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.
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.
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.)
It’s time. The Austin Critics Table Awards nominations came out this morning.
The gathered minds invented new categories, both under the heading of Theater: Periphery Company, recognizing the theatrical body of work by companies outside of Austin proper, and Improvised Production, recognizing mainstage projects by area improv troupes.
That puts the number of official categories this year at 29 (7 theater, 5 design, 5 dance, 6 classical music, 6 visual arts). Critics also promise at least 11 special citations.
Creek Show, the annual procession of light art staged by the Waller Creek Conservancy, turned a corner of sorts last year.
What started as mostly elegant minimalist efforts along downtown Austin’s eastern waterway went maximalist in 2017 with masses of pink flags for “Night Garden” by Daniel Woodroffe (lead), Kim Harding, Francisco Rosales, Ethan Primm and Kevin Sullivan.
UPDATE: Credits for “Night Garden” appeared incorrectly in a previous version of this post.
The designs for year five — the free event will be Nov. 9-17 — were recently announced and promise to continue the large-scale experience. In 2017, more than 20,000 people attended Creek Show, sampling the kind of attractions planned for a transformed Waller Creek. For 2018, Creek Show will be in a different section of Waller Creek — between Ninth and 11th streets — and include Symphony Square, where the “Creek Show Lounge” will be located.
Here’s a look at early renderings of what’s planned for 2018, along with the teams behind the designs:
For the past five years, the Art Dinner at Laguna Gloria has benefited the Contemporary Austin. Hosts expertly employ the arboreal setting on the grounds of the Clara Driscoll villa to create an elevated atmosphere at dusk and into the evening. This year, that effort included the passage of the S.S. Hangover through the lagoon with members of an Austin music collective playing a dirge-like piece.
Visual and musical artists do love a bit of theater!
Guests were in no hurry to pass up cocktails at key points in and around the villa, but the seated dinner took place under tents on the front lawn. Happily, I was placed next to designers Lydia G. Cook and Geoff Fritz from the Cambridge, Mass. firm of Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architecture. They helped explained the company’s master plan for the Contemporary’s Marcus Sculpture Park, including connectivity to nearby Mayfield Park.
The modest but tasty dinner arrived courtesy of restaurateur Tyson Cole along with chefs Ed Sura of Uchiko and Joe Zoccoli of Uchi. (Note to other Austin charity hosts: You don’t need a big slab of animal protein to satisfy.) The evening climaxed with an unusually civilized live auction featuring work by artists close to projects at the Contemporary.
“When all was said and done, we raised more than $500,000 in the live and silent auctions,” reported the museum’s spokeswoman, Nicole Chism Griffin. “One hundred percent of these funds will go to support exhibitions at both of our locations. We also raised $325,0000 toward the purchase of Ai Weiwei’s “Iron Tree Trunk.” Our goal had been $100,000 for the evening! This $325,000 will go toward fulfilling the Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation’s challenge grant of $500,000 (for the purchase).”
I hear that some guests danced till the wee hours.
Some notes on the Austin Symphony‘s recent concert at the Long Center.
• One way to fill a house: Schedule Beethoven‘s Fifth. It is the duty of artistic leaders such as Peter Bay to expand tastes and lead audiences in new directions. Still, the Fifth — if well done, and it was — satisfies and enlightens with each fresh interpretation. It comes with the added benefit of a standing-room-only crowd.
• I’ve tried to sit in every part of the Long Center house since it opened 10 years ago. Row 4 on the orchestra level was not the right place to take in the concert’s opening piece, Michael Torke‘s “Bright Blue Music.” All I heard was the lower range of the strings and all I saw were the polished shoes of the musicians.
• Turns out the same seat was ideal for Leonard Bernstein‘s “Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion.” Here, only the strings really mattered and they came together beautifully in conjunction with violinist Vadim Gluzman‘s playful then profound solo turn. Booked as part of the “Bernstein at 100” celebration, this near-concerto is a gem to revive more often.
• Bay has proven time and again that he can take epic forms to ever higher heights. Last season, it was Mahler‘s Sixth, an almost brutally difficult symphony to get right. With Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, the challenge instead is overfamiliarity. Bay and his always advancing ensemble treated the first movement with rhythmic clarity, the second with architectural balance, the third with taut force and the final movement with bristling brilliance.
