Photo-Louisville Orchestra


Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz

Louisville Orchestra

Jubilant Sykes, Celebrant
Joseph Kingsbury, Boy Soprano
Arvin Brown, Director
Teddy Abrams, Conductor
Kent E. Hattebert, Chorusmaster
Robert McFarland, Choreographer

Soloists: Emily Yocum Black, Ricky Case, Amy Cuenca, Tyler Dippold, Morgan James, Carly Johnson, Philip Morgan, Justin Romney, Chad Solan, Haley De Witt, Austin Echols, Jeremy Perry, Anna Rittenhouse, Jim Rittenhouse

Additional Performance Groups:
University of Louisville Collegiate Choral (Kent E. Hatteberg, Director) – Latin Choir
Louisville Chamber Choir (Kent E. Hatteberg, Director) – Street Singers
Louisville Youth Choir (Terri Foster, Director) – Children’s Chorus
Louisville Male High School Marching Band (Nan Moore, Director)
Rock Band: Bert Witzel, Grace Baugh-Bennett, Jeff Sherman, Craig Wagner, Mark Tate
Blues Band: Robert Docs, Meme Tunnell, John Harris

Review by Shaun Kenney

Entire contents are copyright © 2015 Shaun Kenney. All rights reserved.

Captivated. If I had to use one word to describe myself during Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” it would be just that. Captivated. This was by far, the most entertaining, emotionally moving, and evocative performance I have ever seen by the Louisville Orchestra. The work is huge, massive – if you’ll allow the pun. With orchestra, rock band, blues band, marching band, vocal soloists, and three separate choirs there were well over 250 performers by my count. Not to mention the multitude of people working behind the scenes to pull off a production of this size. And the audience was packed. And they loved it.

Bernstein wrote this piece on the commission of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and it was first performed at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on September 8, 1971. It follows the traditional liturgy of the Roman Catholic Mass (in Latin) but is interspersed with additional movements that serve to question or comment on one’s beliefs and relationship with God.

The work begins with four voices singing incompatible versions of the Kyrie Eleison. The sound comes at you from all directions via speakers positioned in different parts of the hall. It is disjointed, cacophonous, and not specifically pleasant but is brought to a halt by a single guitar chord and a soft voice proclaiming “Sing God a simple song.” Enter the Celebrant, here played by Jubilant Sykes. Mr. Sykes was completely enrapturing. His voice ranged from sweet and dulcet to large and brassy and he used his instrument perfectly in this role. I do say “role” as this is as much a theater piece as it is a musical performance. Sykes was brilliant and it is no surprise that his recording of Mass gained him a Grammy nomination for “Best Classical Recording of 2009.”

The congregation enters and greets each other and the Celebrant happily. This is followed by the entrance of a marching band through the side doors of the hall. They accompany the congregation in another Kyrie (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy). The mass continues along with the traditional Latin liturgy, generally being sung by a large choir from behind a screen at the back of the stage. The choir is positioned on three tiers of scaffolding, which was a great visual, their voices literally reaching towards the heavens. An antiphonal children’s choir, dressed in the white robes of acolytes, also brings the liturgy to us.

The liturgy is interrupted at different points by instrumental meditations as well as the congregation or street choir, dressed in everyday clothes, and the Celebrant himself. The congregation questions the mass, the Celebrant, and God himself. The Celebrant reacts to these questions and becomes frustrated. Near the end of the mass, as he prepares the communion, the Agnus Dei is sung by the choirs. The last line of this, “dona nobis pacem,” translates to “grant us peace.” In complete juxtaposition to the text the music is intense and driving. The congregation demands to be granted “pacem”, peace. The tension in the audience during this was palpable. My heart was racing in my chest. The Celebrant has reached his breaking point. The music stops at his own cry of “Pacem” and (spoiler alert) he dashes the communion goblet to the ground, shattering the glass and spilling the wine, the blood of Christ, as the lights on the stage go red and the congregation falls to the floor.

At which point there was complete silence from the audience. I don’t think anyone was even breathing. Sykes begins the penultimate movement by addressing the congregation with comments like “Isn’t that odd? Red wine isn’t red at all. It’s sort of brown.” The tone becomes more accusatory with statements such as “What are you staring at? Haven’t you ever seen an accident before?” and “Come on admit it. Confess it was fun. Wasn’t it? You know it was exciting to see what I’d done.” The end is more introspective, the Celebrant declaring how nice it would be to lay down his head in the wine “which never was really red.” His faith in God and in humanity crushed, he leaves the stage after quietly mumbling, “How easily things get broken.”

Despite this powerful moment the entire work ends with a feeling of hope. The main acolyte, played here by Joseph Kingsbury, asks us to “Sing God a secret song.” The congregation joins him in greater and greater numbers and eventually the Celebrant returns and is welcomed by all. After a final amen he states: “The mass is over. Go in peace.”

I can’t speak well enough about the experience I had taking in this production. Every person involved, all of the soloists, the musicians, the vocalists, the choreographer, producers, and directors gave this work the attention it deserves and they deserved the full three minute standing ovation the audience gave them. I feel truly privileged to have spent my evening completely rapt up in this amazing and rarely performed work of art.

Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz

September 25 & 27, 2015

Louisville Orchestra
Whitney Hall, The Kentucky Center for the Arts
501 W Main St
Louisville, KY 40202

Shaun KenneyShaun Kenney studied Music Education and Instrumental at Campbellsville University. In Louisville, he has worked with Finnigan Productions since its inception, as Stage Manager, Sound Designer, and Director.