Monday, 4 June 2018

LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S MASS / Orchestra of the Music Makers / Review

Orchestra of the Music Makers
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (2 June 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 June 2018 with the title "Mass in a new light".

If there were a more eclectic and conflicted work of religious music than the Mass by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), it has yet to be written. Also trust the Orchestra of Music Makers (OMM) to mark its 10th anniversary by giving its Singapore premiere, surely a sign of wildly imaginative programming and coming of age.

It should not have been a huge surprise, this year being the Bernstein centenary, but given the monumental Aida-sized undertakings, one would be grateful this momentous affair even happened at all. For this most moving of performances, a large orchestra with electric guitars and rock drum-sets, two choruses (Symphonia Choralis and Volare Treble Singers, with 130 voices), a semi-chorus of 16 street-singers (Himig Sanghaya from Philippines) and American tenor Kevin Vortmann as the Celebrant, were led by conductor Joshua Tan.

Composed for the opening of Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Centre in 1971, the Mass was dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy, USA's first Roman Catholic president. A two-hour long reflection of the liturgical mass like no other, Latin and English transliterations were interspersed with texts by Stephen Schwartz (composer of Godspell and numerous Disney musicals) and few lines from Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel), much bordering on provocative and irreverent.   

Initial responses were mixed and bewilderment over its possibly blasphemous content divided listeners. However viewed over a span of 47 years, it may now be regarded a child of its time, from the era of Beatles, Woodstock, Jesus Christ Superstar and the Vietnam War. The composer of West Side Story and Chichester Psalms, himself of the Jewish faith, was to craft a classic that could not have come from any other age.

The cacophony of rock singer voices in the opening Kyrie Eleison blared out through speakers were meant to be disorientating. Stability was restored in A Simple Song, the most famous number, sung with disarming earnestness and clarity by Vortmann. Faith was meant to be simple right? His problems were just beginning with his devotion assailed by questions from sceptics and naysayers.

The street-singers, each a convincing soloist, sealed the street cred for this production. Highly idiomatic voices, with no hint of Asian accents, were the Greek chorus to Vortmann's ministrations. “I believe in God, but does God believe in me?” was among plaints leading to the Celebrant's crisis of faith and ultimate meltdown. Smashing the holy sacraments, this was the equivalent of an opera's mad scene.

Vortmann's tour de force in Things Get Broken was most memorable, and credit must also go to boy soprano Mikey Robinson, almost an apprentice Celebrant with his sanity-restoring aria Sing God A Secret Song that mirrored the opening Simple Song. The life-affirming end was also simple, with the exhortation: The Mass is ended, go in peace.

Central to the concert's roaring success were Edith Podesta's clear-headed direction which kept the audience entranced while enhancing the music-making, and Brian Gothong Tan's ecumenical multimedia visuals flashed on two large overhead screens. In what is likely to be this year's finest concert, every man finds his own faith, unfettered by rigid doctrines or dogmas that we call organised religion.  

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