United States 2018 Mostly Mozart Festival – Bernstein, Mass: Soloists, Concert Chorale of New York, Young People’s Chorus of New York City, Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra / Louis Langrée (conductor), Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, New York, 18.7.2018. (RP)
Celebrant – Nmon Ford
Boy Soprano – Tenzin Gund-Morrow
Street Chorus – Hadleigh Adams, Matthew Anchel, Laura Bohn, David Castillo, Kennedy Caughell, Max Chernin, Christopher James Culberson, Daniel T. Curran, Brad Greer, Joaquina Kalukango, Michael Kelly, Emma McNairy, Destan Owens, Ronald Peet, Anna Schubert, Peabody Southwell
Dancers – Habeel Abdulhusain, Haihua Chiang, Jeremy Cline, Daniel Miramontes, Samantha Mohr, Emily Sweeney, Devika Wickremesinghe, Kevin Williamson
Director – Elkhanah Pulitzer
Scenic and Lighting Designer – Seth Reiser
Choreographer – Laurel Jenkins
Costume Designer – Christine Crook
Sound Designer – Mark Grey
Projection Designer – Adam Larsen
Choral Director, Concert Chorale of New York – James Bag-well
Associate Artistic Director, Young People’s Chorus of New York City – Elizabeth Núñez
You have to give Leonard Bernstein credit for sheer audacity. Entrusted with one of the most important American commissions of the mid-twentieth century, he went the full monty. Bernstein could have played it safe, but he dove headfirst into the cultural and political waters of one of the US’s most turbulent eras. Mass, whose 1971 premiere served to inaugurate The John F. Kennedy for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, was a flop of such magnitude that the news reached this sixteen-year-old in a small town in Western Pennsylvania.
Bernstein had pushed all the buttons. The Nixon Administration was weary of hidden, subversive messages. A prominent Roman Catholic Church cleric condemned it, while a high-ranking Episcopal bishop lauded it. Major critics lambasted the work, castigating Bernstein’s self-indulgence and lamenting his waning creativity. The opening night audience, however, purportedly leapt to its feet as the final notes sounded, as was again the case at this performance, the second of two at the 2018 Mostly Mozart Festival.
Mass is eclectic, no doubt about that, and its musical theater roots run deep. Bernstein and his collaborator, Stephen Schwartz, gave more than a nod to Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and even The Sound of Music. When the marching band entered, how couldn’t one think of Ives? Trying to reconcile all of the competing elements in Mass is like trying to span the stylistic distance between that earlier American master’s songs ‘The Circus Band’ and ‘Two Little Flowers’. Why even try?
The Bernstein we all love is there. There are rhythms straight out of West Side Story and Chichester Psalms, and melodies that touch your heart: Bernstein gave the Celebrant phrases that soar with the same passion as those he composed for Tony in West Side Story. ‘Simple Song’ and the ‘Almighty Father’ chorale are stunningly beautiful. Then there are the excesses that exasperate so. Not all of the tropes interspersed between the sections of the Mass are inspired wordsmithing. Some sections can lose focus, others go on far too long. The Credo and the Agnus Dei could both be shortened, making a work that runs almost two hours without an intermission much tighter and more powerful.
Elkhanah Pulitzer and her creative team embraced the excesses, but due respect was paid to the sacred texts and rites. The stage was dominated by a stark altar and reredos in which a neon crucifix is embedded, all of which would be at place in any modern church. The reredos was often awash in color, sometimes subtle, at others intense, as when it was a fiery red during the De Profundis. On the altar were candles, a chalice and a monstrance that got knocked about a bit during the mayhem but were reverently returned to their proper positions afterwards.
The choreography also paid tribute to Bernstein’s earlier theater and ballet works. Jet-propelled dancers were held aloft just as in West Side Story. At other times, the spirits of Martha Graham and Agnes DeMille seemed to guide the dancers. The whirl of movement could bog down and get repetitive, but then so does the music.
With most of the stage taken up by the altar, the musicians spilled into the theater. The orchestra took up a good bit of the ground-floor seating. Small ensembles also played from backstage and in upper-floor exit doors. Best of all were the sight and sounds of the brass players marching through the aisle perfectly in step.
The Young People’s Chorus of New York City was seated behind the altar, although they did venture downstage from time to time, while the Concert Chorale of New York sat in the side boxes. Called upon to sway with the music and clap their hands as well as sing, children and adults were clearly caught up in the spirit of the piece.
The Celebrant entered through the aisles in a white tee shirt and blue jeans with a guitar slung on his back. He would later be richly robed in clerical garments emblazoned with the all-seeing eye of God. Dancers wore simple surplices when performing religious rituals and contemporary clothes the rest of the time, as did the Street Chorus.
Nmon Ford was excellent as the Celebrant. His velvety baritone caressed the soft notes at either extreme of his range, but when unleashed it was powerful and penetrating. As an actor, he captured the exultation, anger and frustration of the Celebrant, although he was perhaps most engaging in tee shirt and jeans, young and idealistic. It was the stage of young manhood that Bernstein captured to perfection in so many of his stage works, and Ford embodied it.
Tenzin Gund-Morrow was the Boy Soprano who, with his luxuriant Afro and beaming smile, seemed a younger brother to Ford’s Celebrant. Totally at ease on stage, his voice was fuller and more expressive than that of many a young male treble.
The Street Singers were excellent, young and overflowing with talent, giving committed and compelling performances. Repeatedly, however, the sound technicians were slow to turn up the volume at the start of solos, and in more than one case never did get the balance right.
In some ways the orchestra was the true star of the evening. They reveled in the music, as did conductor Louis Langrée, who displayed a true understanding and commitment to this complex and at times chaotic work. Stellar performances came from the rock band, with star turns from the solo trumpeter and two flutists.
There were two memorable moments at the close. After the celebrant spoke the final words, ‘The Mass is ended’, a few people started to applaud, but just for a moment. The silent shimmering sounds of the orchestra were permitted to resonate through the hall, a rare exhibition of self-awareness from an audience. The other was when Langrée hugged his score towards the end of the audience’s ovation. It was a touching moment and certainly one of the best birthday gifts that Bernstein will receive this year.
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