Emotion pours from Bernstein's `Mass'

MusicReview

April 05, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Uncommonly blessed with multiple talents, Leonard Bernstein faced multiple conflicts in his life - sexuality, politics, faith. Above all, faith. He struggled mightily with his own Hebrew upbringing in his Kaddish Symphony and went interdenominational with his alternately dazzling and dismaying, ultimately affecting Mass.

Subtitled "a theatre piece for singers, players and dancers," it was composed for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971. It pleased some (I'll never forget the sheer emotional - and communal - rush of the first preview performance that September night), but turned many critics apoplectic. To this day, Mass remains among Bernstein's least appreciated creations. I'm not convinced that will always be the case, especially after experiencing its strange power again in a production by Catholic University's School of Music conducted by its dean, Murray Sidlin. (I caught a dress rehearsal/preview.)

Bernstein poured everything in him into this music - finger-snapping bits of West Side Story; a touch of the word-play and melodic richness of Candide; nods to Mahler and Gershwin. But from the exquisite hymn Almighty Father and poignant orchestral meditations to the thumping pop/rock solos and rollicking Offertory, it's pure Bernstein. Sidlin had each portion of this remarkable amalgam fitting together firmly and kept the nearly two-hour work flowing steadily.

The generic, multipurpose room isn't an ideal venue, but director Michael Scarola packs a lot of action into a small stage platform and makes use of the aisles for the dancers (effectively choreographed by Dan Knechtges). The young singers in street dress who form the often questioning congregation are put through nimble drills that provide visual variety as the work unfolds. Two choirs flank the stage area.

The student soloists in the cast do vivid, sometimes compelling work. Same for the two choruses and orchestra. Douglas Webster offers a beautifully nuanced voice and just the right combination of authority and uncertainty in the role of the Celebrant, whose shattering crisis of faith (more of an operatic mad scene, really) provides the high drama of Mass.

Most of the work's Vietnam-era sentiments (Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz wrote the additional text, with one invaluable verse from Paul Simon) haven't lost their sting. The expressions of religious doubt aren't exactly irrelevant, either. And Bernstein would have loved the spins that could be put on these lines today: "O you people of power, your hour is now. You may plan to rule forever, but you never do somehow."

The way Bernstein fuses social commentary and ancient liturgical rites with a whole world of musical styles may not make a believer out of everyone. But the Catholic University production reconfirms what I've always felt - this is a Mass-terpiece.

Mass

When: 7:30 tonight (sold out) and tomorrow

Where: Pryzbyla Center, Catholic University, 620 Michigan Ave., N.E., Washington

Tickets: $20 to $50

Call: 202-319-5416

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