Musicologists could devote months of study to the analysis of Leonard Bernstein's 110-minute “Mass.” One of music's most eclectic scores, it's filled with wild mixed meter passages, complex harmonies, striking dissonances, twelve-tone elements and improvisatory techniques.
But none of that matters when it comes to the pure enjoyment that results from hearing this rarely performed work live in concert. Canterbury Choral Society, in collaboration with Oklahoma City University, pulled out all the stops for this Oklahoma premiere, a thrilling, high energy, once-in-a-lifetime performance.
Scored for large orchestra, chorus, children's chorus, street chorus, rock band and a Celebrant who leads the proceedings, the 1971 “Mass” was written to inaugurate the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Those very forces, together with the music's highly complex nature, unfortunately have prevented the work from becoming a repertory staple. But great works have a way of arousing sufficient curiosity among those who can help bring them to a wider public.
As the Civic Center was cast in darkness, the audience heard a prerecorded track whose competing vocal lines escalated until the Celebrant launched into the aptly titled “A Simple Song.” Scott Guthrie demonstrated a richly nuanced and focused voice that when combined with a powerful stage presence, established his rightful position to lead the proceedings.
As the work progressed, Guthrie shaded his voice to suit the musical moods and employed some fine acting skills to deliver a spectacular performance. He was riveting in “Things Get Broken,” the work's climactic scene in which the Celebrant rebels against the responsibilities he's been given.
Rather than confine his “Mass” to conventional means, Bernstein let his musical eclecticism run wild with hymns, marches, passages for kazoos, Orientalisms, finger snaps, guitar riffs and countless other influences competing for prominence.
And yet, Bernstein never allowed one musical style to overstay its welcome. The changes could sometimes be jarring but it was that sense of the unexpected that kept the ear constantly engaged. The warmth of Canterbury's sound made the “Almighty Father” chorale a standout.
At times reverential, this “Mass” also employed a street chorus to question God, one of whom proclaimed at one point, “I believe in God, but does God believe in me?” The vocally accomplished ensemble kept the proceedings lively with its contemporary interjections.
And just when Bernstein sensed that an audience may tire of the incessantly busy lyrics, he inserted two orchestral “Meditations,” a calming oasis from the noisy din of the growing dissatisfaction that played out onstage.
That culminated in the powerful “Things Get Broken,” a grueling number for the Celebrant in which he hurls the bread and shatters the chalice, a sort of liturgical mental breakdown. All alone, he realizes that only with help from others, can he restore a sense of purpose to life.
The return of “Almighty Father” brought the “Mass” full circle and sent the audience back out into the world with a sense of renewed hope and optimism. After taking listeners through this often harrowing experience, it provided the perfect sense of uplift.
Coordinating a performance of Bernstein's “Mass” required months of preparation that involved Ben Nilles' assistance with orchestral rehearsals and Judith Willoughby's fine training of the children's chorus led by Jessie Muckleroy.
Also, David Herendeen's dramatic and innovative staging, Aaron Mooney's hauntingly beautiful stage lighting which used giant open structures to create the effect of stained glass panels, and Kasey Allee-Foreman's unadorned but attractive costumes.
Special commendations to the musicians who mastered what may have been one of the most demanding scores they've yet tackled. Adding to the palpable excitement of the festivities was the presence of the composer's daughter Jamie and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick.
Finally, one must extend the highest praise to Canterbury's artistic director Randi Von Ellfeson, who masterfully helmed the gargantuan forces to make this a milestone event not just for his singers, but one of the most satisfying musical achievements in this community's history. I wish there could have been multiple performances!
— Rick Rogers