Saturday, April 7, 2018

Sergio Mims: Bernstein's MASS, RFH review - polymorphousness in excelsis [With Chineke! Junior Division]

America divided in a scene from Bernstein's MASS
(All images by Mark Allan for Southbank Centre)

Sergio A. Mims writes:
The London concert of Bernstein's Mass at the Southbank Centre this week with conductor Marin Alsop with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain with junior division of Chineke! Orchestra has gotten incredibly rave reviews.

By David Nice

Saturday, 07 April 2018

Live exposure to centenary composer Leonard Bernstein's anything-goes monsterpiece of 1971, as with Britten's War Requiem of the previous decade, probably shouldn't happen more than once every ten years, if only because each performance has to be truly special. It's been nearly eight since Marin Alsop last conducted and Jude Kelly directed MASS at the Southbank Centre. The new era of Barack Obama still had an early-days sheen then. No-one could have imagined when this similar-but-different spectacular was planned how its vital youth component - not just among the singers but also in an orchestra of 11 to 18 year olds - would chime so tear-jerkingly with the anti-NRA crusaders we've seen take flight in the past month.

Now, it seems, the world as a whole is closer to the collective breakdown characterised by Bernstein's constantly widening rift between the Latin words of the Christian Mass - many of them pre-recorded, in quadraphonic sound at the premiere - and the vernacular response which ranges from the desperate will to believe through cynicism and anger to rejection. Should it be an entirely American issue? As before, Kelly gives us images from the time of hope in JFK onwards, stylishly incorporated on screen canvasses by designer Michael Vale. They bring us as up to the minute as we can get; there is sight for one moment of the American Horror-Clown in Chief as the visuals rapidly fast-forward, and it is meant to pierce us, just when the crisis reaches its overwhelming zenith (caution: ear plugs needed, if only for three minutes).

Given the specific framework, which involves one Groundhog Day return to flower-power ritual, I wonder how much the children and young adults this time connected with our own rift, where resistance isn't nearly as strong as it is in the States. But they certainly put their hearts and souls into the performance. It’s not the most precise or focused in its punch you’ll ever hear, but unless you fold your arms in response to Bernstein’s unusual openness, you can’t help but be moved.

This time the colossal role of the Celebrant, worn down by confrontational questioning to a tricky 14-minute nervous breakdown Bernstein calls “Fraction" and which surely owes something to Peter Grimes' mad scene, is taken by Paulo Szot (pictured above centre), born in Brazil to Polish émigré parents. He has what the part takes but rarely gets: an operatic baritone of warmth and power matched to the natural intensity of a show singer (his award-winning performance in South Pacific on Broadway really put him on the American map; he's found more often today singing Mozart). Rightly the vociferous-at-the-end but attentive audience reflecting the diversity on stage – where the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain shared desks with players from the junior division of Chineke!, the pioneer of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) players in classical music – went wildest for him. 

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