an undoubted highlight.

Julius Foo provided a highly competent and expressive solo treble, totally unfazed by some high-lying writing, and Morten Frank Larsen was the best Celebrant I have heard live or on disc since the role’s creator – Alan Titus. He was completely at home in the part. Any sense of awkwardness or uncertainty is fatal, but Larsen was utterly convincing throughout.

There were, though, some issues with the pre-recorded music. It was wonderful to hear the quadraphonic sound being transmitted to various corners of the Royal Albert Hall, but there was a curious muffled quality to some of the projections, and the ‘Credo’ passages needed to be louder. It was very moving, however, to hear the disembodied voice at the close declare: “The Mass is ended; go in peace.”

All credit to the BBC Proms for programming this work and to Kristjan Järvi for directing such a compelling performance of it. Given that Bernstein’s Mass has now been ‘rehabilitated’ to a certain extent via concert performances and recent recordings, may we now experience it in the venue for which it was conceived and intended – the opera house?

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