Margo Sawyer, the Elgin-based artist whose art intersects sculpture and architecture, has won a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship.
The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation recently announced 173 fellowships (including two joint fellowships) in arts and sciences for 2018. This honor comes with up to $45,000 to support one of the winners’ future projects.
“The Guggenheim Fellowship would allow me time and resources to cultivate designs of spaces transcendent,” Sawyer says. “Public places that foster contemplation.”
Sawyer, 59, has been on the University of Texas art faculty for 30 years. For decades, she has transformed old brick structures in Elgin into multi-use arts spaces.
She is the niece of Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas and her father was one of the first African-Americans to serve in the U.S. diplomatic corps in the 1950s. He met her British mother in Accra, Ghana. Her grandfather founded the NAACP in Topeka, Kan. and helped initiate the legal action that became Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that struck down school segregation.
Sawyer grew up the U.S., U.K. and Cameroon. In 1973, her mother took her to Egypt during the Yom Kippur War.
“I was about 15 and it was an experience that made me the sculptor I am today,” Sawyer says. “We were the first and only 17 tourists allowed in the country. I spent 30 minutes alone in Tutankhamun’s tomb — an obsession as with many people ever since. The experience at Abu Simbel, where the monuments are carved into the living rock, a union of sculpture, architecture and painting united, has been my modus operandi all my life.”
She is currently working on a glass colored spiral immersive sculpture for the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo.
“The viewer will be enveloped in a pool of color,” Sawyer says. “I just completed windows for a private chapel and also I’m working on a commission for the University of Houston all with hand-painted glass being made with Franz Mayer of Munich, who did the exquisite windows for Ellsworth Kelly‘s ‘Austin.”’
Sawyer realizes this is a big turning point during a long career of many achievements, including many works placed in private homes, museum collections and public spaces, along with wide recognition in the Austin arts community, including the Austin Critics Table designation as 2015 Artist of the Year.
“This is an amazing moment for me,” she says. “I have been making sculpture since I was 14 years old, and am honored that I have been a sculptor throughout my life. This year feels transformative and the recognition is monumental, a testament to the personal commitment and belief in the vision I have created.”
Since 2001, the Texas Cultural Trust, an advocacy group, has been honoring our state’s luminaries through the Texas Medal of Arts. The laurels are bestowed every other year at one of the most glamorous galas in Texas. The most recent one in 2017 at Bass Concert Hall was a blow-out.
Send your nominations in by April 5, 2018 for the February 2019 edition of the honors. Categories include architecture, arts education, arts patron (corporate, foundation or individual), dance, design, film, lifetime achievement, literary arts, media/multimedia, music, television, theater and visual arts.
For a complete list of past honorees, go here. The 2017 winners included Eloise and JohnPaul DeJoria with Paul Mitchell/Patron, Kris Kristofferson, Lynn Wyatt, Lauren Anderson, Yolanda Adams, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Tobin Endowmen, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Leo Villareal, Frank Welch, John Phillip Santos, Scott Pelley and Kenny Rogers.
The beloved 14-acre site, home to b’s 1916 villa and, now, the sprawling b, is set to undergo a multiphase face-lift. The first step is to break ground March 21 on a new $6 million guest-friendly entrance complex and improvements to the verges of West 35th Street.
Top arts news of the week: UT opens Ellsworth Kelly masterpiece at the Blanton Museum of Art. Although museum members, directors and backers have peeked inside the chapel-like building on campus, everyone can see it during regular museum hours beginning Feb. 18. Check into the Visitors Services desk in the east wing of the museum first. And go on a sunny morning for the best light show.
“Patches of color drip ever so slowly down the walls, then pool onto the smooth black granite floor. On sunny days, the tall white barrel vaults swim with jewel-toned iridescence.
“Not only do the intense hues migrate minute by minute, they alter from day to day according to the position of the sun above “Austin,” a phenomenal new building that doubles as a monumental work of art on the University of Texas campus.”
At some point, South by Southwest will encompass all human activity.
Austin’s vast March spree started with music in the 1980s, then added movies and technology, before taking on education, philanthropy, the environment and allied fields.
Art came next.
Today, SXSW announced six art projects for its second annual program scheduled for the conference and festivals March 9-18, 2018. Combined with the UNESCO Media Arts Exhibition at SXSW, the installations are meant to expand the discussion on visual and digital and media arts during the confab.