United States Bernstein, Mass: Artists and Soloists of Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, UCLA Wind Ensemble (conductor: Travis J. Cross) / Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Disney Hall, Los Angeles, 1.2.2018. (JRo)
Celebrant – Ryan McKinny
Street Chorus – Hadleigh Adams, Shaleah Adkisson, Laura Bohn, Phillip Brandon, Marshal Kennedy Carolan, David Castillo, Kennedy Caughell, Anthony Chatmon II, Christopher James Culberson, Jason Gotay, Matthew Hydzik, Joaquina Kalukango, Azudi Onyejekwe, Destan Owens, Anna Schubert, Zanda Švēde
Boy Soprano – Soren Ryssdal
Dancers – Haihua Chiang, Jeremy Cline, Samantha Mohr, Daniel Miramontes, Emily Sweeney, Devika Wickremesinghe, Kevin Williamson
Director – Elkhanah Pulitzer
Costume Design – Christine Crook
Scenic and Lighting Design – Seth Reiser
Projection Design – Adam Larsen
Sound Design – Mark Grey
Choreography – Laurel Jenkins
Absorbing, intense and musically eclectic, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is an unruly beast of a composition that reflects man’s confusion in a troubled world. As relevant today as it was when composed in 1971 – the time of an escalating Vietnam War and violence around the globe – Mass speaks to humanity’s search for meaning and a way through the darkness to a place of hope.
Set within the formal structure of a Catholic Mass and interrupted by songs of doubt and disbelief, Bernstein’s deeply personal composition reflected his own inner turmoil over questions of faith in contemporary society. Hebrew and Latin texts, Bach, Schoenberg, Renaissance music, operatic and Broadway-style singing, rock and blues and marching band all clamor for prominence in this sprawling work. It is the merging of these styles that the orchestra, chorus, principal and soloists must navigate to bring the piece to successful fruition.
Under Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Phil moved from classical to rock with ease, integrating disparate musical styles into one luminous whole. The Los Angeles Master Chorale was a luxuriantly voiced antidote to the antics of the jazzy street performers, and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus was both sweet-voiced and sprightly. This was not enough, however, to tame the beast. Mass, with its circus-like atmosphere and immense number of performers – about 230 – needed the sure hand of a director who could function as both traffic cop and precise interpreter of Bernstein’s passionate mind. The director, Elkhanah Pulitzer, had passion enough for the task, but the logistics of Disney Hall combined with her decision to time travel back to 1971 diminished the production.
In what felt like a parody of the time, long-haired hippies bedecked in crowns of flowers danced onto the crowded upper tier of the hall, assembling in front of the massive organ. No costume cliché was left unused – a pregnant hippie bride, a ‘brother’ in a white bellbottomed suit sporting an enormous Afro, long robes, long dresses, headbands, beads, fringe. If you can imagine it, it was on stage. It felt more like cult worship than a Catholic Mass. I sensed that Pulitzer went back to the original staging for inspiration, but what transpired gave the piece too much specificity and made it appear dated rather than timeless.
The same criticism could be leveled at the choreography of Laurel Jenkins. Intruding on the scant platform in front of the organ was a handsome but enormous curved panel with an illuminated cross. In front of the panel was a large podium for the Celebrant, the leader of the mass and principal singer of the piece. Already too small an area for dancers, the space was further compromised by the set, leaving little room for movement. This left the choreographer to convey much of the dance through exaggerated hand and arm movements. When feet and legs came into play it was in the manner of a snaking conga line of bodies or dancers rolling over the bended backs of others or lifted like sacrificial virgins. Difficult logistics for a choreographer, no doubt, but more care could have been taken to create some original movement rather than resorting to shimmying shoulders and thrusting arms.
Bernstein’s intention was that this composition should be a dramatic event, summoning orchestra and voice into a rousing exploration of faith. Nowhere did the evening succeed better on these terms than in the second half. Choreographed movements were at a minimum so there were no distractions from the music or the drama, reinforcing the fact that the work is powerful enough without added stage business interrupting the flow of the music.
With the Celebrant’s crisis of faith, the narrative plunges him into despair as he sheds his vestments, rips his bible apart and tosses the wine goblet to the floor. Dramatically, the bass-baritone Ryan McKinney was compelling as the Celebrant – a gifted actor who has appeared internationally and at LA Opera as Stanley in Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire and as Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro. He has the ability and charisma to portray an innocent believer, a spiritual leader and a man in crisis, but the Celebrant requires more than dramatic chops. Vocal dexterity is more demanding in Mass than in many operatic roles, and though McKinny was expressive within his range, his voice was faint in the upper registers, particularly in the poignant ‘I Go On’.
Sharing the spotlight with McKinny, boy soprano Soren Ryssdal was excellent, as were a few soloists among the sixteen street performers.
From orchestra to choruses, everyone was at the service of the rousing score, from the tender, ‘A Simple Song’ in praise of God to the roof raising ‘Agnus Dei’ – a raucous protest song with the repeated phrase ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (Grant us peace). It echoed in the concert space and up and down the corridors of Disney Hall and, I suspect, onto the street. Inspiring and uplifting, the evening was one that Leonard Bernstein, on his hundredth birthday, would approve.