Posted on October 23rd, 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Mass is Leonard Bernstein’s most personal, most provocative piece. His daughter Jamie has described it as his “most Lennyish” piece – meaning that it knows no inhibition, that it is everything he was. There are no fudges, no in-betweens, no half-measures. The musical juxtapositions come thick and fast in jarring, crunching, shifts of gear; the cheesy rubs shoulders with the sublime, musical genres are crossed and re-crossed. And Mass has things to say about what exactly a “crisis of faith” – the central plank of its thesis – might mean, not just for him but for us all. It asks the awkward questions, challenges the dogma, the hypocrisy. It’s a 1970s piece with a millennium reach and it will always polarise opinions. But it is Bernstein’s masterpiece – of that I am in no doubt – and this culminating blast of the South Bank’s year-long Bernstein Project came as close to nailing it as we could reasonably expect.

Mass was written in a time of flux defined by the death of a President, the waging of an unpopular war, and the emergence of the flower-powered peaceniks whose passive resistance assumed an almost religious authority. Stephen Schwartz and Bernstein’s words offer their own poetic resistance and the melodies which clothe them – pop, rock, folk, Kurt Weillian, and pure and simple Bernstein – chime well with the scrapbook of photographs which Jude Kelly’s staging offers as a backdrop. There are upwards of 500 people involved in this ceremony of innocence and hope – not least an orchestral from four continents anchored around the National Youth Orchestra – but at the heart of it with their multifarious and ferociously demanding “Tropes” are the Street People, an astonishing bunch of musical theatre voices cast and coached by Mary King. They are the fighting spirit of Mass and they sang the socks off it.

So, too – and how – did the Bernstein figure of the Celebrant – Jesse Blumberg – whose eleventh-hour revelation that he can only relate to his flock when he is one of them brings a spectacular meltdown: the mad scene that Bernstein always wanted to write (his very own Peter Grimes moment?). The catalyst for that is the defining climax of Mass – Dona nobis pacem – where pleas for peace turn into demands and the astonishing rock-driven crescendo on this occasion brought what looked like half the audience to the stage in angry protest to bring the service to its knees in more senses than one.

Marin Alsop – who is now all but the official guardian of this piece – kept her far-flung forces on message with barely a stitch dropped. Sorry, but anyone who can still resist the healing benediction of the closing minutes must be made of stone.

Posted in Reviews


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