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Enlightening ‘Mass’

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Subtitled "A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers," Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" - commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as a key part of the Kennedy Center's 1971 grand opening - generated a considerable amount of advance buzz and excitement.

Yet critics and the attending glitterati generally gave it thumbs down after hearing it.

Mawkish and sentimental, the work oozed the kind of New Yorky armchair agitprop skewered by Tom Wolfe in his book "Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers." "Mass" was, in effect, Mr. Bernstein's confused classical response to the radicalized 1960s, wrapping its garbled antiwar, anti-Nixon vibe in psychedelic, feel-good packaging reminiscent of the groovy Day-Glo brotherhood portrayed on the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's" album cover.

The composer used the Roman Catholic Mass as a frame-tale around which to wrap his secular approach to religion. With an assist from "Godspell" composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, Mr. Bernstein's book is a crazy quilt of liberation theology and situational ethics. Worse still, the climactic smashing of the Eucharist near its close is pure sacrilege for practicing Catholics.

So irritating were the politics of "Mass" that many classical fans, myself included, were happy to assign the work to the proverbial dustbin of history.

Word that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, under the feisty baton of its new music director, Marin Alsop, would revive "Mass" this fall and take it on the road created considerable audience interest in hearing the work anew. Having performed it in Baltimore and at Carnegie Hall, the BSO gave its concluding performance Sunday where it all began.

Much of the music in "Mass," influenced by the composer's earlier "Chichester Psalms," surprisingly withstands the test of time. While the prerecorded portions seem anachronistic and the addition of electric guitars and keyboards to the orchestra proves rather tame, "Mass" - eclectic, rhythmic and difficult - clearly demonstrates Mr. Bernstein's mastery of the American idiom.

With the BSO split into two components on the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall stage, the venue became a space for the singers, players and dancers led by the Celebrant, deftly sung by Jublilant Sykes - whose squeaky inner and robust outer voices added heft to the portrayal of a priest whose faith is sorely tested. Doubling as singers and dancers, the numerous vocal soloists also were at the top of their collective game. Boy soprano Asher Wulfman performed his key role as one of the acolytes with surprising poignancy.

The appearances of the fine Peabody Children's Chorus and the Morgan State University Marching Band - which paraded up and down the aisles - added energy to the festivities. More effective still was the brilliant Morgan State University Choir, which rained down Mr. Bernstein's dense, rhythmic Mass parts from the hall's chorister seats.

Miss Alsop - who once studied with the composer - maintained pinpoint control over these immense forces, creating the definitive interpretation of this work for our time.

True, "Mass" remains dated and embarrassingly awkward at times - but after an enlightened performance like this one, Mr. Bernstein's compositional black sheep can no longer be dismissed easily.

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MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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