Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ is nothing less than an Austin triumph

Leonard Bernstein‘s “Mass” is about nothing less than a profound loss of faith, Not just personal, but also national, even universal.

Premiering in 1971 during some of the most grim days of the Vietnam War, the great composer’s theatrical take on the traditional Mass structure was to deconstruct it and put it back together.

In this case, last week’s cover of Austin360 predicted the triumphant outcome.

He poses a saintly Celebrant against competing masses of singers, dancers and instrumentalists.

First one group, then others, and ultimately the Celebrant himself lose the comforts of faith and peace and smash the religious images that adorn the altar at the center of the stage. If this spirtual chaos can seem heart-rending today — and at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, it was — one can only imagine the effect on buttoned-up audiences right after the 1960s, a decade that tore apart conventional social norms on so many fronts.

No wonder its debut at the Kennedy Center was so controversial. Not only that, the two-hour spectacle that begins with Broadway-Bernstein’s “Simple Song” — sung too softly here — ricochets musically among Copland-Bernstein, Stravinsky-Bernstein and the sometimes unsettling High-Modernist-Bernstein.

RELATED: In a coup, Austin lands Leonard Bernstein marvel.

All this added up to an evening of almost overwhelming sensation, thanks primarily to Peter Bay, who has dreamed of conducting this towering piece since he witnessed the Kennedy Center premiere 47 years ago.

Let’s break it down:

  • Children’s choirs: The combined troupes, led by multiple directors, provided moments of joyful respite from the the heavier drama of “Mass.” Their brightly-clad innocence and sweet harmonies elicited an audible “aw” from the audience every time they appeared. Despite Michael Krauss‘s large, never crowded and gorgeously sacred set, the kids were by default and musical necessity required to cluster downstage. While stationed there, they were the stars of the show.
  • Bernstein100Austin Chorus: Placed upstage of the altar, this formidable group of singers, dressed for most of the action in dark robes, provided a sort of solemn anchor for everything else. Led primarily by Craig Hella Johnson of Conspirare, their sound was rock-solid and responded to whatever challenge Bernstein and Bay threw at them. It would be interesting to hear some of their sections done separately in concert. They would hold up.
  • Street Chorus: While the upstage choir blended into a whole, this group of two dozen or so singer-actors — dressed in street clothes and semi-seated to the side — injected particularized humanity into their roles. While they clearly represented some of the social subsets from the early 1970s, the performers made each part their own, thanks in part to stage director Josh Miller‘s efforts to distinguish each individual’s profile. Their solo meditations on faith and doubt really got the show’s near-operatic project rolling.
  • Dancers and Acolytes: Not having seen a stage version of “Mass” before, I could only imagine — or rather, struggle to imagine — the function of these mostly silent figures dressed in plain black-and-white cassocks. Yet, choreographed by Jennifer Hart, they kept the show in almost constant motion, delineating sections and amplifying the major themes. Included onstage were some of Ballet Austin‘s finest dancers, who know how to make movement into theater. If you don’t have the dancers, you don’t have “Mass.”
  • Celebrant: At first, baritone Jubilant Sykes provided the warm, soulful heart of the show. Wearing his vestments lightly and employing the full range of his stunning voice, Sykes tried to reach out and mend the rips in the social-sacramental fabric around him, not easy to do when there are 300 other performers around you. Yet when it came time for the Celebrant to break down and lose his personal connection to God, Sykes, defrocked in a solo spotlight, gave us a raw psychological study that could have been drawn from the most terrifying Greek tragedy.
  • Austin Symphony Orchestra+: Austin’s primary classical ensemble was supported by rock, jazz and marching band musicians. Yet they carried the preponderance of the musical weight triumphantly under Bay’s baton and, let’s be plain, they have never sounded more urgent or imperative. Especially during the interludes, they shed any mundane notion of constraints or equivocation. And as the audience made abundantly clear during the curtain calls, this was pinnacle so far in the career of conductor Bay. That’s not to say it’s downhill from here, but with this monumental “Mass,” all the participating Austin performing arts groups proved our city can aspire to almost anything. (And it made profit that will go back to the arts groups, says co-producer Mela Sarajane Dailey.)

Austin Shakespeare drafts a Cleopatra for the ages

The blazing news that stands out from the recently announced Austin Shakespeare season is the return of beloved actor and University of Texas professor Fran Dorn in a staged reading of “Antony and Cleopatra” in October (dates to be announced).

Erik Mathew and Fran Dorn in Austin Shakespeare’s production of “Medea,” 2016. Contributed by Bret Brookshire

Otherwise, the mid-sized theater company splits its main season between the Bard and other classically inspired dramatic literature.

The free Shakespeare in the Park option will be “The Merchant of Venice” in May 2019 at Zilker Park. The Young Shakespeare selection is “Macbeth” in June 2019 at the Curtain, the Elizabethan-style theater out on Lake Austin.

The 20th-century choices are Tennessee Williams‘ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (November-December) and Tom Stoppard‘s “Indian Ink” (February 2019). Luckily, much can be found about both playwrights in the archives of the Ransom Center.

RELATED: Standing ovations for “Vaudeville” at the Ransom Center.

Austin Shakespeare also plans a collaboration with the Austin Chamber Music Festival in the summer of 2019.

Still left on the 2017-2018 docket are the chamber music joint effort over scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (July 22); “Shakespeare and All That Jazz” at Parker Jazz Club (July 8); and the remaining run of its Young Shakespeare “Hamlet” at the Curtain (through June 24).

 

Juneteenth performance of ex-slave testaments to honor Billy Harden

Spectrum Theatre Company, the African-American troupe that the late Billy Harden co-founded, will commemorate the Austin actor, musician, educator and leader on June 16-17 with “Juneteenth Chronicles.”

Billy Harden was an actor, producer, musician and educator. Larry Kolvoord/American-Statesman.

The show, created by Austin playwright Abena Edwards, pulls together passages from more than 250 interviews with former slaves, originally collected in the 1930s by the WPA. Directed by Crystal Bird Caviel, the cast will include standouts such as Roderick Sanford and John Christopher.

MORE: Producer, actor, educator Billy Harden dies.

Look forward to the staged reading, which is presented in partnership with the Austin Convention Center, at the AISD Performing Arts Center on Barbara Jordan Boulevard in the Mueller Development. Suggested donation: $10. Find out more at spectrumatx.com.

MORE: Billy Harden opened doors, brought passion to stage.

UPDATE: The playwright sent us a sample of the ex-slave narratives with an image of the man interviewed in 1937.

Felix Haywood
Felix Haywood, born in Bexar County, interviewed in San Antonio in 1937 at the age of 92. Contributed by Spectrum Theatre Company

“War didn’t change nothin’. We saw guns and soldiers, and one member of master’s family, Coleman, was gone fightin’ somewhere, but he didn’t get shot no place but in the big toe. Sometimes folks come ‘long and try to get us to run up North and be free. We used to laugh at that! Wasn’t no reason to run up North. All we had to do was to walk, but walk South. We’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico you could be free. They don’t care what color you was.” — Felix Haywood, born in Bexar County, interviewed in San Antonio in 1937 at the age of 92.