Saturday, October 27, 2018

Morgan State University performs Bernstein Mass at New Psalmist Baptist Church with Marin Alsop!

Dr. Eric Conway writes: 

Hello Morgan Fine Arts Community,

Last night,  members of the Morgan State University Choir performed Leonard Bernstein’s acclaimed Mass at New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, MD.  Our performance was conducted by maestra Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.  This concert, in partnership with many other musical organizations in the city, was spearheaded by the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University. The principal groups participating in the concert with Morgan were the Peabody Opera Theatre Orchestra, Peabody Hopkins Chorus, Peabody Children’s Chorus, Peabody Singers, and Peabody Conservatory Dancers.  Additional community partners included Baltimore City College High School Choir, Baltimore School for the Arts Chamber Chorus, Community Chorus of Peabody,  Johns Hopkins Concert Choir, New Psalmist Baptist Church Choral Ensemble, Peabody Preparatory Wind Orchestra, and Peabody Opera Chorus.  There were over five hundred participants involved in the performance - one reason why this piece is rarely performed!

Mass was premiered in 1971 - a commission by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Center - paying tribute to her late husband,  John F. Kennedy and his Catholic heritage. Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is not a traditional classical presentation of the Mass, but a musical theatre piece highlighting the main’s character’s (Celebrant's) spiritual journey and examination of ritualistic religion. The other main components of this mass are a Church chorus that sings parts of the proper of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.) juxtaposed with a Street Chorus that gives a individual and group secular presentations, almost a militant questioning of the part that God plays in their respective lives.  Unfortunately, due to its non-traditional approach to the mass, the premiere of this piece was scandalous, and not received well by many, particularly Catholics.

The Morgan choir performed this piece ten years ago, back in 2008 when the Morgan State University Choir and Morgan State University Band performed this piece with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and ultimately Carnegie Hall in New York City again under the direction of Marin Alsop!  The professional recording went on to be nominated for a Grammy-award in the category of "best classical recording."  As great as that run was in 2008, last night’s performance was at least 50% larger in scope. One reason for this increase was the opportunity the sanctuary of New Psalmist afforded the director for additional movement on stage as opposed to a concert hall. New Psalmist must be the largest venue in the city of Baltimore with over 4,000 seats! The pulpit area is quite vast.  With the large choir loft for the chorus of 160, and 100 member orchestra on the floor in front of the pulpit area, the sanctuary was transformed into a concert-hall.  

On a rainy Friday night, at least 2,800 persons came out to see this concert.  With some risqué-language in some of the songs, almost blasphemy of the Catholic rite at times, and an agnostic questioning of religion throughout, the presumably many persons in the audience who were “believers” enthusiastically appreciated the production, even the clergy in the house!  The individual performances were fantastic, especially the principal role of Celebrant performed by Curtis Bannister.   Marin Alsop perfectly controlled this behemoth production with panache. At the end of the performance, everyone in cast sang the solemn prayer “Almighty Father” which gave closure to the entire show. At the very end the Celebrant gave the blessing, “the mass has ended, go in peace!”  Performed without intermission, this was definitely the place to be in Baltimore last night! A large reception was held afterwards, hosted by the Peabody Conservatory, for what appeared to be anyone who wanted to attend.  

See attached some photos from the production, a few pages from the program, and a  link to the performance that was streamed-live on Peabody/Johns Hopkins website.  I managed to remotely access my computer to capture the video and post. Enjoy!


Link to Leonard Bernstein Mass:

We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. - Aristotle
Eric Conway, D.M.A.
Fine and Performing Arts Department, Chair

Morgan State University
1700 East Cold Spring Lane
Carl Murphy Fine Arts Center, Room 329C
Baltimore, MD 21251

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