B. and I drove (to avoid the hassle of a flight) the 6 hours to L.A. for a relaxed two-night stay to see the Philharmonic's Leonard Bernstein centenary concert production of his theater piece Mass. Yes, we like the work that much.
This is the third time I've heard the L.A. Phil in Disney Hall (I've also heard them elsewhere), the third time I've heard Gustavo Dudamel conduct (never previously here), and my third performance of the Mass: the other two - also both with B. - were by Marin Alsop at the Cabrillo Festival and by Michael Morgan in Oakland.
When the Mass premiered in 1971, very much a child of its time, it was widely derided as trashy kitsch, which shook the composer's self-confidence, you may be sure. But it's since come to be acclaimed as a masterpiece of eclectic postmodern art, and Dudamel is a notable addition to its champions, for unlike Alsop and Morgan he's too young to have worked with Bernstein personally as they both did.
Most Mass performances emphasize the jazz, rock, pop, and musical theater influences and interjections in the work, exploiting their contrast with the classical base. Dudamel didn't do that. Conceptually, he treated Mass as an integrated classical work of motivic-based structure, rather as if it were a successor to Wagnerian opera. In sonic style it was modernist; the heart of this performance was the relatively harsh and querulous instrumental Meditation sections. It was less fun to listen to than other performances, but it brought out Bernstein's profundity as a composer, a proposition badly needing a champion.
It's almost superfluous, but necessary, to praise the musicians. The Phil is a great orchestra. The LA Master Chorale is a superb chorus, and B. was particularly admiring of their handling of the difficult opening of their role. The Street Chorus were more musical theater people than opera singers, but handled the operatic presentation of their parts fairly well. The boy soprano, Soren Ryssdal, was stunningly good.
And the Celebrant, the central role, was Ryan McKinney, who is an opera singer, and what is more a bass-baritone in a part designed for a tenor or light baritone. But he had all the high notes he needed; his voice merely got stronger as it went down, whereas most Celebrants get weaker. He gave a dark, introspective performance, and his reading of the Fraction scene was a dramatic exploration of character.
As has happened with this work before, the weak point was the staging. Despite Dudamel's timeless musical conception, the street chorus was dressed in a period-bound but inconsistent mixture of hippie and disco. They writhed around a lot, distractingly but pointlessly. And B. was particularly critical of the way the liturgical objects and vestments were designed and used: too inaccurate to reflect Catholic usage and too incoherent to be a pointed critique of it.
Well, we're glad we went. We also squeezed in visits to Vroman's (better than any bookstores we have up here, and yes, they had a nice little Le Guin memorial display up) and the Norton Simon Museum (where B. gave me a docent tour of the medieval religious art), pre-concert dinner at my favorite Olvera Street restaurant, a wild post-concert tour of the downtown L.A. freeway maze when the exit to the Disney parking garage put me out where I wasn't expecting and I had to figure out on the fly how to reorient our path in the right direction, and brunch the next day with she who is our friend and my distinguished academic colleague.