Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

Oakland East Bay Symphony Performance of Leonard Bernstein's Mass, Michael Morgan Conducting

Review of the performance of May 20, 2005 published in the Oakland Tribune and other papers of the Alameda Newspaper Group on May 23, 2005 (or shortly thereafter).

By Cheryl North

Are heroes extinct? Their species on planet earth has seemed alarmingly sparse since the turn of the 21st century.

But after sitting through the magnificently absorbing -- yes, even mightily inspiring -- production of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" by the Oakland East Bay Symphony last Friday night in Oakland's Paramount Theatre, one of that endangered species emerged into full view.

It was Michael Morgan, the music director and conductor of the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

One of the prime character requisites of any genuine hero is that he/she be able to inspire heroic qualities and aspirations in those about him. Morgan managed all of that and more for the more than 250 performers involved in the production as well as the capacity audience filling the Paramount.

The difficult and rarely performed Bernstein Mass was composed at the behest of the John F. Kennedy family for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. in 1971. It is described as "A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers." The libretto is based somewhat loosely on the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Mass, with additional text by the composer, Leonard Bernstein, plus Stephen Schwartz, librettist for the musical, Godspell, and a quatrain by song-writer Paul Simon.

Bernstein, a 20th century American edition of the classic Renaissance man, was a pianist, conductor, teacher, lecturer and composer of successful Broadway shows, ballets, movie music, and classical symphonic and ensemble works of just about every other musical form available to him.

Acknowledged throughout the world during his lifetime, (he lived from 1918-1990) he left a vast legacy of prominent present-day musicians whom he taught and inspired, among whom are Bay Area conductors Michael Morgan and Michael Tilson Thomas.

It was Bernstein's own idea to fulfill the Kennedy commission by composing a work in the Mass format. The Roman Mass, in which music scholars identify many ancient Hebrew-Judean traditions, has served as an inspiration to composers throughout the history of Western European music. Its format, included readings from holy books, psalms, hymns, and prayers, and in the Christian tradition, was followed by the celebration of the Last Supper of Christ (the Eucharist). As such, it was a catalyst for the creative energies of such major composers as Bach, Hayden, Beethoven, Schubert, Verdi, Britten and many more.

But while Bernstein was fired by classical tradition and the idea of a Mass, he was also consumed by the musical styles of rock, jazz, blues, and modern modes of musical expression. Hence, his Mass took the form of a collage of classical, pop, jazz, folk, ecclesiastical, choral, orchestral, and dance traditions. Its structure, like that of a dramatic play, outlines a presentation of the status quo, followed by a crisis, and then a denouement.

The result, when done well, is thrill-a-minute music-drama that can speak dramatically to our own times. And, under the direction of Michael Morgan, it was indeed well done. For Friday's performance, Morgan the Hero assembled and inspired a more than 250 superlative performers, the vast majority of whom are from the Bay Area.

Baritone Hector Vasquez brought consummate dramatic and artistic skill to his pivotal role of the "Celebrant." He began as the exhortatory clergyman cautioning his congregants about the dangers of damnation, then becoming the disillusioned doubter, the philosopher, and finally, a comforter to his fellow humans.

His portrayal took the form of a sort of "everyman," or "Jedermann," figure, redolent of Medieval dramas. As such, he was often interrupted, as in the process of a heated debate, by members of his "congregation:" the so-called "Street Chorus," trained under the direction of versatile Lynne Morrow; the Huckabay McAllister Dancers; the Oakland Symphony Chorus under the direction of Magen Solomon and Anthony Pasqua; and the Piedmont Children's Choirs, directed by Robert Geary.

During the course of the Mass, the Celebrant's own initially simple faith becomes progressively undermined by the other performers' expressions of human miseries, wars, and the painful realities of the human condition. But never once did he stray from his character, nor did he call inappropriate attention to it during numbers by other members of the ensemble. Possessing a beautiful, expressive voice, he projected dramatic charisma into passages requiring his full operatic timbre, as well as a supplicatory falsetto during his impressive rendition of the Lord's Prayer.

The "central crisis of faith" in the work begins following the choir's "Gloria in Excelsis" section, which is followed by such interjections by members of the Street Chorus as: "Amen! Half of the people are stoned/And the other half are waiting for the next election. Half of the people are drowned/And the other half are swimming in the wrong direction." (This is the Paul Simon quatrain.)

Then the Street Chorus, evidently representing present-day humanity, featured a solo section by the amazing Trente Morant in the role of the "preacher." Following his colorful exhortations, the Street Chorus "congregation" responded with such incendiary phrases as "God said take charge of my zoo/I made these creatures for you;/So He won't mind if we/Wipe out a species or two."

Even more jolting were their words "God made us the boss/God gave us the cross/We turned into a sword/To spread the Word of the Lord/We use His holy decrees/To do whatever we please/ and such pithy platitudes as "God said to spread His commands/ To folks in faraway lands;/ They may not want us there,/ But man it's out of our hands."

Strains of the Jewish "Kadosh" were interpolated into the choral mix as supplicatory cries of "Dona nobis pacem" (Give us peace) intensified into angry doubts and demands.

Eventually, during the Eucharist section, the Celebrant drops the chalice and the wine/blood of Christ spilt out all over the stage as the glass shatters. He responded with the tortured aria centering around the phrase, "Things get broken." As sung and acted by Vasquez, this was one of the most intense moments of the Mass.

By now, members of the adult choir had cast off their sky-blue robes and members of the children's chorus moved from their previous position at stage right out into the aisles to join hands with the dancers.

Then, when all seems lost, young 11-year-old Andy Gutierrez stepped forth to project his angelic soprano voice through the cacophony. His words, "Sing God a secret song, Lauda, Laude ... spread like a healing balsam over the chaos.

He is soon joined in his reverent supplication by the Celebrant as well as all the stage voices and the orchestra. Then all froze for a moment of absolute quiet before a penetrating voice whispered, "Go in peace."

The applause began tentatively before swelling into a heartfelt crescendo of claps, foot stomps, bravos and whistles. Then the hero, Michael Morgan turned, exhausted, but with arms outstretched, to acknowledge his victory.

. . . . . . . . .