bernstein_mass_amazonI have to be honest, when I first got this CD from Cieca cara I thought, “What the fuck did I get myself into?”  My assignment was to review the new Naxos recording of Leonard Bernstein‘s Mass. I did this show 10 years ago in school and it was not a happy experience. So, at first I thought, how could I be completely impartial?

After the first 10 minutes of listening, I was so happy I got it.

In preparing for this review, I read about the hostile reception the Mass was given. After listening to this performance I have come to realize that Bernstein was a man ahead of his time. I think the piece had to simmer within us before we could actually accept it. When the piece was composed, hippies were still on the fringes, so were Vietnam protesters, Roe v. Wade was two years in the future and nobody dared to question the church or God (not openly, anyway.)

I think we needed to go through wars, AIDS, catastrophes and all the emotions, doubts and anger they brought with them before we could collectively open to this piece. Musically, we also needed to go though Jesus Christ Superstar, Glam Rock, Miss Saigon and Rent, before we could accept a (mostly) classical piece that did not conform with the norm. Maybe it was the fact that when that first audience saw the piece they were not able to recognize themselves in the cast.

There were no nicely coiffed diva singing, nor was a nice guy in a tux, clutching a score and running through scales. Instead they got a mass for the young, with the young and with all the brash, in-your-face attitude of the young. Let’s face it, just like Rent and Hip-Hop, Bernstein’s Mass was never meant for the elites, nor the conformists. It was always a work for the irreverent and non-conformists, and we now have a wider audience for the piece.

The new Naxos recording is a welcome addition to the discography of this work. What I liked the most about this recording is how unabashedly un-operatic it is. I was not prepared to how much I was going to like the performance, nor for the emotional impact the performance was going to have on me. I was also surprised at how easy to listen it was. Before I could even think about it, I was in track 19! Unlike the new “castration” effort from Decca, Listening to this performance didn’t feel like a chore. I happily went back for a second listening.

Leading the pack is Marin Alsop, who has crafted a balance of the serious and the profane that gives this recording a contemporary feel. How many pieces can you name that still feel fresh nearly 40 years after their premiere? It simply does not feel old; it sounds modern, relevant, fierce.

Honor place must go to the Baltimore Symphony for their excellent playing. The orchestral meditations are played beautifully, but so it the rest of the piece. They provide the singers with a fantastic cushion of sound to work their magic; and work their magic they do. The Mass is a bitch to learn and perform for the chorus. At the end of the performance you just want to sit on a bath and soak, ’cause you are sore as all hell.

Morgan State and their students should be very proud of their chorus. They not only sounded fabulous, but the music is performed with accuracy and spirit. Bravo to all the chorus members for their fabulous effort. Big bravo also to the Peabody Children’s Choir. Their work in appropriately described as angelic, specially in the Sanctus.

I think one of the issues that the earlier generation had with the Mass, besides the irreverent tone, is the fact that it is hard to classify. Is it classical? Is it Broadway? It certainly has elements of both and one of the ones that sticks like a sore thumb is the many small roles that call for singers to do everything their teachers told them not to do.

Naxos has outdone themselves in casting singers that fill these parts with fierce determination. What they might’ve lacked in vocal polish, they more than made up in creating an atmosphere. The one drawback is that while they are listed on the program, they are not named in the tracks they sing.  Shame, because they are fabulous and they deserve individual credit for their efforts.

In the center of this and any Mass is the priest, or the celebrant. I have come to realize that you need a good baritenor or a belter for the role– a Ted Neeley of sorts, someone who just sings without thinking of how this F is placed, or how am I going to hit this Ab here. This is a role that requires guts and the ability to leap into the abyss without much fear.

I think casting Jubilant Skyes as the celebrant was a stroke of genius on Naxos’ part. His singing is beautiful and polished. It is not a perfect performance, here and there are sings that he had to work hard to reach some of the higher notes in the score, but he does what many would expect: he leaves the “serious baritone” sound behind and delves into the character’s descent into doubt convincingly.

Let’s be honest here, the Celebrant is not a traditional baritone role, even less a serious one. Skyes is obviously a trained baritone, but his interest in jazz and his experience singing gospel makes him almost perfect for the role; you get the burnish sound of a baritone with the mind of someone who knows when to let go and use tricks from a different bag to create a portrayal that is convincing and that carries a huge emotional impact.

His “Simple Song” is, as needed, simple, beautifully vocalized. As the character is beset with doubts, Skyes proved how intelligent a singer he is by gradually leaving behind the operatic sound and using a more pop sound culminating in a riveting anger scene.

In summary, Naxos has brought together a fabulous performance that transcends whatever blemishes you might find along the way. I think this performance should be in any Bernstein’s fan’s library. I am glad it somehow made it into mine and I am sure this recording will bring me many hours of enjoyment.

Now, if we could get a producer to stage this piece on Broadway!