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Ludwig Van
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RECORD KEEPING | Nézet-Séguin's Bernstein Mass Is An Electric Journey Into Existential Angst

By Paul E. Robinson on May 11, 2018

Bernstein: Mass. Kevin Vortmann (Celebrant) and other soloists. Westminster Symphonic Choir. Temple University Symphonic Choir. The American Boychoir. Temple University Diamond Marching Band. Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin. DG 483 5009 (2 CDs). Total Time: 107:37.

Bernstein100 is now in full swing. Throughout the year and all over the world performances are being given to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, one of America’s most important musicians. Bernstein first rose to fame in the 1940s as a flamboyant young conductor, then reached an even wider audience with his Omnibus programs for CBS television in the 1950s. Then came his incomparable Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, and in 1957 he took Broadway by storm with his hit musical West Side Story. In short, he was a force of nature: a uniquely gifted educator, an exciting pianist who played concertos with orchestras conducting from the keyboard, a dynamic conductor touring internationally as music director of the New York Philharmonic and later the Vienna Philharmonic, and a remarkably versatile composer, creating Broadway shows as well as major classical works.

Twenty-eight years after his death (1990), Bernstein’s legacy seems stronger than ever. Just take a look at the events tabulated by the official Bernstein website which have already taken place or are planned through the rest of 2018 — 34 pages of listings in pretty small print.

Mass, while unquestionably one of Bernstein’s major works — it lasts for nearly two hours and requires several hundred performers – is receiving very few performances even in this commemorative year. Gustavo Dudamel has already conducted performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Marin Alsop, a one-time Bernstein conducting student, will lead a performance with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival this summer; and Peter Bay will preside over several performances in June with the Austin Symphony, but there are very few others scheduled.

Fortunately, there are plenty of recorded versions available. The very first, a recording made in 1971, around the time of the first performances and conducted by Bernstein himself, features baritone Alan Titus as the Celebrant. More recent versions are led by Kristjan Järvi (Chandos 5070), Marin Alsop (Naxos 8.559622), and Kent Nagano (Harmonia Mundi 501840). This latest one, based on performances given in April, 2015, is conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

The first thing to note about Mass is that it is not in any sense a traditional choral work. Its subtitle, “A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers,” clearly suggests that the home listener really needs a video version to appreciate what the piece is all about. Unfortunately, there is only one commercial DVD version available (Kultur D2823), a mediocre effort filmed in Vatican City in 2000. But on YouTube, one can find a powerful performance of a semi-staged version given at the BBC Proms in 2012, conducted by Kristjan Järvi and featuring the excellent Danish bass-baritone Morten Frank Larsen as the Celebrant.

While we await a really worthy DVD version of Mass, we can give a warm welcome to this new CD version from Philadelphia, in which Broadway star Kevin Vortmann is an able and compelling Celebrant and the rest of the soloists, choirs, band and orchestra perform with precision and passion. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, as one might expect, galvanizes his huge forces with incomparable intensity; the waltz-time “Dona nobis pacem” becomes an absolute frenzy in this performance.

Mass was heavily criticized at its premiere for its mélange of musical styles — rock, gospel, Beethoven, Britten, Ivesian brass band elements, etc. — and even more for its highly personal treatment of elements of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Mass was a Catholic Mass written from a Jewish point of view, if you will, with its roots in Bernstein’s own “Kaddish” Symphony.

Forty-seven years after its premiere, one might make the same criticisms. That said, the originality of the piece and the relevance of its existential questions are as pertinent as ever. No question about it; this work of art is definitely about something, that “something” being man’s relationship with God. Mass was composed in honor of President Kennedy who had been assassinated in 1963, and while Bernstein worked on the piece the country was being torn apart by the Vietnam War. This was a time of sadness, anger and protest. Mass questions the very basis of religious faith: Does God even exist? And if He does, does He really care about man?

The opening of Mass is a modern setting of the Catholic mass text that gradually evolves into a crisis of faith. The Celebrant, who assumes a priest-like posture at the beginning, soon begins to question his belief in God. Ultimately, he breaks down completely, even smashing the Monstrance and Chalice, sacraments central to the celebration of the mass. In the end, there is a realization that the human struggle to make sense of it all will go on, and a sense of hope that trust between man and God can be restored. Bernstein ends his Mass with a profoundly moving, cathartic Bachian chorale.

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is a remarkable amalgam of religious ritual and Broadway theatrics that draws upon a wide range of musical and literary elements to create an artistic experience with a universal message. Asking questions, wondering who we are and why we are here, and spending our lives seeking answers are all activities basic to the human condition. The answers provided by organized religion may have given us order and comfort over the centuries but in the end they are deemed inadequate. The questions remain. Ultimately, Bernstein intimates, we need to go beyond religion to find ways to live in peace. As the Celebrant tears off his vestments to demonstrate to his followers that, after all, he is only one of them, no better and no worse, he asks: “What? Are you still waiting? Still waiting for me, me alone, to sing you into heaven? Well, you’re on your own.”

Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
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