Friday, October 16, 2009

A New Performance of Bernstein's Mass

It was the summer of 1972. I had left Berklee College of Music that spring for good, because I arrogantly thought that "they couldn't teach me anything." I had come back to New Jersey, was studying classical piano, composition, concert percussion and jazz drumming with various personages privately because I realized I still had much to learn after all.

I had befriended while in Boston some fellow Berklee-ites who listened equally to modern classical, rock and jazz and did not distinguish between them as far as what form was superior to what other form. I felt I wasn't alone.

Rock was still in a phase where seriously dedicated musicians were making it an art form at the level of the other two musics. That is probably also the case again today. I joined what now would be called a jamband and we tried to incorporate all three musics into what we did, with greater and lesser success, depending. I had a cute girlfriend who was young and made no distinction between Joe Namath and John Lennon; both were equal to her.

I bought an eight-track player for my 1965 Ford Fairlane station wagon and I used to drive through the streets of New Jersey blasting the music that I liked. It was said at the time that I had a resemblance to Jesus Christ (as painted by the Dutch Renaissance artists) and sometimes I would catch people crossing themselves in jest as I drove past. I sure didn't feel Christ-like. I just had long hair and a beard.

I was neither religious nor a-religious, but one of the eight-tracks that got a lot of listening on my player that summer was Bernstein's Mass. I thought it was great. It combined modern classical, Broadway, rock and jazz elements and I and my musical friends thought that was a very good thing to do. (I don't feel any differently now, either.)

What is my point in all of this? Bernstein wrote his Mass in a time when America was in tremendous upheaval. Categories, musical or otherwise, were conflating, collapsing, appearing and regrouping as fast as farmland was disappearing from my home state. The music scene was wide open to combinations of genres and Bernstein was only one of the people who were making radical recombinations of this sort, though he was in the handful of those who truly made of the mix a musical success.

Politically and religiously, the world was in turmoil too, of course. Bernstein's Mass reflects all of this. The Mass shocked some people then because it dared to address loss of faith and the tumult of the times--the confrontation of Church and the political present--along with the "timeless" post-Gregorian musical-ritual formation of the mass itself. Perhaps it still can shock in this way.

The original version as recorded by Bernstein shortly after the work's premier was the one I had on eight-track. There were no others. The performance had an exciting, almost feverish quality about it.

Now we have another version, newly recorded by the Baltimore Symphony, Martin Alsop conducting (Naxos, 2-CDs). Jubilant Sykes is the baritone principal and the Morgan State University Choir and Peabody Children's Chorus handle the large-group vocal parts.

Hearing this new version brings back all those times in 1972 when I listened to the original recording endlessly. But it also gives the work new life. Alsop's interpretation is a bit Apollonian to Bernstein's Dionysus. There is a kind of meticulous care in the choral and orchestral balance and more transparency than out and out passion. The rock passages sound less like something from the Fillmore or the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and a little more timeless.

That's fine.

That is not such a bad thing.

This is a work that obviously has outlasted the times it came out of. That an interpretation today has more of a reflective bent than the one that came out of that world of chaos that was 1971 (the year of its first performance) is to be expected, even desired. This version in a way forces you to listen to the music on its own terms today and forget the revery of nostalgia that the original can produce. What it tells you by its production in a changed world is that Bernstein's Mass was not a kind of freak product of those times, but an American masterpiece that lives on with undiminished power.

In short, this is a fine rendition of the mass that I would not hesitate to recommend. Personally, I am glad to have both.

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