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Mass (1971)

Jubilant Sykes, baritone (The Celebrant)
Morgan State University Choir; Peabody Children’s Chorus
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop

Naxos

By now, almost all our readers must have heard of this sensational recording and the string of awards it has garnered in the classical industry. After a long period of benign neglect, Leonard Bernstein’s acclaimed (or notorious?) masterwork has resurfaced again in a modest trio of recordings by Kent Nagano (2005), Kristjan Jarvi (2009), and now Marin Alsop that attest to its vitality. Its kaleidoscope of musical styles, mixing live musicians and pre-recorded tape, is mind-boggling. The listener is assaulted with rock, blues, and classical reverberations of everything from medieval chant to modern polytonality, Beethoven, symphonic music, traditional protestant hymns, brass bands, revivalism, early Christian melismas and tropes and Hebrew liturgy, echs of Stravinsky and Carl Orff, and large doses of that incongruous mish-mash of styles we call “Broadway.” All are continually jostling for our attention. It is as much theatre–what we might term “urban guerilla theatre,” complete with a chorus of street people as it is a work of music. In the interest of being provocative it can be vulgar on occasion, but it won’t be ignored. And in this recording, the pace moves with split-second timing as conductor Marin Alsop marshals her assembled forces to make the maximum impact on the listener.

Essentially, Mass challenges people’s shallow concepts of religion. The targets of the sometimes far-from-subtle satire in the texts by Stephen Schwarz and Leonard Bernstein are many, but they generally fall into predictable categories. The naive who take their religion spoon-fed. The worldly jaded for whom “life is easy when you’re half alive.” The cynics who confess their sins, then “go out and do it one more time.” The incurably hip who are too proud to accept the simplicity of a God who loves all simple things because He is the simplest of all. Yes, there is a more or less self-consciously righteous streak in all of this. And yes, Bernstein’s work is steeped in the social ferment of the time in which he wrote it. A time of war protests, freedom marches, and growing popular dissatisfaction with the administration in Washington, be it Johnson or Nixon. So different from the times in which we now live, with our media-fed pap in place of the discussion great issues, disillusion with what appears to be a broken political process, gnawing anxiety over the economy, and war protest that is conspicuous by its non-existence.

What gives Bernstein’s Mass a more enduring appeal is its preoccupation with theological issues that don’t wax and wane with the times. Life hurts. Man experiences separation from God, and needs to feel connected. “Things break all too easily” and need to be fixed. Life hurts. People hurt. People hurt other people. For the Problem of Pain there is no easy solution, so don’t expect this work of music cum theatre to be especially neat or tidy. It makes its impact by shock, conflict, and accumulation. And the sonic ambience of the recording is more typical of pop music and Broadway in its vivid, immediate presence than it is what we normally think of as a choral performance.

And finally, everything you have heard about American baritone Jubilant Sykes is true. His beautiful voice, his timing, his ability to adapt to a variety of modes of expression both as singer and speaker, from quiet, breathless wonder to exultant shouts of joy, all fit in perfectly with his role as The Celebrant, the man who has lost his faith and wants desperately to rediscover it: “I will sing the Lord a new song / I will sing His praises while I live / All of my days.” Since The Celebrant represents us, and since he directs our focus from one section of this sprawling work to the next, it is no mistake to say the performance would not have held together as well as it ds with the expressive, intelligent qualities Sykes brings to it.

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