August 20, 2009


Bernstein: Mass. Jubilant Sykes, baritone; Asher Edward Wulfman, boy soprano; Morgan State University Choir, Peabody Children’s Chorus and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Michael Daugherty: Fire and Blood; MotorCity Triptych; Raise the Roof. Ida Kavafian, violin; Ramón Parcells, trumpet; Kenneth Thompkins, Michael Becker and Randall Hawes, trombones; Brian Jones, timpani; Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Naxos. $8.99.

     Leonard Bernstein’s Mass has long since transcended its original strong identification with Washington, D.C., and in so doing has also grown beyond its subtitle: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. Bernstein was certainly seeking universality when he wrote this piece on commission from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971. That is why he used the Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass – sung in traditional Latin – as the basis for an emotional exploration of faith, and the challenges to it, in the modern world. In 32 sections that stretch through nearly two hours, Bernstein’s Mass starts in harmony, passes into doubt and uncertainty, climaxes in denial and sacrilege, then slowly rebuilds itself into an affirmation that allows the work to conclude with the traditional, “The Mass is ended; go in peace.” It is a remarkable emotional journey, and baritone Jubilant Sykes, as the Celebrant, goes through it – and takes listeners along – with both emotional fervor and a beautiful, wide-ranging vocal sound. Marin Alsop, a self-professed Bernstein protégé, clearly shares in the emotionalism and strong personal involvement to which this work invites all participants – performers and audience alike. She conducts with fervor and intensity, and the Baltimore Symphony and mostly young choral singers follow her with strength and flexibility, the orchestra’s brass being especially impressive. If there is one thing missing in Alsop’s performance, it is a genuine arc of experience from start to end – she tends to handle some individual sections as if they are largely independent of others, occasionally robbing the work of what can be an inexorable flow from belief to doubt and back again. However, the fervor with which Alsop approaches many sections, such as the Street Chorus’ questioning of the tenets of the Mass, brings heady excitement to the work, and makes this performance as a whole a highly effective one. It is the second excellent recording of Bernstein’s Mass to be released this year – Kristjan Järvi’s more thoughtful but somewhat less dramatic reading is available on Chandos – and that fact alone, the appearance in so short a time of two recordings so distinguished, confirms that this work has moved well beyond its original standing as an occasional piece.

     Michael Daugherty’s Detroit-focused works, however, still have a way to go before they attain anything approaching universality. Daugherty (born 1954) has a Jacqueline Onassis connection of sorts himself – his chamber opera, Jackie O, first heard in 1997 – but he is more closely tied to the state of Michigan, being Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance in Ann Arbor. Neeme Järvi, father of the conductor of the Chandos release of Bernstein’s Mass, brings considerable spirit and enthusiasm to three recent Daugherty works for soloists and orchestra. All these pieces give the Detroit Symphony Orchestra – with which Daugherty spent four years as composer-in-residence – quite a workout. Fire and Blood (2003) was inspired by the Depression-era murals of Diego Rivera and the emotional and physical suffering of Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo. This is effective and often flashy music, especially in the finale (“Assembly Line”), which moves with considerable speed and surrounds the solo violin with noises that resemble the sounds of Edgard Varèse. Ida Kavafian plows through all this as well as bringing heartfelt involvement to the work’s second movement, “River Rouge,” which follows an opening called “Volcano” that is intended as fiery but is a touch overdone. MotorCity Triptych (2000) is a showcase of Detroit music and of brass solos. “Motown Mondays” reflects, a bit wanly, the funk of mid-1960s Motown artists; “Pedal-to-the-Metal” and “Rosa Parks Boulevard,” which feature, respectively, trumpet and three trombones, pay tribute to Detroit as an automotive center and to the civil rights pioneer. The work as a whole is slick and effective, but the emotions it proffers are strictly surface-level. In some ways the most interesting piece on this CD is Raise the Roof (2003), composed for the opening of Detroit’s Max M. Fisher Music Center. Featuring some amazing timpani techniques, including glissandi and a cadenza, with Brian Jones playing at times with bare hands, maraca sticks or wire brushes, the work has a more-or-less variation structure featuring two themes, one introduced by tuba and the other by flutes. There is something superficial in all the Daugherty works here: they are serious music, to be sure, but there is little question that they are designed to be crowd-pleasers – especially in Detroit, to which all are tied. Still, crowd-pleasing music by contemporary composers remains something of a rarity, and Daugherty certainly does a bang-up job (literally so in Raise the Roof) in showing a few ways to make modern concert works appealing.

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