The Con’s combined forces meet the challenges of Bernstein’s massive work head-on.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
May 6, 2015

This performance took place as part of the centenary celebrations of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Bernstein’s Mass is indeed a massive work, involving over 400 performers including full orchestra, massed choirs, soloists, a jazz/rock combo, organ, and dancers. It was written in 1971, a time of great social upheaval in the Western world, when the younger generation was questioning the sexual mores and power structures their parents had taken for granted. This angry “peace” generation was the Baby Boomers, who eventually mellowed into the smug economic rationalists we know today. Social unrest and its effects are reflected during the progress of the work, and in the journey of the Celebrant, the central singer and protagonist. Mass is about a crisis of faith: if the old rituals no longer suffice, where do we turn? On his deathbed, Bernstein told his friend Michael Wager: “I have lost my faith.” So Mass is about Bernstein as well: he struggled with these issues. The ancient Hebrew idea of Man in a life-and-death tussle with God is never far away.

The English libretto of Mass (which employs the Latin mass as an overall structure) is by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz, who had just had a hit with his musical Godspell. Several lyrics are of their time, and may seem quaint to us now. The piety and faux-naivety are hard to take, and the Celebrant’s quasi-operatic mad scene walks a fine line between being confronting (as it was in 1971) or slightly ridiculous. That segment is one of the work’s many challenges, possibly the most exposed of them. Baritone Christopher Hillier managed it perfectly in this committed performance, under the direction of Narelle Yeo. His singing throughout was accurate, mellifluous and full-toned when required: an impressive achievement, especially as he was substituting for an indisposed Barry Ryan.    

Musically, Mass is an extraordinary hybrid. Alongside atonal harmony – Bernstein was always at pains to prove he could write “modern” – we find West Side Story type Broadway jazz complete with finger clicking, a fairly decent attempt at late 60s rock, and organ clusters straight out of a Hammer horror film. That it all works is a tribute to Bernstein the melodist. For all his rhythmic and modulatory cleverness, melody was his strength.

With such a large number of such disparate performers, inevitably there were balance issues. Luckily, an early problem with feedback was swiftly dealt with. Some parts of Mass are pre-recorded and played through four speakers around the auditorium. I thought the cutting between them might have been done with more finesse. I was sitting very close to the back left speaker, so my perspective may not have been everybody’s (but that’s where they put the reviewer, so there you go). I was actually surprised so much of the piece was pre-recorded. Though it is stipulated in the score, I would have much preferred to hear the Alleluia and especially the De profundis played and sung live.

The various soloists who sang the non-Latin sections were terrific. If these are our next opera and musical theatre performers, the future is in good hands. I particularly liked the first boy, who may have been Gavin Brown – the program is not absolutely clear about who sang what. Anyway, his fine voice was complemented by very clear articulation, sure dramatic sense and disciplined movement. The soprano who sang the poignant Trope No 4, “Thank you“, possesses a beautifully produced voice with gorgeous tone. I shouldn’t single people out, because they were all good, but special kudos to two who did some of the trickiest work: boy soprano Dominic Grimshaw and organist Marko Sever. The choral texture was perfectly blended: their unaccompanied moments were highlights. Conductor, Professor Eduardo Diazmuñoz, notable for his championing of Mexican music, led a vibrant performance: at times gutsy, but also sensitive. He more than merely held these forces together: he shaped a coherent musical interpretation.

Mass is no piece of lightweight Broadway froth; it tackles real issues, and presents great challenges to performers in terms of ensemble, rhythm and stamina. The combined forces of the “The Con” met those challenges head-on, and deserve to be praised. Lauda laude.

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