Susanna Mälkki, “Strauss & Dance,” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass”
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California, January 19-21, 2018, and February 1-4, 2018
This may be the Chinese year of the dog, but in music, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, the conductor, composer, pianist, lecturer, broadcaster and writer who died at age 72 in 1990. In politics, Hollywood and in some concert halls, this year is also shaping up to be the year of the woman, with marches, protests and the #MeToo movement still going strong, and the rise of the female conductor becoming, er, somewhat more apparent.
Score points, then, for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the forward-looking orchestra that is the envy of many an American symphony, as this season Susanna Mälkki made her debut as the Phil’s principal guest conductor, wielding her baton in works by, among others, Berlioz, Zimmermann and Strauss, while the ensemble continues to reign in the symphonic firmament with Venezuelan-born music and artistic director, Gustavo Dudamel, 37, bringing power, glory and unbridled enthusiasm to Bernstein’s wildly chaotic 1971 work, “Mass.”
Before that work erupted in Walt Disney Concert Hall, though, Mälkki turned to fellow countryman, Tero Saarinen, to choreograph Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s fiendishly difficult 1966 Cello Concerto for the eponymous troupe he founded in 1996. Indeed, the work that had its U.S. premiere with the L.A. Phil—and a world premiere with its accompanying pas de trois—was programmed with a Webern-arranged Bach excerpt and Richard Strauss’ epic, “An Alpine Symphony.”
But when principal cellist Robert deMaine withdrew for personal reasons, the work was, instead, performed by three different cellists—Ben Hong, Eric Byers and Timothy Loo—each musician taking his place beside a buoyant Mälkki. Textured and dreamy, the piece includes, among other instruments, cowbells, glockenspiel and electric guitar, and proved a fine fit for Saarinen’s three dancers. Offering one-legged balancing, robotic upper torsos and articulated footwork, Sini Länsivuori, Auri Ahola and David Scarantino moved effortlessly throughout the space that had been reconfigured in triangular arrangements.
With borders of neon pillars and expandable accordion-pleated props that alternately resembled geometric icebergs and the stark clothing of Issey Miyake (designed and lit by Mikki Kunttu, who has collaborated with the troupe since its founding), the 28-minute dance also included swooping arms, exaggerated marching in place and a kind of slinky slithering, most moves in lockstep with Zimmermann’s music. Whether the Fantasia-like score (cue cimbalom and glass harp), was accelerando, legato or reverberating with heavy cello bowings, the music was both effervescent and concrete, and beautifully complemented by the wispy, theatrical dance element.
Nothing, however, could have topped the sheer magnitude, majesty and spectacle of Bernstein’s “Mass.” Written at the behest of Jackie Kennedy Onassis in memory of her late husband John F. Kennedy, the 100-minute work premiered at the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in 1971, and was choreographed for the occasion by Alvin Ailey. Considered by reviewers at the time to be “audacious, brilliant, excessive, self‐indulgent, sentimental, touching, a cornucopia of genius poured out with no restraint” (the New York Times’ Howard Klein), “Mass” continues to elicit fierce and controversial reactions.
Not for nothing did then President Nixon stay away from the premiere, which also incensed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had made Bernstein a person of interest at the Bureau for years. That said, the text of the “Mass,” written by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz (part cheesy, part spiritual, entirely unique when taken as a whole), was also enough to rankle staunch Catholics while at the same time giving voice—and chic—to such disparate musical bedfellows as jazz, doo-wop and a marching band in a work that is both sacred and profane.
With the Dude coaxing the best from his players, including 29 UCLA Wind Ensemble members, 64 L.A. Master Chorale singers, 36 L.A. Children’s Chorus performers, 22 other singers and 100-plus instruments (electric guitars are front and center) this “Mass” was massive and, well, #Cool #AF. A throwback to the post-hippie, Vietnam War-era shot through with a kind of “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” momentum, the opus is subtitled, “A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers.”
And so it is. Directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, who set the action in a Midcentury Modernist church, the cross looming a tad too large over the proceedings (scenic and lighting design by Seth Reiser), with projections by Adam Larsen, costumes by Christine Crook, Mark Grey’s sound design and ebullient choreography by Laurel Jenkins, this is a “Mass” for everybody. Or at least it was for the full house that preferred music to the Super Bowl at the Sunday performance seen by this reviewer, with Disney Hall the perfect arena for such a wondrous and anarchic work.
Yes, Bernstein’s overblown setting of the traditional Roman Catholic Mass is outrageous and whiplash-inducing: Veering from a guitar-strumming Celebrant, the central figure who loses his faith and has a breakdown (bass-baritone Ryan McKinny proved an able officiant, both physically and vocally), to the sweet sounds of children singing, with boy soprano Soren Ryssdal an angelic presence, to all of those groovy, vocalizing flower children, there was plenty to see, hear and experience in this deliciously extravagant performance.
With seven dancers—Haihuia Chiang, Jeremy Cline, Daniel Miramontes, Samantha Mohr, Emily Sweeny, devika wickremesinghe and Kevin Williamson—glorious all, and moving with grace, conviction and daring (swan-diving terpsichores were part and parcel of Jenkins’ vocabulary), the stage was as much awash in systematic bedlam as it was in religious ritual. Whether whirling Dervish-like, executing mini-arabesques or assuming Nijinsky-esque “Faun” poses in unisons or solos, this indefatigable, white-clad septet enhanced an already front—and back—loaded production.
As the orchestra and rock band created a mélange of musical styles that were accentuated by the pop singers’ belting prowess, Dudamel also breathed profundity into the more pianissimo portions of the work. Notable was the trio of orchestral “Meditations,” where threads of “West Side Story” could also be heard, particularly the haunting motif of “Somewhere,” which were given additional life by the imagistic bodies of the dancers, reminders of life’s fragile but determined and holy essence.
Bernstein’s “Mass,” with its power to tell the story of a charismatic leader who gains and then loses the support of a fractious community (shades of the Peoples Temple’s Jim Jones), one clamoring for peace, is an extraordinary work. From the opening strains of “A Simple Song” to the Lord’s Prayer and “I Go On” (hello, Samuel Beckett!), to the recurrence of the serenely sweet call to praise, “Lauda, Laude,” this is a work that, for all its foibles and—to some—its failures, continues to resonate nearly 50 years later, more so in this thrilling, sprawling and insanely gorgeous production.