Bso's 'Mass' Cd Has Electric Appeal

As The Celebrant, Sykes Gives Bernstein's Work Its Soul

Alsop Adds Its Heart

Arts Scene

August 25, 2009|By TIM SMITH

Is Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" finally getting the respect it deserves?

Maybe. Last fall, Bernstein protege Marin Alsop led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in performances of this audaciously eclectic "Theatre piece for Singers, Players and Dancers" that generated large, enthusiastic crowds in Baltimore, Washington and New York.

There were glowing notices in most of the press, too, with little of the dismissive attitude that greeted the 1971 premiere of "Mass" at the opening of the Kennedy Center. Today, the genre-crossing ingenuity of Bernstein's creation seems more impressive than ever. So does the breadth of his vision, the way he fuses the hope, wonder and, yes, theatricality of the Roman Catholic liturgy into a Lenny-style bearhug of universal tolerance and peace.

Alsop and company recorded "Mass" at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in October, and the two-CD set is being released today on the Naxos label - coincidentally, this would have been the composer's 91st birthday. (iTunes made the product available for download two weeks earlier.)

After Bernstein's own "Mass" recording from 1971, it took until 2004 for another version to appear, a disappointing Harmonia Mundi issue with the late Jerry Hadley as Celebrant and Kent Nagano conducting.

Remarkably, this year has seen two "Mass" releases. The BSO's was preceded a few months ago by a Chandos CD with Kristjian J?rvi conducting the Tonk?nstler-Orchester Nieder?sterreich (State Orchestra of Lower Austria).

Neither of the 2009 recordings will displace the Bernstein benchmark, but both honor the score in admirable fashion. Ultimately, at the risk of being charged with hometown cheerleading, I have to give the decisive edge to Alsop and company.

The BSO recording has an electric charge throughout and boasts consistently vivid work from vocal and instrumental forces alike. Above all, there's the advantage of a strikingly distinctive Celebrant in Jubilant Sykes. The baritone phrases throughout with an immediacy and naturalness that draws the listener into a truly redemptive experience.

He sculpts the pop-idiom passages in disarming fashion, where more opera-centric soloists on the other recordings can sound a little stiff at times. And he achieves mesmerizing intensity in the daunting mad scene, "Things Get Broken," when the Celebrant undergoes a crisis of faith that stuns and eventually refocuses his congregation. I'm convinced Bernstein would have considered Sykes a godsend (so to speak).

If the baritone gives the performance its soul, Alsop provides abundant heart. She believes totally in this music, and that faith shines in every measure. As is her wont, she keeps things moving along; the recording clocks in at 14 minutes faster than Bernstein's (three minutes faster than J?rvi's), but the pacing feels right.

The BSO sounds terrific, producing considerable emotional power in the Meditations. The Morgan State University Choir shines. Members of the "street chorus" make vibrant contributions and, like Sykes, seem perfectly at home stylistically (a pity the Naxos CD booklet doesn't identify who sings what solo). Boy soprano Asher Edward Wulfman hits some tentative notes, but communicates affectingly. The Peabody Children's Chorus also does fine work, although I miss the telling sound of a boy choir, which Bernstein intended.

That sound, from the excellent T?lzer Knabenchor, can be enjoyed on the sensitively conducted J?rvi recording. There are admirable contributions, too, from the other choruses and vocal soloists. Although there's a somewhat studied quality to the interpretation, compared to Sykes, baritone Randall Scarlata has many exquisite moments as the Celebrant, notably in "I Go On" and "Things Get Broken."

Still, Alsop and the BSO provide the more thoroughly persuasive and involving account of this groundbreaking work.

Campus exhibits

* Six artists, including 2009 Sondheim Artscape Prize finalist Jessie Lehson, are featured in "Hunter Gatherer," an exhibit that focuses on the use of found and collected objects, from soil to old tires. Christian Benefiel, Brent Crothers, Huguette Roe, and The Two Can Collective (Emily C-D and Jessica Unterhalter) are also in this show, which opened Monday and runs through Sept. 25 at the Art Gallery of the Community College of Baltimore County, 800 S. Rolling Road, Catonsville. Call 443-840-4246 or go to ccbcmd.edu/adim/galleries/html.

* Joseph Reinsel, known for his use of computers, video and sound, will be the subject of a solo exhibit at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, where he is on the faculty and directs the digital media arts program. The show will be up Aug. 31 through Oct. 9 in the Gormley Gallery, Fourier Hall, 4701 N. Charles St. Call 410-532-5582 or visit ndm.edu/gormleygallery.

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