- Mass, theatre piece for singers, players & dancers
As an artifact of the 1970s, Leonard Bernstein's theater piece "Mass" is freighted with subject matter that may seem remote today and is framed in musical styles that are for the most part quite passé. The then-current issues of the Vietnam war, protest politics, social pressures, sexual mores, theological crises, and ecumenical outreach that are the grist of this polystylistic work -- all couched in an elaborate setting of the Latin text of the Roman Catholic liturgy -- speak to the relative innocence of the time, for they were considered shocking in some quarters, especially for being placed in the context of a sacred ritual. But as dated as "Mass" is by its once-controversial material, its pastiches of popular musical styles really locked it into its time period: with brassy pop-rock, electric urban blues, Broadway showtunes, acoustic folk, and circus music all competing to be heard alongside chorales, tape collages, instrumental meditations, and an extended stream-of-consciousness mad scene worthy of "Lucia di Lammermoor," "Mass" almost sinks under its excess of musical references and its composer's heavy-handed ambition to use every style he could lay his hands on. But Bernstein's charisma, along with his special artistic gifts, made "Mass" a unique experiment that continues to fascinate, even while it evokes nostalgia for fans and causes critical bemusement. For a piece so dependent on its era to be understood, it has surprising staying power. Since Bernstein's own 1971 recording appeared on Columbia Masterworks and then on Sony, there have been two major revivals of "Mass" released on disc: Kent Nagano's 2003 recording on Harmonia Mundi and Kristjan Järvi's 2006 recording on Chandos. While Nagano's was a valiant effort, it was a disappointment because it was rather sterile in its imitation of the original and lacking in passion. Järvi's version is even closer in imitating Bernstein and is better in conveying emotion, though it is not up to the intensity of the premiere recording. Randall Scarlata is earnest as the Celebrant and seems more appropriately cast than Jerry Hadley was in Nagano's performance, though both singers were stuck with the unenviable task of re-creating a role that Alan Titus delivered with intense sincerity and raw vulnerability; any other interpretation has to walk a fine line between honest emulation and crass imitation. This performance also features the Viennese ensemble Company of Music, the Munich and Upper Bavarian Tölzer Knabenchor, and the Austrian Chorus sine nomine, so the noticeable German accents give this performance a strange Teutonic feeling. Supported by the Absolute Ensemble and the Tonkünstler Orchester, the various solo singers and choral groups are quite spirited in both the sacred and profane numbers, though they all seem over-rehearsed and bit scared to deviate from the norms established by Bernstein. Because the first recording still dominates its competition, its uniqueness as a product of its time is only reinforced, and any new attempts to perform "Mass" will be judged against it, a fitting testimonial to its compelling emotional qualities, if not necessarily to its topics or musical content.