November 21, 2003

Nagano draws Berliners into an American Bernstein Mass


Leonard Bernstein


Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Kent Nagano - Conductor

Pacific Mozart Ensemble
Street Chorus and Soli (Richard Grant and Lynne Morrow)

Rundfunkchor Berlin
Choir (Simon Halsey)

Staats- und Domchor Berlin
Boys' Choir (Kai-Uwe Jirka)

Jerry Hadley - Celebrant (Tenor)
Boy soloist from the Dresdner Kreuzchor - Boy Soprano

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Nagano draws Berliners into an American Bernstein Mass

by Nancy Chapple

Kent Nagano

Kent Nagano conducted the amassed forces of the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester, the Rundfunkchor Berlin (Choir) and the Pacific Mozart Ensemble (Street Chorus) in Leonard Bernstein's Mass. The decision was made to omit dancers at this performance so we would concentrate all the more on the music - and the stage was very full as it was. With the disconcerting polyphony of the Kyrie eleison with which Mass opens Nagano bowed his head to let the quadrophonic sound do its stuff but the audience was still restless. His voice somewhere between opera and Broadway, tenor Jerry Hadley broke into the Simple Song, stretching the schmalzy "Lauda di da di day" quite excruciatingly. The brass band was suitably raucous, and the boys' choirs playing kazoos was quite a throwback. The Berliner Rundfunkchor gave a beautiful rendition of the Prayer for the Congregation, exquisite soft passages of gently differentiated individual chords.

In the first Meditation, we got a sense of just how brilliantly the orchestra can play: nuanced, passionate, with a glowing vibrato. Nagano conducted the passage softly and subtly, using the gentlest of gestures to show how to play lyrically. When has 5/4 ever sounded so moving! The second Meditation was equally impressive, especially the long opening in spaced out pizzicato notes accompanied by woodblock, and the outstanding cello solo.

Leonard Bernstein

Even among a hundred other instrumentalists on the stage, the three electric guitarists and a bass guitar player caught one's eye - slouchier posture, more casual, looking around at the audience and the other musicians. The Pacific Mozart Ensemble, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, has worked with Nagano many times before. They brought an American authenticity to the rock passages, such as "I Don't Know" - teenage agony, complete with voice cracking at the top. The gospel sermon to "And it was good, brother" pulled us all along, foot-tappingly full of drive, despite a few splats in the brass.

Lynne Morrow took on the soprano solo in "Thank You", creating a spooky feeling of pan-religious acceptance and love in "Then I sang Gratias Deo". In "Hurry", we could feel the distance growing between the Celebrant and his worshiping community at the back of the stage. "I Believe in God" didn't feel dated at all - "I believe my singing. Do you believe it too?" - adolescent pain covered by bluster could just be a contemporary teenager just as well as a 1971 one.

The Agnus Dei really rocked - the force generated by the crowd of singers was absolutely hair-raising. And coming back down afterwards, picking up the pieces when "things get broken" was equally amazing.

The Celebrant Jerry Hadley had the stage personality of an evangelist, of a searcher clamoring for love and approbation. But his voice was not always pleasant - he sometimes slid up to the next note or smeared between them; "I Go On" was unfortunately out of tune. He got good at the end: his falling apart was believable, and his searching solo mesmerizing. The young boy soprano (unnamed in the program) has only a small role at the work's beginning and end, but had to sit still at the front of the stage for a very long time. He did, however, come into his own in the final duet with the Celebrant.

The piece is very American in its eclecticism, its naive enthusiasm, its brashness and self-righteousness. Even taking the work as a document of a specific time with different concerns, its direct attitude to life and religion is quite different from the typical distanced German "been there, done that" cynicism or reserve. But Nagano got everyone going, heads nodding, feet tapping, smiling all around me, and at least half the audience was on their feet at the end.

(This review originally appeared at