Sunday, October 26, 2008

'Mass' on Saturday in a Protestant church

The confluence of motifs was certainly unique. There we were on a blustery Saturday afternoon, sitting inside the United Palace, that vast, old wonder theater at 175th Street that does double duty now as church and all-purpose performance venue. Munching on fundraiser popcorn, wearing our respective college football T-shirts for the game that evening and watching the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and hundreds of singers and dancers perform Bernstein's Mass, a post-'60s theater piece inspired by the Catholic liturgy, though not strictly adherent to it. It's a long piece: about 100 minutes without breaks, but it had some pretty captivating moments, like the opening number, "A Simple Song" and the Agnus Dei ("Dona nobis pacem") that devolves into a fist-pumping anti-war march. The Celebrant, played by Jubilant Sykes, captured well the broad range of singing styles and emotions needed for the role, and the city schoolchildren, who took up the center front section of the orchestra seats, were rousing in their selected moments of congregational singing. It was also great to hear the Bersteinian echoes of West Side Story and Candide. The concert wasn't without its distractions, although the restless audience members around us eventually settled down. While we did have to pay $15 to get in, the crowd had more of a free-outdoor-classical-concert vibe than you would expect from an indoor show. The same was true for the Rite of Spring project last year with the Berlin Philharmonic at the United Palace (another Carnegie Hall production). That said, it's great to have so many people get together in an uptown location to see a world-class orchestra join with local students to create impressive spectacles. I look forward to the next idea they come up with.

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