Review: Bernstein’s Ever-Controversial ‘MASS’ Receives a Galvanizing Performance at Mostly Mozart
By Joshua Rosenblum, Contributing Writer, July 20, 2018
It’s genuinely startling how much critical passion Leonard Bernstein’s Mass can still stir up, almost a full half-century after it debuted in 1971 to celebrate the opening of the Kennedy Center. In anticipation of the Mostly Mozart Festival’s presentation of the work, the Times’s Anthony Tommasini summed up the controversy fairly well in a July 13 article entitled, “Is ‘Mass’ Leonard Bernstein’s Best Work, or His Worst?” Tommasini made it clear right out of the gate that, despite Mass’s early battering in the press and its rocky road to rehabilitation, he has always loved the piece, flaws and all. A few days later, in a direct rebuke, his colleague Zachary Woolfe filed his review of the July 17 opening performance, a sneering pan of the work titled “’Mass’ Brings out the Worst in Leonard Bernstein”. I’ll admit that I fall squarely in the pro-Mass camp, but rather than issue a point-by-point rebuttal of Woolfe’s surly take-down (sorely tempting though it is), I will simply state what everyone who was in David Geffen Hall for either of the two performances already knows: the battle for Mass is over, and Leonard Bernstein has won resoundingly. The piece is a grand, glorious, groundbreaking and enduring work of art with a unified and unifying vision that packs an enormous musical, emotional, and spiritual punch for anyone lucky enough to experience it. The internecine warfare in the Times’s normally staid cultural pages is entertaining, to be sure, but the train left the station long ago.
Much of the early criticism of the piece concerned the eclectic blend of styles—rock, blues, gospel, jazz, and folk song, along with anguished evocations of Shostakovich and Britten, plus a twelve-tone theme and variations and a triple canon thrown in for good measure. Many referred to it as a “mess,” and accused Bernstein of trying to be “hip” in his aping of contemporary popular styles, embarrassing himself in the process. The truth is, every note of the piece is pure Bernstein, and each of the genre pieces is his own distillation of that style, processed through his inimitable blender and resulting in something that nobody else could have written. The free appropriation of divergent musical traditions that was baffling to many at the time has turned out to be one of the defining characteristics of late twentieth and early twenty-first century classical and post-classical music. Bernstein, it turns out, was decades ahead of his time. On the large scale, Mass is shrewdly structured musically, with ingenious transformation of themes throughout and expertly paced musical variety that keeps it continuously vibrant. In terms of dramatic organization, much of the credit for the shape goes to Stephen Schwartz, who wrote most of the lyrics for the non-liturgical passages. (One is reminded of Schwartz’s brilliance as a lyricist in lines like “They can fashion a rebuttal that’s as subtle as a sword/But they’re never gonna scuttle the word of the Lord.”)
Mass is epic in its scale: it requires a concert chorus, a youth chorus, a “street chorus” (consisting of rock and blues singers), boy soprano, dancers, and a full symphony orchestra supplemented by an expanded rhythm section. This production, directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer and conducted by MMF music director Louis Langrée, winningly emphasized theatricality and dramatic intention, while keeping musical values gratifyingly front and center. The drama of the piece largely takes place as a growing confrontation between the Celebrant, who is leading the Mass (Nmon Ford, in a vocally resplendent, dramatically formidable performance), and his followers, an increasingly restless bunch who want to believe, but who are frustrated by the scant evidence of God in a world of war and violence. This crisis of faith is a recurring theme in Bernstein’s life and work, and it emerged with special resonance in this production. The soloists of the street chorus declaimed their verses with passion and verve, turning “Easy” into one of the night’s many highlights. This musically irresistible number, along with “God Said,” “World Without End,” “Hurry,” and “I Believe in God,” embodied the growing tension between the Celebrant and his congregation regarding the relevance of faith and traditional rituals in the vexing modern world. Ford convincingly traversed an arc from a patient father figure to a panicked captain trying to fend off mutiny. The climactic, fourteen-minute mad scene, after the Celebrant shockingly hurls his sacraments to the floor, is the most precarious part of the score, but Ford pulled it off with dramatic surety and musical intensity—a truly memorable turn.
Boy soprano Tenzin Gund-Morrow was exemplary in his solo passages, while the unfailingly excellent Young People’s Chorus of New York City delivered ebullient renditions of “Gloria Tibi” and “Sanctus.” The ever-impressive Langrée and his stellar Festival Orchestra spearheaded a galvanizing performance—equally at home with driving rock grooves, marching band exuberance, and full symphonic heft. Mark Grey’s well-judged sound design allowed everything to be heard clearly and non-deafeningly—no mean accomplishment given the diversity and sonic aggressiveness of the vast forces. The wondrously flowering final “Laude, Laude,” as delivered by the Concert Chorale of New York, placed on opposite sides of David Geffen Hall’s first balcony, resonated with magnificent uplift. For at least this beautiful moment, hope seemed like an available option.
This affirmation of peace and faith is the enduring message of Mass, and it does not have to be a purely religious one. Maybe you don’t believe in God, but do you believe in truth and justice? If so, chances are you’ve been having your own crisis of faith lately. Bernstein’s Mass has something to say to you. While some are inexplicably still looking down their noses, the rest of us can take comfort in the power of great art to provide inspiration in even the most disillusioning of times.
Leonard Bernstein’s MASS presented as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival at David Geffen Hall on July 17 and 18, 2018. Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Louis Langrée, conductor; Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell, choral director; Young People’s Chorus of New York City, Elizabeth Núñez, associate artistic director. Directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer (New York debut); choreography by Laurel Jenkins; scenic and lighting design by Seth Reiser; costume design by Christine Crook; sound design by Mark Grey; projection design by Adam Larsen. Featuring Nmon Ford, Celebrant.
Cover: Nmon Ford, the Celebrant, Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra with Music Director, Louis Langrée, and the cast and orchestra of Lincoln Center’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS; photo: Richard Termine.