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Review: A 'Mass' 35 years long

Grammy's best choral performance nominations

By Porter Anderson
CNN

mass.cover.jpg
Kent Nagano's interpretation for Harmonia Mundi of Leonard Bernstein's 1971 'Mass' is nominated for a choral performance Grammy.

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GRAMMY NOMINEES

Nominees for 2006 Best Choral Performance Grammy

  • Bernstein: 'Mass' (Harmonia Mundi)
  • Bolcom: 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' (Naxos)
  • Lauridsen: 'Lux Aeterna' (Hyperion)
  • Penderecki: 'A Polish Requiem' (Naxos)
  • Schoenberg: Accentus (Naive)

    The 48th annual Grammy Awards show airs live at 8 p.m. ET on February 8.
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    Review
    Leonard Bernstein

    ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- "This quatrain was a Christmas present from Paul Simon. Gratias. L.B." That note is on a boisterous, booming little trope in Leonard Bernstein's "Mass."

    And here's the Simon text it refers to:

    Half the people are stoned / And the other half are waiting for the next election. / Half the people are drowned / And the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.

    That passage cinches the curious cacophony that to this day can eclipse the genius of Bernstein's theater piece.

    This is the sweeping performance work "for singers, players and dancers" commissioned to open the Kennedy Center in Washington. One of the most fashionable and powerful Beltway audiences assembled in the last century is said to have sat silent for three minutes after the composer's voice shuddered across the seats from a quad system: "The Mass is ended. Go in peace." They then gave it a 30-minute standing ovation.

    But far from going forth in peace, Bernstein's "Mass" has spent three-and-a-half decades being debated much and produced rarely. And that's not only because it requires an expensive and unwieldy amalgam of adult and child vocalists, orchestral and marching band showiness, theatrical and cathedral sensibilities.

    No, it gets more lip than light mainly because it's so densely conflicted in its styles. It has defied many critics and fans to get past a sort of despairing scream of "too eclectic!" Like a sprawling religiously inspired version of "The Rumble" from Bernstein's "West Side Story," this thing leaves music lovers and the faithful squaring off in baffled vehemence, forever choreographed into a clash they can't even explain.

    Thanks to the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' insightful recognition of a powerful new recording of the piece from the Deutches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and conductor Kent Nagano, it's possible now to demystify one of the most interesting of the 2005 Grammy nominations. "Mass" is up for a best choral performance award.

    In the beginning

    Contradiction hovered around "Mass" from its inception. The great Jewish composer based it on the shape and liturgy of the Roman Catholic high Mass in tribute to the assassinated president for whom the Kennedy Center is named. Bernstein had also dedicated his 1963 "Kaddish" symphony to the memory of John F. Kennedy, who personally had instigated the movement to create a national arts center.

    In a short program note in 1971, Bernstein characterized the work as an attempt "to communicate as directly and universally as I can a reaffirmation of faith."

    The cult-like following the work attracted, though, could never be satisfied with so banal a motivation, even while making the score's "A Simple Song" one of the top songs used by actors and singers in auditions for years.

    The holy water was clouded by the premieres of other, lesser works. In the minds of the uninformed, "Mass" was a member of a family of mildly iconoclastic "rock musicals" including "Hair" (1968), "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1971), "Godspell" (1971), "Pippin" (1972), and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" (1982).

    'Mass' this time

    Conductor Kent Nagano and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin have snatched Bernstein's work from the Swamp of Ancient PBS Pledge Drives (forget it, Yanni), and delivered it to the dry, high ground of music for its own sake.

    This is nothing against the great Alvin Ailey's choreography and dancers, who blessed the original production with new "Revelations" of flying skirts and supremely arched backs. Ailey's astonishing Judith Jamison was in the cast. And in 1971, even the use of a quad audio array for taped instrumental interludes at the Kennedy Center was gutsy.

    But at last, this "Mass" has been celebrated cleanly. The Columbia recording of the Kennedy Center ensemble packed in a lot more drama of the "theatre piece" than you hear this time. That tended to feed the great criticism of Bernstein's "Mass," that it was "too eclectic!"

    Canny in the cuteness of Broadway's "Candide" but capable of whipping a concert stage into the brainy spin of his "Serenade," Bernstein met himself coming and going in the denouement of his "Mass," just as his Celebrant did in the score. "How easily things get broken," sang Alan Titus in the original, the man who lost it at the altar and shattered the chalice of holy communion.

    With Nagano on the podium, Jerry Hadley is admirably free of melodrama and sings as his own man, led by that probing, persistent boy soprano's "Sing God a secret song, Lauda, Laude ..."

    Do yourself a favor. After hearing this "Mass" top to bottom, get back to the "The Lord's Prayer" and take it to the end again. At this point, the Vietnam-driven angst-arias are behind you and the maestro's message of individual responsibility for faith is seeded.

    Listen how comfortingly Hadley's "I Go On" reaches across the decades; how celestial the kids of the Domchor Berlin sound in rustling up the most arresting "Sanctus" since Gabriel Faure; how the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester rises like a hot sea to buoy the soaring "A song is beginning / Is beginning to grow;" and how the singers of the Rundfunkchor Berlin seize the galloping build of Bernstein's "Agnus Dei" and charge right down the track toward the climax.

    When you hear that chorus gnashing to pieces the "Dona nobis pacem! Pacem! Pacem!" ("Give us peace!"), you remember what this thing is about. It's not the seamless-sleepwalk sacrament of most settings of the Mass but a roar of pain from an era of mistakes, a furious demand made on a God who didn't always seem to be listening.

    Because the Recording Academy is listening now -- and because Nagano has had the courage to mine the music for its own grace -- a major work trapped too long in "original production" worship, now is free. Go in peace.

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