tue 13/11/2018

BBC Proms: Bernstein - Mass | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Bernstein - Mass

BBC Proms: Bernstein - Mass

A Proms first, and possibly last, for Bernstein's musical mash-up of a Mass-setting

Kristjan Jarvi: instilling pace and direction into Bernstein's baggy scoreAll images © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Why so many empty seats at last night’s Prom? Bringing together several choruses, a percussion-augmented orchestra, dancers, actors, rock-band and children’s choir, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is surely a Proms dream – a genuinely eclectic work with something for just about everybody. But even as some 11 different Welsh ensembles sung, jived, clapped and shouted for our entertainment yesterday, there was no getting away from the issues with Bernstein’s ageing, mongrel score.

Part oratorio, part music-theatre, part liturgical rite, Mass is an awkward work to assimilate, let alone stage. Unlike the choreographed pyrotechnics of My Fair Lady earlier this season, director Thomas Kiemle opted for a minimal approach in this, the piece’s first full performance at the Proms. Only the Street People (students and alumni from the Welsh College of Music and Drama) with their bright clothes and highly characterised episodes, broke out of the choral ranks to groove and interact centre-stage (pictured below).

It’s hard to find the composer of West Side Story among the self-consciously modish posturings of Mass

These young singers – most appearing as soloists – were astonishingly good. Even with amplification the Royal Albert Hall is a beast of a venue for voices still (or recently) in training, but these distinctive and assured performers tackled everything from contemporary classical episodes, Gospel (Ronald Samm’s rousing Preacher was a stand-out), rock and music-theatre to give Mass the authentic stylistic heterogeneity it so desperately wants.

The work’s narrative sees the Celebrant (a baritone soloist, sung here by Morten Frank Larsen) and his obedient congregations abandon the simplicity of true faith (the sub-pop “Simple Song” opener) in their ever more convoluted worship. Things reach a head somewhere around the Agnus Dei, when the Celebrant’s authority subsides into a mad scene of fragmented doubt and even more fragmented musical ideas.

A pastiche of modernist operas (and a poor one at that) this protracted section unbalances an already overloaded work till recovery is pretty much impossible. It’s hard to find the charming, inventive composer of West Side Story among the self-consciously modish posturings of Mass. Just as a big riff gets into its stride, or a solo song begins to tickle the imagination we are thrust onwards into something else, something new, something different. Even in a hall that can take the sheer volume and impact of the forces it all gets a bit wearing, like being shouted at by the cast of a United Colours of Benetton advertisement for two hours.

By no stretch of the imagination is Larsen’s Celebrant the “young man of mysterious simplicity” the composer had in mind. His is a voice with plenty of character at the bottom, bringing a certain weary gravitas to bear, but struggling painfully at the top. If the psychological collapse and rebuilding is to be convincing the Celebrant needs to move from absolute vocal strength to faltering; when he starts with gripped and raspy top notes it rather undermines Bernstein’s spiritual journey.

There’s also a distinct lack of swagger to Larsen, who turns blue notes into rococo pastels and turns Mass into a much more classical work than it actually is. I can’t have been the only one wishing that Jubilant Sykes (arguably the best living exponent of the role) and Larsen had swapped concerts, giving Larsen Tippett’s more formal A Child of Our Time last week.

Who better to conduct this rhythmic sway-fest than Kristjan Jarvi. Keeping not only his forces but his own exuberance under control, he did his to invest even Bernstein’s baggiest moments with direction. The young members of choirs and the orchestra (a composite of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the National Youth Orchestra of Wales) responded adroitly to his pacing, and brought all the freshness Bernstein surely had in mind when conceiving his forces.

I’m not sure I’ll be campaigning for a follow-up performance any time soon, but Mass is a work that was made for a Proms airing. The space, the mood, the spirit of the festival chimes perfectly with Bernstein’s vision, even if his music doesn’t quite keep up.

Comments

Alexandra, I am really glad we were at the same concert on Monday night (for what I have read from other critics I am actually intrigued to know whether they really were where we were). And generally I am really against diss-ing artists, but ... I had real trouble with Mr Morten Frank Larsen. Undoubtedly, he can sing beautifully and he does have some presence, but for an artist at this level, on this occasion, being broadcast 'live' on radio and television, to be pitchy in every single number, sometimes to an excruciating extent, is - I am afraid - disgraceful. And unfortunately he was not the only problem. I might have forgotten/forgiven the massed choirs some of their occasional scruffy entries were they able to summon the volume that the piece demands - but they were not. I know the Albert Hall is (still) a difficult acoustic, that some performers were amplified and they were not, and they were just put-together for the occasion, but we really did need more from them. At this point it would be usual to blame the conductor, Kristjan Jarvi, but what he did with the (very good) band last night was extraordinary. I cannot imagine that there could be a better rendering of the piece by any orchestra. (Having said this, the mixture between the pre-recorded and the live music was really irritating). Jarvi enabled terrific performances from - particularly - the marvellous Julius Foo. (What a terror for Morten Frank Larsen to be performing against a young singer of such purity and tonal surety!) And also from the ‘street singers’, who were uplifting in their tutti parts and who nearly always performed their obligato parts magnificently (as did the male trio). At the end I had the depressing feeling that because this is well known to be an 'awkward' piece in the repertoire, and this was its first outing at the Proms, the decision had been made that we did not need the very, very best across the board - but we did. Not least, because - unlike you Alexandra - I believe the piece deserves it. Of course, there are buttock-clenching 60s moments in the Mass, but Bernstein's melodies are of such beauty and complexity (befuddling the classical/popular divide), his choral writing is of such genius (and still so amazingly under-appreciated), and the heart-stopping excitement that Bernstein, and only a very few other composers of any century or genre, can summon from a band should ensure that the work is better respected and heard more often (and let’s blow the expense!).

The very stirring performance of Mass given at the Royal Festival Hall in June 2011 under Marin Alsop showed what can be done with the "semi-staged" format. Back in the 1990s I saw a production of Mass in St David's Hall Cardiff which was almost as good. But remember that on the title page of the score Bernstein described his Mass as "A Theatre Piece"; its ideal home is the theatre and the most effective performance I ever saw was at the Kennedy Center in Washington directed by Gordon Davidson and with the Alvin Ailey Dance Group woven led by Judith Jamieson woven into the action.

This was my most anticipated concert of the proms season. I felt so let down. Morten Frank Larsen was just not up to the task and the choirs were lax. I am reminded of that glorious TV programme years ago when Bernstein rehearsed an 'opera' version of West Side Story .... when he lambasted Jose Carreras for not singing in 'perfect' english. But the tautness he demanded of his ensemble delivered stunning performances. He would have been shouting at this sloppiness. So sad.

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